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The "adventure" gene predicts political attitudes in Chinese females, according to NUS study

05 August 2015 | Research
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Findings revealed that political ideology is in part hard wired by a specific gene and attempts to change ideology could be difficult as some beliefs are built in and hence less sensitive to peer pressure and propaganda

Why are some people more politically conservative while others are politically liberal? Social scientists have often assumed that political beliefs and ideology are learned from one's nuclear family or peer groups. However, increasing evidence have shown that social attitudes towards many contemporary issues are moderately heritable, and only a few studies recently report associations between specific genes and political attitudes.

A team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has shown for the first time that not only do genes play a direct and significant part in our political inclination and attitudes, but that Singaporean Chinese females who possess a particular variant of the Dopamine D4 receptor gene - or the "adventure" gene - are generally more politically conservative. The findings were published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society Section B.

The "adventure" gene

Professor Richard P. Ebstein from the Department of Psychology and Professor Chew Soo Hong from the Department of Economics at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences have long been intrigued by how genes play a role in influencing our social behaviours and risk attitudes including financial risk.

Their previous study released in June 2014 showed that 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 behaviours, including financial risk and has been sometimes termed as the'adventure' gene, referring to its role in risky behaviour.

Study on political attitudes of Singaporean Chinese

A research team led by Prof Ebstein and Prof Chew conducted a survey with 1,771 NUS Singaporean Chinese undergraduates where they rated themselves on their political attitudes from very conservative to very liberal. Blood samples were also taken and DNA extracted from this group. The team then used a molecular genetic laboratory procedure to characterise gene variants in these students. A regression analysis was then used to show that the gene variant partially predicts a person's political ideology.

While we all possess the Dopamine D4 receptor gene, the study revealed that less than 50 per cent of Singaporean Chinese possess the variants or genotypes associated with risk attitude and risky behaviours, and the percentage is the same for men and women.

Women with a variant of Dopamine D4 receptor gene are predisposed to low risk attitudes and political conservatism

The results revealed that the Dopamine D4 receptor gene better predicts political inclinations of females than males, 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 females, compared to males who possess the same gene variant.

It is likely that 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, and this is likely why they are predisposed to lower risk attitudes and political conservatism.

This Singapore study affirms the findings from an earlier US study conducted on a Caucasian population, which had found that the Dopamine D4 receptor gene influences political attitudes. 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 local study also found 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 US societies. This suggests that across cultures, ethnic groups and political systems, there are specific genetic bases for differences in political ideology.

Prof Chew explained, "Our findings have shown that despite a country's political system or even culture, political ideology is in part hard wired by our genes. 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."

Identifying other genes associated with political beliefs

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

Prof Ebstein added,'Our results and those from studies of other complex human behaviours suggests that many genes contribute to these traits and the challenge today is to continue to find all the genes involved. Importantly, genetic effects only explain some of the differences between subjects' ideology and we are also interested in how the environment in partnership with genes shapes how we think about ideological issues'.

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