Skip to main content Accessibility help

Discord Over DNA: Ideological Responses to Scientific Communication about Genes and Race 1

  • Alexandre Morin-Chassé (a1), Elizabeth Suhay (a2) and Toby E. Jayaratne (a3)


The American public's beliefs about the causes of social inequality vary greatly, with debates over the causes of racial inequality tending to be the most salient and divisive. Among whites in particular, liberals tend to see inequality as rooted in society's ills, whereas conservatives tend to see inequality as rooted in individuals’ shortcomings. Given this, many infer that white conservatives are more likely than white liberals to adopt the controversial view that racial inequality is “natural,” i.e., due to genetically inherited characteristics. We argue that genetic explanations for racial inequality, in and of themselves, offer little appeal to white conservatives. However, when white citizens are exposed to media messages that emphasize the egalitarian implications of genetic similarity between racial groups, those on the left and right engage in biased assimilation, resulting in a “nature” (conservative) versus “nurture” (liberal) divide. Data from two studies of white Americans—one representative survey and one experiment—support this theoretical framework.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Elizabeth Suhay, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, School of Public Affairs, American University, Washington, D.C. E-mail:


Hide All

Authors’ Note: The first two authors contributed equally to this article.



Hide All
ANES (American National Election Study). 2014. 2008–2009 Panel Study [dataset]. Stanford University and the University of Michigan.
Angier, Natalie. 2000. “Do Races Differ? Not Really, Genes Show,” New York Times, 22:F1.
Banks, Antoine J., and Valentino, Nicholas A.. 2012. “Emotional Substrates of White Racial Attitudes.” American Journal of Political Science 56 (2): 286–97.
Blank, Joshua M., and Shaw, Daron. 2015. “Does Partisanship Shape Attitudes Towards Science and Public Policy? The Case for Ideology and Religion.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658 (1): 1835.
Bliss, Catherine. 2015. “Science and Struggle Emerging Forms of Race and Activism in the Genomic Era.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 661 (1): 86108.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2014. Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, Fourth Edition. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Bowers, Jake. 2011. “Making Effects Manifest in Randomized Experiments.” In Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Political Science, eds. Kuklinski, James H., Druckman, James N., Green, Donald P., and Lupia, Arthur. New York: Cambridge. pp. 459–80.
Brewer, Mark D., and Stonecash, Jeffrey M.. 2015. Polarization and the Politics of Personal Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brickman, Philip, Carulli Rabinowitz, Vita, Karuza, Jurgis Jr., Coates, Dan, Cohn, Ellen, and Kidder, Louise. 1982. “Models of Helping and Coping.” American Psychologist 37 (4): 368–84.
Brown, Tony N., Akiyama, Mark K., White, Ismail K., Epstein Jayaratne, Toby, and Anderson, Elizabeth S.. 2009. “Differentiating Contemporary Racial Prejudice from Old-Fashioned Racial Prejudice.” Race and Social Problems 1 (2): 97110.
Byrd, W. Carson, and Ray, Victor E.. 2015. “Ultimate Attribution in the Genetic Era White Support for Genetic Explanations of Racial Difference and Policies.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 661 (1): 212–35.
Conrad, Peter. 2002. “The Double-Edged Helix: Social Implications of Genetics in a Diverse Society.” In Genetics and Behavior in the News: Dilemmas of a Rising Paradigm, eds. Asch, Adrienne, Beckwith, Jon, Conrad, Peter, Alper, Joseph S., Ard, Catherine, and Geller, Lisa N.. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 5879.
Converse, Philip E. 1964. “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics”. In Ideology and Discontent, ed. Apter, David E.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press pp. 206–61.
Dar-Nimrod, Ilan, and Heine, Steven J.. 2011. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin 137 (5): 800–18.
