Chief Science Correspondent
It's no secret that voting habits tend to run in families, but many scientists believe that genetics could play a role in both political beliefs and participation.
A June 2014 study led by University of Nebraska researcher Jeffrey A. French linked the production of the stress response hormone cortisol to an individual's likelihood of filling out a ballot on election day. A group of 105 individuals, representing individuals from both sides of the political spectrum, were put under a series of stressful (but non-political) situations. The researchers collected saliva samples at low-stress (i.e. the "baseline") and high-stress time points. The individuals with the highest initial, baseline cortisol levels were the least likely to regularly vote. Non-voting participation in the political processes (such as contacted an elected official or volunteering on a political campaign) was not correlated with cortisol levels.
The study concludes that these higher-baseline subjects tend to experience greater everyday anxiety. Essentially, because of their physiological (and likely genetic) disposition towards anxiety, these individuals are less inclined to vote in political elections.
Higher cortisol helps the body cope with both physical and emotional stress, helping the body redirect energy more efficiently. However, individuals with chronically higher baseline cortisol levels cannot increase cortisol production as efficiently during the stressful situations. This can result in long-term health problems. According to the study, these are the individuals who can't cope with the stress of voting because their cortisol production cannot match the anxiety of helping elect public officials.
If you are a regular Cennamology reader, you'll know that we strongly believe that American adults have a responsibility to vote in all elections. Therefore, if scientists can convincingly link physiological studies with the goal of increasing public voting participation, there's no reason that they shouldn't.
However, this study's claims are unconvincing. First, 105 is an extremely small sample size for a study of this depth. The researchers claimed that they selected individuals representing a variety of factors that are known to increase voting activity (education, income level, sex, age and income levels). I do not believe a sufficient number of individuals from each of these groups (and representing both conservative and liberal ideologies) could be met within such a small group.
The age, sex, and income groups were each somewhat evenly distributed, as well as the distributions of self-reported political affiliation and voter party registration. College and graduate-level groups were clearly better represented than the high school and technical college groups (81 versus 19 percent of the sample group).
Notably, geographic location (both states and districts) was not recorded during the study. Seeing as the study was conducted in Nebraska, I'm guessing there is a good chance most of the participants lived in Nebraska.
However, what I found extremely alarming was the lack of racial diversity within the study. Out of the 105 participants, 100 identified as White. Three identified as African American and two identified as Hispanic.
Whites made up 72 percent of the voting population in 2012, according to the Edison Media Research for the National Election Pool. Yet Whites only made up 63 percent of the general U.S. population as of June 2013. Hispanics, on the other hand, made up 17 percent of the general population in 2011, but only 10 percent of the voting population in 2012.
Certain ethnic groups are simply statistically more likely to vote than others, a trend often attributed to discrimination as well as geographic various socioeconomic factors that are correlated with race.
Overall, this is a very complex issue, and until this study examines these factors more closely, it
doesn't seem that one hormone can provide the answer.
Furthermore, I believe the researchers were too eager to jump from physiological stress susceptibility
straight to voting anxiety. The higher baseline cortisol levels may have been linked to other factors in the individual's everyday life that may affect their ability to take the time to go to the polls.
For instance, parents (particularly those with special needs children) have been shown to have elevated cortisol levels associated with the stress of being a caretaker, keeping them busy enough that it might be difficult to get to the polls. Although I could not find a study linking a stressful full-time job to cortisol levels, there is a very good chance these individuals are also busy enough that voting is not a high priority.
Changes in cortisol production have also been reported in families dealing with poverty, one 2011 study reported. This study also found that race played a factor in cortisol production for these families. The 2014 voter study attempted to correct for the influence of income level (And should have accounted for race, but did not). The 2011 study demonstrates that cortisol production is already linked to income level. Therefore, the two factors cannot be separated and the credibility of the results is severely compromised.
Although further studies could yield interesting information on how physiologically-predisposed personality could influence the American public and our political culture, the current information is not sufficient to draw a significant biological link to voter turnout.