Our Stone Age Mulder Brains

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by Neil Godfrey

We're more Mulder than Scully
We’re more Mulder than Scully

Alternet has published an interview with the author of a book I have recently twice posted about:

How Our Stone-Age Brains Get in the Way of Smart Politics

My related posts:

A few excerpts from the interview . . . . First, on evolutionary psychology itself:

Robin Lindley: . . . . What did you learn from neuroscientists and others about why our brain tends to work this way?

Rick Shenkman: Whatever you make of Evolutionary Psychology, and many people hold it in dim regard, its main assumption seems very compelling to me and that is that our brain evolved to address the problems we faced during the Pleistocene, a two and a half million long period. See a leopard in the jungle and you jump. That’s your automatic brain at work. Your instincts. You don’t have to think about jumping, you just do. We jump out of the way because people who jumped when danger approached were more likely to survive and pass along their genes than those who didn’t.

A scientific consensus now exists that the brain works by using either System 1 or 2, as Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. System 1 is automatic thinking, System 2 is reflective. I found this fascinating. It helped explain how we respond to politics. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that we respond to politics most of the time using System 1. This insight wasn’t my own. I first encountered it watching a video lecture by the Cornell social scientist David Pizarro. It made a deep impression. Fortunately, I came across it early on in my research.

We are more Mulder than Scully . . . despite the strongest wishes of us sceptics that it be otherwise.

Robin Lindley: Our trust in leaders is often misplaced. You’re an expert in presidential history and you recount numerous examples of when presidents lied but there was little public reaction, such as when Grover “Jumbo” Cleveland failed to disclose he had cancer and Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Richard Nixon lied about Watergate. The public response was muted and you attribute that response to an innate credulity. How do you explain that?

Rick Shenkman: Human beings are basically believers as Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert has demonstrated. To borrow a line from another social psychologist, we’re more like Mulder than Sculley from the “X Files.” The reason is fairly straightforward. We couldn’t accomplish much if we went around skeptical of everything. Once we decide on a matter we are inclined to consider it settled unless a good reason comes along to make us question it. That gives our brain a chance to focus on threats and opportunities around us. Experiments with sea slugs that I cite in the book show this is a feature of the animal brain. It has to do with our habituation to information. Once we become accustomed to something we stop thinking about it. We grow bored by it. That’s our brain helping us keep focus on what’s new. It’s a survival instinct and it shows up, as I say, even in snails, as the scientist Eric Kandel proved half a century ago.

Another factor comes into play. We want to believe in our leaders. So it takes us quite a bit of time to become convinced that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And once we cast a vote in favor of a leader we tend to come to their defense when attacked. That’s our partisan brain at work. We like being consistent. So if we decided that someone is a good leader we tend to dismiss any evidence to the contrary. Our brain literally shuts off the flow of electricity to neurons telling us something we don’t want to hear that might make us doubt our beliefs.

There are other factors, to be sure. I spend several chapters addressing these.

On a central problem we face in modern societies:

Robin Lindley: Why are our instincts inadequate for dealing with the modern world?

Rick Shenkman:  Well, this is the argument at the heart of the book. What I argue is that when it comes to politics we almost never can unquestioningly go with our instincts. The main reason is that the problems the brain evolved to solve are different from the ones we face today. In the Stone Age we lived primarily in groups that ranged in size between 25 and 150. Today we live in societies composed of millions. That gap is what we’re up against.

Here’s an example. When we see someone on TV we instantly make an automatic assessment of their character and abilities. Studies show we begin to reach our conclusions about them within 167 milliseconds – that’s faster than it takes to blink an eye. Speed was important to our survival in the Stone Age and it’s useful even now on occasion. Whether you confront a stranger in a dark alley or a leopard in the jungle, you need to be able to make a quick assessment. But in politics voters never need to make a fast assessment. We have time to reflect. But often we just go with our gut response.

That’s an error because our instinctive assessments are apt to be wrong. Our ability to read people’s character in a flash only works when we actually know someone well the way our Stone-Age ancestors knew the people in their communities. They knew them well because they lived and worked with them daily for years. This isn’t true of the situation in which we find ourselves. Few of us ever live or work with the politicians we see on television. Yet we have great confidence in our ability to read them. This makes no sense when you stop to think about it. But our brain plays a trick on us. It thinks that because we’re seeing someone we know them. That was true 100,000 years ago, but not now.

A warning flare should go off every time we make an instant judgment about a politician we see on TV. But this flare won’t go off automatically. You have to train your brain for it to go off. That takes higher order cognitive thinking. Fortunately, we’re capable of that. We aren’t slaves to our instincts. That’s the optimistic message of the book.

I have been somewhat intrigued over the way a number of journalists and analysts have painted Trump and Sanders in light and dark shades of the same colour. Here’s Shenkman’s take:

Rick Shenkman: Sanders is tapping into the anger the left feels. Like Trump’s voters, his are responding because he’s tapping into an emotion, anger, which feels real. He’s also tapping into young people’s idealism. They really want to feel hopeful and he’s making them feel hopeful.

What then is the difference between Trump and Sanders? Is there a difference? The mainstream media seem confused about this. They say both are exploiting people’s emotions and that sounds like a bad thing. Here’s my take. It’s perfectly acceptable for a politician to use emotion to connect with his supporters and to give focus to his campaign. It’s not emotion per se that’s a problem in politics; civics reformers are wrong about that. Emotion generally becomes a problem when the context is wrong.

Let me explain. If you see an innocent young kid getting beat up by a gang you’re likely going to feel anger. That’s the right emotional response. But if you lose your job and then lash out at Mexican immigrants and demonize them, that’s unhelpful. You can’t assume an immigrant took your job or that building a wall is going to help make things right. The context is wrong. Trump is directing his voters’ anger at outsiders who aren’t responsible for their situation. Sanders is directing his voters’ anger at Wall Street, which actually was responsible for bringing down the American economy. In Sanders’s case the context is right. (This is a separate question from whether Sanders’s solutions are well thought out or practical.)

I should mention that one form of emotion is dangerous in politics when it becomes widespread. And that is anger. Anger closes peoples’ minds. Once the insula is activated in the brain (the insula is where anger emanates from), people are less open to new ideas and less willing to compromise. While anger is useful in a small group to help give focus to their energies and to help supply the drive needed to force social change – think of Act Up in the eighties – it’s downright debilitating in a large group. That’s one of our major problems now. Angry polarized people don’t compromise. And compromise, of course, is essential in a mass democracy like ours.


And the hope . . .

Robin Lindley: How can we escape our evolutionary past and be better citizens and more reasonable, reflective and informed in responding to politics?

Rick Shenkman: Theanswer is to understand how our own brain works. Once we do we can take measures to compensate for our natural mental shortcomings. For example, once you understand how quickly your brain wants to read people you don’t know at all you just have to learn to second-guess your automatic response. I go into the many ways we can train ourselves in the Conclusion.

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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on “Our Stone Age Mulder Brains”

  1. “A warning flare should go off every time we make an instant judgment about a politician we see on TV.”

    About fifteen years ago, I heard a radio interview with then minister of Justice.
    – [name] is a repeated criminal.
    – Do you have any proof?
    – No, but I’m strongly convinced this is the case.

    At that point I started noticing his existence.
    I made an instant judgement: primitive idiot. No warning flares. Still holds.

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