The liberal/conservative in your DNA

While I was on vacation last week, Tom Edsall had a nice column summarizing the political science research on the impact of genes.  Some recent research provides compelling evidence for our DNA influencing the social traditionalism aspect of political ideology:

In “Obedience to Traditional Authority: A heritable factor underlying authoritarianism, conservatism and religiousness,” published by the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2013, three psychologists write that “authoritarianism, religiousness and conservatism,” which they call the “traditional moral values triad,” are “substantially influenced by genetic factors.” According to the authors — Steven Ludeke of Colgate, Thomas J. Bouchard of the University of Minnesota, and Wendy Johnson of the University of Edinburgh — all three traits are reflections of “a single, underlying tendency,” previously described in one word by Bouchard in a 2006 paper as “traditionalism.” Traditionalists in this sense are defined as “having strict moral standards and child-rearing practices, valuing conventional propriety and reputation, opposing rebelliousness and selfish disregard of others, and valuing religious institutions and practices.”

Working along a parallel path, Amanda Friesen, a political scientist at Indiana University, and Aleksander Ksiazkiewicz, a graduate student in political science at Rice University, concluded from their study comparing identical and fraternal twins that “the correlation between religious importance and conservatism” is “driven primarily, but usually not exclusively, by genetic factors.” The substantial “genetic component in these relationships suggests that there may be a common underlying predisposition that leads individuals to adopt conservative bedrock social principles and political ideologies while simultaneously feeling the need for religious experiences.”

Edsall follows with a deep dive into the research along with a nice discussion of why it matters:

In an email, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of “The Blank Slate,” makes the case for continued research in the broader field of evolutionary psychology and in the sub-field of politics and heritable temperamental traits.

“To the extent that my political opinions can be predicted by my genome, or by an identical twin separated from me at birth who grew up halfway across the world,” Pinker writes, “I have reason to question whether those opinions are justifiable by reason or evidence rather than a reflection of my temperament.”

Pinker contends that “an acknowledgment of the possibility of genetic differences is a game-changer for countless specific issues. If people differ genetically in conscientiousness, intelligence, and other psychological traits, then not all differences among people in social and economic outcomes are automatically consequences of a rigged system.”

This means, according to Pinker, that “the discovery that political ideologies are partly heritable points our attention to what the common psychological threads of competing ideologies are – namely temperamental differences such as authoritarianism, conscientiousness, and openness to experience, together with intellectual differences such as intelligence. These could help pinpoint some of the common denominators beneath competing ideologies which cut across the particular hot buttons of the particular era.”

Perhaps the most important rationale for research into the heritability of temperamental and personality traits as they apply to political decision making is that such research can enhance our understanding of the larger framework within which public discourse and debate shape key outcomes.

This research has a lot of critics, but I find it both persuasive and compelling.  Of course, maybe that’s just because of my genes.

Photo of the day

Love this Wired galleryof alien-looking landscapes that are actually constructed in miniature at the photographer’s kitchen table.  Pretty cool.


How the running shoe industry is like pre-Moneyball baseball scouts

So, a friend knowing I obsess about most things I purchase, came into my office to ask about running shoes a couple of days ago.   We had a lengthy discussion of the research that suggests that shoes fitted to one’s particular gait (i.e., over/under pronation, etc.) are not actually better for you.  I was familiar with this research from Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes which I’ve plugged here before and will plug again, but I also found her NYT column summarizing the research:

Over the course of three large studies, the most recent of which was published last month in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, the researchers found almost no correlation at all between wearing the proper running shoes and avoiding injury. Injury rates were high among all the runners, but they were highest among the soldiers who had received shoes designed specifically for their foot types. If anything, wearing the “right” shoes for their particular foot shape had increased trainees’ chances of being hurt.

Scientific rumblings about whether running shoes deliver on their promises have been growing louder in recent years. In 2008, an influential review article in The British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that sports-medicine specialists should stop recommending running shoes based on a person’s foot posture. No scientific evidence supported the practice, the authors pointed out, concluding that “the true effects” of today’s running shoes “on the health and performance of distance runners remain unknown.”

And, a more recent study I had not yet learned about:

Then they gave all of the volunteers the same model of lightweight, neutral running shoes (rather than motion-control shoes, which are designed to correct pronation problems), along with a GPS watch to track their mileage and instructions to report any injury, which would then be assessed by medical personnel.

The volunteers subsequently ran as much as they wished at a self-chosen pace for a full year. As a whole, the group covered more than 203,000 miles and developed about 300 medically confirmed injuries.

Contrary to received running wisdom, however, those who overpronated or underpronated were not significantly more likely to get hurt than runners with neutral foot motion.

Among those who covered at least 600 miles during the year, injury rates in fact were slightly higher among the runners with neutral feet than among those who overpronated…

The research reinforces a widespread belief among scientists studying running “that pronation doesn’t play much of a role” in injury risk, he says.

It also suggests, he says, that trying to alter pronation with a specific type of shoe is probably misguided. At the university’s running clinic, “we see so many injured runners who’ve been told that they overpronate” and need sturdy motion-control shoes to fix the problem. “They wind up injured anyway.”

Instead, he says, this new study and common sense suggest that comfort is likely to be a better guide to shoe choice than foot posture.

I’m pretty confident, though, that if you go into any running shoe store they will quite confidently tell you that you need a particular shoe to match your stride and you will surely get blank looks and push back if you mention this research.  The traditional approach just seems to make so much sense.  Amazing how far that can take us without evidence (the examples within medicine are myriad, many great examples in Overtreated).  For my part, though, I couldn’t help thinking about Moneyball and how baseball scouts just know what makes a good player because it all makes so much intuitive sense.  Only when Billy Beane et al., started to look at data, did people finally realize otherwise.

So, as my shoes are three years old (worn out for sure, but surprise, surprise, there’s actually no evidence that this is more likely to lead to increased injury risk):

Dr. Schelde did find a study on injury rates among runners, published in 2003, that had some relevant data even though it was not a randomized clinical trial and shoe age was not its main focus. The study was large and regularly tested runners in a 13-week training program. The researchers failed to find any clear relationship between how long running shoes were worn and a runner’s risk of injury.

I did decide to get a new pair.  Thus, even though all the gait analyses I’ve had tell me I need a “stability” shoe for my overpronation, the research suggests I should just buy a neutral.  Why go back to the fancy running store when the employees will sell me shoes based on pre-Moneyball baseball scouting?  So, I didn’t.  I researched on-line and I just went to Dick’s and used my gift card that my soccer team parents got me.

In the end, I kind of hedged a little bit.  Brooks now has “guidance” shoes which are kind of like stability-lite or neutral-plus.  That struck me as a good compromise.  More importantly, they felt great when I tried them on.   So, the Brooks Ravenna 5 it is.

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