Republicans quite literally think differently than we do

This post is part of an ongoing series looking at the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.

Last week, I began this series by pointing out that we all like to believe that we are conscious and rational in our political thoughts: We think, therefore we decide.

But this is not entirely the case, as a host of factors outside of our conscious control affect our behavior.

What I should have mentioned then, and will mention now, is that just because we aren’t 110 percent conscious in forming our political attitudes and behaviors does not mean that we aren’t rational. We just have to think of rational as a subjective, rather than objective, adjective.

We tend to think of rationality as “thoughts and actions that lend themselves to a utilitarian, objective good.” When two people disagree, one of them is rational and one of them isn’t; one of them is right and the other is wrong. To put this in real-world terms, your opinion on Obamacare doesn’t depend on where you sit; the statement “Obamacare is good public policy” is either objectively true or objectively false, and your “rationality” hinges on whether or not you align yourself with the correct answer.

But what if those two people, through no conscious or deliberative fault of their own, are wired to value different things, leading them to consider different courses of action “good” and therefore “rational”? If where you stand depends on where you sit, rationality cannot be considered a universal or objective pursuit. Instead, it varies from individual to individual, and is therefore subjective.

This is the premise adopted by Rational Choice Theory, an arm of political science, sociology and economics which stipulates that humans, being self-interested, will act in ways which maximize utility in accordance with their individual set of preferences and incentives. Plato alluded to this phenomenon in the Apology of Socrates when Socrates defends himself by arguing that no one harm themselves voluntarily; they only act in ways that seem best at the time, and if doing so harms them they were either ignorant or mistaken. If we think of our minds as setting our preferences, and our environment as setting our incentives, we can start to explain behavior.

Thinking via Shutterstock

Thinking via Shutterstock

But preferences and incentives are not created equal. Our values tend to override, or inform, our incentives. What else would allow the religious right to convince themselves that marriage equality will destroy heterosexual marriage? Why else would they spend so much time and energy on something that has no bearing on their lives? Their Sanctity/Degradation moral foundation creates a preference for discrimination that overrides any objectively logical incentive for them to, in so many words, mind their own damn business.

In a more academic example, a Yale study showed “that assessments of current and expected future economic performance are more positive when a respondent’s partisanship matches that of the president,” which led respondents to spend more money than their economically-equal  partisan opponents when their party was in power. In short, given equal objective incentives (financial situation), our internal preferences (ideology) can significantly alter our behavior.

Again, in psychological terms, this makes sense. Our ability to consciously evaluate and deliberate occurs in our prefrontal cortex, a brain structure that is much younger than structures associated with our limbic system and temporal lobes. As I mentioned in my first post, evolution is a tinkerer, not a builder; the prefrontal cortex doesn’t exist to replace functions performed by earlier structures, it exists to inform them and complement them (as an interesting aside, one of the best examples I’ve heard of this is the evolution of independent finger movement).

Since these earlier structures are still, in effect, in charge, they get the first crack at interpreting outside information. When we receive auditory input (hearing the word “taxes,” for example) it is processed by collections of neurons in the brain stem and thalamus first; it is then organized and interpreted by our limbic system and other structures in our temporal lobes before any activity in our prefrontal cortex occurs. Many of these temporal and limbic structures not only govern language interpretation, they also play crucial and unconscious roles in memory recall and goal pursuit. Moreover, the areas of our brain that are associated with rationality and conscious decision making are located in the sub-cortical, as well as cortical regions.

So, in the spirit of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, we can start to see why, when tensions between an individual’s incentives and preferences arise, preferences tend to win: they come first.

As Antonio Damasio noted in his book, Descartes’ Error, “Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it.” In short, by the time we consciously recognize and interpret the word, “taxes,” it has already been filtered by a series of brain structures in our pre-conscious minds that have a tremendous amount of influence on our behavior. Because of this, “taxes” is not interpreted neutrally; it comes with our pre-conscious minds’ slant regarding what “taxes” means to us.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the cries of “can’t we all just get along?” from the public often go unheeded by both members of Congress and your conservative uncle on Facebook. Our differences are derived from far more than simply one of us being right and one of us being stupid, they’re derived from real, and often intractable, differences in how we think.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at socialization, processing of new information over time and how this explains political moderates.


Jon Green is a graduate of Kenyon College with a degree in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. A veteran of the campaigns of Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and President Obama in 2012, he writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @JonGreen8, and on Google+. .

Share This Post

  • condew

    I take it you believe that people should work purely for the “joy” of being employed, and that if the task makes a great deal of money, it’s OK if the one who did the work gets none of it? You can’t eat “cool”. “cool” does not give you a place to live, educate your children, or take care of you in your old age.

  • JF Sebastian

    So I take it that you believe everyone who do not own their own business is a fool? Some jobs are just cool, like being a jet pilot. Does everything have to be about economic screw jobs with you people? Team work, cultural objectives, family atmosphere of quality living…not everything has to be viewed from a Marxist-religious view of the world. Love really is all you need… (Money is fake, by the way).

