brain and behaviour

Were we Born to Brexit?

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Science reveals fascinating link between our biology and the Brexit vote.

On 23rd of June 2016, 46.5 million people took to the polls across the UK and cast their vote in the European Union (EU) referendum (Electoral Commission, 2016). Less than 24 hours later the world woke up to an unexpected result with unprecedented

domestic and international implications. A democratic majority of 51.9% had voted to ‘leave’ the EU (Electoral Commission, 2016). The ‘decision of a divided country’ (Dorling, 2016) had been delivered, handing the UK government a

mandate to initiate and negotiate Britain’s exit from the union. ‘Brexit’ was born. Since then we have heard from the ‘Leavers’ and the ‘Remainers’. But the question nobody’s asking is – where were the Abstainers?!

Our politics really is a part of us – at the very deepest level. 

(Weinschenk & Dawes, 2018). 

Despite the record-breaking turnout on in 2016, there were 10 million people who did not cast a vote in the EU referendum (Electoral Commission, 2016). And you might well ask why.

Choosing to vote of course is every citizen’s right, but Under the Microscope has discovered that beneath the surface, our biological differences play a significant role in political participation. 

It would seem that politics really is ‘part’ of us – at the very deepest level.  (Weinschenk & Dawes, 2018). 

To explore this further, we turn to behavioural genetics, and explore the relationship between our biology and behaviour (Pinel & Barnes, 2014). Behavioural genetics is an example of biopsychology at its best, investigating an integrated, three-way relationship between our microscopic make-up,brain activity and social behaviours (Funk, 2013). Within this field there has been a growing interest in ‘geneopolitics’, specifically investigating the influence of genes on political behaviour (Dawes & Fowler, 2009) And on the hunt for heritability, here’s what they’ve found…

“Biopsychology is the scientific study of the biology of behaviour”(Pinel & Barnes, 2014. P28.)

Political traits are on average 40% heritable*

As political engagement and orientation tends to run in families, our individual politics has historically been considered a product of our environment, nurtured by the beliefs, attitudes and actions of those within our closest social circles (Settle, Dawes, Christakis, & Fowler, 2010)

But now a growing number of studies agree that our political differences are on average 40% heritable *(Beattie, 2017), with political orientation (Alford, Funk & Hibbing 2005; Hatemi,2007: Hate-mi et al., 2011) and political opinions (Alford, Funk, & Hibbing, 2005) (Dawes et al.,2014) both significantly linked to specific genetic factors.

This should not surprise us, as rates of heritability spanning a host of individual differences have consistently converged to suggest genetics account for between 40-80% of variance when it comes to human traits (Pinel& Barnes, 2014). But how could we inherit a propensity for political participation? The Human Genome holds the answers.

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The Human Genome

Mirjam Nilsson

Genes are tiny units of inheritance found within our DNA, that have been passed down to us from our biological parents. (Pinel, & Barnes, 2014). 

Each of us has more than 20,000 genes and thanks to The Human Genome Project, scientists have developed plenty of methods for investigating them. 99% of those genes are shared across the species and make us human, with the remaining 1% providing a genetic blueprint for our own unique, individual differences and traits (Raine, 2013). It is this 1% that behavioural geneticists focus on when searching for relationships between our DNA and political participation. That puts the findings to follow in perspective. On the one hand it has been argued that geneopolitics delivers nothing more than misleading microscopic happenstance (Charney & English, 2012). On the other, however, is a very compelling case for heritability.  (Weinschenk & Dawes, 2018).

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In 2008, Dawes and Fowler carried out a genetic study to investigate associations between genes and voter turnout amongst two sets of twins. (Dawes & Fowler,2008)

Given the size of the human genome, these studies carefully consider which sections they are going to search before they begin. Fowler and Dawes (2008) decided to focus on two genes called MAOA and 5-HTT, as they had been linked to social behaviours in the past (Raine, 2013; Craig, 2007).

The results were fascinating. Across the 2,300 twins involved, both genes were found to be significantly associated with voting behaviours, providing “the first results ever to link specific genes to political behaviour” (Fowler & Dawes, 2008, p579).  In fact, they had stumbled upon two key findings at once: first that there was a strong case for a heritable, genetic influence on political participation; second they had uncovered a curious interaction. In the case of the 5-HTT gene, the positive influence on voting was only evident when combined with a key environmental factor – church attendance (Fowler and Dawes, 2008). Genes, it would seem, couldn’t account for everything. To be sure that DNA really was a driving factor in voter turn-out, the findings would need to be replicable. If the link Fowler and Dawes had found was genuine, that shouldn’t be a problem. 

