Do Genetics Influence Political Discussion?
Genetics determine many traits, from hair color to height, but do they affect how a person discusses politics? A recent study published in the NCA journal, Communication Monographs, explores this question. Chance York, Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University, used twin study survey data and a behavior genetics approach to examine whether genetic traits can explain individual differences in political discussion style.
Social science researchers routinely use what is known about genetic and environmental similarity among twins to explain variation in observational outcomes. After examining past research, York hypothesized that “genetic traits could explain a nontrivial amount of variance in multiple dimensions of political talk, including traditional political discussion, online political discussion, political discussion with agreement and disagreement, and political conflict avoidance.”
To test this hypothesis, York conducted an original survey of identical and fraternal twins. The survey was fielded in August 2017 at the annual Twin Days Festival (TDF) in Twinsburg, Ohio, which is one of the largest annual gatherings of twins in the world. At the event, York and an assistant administered a questionnaire, yielding a sample of 334 twins or 167 pairs (138 identical pairs and 29 fraternal pairs). The survey assessed the frequency of traditional political talk, political talk online, and discussion contexts, which included agreeing or disagreeing during political discussions.
The survey asked participants to rate their agreement with such statements as “During election seasons, I often discuss politics,” “I frequently discuss politics with people I agree with,” and “I often discuss politics on social media sites like Facebook.” The twins were asked to respond to the question/statement on a five-point scale, from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.”
As a validity check of the original data collected at TDF, secondary data were also drawn from the Minnesota Twins Political Survey (MNTPS), an online survey that asks twins in the Minnesota Twins Registry about their political attitudes and a wide range of behaviors, including political discussion.
An analysis of both datasets showed that genetic traits partly explain why we see person-to-person differences in political discussion. First, York found that the overall pattern of correlation between identical twins on each discussion item was stronger than between fraternal twins, an indicator of genetic influence. Using a more advanced analysis, York found a latent factor that captured genetic relatedness among twins accounted for 40.63 percent of variance in discussion outcomes.
A latent factor assessing environmental experiences that should be common to both twins, such as growing up with the same parents, accounted for very little variation in discussion outcomes, and in several analyses the factor had a null effect. But unique environmental experiences specific to each twin and their co-twin did play a role in behavior. The latent factor that captured unique experiences (e.g., twins attending different colleges) accounted for one-third to one-half of the variance in responses to survey questions about traditional political talk. Regarding online political talk, the common environment did explain significant variance, yet genetic traits still accounted for a quarter of variance.
According to York, the research shows that genetic traits are important antecedents to communication behavior, possibly influencing behavior indirectly through neurological pathways. When common environment factors shared by the twins were assessed, York found relatively small effects on political discussion style. Overall, the results point to a need to further investigate fundamental and often-overlooked genetic sources of communication behaviors, behaviors that previously were explained by mainly social, psychological, and/or personality-based traits.
According to York, “this study suggests that ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ – not one factor exclusive of the other – explain individual differences in political discussion frequency and contexts.”
This essay was translated from the scholarly journal: Chance York (2019), “Genetic influence on political discussion: Results from two twin studies.” Communication Monographs. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/03637751.2019.1597274