Understanding Human Nature Is the Best Way of Fixing Our Political Culture

Many factors contribute to political divisiveness and rancor. Some of them are natural and nearly inevitable aspects of fundamental human nature, but others are not. Of those that are not, possibly the most influential is ignorance. I believe there’s truth in the following quote that’s sometimes attributed to Mark Twain:

“It ain’t’ what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure, that just ain’t so.”

Many of us “know” things about ourselves and others that just ain’t so. Based on our false beliefs we characterize one another as something we’re not, and then we vilify each other for being that something (which we’re not). Each side’s understanding of the other is a strawman. Many of the angry exchanges between talking heads on cable TV are strawmen fighting strawmen.

Our collective lack of understanding of ourselves sometimes allows some of us to justify in our minds beliefs about “others” that are horribly unfair, even cruel. A good deal of man’s inhumanity to man comes from our ignorance of what we truly are.

We have the knowledge and the means to solve this problem, but it remains to be seen whether we have the will. This essay summarizes the issue through a few specific examples and then offers some practical recommendations for addressing it.

Humans evolved to form into groups of like-minded individuals which then compete with other groups for political power and scarce resources; where “like-minded” means the members of the group share a common outlook or set of beliefs. People with shared interests trust each other, and this trust allows them to achieve more as a group than they could as individuals.

Many species form into groups for the mutual benefit of the individual members, from relatively small groups like wolf packs to those numbering in the tens of thousands like massive termite colonies. But they’re all kin. For example, the bees in a hive are all siblings. Humans are unique in that we form into groups of individuals who are unrelated to one another. We genuinely are The Social Animal. It is through our groupishness that great civilizations, technical achievements, and even our survival as a species, are possible.

The flip side of our in-group trust is mistrust toward groups other than our own. The tendency to compete is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we invented sports to satisfy it. As Jonathan Haidt says in his 2008 TED Talk “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives“; “Sports is to war as pornography is to sex. We get to exercise some ancient, ancient drives.

This does not mean that we’re doomed to perpetual conflict. Other factors that contribute to partisan divisiveness are within our capability to control if we choose to. It’s those that I focus on here.

To illustrate, I made up the following paragraph. I doubt many people believe all of it, but I do not doubt that many people believe parts of it.

The mind is a blank slate at birth. Everything we believe about right and wrong is learned, either from formal education or first-hand experience. Humans are driven mostly by conscious reason. Our ability to reason evolved to help us make better decisions and to find truth. Reason is the path to moral truth. Reason tells us that morality starts and ends with care and fairness. Religions are fundamentally different from secular ideologies. There are no innate differences between groups of people that might explain disparities between them. Disparities are caused by social constructs. Prejudices are learned. Prejudices and disparities can be eliminated if we put in place the right social constructs and teach the right things. In this way the Good Society and the New Man are possible.

Paraphrasing Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “It’s amazing. Everything I just said in that paragraph is wrong.” Each of the above assertion is disproven by social science, empirical evidence, or the facts of history. The extent to which we believe in these assertions is the extent to which we indulge in anti-science thinking, are likely to be creating and arguing against strawmen, and will tend to do more harm than good if we base policies on them.

False Belief #1: The Mind is a Blank Slate at Birth

In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Steven Pinker explains that evolution shaped our brains just as it shaped our bodies. We are born with psyches pre-wired with evolutionary adaptations that aid in our survival and flourishing in the social world.

In Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Ideological Differences, John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford show that the pre-wiring with which we are born predisposes us to favor some types of behaviors and disfavor others. It is not true that everything we believe about right and wrong is learned.

False Belief #2: Human Thought and Action Are Based Mostly In Reason

In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt summarizes social science research which suggests that human thought and action is motivated primarily by instinct and intuition; the gut feelings of like/dislike, approach/avoid, and fight/flee that we experience in response to the things we see in the social world around us. This is the “fast” thinking described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Instinct and intuition happen automatically and instantaneously. Conscious reason, on the other hand — the other ten percent of human social thought — requires language and the construction of a logical argument. Conscious reason can, and sometimes does, influence the way we perceive, understand, and react to the world, but not in the way many of us assume.

