Social Evolution Forum
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Ideology Is Heritable Yet Societies Can Change Their Views Quickly. A guest blog by Jonathan Haidt.

Bernard Winograd has written an intriguing post, summarizing the findings one must grapple with when thinking about how attitudes can change within a single generation. The rapid change in the USA on gay marriage has caught many people’s attention, coming at a time when many popular books are saying that political attitudes are to some degree  heritable. How can we resolve this apparent contradiction?

From my perspective as a social psychologist, who studies morality from an evolutionary perspective, rapid attitude change is not hard to explain. I am impressed by the consistent data on heritability, showing that some very important parts of our moral and political views are innate. But innate does not mean hard-wired or unmalleable; it  means “structured in advance of experience, and experience can edit and alter that first draft.” (That’s a paraphrase from Gary Marcus). So even if one is born predisposed to questioning authority and seeking out diversity, life experiences can still alter one’s habitual reactions. Becoming a parent, especially of girls, seems to make people more conservative (they perceive more threats in the world).

But even if we assume no change in the underlying dispositions, the path from innate temperament to attitudes on a specific issue is long and complex. There are many ways for attitudes to change rapidly in a population, even on politically controversial topics. People’s attitudes (on gay marriage, taxes, etc.) are responsive to at least these three forces:

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1) Gut feelings, such as the disgust that many straight men feel when they see images of gay male sex, or—in earlier decades—when they simply thought about gay men, which may have triggered thoughts of gay sex. But these emotional responses change by the sorts of processes the behaviorists studied: they can be reinforced or extinguished by experience. We “habituate” – we get used to things – when they begin to appear frequently and nothing bad accompanies their appearance.  So when gay people started coming out of the closet in the 1980s, then appearing on television in the 1990s, and then appearing in everyone’s extended family by the 2000s, people’s disgust reactions diminished. Not just generationally, but in the same individuals – they didn’t find homosexuality as freakish and gross as they had when they were much younger. (This is the “sushi” example that Winograd referred to.)

2) Perceptions of how others are reacting to a norm violation. When everyone else was reacting with horror, disgust, or ridicule to gay people, that created a mutually reinforcing cycle of horror, disgust, and ridicule.  Among my first exposures to  homosexuality was  the creepy pair of assassins—Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint—in the 1971 film Diamonds are Forever. During the final fight scene, Bond grabs Wint’s arms, pulls them between Wint’s legs from behind, pushes a bomb into Wint’s hands, and then hoists Wint’s arms up in a move that would appear to cause great pain to his testicles. But Wint squeals with delight because, you know, James Bond is somehow stimulating him “down there.” (You can watch the scene here.)  As an 8-year-old I didn’t know what to make of the fact that Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint held hands. But I did know that they were freakish and gross, and that it was great fun for the whole audience to laugh at them.  This doesn’t happen much anymore. Shared anger at homophobic statements is increasingly common, and this change in publicly shared emotions influences the attitudes of mature adults, not just of the next cohort of adults.

3) Reasoning. My research shows that it’s very hard to change anyone’s mind when their gut feelings or group’s ideology are pointing the other way. David Hume was right: Reason is the servant of the passions. But once intuitions and gut feelings have calmed down, and once public norms are beginning to change – at least to the point where people find multiple views expressed by people they like and value – then people can become responsive to good arguments. So Winograd is correct that we can’t change people’s minds by rational argument alone – at least when emotions and group loyalties are in play. But when people are no longer viscerally opposed to a proposition, then reasoning can begin to exert an influence. And once the backers of gay marriage shifted their rhetoric from political rights (in 2008) to focusing on the value and importance of commitment (in 2012), it was difficult for opponents of gay marriage to offer reasons why preventing gay people from committing to each other would strengthen heterosexual marriages. The pro-marriage side had much better arguments, and this may have made a difference.

In conclusion: I agree with Winograd that more research is needed on rapid political changes such as happened with gay marriage. I just don’t see such changes as being incompatible with what we are now learning about the heritability of temperament and other traits that predispose people to find the ideas (and foods and clothing styles) of left or right more attractive.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of business ethics at New York University, and the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.


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  1. Bernard Winograd says:

    Thanks for these thoughts, Jon. I take away the basic idea that (at least in a democracy) cultural change leads political change and not the other way around. We then need to focus on the mechanisms of cultural change if we want to understand political change. That is a very clear model that bears examination but seems plausible to me.

    • O.Voron says:

      “(at least in a democracy) cultural change leads political change and not the other way around. ”

      There are examples of the other way around.

      The absolute majority in the European countries were FOR capital punishment when the laws abolishing it were introduced. Less than a generation later the majority became AGAINST capital punishment.

      • deminthon says:

        The U.S. Civil Rights Act is another example.

        • susara says:

          I agree. All South African cultures are homophobic, some virulantly so. But our equality laws are making a change.

          I think one of the major factors is that gays willing to take the social risks of coming out, but not risks such as being jailed or losing their jobs, can do so. As people face more and more gays and see them as pretty normal and nice people, it becomes more difficult to deamonise them.

