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Grad Student Researches Biology Behind Political Views

October 18, 2017

If you’ve ever wondered why people stand where they do on the political spectrum, science might have at least part of the answer: People can be biologically predisposed to certain feelings toward politics and society.

A new paper lead-authored by UC Merced graduate student Chelsea Coe indicates that physiological factors can predict how someone will react when presented with political scenarios — an idea that demonstrates an emerging area of study, the intersection of biology and politics.

In a series of experiments with more than 200 fellow students, Coe and her colleagues used a machine to measure people’s baseline physiological reactions to a series of pictures. This baseline is measured through a person’s skin-conductance response, which is taken through the sweat glands in their fingers.

“We all have that fight-or-flight response to stress, which can include feeling panicky, sweating and/or an increased heart rate,” Coe said. “And the extent of this response is different for each person. We see it as another individual trait that makes you and me different people.”

Participants were then asked about various topics including gun control, immigration, abortion, gay marriage and the Ebola outbreak, and each topic was framed in different ways. One scenario asked them to consider whether they would allow a KKK rally to come to Merced. Some students saw this presented as a “free speech” event while others saw it presented as a public safety concern.

“People with a low tolerance for confrontation are not likely to favor it no matter how it is framed,” Coe said. This same scenario was given to students at Ohio State in 1997, Coe said, and the framing swayed both sets of students. “If you tell people it’s a public safety concern, they’re more likely to not allow the rally to happen. However, if you tell people that it is a free speech issue, people are more likely to allow the KKK rally to occur.”