A Welcome from the Lab Directors

From the extreme left to the extreme right and from total immersion in the political arena to complete apathy, political differences across individuals run the gamut.  Traditionally, political scientists have attempted to account for these person-to-person differences with overtly political, environmental variables such as parental socialization or politically pertinent life events—a friend killed in combat, a brother coming out, or a candidate whose campaign strikes a special chord.  Moreover, political scientists typically measure political differences as well as the reasons for these differences by asking individuals to self-report their political beliefs, their demographic characteristics, and politically relevant events and situations.  Surveys have long been the methodological bread and butter of the discipline and environmental determinism the core theoretical assumption.

Research being conducted in the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska does not question the value of using surveys.  Self-reports are a valuable and necessary research tool and researchers in the lab rely heavily on survey self-reports.  Neither does the work of the lab challenge the belief that environmental factors shape behaviors and attitudes; indeed, it recognizes that the environment is indisputably crucial.  Rather, the work of the lab can be seen as a reaction to two facts.  The first is that survey self-reports are unable to capture everything.  Mounting research, starting in psychology and moving to political science (for example, Bargh; Gray; Galdi, Arcuri, and Gawronski; Lodge and Taber) shows that forces outside the realm of conscious thought are relevant to attitudes and behaviors, including political attitudes and behaviors.  This being the case, self-reflection, no matter how sincere and well-intentioned (and often it is neither of these), is insufficient.  The second is that biology has been given short shrift in efforts to understand political variables.  Mounting research, starting in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral genetics and moving to political science (for example, Martin et al.; Westen; Amodio et al.; Schreiber; Alford, Funk, and Hibbing; Fowler, Baker, and Dawes; Oxley et al.; Hatemi; Settle, Dawes, Christakis, and Fowler) indicates that people’s biological traits correlate with their political orientations and behaviors.  The core mission of the Political Physiology Lab is to demonstrate (and to encourage others to demonstrate) the political relevance of a wide range of biological and especially physiological characteristics.

Political scientists often equate biology and genetics and thus assume that if biology is found to be relevant to politics then political beliefs must be as immutable as the genetic code.  Genetics is indeed an important part of biology and to the extent that the genetic code is found to be relevant to political orientations, political scientists must be open to the possibility that people’s political essence is not entirely learned.  But it would be a mistake to conclude that the study of biology and politics has nothing to contribute beyond behavioral genetics, allelic association studies, and the controversial claim that political orientations are related to genetics.  In fact, debates over the assumptions of twin studies and nature versus nurture miss a much more important point about the value of biology to political science.  

Work taking place in the Political Physiology Lab searches for the biological signatures of certain political orientations.  Perhaps those with demonstrably elevated physiological responses to threatening stimuli are more likely to seek the increased protection that might come with the adoption of a particular set of political beliefs (e.g., higher defense spending, harsher punishment of criminals, and more restrictions on immigration).  Perhaps those with greater physiological sensitivity to disgusting stimuli are more likely to oppose gay marriage and pre-marital sex.  Perhaps those displaying greater prefrontal cortex activation in response to unexpected occurrences or greater physiological responsiveness to the aversive rather than the appetitive in life are more likely to be “conservative” in their political and personal outlook.  The reason an individual’s physiological/neural systems respond as they do may be genetic, it may be epigenetic, it may be the result of early development, or it could be traceable to more proximate (but perhaps persistent) environmental events.  A full accounting of the sources of physiological variation will not be available for some time, if ever, though it seems likely that all of these possible sources play some role.  The inappropriately dichotomized and somewhat silly distinction between nature and nurture seems to suck most of the oxygen out of any room and this is most unfortunate since biology is connected with both nature and nurture.  The evidence that political orientations at some point in time may become physiologically instantiated is the important message.  It means that the consistently reported long term predispositions of many people (recently, referring to interest in politics, Prior reports that “you either have it or you don’t”).  Perhaps partially because of the overreliance on survey self-reports, political scientists have been unable to come to grips with the nature of long-term predispositions, typically passing over this critical issue and offering the excuse that understanding the nature and sources of longstanding predispositions is “beyond the scope” of the study in question.

At the Political Physiology Lab, we believe scholars cannot continue to pretend they have no obligation to investigate longstanding political predispositions just as they cannot continue to view the physical body as a black box that is, for purposes of politics, invariant across people.  We believe that, for whatever reason, people physiologically respond to identical stimuli in drastically different ways and that these differences are relevant to political orientations.  Research by Maquire et al. shows that the hippocampi of London cab drivers change the more they rely on directional memories and judgments (the same effect is not in evidence for bus drivers who merely follow the same route day after day).  The fact that this undeniably biological change is apparently environmental rather than genetic makes it of no less interest.  Presumably, changes in hippocampal structure would again result if a cab driver suddenly became a bus driver—but these changes would not be immediate.  We see a parallel to politics.  Biology and especially physiology is a slow to change running tally of genetic predispositions, early developmental forces, and more proximate environmental events.  With proper techniques, biological responses can be measured and correlated with a variety of political orientations in a fashion that has little or no bearing on the ultimate source of a particular physiological response pattern.

As such and contrary to charges that have been made, the mission of the Political Physiology Lab is not to push the claim that all politics is innate; rather, it is to encourage scholars to broaden their methodological and theoretical repertoires, to avoid unsubstantiated assumptions (however comforting they might be), to recognize that politics is a part of larger life patterns, such as personality tendencies (see Caprara, Mondak, Gerber and Green), preferred moral foundations (Haidt), basic personal values (Schwartz), sensitivities to disgust (Inbar, Pizarro, and Bloom), tastes in art and humor (Wilson), preferences for closure (Golec), orientations to threat (Feldman), and life patterns (Carney and Jost).  By looking beyond the narrowly political in life and by looking beyond valuable but limiting survey methodologies, strikingly new information will be available on political orientations and a range of other topics of central interest to scholars in the political and social sciences.

The traditional political science approach is not wrong, just incomplete.  The goal of the Political Physiology Lab is to complement the impressive discoveries of past generations of political scientists with the advances that are possible by directing a biological lens at the political world.  Politics is not detached from the rest of life orientations and as such is not detached from the physiological, neural, and cognitive patterns that relate to these orientations.  People are characterized by behaviorally relevant biological differences and the Political Physiology Lab is helping to show that these include politically relevant biological differences.

John R. Hibbing and Kevin B. Smith, Co-directors







"Putting the science in political science"


"Our biology--more than just genetics--feeds into our political attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors"



"We, as political scientists, must broaden our toolkits to better explore our subject area"