They say that politics and religion are to be avoided in polite company, as they are likely to cause an argument. This is perhaps one of the dumbest social norms we have, as moral and political disagreement has been essential to our survival for millennia. If you don’t agree, let’s argue about it.
Let’s start with three simple facts about human beings:
1) The human brain evolved sequentially over time from simpler versions of itself (evolution tinkers, it doesn’t build from scratch);
2) the brain evolved to quickly identify patterns and respond to them, not to deduce truths through formal logic; and
3) human beings as a whole evolved to be social, omnivorous mammals.
These three facts have far-reaching implications concerning how we interact with one another: As our society has evolved far faster than our bodies, we’ve been left with 21st Century politics, ancient brains and the question as to how to reconcile the two.
The brain evolved on the fly
In the philosophy of science, Neurath’s Raft refers to the idea that science only makes progress in reference to itself. If you want to repair a raft while you’re already on the river, you have to stand on an existing plank of the raft at any given time; you can’t ever stop and build the whole raft over again. Evolution operates much in the same way: species never get to pause and start over; they instead make slight adaptations based on what already exists.
The anatomy of the human brain is perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon: while the details are obviously a bit more complicated, as a general rule the closer you get to the forehead and the farther away you get from the brain stem, the more complex and less-evolved the structure in question is. In other words, our brain evolved by building on itself from the bottom-up since it couldn’t replace what was already there.
Consciousness, which primarily resides in a small subset of outer-brain neuroanatomical regions, is the newest and, by extension, least-evolved addition to our cognitive arsenal. Importantly, as a corollary to the evolutionary Neurath’s Raft, it developed to improve upon, not replace, the structures that came before and reside below it. This means that the human brain in its current form is one in which conscious processes interpret and react to unconscious processes that are still very much “in charge.” To this point, the neocortex is in constant dialogue with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a structure that sits between the neocortex and the limbic system (responsible for emotional processing, among other things) and regulates which stimuli warrant conscious awareness.
In short, even consciousness is regulated by unconscious processes – in layman’s terms, we call this selective attention. When the brain is unable to efficiently regulate what should and should not reach consciousness, we call it schizophrenia, and the disorder in part lies in the ACC.
The brain we have is the result of millions of years of primate evolution, and it shows. As we’ll see, when placed in the 21st Century and tasked with the responsibility of answering some very complicated questions, it reverts to eons-old heuristics in order to come up with workable solutions.
The brain doesn’t function like a computer
Early cognition was simple pattern recognition in response to stimuli; find a reflex that works and figure out the details later (this is why you involuntarily jump when you hear sudden loud noises). The way in which we currently process information is only a few steps more removed from that: our behavior is still founded upon the recognition of patterns and the selection of appropriate responses to those patterns. Over time, these behaviors become ingrained in networks of neurons that are activated more efficiently as the same, or similar, stimuli are presented.
The kicker here is that these networks of neurons need not be internally consistent, hence our varied reactions when logically identical situations are presented in different frames. The same person can be equally moved in opposite directions when it comes to supporting or opposing expanding the social safety net when it’s phrased as “aiding the poor” or “expanding welfare,” as the two phrases activate different arrays of neural networks. You can call that hypocritical, but you also have to call it natural, and we’re all susceptible to similar hypocrisies.
You’ll notice that this depiction of human cognition violates one of the principles required of rational actors, namely that the actor respond to situations which will produce identical outcomes in identical ways. A rational actor should be indifferent to framing effects concerning political issues, but we all know that’s not the case (“gay marriage” vs. “marriage equality,” “abortion” vs. “reproductive health,” etc.). The reason why these effects persist is that they are literally activating different parts of our brains and, therefore, the incoming political information is processed differently.