There are two predominant ways in which humans use reason to make sense of the social world. Arthur Herman identifies them and traces them through 2,400 years of history in The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, in which Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors for them. It’s not so much what Plato and Aristotle thought that matters, it’s how they thought. These two ways of thinking have persisted through the millennia, and are evident even today, lurking behind the curtain of partisan battles like the Wizard of Oz, controlling how each side perceives and reacts to the other.

Herman summarizes the Platonic style of thinking on the first page his book:

“The myth of the Cave appears in Book VII of Plato’s most famous work, The Republic. Plato used it to represent his most fundamental idea: that man is destined by his creator to find a path from the dark cave of material existence to the light of a higher, purer, and more spiritual truth. It’s when we rise above the merely human, Plato insisted, and enter the realm of ‘the everlasting and immortal and changeless’ that we achieve wisdom.” (pp. ix–x)

This way of thinking is evident in Robert Kennedy’s sentiment “I dream things that never were and ask ‘Why not?'” and in John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It is pure rational thought in the abstract, exemplified by thinkers like Rousseau, Godwin, and Condorcet, who placed their faith in the power of the human mind to solve problems and overcome obstacles; limitless in its possibilities. Thomas Sowell calls this way of thinking the “unconstrained” vision in his book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.

Herman contrasts this cognitive style with the alternate way of thinking embodied by Aristotle:

“Aristotle disagreed [with Plato], and his dissent from his famous teacher would have enormous consequences.’ All things have a specific nature,’ he would argue in his Physics, based on a union of form and matter. Instead of trying to rise above mundane reality, Aristotle believed the philosopher’s job was to explain how the world works, and how as human beings we can find our proper place in it. There is no cave; only a world made of things and facts. ‘The fact is our starting point,’ he once said, and that insight permeated his thinking on everything from science to politics and drama.” (p. x)

This style of thought is reason tempered and made humble by experience, exemplified by thinkers like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, who did not have the same faith in pure reason as did their counterparts, and who believed that the real world imposes practical limits on what’s possible. This is Sowell’s “constrained” vision.

Herman compares and contrasts they two styles of reasoning, and hints at the impact each of them has had on human history, which he discusses in detail later in his book:

“Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things. They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world. Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter. The difference was that Plato’s forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealizable without it. (p. 61)

For the next two thousand years Aristotle would become the father of modern science, logic, and technology. Plato, by contrast, is the spokesman for the theologian, the mystic, the poet, and the artist.

One gave us a view of reality as multiform and constantly evolving; the other, as eternal and One.

One told us we have to learn to deal with things as they are, including each other. The other said we need to think about how things ought to be, including ourselves and our society.

One gave us the U.S. Constitution, the Manhattan Project, and shopping malls. The other gave us Chartres Cathedral, but also the gulag and the Holocaust. (p. x)

The twentieth century’s greatest ideological conflicts do mark the violent unfolding of a Platonist versus Aristotelian view of what it means to be free and how reason and knowledge ultimately fit into our lives.” (p.539–540)

In his new book Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg of National Review asserts that “Ideology is downstream of human nature.” (p. 25), and that “The crisis that besets our civilization is fundamentally psychological.” But since the crisis is psychological Goldberg also says that he does “not offer many public policy proposals to remedy our problems, in large part because I do not think our problems are fundamentally policy problems.” (p. 16)

I agree with Goldberg’s diagnosis, as far as it goes. But I think it’s incomplete, so I disagree with his prescription. In “Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics,” I argued that the major political ideologies of the West are best understood as psychological profiles, of which the two cognitive styles are significant portions that help us to understand the differences between left and right, and between the progressive left and the traditional left as well, and even between the “Two Incompatible Sacred Values in American Universities”; the Telos of Truth and the Telos of Social Justice.

But that’s not where the diagnosis ends. It continues with the fact that few people know about this. People are generally unaware of how and why we humans think and say and act as we do, so they are left to make their own assumptions, like those in my hypothetical paragraph above, from which they draw their own conclusions, which, because the assumptions are wrong, are often also wrong, and harmfully so. And that we can fix.

In the rest of this essay, I’ll briefly discuss what’s wrong with each of the statements yet to be addressed from my hypothetical paragraph. Based on that analysis I’ll make a recommendation that I believe is rightfully within the realm of public policy, and that, I suggest, can make real, positive, progress toward shrinking the size of the political divide and reducing the amount of rancor that flows back and forth across it.

If it were true that reason evolved to help us make better decisions and to find truth then we’d be good at it. But we’re not. In fact, we’re terrible at it. Social science research reveals that we consistently fail at simple logic. In The Enigma of Reason, Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier explain why. They argue that the evolutionary purpose of reason is to help us win arguments. From this perspective the supposed flaws of reasoning, like the many forms of cognitive biases that seem built-in to our thinking, are not flaws at all; they’re features that help us win. A short summary of their findings is available on Edge.org in “The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning.” Our ability to reason is an evolutionary adaptation of the mind that helps us to survive and to flourish in the social environments we create for ourselves.

In The Righteous Mind Haidt argues that the first principle of moral psychology is “Intuition comes first, reasoning follows.” The primary evolved purpose of our ability to reason is to help us justify and defend our intuitions and to convince others that our own intuitions are the right ones. It turns out that David Hume was right almost three hundred years ago when he said:

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Consequently, abstract reason alone is incapable of leading us to moral truth. In The Righteous Mind Haidt calls the belief that reason is capable of such a feat “The Rationalist Delusion,” saying;

“From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.” (p. 103)

“Expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse (perhaps by making [us] more skilled at post hoc justification). …

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.” (p. 104)

“The confirmation bias is a built-in feature (of an argumentative mind), not a bug that can be removed (from a platonic mind).” (p. 105)

Reason is for winning, not truth finding.

False Belief #3: Morality is All About Care and Fairness

Haidt’s second principle of moral psychology is “There’s more to morality than care and fairness.” Care and fairness make up only a fraction of the “evolved psychological mechanisms” from which our gut feelings of right and wrong arise.  Additional intuitions, Hume’s passions, of personal autonomy, loyalty to one’s in-group, respect for authority, attention to purity/sanctity, and possibly others, are found on every continent, suggesting that they are human universals. Morality is the…

“… interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (The Righteous Mind, p. 314)

False Belief #4: Genes Play No Role in Differences Between Groups

It is not true that there are no genetic differences between some groups of people. For example, National Geographic reports that some Andean, Tibetan, and Ethiopian peoples have adapted to living in the thin air of high altitudes. A recent study in the journal Cell suggests that sea-dwelling people in Southeast Asia have evolved adaptations that help them dive deep into the ocean. The notion that genes play no role in differences among individuals or groups is headed for a reckoning with the new genetics.

It is not true that all differences among groups are due only to social constructs. In an interview by Toby Young on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his book The Bell Curve, Charles Murray observed:

“On this score, the roof is about to crash in on those who insist on a purely environmental explanation of all sorts of ethnic differences, not just intelligence. Since the decoding of the genome, it has been securely established that race is not a social construct, evolution continued long after humans left Africa along different paths in different parts of the world, and recent evolution involves cognitive as well as physiological functioning.

The best summary of the evidence is found in the early chapters of Nicholas Wade’s recent book, “A Troublesome Inheritance.” We’re not talking about another 20 years before the purely environmental position is discredited, but probably less than a decade. What happens when a linchpin of political correctness becomes scientifically untenable? It should be interesting to watch. I confess to a problem with schadenfreude.”

False Belief #5: Social Engineering Can Create The Good Society and the New Man 

Virtually every attempt to create the Good Society and the New Man via top-down social engineering has failed, often spectacularly, by devolving into oppression and even genocide. Examples include the Cult of Reason of the French Revolution, Chinese, Cambodian, Russian, and Cuban Communism, Italian Fascism, and German Nazism. The notion that the Good Society and the New Man are possible reflects a profound misunderstanding of human nature. Haidt describes this starting at the 1:03:48 mark of his lecture “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege,” concluding (emphasis added):

“Twentieth-century communism, fascism, any movement that tried to create a new man, ends up committing atrocities, ends up committing mass murder. … As far as I understand it most left-wing revolutions have ended with mass murder, because, you have this utopia, people don’t go along, because you got human nature incorrectly, they don’t go along, but you know you’re right because you have reason on your side, so you use force, and you use more force, and you use more force, and you end up like Cuba, or North Korea, or the other communist revolutions. It doesn’t work.

