5 Traits You Think You Control (But Totally Don't)
If there's one thing humanity likes, it's control. Nobody wants to be the unwitting steel ball in the giant pinball machine of life, helplessly bounced around by the immortal tentacled space monster operating the paddles. That's why we as human beings take pride in this neat concept called free will we've stumbled into and fully intend to abuse at every opportunity.
Sadly, you may not have quite as much control over your life as you think. We're not saying any of the following 100 percent come down to genetics (nothing does, really), but it's also impossible to ignore the genetic links to ...
Your Political Preferences
In your ongoing efforts to be a good citizen, you try to keep your finger on the pulse of politics (assuming the country you live in lets you do that kind of thing). So you keep up with the issues, carefully consider each party's position, and most importantly, always take care to make a rational decision when Election Day rolls around. And then you wind up voting according to your biology.
Along with other assorted activities.
Yeah, science says there's a decent chance your political beliefs are less the elaborate chess game you imagine them to be and more like a professional wrestling match: awkward, telegraphed, and completely predetermined. In this study on biological differences between liberals and conservatives, scientists found that there are actual physical differences in how Democrat and Republican brains function.
Or, more commonly, how they fail to.
The skull-sponges of Democrats focus on broad social connectedness, meaning that they value friends and the world at large. Meanwhile, Republican gray matter exhibits narrow social connectedness, which means they value family and country above all. You may recognize these traits as the exact goddamn cookie-cutter stereotypes every halfwit pundit always tries to force supporters of both parties into.
Wait, it gets better: In another study, researchers noticed that the brains of liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, which is used to process conflicting information and cope with uncertainty. Conservatives, on the other hand, have a larger amygdala, used to identify and respond to threatening situations. Hawks and doves, anyone?
"Actually, I'm registered Reform Party."
Apparently, this brain-assigned division of population extends to pretty much all aspects of life: Surveys have revealed that the living spaces and workplaces of conservative-minded people reflect structure and order, while those of liberals are more cluttered. Conservatives also appear to be better at blocking out distracting information and focusing on individual issues, but also tend to see the world in black-and-white terms. Meanwhile, liberals are more open to new experiences and better at accepting uncertainty, but also tend to be more scatterbrained.
"But Cracked," you exclaim, clearly unfamiliar with our stance on the brain's true nature. "Surely our brain can't pull a dick move like that. There must be some leeway to the whole business -- there's no way the setup of our brain can always predict everyone's political opinions correctly."
"Never question my ability to pull dick moves."
And you are right. It only works about 83 percent of the time.
Your Belief in a Higher Power
There are many reasons to be religious, and despite what the army of Internet atheists (and the entire concept of Scientology) would have you believe, many of them are pretty difficult to criticize, as personal choices go. Maybe you were raised to be religious. Maybe you had a near-death experience at some point in your life, leading you to re-examine your spirituality. Maybe you wrestled with existentialism your entire life and finally decided to embrace your belief in a higher being.
Or maybe you were simply born with the potential to believe in God.
In an unsurprisingly controversial 2004 study, a molecular geneticist called Dean Hamer analyzed over 2,000 DNA samples to conclude that a person's tendency for spirituality is linked to one gene that regulates the flow of mood-altering chemicals in the brain. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the media immediately dubbed the discovery the God gene.
"We were worried the graphics guy might cock up the spelling of 'ecclesiastical.'"
According to the God gene study, people with the gene are more likely to believe in a higher being of some sort, and their belief can develop independent of their upbringing (an atheist family's child can totally find religion, and vice versa). This find was further clarified by a separate study, where identical twins were asked to describe their religious history. As kids, the subjects were likely to share the same religious beliefs as the rest of their family, but once they got older, the twins (who have the same genetic makeup, remember) tended to share religious beliefs with only each other. This suggests that religiousness isn't ultimately determined by your upbringing or experiences, but by the DNA you're born with.
Or however you came by your DNA.
The God gene study obviously has its detractors, but that doesn't mean there isn't something going on with this whole religion/brain setup thing. A more recent study from 2013 found that people who had a thicker cortex (the brain's outer layer) were more likely to be spiritual. And while this study couldn't conclusively prove that the thicker cortex was the cause of spirituality, they did find another interesting correlation: The people who were more likely to be spiritual also ran a lower risk for depression.
And no, this says absolutely nothing about whether God exists. If you want to use this as an excuse to have that argument, that's on you.
The "if" in that sentence was purely a courtesy.
Have you ever seen one of those teen comedies where the nerdy girl/guy gets a makeover and suddenly becomes the coolest kid in school? We love those movies because they give us hope. Even if you're the weird kid who's constantly getting picked on, there's no reason whatsoever why you can't become popular. With time and practice, you too can become a full powerhouse of charisma and animal magnetism. Put some cheesy yet strangely inspirational 1980s rock on -- it's montage time, bitches!
Pulling a Teen Wolf is ideal, but just know in advance that it's a road paved with maulings.
Or, maybe not.
