Home is Where the Head is

Photo by Flickr user SalFalko

By Liam Petterson

If you are feeling at home and welcome at Sciences Po Menton, there’s a good reason why; you are surrounded by people like yourself. Although the campus is richly culturally diverse, most of the campus is politically and ideologically similar (left-leaning, concerned with fairness and social justice). This is a classic case of what infamously suave prof Dr. Chorev would like to call ‘homophily’ – the attraction of like with like. Yet it is not immediately obvious why liberals would feel more comfortable with liberals (and conservatives with conservatives), until one accepts that psychology and politics are inextricably connected. This mingling of natural science into the social sciences has only recently become more popular, but its appeal is likely to increase further as developments in neuroscience occur throughout the century.

The traditional view of humankind, particularly in economics, was the concept of the rational homo economicus. Under this interpretation, we go about our day-to-day business making choices that are perfectly rational and utility-maximising. In political science, this view of human decision-making emphasises the primacy of reason as a motivating political force, drawing its roots from rationalist philosophy. Indeed, Hobbes posited that reason was the method by which we saved ourselves from the barbaric, dog-eat-dog state of nature. To the political rationalist, people arrive at their political views via a reasoned analysis of candidates’ values and policies – maybe you even think this of yourself.

However, with developments in psychology and neuroscience, we know that humans are deeply irrational creatures. Kahneman and Tversky, two Israeli psychologists, pioneered the study of human decision-making and found a plethora of biases that plague our ability to make rational decisions. Take confirmation bias, for example, which is our tendency to be less critical of information that supports our beliefs, and more critical of information that refutes our beliefs. Kahneman writes in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, about the related concept of the halo effect; a phenomenon by which you tend to ‘like (or dislike) everything about a person – including things you have not observed’. 

Photo by HuffPost, BC.

Indeed, perhaps, you clicked on articles about Justin Trudeau being able to balance babies on his palms, or maybe you clicked on articles pertaining to his appearance (“oh my god he is so dreamy!!!”). However, you probably neglected to read in-depth articles about how Trudeau and his government have become the second biggest arms dealers to the Middle East, with their $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and that the Canadian government admitted that this weaponry could have been used to kill innocent civilians in Yemen’s civil war.

Similarly, if you like Obama, you probably saw the video of him ‘roasting’ Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, or the video of him reading out mean tweets on Jimmy Kimmel. However, you probably neglected the information that Obama and his administration approved 563 air-strikes in the Middle East (compared to 57 by Bush) killing between 384 and 807 innocent civilians.

These biases are largely a result of the interactions between two psychological systems, aptly named by Kahneman as ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’. System 1 refers to the unconscious, automatic processes that occur in our brains beyond our conscious control or awareness. System 2 refers to our conscious, slower, more deliberate decision making. When a piece of information comes in, our system 1 reacts well before our conscious thinking kicks into gear. Consequently, we only think about things that system 1 ‘offers up’ to our system 2 – meaning we are almost always guided by our unconscious selves. Astoundingly, neuroscientists estimate that around 99% of your brain’s activity is below the level of conscious control, meaning that you have far less ‘free will’ than you give yourself credit for (perhaps no free will at all, but that’s for another time). Indeed, how did you know that you got creepy vibes from that guy at the bar, and how did you come to realise that you don’t like your professor? It is intuition, served up fresh from your unconscious.

Further, the conscious, deliberative system 2 – your rational self – is bounded by numerous constraints. One such restriction is that everything that enters your brain through your senses has to be squeezed through the limits of short term memory, so that only a minute proportion of incoming stimuli is consciously recognised. Think about it as such; after going for a five-minute drive, why don’t you know the number of cars you saw, or how many red cars there were, or how many trees you passed, or how many breaths you took? Your mind simply cannot remember everything you see, hear, touch, smell or taste – hence the new term ‘bounded rationality’, coined by political scientist and psychologist Herbert A. Simon.

Consequently, you use mental shortcuts, called heuristics, to reduce your information-overload into manageable, knowable, less ambiguous chunks. Using your system 2 is hard mental work, and actually uses up your available blood sugar, so you defer to your system 1 whenever you can in the interest of efficiency. Interestingly, a study about an Israeli parole board suggested that judges make harsher decisions the longer they don’t eat, and more lenient decisions just after lunch – so being hangry is real.

