Consciousness (or the lack thereof) in political thought

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.

Consciousness via Shutterstock

Consciousness via Shutterstock

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.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • dula

    Fear is irrational, and Conservatives have a larger fear center in their brain.

  • Jon Green

    You’re absolutely right, order of information is crucial. But would you consider that something you have control over? This is something I’ll address in a later article, but this gets into a nativist (all nature) vs. empiricist (environment) vs. constructivist (nature + environment) debate. Environment definitely matters, I’m just not so sure you can call our interactions with our environment conscious.

  • condew

    It should be an interesting series. In this first article, I think you overstate the case for basic subconscious drives. I believe the differences in conclusions come in large part because the order in which facts are presented seems to be as much, if not more important than the facts themselves. We all build an internal model of the world and each fact is judged and sometimes even discarded based on the partial sum we have already. In some cases, this makes sense. If you first learn that Ayn Rand is a liar, you then discard her philosophy as just more lies. On the other hand, if you learn her philosophy first, then facts, like she was a liar who accepted “entitlements” when it suited her needs, just bounce off.

  • perljammer

    I don’t think this is about what a dispassionate observer would conclude from observing the political process. This is about individuals who believe that the values and opinions they hold most dear vis a vis politics, are the products of rational, logical thought, when in fact they are heavily influenced by external forces beyond their control. This is how you get basically good people polarized into opposing political cadres, each believing that the other is made up of crazy, evil folks bent on the destruction of the country.

  • Indigo

    That’s a little confusing, Joe. I can’t agree 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.” Both dispassionate observers (from Mars?) and participants here on Earth express regular dismay at the “cirque du carnivale” that shrouds our political process. And yet we adrenalize and huff and puff our way through it all like NASCAR fans, shouting slurs at the bad guys and greeting our candidate with hurrahs of pheromones. There’s nothing rational in the process and we know it. Your classroom theoretician taught you otherwise, obviously, but your classroom theoretician misled you. Sorry about that but refocus your dissertation, please.

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