Attitudes to Inequality May Have Genetic Underpinning

It’s clear that we live in an unequal society, with some groups of people having more power and resources than others. What we don’t always agree on, though, is whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

Psychologists sometimes measures people’s preferences for a hierarchical, unequal society by looking at social dominance orientation.

Someone who has a high social dominance orientation believes that it’s good for some social groups to have power over others. They tend to endorse statements such as the following:

  • An ideal society requires some groups to be on top and others to be on the bottom.
  • We shouldn’t try to guarantee that every group has the same quality of life
  • It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others

A complex question is where these attitudes come from. Why do people have divergent views on statements like the ones above?

Recently, a team of researchers in Norway, the UK and Denmark decided to explore the possible role of genetics in shaping social dominance orientation. They did so the way a lot of genetic research is done – by studying twins!

In a study of 1,987 twins, they considered two aspects of social dominance orientation: dominance (the preference for some groups to have power over others) and egalitarianism (attitudes toward equal distribution of resources and opportunities).

For both types of preferences, they found that genetics played a significant role. Overall, 37 percent of dominance scores and 24 percent of egalitarianism scores could be explained by genetic variation.

Looking at the relationship between social dominance orientation and politics, the researchers found that genetics seemed to play an even bigger role. About half of the overlap between politics and social dominance orientation came down to genetics, compared to only 8 percent for environmental factors.

Of course, there are other factors that shape political views besides a preference for hierarchical vs. egalitarian societies. And there are the usual caveats to keep in mind about cautiously interpreting the results of one study on one sample of participants.

Still, these findings do suggest a possible factor in why some people just can’t see eye-to-eye on politics: to some extent, genetics may predispose us to having fundamentally different views about what society “should” look like. And if we have different visions of what the goal is, we’re probably going to have different politics.