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.

On Charity, Evolution, and Potential Blind Spots

“Spontaneous generosity may not be the most effective way to improve human welfare on a global scale, but it’s effective where our ancestors needed it to be: at finding mates and building a strong network of allies.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson include this quote in their book The Elephant in the Brain when looking at our typical behaviors for donating money and the excuses we have for making donations. Our behaviors don’t always match the expectations we might have if we were donating money for the reasons we claimed to be donating.

 

At its base, the argument is that making donations is about impressing others to increase our own status and make it more likely that we will attract a mate and pass along our genetic information. The main thesis of the book is that we deceive ourselves with the reasons for our actions, and actually act in much more self-interested ways than we would like to admit, so that we can have a better chance of finding a mate and continuing our genetic line.

 

Like charitable giving, where sometimes we really do make donations to help the world, the stated reasons for doing what we do are sometimes legitimate and accurate, but often times they don’t account for the whole story. We claim to make donations to improve the world, but we often just make small donations impulsively when people are watching. We want to impress them with our generosity and resources, and we want to raise our social status and attract a mate.

 

If there is one thing that I would say I am most likely to be wrong about, it is the extent to which I believe our tribal ancestry shaped our evolution (especially our cognitive evolution). I look at most things and consider how they made sense and how they may have originated in small tribal groups. This seems to work well when considering charity, but I may be overly reliant on this explanation and miss other factors. For now, however, with backing from research presented in books like The Elephant in the Brain, self-interested behavior emerging from small tribal groups will be the basis from which my theories of human behavior and interaction begin.

Social Brain Hypothesis

The California Redwoods are amazing trees. They stand taller than any other tree, scraping at the sky as they compete among each other for sunlight. The trees can be packed together in a dense manner, all competing for the same light, all pulling massive amounts of water from the ground up enormous heights. What is interesting, however, is that the redwoods are geographically isolated, not stretching out across huge swaths of the continent, but contained within a fairly narrow region. They don’t compete against other species and spread, but mostly compete for sunlight, water, and resources among themselves.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson introduce the redwoods as a way to talk about the Social Brain Hypothesis in humans. The idea is that our brilliant brains developed so that we could compete against each other, not because our brains really helped us outsmart lions or obtain more resources than other animals. The authors write,

 

“The earliest Homo Sapiens lived in small, tight-knit bands of 20 to 50 individuals. These bands were our “groves” or “forests,” in which we competed not for sunlight, but for resources more befitting a primate: food, sex, territory, social status. And we had to earn these things, in part, by outwitting and outshining our rivals.

    This is what’s known in the literature as the social brain hypothesis, or sometimes the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis. It’s the idea that our ancestors got smart primarily in order to compete against each other in a variety of social and political scenarios.”

 

I find this super interesting because in many ways we are still fighting among each other as if we were part of a small band of 20 to 50 individuals. We live in a world where food is relatively bountiful (for many but certainly not all) in the United States. We live in a world of online dating where finding a mate is more open to more people. Our “territory” today can be more private than ever and online niche communities can give us a new sense of social status that we could not have obtained in the past if we did not conform to the small groups of our high school, family, or work.

 

We seem to be in a place where we can let go of the pressures that the social brain hypothesis put on our early ancestors, but I don’t see people shedding those pressures very often. We can look at what has driven our species to behave the way we do and see that we don’t need to compete in the same way. We can recognize the great possibilities available to us and move in our own direction, but so often we chose to just show off and do more to impress others as if we still lived in small tribal bands. Rather than branching out, we seem to often retreat back to a group of 20 to 50 and compete internally in a way that wastes resources on our own selfish motives. I think that we should talk more openly about the social brain hypothesis and the ideas that Hanson and Simler present so that we can have a real discussion about how we move forward without pushing everyone to compete for things that we should be able to provide openly with new systems and organizations.

 

Humans will always be competing against each other in one way or another, but I think we are at a point where we can begin to decrease our competition. Our societies are at a point where we can be more constructive and inclusive if we can decide that we don’t need to participate in so many of the competitions that drive the world today and ruin so many of our lives. Changes along these lines would probably encourage us to live in smaller homes, live in a more community focused way, show off less, and help each other more. How we get there and give up some of this competitive nature I am not sure, but I think that we need to move in this direction to act as a global species and solve major problems such as climate change.

Loyalty and Beliefs

Loyalty in social tribes is important. If you are consistently loyal to a strong, smart, and well connected individual in a small group, you can receive a lot of direct benefits. Being disloyal, failing to conform, and only occasionally supporting the person in the social group with the highest social status will not get you the same level of benefits. In our world today we still do this, though it is probably less of a major driver of whether we pass on our genes and have enough food to eat. In the world of our tribal ancestors, however, this likely played a huge role in who was able to pass their genes along, who got to eat from the communal dinner, and who was left out in the cold when there was not enough shelter.

 

Our relationships involve a certain amount of loyalty, and loyalty cannot be ascertained or demonstrated by just asking someone, “to what degree are you loyal to me?” Loyalty must be demonstrated and shown in subtle indirect ways. When a wife asks, “do these jeans make me look fat?” she may really be asking how loyal and loving her husband is, as opposed to actually asking about her appearance in a pair of jeans (as a guy, I would like to note that I may be 100% dead wrong on this particular example – forgive me if I am totally missing the mark here).

 

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “we often measure loyalty in our relationships by the degree to which a belief is irrational or unwarranted by the evidence.” So a group or tribe may adopt a completely irrational belief as a type of test, to see who is the most loyal and the least willing to question the leader or cut against the tribe. “It only demonstrates loyalty to believe something that we wouldn’t have reason to believe unless we were loyal.” 

 

I think a lot of religion includes these types of tests. I also think we see this in sports relationships, our relationships to some consumer products, and clearly in our political parties. We need coalitions to do great things or we will only make it so far. People won’t want to join our coalitions unless we can demonstrate loyalty and group belonging. Believing something clearly inaccurate is a good way to show loyalty in an indirect sort of way and to signal to others that we are on their side and have their back.

In-Group Loyalty

One thing I have written about on the blog a lot is our tribal nature and how we now live in world that demands global solutions and thinking that we seem to be unable to achieve due to our tribal evolutionary past. We face great challenges today and have opportunities to put in place policies that lift everyone, but often spend much of our time fighting among each other over meaningless tribal points. We become raving sports fanatics for no sensible reason, we will get in fights about which students from which college major is better, and we will form clubs around the typed of truck we drive and literally get in fist fights because we drive Fords and those people over there drive Dodges. For some reason, we feel compelled to be loyal to these groups, even when there is no tangible benefit (in the sense of really prospering or attracting new mates) to being so loyal to a meaningless group.

 

Our loyalty within these groups is a phenomenon that I find extremely interesting, and at times deeply troubling. One of the reasons why it can be so detrimental and scary for our society is well explained in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, “When a group’s fundamental tenets are at stake, those who demonstrate the most steadfast commitment – who continue to chant the loudest or clench their eyes the tightest in the face of conflicting evidence – earn the most trust from their fellow group members.”

 

Groups favor and actively reward loyalty even when loyalty is undeserved. We praise those who stick with the party when the leader is clearly in the wrong. We say that true sports fans still show up and root for the team even when the team flat out sucks and isn’t even fun to watch. We encourage our fellow group members to stick with our side even when overwhelming evidence shows that our side is in the wrong.

 

This leaves me asking how we ever move forward based on shared understandings of reasonable facts? How do we improve our society if all we do is advocate for things that benefit our social group, even if those things are bad for everyone else? How do we create common understanding if we don’t acknowledge our group and our efforts to advantage our group over others?

 

I think a key is to begin working to show how meaningless many of the groups we belong to can be. On an individual level we need to develop skills to recognize when we are being defensive about something and showing group loyalty over an idea or to a group that just doesn’t matter. When we can start to step back and admit we were wrong and that changing our opinion doesn’t matter, we can start to move forward. The great challenge is doing this on a societal level, especially if bad actors don’t have the incentive to behave the same way.

The Social Brain Hypothesis

The California redwoods are amazing trees. They stand taller than any other tree, scraping at the sky as they compete among each other for sunlight. The trees can be packed together in a dense manner, all competing for the same light, all pulling massive amounts of water from the ground up enormous heights. What is interesting, however, is that the redwoods are geographically isolated, not stretching out across huge swaths of the continent, but contained within a fairly narrow region. They don’t compete against other species and spread, but mostly compete for sunlight, water, and resources among themselves.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson introduce the redwoods as a way to talk about the Social Brain Hypothesis in humans. The idea that our brilliant brains developed so that we could compete against each other, not because our brains helped us outrun lions or get more food than our primate cousins. The authors write,

 

“The earliest Homo Sapiens lived in small, tight-knit bands of 20 to 50 individuals. These bands were our “groves” or “forests,” in which we competed not for sunlight, but for resources more befitting a primate: food, sex, territory, social status. And we had to earn these things, in part, by outwitting and outshining our rivals.
This is what’s known in the literature as the social brain hypothesis, or sometimes the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis. It’s the idea that our ancestors got smart primarily in order to compete against each other in a variety of social and political scenarios.”

 

I find this super interesting because in many ways we are still fighting among each other as if we were part of a small band of 20 to 50 individuals. We live in a world where food is relatively bountiful (for many but certainly not all) in the United States. We live in a world of online dating where finding a mate is more open to more people. Our “territory” today can be more private than ever and online niche communities can give us a new sense of social status that we could not have obtained in the past if we did not conform to the small groups of our high school, family, or work.

