THE POLITICS OF THE GENE: SOCIAL STATUS AND BELIEFS ABOUT GENETICS FOR INDIVIDUAL OUTCOMESIn other words, fewer blacks and Latinos have been fully indoctrinated during higher education in the elite Science Denialist conventional wisdom.
Bruce G. Link
Jo C. Phelan
Social scientists have predicted that individuals who occupy socially privileged positions or who have conservative political orientations are most likely to endorse the idea that genes are the root cause of differences among individuals. Drawing on a nationally representative sample of the US population, this study examines belief in the importance of genes for understanding individual differences in a series of broad domains: physical illness, serious mental illness, intelligence, personality, and success in life. We also assess whether the belief that genetics are important for these outcomes is more common among those in relatively advantaged positions or among those who are more politically conservative. … Contrary to expectations, however, we find little evidence that it is more common for whites, the socioeconomically advantaged, or political conservatives to believe that genetics are important for health and social outcomes.
… Social scientists have warned that beliefs about genetic causation will promote “essentialism” (Alper and Beckwith 1993; Lippman 1992; Nelkin and Lindee 1995), “naturalize” differential treatment, (Condit and Bates 2005; Duster 2003a, b; Nelkin and Lindee 1995), and provide “legitimating myths” that justify existing inequalities (Jayaratne et al. 2006). Relatedly, some analysts have argued that beliefs in genetic causation are likely to resonate most strongly with the world views of people who occupy socially privileged positions or who have conservative political orientations (Jayaratne et al. 2006; Nelkin and Lindee 1995).
… Social psychological literature on the tendencies of individuals to exhibit self-serving cognitive biases might then lead us to infer that genetic explanations of outcomes will be most appealing to those already in positions of privilege. Moreover, we predict that groups which have historically been denigrated, marginalized, and disenfranchised based on alleged genetic inferiority will be less likely to make genetic attributions. This leads to two specific hypotheses:
Hypothesis 3. People of higher socioeconomic status will regard genetic makeup as more important for individual outcomes than people of lower status.
Hypothesis 4: African Americans and Latinos will regard genetic makeup as less important for individual outcomes than do whites.
In addition to differences by socioeconomic status and race, previous speculation about the relationship between genetic attributions and ideology might also lead us to expect that genetic explanations will be regarded more favorably among those with conservative political orientation.
Hypothesis 5: People who identify as political conservatives will perceive genetic differences as more important for determining individual outcomes than those who are politically liberal….
The Genetics, Disease, and Stigma survey (GDS) is a telephone interview of 1,241 respondents conducted in 2002-3.
… We did not find as we expected that those in positions of social disadvantage are more skeptical of genetic explanations (Hypothesis 4). Instead, blacks, Latinos, and those who had not been to college all rated genetic makeup on average as more important for attributes than did whites and more educated individuals. Only among those with a high-school education or less do blacks and Latinos report stronger genetic beliefs than whites. Among whites, we found no relationship between level of education and belief in genetic causation.
In testing our hypothesis about political orientation (Hypothesis 5), we found that there was not a tendency for the importance of genetic makeup to be endorsed more by either liberals or conservatives.
We also hypothesized that individuals occupying disadvantaged social statuses would be relatively more skeptical of genetic explanations for success in life (Hypotheses 3 and 4). Instead, those with no college rated genetic makeup as relatively more important for success in life than did respondents with some college. Similarly, blacks and Latinos were not more skeptical of genetic explanations for success in life, but rather both groups instead reported genetic makeup as relatively more important for success in life than the other outcomes (for Latinos, significantly so). However, blacks did report that genetic makeup was relatively less important for intelligence than did whites, which might reflect the particularly troubled history of discussions about genetics and the intelligence of blacks. This result was the only instance in our analyses in which a socially disadvantaged group evinced a pattern suggestive of greater aversion to genetic explanation. Apart from this, we find little evidence for either Hypothesis 3 or 4.
Although we did not hypothesize that gender would have specific effects on assessment of genetic causation, we note that women are more likely than men to endorse genetic explanations for personality, intelligence, and success in life, relative to their endorsement of such explanations for physical or mental illness. …
… Consequently, there is good reason to be concerned that essentializing ideologies would resonate strongly with the beliefs of substantial proportions of the US population, including those who historically have been harmed and disadvantaged by such ideologies.
… The divergence in responses by less educated African-American and Latino respondents may reflect their lower adherence to (and perhaps lower exposure to) this prevailing cultural schema. Since institutions of higher education are central to the socialization of individuals to dominant cultural beliefs about the causes of individual health and social outcomes, it is possible that having less education, especially for African Americans and Latinos, may be particularly consequential for differences in the patterns of their genetic attributions (c.f. Phelan et al.1995).