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  • Writer's pictureSara Sharpe

Our Differences are partly down to genetics. No, seriously.

Friend! I just learned something I didn’t know, which seems important for us to understand.

According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: WHY GOOD PEOPLE ARE DIVIDED BY POLITICS AND RELIGION, our differences come down partly to genetics.


Says Haidt:

“Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.”


“People whose genes gave them brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety, and diversity, while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat, are predisposed but not predestined to become liberals. People whose genes give them brains with the opposite settings are predisposed, for the same reasons, to resonate with the grand narratives of the right.”

When I think about it, this essentially means that humans come to the earth with a built-in set of checks and balances. Brilliant! If roughly half of us crave diversity and change while the other half crave stability and sameness (I’m guessing at that 50/50 split, but I bet I’m not far off), it’s reasonable to expect that, theoretically, we could create some semblance of balance, yes? Theoretically? If we can stop yelling at each other long enough, I mean?

So much yelling lately.

Reading Haidt’s book also makes clear that we need these checks and balances. I have long argued that we need each other, you and me, conservatives and liberals, but I never really thought about what might happen if the world was populated only by people like me. If I’m honest, I always thought that would be a good thing. Having read Haidt’s book, however, I’m not so sure. Especially when I think about my liberal proclivities as a young person, I’m struck by how horrifying it would have been had someone put me in charge at that point before life tempered me. Scary thought, really. (My diminished sensitivity to signs of threat was a very, very big problem for me back in the day, for instance. To put it mildly.)

Anyway, my main takeaway is that understanding all this might go a long way toward helping us understand one another. Often, when reaching across the divide, we run into folks who seem opposed to everything we are for and for everything we are against. Might it help to remember that we are genetically predisposed to crave opposite things? And that, ultimately, this is helpful? Might that enable us to meet each other with more understanding and mutual respect?

We can hope,


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