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Why Other People Are Stupid and Wrong (Could DNA Decide Your Beliefs?)

by on July 07, 2014 6:00 AM

From my early days of working at in-patient psychiatric hospitals, there was an on-going gag among the staff where we would look at each other and say "your feelings are stupid and they are wrong."

The humor was in the irony -- that statement would be just about the last thing one would ever say to a patient or, for that matter, in other industries, a guest, a customer, a client or a student.

It always brought a laugh but also a reminder that we often work with people who have different viewpoints or perspectives on what goes on around us.

I was reminded of that statement last week when the Supreme Court decided that the owners of Hobby Lobby, a privately held chain of craft stores, could limit what they offer in employee health benefits based on their purported religious views.

Instantaneously, the debate on the television, the internet and around the water-cooler once again had people on both sides of the decision (including members of the Supreme Court) lobbing insults and demeaning statements about the other side's viewpoints.

Maybe it's the internet or the 24/7 news channels but it seems more and more common these days for people to not only disagree, but disagree vehemently and to the point of being disrespectful.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is quoted as saying "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is perspective, not the truth."

I think Marcus may have been on to something.

Social scientists have examined how we form our opinions and our values and our ideas about things like religion and politics. The predominant theory on value and opinion formation has been that we get and form our opinions from interacting in our environment.

Simply put, we form our opinions and our value system early in our lives from the influences of others. Our family. Our neighbors. Our communities. We observe and watch and learn from the people around us to form the foundation of our viewpoints. Although opinions can sometimes be impacted or changed by events (i.e. the terrorism on 9/11), the studies show we remain pretty faithful to our early ideologies.

When we factor in things like how threatened the subject matter makes us feel, our individual self-esteem and things like confirmation bias (interpreting information in such a way that it confirms our existing opinions and biases), posting a statement on Facebook or getting in someone's face to try and convince that person that your opinion is right and their opinion is wrong is a probably waste of your time.

Read the on-line comments on any article that has to do with the NCAA sanctions, Joe Paterno's firing and any of the assorted lawsuits related to the scandal and you will see what I mean.

It is unfathomable that everyone doesn't see it my way.

I read a "discussion" on Facebook last week on the issue of same sex marriage that quickly disintegrated into disrespect and name calling. The appropriateness of a Facebook debate aside, it was very clear that neither side was doing much to convince the other person to change his or her mind. Both sides outlined why each felt so strongly about the issue and why the other was absolutely wrong. It was clear that personal experiences had much to do with how those opinions had formed.

But what if opinion goes even deeper than that? What if our opinions are actually determined by our DNA?

As we become more sophisticated in our understanding of genetics and how our physiological make-up pre-determines physical characteristics, disease and health, etc. researchers are trying to determine if there is a link between our genetic profile and our opinions.

Penn State Professor of Political Science, Dr. Peter Hatemi and his colleagues have found that our political viewpoints may, in fact, be influenced by our genetics. Hatemi and others believe that how we take in and interpret information and other characteristics such as our response to fear (which could led us to vote one way or the other as well as assign negative characteristics of people outside of our "in-group") are likely genetically based and may influence our opinions as much as what we got from watching Mom and Dad. Using studies with twins (genetic identicals) that controlled for social influences, it appears our genetics may determine more than just our height and eye color.

It kind of makes sense. If we think of people as living in communities where there are commonalities – socio-economic status, concentrations of one race or ethnic group, extended families – the combination of socialization and genetics might suggest similar voting patterns, political ideologies and so forth.

For example, in recent decades, political analysts have examined the "female vote" and have suggested that women on both sides of the aisle have surprisingly similar interests in social issues concerning economic or international policy even if our opinions are quite different. Are women concerned about healthcare and family issues because we are socialized to be nurturers or could it be related to our DNA?

To the person on the other side of the debate, your opinions may actually be stupid and wrong. More importantly, he or she may be genetically unable to see your viewpoint.

Hatemi and other professionals in the field of behavior-genetics suggest that providing someone additional information, launching persuasive arguments and providing what you believe is "proof" of a truth to convince them to come over to your side may be futile. Even though scientists who study how we form opinions uniformly agree that a significant "event" can alter what and how we think (i.e. going to college or joining the military), it appears that overcoming the genetic pre-disposition to think one way or the other is going to take more than a good argument or a Facebook post.

At any rate, being disrespectful or rude to people who don't agree with you is never a good idea.

The screaming of political foes on the cable news channels or insulting those who disagree with you on-line does little for any of us in furthering an agenda or improving our quality of life.

Finding common ground on which we can agree and move forward is a better use of our time and energy.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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