Dawson, Michael C. 2003. Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dilliplane, Susanna, Goldman, Seth K., and Mutz, Diana C.. 2013. “Televised Exposure to Politics: New Measures for a Fragmented Media Environment.” American Journal of Political Science 57 (1): 236–48.
Feldman, Stanley. 2013. “Political Ideology.” In The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, 2nd ed., vol. 2, eds. Sears, David O., Huddy, Leonie, and Levy, Jack S.. New York: Oxford University Press, 591626.
Garretson, Jeremiah, and Suhay, Elizabeth. 2016. “Scientific Communication about Biological Influences on Homosexuality and the Politics of Gay Rights.” Political Research Quarterly 69: 1729.
Gauchat, Gordon. 2012. “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.” American Sociological Review 77 (2): 167–87.
Goldman, Seth K., Mutz, Diana C., and Dilliplane, Susanna. 2013. “All Virtue is Relative: A Response to Prior.” Political Communication 30 (4): 635–53.
Haider-Markel, Donald P., and Joslyn, Mark R.. 2008. “Beliefs About the Origins of Homo-sexuality and Support For Gay Rights An Empirical Test of Attribution Theory.” Public Opinion Quarterly 72 (2): 291310.
Haider-Markel, Donald P., and Joslyn, Mark R.. 2014. “‘Nanny State’ Politics: Causal Attributions about Obesity and Support for Regulation.” American Politics Research. Online First.
Hart, P. Sol, and Nisbet, Erik C.. 2011. “Boomerang Effects in Science Communication: How Motivated Reasoning and Identity Cues Amplify Opinion Polarization About Climate Mitigation Policies.” Communication Research 39: 701–23.
Herrnstein, Richard J., and Murray, Charles. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.
Hochschild, Jennifer, and Sen, Maya. 2015a. “Genetic Determinism, Technology Optimism, and Race: Views of the American Public.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 661 (September): 160–80.
Hochschild, Jennifer, and Sen, Maya. 2015b. “Technology Optimism or Pessimism about Genomic Science: Variation among Experts and Scholarly Disciplines.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658 (March): 236–52.
Hofstadter, Richard. 2006. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hunt, Matthew O. 2007. “African American, Hispanic, and White Beliefs about Black/White Inequality, 1977–2004.” American Sociological Review 72 (3): 390415.
Iyengar, Shanto. 1991. Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jacoby, Russell, and Glauberman, Naomi, eds. 1995. The Bell Curve Debate: History, Documents, Opinions. New York: Random House.
Jayaratne, Toby Epstein, Ybarra, Oscar, Sheldon, Jane P., Brown, Tony N., Feldbaum, Merle, Pfeffer, Carla A. and Petty, Elizabeth M.. 2006. “White Americans Genetic Lay Theories of Race Differences and Sexual Orientation: Their Relationship with Prejudice toward Blacks, and Gay Men and Lesbians.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 9 (1): 7794.
Jost, John T., Glaser, Jack, Kruglanski, Arie W., and Sulloway, Frank J.. 2003. “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” Psychological Bulletin 129 (3): 339.
Kahan, Dan M. 2011. “Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law.” Harvard Law Review 125 (1): 178.
Kahan, Dan M. 2013. “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection.” Judgment & Decision Making 8: 407–24.
Kahan, Dan M. 2015. “Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem.” Advances in Political Psychology 36 (S1): 143.
Kinder, Donald R., and Sanders, Lynn M.. 1996. Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kluegel, James R., and Smith, Eliot R.. 1986. Beliefs about Inequality: Americans’ Views of What Is and What Ought to Be. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine De Gruyter.
Kraft, Patrick W., Lodge, Milton, and Taber, Charles S.. 2015. “Why People Don't Trust the Evidence Motivated Reasoning and Scientific Beliefs.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658 (1): 121–33.
Kreuter, Frauke, Presser, Stanley, and Tourangeau, Roger. 2008. “Social Desirability Bias in CATI, IVR, and Web Surveys: The Effects of Mode and Question Sensitivity.” Public Opinion Quarterly 72 (5): 847–65.
Kunda, Ziva. 1990. “The Case for Motivated Reasoning.” Psychological Bulletin 108 (3): 480–98.
Lewontin, R. C., Rose, Steven, and Kamin, Leon J.. 1984. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature. New York: Pantheon Books.
