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.
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.