  • JF Sebastian

    So voluntarily submitting oneself to being a cog in the wheel of the “collective” is considered a latter day new brain experiment? I HAVE read that liberalism is genetic. We seem to be achieving critical mass in recent times. Maybe the self-aware can pretend to go along and thusly actually control the levers when everyone voluntarily accepts being automatons. Russia, Cuba, China…THAT’S livin’!!!

  • http://twitter.com/BillFromDover Bill from Dover

    “Show me where you think a baby was on the field?”

    Hint: did ya read this: I thought this was tackle football…”

  • hollywoodstein

    Wow, I can challenge someone to challengeTthe Morro Bay Point at the place of dozens of repetitious white encounters, and eatings have occurred and multiple bites/eats places, and no one will flinch because they did not happen at previously approved, insurance updates.com

  • hollywoodstein

    Show me where you think a baby was on the field?

  • hollywoodstein

    thanks whoever, I used to know who liked me and didn’t like me but what was lost to metirics.. No concern. good riddance.

  • hollywoodstein

    yes ( no puns intended ) now you hafta clear these no puns intended posts. sad.
    Thanks John.

  • hollywoodstein

    When other refs haven’t even read the rulebook, I am sorry you are wrong. You are mistaking others being silent about this for others being scared that Dad is angry.

  • http://fighttherightwingnuts.blogspot.com/ mike31c

    So, what you are saying is that god made republicans the ignorant and bigoted cretins they make themselves to be…

  • Naja pallida

    The problem there is that most of what government takes from them goes to corporations too. In red states, their legislatures are black holes where tax payer money gets sucked in, and the people see little to no benefit. Their schools systems still suck, their roads are still crappy, their health care is still scraping the bottom of the barrel. Etc, etc. I understand why someone living in Texas would resent paying taxes. That money just gets dumped into Exxon’s profits. It’s the people in states that do see a decent return on their tax payer dollar that make no sense to me. A Massachusetts Republican that has seen first-hand how tax payer money can improve health care, improve jobs, improve schools, but yet still can’t bring themselves to realize that those are good and necessary things to a functioning and prosperous society.

  • GetAware

    ^^^^^^^ Where is the “ref” on this one?

  • Glaisne

    Republicans are greedy, selfish, brain damaged morons.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Once you’ve been a dick, people respond to you in a like manner. You don’t get to claim victimhood when you started the fight, sorry. Start treating people with some respect and these brawls won’t happen.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    No, even tackle football has rules. When you’re simply trying to hurt the other guy, the ref steps in. You’re being mean, not constructive.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Fascinating topic, and I do appreciate these cerebral (no pun intended) discussions. That is, posts that make me ponder.

    I suppose in many ways this ties into modern political advertising and consulting, ala Frank Luntz, who’s made his career out of taking concepts that few would support or agree with, and finding just the new label to turn it into a media meme pushing a specific agenda every time the term is used. Thus estate taxes become ‘death taxes’ — even though the whole point originally was that inheritance taxes were intended only to affect ‘estates’, that is, people who had a lot of money to begin with and not regular folks. Transposing it into the new, albeit less accurate term activates that lizard brain (“I’m afraid of death! Death bad!”) and simultaneously fools the less-informed into thinking the tax will affect them and their modest nest eggs when they pass on.

    Medical treatment efficacy review committees staffed by professional physicians become ‘death panels.’ Opposition to LGBT rights becomes ‘protecting the children.’ Torture becomes ‘enhanced interrogation.’ We don’t even have enemy soldiers to fight anymore — now they’re ‘illegal combatants’ and ‘enemy insurgents.’ Why? Probably because there are positive associations with the word ‘soldier’ and the powers that be don’t want us thinking the other side might have a point, about not wanting to have their country occupied by foreign armies. And so on.

    In each case, whether consciously or not, the attempt is made to recast a particular issue in such a way that it not only activates the emotional limbic hind-brain, but it does so to elicit a bias in decision making and popular opinion. Even when the recasting is illogical, inaccurate, or deliberately misleading — I think in large part because the stronger the limbic activation, the more likely it is people will ignore the logic and go with their ‘truthiness’ (thanks Mr. Colbert) gut feeling.

  • hollywoodstein

    Well you can’t now, it’s been censored.

  • vasilev

    please help me! have urgent need of money to pay for electricity! help I would be extremely obliged to you! donate at least one dollar or one euro! bill me:BIC-BPBIBGSF number:BG33BPBI79301030798904 thank you!!!

  • hollywoodstein

    You are right, these are provocative questions. They deserve knowledgeable treatment. That isn’t happening.

  • nicho

    Well, I can see this thread isn’t even worth weighing in on. Too bad.,it’s a provocative topic.