Lodge, Milton, and Taber, Charles S.. 2013. The Rationalizing Voter. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lord, Charles S., Ross, Lee, and Lepper, Mark. 1979. “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37: 2098–109.
Matthews, Dylan. 2016. “The alt-right is more than warmed-over white supremacy. It's that, but way way weirder.”
McKie, Robin. 2001. “Revealed: The Secret of Human Behaviour.” The Guardian, February 10.
Morgan, G. Scott, Mullen, Elizabeth, and Skitka, Linda J.. 2010. “When Values and Attributions Collide: Liberals and Conservatives Values Motivate Attributions for Alleged Misdeeds.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36: 1241–54.
Morin-Chassé, Alexandre. 2014. “Public (Mis)understanding of News about Behavioral Genetics Research: A Survey Experiment.” BioScience 64 (12): 1170–77.
Neville, Helen A., Lilly, Roderick L., Duran, Georgia, Lee, Richard M., and Browne, LaVonne. 2000. “Construction and Initial Validation of the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS).” Journal of Counseling Psychology 47 (1): 5970.
NHGRI (National Human Genome Research Institute). 2012. “Remarks Made by the President, Prime Minister Tony Blair of England (via satellite), Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and Dr. Craig Venter, President and Chief Scientific Officer, Celera Genomics Corporation, on the Completion of the First Survey of the Entire Human Genome Project.” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary.
Nisbet, Erik C., Cooper, Kathryn E., and Garrett, R. Kelly. 2015. “The Partisan Brain: How Dissonant Science Messages Lead Conservatives and Liberals to (Dis)Trust Science.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658 (1): 3666.
Nisbet, Matthew C., and Scheufele, Dietram A.. 2009. “What's Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions.” American Journal of Botany 96 (10): 1767–78.
Noel, Hans. 2013. Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pettigrew, Thomas F. 1979. “The Ultimate Attribution Error: Extending Allports Cognitive Analysis of Prejudice.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 5 (4): 461–76.
Phelan, Jo C., Link, Bruce G., and Feldman, Naumi M.. 2013. “The Genomic Revolution and Beliefs about Essential Racial Differences A Backdoor to Eugenics?American Sociological Review 78: 167–91.
Ross, Lee. 1977. “Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.” In The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process, vol. 10, ed. Berkowitz, Leonard. New York, NY: Academic Press, 173220.
Segerstrale, Ullica. 2000. Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press.
Shen, Francis X., and Gromet, Dena M.. 2015. “Red States, Blue States, and Brain States Issue Framing, Partisanship, and the Future of Neurolaw in the United States.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658 (1): 86101.
Skitka, Linda J., Mullen, Elizabeth, Griffin, Thomas, Hutchinson, Susan, and Chamberlin, Brian. 2002. “Dispositions, Scripts, or Motivated Correction? Understanding Ideological Differences in Explanations for Social Problems.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (2): 470–87.
Sniderman, Paul M., Brody, Richard A., and Tetlock, Philip E.. 1991. Reasoning and Choice: Explorations in Political Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Stroud, Natalie Jomini. 2011. Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Suhay, Elizabeth, and Jayaratne, Toby Epstein. 2013. “Does Biology Justify Ideology? The Politics of Genetic Attribution.” Public Opinion Quarterly 77 (2): 497521.
Weiner, Bernard. 1995. Judgments of Responsibility: A Foundation for a Theory of Social Conduct. New York: Guilford Press.
Weiner, Bernard, Osborne, Danny, and Rudolph, Udo. 2011. “An Attributional Analysis of Reactions to Poverty: The Political Ideology of the Giver and the Perceived Morality of the Receiver.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15: 199213.
Zaller, John R. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Discord Over DNA: Ideological Responses to Scientific Communication about Genes and Race 1

  • Alexandre Morin-Chassé (a1), Elizabeth Suhay (a2) and Toby E. Jayaratne (a3)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.