Washington, July 2 : Decisions to participate in elections and other political activities may be partly due to genetic influence, according to a new study.
James H. Fowler and Christopher T. Dawes of the University of California, San Diego joined hands with Laura A. Baker of the University of Southern California for this study.
Writing about their findings in the American Political Science Review, Fowler and Dawes say that they have followed this work with research just published in the July issue of the Journal of Politics, in which they identify a link between two specific genes and political participation.
The researchers show that individuals with a variant of the MAOA gene are significantly more likely to have voted in the 2000 presidential election.
Their study also shows a link between a variant of the 5HTT gene and voter turnout, which is moderated by religious attendance.
The researchers claim that theirs is the first study to link specific genes to political behaviour.
According to them, the initial research is based on voter turnout records in Los Angeles matched to a registry of identical and non-identical twins.
Fowler and Dawes say that the comparison revealed that identical twins, who shared 100 per cent of their genes, were significantly more similar in their voting behaviour than fraternal twins, who shared only 50 per cent of their genes on average.
The results indicated that 53 per cent of the variation in voter turnout was due to differences in genes, and that, contrary to decades of conventional wisdom, family upbringing might have little effect on children's future participatory behaviour.
With a view to replicating the findings, the researchers went beyond the California voter data to examine patterns nationwide using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health conducted from 1994 to 2002.
Among identical twins, the researchers concluded, 72 per cent of the variance in voter turnout could be attributed to genes.
The researchers also said that genetic-based differences extended to a broad class of acts of political participation, including donating to a campaign, contacting a government official, running for office, and attending a political rally.
"We expected to find that genes played some role in political behaviour, but we were quite surprised by the size of the effect and how widely it applies to many kinds of participation," said Fowler.
During the study, the researchers first focused on the genes that had previously been shown to account for variation in social behaviour, among which MAOA and 5HTT are known to exert a strong influence on the serotonin system regulating fear, trust, and social interaction.
Assuming that people with more efficient versions of such genes would be more likely to vote, the group turned again to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to conduct tests on the relationship between turnout and MAOA and 5HTT.
The researcher observed that both genes were significantly linked with the decision to vote, and that people who had the more efficient genes were about 10 per cent more likely to go to the polls.
"These findings are extremely important for how we think about political behaviour," said Fowler.
The researchers even say that the 5HTT gene, in particular, seems to play an important role in the well-known association between voting and going to church, suggesting that it is the combination of social activity and genes that helps to shape political behaviour.
"We are not robots - the genes just seem to make it more likely that some of us will respond to our social lives by getting involved in politics," Fowler said.
The team, however, cautioned that there was no such thing as a 'voter gene'
"That idea is just silly. Complex social behaviours are the result of hundreds of genes interacting with hundreds of social factors - these results are really just the tip of the iceberg," Fowler said.
The research team now plans to study why genes matter so much.
"These studies provide the first step needed to excite the imaginations of a discipline not used to thinking about the role of biology in human behaviour," they say.