The unconstrained vision in the sciences and social sciences has denied that there’s human nature. They’re just wrong about that, it’s a really terrible idea scientifically. They’ve denied evolutionary psych. Evolutionary psych has some problems which I think are being fixed, but the idea that our behavior is not influenced by evolutionary history is bizarre.”

From the perspective of anthropology and sociology , religion, morality, and ideology are different words for the same underlying aspect of fundamental human nature; the shared beliefs around which groups form. In this regard, they are not fundamentally different, rather, they are like things that should be judged alike.

In Sum

The understanding of the social animal by the social animal is quite poor. Our failure to understand ourselves and each other leaves us grasping to imagine how it’s possible that other people can think so differently from ourselves. We’re left with almost no logical alternative but to conclude that they must be dysfunctional in some way. We’re far too quick to attribute views different from our own to low IQ, backwardness, bigotry, or a slew of phobias. Our ignorance of who and what we humans are and how we operate is one of the greatest single factors contributing to partisan divisiveness.


The good news is that we already have the knowledge and the infrastructure with which we can ameliorate the problem. The knowledge is summarized in sources like those mentioned above and itemized in more detail in this draft lesson plan. The infrastructure is the K-12 public education system.

There are several practical, relatively easy and inexpensive steps I think schools could, and should, take. This is the specific public policy prescription I alluded to above. The question of whether we have to will to do this stems from the fact that many of the beliefs discussed above are sacred values of some people. So it remains to be seen if we have the courage to follow, and teach, the truth about the way the world actually is, even if it goes against our deepest desires about what it should be. It is my opinion that the reward will be worth the risk, because the shattering of our ideology-based wishes by the truth can, ironically, in the long run, help to make them come true.

Pilot programs constructed from recommendations like the following could be instituted at a small number of interested and motivated private schools which could serve as incubators for them. If successful, the programs could be adopted by additional schools. I hope that these suggestions are the tip of the iceberg of possible techniques and that others who generally agree with the message of this essay but who are more familiar with the profession of education than I, can come up with even more, even better ones.

The education system should return to teaching enlightenment norms of evidence and reason; rules about what qualifies as evidence and what doesn’t, and rules of logic and debate specifically designed to overcome the shortcomings of reason described above, including basic instruction in how to recognize common logical fallacies in others and avoid them in ourselves. Somehow, in the past few decades, it seems that the education system has forgotten or abandoned these, leading to The Coddling of the American Mind with emotional reasoning and cognitively distorted thinking. This must be corrected by reestablishing the primacy of sound logic and valid evidence. This alone would solve many of today’s problems.

In the earliest years of elementary education, say kindergarten through third grade, teachers could broaden the students’ horizon and help them to be more tolerant and inclusive of others by making sure that by the end of a school year the virtues surrounding all of the moral foundations are reinforced by the stories that are read to our youngest students, and by ensuring that the bulletin boards and posters around the school containing messages about how to treat each other and get along could do the same.

In later elementary school years the books assigned for reading and book reports through the course of a school year should cover the same breadth. Groups of social scientists and academics like Heterodox Academy that are concerned with rectifying the problems of coddled thinking could assemble reading lists from which schools could choose.

I understand from psychologists that students are ready for abstract thought around the age of puberty. So middle school seems like a good place to introduce the moral foundations explicitly. Once or twice a year a lecture or two could be spent on overviewing them, and kids could be required to analyze a story or a historical event to identify which foundations seemed to be in play, and the results.

In high school students could be required to analyze an event (in history class), a fiscal policy (in economics class), a novel (in English class), or form of government or a social policy (in civics class) in terms of the moral foundations. In “Towards A Cognitive Theory of Politics” I observed that the political left and right seem to attach different meanings to words like liberty, equality, justice, and fairness, almost as if they’re speaking different languages but don’t know it because the words sound the same. What our kids need, in effect, are language lessons. The differing meanings could be taught, and students could be required to specify which meaning they have in mind when they speak or write or debate about related topics. In this way, we could help our kids understand and speak the language of the other side.

