The Evolutionary Mismatch Between Politics and Neuroscience

Why our Stone Age brains struggle with the complexities of modern politics.

Politics

Political observers and philosophers have long lamented that our system is “dysfunctional” or “broken”—especially when they don’t get their way. Perhaps it is. But Shenkman forces us to consider the possibility that these are merely evolutionary growing pains.

Illustration by Carolyn Lang

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When Donald Trump—I know, I know, but stay with me here—began his ascent in the Republican presidential primary field this past summer, political journalists all started wrestling with variations on the same burning question: Just who were these people telling pollsters they would grant this coiffed real-estate scion access to the White House?

To many of the Beltway cognoscenti, Trump’s early success was downright baffling. Republican voters kept hearing that they had the most talented bench of potential presidential candidates from which to choose in generations, and here they were flocking to an economically liberal reality-TV star who helped bankroll Hillary Clinton’s rise to elected office. W, as they say, TF?

Reporters, myself included, boarded planes bound for Trump rallies in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Alabama to pen the Great American Profile of a Trump supporter. Where did they come from? What do they want? Have these people been walking among us this entire time? A flurry of stories followed with near-identical headlines, all in search of an answer, an explanation—anything to help us plumb just what was going on inside the heads of the Trump-besotted GOP electorate.

We may now be closer to an answer. But it’s not the kind of answer you’ll find on cable television, online explainer sites, or the PowerPoints of obscenely-paid political consultants. Instead, evolutionary neuroscience may serve as the most valuable guide to the vagaries of our own political thinking. Timed almost perfectly, Rick Shenkman’s Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2015) seeks to explain our erratic political behavior using a different lens, one that focuses on the role evolution plays in how we choose our leaders.

We are, Shenkman contends, victims of—but not slaves to—a brain that formed during the Pleistocene, an epoch that began about 2.5 million years ago. As modern and sophisticated as we think we have become across the epic reach of  evolutionary time, humans are still prone to leading with their Neanderthal chins—succumbing viscerally and instinctively to stimuli, messages, insults, threats, and compelling stories. This battery of responses represented an admirable adaptation to the challenges of survival as primitive hunter-gatherers, but they don’t function as well within today’s powerful, intricate, and ever-globalizing political systems.

The result, Shenkman argues, has been a politically charged brain lag. “Evolution over millions of years gave us the brain we needed at the time we needed it, not the brain we might need down the road,” Shenkman writes. “There’s a mismatch between the brain we inherited from the Stone Age, when mankind lived in small communities, and the brain we need to deal with the challenges we face in a democratic society consisting of millions of people. That mismatch explains why our instincts so often mislead us in politics.”

This is natural terrain for Shenkman, a historian. His conclusions are far from flattering to our intellectual vanity, but he draws on a wealth of evidence, demonstrating just how abject our dependence on our Stone Age brain can be. We like to present ourselves before our peers as deliberative philosopher-kings, assessing the claims of competing worldviews, but in reality we are susceptible to reverting to behavior reminiscent of the violent chimps in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, guided by ancient instincts that subconsciously lead us to make poor choices.

Hence one dismal axiom of modern political life: Voters tend to oppose incumbents when things go wrong, even if those leaders have no control over the events in question.

Shenkman cites data from the 1916 presidential election, which took place just months after a summer of brutal shark attacks on the New Jersey seashore. New Jersey’s favorite son, Woodrow Wilson, was up for reelection. The data shows that Wilson’s support statewide remained constant, except in districts that had suffered from the shark attacks. There, his support dropped.

Leaping ahead 85 years, Shenkman points to another study suggesting that a severe drought in certain areas of Florida contributed to George W. Bush’s narrow victory in that state by dissuading voters from supporting Al Gore, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Party. Even a poor showing from a regional sports team can benefit a political challenger.

Telling self-proclaimed rational voters they unknowingly punished a politician for an act of God or an NFL franchise’s postseason collapse seems ludicrous and insulting, but Shenkman’s case is compelling. There are mountains of evidence attesting that in everyday life we constantly make choices based on signals embedded within our subconscious, well beyond our volitional control. So why not in politics?

