Sunday, May 20, 2012

Psychology and Ideology. How Could Anyone (Except the Rich) Vote for George Bush? By Peter Prontzos

This is the first of a serie of 6 articles by Peter Prontzos

Peter G. Prontzos
Department of Political Science
Langara College  Vancouver, B.C.

[Note: my scientific associate Bruce Wilson ( 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.


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.


  1. My first instinctive reaction to the first paragraph was that people see Bush as a winner because he's wealthy - and people who push for 'equality' and the like as losers. The latter are the "weak" people. People want to be part of the "winner" side.

    Is that wrong? Is it a factor? Don't know.

  2. Why are we fooled in such great numbers?

    Wonderful to read someone having both the knowledge, honesty and guts to present an in-depth-analysis to “why we are fooled in such great numbers”, over and over again. The three levels of unconscious influences in your essay will make a fascinating and a most needed intellectual connection to my life-changing primal experiences from Art’s Evolution in Reverse.

    To my comments, to Art’s Reflections on “The cost of neuroses”, the other day, I would have loved beeing able to add your last sentense:  “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.

    Looking forward to your next article!

    Jan Johnsson

  3. To all,

    “How Could Anyone (Except the Rich) Vote for George Bush?”

    My answer: Misery seeks company.
    If we know Bush we know who voted for him.
    Psychohistory can help finding the Answer:

  4. Three books I've recently read that present and demonstrate the reality and power of the pre-cognitive brain in everyday experiences, for good and for ill, are "The Hidden Brain" by Shankar Vedantam, "The Gift of Fear" by Guy deBecker, and "Nerve" by Taylor Clark. They complement and exemplify very well the neuroscientific presentation and elaboration of what's presented here. Vedantam's book has an entire chapter on how the hidden brain "elects presidents", quite beyond what we think we think and choose at election time.


Review of "Beyond Belief"

This thought-provoking and important book shows how people are drawn toward dangerous beliefs.
“Belief can manifest itself in world-changing ways—and did, in some of history’s ugliest moments, from the rise of Adolf Hitler to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1979. Arthur Janov, a renowned psychologist who penned The Primal Scream, fearlessly tackles the subject of why and how strong believers willingly embrace even the most deranged leaders.
Beyond Belief begins with a lucid explanation of belief systems that, writes Janov, “are maps, something to help us navigate through life more effectively.” While belief systems are not presented as inherently bad, the author concentrates not just on why people adopt belief systems, but why “alienated individuals” in particular seek out “belief systems on the fringes.” The result is a book that is both illuminating and sobering. It explores, for example, how a strongly-held belief can lead radical Islamist jihadists to murder others in suicide acts. Janov writes, “I believe if people had more love in this life, they would not be so anxious to end it in favor of some imaginary existence.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Beyond Belief is the author’s liberal use of case studies, most of which are related in the first person by individuals whose lives were dramatically affected by their involvement in cults. These stories offer an exceptional perspective on the manner in which belief systems can take hold and shape one’s experiences. Joan’s tale, for instance, both engaging and disturbing, describes what it was like to join the Hare Krishnas. Even though she left the sect, observing that participants “are stunted in spiritual awareness,” Joan considers returning someday because “there’s a certain protection there.”
Janov’s great insight into cultish leaders is particularly interesting; he believes such people have had childhoods in which they were “rejected and unloved,” because “only unloved people want to become the wise man or woman (although it is usually male) imparting words of wisdom to others.” This is just one reason why Beyond Belief is such a thought-provoking, important book.”
Barry Silverstein, Freelance Writer

Quotes for "Life Before Birth"

“Life Before Birth is a thrilling journey of discovery, a real joy to read. Janov writes like no one else on the human mind—engaging, brilliant, passionate, and honest.
He is the best writer today on what makes us human—he shows us how the mind works, how it goes wrong, and how to put it right . . . He presents a brand-new approach to dealing with depression, emotional pain, anxiety, and addiction.”
Paul Thompson, PhD, Professor of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine

Art Janov, one of the pioneers of fetal and early infant experiences and future mental health issues, offers a robust vision of how the earliest traumas of life can percolate through the brains, minds and lives of individuals. He focuses on both the shifting tides of brain emotional systems and the life-long consequences that can result, as well as the novel interventions, and clinical understanding, that need to be implemented in order to bring about the brain-mind changes that can restore affective equanimity. The transitions from feelings of persistent affective turmoil to psychological wholeness, requires both an understanding of the brain changes and a therapist that can work with the affective mind at primary-process levels. Life Before Birth, is a manifesto that provides a robust argument for increasing attention to the neuro-mental lives of fetuses and infants, and the widespread ramifications on mental health if we do not. Without an accurate developmental history of troubled minds, coordinated with a recognition of the primal emotional powers of the lowest ancestral regions of the human brain, therapists will be lost in their attempt to restore psychological balance.
Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D.
Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