          Another factor is that highly placed people have to mouth the politically (and constitutionally) correct language of equal rights. Regardless of what our president’s personal view may be, in public he has to speak up for gay rights.

  2. Richard says:

    I think that decreasing lead exposure (through lead gasoline) in recent decades also has helped. Certainly, it would weaken 1) and strengthen 3).

  3. John says:

    Well, when everyone is coming out of the closet left and right it’s kinda hard to justify prior negative beliefs about gay people. It’s also generational as well. The older generation did not grow up with friends who were open about their sexuality. The younger ones are completely exposed to it.

  4. Dan McShea says:

    Your argument is excellent, and mostly right, I think!

    But here and elsewhere you have, if I understand you, gotten Hume wrong. Hume says reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions, which you (and some others) have interpreted to mean that our passions sometimes overcome reason, in other words you imply that reason could in principle win out in the end. (The rider can under the right circumstances control the elephant.) But that isn’t what Hume is saying. He’s saying that *all* decisions are 100% driven by passion, that reason is merely calculation (logic, computation, if you like) and therefore has exactly zero force. Not very little force, but none at all. If a passion is overcome it is never by reason. Rather, if a passion is overcome, it must be by another passion or by some coalition of other passions. Reason is *only* a tool in the service of whatever passion deploys it. That said, nothing in your argument depends on this misunderstanding of Hume. And it would be easy to tweak it, to say that calmer passions (Hume’s phrase) can win out over the more violent passions if they are given a chance to deploy reason, to create and play out imaginative scenarios, and to respond to those scenarios, thereby gaining strength. Calmer passions can defeat violent passions.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this (and your other work), and your notion of an innate first draft sounds dead-on to me. Thanks.

    • deminthon says:

      You’re both wrong about Hume. The passions determine what we want; reason tells us how to get it.

    • Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

      Well, passions often are rational in the sense of rational choice theory. They HAVE to be. Otherwise they wouldn´t have been selected. Passion and reason are both ways of managing behavior. They are both adaptive onlu under different circumstances. The distintion is almost artificial. Passion and cold logic are both eays of reasoning. Logic is phylogenetically younger so it makes sense that passion usually wins over it,

      • deminthon says:

        “Well, passions often are rational in the sense of rational choice theory. They HAVE to be. Otherwise they wouldn´t have been selected.”

        Nonsense. The passions were selected so as to maximize the number of viable offspring (the measure of biological fitness). While that may be “rational” from the POV of the genome, that’s a different matter from rational wrt the interests of the individual.

        “Passion and cold logic are both eays of reasoning”

        Passion is not a way of reasoning, it’s a way of selecting goals.

        • Dan McShea says:

          Will deminthon accept a minor tweak? Agreed that passion is not a way of reasoning, and agreed that it has everything to do with goals. But suppose we say that passions *are* goals, rather than a way of selecting them.

          What do you think?

        • Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

          Hi, Demingthon

          Are you suggesting that human Reasoning has not been selected “so as to maximize the number of viable offspring (the measure of biological fitness)”??… Well, that is a bold claim!…

          In Economics Rational Agents are supposed to maximize Utility. There is a consensus among biologists so as to consider that Utlility in biological systems means Fitness (more or less as you defined it). So my claim is still applying: Reasoning and Passion are both ways of Rationality (according to the Rational Choice Theory).

          Every behavior that does not maximize relative fitness (regardless of the level of selection: gene, individual or group) will be selected out. Natural selection is not concerned about the “nature” of this behavior (whether Reason or Passion). May be Reason and Passion kind of “feel” different, but that is phenomenology, not science. Nature cannot care less about the distinction.

          You seem to claim that Passion is different from Reason because Passions are selected as selfish genes whereas Reason is selected for the good of the individual. I am not sure that can be true.

          On the other hand I don´t think I uderstand what you said about Passion as a way of selecting goals. It sounds interesting. But then, what is Reason? A way of achieving the goals previously selected by Passion?… Is there any evidence for this functional distinction?…

          • deminthon says:


            Not my name.

            “Are you suggesting”

            No. Fallacy off denial of the antecedent.

            “So my claim is still applying: Reasoning and Passion are both ways of Rationality (according to the Rational Choice Theory).”

            I already refuted it. Simply repeating it doesn’t change that.

            “May be Reason and Passion kind of “feel” different,”

            I’m not talking about how they feel, but rather what they do.

            “whereas Reason is selected for the good of the individual.”

            I said nothing of the sort.

            “what is Reason? A way of achieving the goals previously selected by Passion?…”


            “Is there any evidence for this functional distinction?”

            It’s what the words mean. Passions are about what we favor, reasoning is a process that derives conclusions. Reason tells me where I’ll end up if a take each of two roads, passion tells me whether I want to end up there.

          • Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

            So the distinction is not functional but, on the contrary, it is “by definition”. With “passions” I was referring to what Hidt named “gut feelings”. Some people think that gut feelings are kind of irrational, but that is not true. They only take into account different variables. They are “fast and frugal” whereas Reason is slower and more complex. If gut feelings drive any kind of behavior, that behavior must have been (at least in ancestral environments) highly rational.

            But all right: lets asume that Passion is the mechanism for selecting goals. Then, would you agree if I said that Passion is a RATIONAL way of selecting goals? (always according to Rational Choice Theory). Because there can be an arbitrary number of ways for selecting goals but only a small number of RATIONAL ways of doing that, natural selection must have favored the organisms capable of selecting goals in a fitness maximizing manner. This is: rational. Then it follows that Reason, according to your definition, would be a sufficingly rational way of achieving those goals.

            No need for refutations. The problema is only semantic.

            Anyway I find interesting the distinction you make: in fact it makes Passion and Reason complementary mechanisms. But on the other hand I think Passion and Reason often collide, and that is why people say that often “Passion wins over Reason”. In other words: I dont think everybody agrees with the distinction you make between Passion and Reason but I may be wrong, of course.

          • deminthon says:

            “Some people think that gut feelings are kind of irrational, but that is not true”

            They are nonrational or extra-rational. Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, for instance, cannot be viewed as rational without making a circular argument. We seek pleasure and avoid pain for inherent biological reasons. And we cannot choose what is pleasurable and what is painful … these are wired in. But we can employ reason to determine what will produce pleasure or pain and this guides us as to what to seek or avoid. If our biology were changed so that we liked what we now dislike and vice versa, the same reasoning processes would still be employed but would lead to inversed behaviors. Rationality is about accuracy … to be rational is to make correct inferences. “passions” are about preferences … what outcomes we desire. There is nothing rational about it because no outcomes are inherently, intrinsically, better than any others. evolution gives us those passions that lead us to propagate our genes, but many other passions are possible. It also gives us rational faculties that allow us to accurately judge which actions will satisfy our passions. Other species that depend on other faculties such as brute strength or speed or acute hearing or eyesight don’t need that rational process; we do because all those other faculties have been replaced in humans with planning — that’s what that big forebrain does.

          • deminthon says:

            “in fact it makes Passion and Reason complementary mechanisms.”

            They are, when best used together.

            “But on the other hand I think Passion and Reason often collide”

            When emotions overwhelm thinking so that thinking is short-circuited by emotions rather than serving them. This is part of our biological legacy, as it is necessary often to react swiftly and without deliberation. But humans are a deliberative species as no other species is, and most of modern civilized life is dominated by thinking, not reactive behavior, as constant immediate threats from our environment have been removed.

          • deminthon says:

            ” natural selection must have favored the organisms capable of selecting goals in a fitness maximizing manner. This is: rational. ”

            It’s not rational, it’s tautological … (Popper was confused by this and made the mistake of thinking that the theory of evolution is tautological, but it’s not) … because of how biological reproduction works, it is necessarily the case that those traits that best confer the ability to produce viable offspring in a given environment are those traits that are best preserved. But there’s no *goal* here, and no *choice* … organisms simply reproduce with various statistical frequencies and gene alleles are retained in the population with various statistical frequencies. It happens and could not not happen. We form a mathematical abstraction of the process and call it population fitness and such. Evolution does not choose outcomes, it doesn’t choose genes, natural selection doesn’t actually select anything … traits arise randomly via mutation and some persist — which we interpret as selection — more than others simply because they have what it takes to persist — they produce more viable offspring. It’s no more a rational process than the Peano Axioms rationally choosing which propositions are theorems of arithmetic.

  5. Sam Buchl says:

    Link to the cited queer couple, Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, in the 1971 film Diamonds are Forever:

    link to

  6. Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

    Political deology doesn´t have an evolutionary dynamics on its own. All cultural variants or memes evolve in a complex cultural environment. May be we should look into this environment in order to understand the selective pressures that are posited on different cultural variants and therefore understand their evolution.

    The topic about gay marriage is easy for me to understand. Gay people are proffesionally capable and above the average consumers (and tax payers). Our economic system somehow “conspires” to favor all cultural variants that can increase economic activity and growth in the short term. It is only logical that companies and governments are interested in giving gay people more freedom to be succesful and to cosume goods and services.

    This is even clearer with the shift of ideological positions regarding women entering the job market. As soon as women were physically able to perform the same kind of jobs than men, our economic system, short-sighted as it is, “saw” the opportunity of almost doubling the number of consumer-tax payers in much less tha one generation. Companies and political institutions tacitly agreed to Foster this ideological shift, using, as always, prestige bias first and conformity bias next.

    As a consequence couples had much more money to spend in goods, especially houses. Thus the real estate bubble was ready to go.

    The main problem is that as a consequence of this the rate of births has decreased alarmingly. Long term growth is at stake now. In case no one has noticed yet our economic crisis is in reality a demographic crisis.

  7. Viki says:

    Englihtening the world, one helpful article at a time.