Liberals more hereditarian than conservatives?

By Razib Khan | September 17, 2010 12:13 am

Sometimes I run into things in the GSS which just don’t fit expectations. On occasion the results are so weird or unexpected I check my coding over and over. Or, I have a suspicion that something was input incorrectly. This is one of those cases. As often happens a comment was made as to the acceptance of biological explanations for behavior, and their political correlates. I decided to poke around and confirm what I knew: that liberals are more environmentalist than conservatives, who are more hereditarian. This is not what I found!

The gene related questions have the following form:

… what percent of the person’s behavior you think is influenced by the genes they inherit, and what percent is influenced by their learning and experience. After each question, type the number of the box that comes closest to your answer. Remember, the higher the number, the more you think the behavior is influenced by learning and experience; the lower the number, the more you think it is influenced by genes

Each respondent could select from 21 values, from 1 to 21, with 1 = 100% genetic, 21 = 0% genetic, at 5% increments. So 3 = 90% genetic. This isn’t technically correct as an understanding of heritability, but I think it gets across the intuitions of heritability. All the questions were asked in 2004. They were:

- GENENVO1: Carol is a substantially overweight White woman. She has lost weight in the past but always gains it back again.

- GENENVO2: David is an Asian man who drinks enough alcohol to become drunk several times a week. Often he can’t remember what happened during these drinking episodes.

- GENENVO3: Felicia is a very kind Hispanic woman. She never has anything bad to say about anybody, and can be counted on to help others.

- GENENVO4: George is a Black man who’s a good all-around athlete. He was on the high school varsity swim team and still works out five times a week.

I know some of these questions are weird. It seems that with the third one they’re asking as to the heritability of sainthood! But work with me. Below I’ve labeled the questions in a more intelligible manner. Each row is a category in the GSS. The row-column values are the ratios between those who believe that the behavior is 80-100% genetic, and 0-20% genetic. If the ratio is above 1, that indicates more people are in the first class than the last, and if it is below 1 it indicates more people are in the latter class than the former.


Obese white woman Drunk Asian man Saintly Hispanic woman Athletic black man
White 0.45 0.65 0.54 0.6
Black 0.83 0.97 1 1.09
High School 0.56 0.8 0.72 0.69
Bachelor 0.45 0.48 0.33 0.44
Graduate 0.4 0.3 0.35 0.5
Male 0.5 0.54 0.59 0.65
Female 0.55 0.83 0.63 0.68
Democrat 0.61 0.8 0.64 0.77
Independent 0.79 0.79 0.67 0.6
Republican 0.36 0.51 0.56 0.58
Liberal 0.94 0.83 0.78 0.79
Moderate 0.63 0.59 0.6 0.65
Conservative 0.49 0.55 0.51 0.54
Age 18-35 0.57 0.73 0.68 0.58
Age 36-65 0.49 0.62 0.53 0.71
Age 66+ 0.52 0.89 0.76 0.81
Not intelligent 0.63 2.1 1 0.91
Average 0.42 0.76 0.61 0.74
Intelligent 0.33 0.35 0.32 0.44
Protestant 0.5 0.69 0.58 0.67
Catholic 0.55 0.77 0.7 0.79
No religion 0.59 0.5 0.51 0.54

No surprise that the more intelligent and educated are less hereditarian. But looking over it a few times, the numbers for conservatives and Republicans are what they are. Perhaps there was an error in the data input? For the curious, the correlation matrix:


Obese white woman Drunk Asian man Saintly Hispanic woman Athletic black man
Obese white woman - 0.41 0.69 0.59
Drunk Asian man - - 0.81 0.69
Saintly Hispanic woman - - - 0.9

Here are the variables:

COLUMN: RELIG WORDSUM(r:0-4;5-7;9-10) AGE(r:18-35;36-65;66-*) RACE DEGREE SEX PARTYID(r:0-2″Dem”;3″Ind”;4-6″Rep”) POLVIEWS(r:1-3″Liberal”;4″Moderate”;5-7″Conservative”)

ROW: GENENVO1(r:1-5″100-80% genes”;6-11 “75-50% genes”;12-16″45-25% genes”;17-21″20-0% genes”) GENENVO2(r:1-5″100-80% genes”;6-11″75-50% genes”;12-16″45-25% genes”;17-21″20-0% genes”) GENENVO3(r:1-5″100-80% genes”;6-11″75-50% genes”;12-16″45-25% genes”;17-21″20-0% genes”) GENENVO4(r:1-5″100-80% genes”;6-11″75-50% genes”;12-16″45-25% genes”;17-21″20-0% genes”)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, GSS
MORE ABOUT: GSS, Hereditarianism
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  • Richard D. Morey

    This makes sense to me, to the extent that conservatives tend to focus on “responsibility” of the individual, who is typically presumed to have complete control over most aspects of their behavior. Liberals, on the other hand, often point out that there are genetic or circumstantial factors that determine a much part of who we are. This takes some of the “blame” away from people for their situation.