This glum reflection means, among other things, that we’re far more likely to involuntarily do the bidding of our appointed political betters than to hold them to any sort of rational account. In the endless battle between candidates who manipulate voters and a citizenry that likes to think it seeks out the most competent leaders, the politicians have the upper hand.

Abundant skepticism is necessary for a republic to function properly, but in this regard our prewired brains work against us, because we have a default setting that favors gullibility. Disbelief—and the follow-up work to prove whether new information checks out—requires extra effort. Politicians benefit from the consistent failure of most of us to expend that extra energy needed to sustain skepticism over time. According to evolutionary psychologists, we have a natural propensity to accept what we’re told at face value. To question anything requires increased brainpower. We don’t want to go to the trouble of proving a belief unfounded unless we have to. “This works to the politician’s advantage,” Shenkman writes. “We’d much rather not think. Thinking takes cognitive energy.”

And even if we question what we’re told, we’re still not very good at knowing when we’re being lied to. To take just one example, think back to the presidential election of 1972. Richard Nixon was reelected after the Watergate scandal became publicized nationwide. Indeed, he triumphed in one of the biggest landslide votes in modern history, walloping Democratic challenger George McGovern—who, granted, was a terrible candidate—by more than 500 Electoral College ballots. The people knew Nixon was a crook—it was emblazoned across newspaper headlines and TV broadcasts every day of the campaign—but they elected him again, anyway.

The key here is another humbling fact of human cognition: Knowing is not the same as believing. Raw information, no matter how much it’s repeated across mass media, doesn’t always matter or resonate. Here’s a more recent example: Last September, a CNN/ORC poll found that about one in five Americans still think President Obama was born outside of the United States and that 43 percent of Republicans believe he is a Muslim, despite mountains of evidence proving he was born in Hawaii and practices Christianity.

This pattern becomes pronounced, Shenkman writes, when we’re confronted with unsavory facts about leaders whom we support. Shenkman cites a study conducted during the 2004 presidential election in which researchers presented supporters of George W. Bush and John Kerry with clear examples of their favored candidate’s blatant hypocrisy. Most of the partisan enthusiasts in the test group simply disregarded the evidence before them.

It gets worse. The human brain actually rewards this head-in-the-sand behavior. When faced with upsetting information, psychologist Drew Westen showed “a network of neurons becomes active that produces distress…. The brain registers the conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion.”

In other words, shunning inconvenient truths that contradict our beliefs gives us a boost of happy feelings. And yes, there’s an evolutionary purpose to this. “Our survival in the Pleistocene didn’t depend on our understanding the truth,” Shenkman writes. “It depended on the safety of the group.”

While Shenkman does a fine job of surveying the scientific literature and applying the data to political behavior, I found his proposals for overcoming these natural impulses less persuasive. He counsels us to be alert for situations in which our natural instincts serve our modern political needs and, correspondingly, to push back in the all-too-common reverse scenario, when our Stone Age brains betray our modern and more enlightened interests. When we thoughtfully ponder our unreasoned and instinctual reactions, he predicts, we’ll make better political decisions. He even offers some exercises for practice: If you find yourself becoming unduly excited by manipulative, emotionally laden appeals from politicians, just think of Richard Nixon. (Fun fact: This method also works as a therapy for overexuberance in the bedroom.) Ever feel as though a new law will Finally Fix Everything? Just remember No Child Left Behind, the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, or any other policy that didn’t live up to its messianic expectations.

Political observers and philosophers have long lamented that our system is “dysfunctional” or “broken”—especially when they don’t get their way. Perhaps it is. But Shenkman forces us to consider the possibility that these are merely evolutionary growing pains: The ideals conceived by our own brains have, in a sense, progressed faster than our brains have had a chance to evolve.

Viewed with a certain Olympian and/or scientific detachment, this is a good thing. It means we are striving for something greater than mere obedience to our base impulses. Focusing on this disparity helps explain why our political system never seems to work as well as it’s projected to on paper. Still, without some quantum progress in human brain development, we also have before us every necessary ingredient for a Neanderthal tyranny of the majority.


Chris Moody covers politics for CNN. Reprinted from Bookforum (December/January 2015), a collection of incisive book reviews of the latest titles, author interviews, and commentary published five times per year.