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Fear and Politics

February 2013 - Political campaigns often use fear as a mechanism to influence public opinion on issues such as immigration and war but this strategy does not affect everyone equally, according to a study published in the American Journal of Political Science.

The study used a large sample of related people, including:

  • twins
  • siblings, and
  • parents and children

Individuals were assessed for propensity to fear using standardized clinically administered interviews. Assessing related subjects, the researchers could identify influences such as environment and personal experience but also found that some people had a genetic propensity for a higher level of baseline fear. These individuals were more likely to experience generalized fear at lower levels of provocation or threat.

Looking at different ways in which fear manifests itself in individual subjects and its correlation to political attitudes, the study showed that those with greater genetic liability to experience higher levels of social fear tended to be more supportive of anti-immigration and pro-segregation policies. In other words, social fear and anti-immigration, pro-segregation attitudes had a strong correlation. While people with higher levels of social fear showed the strongest negative out-group attitudes, even a low degree of social phobia was linked to substantially less positive out-group attitudes.

Rose McDermott, co-author and professor of political science at Brown University said:

"It's not that conservative people are more fearful, it's that fearful people are more conservative. People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they don't know, and things they don't understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security."

The authors make it clear that genetic inheritance is only one factor that influences political preferences. They found that education was equally significant in influencing out-group attitudes - highly educated people displayed more supportive attitudes toward out-groups. In fact, education had a substantial mediating influence on the correlation between parental fear and child out-group attitudes.

According to the researchers:

"In this way, the definition of unfamiliar may shift across time and location based on experience and education, and a genetically informed fear disposition is hardly permanent or fixed."

More research is required to evaluate the influence of different genetic, biological, and developmental pathways on fear and what other factors may influence attitudes in concert with these forces, said McDermott, but there are still several takeaways to the study, for example the manipulation of political campaigns to affect some individuals more than others.

"Fear as a Disposition and an Emotional State: A Genetic and Environmental Approach to Out-Group Political Preferences," was co-authored by Rose McDermott, Peter K. Hatemi of Penn State University, and Lindon J. Eaves, Kenneth S. Kendler, and Michael C. Neale of Virginia Commonwealth University.

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