Born This Way: The Biology Behind Ideology
Over the past two months, there have been a flurry of news articles about a recent twin study with new evidence pointing to the biological origins of political dispositions. This article by Rich Morin at Pew has a particularly good summary of the findings. According to the study, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of our political orientations and ideological beliefs have their basis in genetics. This isn’t the first study to find that biology plays a strong role in politics, but it has received by far the most public attention to date. So we would like to take this opportunity to comment on its implications for political strategists.
How should political strategists respond to the fact that more than half of our political orientation is hard-wired into our biology? Here are our top four strategic recommendations.
1) Remember persuasion is harder than it looks.
Studies like this are another nail in the coffin of the old 18th Century view of reason, which (wrongly) assumed people were rational, enlightened, and open to new evidence. We now know that most of the time reason works more like a lawyer or a press secretary — though it can be trained to work more like a scientist or an investigative journalist in certain circumstances. If our core beliefs and political values are genetically determined, we’re fighting people’s biology when we try to change their minds. Clearly, no amount of evidence or facts can overcome beliefs and assumptions about the world that are hard-wired into person’s psychological makeup.
2) Avoid arguments and confrontations.
If belief is part of our biology, then no wonder Rush Limbaugh turns red in the face when he goes on a tirade. No wonder your liberal aunt Bettie starts shaking when she gets into a heated political argument with your Tea Party uncle Jim, whose blood pressure spikes every time she starts spouting off her “socialist” propaganda. Academics and communications strategists alike will confirm that when the arguing starts, the persuasion stops. Instead of confronting opponents and undecideds, focus on points of agreement, shared values, and common goals. When possible, ask questions and listen more than you talk. Counter-intuitively, there’s nothing people find more compelling than a good listener.
3) Invest more resources in motivation than persuasion.
One of the biggest surprises to emerge from modern psychology is that behavior is much easier to change than opinion. Instead of trying to change people’s minds — which is hard — focus on motivating the people who already more or less agree with you. That can be done either through motivation-based messaging or social influence campaigns (both of which are among the solutions we offer here at First Person Politics). Do your best to figure out which people really are on the fence, and keep the persuasion campaigns precision targeted and messaged at them.
4) Learn about the origins of ideology.
As a strategist, you aren’t doing yourself any favors by remaining ignorant of the psychological processes that drive political attitudes and beliefs. Motivating your supporters means understanding these processes and their implications. Again, First Person Politics can help you with this. We’ve written about the psychological origins of ideology at great length, and we would be delighted to spend an hour walking you through the material over lunch or after work one day. Just book a seminar and let us know you saw our post here.
Now, because you all are such good sports, here’s Lady Gaga singing “Born This Way” at the 2011 GRAMMYs: