Peter G. Prontzos
Department of Political Science
Langara College Vancouver, B.C.
[Note: my scientific associate Bruce Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org) contributed valuable research for this essay].
Even though Al Gore won the presidential election in 2000, tens of millions of Americans voted for George W. Bush. Tens of millions voted for Bush again in 2004, despite the lies, the wars, and his obvious incompetence, ignorance, and arrogance. Such a high level of support was not rational, except perhaps from those who Bush once described as “the haves and have-mores”…“the elite”…”my base” (Fahrenheit 9/11). It’s hardly surprising that the wealthy and powerful would vote for someone who would make them even wealthier and more powerful. But what about all those, especially working people, who voted for a candidate committed to an agenda (e.g. increasing inequality, environmental destruction) which was against their own rational self-interest? Why were they fooled in such great numbers?
Some of the answers are obvious, such as the way that most of the media framed the issues and the greater corporate funding for Republicans. The power of such influential actors should not be “misunderestimated” (sic). These factors were more salient in 2004, following the terrorist attacks on September 11. In that election, Bush benefited from the “turn to authoritarian leaders and institutions for security” that fear often produces (Jost, 2003).
There are, however, other factors which account for much of the irrationality of those who “have-less” voting for a puppet of those who “have-more”: a view of the world (and themselves) that is neither conscious nor rational, but based largely on reflexive actions, unconscious feelings, and social conditioning - all of which can lower a person’s “emotional intelligence”. Such ideologies, “like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs” (Jost, op. cit.)
This essay will consider three levels of unconscious influences on political ideology.
First are the automatic processes which we have inherited from our remote ancestors, such as the “flight, flight, or freeze” response to perceived threats, and the tendency to be biased towards those ideas that make us feel better.
Second, are the effects that parenting, socialization, and modeling have on our thoughts and actions, as well as our view of ourselves and the world – our ideology. This conditioning may begin before birth, and have profound effects in later years.
A third critical driver of unconscious, irrational behaviour derives from the dynamics of the particular situation in which a person finds him or her self. Social psychology has shown that situations and the actions of peers can shape both an individual’s beliefs and behaviours.
I – THE AUTOMATIC BRAIN
Any explanation of human activity – including political behaviour and beliefs – that neglects the unconscious processes that shape our worldviews, our ideologies, is incomplete. Most of our thoughts and feelings are below the threshold of consciousness and, in the view of Cordelia Fine: “your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than you, and more powerful than you. It may even control you” (Fine, 2006).
Understanding these mental and emotional phenomena must begin with the fact that the human mind is embodied and that our ideas and feelings do not float around somewhere in the “mind”; rather, they are mental and emotional reflections of physical states of the brain and body and our relationships with the outside world (Siegel, 2012). The body is the basis of human subjectivity, while the mind, in turn, is an emergent quality – it developed from other abilities e.g. being aware of our environment, both external and internal.
A symphony provides a metaphor for the relationship between the body and the mind: while the music is created by people and their instruments, the music itself is something different, even though it is created by the physical actions of the musicians. The music cannot exist without the orchestra, of which it is an epiphenomenon.
And like music, the mind itself is a continuing, ever-changing process and not a static, eternal “thing”.
Second, the mind must be seen in the light of our primate past and in the context of how evolution shaped both brain and behaviour. Such traits as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, the tendency to perceive patterns with only minimal information, and the urge to deny what one does not like, do not support rational decision-making.
For instance, a study last year found that,
People who believe they would be bothered by a range of hypothetical disgusting situations display an increased likelihood of displaying right-of-center rather than left-of-center political orientations” (Smith, et al. 2011)…
Mounting evidence points to the relevance of subconscious factors in broad social, decision-making situations and in specifically political decision-making situations. The established role of such factors opens the door for the possible involvement of biological variables, including hormone and neurotransmitter levels and neural traits and patterns.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize (in economics!), points out, in his fascinating book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, that our unconscious mind is constantly making judgments and decisions of which we are mostly unaware. “Our minds are susceptible to systematic error”, in large part due to, “our excessive confidence in what we believe we know and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance,” as well as because of the inherent uncertainty about the world (2011).
Nevertheless, both thoughts and feelings are needed to make rational choices. Neuroscience has shown that clear thinking requires the careful engagement of one’s emotions, contrary to Descartes and much of the Western tradition. UC Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff (and Mark Johnson) have found that “everyday human reason does not fit this classical view of rationality at all.” While rational thought is assumed to be dispassionate, Lakoff and Johnson show that, “Emotional engagement… is an absolutely necessary component of means-end rationality” (1999).
They also argue that the capitalist view defining rationality as the pursuit of self-interest “makes no sense” given the unconsciousness of most reasoning, the existence of conflicting goals, and inconsistent understanding of “self-interest.” We are not “rational self-interest maximizers in the traditional [liberal] sense” (ibid).
The case for the economic “rational actor” whose decisions are not based on emotion (except, of course, by greed) is seriously deficient. The capitalist homo economicus is a “fictitious individual” because “human judgment may take shortcuts that systematically depart from rationality” (Altmann 2002: emphasis added). The new field of neuroeconomics is showing why so many “calculations of value” are not rational. Our decisions are determined by an almost endless number of factors, such as risk aversion, fear, wishful thinking, endowment effects (from ownership), lack of information, pre-conceptions, biases, and cognitive dissonance.