Our Stone Age Mulder Brains

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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.

Continue reading “Our Stone Age Mulder Brains”


Do You Understand What You Argue Against?

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve talked to creationists one-on-one about this before, and they can’t tell me what I’m thinking at all accurately — it’s usually some nonsense about hating God or loving Satan, and it’s not at all true. But at the same time, I’m able to explain to them why they’re promoting creationism in a way they can agree with. — PZ Myers

politicalanimalsPZ’s quandary reminds me of my own attempts to discuss political topics (terrorism, Islam, Israel and Palestine) and “religious” ones (methods used by Christian origins scholars, mythicism) with both academics and lay folk. Yesterday I read Jerry Coyne’s complete failure to explain the meaning of Zionism. Coyne has very strong views about Israel but he does not know what Zionism is or why some people oppose it. I have found the same ignorance when it comes to Islamist terrorism and Islam itself in a number of discussions here on this blog. Ironically that ignorance sometimes expresses itself in response to posts where I have cited or directly quoted serious research into the questions. Some people appear to ignore the explanations of the ideas they are supposedly responding to.

I once spent many, many exchanges with a Butler university then associate professor comparing the evidence for Socrates and Jesus. I could not understand why he appeared to keep repeating arguments that I thought I had so clearly demonstrated were false so I asked him to tell me what he understood my argument to be. It took quite a while but eventually he did respond and he stymied me by responding with a nonsensical idea that completely missed my point. I can only assume he was sincere and he really was not registering what I was writing in my exchanges with him. We have seen the same travesty with his inability to explain the most fundamental arguments of Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier even after supposedly reading sections of their books. But that’s no surprise because we saw the same distortions in Ehrman’s and Casey’s claims to have read and responded to mythicist arguments.

They — people like Coyne and McGrath — are not really engaging with the arguments of their opponents. They really do not know what their opponents are arguing.

But then I have to confess that I sometimes have rushed to conclusions about political and religious claims and other situations on some sort of instinct, or certainly with knee-jerk reactions. I do know that there was a time when I was like PZ Myer’s creationists. I was confident that I knew the fallacies at the heart of evolution and the thinking of scientists who wrote about it. And I know I have a tendency to form instant judgments when I listen to certain politicians speak.

So it was with interest that I read Rick Shenkman’s discussion of two types of thinking in Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.

[E]volution teaches us to think quickly. In the life-and-death setting common in the world of hunter-gatherers, speed was of the essence in sizing up both people and situations. We couldn’t let anything get in the way of our making up our minds, not even an absence of facts. In circumstances where we lacked facts— a common occurrence in the real world— we found other bases upon which to make a decision. The point was to act. Dillydallying could kill you.

The legacy of this evolutionary inheritance is that today we leap to make decisions even when we don’t need to. Instead of waiting for facts we rush to judgment. Though in the modern world we are seldom called on to render a lightning-fast, life-or-death judgment involving a politician, that’s what we do. We can’t help ourselves. We are hardwired to think fast rather than to reflect at length.

(From Wikipedia)

Fast thinking (also known as System 1), as the pioneering psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, is easy. It doesn’t require us to dwell. It really doesn’t require us to think at all, at least as most people define thinking. That’s because it mostly happens in the unconscious, where most of our brain functioning actually takes place. As psychologist Michael Gazzaniga informs us, “98 percent of what the brain does is outside of conscious awareness.” When Michael Jordan dunks a ball he doesn’t think through all the steps he needs to take to gain lift, angle his arms, and provide thrust. He performs these tasks automatically. If he suddenly tried to think about what he’s doing when dunking a ball he’d probably stumble. Reflection gets in the way of the performance of tasks that are usually left to the unconscious. Why is that? Reflection takes time. It’s slow thinking (System 2). Literally slow. Operations in the brain involving the unconscious are five times faster than those involving consciousness.

How do we arrive at a quick decision? We use shortcuts, what social scientists refer to as heuristics. Quick— which of these capital cities in Africa has the most people?

1. Libreville

2. Asmara

3. Cape Town

The answer is Cape Town. How do you know this? Because you have heard of Cape Town (pop. 3.74 million), and you probably haven’t heard of Libreville (pop. 797,000) or Asmara (pop. 649,000). Your brain concluded that since you haven’t heard of either city, chances are they aren’t very big. This is an example of the recognition heuristic. If we recognize something, our brain automatically assumes it must be because it’s important. Why do we vote for people whose names we recognize on the ballot even if we know nothing about them? It’s because we recognize their names. Our mere recognition of them must mean that they are known for something, and in the absence of a strong negative cue, we naturally believe it must be something positive. In fact, social scientists have discovered that familiarity seems to have the same effect on us as happiness. We get a charge in the reward center of our brain when we experience the familiar. And when do we become less analytical? When we are engaged in System 1 thinking.

Shenkman, Rick (2016-01-05). Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (pp. 53-54). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

My System 1 thinking is telling me that that is “so true”! But will that snap judgment stand up to the test of System 2 thought? Continue reading “Do You Understand What You Argue Against?”