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Evolutionary Origins of Political Ideology: Mating Strategies, Intergroup Conflict, and the Nature of Political Alliances


Democracy is new, but politics is older than the human species. In three empirical studies (Chapters 1, 2, and 4) and one theoretical paper (Chapter 3), I integrate research in evolutionary biology with research on political attitudes. The first half of the dissertation applies insights from the evolutionary biology of alternative mating strategies to research on attitudes toward gay rights and abortion policy. I argue that liberal and conservative positions on these issues stem from conflicting mating strategies interacting with specific representations about how these policies, along the groups associated with them, relate to sexual promiscuity. In Chapter 1, I test whether stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous interact with mating strategies (i.e. short-term mating orientation) to predict attitudes toward gay rights. In Chapter 2, I test whether beliefs about the effects of abortion policy on sexual promiscuity—which I refer to as “deterrence beliefs”—interact with mating strategies to predict opposition to abortion. Both hypotheses received empirical support and shed light on the psychological underpinnings of policy preferences. In Chapter 3, I apply insights from the evolutionary biology of alliances and coalitions to examine political ideologies more broadly. I argue that humans, like other social primates, possess a suite of cognitive adaptations for developing alliances with other individuals and groups based on cues of similarity (e.g. common traits), transitivity (e.g. common enemies), and instrumentality (e.g. common goals). Unlike other primates, humans form complex alliances with overlapping social groups, and apply a suite of cognitive biases designed to defend their allies in conflicts. When partisans apply biases to the demographic groups associated with their political party, they generate biased narratives that form the contents of ideologies (see Chapter 3). In Chapter 4, I test a variety of the predictions entailed by this approach—referred to as the Alliance Theory—using data from the American National Election Study (ANES). I test whether or not the Alliance Theory has better predictive power than alternative approaches—i.e. those at emphasize individual differences in egalitarianism—across a range of different policy disputes. Across all policies examined, the results supported the Alliance Theory and pose a challenge to alternative theories. Taken together, the four chapters yield insights into the origins of political disagreement, and they highlight the utility of taking an evolutionary approach to political psychology.

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