Unless they’re consciously laid bare, our mind has no need to iron out the kinks between these inconsistencies. However, when one is explicitly called out, we are prompted to refine our thinking and either rationalize or modify our predisposition. Sociologist Howard Margolis calls this the “seeing-that”/”reasoning why” process of judgment. Normally, simply “seeing-that” a given response conforms to our understanding of the world is a perfectly serviceable and efficient strategy to take; only when “seeing-that” proves insufficient is it necessary to consciously grapple with our existing mode of thought. By extension, this means that we can only learn and improve the process by which we evaluate information if we have someone to push us to provide reasons.
In other words, the brain evolved to be emotional and efficient at the expense of being logical or consistent. While this form of cognition is essential for survival, it is also prone to error, which can be disastrous in more complex situations, as we essentially sacrificed objectivity and consistency for decisiveness. What makes the tradeoff evolutionarily sustainable is a social environment in which errors are called out and corrected. Emotional, internally inconsistent, pattern-seeking humans are interdependent on each other to tell them when they’re wrong. In this way, large-scale rationality emerges from individual-level non-rationality.
21st Century politics and morality evolved from ancient adaptive advantage
However, this only works if there is variation of thought and interaction between those variations, which brings me to the last plank of my argument: humans evolved ideological diversity as a consequence of overcoming the omnivore’s dilemma concerning what to eat. The theory, posed by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, goes like this:
For carnivores, the decision as to what to eat is fairly straightforward. For herbivores, it’s only slightly more complicated, but as a general rule it’s safe to eat green things. However, omnivores in competition with each other for calories have to decide how exploratory they want to be when it comes to ingesting the things they find in nature: be too picky and your competitors will get more calories and have more offspring, washing you out of the gene pool; too exploratory, and you eat the wrong things and die off, exiting the gene pool even more quickly.
The key to winning this evolutionary game isn’t to get lucky and evolve into a species that just “gets” exactly what is and isn’t OK to eat, especially as new species of plants and animals are constantly dying off and being introduced into the environment. The species that wins is the species that includes a variety of adventurous and picky eaters – one could safely call them liberals and conservatives – that form an equilibrium throughout the population. Remnants of this evolutionary process show up on ideological lines. Conservatives register more marked physiological reactions to disgusting images than liberals. Conservatives today are also, on average, pickier eaters, and are even more likely to carry the gene that makes one sensitive to phenylthiocarbamide (PTC), a chemical similar to the one found in cilantro that makes the plant taste bad for some and not others.
And as society gets more complex and the big questions begin to move beyond what to eat, similar ideological equilibria emerge. As questions concerning how to interact with outsiders, how to orient oneself towards authority and how to punish those who violate the social contract arise, communities that allow varied answers to compete for public acceptance will be more sustainable than communities in which one dogma dominates. And when it comes to these questions, self-described liberals and conservatives are predisposed to serve different functions when it comes to answering them. This is true down to our cognitive physiology and behavior: On average, conservatives have larger amygdalae, the brain structure most closely associated with threat perception, than liberals. Unsurprisingly, they were also less-distracted by nearby stimuli than liberals when tasked with identifying an angry face as being angry in a laboratory setting.
There are two extremely important caveats here, both of which Haidt makes in his book: First, while ideological orientations (and the propensity to participate in politics at all) are in part genetic, biology is not wholly deterministic. As cognitive scientist Gary Marcus notes, “Built-in does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.” Second, none of this evidence alone makes either ideological orientation better or worse a priori; it just makes them different – different to the point at which the two groups really do consider morality across fundamentally different channels. In other words, the liberal and conservative sides of the ideological spectrum evolved together, and it’s likely that neither would be sustainable alone.
So, with all this taken together, what we’re left with is a species in which disagreement about the big questions concerning how best to live is both inevitable and necessary. We need to push each other on our beliefs and actions, as that is both how we learn and society progresses. The individual mind is too primitive to answer large-scale social and moral questions alone.
But don’t we suck at arguing?
Well, kinda. But we’re good enough to make it work.
