PS 474 Political Psychology

Lecture Outline, Biology and Politics

Mark Peffley


I.       Intro

A.    Why have political scientists been so slow to latch onto the advances in biology and social sciences?  Practical, moral and historical issues.

B.      Why should political scientists care about biology? Scientific, philosophical insights.

C.     Emerging areas of research:

1.     Genetics (e.g., Alford, et al., Wade, Harmon NYT articles)

2.     The brain (neuroscience) (e.g., Iacoboni, et al)

3.     Evolutionary psychology  (e.g., Pinker)

II.     Genetics (e.g., Alford, et al.)

A.    Why focus on genetics?

1.     Can help to explain individual variation as well as cultural universals in political attitudes and behavior.

2.     Helps account for the genesis of attitudes, in lieu of personality, childhood learning, and other discarded explanations of attitude formation in political science, where now the focus is on current political forces and media messages.

B.     Twin research as a “natural experiment” that allows us to separate the degree to which individual trait variation is due to heredity versus the environment without having to understand which genes (genotypes) lead to which behaviors (phenotypes).

1.     Trait variation across individuals = Heredity + Environment (shared & unshared).

C.     What are the findings of Alford et al about the degree to which heredity versus the environment explains individual variation in political and social attitudes? Which attitudes have a high heredity component and which do not?

D.    Implications for politics

1.     Challenges assumptions of environmental determinism and the role of the family in the formation of political attitudes.

2.     The properties of heritable attitudes.

3.     Absolutist and Contextualist political ideologies.

E.     Problems

1.     Black box.

2.     Stretching findings to fit contemporary political divisions.  

III.    The brain (neuroscience): If we can pinpoint the structures that are activated when responding to stimuli, the hope is that we can determine whether our reactions are primarily cognitive or emotional, occurring in our “lizard” brain or our “human” brain.

A.    Brain activity, as measured by an fmri (functional magnetic resonance imaging) advantages over observing behavior and verbal self-reports.  

B.      “If Your Brain Has a 'Buy Button,' What Pushes It?” NYT. Neuro-marketing.

C.     Problems with Iacoboni, et al. Why presented as “Opinion?”

IV.   Evolutionary Psychology (EP): studies how natural selection predisposes not just physical traits suited to particular contexts, but psychological traits and social (political) behaviors that enhance the preservation of one’s genes.

A.    EP’s highlight universal social and political characteristics that have evolved through natural selection.

B.     Methods: Documenting universal behaviors in cross-cultural studies. Animal studies. Hormonal and genetic studies.

C.     Examples

1.     Pinker’s, “The Moral Instinct.”

2.     Research on gender differences in mate attraction (Buss).

D.    Problems

1.     Hindsight explanation.

2.     The “long leash” of biology.