 

We seem to be in a place where we can let go of the pressures that the social brain hypothesis put on our early ancestors, but I don’t see people shedding those pressures very often. We can look at what has driven our species to behave the way we do and see that we don’t need to compete in the same way, we can recognize the great possibilities available to us and move in our own direction, but so often we chose to just show off and do more to impress others as if we still lived in those small tribal bands. Rather than branching out, we seem to often retreat back to a group of 20 to 50 and compete internally in a way that wastes resources on our own selfish motives. I think that we should talk more openly about the social brain hypothesis and the ideas that Hanson and Simler present so that we can have a real discussion about how we move forward without pushing everyone to compete for things that we should be able to provide openly with new systems and organizations.

The Purchases We Make

In their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who lived about 100 years ago. Simler and Hanson write, “When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.” The other pieces of the argument, the good performance of the item, the colors we were dying to have, and the durability of the product might be the true reason we made a purchase in some instances, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our behavior. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these types of excuses to justify our actions. Further, they argue that our behaviors often signal something about ourselves implicitly that we don’t want to say explicitly.

 

In the case of luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth. Our wealth demonstrates our financial resources and can be used as a proxy for our social capital and human value. Our wealth may give others insights into our skills and abilities to do hard things, helping us stand out against a crowd. And, our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two social traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes on in small political tribes.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we face major negative externalities from our consumptive habits. We spend a lot of money on unnecessary luxury goods, and many people go deeply into debt to signal that they are the type of person who would own a certain type of luxury good. Our unyielding desire in the United States for ever further and greater consumption leads us to buy larger houses that we have to heat, faster cars that use more energy, and to own more clothes that will take millions of years to break down thanks to the new synthetic fibers we use to make them. Our consumption and our drive to continuously signal our wealth and social value, some would argue, is poisoning and heating our planet to dangerous levels.

 

Simler and Hanson don’t focus on the externalities of our signaling behavior in their book, but they do acknowledge that they are there. The authors simply make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives and reasons we don’t want to talk about. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher because you need to understand what people are really doing when they rally politically or make economic decisions.  For the rest of us, in our daily lives, we can take a lesson from Hanson and Simler that stems from an awareness of our self-centered behavior. We can think about our signaling behaviors and ask if conspicuous consumption is really worthwhile. We can step back and ask if the ways we signal our wealth help or hurt the planet, and we can start to make decisions with positive externalities and attempt to avoid the negative externalities I mentioned above.

Designed to Act on Hidden Motives

The human brain evolved in a social and political context. As our species developed, it mattered who you were close allies with, who you were opposed to, and who you cooperated with to survive. You needed to build up your social support to survive each day, but you also needed to build up your status so that your offspring and their offspring could survive and reproduce. Genetic survival and continuation of your genes and family depended on you being able to operate and survive in coordination with others in a world that didn’t have enough food, shelter, mates, and resources for everyone to survive all the time.

 

As our species expanded, our brains got bigger, took up more of our energy, made us smarter, and helped us further develop our social, political, tribal societies. In order to do well in these tribes, we had to be good at helping others in a way that furthered others’ trust in us and encouraged reciprocation. We had to appear to be helping others while at the heart of what we did, we wanted to ensure our survival and the survival of our children.

 

This idea is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. We evolved to be self-interested and self-serving, but in a deceptive way that is hard to notice. The authors write, “Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives–we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.”

 

We hide our hidden motives from everyone, including ourselves, as we go about the world, but if we look closely, we can find the motives in ourselves and others that more accurately describe our decisions and behaviors. We post a photo on Facebook telling ourselves and others that we want to keep our friends up to date with our new house projects, but a more plausible reason for posting on Facebook is simply that we wanted to show off and be socially applauded. We like to donate to charity in the spirit of helping those who are in need, but we often fail to ask where we could make a donation to help the most people, and we are good at finding ways of making our donation very visible so that everyone knows what we donated.

 

These hidden motives are not all bad, but they do exist and in many ways drive our behavior. We need to be aware of our hidden motives and our capability of acting on them. When we are honest with ourselves about why we do what we do, we can start to have more agency in our lives and the choices we make. We can start to see that much of what we do is purely status seeking behavior, and we can ask ourselves if it is truly worth it or if we can step back and let go of our hidden motives on a case by case basis. We can shape policy in a way that redirects externatilities from our hidden motives toward positive outcomes rather than toward negative self-serving outcomes. We don’t have to evolve away from hidden motives to meaningfully engage with the world, but we should recognize them and do our best to prevent negative hidden motivations from driving our emotions, behaviors, and decisions.

