International team of researchers that includes Brescia professor provides new evidence linking genes and psychological traits to political engagement

October 15, 2019

London, ON – When it comes to politics, why are certain individuals more engaged than others? This is a question that social scientists have debated for decades. It was the catalyst for a recent study by an international team of researchers, led by Aaron Weinschenk of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, which included Brescia Sociology professor Dr. Edward Bell. The researchers came up with new evidence linking people’s genes and psychological traits to their political engagement.

It has long been known that psychological traits, such as being open to new experiences, is associated with having an interest in politics and participating in political activities. In recent years, evidence has emerged indicating that both genetic and environmental factors influence traits like openness as well as political involvement. The research team, hailing from the US, Germany and Canada, initiated their work with one key question in mind: are the genetic and environmental influences that appear to affect psychological traits like openness the same ones that influence political engagement? To answer the question, the team utilized data from the TwinLife study – a new, large dataset of German twins and their families.

In keeping with earlier studies, their findings indicated that about half the variance in the twins’ levels of political engagement was attributable to genetic factors, as was just over a third of the variation in their openness, with the remainder accounted for by environmental influences.

A distinctive feature of the research concerned the relationship between openness and political engagement: the findings indicate that roughly two-thirds of that association arose because of common genetic influences, with the rest being the result of common environmental factors. However, the researchers stress that what this reveals about causal relationships is uncertain. One possibility is that genetic factors influence openness which in turn affects engagement. Another is that genetic factors influencing openness also have an impact on engagement, without openness causing engagement to occur. Further data collection, acquired at different points in time, will be needed to help sort out the causal connections involved.

Regarding why this research is critical to study, Dr. Bell explains, “It’s important to study political engagement because it is a societal good — the more people are politically active, the stronger our democracy will be.” He goes on to say, “Things can go really wrong if we don’t care about the politics of our communities or the world at large. As John Stuart Mill said, evil can triumph if good people do nothing. What we are doing with this research is trying to expand our knowledge of why some people are more politically involved than others.”

A student-centred professor, Dr. Bell sees the topic of this research as an important issue for Brescia’s students, explaining that, “A study of political engagement fits in nicely with Brescia’s goals of fostering social awareness and promoting constructive social change, and with its efforts to shape leaders who contribute actively and positively to society.” Professor Weinschenk noted that the article illustrates the value and importance of interdisciplinary research. “The research team was made up of faculty members in political science, psychology and sociology. By integrating ideas and concepts from different disciplines, we were able to develop new insights about why some people participate in politics and others do not.”

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