According to Charney and English (2012), however, replicability is a big ask from genetic association studies at the best of times, given the sheer number of biological variations involved. The pair (Charney and English, 2012) were also quick to criticise Fowler and Dawes (2008) over the methods in their study, which took participants’ word for it on whether they voted, rather than using actual voting records and  involves a sample that was not culturally diverse – increasing the chances that common  ancestry had inflated results. Indeed, when Charney and English revisited the same data to improve on the original methods,  they could not replicate the results linking these genes to political participation.

Fowler and Dawes presented the first results ever to link specific genes to political  behaviour in 2008.

(Fowler & Dawes, 2008, p579).  

They claimed this proved that the findings of Fowler and Dawes were nothing more than a fluke, commenting that,

“The chance any complex human behaviour, such as voting, might have one or two major disposing  genes is practically zero.” 

(Charney & English, 2012) 

The story, however, did not end there. In 2013, Deppe and colleagues (Deppe, Stoltenberg, Smith, & Hibbing, 2013) sought to settle the score.

Using a completely different group of participants and more stringent measures, they decided to find out whether the 5-HTT gene really was related to voting. Using a random sample of 342 people, DNA samples were compared with evidence of political engagement from government records, spanning 4 years and six elections. The results?! A scientific gold standard – Replication. 5-HTT was once again significantly related to voting. And once again, it was curiously strengthened when coupled with church attendance. Nature and nurture, it would seem, cannot be separated that easily.

But how might a microscopic gene motivate people towards the polling station? Here comes the neuroscience…

A cell in the brain called a neuron. Neurons use neurotransmitters such as serotonin to send signals to each other (Pinel, 2014). https://


The reason for this association may lie in the role that the gene 5-HTT plays in supporting the steady balance and effective transportation of a neurotransmitter called serotonin throughout the brain (Krebs, Weinberg, Akesson, & Dilli, 2017). By supporting communications between brain cells, there is strong evidence that the serotonin system plays a significant role in our social behaviours and characteristics (Baliciuniene & Jazin, 2001; Raine, 2013; Jost, Nam & Amodio, 2014). Given that the act of voting is considered a ‘prosocial’ behaviour (Beattie, 2017) i.e. it is undertaken to benefit wider society, the association between people with particularly efficient 5-HTT genes and higher engagement in the voting process certainly seems plausible (Deppe, 2013).

The deciding vote…

What then, can we conclude? Were those who abstained from voting in the EU referendum simply missing ‘The Voting Gene’? It’s unlikely. But perhaps those of us with efficient MAOA and 5-HTT genes were more likely to turn out…we will never know.

Whilst there certainly is significant support for the role that genes play in our personal political beliefs and behaviours, they cannot

0f course wholly account for complex behaviors like political participation (Settle et al., 2010). Perhaps the key take-away is that beneath the skin of Brexit – we’re not so much divided, as biologically different. Which is exactly the way nature intended it.


Alford, J. R., Funk, C. L., & Hibbing, J. R. (2005). Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted? (Vol. 7). Retrieved from

brain and behaviour learning undergraduate work experience

Salford Research Team Win BPS Psychobiology Section Summer Internship 2015

The team of psychologists (Simon Cassidy, Rob Bendall, Lynne Marrow and Adam Galpin), based in the Directorate of Psychology and Public Health, will be working with student intern Sarah Lambert. Sarah has recently completed her second year on the BSc Psychology (Hons) programme and will be spending the summer working on a project investigating brain imaging and eye-movements as markers of cognitive style. Sarah will be posting here regularly to keep you up to date with her experiences as an intern.


#1 – The experiences of a Psych intern….


So the first day of my BPS Psychobiology Summer Internship arrived and I had no idea what to expect. To my utter relief I was not ordered to stand up and recount an in depth analysis of cognitive style and biological markers, whilst drafting a detailed sketch of the anatomy of the brain. Nor have I been sent to fetch cups of tea or deliver dry-cleaning. Thanks to the support and reassurance I’ve received from my supervisors, my apprehension has been overshadowed by excitement, and I am thoroughly enjoying my first week as an intern.

My highlights of the week so far include one-to-one training sessions with Rob Bendall on building cognitive experiments in E-Prime (its easy once you know how!), literature searching and a very very handy tutorial from Roy Vickers on how to get the best out of SOLAR.

I’ll be sure to post regular updates of my ongoing experiences and hopefully give you a glimpse of what it’s like taking the first steps into the exciting world of psychological research.