In relation to political decision-making, your system 1 uses the limited and ambiguous information available to it (the political headlines you read from Vice and Buzzfeed in your Facebook news feed, the two articles you read on Catalonian independence, and the videos you watched where Obama made funny jokes) to boil down your political beliefs into knowable, shareable opinions. However, when suddenly called upon, you probably cannot give a coherent, detailed account of your political preferences and their relationship to your belief system.

For example, if I stopped you on campus and asked you to name five of your political party’s best policies in detail, and why they’re better than the opposing party’s policies, you probably couldn’t do it off the top of your head. But what you probably would say is something like, “the liberals have better policies about refugees and climate change”, or “the conservatives are so xenophobic”, or “the liberals just want to let everybody in!!!”.

As Kahneman describes, a heuristic ‘simplifies our lives by creating a world that is much tidier than reality’.

But what dictates what our subconscious system 1 serves up when confronted with a given stimuli? Given the unfathomable complexity of neural activity in the brain, we cannot answer this question about any given individual at one moment in time. However, it is clear that socialised beliefs and deep-seated personality traits play a large role (also genes, but that’s for another article). Psychological studies have elucidated the ‘Big Five’ core personality qualities; openness to experience, conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness. Individuals scoring higher on agreeableness (showing more compassion and friendliness) and openness to experience (being more curious, being adventurous and having a preference for novelty) tend to be liberals. They also tend to be lower in conscientiousness (liking order and predictability, and being dependable and self-reliant). One study has suggested that liberals have messier rooms than conservatives.

Conservatives tend to score higher in conscientiousness. Jacob Hirsh, a post-doctoral psychology student at the University of Toronto, believes that conservatives have ‘a deep psychological motive to preserve the current social structure’, precipitating their belief in the necessity of inequality and the importance of traditional social values. One thing to note is that these are broad tendencies, and your one hyper-organised friend may not be conservative.

What this field of research ultimately suggests is that, rather than people holding their political opinions at mere surface level, liberals and conservatives are fundamentally different types of people. As Krista Tippett asks of Jonathan Haidt on her popular podcast ‘On Being’, it appears that liberals and conservatives are ‘two ways of being human’. We have indeed returned to our theme; we are now seeing ‘lifestyle enclaves’ where liberals move to more liberal areas, eat at more edgy restaurants, shop at thrift-stores, and attend certain universities (re-enter homophily). We feel at home and welcomed when we are around people like us and when we hear opinions that we like (re-enter confirmation bias). We feel threatened and anxious when we encounter opinions that we do not like, which activates our amygdala (the fight or flight centres of our brains). Facebook understands these concepts impeccably, using your data to show you content than it knows that you’ll like, hence creating an echochamber where you are rarely exposed to difference, again reinforcing your existing beliefs.

Finally, we reach a rather terrifying truth; you didn’t arrive at your political opinions via reasoned analysis of the pros and cons. You came to your beliefs because you were predisposed to them due to your subconscious and your temperament. If you had a different temperament, or different life experiences that affected your subconscious, you would have different political views. You have not ‘figured it all out’. You’ve just taken a side, and your echochamber has confirmed that side over and over again.

And, your brain doesn’t want to budge. Because if you truly begin to doubt your beliefs, you are plunged back into the chaos of ambiguity which requires more cognitive effort to solve, precipitating an anxious search for information. You cannot live in this anxious state forever so you eventually come back towards some sort of belief system based on your intuitions. Your brain creates orderly models of the world out of ambiguous incoming stimuli by using simplifying heuristics that are mediated by your deep-seated personality traits. Then, certain political parties are more attractive as they bottle-up your belief system in an easy-to-understand way, creating order out of chaos. And when we justify our positions with the use of stats and well-reasoned arguments, all we are really doing is cherry picking information post facto that supports our deep system 1 moral intuitions. For example, if you probed me about what I think about Australia’s offshore system for dealing with people seeking asylum, I would eventually say, ‘I dunno, to me it just feels wrong’. I then build my statistical and evidence-based argument up from there. As Hume said in 1738, “Reason is…the slave of the passions”.

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