Heritable Attitudes: Why You Shouldn’t Argue For or Against the Death Penalty

It used to be almost common knowledge that attitudes or opinions are formed by way of social influence – family, friends, society in large affect the way we think about things around us. Most people seem to think that it’s a matter of being informed and thinking things through and making a decision.

This idea of attitudes as something learned seems plausible enough but when hereditary research gained momentum in the 1980s all that changed. It showed that while some attitudes are shaped by environmental forces a lot of them have a high heritability.

It’s hard to find a theme for attitudes affected by the environment,  but highly heritable attitudes are largely about sex, violence, religion, and race.  Like the view on capital punishment, the importance of religion or the right to free abortion. This is not all that surprising since these attitudes relate to personality which itself is largely inherited.

Anyone familiar with the experiments of Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram may wonder how this can be, given the kind of conformism they found in their experiments. The answer is simple: they never looked at the heritable attitudes. Sure, if everyone says a stick is five inches long when it’s seven, you may start to wonder. But if they all say you don’t need religion and you are religious, you are very unlikely to conform.

In fact, one psychologist named Abraham Tesser has studied the link between heritability and conformity of attitudes. He and his colleagues did this by asking students about their attitudes while simultaneously informing them about how the majority of students attending the same university felt in these issues. They found that while attitudes with low heritability were very influenced by the majority consensus, those that were highly genetic in origin were unaffected by the norm.

So that’s why shouldn’t try to persuade anyone that the death penalty or free abortion is right or wrong  – you’re wasting your time. The inherited attitude is similar to a gut reaction. It has a shorter response time and is perceived as more moral than other attitudes. It’s just not open for discussion.

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