The Genetic Basis of Risk-Seeking

Question: What is sensory deprivation?

Marvin Zuckerman: Sensory deprivation is where you put people in dark, sound-proof rooms, or water tanks. People were becoming aware that we needed sensation stimulation, variation stimulation almost as much as we need food and water and so forth. It’s a basic need. Deprivation of this kind of stimulation led to some very uncomfortable states.

So we asked, is there a personality trait that some people need more stimulation or more variety or intensity of stimulation than others? That’s when we developed our first sensation-seeking scale. Subsequently that expanded and became the main focus of my research. We were surprised by how many things were affected by this trait, sensation-seeking. Then we got interested in the biological basis, the genetic biological basis and here again, we had some very interesting findings pointing to the fact that this is a very fundamental trait with biological roots.

Question: How much of the sensation-seeking trait is determined genetically?

Marvin Zuckerman: Well this is determined from twin studies called Biometrics of Behavior Genetics actually. Using these twin studies we initially found that roughly 60% inheritability. In heritability is the proportion of the variance in a trait that is determined by genetics. We discovered there was 60% -- which is very high for a personality trait which generally runs between 30% and 50%. So, 60% is high for a personality trait. Well, it’s higher for intelligence and some other traits. This was established not only using twins raised together but twins raised apart showing that it wasn’t due to the fact of sharing a stimulating environment let’s say. There’s an environmental aspect of the remaining 40%, **** error of measurement, but some of it is due to environment. But it’s not the shared; what we called the shared environment, shared in the family. It’s due to the non-shared environment which means your friends, peers or your unique life experiences that you don’t share with other people in your family.

Question: Was sensation-seeking a factor in human evolution?

Marvin Zuckerman: Well we can surmise that particularly since a particular gene has been found to be related to sensation-seeking, a dopamine receptor gene. So that means it’s been there a long time. Well, actually they estimate though that it’s been – not all evolution maybe 50,000-100,000 years old in our species, this particular gene but there may be genes that are older even. But you see this in other – the point is, you see what I call emalogues of sensation-seeking behavior in other species. In fact, a lot of my work is compared sensation-seeking expressions exploration approach to novelty in other species. And I explored to the extent that do they have the same biological roots in humans and in other species. So, in that sense we look at evolution – we have a modern test of evolution when you can find something that exists in humans in earlier species, particularly primates ****, but also even in rats, when you can find this and it’s linked to the same biological indicators in both humans and other animals. That indicates it has an evolutionary history rather it’s more than merely an analogy. Well this looks like what we do. But it’s more than that, it’s the fact that it looks like sensation-seeking and has the same biological roots.

Question: Does the presence of this behavior vary across ages?

Marvin Zuckerman: I would say the age differences are somewhat larger if you’re looking at the extremes. I would say like of about sixty-sixty-five a male would have half the sensation-seeking score that he had when he was in his late-teens and early-twenties. So that's pretty much of a decline. The male-female differences are constant across age, but perhaps not as large. I want to talk about sex differences in traits. We’re always talking about a lot of overlap or talking about population differences. People always say, “I know someone who’s female, but has a very high sensation-seeking.” Of course, there’s variation within both genders. Just the overall population difference is different.

A clinical psychologist explains the biological basis of novelty-seeking behavior and its importance in evolutionary history.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.