Public debate on genetic research often assumes that conservatives will prefer genetic explanations for human differences, while liberals will point to environmental factors—perhaps exacerbating political divides on race. But Stephen Schneider finds that conservatives prefer explanations based on personal choice; attributing individual differences to genetics is associated with liberalism and higher tolerance.

But when asked to explain racial group differences, Elizabeth Suhay finds that conservatives are attracted to genetic explanations if they are exposed to media messages on genetics and race. Both say people choose their political views first and then select the explanations that fit them.

The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann.

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Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, genetic attributions and political ideology. From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.

Public debate on genetic research often assumes that conservatives will prefer genetic explanations for human differences while liberals will point to environmental factors, perhaps exacerbating political divides on race. But new research finds that liberals are more likely to attribute many individual differences to genetics, with conservatives preferring explanations based on personal choice.

I talked to Stephen Schneider of the University of Nebraska about his new Journal of Politics article with Kevin Smith and John Hibbing, “Genetic Attributions: Sign of Intolerance or Acceptance?” He finds that attributing differences to genetics is actually associated with liberalism, higher tolerance, and less racial animus. But, perhaps, conservatives can revert to genetic explanations when motivated.

I also talked to Elizabeth Suhay about her recent article with Alexandre Morin-Chasse and Toby Jayaratne in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics called, “Discord Over DNA: Ideological Responses to Scientific Communication about Genes and Race.”

They find that conservatives are not attracted to genetic explanations until they are exposed to messages about the egalitarian implications of genetic racial similarity. Public intellectuals have been fiercely debating genetic attributions for racial difference for decades, but Schneider sought to understand whether the basic assumptions about public opinion in this area are justified.

Schneider: What we were looking at here was trying to understand if the peoples assign genetics as a cause for these individual traits and behaviors, whether, one, are they going to act in a deterministic way. There’s some conventional wisdom dating back to Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, etc. that argues that conservatives are more likely to make genetic attributions to justify social inequalities and, then, whether these genetic attributions were associated with tolerance or intolerance.

Grossmann: But Schneider found that the public is not made up of genetic determinists and does not break down ideologically as expected.

Schneider: What we find is, one, first, that genetic attributions are actually … actually, the public has a pretty nuanced view of genetic attributions. We didn’t find any evidence that they were attributing all of a trait or behavior to genetics, so we don’t think that we see genetic determinism although it’s hard to put our finger on what exactly is genetic determinism when these scholars talk about. Rather, they were willing to make attributions to not only genetics but also environmental factors and personal choice factors. We find actually that contradicts the conventional wisdom. It was associated with more tolerance and not possessing these racial intolerant views.

Grossmann: Their study asked people to allocate genetic, environmental, and personal choice as sources of variation across 18 traits.

Schneider: We’re really interested in public perceptions, we think that we really need to add this personal choice. There’s a couple scholars who used the three dimensions that we use in a interview setting and had found that there was quite a bit of difference when they added this third category, personal choice. What we did is we gave, in study one, I believe it was, 18 traits and behaviors, a list of 18 traits and behaviors, like intelligence, obesity, mental illness … we gave 18 of these traits and behaviors to the participants. We said, “Divide up 100 percent however you feel among these three categories of cause.” Taking obesity, for example, if you feel like obesity is 100 percent genetics. But, if you feel like it’s a mixture of genetics, environment, and personal choice, you can divide it up where you have 33 percent in each of the categories as well.

Grossmann: Most people think most traits are caused by several different factors with environment the least important.

Schneider: We didn’t have very many people at all really that attributed 100 percent to one category or the other. What we do find is that people mostly attribute to either genetics or personal choice and less so to the environment across the board for most of these traits and behaviors.

Grossmann: Schneider says the public is not fooled by genetic studies.

Schneider: The argument is that when you see behavioral genetic studies presented in the media, it’s normally, this trait causes this behavior. Yet, we’re seeing that the public is very capable of understanding that, “You know what? For these traits and behaviors, is it really genetic plus environment or, in many cases, genetic plus environment, plus personal choice, or personal choice and genetic?”

Grossmann: People were especially likely to say that traits were personal choices when they involved beliefs like political ideology.

Schneider: I think there’s something, a reluctance to say that these physical traits are a personal choice and likely so. Whereas, these beliefs, and maybe a case, I’m just speculating here, where people believe that the things like religion, political ideology, criminal record, they don’t want to think that this is caused by their environment or their genetics. They want to reach these conclusions through their own rational decision-making.

Grossmann: Compared to heritability estimates from twins studies, people mostly underestimated genetic factors. For the most part, people who attributed more of a trait to genetics were more tolerant of those with it.

