How Our Poorly Evolved Brains Contribute to Political Dysfunction

One of my beliefs about human beings is that we are currently operating in a world that has far outpaced the realities that our brains were evolved to live within. We are social creatures that operate in political tribes, and the social and political situations of our ancestors lives have pushed our brains to be bigger and pushed us to be smarter, but have not necessarily pushed us to be more adapt at understanding reality or seeing the world in a clear and honest way. This has happened in our brain, however, while we have maintained the basic hardware and default mechanisms which were originally developed for the purpose of survival on a savanna or in a jungle. Our brains are still built for making quick decisions between safe and threatening, but we have layered on great intelligence through social and political games that require smarter and more deceptively cunning intelligence. The result is that our brains are powerful, but deeply flawed and inadequately evolved for current circumstances.

 

This is important because we live in a world that is incredibly complex and requires that we make decisions among noise and competing values with varying levels of social and political consequences. Our world is filled with decisions that must balance multiple variables, but at their base, our brains really just want to make a quick decision between two variables: safety or threat.

 

I see so many situations in my own thinking where I reduce the world to one or the other. Someone is either a great person because they gave me plenty of space in their car while I was riding my bike, or they are an evil human being who couldn’t move over for me. Someone is either lazy and dumb, or hard working and brilliant. Considerations of the middle ground are complex, and as a result I default to an either-or mindset when looking at the world. For most of my daily interactions and situations this doesn’t matter much, but when we layer these tendencies up throughout society, it becomes dangerous and is a contributing factor to the political dysfunction and social unrest we see around us today.

 

In their book The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak hit on this point. About our political disagreements between Democrats and Republicans (the authors use Left versus Right which I disagree with for other more complicated reasons) they write,

 

“The battle between these two choices in public asset management [public ownership and provision as favored by Democrats versus the undeterred use of market forces as favored by Republicans] has contributed to political partisanship by posing a false choice between management mediocrity and the loss of ownership rights. These choices, driven by fallacies that are supported by old ideologies, contribute to political dysfunction.”

 

Katz and Nowak argue that we make huge political decisions in our country based on outdated models that feel comfortable for our brains (as our brains scan for safety versus threat) but that don’t really reflect reality. Good public management, the authors argue, in today’s age requires a merger of public and private asset management strategies. Public ownership cannot be absolute because it can lead to politically biased decisions with elected officials acting as arbitrary gatekeepers. Open markets, however, can leave people out and be leave us with greater inequality rather than provide us solutions to pressing problems.

 

One solution the challenge above might look like public ownership a of a private corporation, adding a layer to reduce political influence and bias, and using experts to maximize public benefit as opposed to using business insiders to maximize shareholder value. This is just one example of a third approach to a problem that our brains would rather see as a choice between two variables. We want to see the world as good versus evil, because that is how our brains have evolved. It didn’t matter if there was some nuance to our early ancestors about eating mushrooms, running from animals, or traversing down a steep cliff. What mattered was survival and having an innate sense of safety versus threat was advantageous. Today however, that same innate sense is at play (even though we don’t recognize it) and is holding us back and creating chaos rather than helping us successfully reproduce.

Leave a Reply