In a twist of sad irony, it seems as though the reasons why we have to argue are also the reasons why we argue so inefficiently. That our brain processes political information via an emotional, associative process instead of a cool, calculated one means that we are unlikely to readily admit when we’re wrong. To that point, when a team of researchers set about using hard data to challenge participants’ beliefs concerning politically-charged information, they found that the more mathematically competent you were, the less likely you were to change your mind in the face of evidence. For the participants, and fitting with the model of the brain outlined above, conclusions came first, and those who understood data were able to rationalize their positions more effectively than participants who couldn’t explain away the numbers.
And this is why Reddit (and, I’m sorry to say, the comments section on this article) isn’t the saving grace of American democracy. Just because you have two people who disagree with each other talking doesn’t mean that the result will be in any way productive. However, argumentation oriented towards amicable compromise and agreeable outcomes is both possible and useful on a large scale. If that sounded too unicorns-and-rainbows-y, take a look at the participatory budgeting process, first pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
The process goes something like this: A percentage of the city’s budget is set aside to be allocated by deliberative bodies of regular citizens. In a typical example, a city is divided up into a number of regions, which are then divided up into neighborhoods (think wards and voting precincts), who then meet to discuss how best to allocate the budget. Decisions are made by majority vote, but not before everyone who wants to speak has spoken. Neighborhoods then elect representatives to argue for their district’s interests at regional meetings, where the budget is finalized and sent to the mayor for approval. If the mayor vetoes the budget, the regional council can either modify their budget or override the veto with a two-thirds vote.
If you’re familiar with American political science, this probably sounds a lot like Robert Putnam and his work on social capital (Bowling Alone, Making Democracy Work, etc.), since you’re bringing people together to talk politics, but the PB actually goes a few steps beyond Putnam to address two major criticisms of his theory: First, even if you can get people to go bowling together, who says that they’re going to talk about politics? Second, the civic traditions that made democracy work so much better in southern Italy than in the civically-barren north also made fascism work better, suggesting that civic traditions make government work better, not just democracy.
In places where participatory budgets are implemented along the lines of the one modeled above, citizens’ standard of living and overall wellbeing immediately improve. As the participatory budget in Porto Alegre cut out clientelism and graft in the political process, money was freed up for schools, roads and basic public services, such as sewage. Furthermore, and more relevant to Putnam, regardless as to how the budget gets divided up, opening up governance to participatory processes improves citizenship, as measured by the number of neighborhood associations, cooperatives and other organizations pertaining to local governance, as well as lower levels of tax evasion and higher voter turnout. While Putnam’s theory seems to suggest that civic traditions are in the historical cards for some and not others, cities’ experiences with participatory budgeting suggest that you can create civic traditions where few previously existed, making the whole democratic system function more smoothly.
The biggest cause for skepticism in processes like this is that the discussion will be dominated by more sophisticated citizens. However, in Porto Alegre, while education and gender initially affected whether or not a citizen spoke up, by the time a citizen had attended three meetings the only significant predictor of their participation was how many meetings they had attended. As noted by the researchers who were observing the process, repeated deliberation elevated the political capacity of ordinary citizens and led them to establish collaborative relationships with citizens both in and out of their neighborhoods.
The success of the participatory budget jives with what we’d expect given the evolution and functionality of our brains. Political argumentation is, in many ways, the sharpening of mind on mind through reasoned speech: When we put competing interests and thought processes in the same room and pit them against each other until an agreement emerges, everyone is elevated a little bit; materially, socially and intellectually. So long as the institutional framework is such that a fight can be avoided, an argument is healthy.
So, the next time you find yourself at dinner and someone mentions the 2014 elections, don’t change the subject. Sit up in your chair and have an argument, keeping in mind that your interlocutor may not be evil, or even wrong. Believe it or not, you will quite literally making our species slightly more viable in the long term.
For a far lengthier account of this and other topics related to political cognition, you can download my senior honors thesis here.