This post concludes an ongoing series looking at the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.
Over the course of the last two weeks, I’ve run a series of posts with the following question in mind: How much of our political thought process, and therefore behavior, do we have conscious control over?
So far, the answer has been “less than we may have initially thought.”
- Political thought is no different than other forms of thought which we do not think of as “fully conscious.”
- Various collections of genes combine to provide a “first draft” of our moral and political attitudes.
- Unconscious primes, among other environmental factors, can have profound effects on political behavior.
- This extends to the polling place; where you vote can affect how you vote.
- Our ideology is grounded in moral foundations, which structure and frame how we interpret political and moral information.
- Given these non-conscious factors, differences in opinion are often a result of fundamentally different thought processes; we aren’t all wired the same way.
- While nature provides our “first draft,” ideology is then conditioned over time by our environment; if you’re lukewarm or indifferent on an issue, chances are you haven’t been exposed to a high level of relevant information.
- Through both conscious and unconscious processes, we often trick ourselves into irrational behavior when we evaluate our present value by comparing it to the past.
The question remains, how much room is left for our conscious minds to influence our behavior? As it turns out, still quit a bit. As I wrote for the Kenyon Observer last year, there’s a handy game you can play to determine if a thought process is conscious or not:
Person 1 must hold the number 9,345,231 in their head while Person 2 lists a series of nouns, some neutral (car, cloud, dog, etc.) and some that are socially-charged (Mexican, gay, woman, etc.). Person 1 must word-associate these nouns as quickly as they can while keeping the large number in their head. Then, the exercise is repeated while Person 1 thinks of the number three, a much smaller number.
…If it takes the same amount of time for the person to respond regardless of how large their “cognitive load” is (9,345,231 is a lot harder to remember than three), that means the association requires no conscious deliberation and is therefore automatic. If, on the other hand, it takes more time to respond when thinking of a big number, that means that the thoughts in question have a conscious component to them.
This game is hard; in my experience, most people find themselves taking longer to word-associate the socially-charged nouns than the neutral nouns.
The game shows us that if we are thinking past our gut feelings our thoughts are, at least in part, consciously-driven. A visceral, immediate reaction to the word “taxes” cannot be considered very conscious. On the other hand, when we find ourselves taking more than a split second to think about what we’re hearing (if we “check our gut”), that thought process can be said to be more than a squirrel-like response to a stimulus.
Naturally, it’s a lot easier to check your gut if you acknowledge that your gut exists. Because of this, acknowledging that we do not have complete control over our political attitudes and behaviors is the first step towards consciously overriding many of our unconscious processes.
As I wrote in the first post of this series, the prefrontal cortex of our brain is, in evolutionary terms, a new structure. Since evolution is a tinkerer, not a builder, that means that the prefrontal cortex evolved to augment and improve upon, not replace, the cognitive structures that were already there.
While, in many cases, our conscious mind serves as a lawyer for the unconscious, rationalizing the last slice of pizza or bias against “different” people, catching ourselves in these rationalizations can allow us to use our conscious minds as a check on our unconscious.
Over the course of this series, I’ve done my best to draw upon recent and relevant academic literature from the fields of psychology, political science, economics, biology and neuroscience. While each of these fields treat the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds differently, they increasingly point toward a significant role for unconscious processes in our political attitudes and behaviors. Increased dialogue between psychologists, biologists, neuroscientists and political scientists could yield fascinating discoveries; we have only scratched the surface of our political consciousness.