  • hollywoodstein

    So others can insult me and I cannot fire back.
    Okay.

  • hollywoodstein

    I thought this was tackle football, not touch. Vicious, I think not. Truthful I think yes.

  • hollywoodstein

    yes, because you were having such a scintillating discussion of the topic before I dropped in and ruined it all.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Yes it was, and I hadn’t seen it until now. Hopefully he gets the point that stating your opinion is one thing, being vicious and rude and personal quite another.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    You’re being extremely rude, and personal. Stop it.

  • condew

    He honors us by indicating that he considers what we are discussing is so important, he’s willing to spend his last brain cell to try and disrupt it.

  • hollywoodstein

    Whatta surprise, someone else who does not understand the science or lack thereof behind this series of posts.

  • hollywoodstein

    Pile on, the point remains.

  • condew

    It was a surprise to me that a “small business” is a business with a small number of owners, not a small annual profit; but that just makes the conservative lies worse.

  • hollywoodstein

    crickets, crickets.

  • condew

    OK, troll.

  • condew

    In conversations with my conservative sparring partner, he said that he understands that he must make $4 for his employer for every $1 he gets in salary. He also resents every dime he must pay in taxes. I would expect him to resent the entity that takes away 75% of his productivity more than the entity that takes away about 10% of it. This is a characteristic I see repeatedly in conservatives; what corporations take is somehow not a concern, but what the government takes is outrageous; in fact they resent when the government “gets in the way of private enterprise” and makes “private enterprise” gouge less.

    I suppose we can both agree that only getting to keep about 15% of what you produce is a pretty poor ratio.

  • hollywoodstein

    read the post prior to this if you want a beginning of the criticism of the substance of this post.

  • hollywoodstein

    Maybe you can teach us some more great white biology from your keyboard.

  • hollywoodstein

    Such as it is.

  • hollywoodstein

    The problem is you do not know enough science to be dismayed by this series of posts. I am meaningless and inconsequential, and not worth your time.

  • hollywoodstein

    Dive the Farallons solo. Double dog dare you.

  • Drew2u

    Diqus doesn’t have an ignore button, does it. Just flag the posts and pray.

  • Drew2u

    I’m not talking down to anyone; the Edit button is there for a reason.

  • http://firefeeder.blogspot.com/ Stratplayer

    I don’t see much substance in your criticism of the post, but that’s not the problem. The problem is your threadjacking through extended flurries of single-sentence comments. It’s weird and obnoxious and does nothing to advance your point, such as it is.

  • hollywoodstein

    Go swim in Morro Bay. Then you can talk down to me.

  • hollywoodstein

    Even better yet, get Haidt himself, he is a gadfly, he’d prolly do it for free. Then everyone can see for themselves.

  • Drew2u

    Thank you for the insight. (Also, you CAN go back and edit your own post if you have anything more to add. You’re starting to sound a little schizophrenic and a few of us are worried)

  • hollywoodstein

    But if you feel free to get lectured about a subject as simple as human nature by a college sophomore, then feel free to call me a troll.

  • hollywoodstein

    and small business owners, closing loopholes and energy are redefined so that they do not mean what people think they mean.

  • hollywoodstein

    actually it is.

  • hollywoodstein

    Maybe if you knew the science behind the post you would be less annoyed by the commenting and more annoyed by the post.

  • http://firefeeder.blogspot.com/ Stratplayer

    Now that’s some seriously annoying trolling there by hollywoodstein.

  • hollywoodstein

    with sciencey links.

  • hollywoodstein

    But Now Improved.

  • hollywoodstein

    Dear god, it’s like watching a pop psychologist on the Dinah Shore show.

  • Indigo

    In short, humans are from Earth, Republicans are from Uranus.

  • hollywoodstein

    The sex must be fantastic.

  • hollywoodstein

    I’ll give you a bottle from my cellar, whatever it takes.stop the madness.

  • hollywoodstein

    pretty please.

  • hollywoodstein

    Please editors, you have a great blog. Do not discredit it with the ramblings of a sophomore.

  • hollywoodstein

    My wine cellar doesn’t have enough bottles left.

  • hollywoodstein

    Oh, for the love of god, there’s more to come,
    “Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at socialization, processing of new information over time and how this explains political moderates.”

  • hollywoodstein

    Many editors do not know science, as is apparent here. Please if you are going to go down this road, get someone with some seasoning.

  • hollywoodstein

    I blame the editors.

  • hollywoodstein

    Oh good lord, he continues to speak.

  • Drew2u

    So, Boehner’s dereliction of duty and when he stated that taxes are, “stealing from the people” is reinforcing the negative conservative mind.
    And – Definitions matter, then. Things like “Small Business Owners”, “Closing Loopholes”, and “energy” are based on assumption-of-definition without being specifically defined and categorized so that the conversation can start with an even-ground understanding by all persons involved.

© 2014 AMERICAblog News. All rights reserved. · Entries RSS