First: My seminar in genetic factors in political behavior, and the Hendricks conference, have been very valuable to me. I have already been able to use concepts and articles in this class in major papers for two others this semester. Eating with the guests, as well as listening to the final roundtable, were eye-opening experiences for me. The way this research crosses old lines is exciting. It feels wonderful to be able to take articles from Science, or Molecular Psychiatry, and combine with them political laboratory experiments to suggest new classroom teaching methods, for example. So much thought and effort has gone into these academic silos. It just feels good to apply them to each other.
Substantively: For instance, in an earlier reaction paper I criticized “identity” and “rationality.” Without going into to much detail, “identity” is how you would describe yourself to yourself in words while “rationality” is having good, explicit reasons for something. I was extremely skeptical of these claims when I learned them last semester, but I was limited in my “good reasons” against them. The best I could do was describe both as the outcome of a power-bargaining game, because what people say and write are goods than can be traded for other goods. I believe that is a solid criticism, and the readers and presentations for this week back me up.
Alvarez et al. look at how subconscious mental processes affect our view of someone’s trustworthiness. This and similar research questions the wisdom of relying on anything that takes cognition, because if we have learned such social interaction so well that it is now automatic (or have been evolved to survive society so well that it is now evoked) then why waist time on a slower and more error-prone conscious-linguistic-rational method?
This is especially true when we consider how easily manipulated we are. Tooby presents a model to show how outrage is an evolutionary adapted mechanism to signal a need for increased group cooperation. Likewise, Wolak & Marcus show us how anger and personality affect political behavior. Meanwhile, Mutz shows us how television camera position varies how much legitimacy we give those who agree with us.
Still, this raises an interesting problem. People are not built to be rational, because the mind has internal mechanisms which are faster and often better than rationality. Yet even these mechanisms can be manipulated by cunning others. And I think the word “cunning” is important here — merely knowing how to manipulate others (and perhaps oneself) into supporting different positions does not mean that the cunning person is rational — only that they have skill in manipulation. What should people in a democracy do when rational decisions and unconscious decisions are both such flawed mechanisms?
To me the answer is obvious, and comes from cognitive psychology. People get better at something the more they do it. A “ten year rule” seems to cover creativity, talent, and expertise in nearly every talent domain. The more you do something, the more you purposefully practice something, the better you get. At the same time, people have an inborn capacity for “learned helplessness,” where people save time for purposeful practice in a domain that matters to them by eschewing domains where they have less skill (and thus, have practiced less). Thus: politics should be left to the experts.
This approach is fully compatible with democracy. Research by the professors in this class have indicated genetic predispositions to democratic norms, including a preference for deliberative justice and an aversion to corruption and “big-man” behavior. In democracies the people will feel when this behavior becomes uncomfortable to them and will be able to throw the crooks out. Absent such social freeriding by politicians, however, it may make more sense for the government to by run by people who actually know what they are doing. For every decision that actually affects people’s well-being in a way they can predict (which, as we have seen, normally involves corruption or big-man behvaior) there are innumerable ones that require a modicum of experience and knowledge, unobtainable from slogans and rallies.
On most issues mass politics is probably the worst of all possible systems, because it combines our inability to think rationally with our genetic predilections for manipulable thought. The government should not be corrupt, should not be ostentatious, and should not have an agenda obnoxious to the people. Beyond that, leave politics to the politicians. Leave it to the experts. And whatever you do, keep it away from the people.