We all consider ourselves rational beings.
Our thoughts and decisions seem to be based on a logical deduction that allows us to derive good from bad, and right from wrong.
Because of this, we often find that when we come across someone who disagrees with us, especially on political issues, they aren’t just wrong; something about the way they are thinking must be off, or at least different, compared to ours.
Evidence from outside of political science is beginning to show that this is exactly the case, but not because we are rational or conscious in our line of thinking. In fact, it is due to our unconscious minds that these political differences occur. From twin studies to research on unconscious priming, factors outside of our control and attention have an overwhelming level of influence on the way we deliberate, argue and vote.
This idea isn’t particularly new for areas outside of politics. Unconscious drives for food, sleep and sex are the reason we, despite our better judgement, can’t stop ourselves from eating the last cookie, hitting the snooze button in the morning or drunk-dialing our ex on the weekend.
We assume that because politics is somehow elevated in our cognitive framework, a higher pursuit than pizza or pornography, it is immune from these same base drives. But, no matter how highbrow or lowbrow, thought is thought; the same unconscious drives that apply to survival, apply to political debate.
This makes sense in terms of evolutionary biology. The conscious and sub-conscious portions of our minds are not only independent, but also evolved at different times.
The parts of our brain that make sure we survive long enough to reproduce (e.g., heartbeat, breathing, drives for food, sex, sleep) and react to the external world (e.g., reflexes, interpretation of auditory/visual cues) were present long before consciousness developed. Since our non-conscious brains were surviving on their own, conscious thought evolved not to control our non-conscious minds, but rather to increase human beings’ chances for survival by more efficiently directing their non-conscious drives.
Human evolution doesn’t start from scratch, it builds on what is already present. Our sub-conscious minds have remained dominant over our conscious minds because the neocortex and other brain structures that are responsible for conscious evaluation evolved as a new extension of the brain, not as an integrated mechanism.
Our conscious minds can guide our thought, but are still beholden to the same non-conscious drives that have dominated behavior since eons before humans existed.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be running a series of posts outlining evidence in the fields of biology, neuroscience, psychology, economics and political science which shows that we tend to give ourselves too much credit when taking stock of our objectivity, deliberative ability and control over our end-game decision making.
New knowledge of the lack of consciousness in political thought could change the way you look at yourself and, perhaps just as importantly, the way you look at those you disagree with.