A Harmful Sentiment

I am fascinated with tribalism. We all have a part of us that looks around at the world and recognizes who is like us, who is different from us, what people are part of our family, and how people in our group behave. Everyone in our in-group stands above the people in our out-groups. Those “others” seem to take on any negative qualities that we want to assign to them. People who are less wealthy than the people in our tribe are less intelligent or lazy, and that is why they are not as well off. People who are doing better than our tribe financially are greedy or privileged elites and don’t really understand what it is like to be a true American. Our tribe, however, is full of hard working, smart, and all around good people.

 

We all seem to share these tribal tendencies, and they can be harmful when we start to pull into our own group and ascribe negative qualities to all the other groups out there. Colin Wright addresses our tribal behaviors in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be by looking at “America First” from a tribal perspective. Wright describes the benefits of a globalized community and population. Using the insights, developments, and tools created around the world to raise the standard of living for everyone, and not just to use discoveries in one part of the world to improve that part of the world. He writes, “People in the US should be taken care of, certainly, but to paint our relationships in those terms [America First] implies that we have to be utterly selfish and introverted in our dealings with others, when in fact, being more open and generous will bear much greater fruit. That sharing our strengths and celebrating the strengths of others is somehow detrimental to our well-being is an ignorant idea easily sold to a mistrustful populace.”

 

Wright argues that America First trumps up some of the worst aspects of our tribal nature. It highlights who is in our tribe and who is outside of our tribe and focuses solely on increasing the status of those in our tribe. The sentiment abandons the idea that improving the lives of everyone will improve our own lives, and seeks only to expand the economy, fortunes, and standards of living within our own tribe. This may work and we may have great prosperity for the few who are part of our tribe, but putting ourselves ahead of others so openly and blatantly while also denigrating those outside our tribe may create extreme mistrust and anger. Stability, fairness, and long-term well-being may be sacrificed in our selfish quest to primarily enrich ourselves.

Recognition is Empty

At some point in human history, we were living in small tribes of maybe 50 to 250 people and we were evolving ever more complex brains because our small political groups put pressure on our ancestors to be socially skilled in order to pass on their genes. In a small social tribe, actions and motivations mattered. There was a pressure to do good and impressive things and to appear to be doing those things for noble rather than vain reasons, but it was also not enough to just do good, you had to be noticed by your tribe. You had to make sure your status improved, that people saw you doing positive and noteworthy things so that you could progress up the social hierarchy of the tribe and be permitted to pass your genes along. The traits that flowed from these evolutionary social group pressures are still with us, but the need to seen doing physically and socially impressive things in order to pass our genes to the next generation (and potentially even just to survive on a daily basis with the help of some friends/allies) is mostly gone. This leaves us in an awkward place where our brains still want to impress people and climb up a social ladder (remember that our ancestors social ladder was only about 50 to 250 people tall) in a world where we can connect with millions of people and where competition for security, shelter, food, and a partner just isn’t as life threateningly dramatic as it was one hundred thousands years ago.

 

Pushing back against some of these natural feeling and evolutionary favored behaviors can actually lead to a more fulfilling and meaningful life. This is at the center of the idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego is the Enemy. Holiday encourages us to avoid acting in the interest of our ego, which is to say he encourages us not to act out of our own self-interest with the intent to be seen and with the intent to deliberately rise up the social hierarchy. We can certainly do that and we will have lots of opportunities in our live to chose that path, but Holiday argues that to live a more fulfilling and complete life today, we should look to do great work as opposed to simply being impressive to other people. Regarding a fulfilling life Holiday writes, “It’s about the doing, not the recognition.”

 

This quote has stayed with me and helped me think about why I do some of the things I do and how I chose to do those things. I could go work out in the gym and make sure I take up as much space as possible and exercise as extravagantly as possible so that everyone sees how physically impressive I am. Or, I could find a spot that doesn’t interfere with other people and doesn’t necessarily put me in the center of attention and I could focus on making sure I really do the exercises that matter to keep me fit, healthy, and injury free. I might get stronger with both strategies, but the first strategy is really about my ego and about being seen, where the second approach is actually about health and physical development. I believe much of life is like this.

 

We can make excuses for doing the flashy things that help us rise through the social ladder and we can lie to ourselves and others about our motives for doing those things (our brains literally evolved in small groups to do this). However, with several billion people on the planet, we hit a point where this strategy is counter productive if we actually want to be fulfilled and content with our lives and actions. We no longer live in the small tribes we evolved for, and we have more options to make an impact for the people in our lives and societies in which we live. We no longer need to set out to make sure we are seen and recognized for doing great work to build allies for survival. We will likely receive all the recognition we need from the people who matter most in our lives if we set out to do good without setting out to build a reputation. Part of us may still want that recognition and be happy when we receive it obliquely (maybe even more happy to receive it this way) which is fine. The point is that we can be more content and fulfilled when we take this oblique path to success and recognition and build habits and work that are about doing and not about being applauded.