  • Katharine

    To me, this actually makes sense.

    Liberals (from what I can gather) tend to score higher on tests of scientific knowledge. However, within liberals, there is a spectrum of scientific knowledge. So I can see that a dumber one of us might think that ‘herp derp well it’s their genes’ – maybe from knowledge gained from watching, oh, I don’t know, TV – whereas we who have more formal training/are smarter will have a more nuanced view of it – ‘well, they may have a predisposition to it, I don’t know, but the environment, odds are, has a greater influence on most personality defects’.

    Notice how the scores from ‘not intelligent’ to ‘intelligent’ go down.

  • miko

    I think missing the mid-range responses might be muddling this, though I know you’re trying to tease out the hardcores.

    Interesting racial stereotypes in the examples–it would be nice to see the question presented in a way that doesn’t bring in factors like that. As someone who commutes by bike, I can tell you obese White women (always in minivans, usually smoking and on the phone) are a much bigger road threat than even drunk Asian men.

    I think Katharine’s on to something–liberals maybe buy a scientific stance more readily, conservatives have this Randian “self made” thing going that maybe makes hereditarian explanations for some traits unappealing?

    I don’t know, I often feel like the GSS is written so weirdly… but this is interesting. I guess it is too much to hope that people might have coherent sets of views about things, but how do we square the clear liberal belief in social/state solutions to problems (relative to conservatives)? We just get back to liberals are naive and conservatives are assholes. For most of the population I buy that, but for the smart ones we should expect a little consistency.

  • bob sykes

    The key word in the question is “influenced” not “determined.” In that case, the scientifically correct answer is 100% of behavior is influenced by genes. The only question is the relative contribution of genes, environment and chance, and that depends on the behavior in question and when and where it occurs and the surrounding context. Even if genes influence a particular behavior by 1% that is still influence.

  • Ikram

    Intuitively, this makes sense to me.. A belief that behaviour is more hereditary would lead to a view that individual effort is less important to outcome. The latter is not a “conservative” view in the USA — pull yourself up by your bootstraps, Horatio Alger.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    The only question is the relative contribution of genes, environment and chance, and that depends on the behavior in question and when and where it occurs and the surrounding context. Even if genes influence a particular behavior by 1% that is still influence.

    wow bob! i forgot that the typical person has such an awesomely subtle understanding of gene-environment correlations & interactions!’

    katherine, you might want to try the comparisons of means in the gss. in it, you’ll see that liberals who are college educated vs. conservatives have the same gap. looks to me like the value shifts in the more enviro direction for both groups with more education, though a bit more for conservatives.

  • Chris T

    I wonder if the answers would change if you swapped the genders and ethnic descriptions around.

  • James

    I find the black swimmer a highly unlikely example. Negro bone density makes them significantly less fit for swimming than whites just as East African heritage tends to confer greater natural ability for long distance running.

    I think the older and less intelligent respondents have it right. Probably because they are less influenced/cowed by politically correct multicultural propaganda.

  • miko

    “I wonder if the answers would change if you swapped the genders and ethnic descriptions around.”

    Totally…I’m pretty sure a drunk, athletic Hispanic women would produce nothing but noise in this question.

  • Chris T

    miko – ??????????????????? Not a single question included drunk and athletic in its description. Are you being deliberately obtuse?

  • James

    “Not a single question included drunk and athletic in its description.”

    Yes, it would have been nice to see a white rugby player as one of the examples! ;-)

  • miko

    A close reading reveals that I combined descriptors from 3 categories into 1 for comedic effect, not to suggest an actually informative question. It’s funny for 2 reasons: 1. a rare combination in the cave of platonic stereotypes, 2. commenting on the silliness of employing stereotypes to measure opinions on heritability.

    If you want, I can explain why the Big Lebowski’s funny too, it’s a great movie.

  • Chris T

    Alright, sorry about that.

    I wanted to swap the descriptions around precisely to measure the effect of stereotypes on people’s opinions on heredity. If it was an athletic white woman, would people’s answers be different?

  • miko

    Yeah, I think a prediction one could test is if hereditarian views predominate when the questions conform to stereotypes, while maybe non-hereditarian reactions would accompany violations of stereotypes. FYI, I googled “black swimmer” and there’s this guy who is a black GAY swimmer. No one’s going over 80% genetic for that one, but why not?

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  • JMW

    Actually, the numbers for Republicans make sense to me, if we accept the premise that larger numbers of Republicans are racist than liberals (or, to be more politically correct, a larger proportion of republicans are comfortable expressing their racist attitudes, either because they just don’t consider it racism or they’re not aware it’s racism, than liberals).

    Hence, the Republicans would believe that the white woman is the way she is because she chose to be that way; but the Asian, Hispanic and Black people are that way because that’s the way “those people” are…

    It’d be more interesting if the same question was asked but the races of all 4 people were the same. Do it once with asian people; then once again with black people; then a 3rd time with whites, and finally a 4th with hispanics (random order of race, by the way, just in case someone is looking to mine any significance there).

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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