But, Elizabeth Suhay’s work complicates the story a bit by asking specifically about genetic explanations for racial difference in the context of relevant media stories.

Suhay: We’re public opinion scholars. For the most part, we are focusing on public beliefs and we don’t delve into the truth of what scientists have to say on these matters. We’re interested in here in how white Americans think about racial inequality. In particular, we’re interested in whether white conservatives and white liberals differ in how they think about racial inequality. What we do is we draw on two studies in this article, one’s a survey, one’s an experiment, and we find very similar patterns across the studies. First, we find that, on balance, white conservatives are somewhat more likely than white liberals to say that differences between Blacks and Whites are due to genetics.

Now, other researchers have actually found that, so we replicate them. Our study offers something new in that we find that this association differs according to whether people had been exposed to information on this topic. When they’re exposed information on the topic of genes and race (and in this case, the information is along the lines of recent scientific discoveries that suggest that racial categories, traditional racial categories, actually are not genetically-based), white conservatives and white liberals appear to react to the information differently, engaging in motivated reasoning. Particularly, what happens is that conservatives are more likely to say genetics influence racial differences. Liberals are less likely to say genetics influence racial differences when they’re exposed to the information that I mentioned.

Grossmann: Both of their studies found that conservatives and liberals engage in motivated reasoning, attributing genetic influence when it suits their ideological aims.

Suhay: Now, across both of our studies, survey and experimental, we find that exposure to that type of message. But the lack of importance of genes to race differences led white conservatives to actually increase their belief that genetic differences drive racial differences, whereas white liberals decreased their belief that genes cause racial differences.

Basically, what we believe are observing this motivated reasoning, white conservatives and white liberals come to this information with different levels of racial progressivism…with Liberals being more likely to have a desire fora society on more equal footing in terms of social status and various life outcomes.

When white individuals are exposed to these scientific messages that clearly are relevant to political debates about race, liberals tended to embrace what they saw as egalitarian racial science. Conservatives tended to reject that same science.

Grossmann: They took advantage of a changing media narrative around the Human Genome Project.

Suhay: There’s a big shift going from the ’90s into what some people call the aughts and particularly around the Human Genome Project with this big splash in 2001 that scientists had discovered that there was much more genetic variation within traditional racial categories (black, white, asian, etc.). Then, there was genetic variation between racial categories and, so, this was really a rebuttal to bell curve type arguments that just genetically there didn’t seem to be any basis for the notion between group genetic differences were driving the kinds of life outcome differences that we were seeing.

Grossmann: But, that does not mean the public actually heard about these scientific findings.

Suhay: The public is never as aware of scientific developments as many scholars think they are, so there’s going to be a fair amount of variation across the public in terms of whether they were aware that the Human Genome Project had this big finding.

Grossmann: Overall, Suhay found that the public is not polarizing along the same lines as scholars and media pundits.

Suhay: There has been a conventional wisdom that political divides around nature and nurture among scientists and journalists, that those divides are equally present in the public. Actually, this is some of the conventional wisdom that we are pushing against in this article. I know others are doing that as well right now. There was a nature/nurture debate among academics stretching back decades. It overlapped apparently with liberalism/conservativism and it doesn’t … that debate does not emerge in the same way in the general public.

Grossmann: For those who have not been attentive to the science, liberals and conservatives haven’t developed different views.

Suhay: If you look at people who haven’t been exposed to these media messages, and that’s gonna be a fair amount of people, not everybody is following the news, not everybody is following science reporting in the news, if you look at those individuals, there are actually no differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of whether or not they believe genes have anything to do with real or perceived racial differences.

Grossmann: In the survey, people were asked about genetic explanations for common group stereotypes.

Suhay: Survey participants were asked about commonly perceived differences between blacks and whites, such as that black Americans were not as hardworking as white Americans. These are stereotypes. They’re perceived differences. Some people would call that prejudice and, so, what we were doing is putting them out there and, then, asking people to explain that perceived difference. What we look at in this particular article is the extent to which people say that difference is due to genetic differences between blacks and whites as opposed to something else such as environmental differences or different choices people make in life.

Grossmann: But, they also conducted an experiment where people could be directly exposed to relevant research.

Suhay: The survey gives us a real world validity, external validity, as scholars say, and the experiment gives us internal validity, meaning we’re able to expose people to a treatment that looks very much like the news coverage around the Human Genome Project’s finding back in 2001. We can expose them to that treatment and, then, we can observe what happens relative to a control group.

Grossmann: They created liberal/conservative polarization by exposing people to news refuting a genetic basis for racial categories.

Suhay: We use an experimental treatment that was based on actually a famous New York Times article by science writer Natalie Angier about the Human Genome Project’s findings on greater genetic variation within than between races.

