Your ideology might be swamped by your biology when you cast your vote, and this is why parties like UKIP are riding high, sayJohn HibbingandKevin Smith
POPULIST movements are everywhere at the moment, on both the left and right of politics. Yet many observers seem in denial about the strength and stubborn appeal of this phenomenon and, rather than trying to explain it, simply dismiss it as irresponsible pandering to the masses.
Populists are characterised not just by their championing of the interests of ordinary people, but also by their often angry crusades against political or economic entities seen as hostile and threatening to those interests. These can be external: the European Union fits that bill for the left-leaning Syriza party in Greece as well as for the right-leaning UKIP in the UK. They can be internal: elite corporations and an out-of-touch government have spurred both the right-leaning Tea Party and the left-leaning Occupy movement in the US. Similar forces are at work in Spain, where left-wing Podemos is riding high.
Research in the past few years, using information on brain structure and function from MRI scans, physiological responses,eye-trackersandbehavioural genetics, shows thatindividual political orientations are deeply connected to biological forcesthat are usually beyond personal control (see "Beyond belief"). Despite initial incredulity – people like to believe political opinions are rational responses to salient events – the evidence that political preferences are linked to systems that often involve subconscious processes is growing. An admittedly simplistic but useful summary of this research is that human emotions are grounded in biology, and politics is grounded in emotions.
When it comes to biology and populism, it is worth asking two questions: first, why does populist parties' appeal rise and fall over time – more so than that of most other parties – and, second, why is the appeal so much greater among some people than others?
Biology has little to say about the first. Although environmental changes, such as conflict, can and do alter individual biological predispositions, sudden environmentally mediated shifts of biological predisposition that are strong enough to alter the electoral fortunes of populist parties in multiple societies seem unlikely.
Interestingly, non-biological, purely environmental explanations do not provide much better answers. The popular belief is that populism surges when economies falter or tragedies unfold. While intuitively appealing,studiesfind little evidence for a link to any metric of a nation's fortunes.
As for why populism's appeal varies so much from person to person, many see populism as a symptom of working class angst in a world where external forces disproportionately threaten that group. That view is questionable given thatsupport is often from those not low in socioeconomic status– think UKIP and the Tea Party. It is on this question of individual variation that biopolitical literature provides a more plausible – though far from total – explanation.
Physiologically speaking, some react nearly as strongly to positive as to negative stimuli; others much more strongly to negative.
Work in our laband several others suggests that, after accounting for socioeconomic status, people who are more biologically responsive to and who devote more cognitive resources to negative stimuli favour policies that could be viewed as protective.
Those with a strong negativity bias are more likely to be suspicious of new approaches and different people. They tend to prefer certainty, tradition and security. Perhaps because they are more in tune with potential dangers, they are attracted to policies they believe will limit their vulnerability – whether the perceived threat comes from outside groups, pathogens or something that violates their group norms. In the face of perceived threats, they seek in-group safety. Variations in biologically measured negativity bias appear to predict attitudes on immigration and other perceived threats – issues typically at the core of populist movements.
Explanations for the lure of populist parties are undoubtedly more complex than biological sensitivities to negativity bias. Yet the biology suggests it would be a mistake to dismiss populism's appeal as something easily countered and to conclude that populist leaders create rather than capitalise on organic populist impulses.
Biological predispositions that bolster populism are by no means immutable. At the same time, they seem significantly harder to alter than many would like to believe; a strong negativity bias is usually deeply ingrained. Support for populist parties will continue to ebb and flow – but individual biological mechanisms animating populist urges are here to stay.
This article appeared in print under the headline "We are what we vote"
John Hibbing and Kevin Smithare professors of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-authors ofPredisposed: Liberals, conservatives, and the biology of political differences(Routledge, 2013)