Keep Politics Away from the People

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.

5 thoughts on “Keep Politics Away from the People”

  1. First thought upon reading this…sounds like Plato's republic and Socrates discussion on having all people become experts in one thing such that no one person would have two jobs. Hence, a political leader could also not be a farmer, while a farmer should devote himself to farming and not to politics. I know, that's not exactly what you are trying to say, but it was the first thought that came into my mind as i read it.

  2. Nykrindc – interesting! I was trying to crib together some cognitive educational psychology and “Stealth Democracy” [1]

    “While the prevailing wisdom is that Americans want to be more involved in matters of governance,
    we argue, on the basis of survey and focus group data, that the last thing most people want is to be more
    connected to politics of any kind. They despise debate and compromise and nearly half like the idea of
    turning political decisions over to “successful business people” or to “unelected experts.” The reason for
    these attitudes is that many Americans are relatively unconcerned with democratic niceties such as
    accountability and really only want to get power out of the hands of those who have an incentive to act in a
    self-interested fashion. As such, and again contrary to conventional thinking, mass participation in politics is
    stimulated by perceptions that elected officials are selfish and therefore not to be trusted. The much discussed decline in governmental trust since the late 1960s has probably boosted political participation, not
    decreased it. People want out of politics and only get involved when they believe that by doing so they might
    be able to diminish the amount of self-serving action in government.”

    … but I like the Plato angle, too. Thanks! 🙂


  3. If it takes 10 years to get good at something, where are the politicians to spend their time practicing while they get good at doing politics? 🙂

    Anyway, I expect you really mean that you want to leave “governing” to a professional “governing class” rather than leave “politicking” to a professional “politicking class”. The latter is like marketing : it's a useless activity which only makes sense in the context of the current system.

    In that sense, systems like the UK, which already prize continuity in a professional civil service, seem closer to what you'd like. Is that right?

    BTW : I'm curious about “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.”

    I'd certainly like to know what the evidence is for genetic dispositions towards aversions to “big-man behaviour”. Seems to me that, sure, people are jealous and resentful of patronage given to others, but quite willing to accept it when it's given to them. Can't see much instinctive aversion there.

  4. Phil,

    Thanks for the comment!

    To clarify, I do mean that /politics/ should be keep away from the people, as much as practice. Governing is largely already separate. Politics, as I see it, is the process of creating laws while governing is the process of executing them.

    Recently, I found an article arguing the same thing from a different perspective. [1]

    On Big Man Behavior:

    An excerpt from Larimer, Hannagan, & Smith's “Balancing Ambition and Gender Among Decision Makers” (more notes [2] or full article [3] also available online) (emphasis denoted by “***…***”):

    “One potential answer to this question is that citizens perceive they are less likely to get what they want from government from self-interested, power hungry politicians. This makes intuitive sense, but the empirical case that citizens’ mistrust of power-seekers is based on some internal calculation about the likely policy consequences is weak. For example, people generally view Congress as self-interested and its members as craving power, yet ***policy outcomes seem to have little to do with shaping such attitudes*** (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002). Rather than situational or instrumental outcomes, deep-rooted behavioral predispositions related to process seem to have a better case for being the underlying explanatory cause of such attitudes. There is a strong empirical case to support the claim that a deep-rooted aversion to power-seeking in leaders is an innate, universal human behavioral predisposition. One of the more consistent findings in the anthropological literature is negative responses to selfaggrandizing behavior on the part of those in leadership positions. Humans have a strong aversion to what is termed “upstartism” or “big man” behavior, which describes people who act like they deserve special treatment, elevated status and the freedom to put their individual interests above the group (Boehm 1999). ***This claim is clearly generalizable across cultures and is independent of particular policy outcomes,*** social complexity and sophistication of political system. The basic pattern is seen in hunter gatherer groups and in the reaction to Alexander Haig’s claim to be in control: Political leaders perceived to desire power in order to serve selfinterested ends invite a backlash. Such perceptions engender resentment and suspicion, undermine legitimacy, and often lead to removal from power. Using ethnographic reports of tribal societies and foraging groups, Boehm finds that leaders who aggressively pursue positions of influence and use them to promote their own self-interest, i.e. engage in “big-man” behavior, tend to be met with high levels of distrust as well as costly sanctions (Boehm 1999). He attributes the universality to anti-big-man behavior as an evolved predisposition to the pressures of group living.”


  5. Hmm. Seems to me that that last is the equivalent of saying “human males have an evolved aversion to seeing guys go out with beautiful women” .

    It doesn't quite mean what I think you imply it to mean.

    That kind of resentment and jealously is probably widespread, and has an evolutionary basis, but it doesn't add up to some kind of general evolutionary pressure *away* from men wanting to go out with beautiful women.

    Nor does universal, evolved dislike of people who push themselves into leadership positions equal “genetic predispositions to democratic norms”

    The majority human behaviour might very well be to hate those who aspire to rule, but without other things in society being structured in the right way, that hatred can have no effect on the capacity of “big men” to project themselves. Instead it just leads to waves of support for each new big man who promises to topple the last.

  6. “it doesn't add up to some kind of general evolutionary pressure *away* from men wanting to go out with beautiful women.”

    True… but it implies that one would sacrifice the availability of beautiful women in order to prevent a “big man” from having one, as well.

    “Nor does universal, evolved dislike of people who push themselves into leadership positions equal 'genetic predispositions to democratic norms'”

    But it's part of it, no?

    “Instead it just leads to waves of support for each new big man who promises to topple the last.”

    … provided the new big man does not appear as such.

    Clearly we have politics because the system is manipulatable. But the system is designed, so to speak, to be more easily manipulatable in some ways than others.

    PS: Your wiki is in the news [1]


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