#2 – The experiences of a Psych intern….



So here’s where it gets really interesting! This week I’ve been introduced to the lab and the impressive experimental setup that Rob Bendall has created. My initial thought was “this looks incredibly complicated and very expensive – don’t touch ANYTHING”. And a complex system it is. Simultaneously gathering data from eye-tracking, fNIRS brain imaging and E-Prime software, the set-up relies on an extraordinary amount of technology to ensure the experiment runs smoothly. The test data extracted during training sessions, although not relevant to the study, personally makes for interesting viewing.The very fact that internal processes can be converted into visual representations still amazes me.



Additional tasks this week have included finalising posters and information sheets in preparation for recruitment and drawing up the first draft of the abstract. This has been an education in itself. It’s surprisingly difficult to prepare an abstract without any preliminary data, but I am assured that if I pursue a career in psychological research that this will not be the first and last time I’m in this predicament!


With the help of my co-researchers and some very patient guinea pigs I’ve managed to (almost) master the experimental procedure and I’m keen to get this show on the road. We finally have confirmation of ethical approval and so recruitment can start in earnest. Next stop data collection…………… Look out for posters around the psychology Directorate if you want more information on the study of would like to participate.


#3 – The experiences of a Psych intern


Only three weeks in to the project my position as an intern has taught me more than I ever could have imagined. I began my journey excited at the prospect that this experience was going to be fantastic opportunity to learn more about the mechanics of a research project. On reflection, my initial focus was how lucky I was to have one-to-one training on the lab equipment, and I was eager to learn more about brain imaging and eye-tracking. I didn’t realise that it would offer me something much more valuable – the chance to glimpse into the future and define my own career aspirations. From literature searching, data collection, writing, planning and networking – I’m thoroughly enjoying the variety of my role.





There is now no doubt in my mind that my future will be solidly grounded in research. Hopefully this blog will give me the platform to not only share my experience, but to show students the opportunities that are out there for us all.


As a student you are forever told to go out and get some work experience or engage in voluntary work “because it will look fantastic on your C.V. “. Of course it will give you the edge, but there is a more important and more pressing reason that you should consider stepping out of your comfort zone and gaining some work experience. Your journey through higher education and ultimately the career path you subsequently follow is determined by decisions you make – equip yourself the best way you can by learning what it is that you actually enjoy. Work experience is more than gaining an advantage over other graduates – it’s an opportunity to discover your own strengths and find the career path that is right for YOU. Whether your interests lie in psychological research, mental health, counseling or the criminal mind, there are opportunities to suit everybody. You just have to find them.


#4 – Experiences of a Psych intern…


Data collection is well underway and I’m beginning to get a real taste of what a career in research would entail.



My schedule is getting progressively busier as data collection, data analysis and poster preparation are all in progress, and my organisational skills are truly being put to the test. The process of data collection has been a rewarding, informative and at times even a frustrating experience. I get a certain satisfaction from each and every successful appointment, knowing that the success of the project hinges on gathering reliable data. I can’t help but take it personally when equipment failures interfere with my quest to collect useable data! These technical hitches (although maddening) are part and parcel of the experimental process – particularly when working with a very technologically heavy set-up. However, I’ve found that looking forward, I am no longer fazed at the prospect of conducting future experiments. The knowledge I have gained has given me the confidence in my own troubleshooting abilities and provided me with an incredibly valuable experience. Preliminary data screening also began this week, with training sessions on how to extract the useful data and filter out what we don’t need. As a novice this allows me to observe how the data may be mentally analysed and applied to the topic as the project goes on. For instance, whilst ‘sense’ checking the eye-tracking data Adam Galpin explained how reading the raw data and ‘sense’ checking not only helps avoid errors occurring, but can reveal interesting details about the nature of the information contained in the output. This initial analysis provides a clue as to what variables may be of interest and indicates the direction that analysis may take. These regular meetings with the team allow me to witness the thought processes of the researchers and see how decisions and conclusions are made. This has undoubtedly been the most valuable aspect of my internship. It is here that the true value of my position as an intern becomes glaringly obvious. The beauty of collaborative work is that each contributor brings their owns strengths to the table. I’m extremely lucky to be seated at that table and have the combined knowledge of four researchers as an available resource.



#5 – The experiences of a Psych intern….



