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Lean to the Left? It May Be Mommy's Fault

By Martin Salazar
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Researchers at the University of New Mexico think they know why aunt Bertha is an ACLU-card-carrying liberal while cousin Winthrop is a rifle-toting conservative.
    Blame it on their parents.
    A new paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that those who have experienced stresses in childhood— divorce, family violence, angry parents— are more likely to be liberal. Conservatives, meanwhile, are more likely to have had less stressful childhoods.
    The study, conducted by UNM biology professor Randy Thornhill and research associate Corey Fincher, ties political values to how people were raised and the interactions between children and their parents and between the parents.
    Their findings appear to ring true for the executive director of the state's Democratic Party.
    "I'm the only child of divorced parents. What more can I say," Matt Farrauto said.
    The study was based on responses to a questionnaire filled out by 123 UNM students.
    Those who reported having low-stress childhoods were more likely to have formed strong attachments to their parents and to be conservative, the study found. Those who experienced more stressful childhoods were more likely to have weaker attachments to their parents and to be liberal.
    "We've all got this psychological mechanism in our brain that reads the environment," Thornhill said.
    He added there's likely an evolutionary reason for being liberal versus conservative.
    People with good childhoods would naturally want to maintain their values and their sense of right and wrong because things are working for them, Thornhill explained.
    Those who had difficult childhoods would be open to new experiences and would be willing to venture out of their own circles, he said.
    The study classified liberals as those who tend to value diversity, imagination, intellectualism, logic and scientific progress.
    They are open to new experiences; disobedient— even rebellious— rule breakers; sensation seekers and pleasure seekers; socially and economically egalitarian; and risk prone.
    Conservatives are classified as those who value order, structure, closure, family and national security, salvation, sexual restraint and self control.
    They try to avoid change, novelty, unpredictability, ambiguity and complexity.
    "I think it potentially will open up some new avenues of research," Thornhill said.
    Professor Steven Gangestad, an evolutionary psychologist at UNM, said the study, while not conclusive about cause and effect, sets forth something that should be explored.
    "I think this is an exciting and interesting direction of work," he said. "It's just the start."
    The research was featured in stories in the Economist and the United Kingdom-based Telegraph. The Economist story, however, noted that the UNM study conflicts with findings published last year by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.
    Those researchers concluded that insecure and fearful children were more likely to grow up into conservatives, while confident youths were more likely to become liberals, according to the Economist.