As Ed Miliband defends his father – could The Daily Mail be right – do we inherit our parents’ politics?
Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham
The Daily Mail thesis appears to include that the beliefs of Ralph Miliband, an eminent Marxist academic, who died in 1994, might have prejudiced the politics of sons Ed and David Miliband.
Ed Miliband has responded: “My father’s strongly left-wing views are well known, as is the fact that I have pursued a different path and I have a different vision’.
Defending the original headline of the piece: “The man who hated Britain” a Daily Mail editorial argued Ralph Miliband ‘…hated such British institutions as the Queen, the Church and the Army…”. The ‘logic’ seems to be that if someone dislikes, and criticises prominent institutions of a nation, this means they hate the whole country. This could be revealing something more of the mind-set of the Daily Mail than the Millibands, in terms of how the newspaper conceives Britain, ie this realm is the Queen, the Church and the army.
But behind the mounting political and emotional rhetoric, is the Daily Mail even raising a legitimate enquiry – do you inherit your politics from your parents?
Whatever readers may feel about how the Miliband family has been treated, this deeper question has been investigated by political scientists and psychologists.
If parents influence offspring’s politics, then it may be a way of getting behind pervasive political spin, by uncovering parental ideology.
Recent research in this area does suggest it could be possible to learn more about a politician from understanding their childhood and family politics. More, perhaps, that you might glean from their speech-writers.
The ﬁrst twin study of adults in the United States that focused exclusively and comprehensively on political traits is recently published in the journal Political Psychology, and entitled ‘Genetic and Environmental Transmission of Political Orientations’.
The politics and personality of 1,192 respondents, all part of a matched twin pair, were investigated. Studying twins reveals if genes are responsible for political beliefs.
Monozygotic twins (MZs) develop from a single fertilized egg, sharing identical genes. Dizygotic twins (DZs), as any other set of siblings, share an average of 50% of their genes. If family and childhood environment is the same, but MZ twins are more alike than DZ twins, the greater similarity of MZ twins must be due to genes.
Using twins to investigate gene/environment influences is not unproblematic, but it’s a widely accepted method. This twin study reveals that political ideology has a very strong genetic component. But while what you genetically inherit from your parents does influence your politics, according to this study, it doesn’t determine it completely. Unique personal experiences are found to have around as big an impact.
Ironically perhaps for the Daily Mail newspaper, the authors of the study, Carolyn Funk, Kevin Smith, John Alford, Matthew Hibbing, Nicholas Eaton, Robert Krueger, Lindon Eaves and John Hibbing, found ‘right-wing authoritarianism’ had one of the strongest genetic components. This was more strongly genetically based that ‘egalitarianism’, which is about a belief that people should be treated equally. But ‘egalitarianism’ also had a substantial genetic basis, yet was more influenced by unique personal experiences, than ‘right-wing authoritarianism’.
The overall conclusion from the authors of this study is that genes do play a substantial role in determining our politics – but they are by no means the only determinant. Maybe the Daily Mail hadn’t got as far as thinking of some kind of genetic transmission of Ralph Miliband’s political ideology to Ed Miliband, but were more considering a shared family environment impact.
Unfortunately for the Daily Mail, this study, from Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Nebraska, Rice University, University of California and the University of Minnesota, found shared family and childhood environment was surprisingly much less important in determining our political ideology, as compared to the genes we inherit from our parents, and our unique personal experiences.
What might this kind of personal experience be? In Ed Miliband’s defence of his father, he describes how much trauma and stress Ralph Miliband endured; he was a Jewish refugee fleeing Belgium aged 16 to escape the Nazis.
Could childhood trauma impact your politics?
Jan-Emmanuel De Neve from University College London and the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, has just analysed 14,672 people representative of the US population, finding a significant effect for negative childhood experiences such as trauma, experiencing insecurity in the neighbourhood or at school, being associated with people becoming more liberal or politically left wing.
Jan-Emmanuel De Neve speculates in his study entitled ‘Personality, Childhood Experience, and Political Ideology’ that experiences of childhood trauma, and insecurity, may instil a heightened sense of helplessness.
This feeling of vulnerability is likely to favour social programs and government intervention should needs arise. The study, published in the academic journal ‘Political Psychology’, also speculates that those who suffered childhood maltreatment will be wary of authority. Psychological ramifications of childhood trauma could drive people away from conservatism.
If it was the case that Ralph Miliband’s traumatic experiences might explain his politics, then maybe newspapers could more genuinely serve the public interest by understanding where political ideologies come from, rather than disinterring the past, simply to smear.
That childhood trauma could lead to a cascade of psychological implications, which ultimately influence political ideology, isn’t so difficult to conceive. Yet the idea that genes could remain so determinant, in certain circumstances, of political belief, seems more difficult to accept.
But we know that personality is partially genetic, so perhaps our politics somewhat reflects our character? Jan-Emmanuel De Neve’s study found a key personality feature – “openness to experience” significantly predicts higher liberal, or left-wing, preferences. Another character trait, “Conscientiousness”, is significantly associated with a more conservative ideology.
Jan-Emmanuel De Neve illustrates the strength of the effect he found this way: increasing the “openness to experience” trait of an individual from a score of 12 (20th percentile) to a score of 16 (80th percentile); keeping all else constant, would increase the likelihood of this person self-reporting to be very liberal, by approximately 71%.
However, it remains odd that anyone might believe that genes or family and childhood environment could completely determine political vision, especially in the case of the Milibands.
Perhaps the Daily Mail is suffering from amnesia?
Two brothers, Ed and David Miliband, were brought up in the same household with the same parents, both from a Marxist father, yet the two brothers opposed each other vigorously, displaying very different ideologies, in a recent election for leadership of the Labour Party.
If ever there was a genetic test that politics doesn’t entirely transmit down your DNA, or through your family, that surely was it.
Personality, Childhood Experience, and Political Ideology Jan-Emmanuel De Neve Political Psychology, In Press 2013 doi: 10.1111/pops.12075
Genetic and Environmental Transmission of Political Orientations Carolyn Funk, Kevin Smith, John Alford, Matthew Hibbing, Nicholas Eaton, Robert Krueger, Lindon Eaves and John Hibbing Political Psychology, 2012. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2012.00915.x