We also had a control group. The control group didn’t read anything and participants were, then, asked a series of questions about genes and race, similar to the survey. But, this time, the questions were a little different. They were asked the extent to which they believe genes drive real observable racial differences, so differences in income as well as in incarceration rates between blacks and whites. When we analyzed the data, we found an almost-identical pattern. In the control group, white conservatives and liberals actually did not differ in whether they thought genes caused these different racial outcomes.

However, the treatment group, so, in other words, among those who read about the Human Genome Project’s conclusions, a big difference emerged between conservatives and liberals, again, with Conservatives less likely to embrace those findings and liberals more likely to, which meant basically that conservatives were emphasizing genes and race and liberals were de-emphasizing them.

Grossmann: Suhay says people’s explanations for group difference could change their views, but most evidence points to reverse causality. They give the explanations then match their prior political views.

Suhay: I can tell you that there is some evidence that different kinds of attributional stories that people may be exposed to or learn, that those do sometimes change people’s policy opinion, but my read of the literature and my own research suggests that the relationship is more often the reverse, which is that people start with their policy views, their ideological biases, maybe their partisanship, maybe some social prejudices, and that those are more likely to affect their causal narratives for why people are different, why some get more in life than others, that there’s more likely to be that reverse causation. Certainly, there’s much more of that than the conventional wisdom.

Grossmann: Schneider also agrees that people may be choosing explanations to fit their political preferences.

Schneider: People are looking at the traits and having some sort of perception about them. This tolerance drives the attribution, the causal attribution.

Grossmann: Suhay agrees that a three-part choice between genetics, environment, and free will given in Schneider’s study make sure that conservatives are mainly against any structural explanation.

Suhay: There is a tradition of causal attribution researchers thinking about nature, nurture, and choice, even though most academics don’t add on that choice element. I’m finding some of this in my own data. In fact, the difference between liberals and conservatives on that choice dimension … I mentioned earlier that liberals and conservatives differ a lot on whether they think discrimination is a cause of different social outcomes. The other big one is really this choice element.

Grossmann: In a recent acrimonious debate, Ezra Klein and Sam Harris revived the conflict over Charles Murray’s controversial views with Klein worried that conservatives use genetic explanations to avoid responsibility for social action to correct inequality.

Schneider says his study suggests that concern may be overblown.

Schneider: It seems like they’re confusing genetic explanation or genetic predispositions with genetic determinism. The public doesn’t appear to be willing to be deterministic. It’s not even 100 percent of the cause for a trait including things like hype to genetics, which makes me hope, I guess, that they understand that there’s a gene by environment interaction going on.

Whenever we have the gene by environment interaction, I think there’s still hope that we can influence the environment through policies, reduce the inequality among them. I’m a little bit less worried, I guess, about using genetic explanations based on these data because there’re also individuals who were going to attribute to environment and personal choice as well.

Grossmann: Suhay’s research also suggests that conservative preferences don’t stem from their genetic views, but she does understand Klein’s concern given the long history of genetic explanations used to justify discrimination.

Suhay: History certainly gives us lots of reason to be concerned, right? These kinds of explanations for racial differences justified slavery, these kinds of genetic stories justified the Holocaust. They justified restrictive immigration policy in the US, they justified an awful lot of eugenics in the U.S. that most people these days have forgotten about. History is really littered with examples of these kinds of explanations causing a lot of harm.

Grossmann: Where do we go from here? Schneider is studying how the public views gender differences, finding that conservatives may prefer genetic explanations more in that area.

Schneider: We use a very similar setup here and we look at gender stereotype … so, we ask people whether there was a difference between men and women on a host of certain types of things like aggression, physical fitness, emotional stability, conscientiousness.

It’s interesting to find that when people said there is a difference and, then, we said, “Okay. Divide the difference, what causes it.” We found that conservatives, across the board, were making genetic attributions for these differences. Then, liberals were sticking to environment and, then, conservatives with personal choice.

I think there’s a policy implication to that as well that’s driving that relationship.

Grossmann: Suhay wants to find out whether liberals and conservatives would have different explanations if a group tied to conservatives was the one disadvantaged.

Suhay: If we were to flip around whose lower incomes we’re talking about, whether those causal attributions would stay the same … so, for example, if we asked ordinary folks about why rural Americans, for example, have lower incomes than people who live in cities, would we still see people on the right being hard on individuals, right? Would we still see liberals being so sympathetic toward these individuals or would those causal explanations change depending on what kind of inequality we’re talking about?

Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Stephen Schneider and Elizabeth Suhay for joining me. Join us next time to find out whether the public is losing faith in democracy and endorsing strongmen and whether the center or the right is most responsible.