Focus has now shifted onto extracting, converting and analysing data. All the work of the previous four weeks is culminated into these masses of figures on a spreadsheet. I am still amazed at how individual disposition and behavioural responses can be converted into visible and usable statistics. This is where we discover the direction the analysis will take. In reality, the process of analysis is somewhat different to what is taught during research methods lectures and seminars. I was unaware that the preparation, screening and filtering of data was quite so complex and time-consuming. To give you an indication of the magnitude of this task, for this project the extraction of the eye-tracking data first requires all short fixations to be manually removed, saccade (eye-movement) length and direction need to be calculated, and the position and type and of eye-movement deciphered. This process needs to be completed for each and every experimental trial before we can even begin to extract any meaningful data. So in short, if there are 30 participants and 20 experimental trials…..that means this procedure must be repeated 600 times! Only then can the actual analysis begin.



As you can imagine, I’m becoming quite the excel expert!

In addition to extracting eye-tracking data, this week work has started on filtering and analysing the fNIRS brain imaging output. I can’t help but be slightly amused by Rob’s catchphrase of “this is how I do it, but you’ll find your own way”. This is usually the point when I come to the realisation that I am responsible for doing this task on my own. As daunting as this is I am given all the tools and guidance I need, and again, this is where my confidence in my own abilities is beginning to grow. Once I have nailed the actual process I find that it is much easier to understand the concept of the analysis. You see, it’s not just the actual process of hitting the right buttons and learning what goes where, but grasping the theory of why. This is precisely what psych research is about –interpreting the results, identifying possible variables of interest and the application of this information. Thanks to the descriptive manner of the research team not only am I gaining the knowledge of how to conduct ‘real life’ statistical analysis, but I’m quickly learning the theory behind the process.


#6 – The experiences of a Psych intern….



The research poster is finally complete and encompasses all the hard work of the previous few weeks. It’s enormously satisfying to view the finished product and certainly a very proud moment to see my name amongst the other researchers – proof that I have indeed contributed to the composition of the project! The very fact that there have been four other contributors that have been readily available for advice and feedback gives me secure confidence in the content and presentation of the poster. However, although this is reassuring, I must admit that the most stressful element of the entire internship has been my own determination to meet the expectations of the other researchers! All that remains is to present the research poster at the BPS Annual Psychobiology Section Scientific Meeting next week – rest assured, I will let you know how I get on.

Through my time here, I have come to the conclusion that psychological research is often misconstrued and the fear of statistics or the dreaded SPSS tends to put many undergraduate students off pursuing a research career. In truth, statistics only play a small role in a research project – a small role but essential role nonetheless. The basis of any research project is the theoretical reasoning and formation of the research question – stats simply provide you with your indicative result. As a novice you don’t need to be able to recite the ANOVA formula or navigate seamlessly through the SPSS program. You don’t even need to like statistics! What is important however is being able to understand the output, how it applies to your research question and what this means in real life terms.

So my internship has officially come to an end…but they won’t get rid of me that easily. I’ve enjoyed my time here so much and I’m gaining so much knowledge that I’m continuing to work on the project along with the current research team. The opportunity to learn is still very much accessible and I am very thankful that I am still made to feel so welcome. I’m very aware of just how fortunate I have been to have not only have been awarded the BPS psychobiology section internship, but to have such positive and engaging role models as mentors. My time here within the research department has been an educational experience, offering me the chance to expand my knowledge and gain a real taste of the research environment. I’m immensely grateful to the research team (Simon Cassidy, Rob Bendall, Adam Galpin and Lynne Marrow) for finding the perfect balance between supervision, issuing responsibility and allowing me to follow my own initiative. This is undoubtedly what has made this journey such an enriching experience. I must also give a special mention to the rest of the Psychology and Public Health department. It has been an absolute pleasure to work within such a welcoming and sociable environment. Surrounded by the discussion of current projects and exchanging of ideas, my dedication to pursuing a research career has only been reinforced by witnessing the sheer passion and apparent enthusiasm of the entire department. Thank you!


#7 – The experiences of a Psych intern….



A prerequisite of the internship award was that I must attend the Annual BPS Psychobiology Section Annual Scientific meeting and present the findings of the project in the form of a research poster. Although I was eager to stand beside the poster that was a single representation of all the hard work of the previous three months, I do not mind admitting that I did have reservations over my ability to deliver an engaging and coherent account of the research study. Understandably, my apprehension was centered around the potential questioning that may be directed my way. What if I don’t know the answer to a question? Or maybe I wouldn’t even understand the question! My initial fears were quashed once I arrived at the venue, finally found a prominent spot to display my poster and became acquainted with the other attendees. Realistically, after spending a good twelve weeks immersing myself in the research project I found I could find a confident response to any questions fired at me. That being said, all questions were delivered in a positive manner, and were based on genuine interest in the methodology and results of the study. Trust me when I say – nobody is there to publicly humiliate you! It was fantastic to receive such positive feedback and personally a really rewarding experience. I must admit once the poster session was finished (and I’d survived!), it was nice to be able to circulate and discover the varied journeys that had led researchers to the paths they had chosen. It was a great opportunity to steal some valuable hints and tips! The Psychobiology Scientific conference offered a perfect relaxed and friendly introduction into the psychresearch domain, and is one that I look forward to attending again next year. I’d strongly urge others tojoin the BPS and make use of these external events to learn, connect, and above all, build their own confidence.