Dr. Janov’s essential insight—that our earliest experiences strongly influence later well being—is no longer in doubt. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, immunology, and epigenetics, we can now see some of the mechanisms of action at the heart of these developmental processes. His long-held belief that the brain, human development, and psychological well being need to studied in the context of evolution—from the brainstem up—now lies at the heart of the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy.
Grounded in these two principles, Dr. Janov continues to explore the lifelong impact of prenatal, birth, and early experiences on our brains and minds. Simultaneously “old school” and revolutionary, he synthesizes traditional psychodynamic theories with cutting-edge science while consistently highlighting the limitations of a strict, “top-down” talking cure. Whether or not you agree with his philosophical assumptions, therapeutic practices, or theoretical conclusions, I promise you an interesting and thought-provoking journey.
Lou Cozolino, PsyD, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University

In Life Before Birth Dr. Arthur Janov illuminates the sources of much that happens during life after birth. Lucidly, the pioneer of primal therapy provides the scientific rationale for treatments that take us through our original, non-verbal memories—to essential depths of experience that the superficial cognitive-behavioral modalities currently in fashion cannot possibly touch, let alone transform.
Gabor Maté MD, author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction

An expansive analysis! This book attempts to explain the impact of critical developmental windows in the past, implores us to improve the lives of pregnant women in the present, and has implications for understanding our children, ourselves, and our collective future. I’m not sure whether primal therapy works or not, but it certainly deserves systematic testing in well-designed, assessor-blinded, randomized controlled clinical trials.
K.J.S. Anand, MBBS, D. Phil, FAACP, FCCM, FRCPCH, Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Senior Scholar, Center for Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System

A baby's brain grows more while in the womb than at any time in a child's life. Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives is a valuable guide to creating healthier babies and offers insight into healing our early primal wounds. Dr. Janov integrates the most recent scientific research about prenatal development with the psychobiological reality that these early experiences do cast a long shadow over our entire lifespan. With a wealth of experience and a history of successful psychotherapeutic treatment, Dr. Janov is well positioned to speak with clarity and precision on a topic that remains critically important.
Paula Thomson, PsyD, Associate Professor, California State University, Northridge & Professor Emeritus, York University

"I am enthralled.
Dr. Janov has crafted a compelling and prophetic opus that could rightly dictate
PhD thesis topics for decades to come. Devoid of any "New Age" pseudoscience,
this work never strays from scientific orthodoxy and yet is perfectly accessible and
downright fascinating to any lay person interested in the mysteries of the human psyche."
Dr. Bernard Park, MD, MPH

His new book “Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” shows that primal therapy, the lower-brain therapeutic method popularized in the 1970’s international bestseller “Primal Scream” and his early work with John Lennon, may help alleviate depression and anxiety disorders, normalize blood pressure and serotonin levels, and improve the functioning of the immune system.
One of the book’s most intriguing theories is that fetal imprinting, an evolutionary strategy to prepare children to cope with life, establishes a permanent set-point in a child's physiology. Baby's born to mothers highly anxious during pregnancy, whether from war, natural disasters, failed marriages, or other stressful life conditions, may thus be prone to mental illness and brain dysfunction later in life. Early traumatic events such as low oxygen at birth, painkillers and antidepressants administered to the mother during pregnancy, poor maternal nutrition, and a lack of parental affection in the first years of life may compound the effect.
In making the case for a brand-new, unified field theory of psychotherapy, Dr. Janov weaves together the evolutionary theories of Jean Baptiste Larmarck, the fetal development studies of Vivette Glover and K.J.S. Anand, and fascinating new research by the psychiatrist Elissa Epel suggesting that telomeres—a region of repetitive DNA critical in predicting life expectancy—may be significantly altered during pregnancy.
After explaining how hormonal and neurologic processes in the womb provide a blueprint for later mental illness and disease, Dr. Janov charts a revolutionary new course for psychotherapy. He provides a sharp critique of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, and other popular “talk therapy” models for treating addiction and mental illness, which he argues do not reach the limbic system and brainstem, where the effects of early trauma are registered in the nervous system.
“Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” is scheduled to be published by NTI Upstream in October 2011, and has tremendous implications for the future of modern psychology, pediatrics, pregnancy, and women’s health.