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08-05-2019 | © picture | 3 mins read


Why are some people more likely to vote or stand for election than others? Researchers based in Sweden are doing some deep data diving to find out how our social surroundings and our genes influence political participation.

History and current affairs are full of examples of political dynasties. Now a team of researchers has found scientific evidence that the likelihood of standing for election is twice as high if your parent has been a candidate. Other preliminary outcomes of the research include the identification of a slightly higher tendency of older siblings to vote compared to younger siblings.

These findings are the results of the CONPOL project, which has been awarded a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council. The research is based on information covering all voters and nominated candidates in European Parliament and national elections in Sweden between 1970 and 2019. The team behind the project is looking at different social factors that may have an impact on political participation. These include the influence of parents, siblings, partners, neighbours and workmates.

“Humans are political animals by nature. No other species is so marked by social and political relations. This means that a deeper understanding of how we think and act in political contexts is an important part of our understanding of ourselves. A better comprehension of the reasons for political participation is also a precondition for creating a more equal society.”

The CONPOL team has access to a wealth of anonymised data from Statistics Sweden (a government authority responsible for official statistics). The researchers are also able to crosscheck their results with data from other sources in the USA and several European countries. This allows them to look for connections between political participation and a range of demographic variables (gender, age, education etc.), family relations, social contexts, residence, careers, income, cognitive and non-cognitive abilities (the latter from the military enrolment tests that are mandatory for all Swedish men).

The ERC Grant is also being used by the researchers to look at the influence of genetic factors on political behaviours and attitudes. By comparing adopted and non-adopted children, the CONPOL project aims to measure the relative importance of genetic and social effects. Preliminary findings suggest that the impacts of “pre-birth” and “post-birth” factors are approximately equal in size.

The 2019 European elections will provide a new opportunity for the CONPOL team to test the influence of social contacts and networks on voter turnout. They plan to organise a field experiment in Sweden using text messages to encourage people to cast their vote. By comparing the results between a treatment group (around 300,000 people) and a control group, the researchers will be able to analyse whether the campaign has a “spillover effect” on the immediate family and wider social connections surrounding the individuals involved. Apart from contributing to our general understanding of how humans function as political beings, the results may generate useful insights for political campaigners and candidates.


Sven Oskarsson is Professor at the Department of Government. He mainly teaches methods at different levels. His research interests include political representation and participation and social science genomics. His previous work has appeared in journals such as American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Political Behavior, Nature and Behavior Genetics. For more information see his personal website and the website for the CONPOL project.