Sarah Lambert with Dr Richard Stephens

(Chair of the BPS Psychobiology Section)


















@salfordpsych applied psychology brain and behaviour community engaging people Hong Kong media mental health online OUHK political psychology technology

New media and new perspectives on the crisis in Hong Kong

by Stephanie Szeto (@StepSzeto)

Stephanie Szeto






The high penetration of the new mobile technology and social media enables some Hongkongers, who don’t have much prior knowledge of computer, to access internet media and enjoy spontaneous mobile mass communication, such as Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.   In past few decades, only few TV media existed in Hong Kong. Television Broadcasts (TVB) is completely monopolising the media market as Asia Television (ATV) produces limited domestic programmes and is facing major financial problem that has to terminate some news broadcasts.  People are now used to read news from wide variety sources for having different perspectives, for example independent press, rather than from the traditional mass media, such as the two existing free-to-air terrestrial television stations, (TVB) and (ATV). Young people are more accessible and develop critical views to various news angles and discover nested interests of different media stakeholders may affect the political stands or economic positions of various commentaries or social media blogs.


In last October 2013, tens of thousands of protesters marched to the government headquarters of the Hong Kong SAR claiming the violated Hong Kong’s core values of freedom as the monopolisation of existing TV public media eventually led to rejection from the government in issuing an additional free-to-air TV licence to the Hong Kong Television Networks (HKTV).  The march originated from a social action organised with the help of a Facebook page claiming to gather ten thousand of HKTV supporters and simultaneously gained nearly five hundred thousand LIKES.  Facebook has become a powerful social media to magnify the tearful speeches of HKTV staff and celebrities that were spreading quickly on the web which explained the underlying nested interests of politicians in rejecting the license application.  Protesters claiming that, despite a 85% of respondents in a public survey conducted by The University of Hong Kong indicated more free-to-air TV choices, the government turned down HKTV’s application as a result of politically decision.  Mr. Ricky Wong Wai-kay, the boss of HKTV, presented that he would create a station that will truly belong to Hongkongers by giving alternative choice, such as ‘dark’ comedy and drama, which allows different political satire may capture the popular sentiment.  Therefore, Hongkongers believed that the government was crushing the city’s core values of freedom and vowed to have social movement against the media monopolisation.  Wong questioned whether Hong Kong was still governed by the rule of law and the HKTV, in the end, resorted to broadcast by over-the-top online platform.


With more easy access to online platforms, Hongkongers are now relying less on traditional TV news as they believe it offers more pro-government perspective to the audience.  On the other hand, posts of independent press and internet radio have acquired a higher share of media influence.  This situation is confirmed by the findings of crisis communication research that some people give higher level of credibility to new media than to traditional media in terms of having different perspective of the crisis (Jin, Liu, & Austin, 2014). One would see the new media has become a real battle ground for people to exert their political influence and gaining publicity through the emerging mobile technology.

brain and behaviour engaging people learning

Read All About It: Communicating Brain and Behaviour in Newspaper Style

By Dr Lynne Marrow

The “newspaper style” report is an assignment that forms part of the Brain and Behaviour module offered to undergraduate Psychology students in their final year. Students are asked to write a report on a current ‘hot’ topic within the field of field of neuroscience, the topic being chosen from a list of options, that is appropriate for publication in a newspaper or online magazine.

The assignment allows students the opportunity to demonstrate literature research skills and their ability to translate a complex set of ideas into a readily understandable form aimed at the non-specialist reader. In addition to providing accurate information, students are encouraged to be creative in their presentation. Below are two great articles written in very different styles and addressing two very different topics:

1. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome: the Ladette Legacy? – Joanne Pritchard

2. Are we biologically pre-disposed to believe in God? – Clayton Clough

3. Bankers behaving badly? – Robert Smith

4. The Jewels of Fatherhood – Ethar Bashir

For further information about the Brain and Behaviour module, you can contact Lynne on