Humans, I have contended elsewhere, are simultaneously the products of biological, psychological and social mechanisms whilst retaining their agency. Acknowledgement must be made also of the sometimes mundane and sometimes dramatic interruptions of contingency. Thus humans can be said to be biologically, psychologically and socially ‘structured’ without being structurally determined”

Scambler G, Afentouli P, Selai C. (2010) Living with epilepsy: Catching simultaneity in the biological, psychological and the social. In: Scambler G, Scambler S, editors. (eds) New Directions in the Sociology of Chronic and Disabling Conditions: Assaults on the Lifeworld. London: Palgrave, 106-28.

Why do we see things differently? Why do we differ on our political choices? Why do those on the left think working-class Tory voters are either thick or deluded? Why do Tories rage at lack of deference to the Queen?

The left’s real problem, according to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is that it does not understand the motivations of the right and vice versa. He argues that the left is driven by a morality based on compassion, the desire to fight oppression and, to some degree, fairness. Conservatives, on the other hand, have a broader set of six “moral tastes”, sharing such concerns but balanced by the binding foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity.

While the right can “taste” issues such as compassion and fairness, the left struggles to embrace patriotism or religion, seeing traditional institutions and hierarchies as obstacles to their fight for liberty and equality. Haidt calls this “the conservative advantage”.

So how does this difference come about? Why can conservatives seemingly draw upon 6 moral intuitions so that they respond with pride to images of flags, the monarchy, the military and in Britain’s case ‘Empire’ and what Paul Gilroy calls post-colonial melancholia?

One answer begins with genetics. Let me be very clear at the outset, this is not about biological or genetic determinism. Biology is not destiny, as Scambler’s above quote makes clear.

This following argument can be found in Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’. 2012

The first part of the argument goes: Genes make brains. The brains of conservatives and progressives are different. This relates to neurotransmitters such as glutamate, serotonin (threat and fear responses) and dopamine (pleasure responses). 

Conservatives react more strongly to signs of danger than Progressives do (glutamate and serotonin), while progressives are more open to sensation seeking and openness to experience (dopamine). 

Genes give some people brains that are more or less reactive to threat or give more or less pleasure in response to new experiences, novelty and change. This is the first draft of your life story, and your later behaviour, based on innate genetic structures. 

This is of course not the whole story explaining our political choices – for example, epigenetics points in the direction of the social and psychological environment we live in having an effect on innate genetic structures. But more of that later in another blog.

The availability of all 6 moral intuitions to conservatives and the genetically triggered higher perceptions of threat and fear, explains in part why in response to the London Bridge attacks ‘conservatives’ are quick to argue for draconian anti threat measures without thinking of the consequences. The threat and fear they feel are very real, very serious and personal to them, their community and their country.

I don’t think progressives think or feel that way to the same degree. They are less genetically prone to feelings of personal threat and fear that arises from terrorism and the statistics prove them right. It is interesting to note that deaths from road traffic events do not result in splenetic outrage by conservatives. Road deaths are not constructed by the press or the TV to be a personal threat, and thus do not trigger the genetic response. They merely they get reported as ‘accidents’, almost as if they are an act of god about which nothing can be done. Because road deaths are thought to be random they do not transgress intuitions of loyalty? The intuition of liberty may also lead to a distrust of State intervention in the everyday activity of driving – ‘nanny statism’.

Note, however, whenever personal culpability for death is clearly reported as a real threat – drink driving – then the moral intuition of authority kicks in. Drink drivers are threats, and must be punished severely. Drink driving transgresses ‘fairness‘ as well, the innocent victims are unfairly killed. It is not ‘fair’ that the drunk lives while his victim dies.

In the case of London Bridge and other terror attacks’, moral intuitions of ‘respect for authority’ and ‘loyalty’, to Queen and Country, which the ‘terrorist’ act transgresses, can be subconsciously mobilised to help deal with the existential threat conservatives are likely to feel. “Lock them up and throw away the key” “mandatory life sentences without parole” “hanging” “stop and search” and “surveillance based on if you’ve nothing to hide” are ‘go-to’ responses.

For me, a huge non genetic influence on this quite basic foundation is the near-hegemonic cultural stories that wealthy and powerful people put out in defence of their own interests.

The war on terror is, in the context of London Bridge, a background narrative which results in increasing the fear and threat felt by conservatives and feeds the obsession with security, law and order and towards authoritarianism via the search for a ‘strong man’ to protect us. This is rooted in the authority intuition. Terrorism enacted by those who are citizens is also an example of disloyalty to one’s country and thus also transgresses the loyalty intuition.

Haidt, therefore, suggests that genes have something to do with one’s moral responses and political choices. But they are certainly not the whole story, and care must be taken to over generalise and reduce politics to biology.