‘Adventure’ gene linked to conservative politics

"Our findings have shown that despite a country's political system or even culture, political ideology is in part hard wired by our genes," says Chew Soo Hung. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Why are some people more politically conservative while others are politically liberal? Social scientists have often assumed that political beliefs and ideology come from family and peers.

However, increasing evidence shows social attitudes about many contemporary issues are moderately heritable. A few studies have recently reported associations between specific genes and political attitudes.

Now, new research shows genes do play a direct and significant part in our political inclinations and attitudes. The study finds Singaporean Chinese women who possess a particular variant of the Dopamine D4 receptor gene—the “adventure” gene—are generally more politically conservative.

The ‘adventure’ gene

Professor Richard P. Ebstein from the psychology department and Professor Chew Soo Hong from economics department at the National University of Singapore have long been intrigued by how genes play a role in influencing our social behaviors and risk attitudes, including financial risk.

Their June 2014 study shows dopaminergic genes are involved in risk-taking and social and strategic decision-making. According to the duo, the Dopamine D4 receptor gene that codes for a receptor for the brain chemical dopamine in neurons has previously been shown to be associated with risky, impulsive behaviors, including financial risk. It’s sometimes known as the “adventure” gene.

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A research team led by Ebstein and Chew conducted a survey with 1,771 Singaporean Chinese undergraduates at the university, in which they rated themselves on their political attitudes from very conservative to very liberal. The group also gave blood samples and DNA.

The team then characterized gene variants among these students. They used a regression analysis to show the gene variant partially predicts a person’s political ideology.

Risk-averse and conservative

While we all possess the Dopamine D4 receptor gene, the study reveals less than 50 percent of Singaporean Chinese possess the variants or genotypes associated with a risk attitude and risky behaviors. The percentage is the same for men and women.

The results reveal the Dopamine D4 receptor gene better predicts political inclinations of women than men in a Singaporean Chinese population. In particular, Singaporean Chinese women who possess the 4R/4R variant of the Dopamine D4 receptor gene are more likely to demonstrate risk aversion and are more politically conservative.

This correlation is stronger in women, compared to men who possess the same gene variant.

It is likely subjects with this variant of the “adventure” gene tend to have high functional levels of dopamine activity, which is the brain chemical associated with our feelings of pleasure and reward.

Is friendship a factor?

This Singapore study affirms the findings from an earlier US study conducted on a Caucasian population, which had found the Dopamine D4 receptor gene influences political attitudes.

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In the US study, the correlation between the Dopamine D4 receptor gene and political attitudes was dependent on the number of friends one has, whereas the Singapore study is significant in that it is the first to show a direct effect of a gene that partially explains why people are politically conservative or liberal.

The Singapore study also finds no evidence for friendship in the role of the Dopamine D4 receptor gene in contributing to political attitudes, possibly due to cultural differences between Singapore and the US. This suggests that across cultures, ethnic groups, and political systems, there are specific genetic bases for differences in political ideology.

“Our findings have shown that despite a country’s political system or even culture, political ideology is in part hard wired by our genes,” says Chew. “The results of our Singapore study also suggest that attempts to change ideology may be difficult since some of our beliefs are built in and hence less sensitive to peer pressure and propaganda from various sources.”

The research team intends to further their research to find out whether there are other genes that may also contribute to political beliefs.

The findings appear online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Source: National University of Singapore