Scientists have found that there's a chance a good chunk of your popularity (or lack thereof) is, again, just something you're born with. In this particular study by what we're going to call the Ruining Our Dreams Forever Institute, researchers gathered 100 male college students who didn't know each other and had them interact in small groups. After some DNA sampling and questionnaire filling, it turned out the students who were the most popular among the group all shared a gene associated with "mild" rule-breaking behaviors, such as drinking (but not any of the more extreme antisocial stuff, like violent behavior or ironic mustaches). In other words, people who break the rules in a "cool" way end up being more popular, but this isn't something they learn to do. They're just born to be wild (in a socially acceptable way), baby!
"Sorry, girls, but when you round down on your 1040 as much as I do, you can't get tied down."
Researchers have also studied the social networks of over 1,000 adolescent twins and measured each person's popularity by how often others named them as a friend (as opposed to "that creepy loser dude who keeps tagging along with us"). As with the previous study, the research found that a person's popularity is strongly linked to their genetics.
So, what does this mean? Some people are just born to be at the center of everyone's social circles, while others are born to stand in the hedges outside, peering through the window at the awesome party they weren't invited to?
Of course not! Sometimes the parties are outdoors and they can creep from home.
Not quite. There is actually one perk to being born less popular. Since popular people tend to be at the center of social networks, they're also more likely to be the first ones afflicted when a disease epidemic breaks out. So, yes -- science may say that we were born unpopular and there's precious little we can do to change that, but at least we have a legitimate excuse to stab our more popular friends in the brain when they inevitably become Patient Zero of the zombie apocalypse.
"But Cracked," you might be saying. "Doesn't popularity really come down to confidence? Can't we become cool just by building our self-esteem?" We're glad you brought that up, because another thing that appears to come from your genes is ...
Have you ever noticed that the world seems to be full of very dimwitted people who think they're God's gift to mankind? And, even worse, that a lot of these people turn out to be really successful? You see it in people like Donald Trump, some professional athletes, and many if not most politicians. No matter how stupid the shit that falls out of their mouth is, others cling to their every word purely because they seem so goddamned sure of themselves. Hell, Adolf Hitler was a bumbling dipshit, but goddamn did he spew his bullshit with conviction.
"Seriously, how cold could Russia really be?"
So here's a question: If these people's confidence doesn't come from actual accomplishments, where do they get it? According to the latest research, they're born with it. They did a study on 3,700 pairs of twins (which is how you do a study when you want to weed out factors like parenting techniques and upbringing) and found that some kids come out of the womb assuming that they're awesome. They can hear the same feedback as their siblings, but how they interpret it depends on what kind of brain they were born with.
"Hey, Doc, before you close her up, I think I left my copy of The Tipping Point in there."
And this is huge in terms of your probability of success in life -- confidence is everything when it comes to things like performing under pressure, when lingering doubts can derail you at the worst times. In fact, this natural confidence is actually a greater predictor of school performance than IQ.
That's right -- the world will think you're smarter, as long as you have the magical ability to be stupidly oblivious to your own faults. So while the rest of us are struggling to find the confidence to order a pizza from that place with the delivery guy who has that scary tattoo, these people feast on their never-ending supply of self-belief, happily waltzing their way to great social skills, good jobs, and fat bank accounts.
And while we're on the subject ...
Your Talent for Leadership
Yeah, you're starting to see a pattern here, aren't you?
You've been hearing the term "born leader" your whole life, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. After all, there's a whole stew of indefinable traits that go into being a good leader, above and beyond the aforementioned confidence: intelligence, aggressiveness, charisma, experience, even physical attractiveness. Yet, once again, researchers found one DNA sequence that turned up again and again in people who (in this case) wound up in supervisor roles at their jobs.
"G-E-N-E-S! To get this promotion, I said I'll need to see what's in your genes!"
Now, just because an infant is destined to be 7 feet tall, that doesn't automatically mean he'll play in the NBA, and the presence of this gene doesn't mean you don't have to work at building leadership skills. But it does appear to mean that some people are born with a certain raw talent for taking control. And, as every RPG enthusiast knows, the game is a hell of a lot easier if your base attributes amount to more than a sackful of rat turds.
"Careful with those. That sack represents a pretty big time investment."
In another study, scientists found that leadership ability comes down to how well your brain is wired for adaptability and prioritization of tasks. That came from a study of the brain activity of West Point cadets, which found profound differences in the way the brains of "leaders" and "non-leaders" operate under duress. These variations not only mean that "leader" brains are more adaptable and better adjust to new situations, but also give scientists hope that they can one day manipulate our leaders' brains with neurofeedback techniques in order to "make them work better."
In other news, there's no way you'll ever convince us that the founder of that particular research doesn't wear a monocle and call himself Professor Murder.
You can read more of Hossey's work at his blog here or Twitter here. Dennis is the creator of LemonVibe, an anonymous relationship advice site for singles and couples. He blogs and tweets, too.
Related Reading: Some traits are set right at infancy. Feeding a baby on-demand makes it smarter. It's a shame we didn't wind up evolving any cooler survival traits, like this solar-powered Salamander. And as an aside, did you know some chickens have teeth?