Why do birthers believe what they do? It turns out that one factor in whether someone mistakenly considers random patterns to be something significant has to do with dopamine levels in their brains — the more dopamine, the more belief. Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. I was just reading about this today in Michael Shermer’s book, The Believing Brain.
Naturally, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps birthers could have high dopamine levels and that explains why they believe things (particularly random variation in old typed text) that others don’t. An immediate objection I came up with against this idea is the strong correlation between birtherism and conservative political alignment and this being a better predictor than brain chemistry. After all, do Republicans and Tea Party members have higher dopamine levels than Democrats?
Well, it turns out that while there is no correlation with political orientation, there is a correlation between genes for dopamine receptors and the level of partisanship according to the article, Partisanship, Voting, and the Dopamine D2 Receptor Gene by Christopher T. Dawes and James H. Fowler of the University of California. Those with the A2 allele of the D2 Receptor Gene have a better-functioning dopamine reward system than those with the A1 allele. Perhaps dopamine system efficiency explains why conspiracy theorists like the birthers, soliciting members, attending town meetings, filing lawsuits, organizing rallies and conferences, and creating extra-judicial organizations such as “citizen grand juries.” When was the last time you ever saw an Obot recruiting members, holding a rally, intervening in a town meeting or trying to organize a conference? It may help explain why in the general population normals outnumber birthers at least 10-1, but when it comes to birther web sites and commenters, the numbers seem reversed.
The small (8%) correlation between D2 genes and partisanship doesn’t explain variation the size of birther vs Obot activists. In any complex social phenomenon there are likely to be many factors. One branch of statistics, factor analysis, attempts to explain the factors that underlie variation. With the right data, perhaps an academic study could, after all, explain part of birtherism by genetics.
It’s just something to think about.
- Friendships Moderate an Association Between a Dopamine Gene Variant and Political Ideology. Settle, Dawes, Christakis and Fowler
- The Heritability of Partisan Attachment, Political Research Quarterly, Settle, Dawes and Fowler.