New study finds evidence that political ambition can be genetically inherited from one’s parent

A new study on Swedish adoptees suggests that political candidacy is a heritable trait. The research, which appears in the journal Political Behavior, found that the likelihood of standing as a political candidate doubled if one’s parent had been a candidate.

“My research interest in general concerns how human behavior, especially political behavior, is formed by the interplay between social and genetic factors,” explained study author Sven Oskarsson of Uppsala University and the Uppsala Center for Labor Studies.

“A better understanding of these basic causes of differences in political behavior is fundamental for at least two reasons. The first is that politics and political activity is something that in a deeper sense is a characteristic of us as a species. Humans are, to quote Aristotle, political animals by nature. This means that a deeper understanding of how we think and act in political contexts is an important part of our understanding of ourselves.”

“A second reason why it is important to be better able to explain political behavior is of a more normative nature. It is often asserted that the essence of politics is power and power relationships. From this point of view, it is important to understand what explains why some citizens are more politically active than others. Put differently, a better understanding of the reasons for political participation is a precondition for creating a more equal society,” Oskarsson said.

Statistics Sweden, a government agency, maintains a database called the Multi-Generation Register that contains information on the biological parents of individuals. The database includes 10,717,814 non-adopted individuals and 155,865 adopted individuals.

The researchers analyzed this data, along with additional information regarding educational attainment, income, occupational status and political candidacy, to examine the intergenerational transmission of political behavior. Overall, the probability of being a political candidate was about 2.3%. But among adopted individuals whose biological parents were candidates, the probability of being a political candidate jumped up to about 5%.

“A first take-home point is that there is a strong parent–child transmission in the tendency to run for office. If you have a parent that ran for office, there is a much higher likelihood that you will also stand as a political candidate as an adult,” Oskarsson told PsyPost.

“Second, and more importantly, this intergenerational transmission in political candidacy status reflects both social and genetic factors. We used a sample of adopted children and their biological and adoptive parents to investigate this.”

“The results clearly suggest that having a biological parent who ran for office is a good predictor of the adoptee’s probability of running for office as adults, despite the fact that these children were adopted away early in life and have had no contact with their birth parents ever since. However, the results also indicate that adoptive parents’ political activity is a major source of intergenerational resemblance,” Oskarsson said.

All scientific research includes some limitations — and this study is no exception.

“Like other recent studies on the heritability of complex human behaviors this study takes a first important step by showing that political candidacy is caused by both social and genetic factors. However, it is even more important to take further steps and investigate how social and political traits are shaped by the interplay between genes and environment,” Oskarsson explained.

“They arise when the type or magnitude of the effect of a genetic factor depends on the environmental conditions in which it is expressed. In our case we can suspect, for example, that a predisposition toward political engagement may only matter under the right environmental circumstances. However, the knowledge of how these so called gene-by-environment interactions actually work is currently limited: what genetic factors interact with what social, economic and political factors, and how?”

The findings indicate that political candidacy may be a genetically influenced trait. However, any genetic influence is just one factor among many that contribute to an individual’s decision to run for public office.

“It is important to note that our results do not signal genetic determinism. Our finding that biological parents’ behavior is a strong predictor of political candidacy among adoptees does not mean that there is direct causal link between a set of genetic factors and an individual’s propensity to run for office. Any genetic effect on a complex behavior such as running for office will undoubtedly be mediated by a large set of factors, some of which are malleable,” Oskarsson added.

“It is also important to stress that omitting the genetic part of intergenerational transmission – that is, failing to take into account that we are not only raised by our parents, but we also inherit a combination of their DNA – neglects an integral part of the explanation of social and political traits because genetic differences between individuals not only add to social and environmental influences but also co-vary and interact with them in complex ways.”

“Consequently, considering genetic influences by no means negates social influences, but rather provides an additional layer of explanation that can substantially improve our understanding of how they work. As such, it can also aid in developing more effective policies that deal with the social roots and consequences of social and political inequality,” Oskarsson said.

The study, “It Runs in the Family: A Study of Political Candidacy Among Swedish Adoptees“, was authored by Sven Oskarsson, Christopher T. Dawes, and Karl-Oskar Lindgren.