And finally, at the university level, students should be taught how human nature connects with Western culture and its conceptions of liberty, equality, justice, fairness, the role of government, and public policy. I suggest that the best method for teaching this is to assign reading and require reports on the work of those who have spent much of their professional careers on an intellectual quest to understand human nature and its relationship with cultures, ideas, and values. Chief among these in my mind are Jonah Goldberg, Jonathan Haidt, Jordan Peterson, and Thomas Sowell.

Goldberg is a self-taught long-time student of human nature and politics and the author of Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. Haidt is a professor of psychology at NYU who studies the psychological origins of morality. His works include aforementioned books and multiple psychological studies. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He wrote Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, and 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Thomas Sowell is an economist and social theorist who is currently Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

A common theme of the work of all of these thinkers is that human society is an infinitely complex emergent system of complex emergent systems that is deeply intertwined with human psychology which was in turn shaped by hundreds of millions of years of natural selection. The knowledge necessary for our survival and responsible for our flourishing is encoded not just in our minds but also in our cultures. Regarding the latter of these, Peterson concludes:

“I now realize how it can be that our religious mythologies are true, and why that truth places a virtually intolerable burden of responsibility on the individual.”

The knowledge necessary for human survival and flourishing thus encoded is far deeper, richer, more complex, nuanced, and vast than is possible for any human mind or group of minds to comprehend. We risk great harm to ourselves and to our societies if we fall into the naïve trap of thinking that our ability to reason is capable of out-thinking hundreds of millions of years of individual and group selection, and the moral intuitions and societal norms that have emerged from that process, such that we can repair the flaws in ourselves and in our cultures through top-down social engineering via the power of the state. As Haidt explains in his lecture “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege” it is this path, because it is incongruent with human nature, that so often ends in disaster. In contrast, the more reliable, productive, path, because it works in concert with human nature, is incremental grassroots change from the bottom up. It’s fine to think globally, he says, but the best results come from acting locally through the self, the family, the neighborhood, and the community.

This is why understanding human nature is the best way of fixing our political culture; we get good results when we work with it, and bad results when we work against it. The first step toward improvement, therefore, is to accurately understand it.

There will always be liberalism and conservatism (left wing and right wing thinking, in the American sense), and the propensity to form into groups and compete against other groups; of that I have no doubt. It’s awfully tough to outsmart hundreds of millions of years of natural selection.

But one of the biggest reasons for partisan rancor seems to be a poor understanding of the social animal by the social animal. We have the knowledge and the means to rectify this problem. There’s no reason in the world that students of all political persuasions cannot be taught a fuller and more accurate grasp of fundamental human nature and an understanding of why it can be so difficult for humans of differing moralities to get along, and to connect those things to real-world events past and present.

I am confident that if we can give our children a solid, science-based, grasp of how and why they and others think and act the way they do, then future generations will be better equipped to get along, and leaders who emerge will be better able to appeal to all sides, and will make, better, more informed, policy decisions that have a better chance of helping more than harming.

One thing’s certain: We cannot possibly expect future generations to get along unless we change the path they’re on in a way that gives them a truer grasp of why getting along can be so hard to do.

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  1. This is an excellent essay, but I have a quibble:

    “They argue that the evolutionary purpose of reason is to help us win arguments.”

    Whereas in practice it is doubtless true that most people employ their reasoning ability to win arguments, it that what reasoning itself is? It seems to me that reason is only made possible by language and that reason without at least a nod to logic and evidence can’t exist. Reason is the manipulation of symbols using rules. I’d say that our ability to reason is an emergent property and not something that directly evolved — again because it can’t exist without language and we haven’t hugely evolved since we started to speak. So whereas people can reason very badly in the service of their desires, one of which is winning arguments, that is not how reason came to be, it is how it ends up being abused. Reason came to be so that people could draw useful conclusions about the world. Winning arguments came later.

  2. There’s too much onus placed on K-12 to implement the essay’s suggestions.

    Behavior is influenced by complex layers: genetic, early cultural, environmental, interpersonal experiences are the greatest determinants of how we act the way we do. How can K-12 children “get along” when their prefrontal cortex is still not developed in which the brakes to think before acting—the brain’s reasoning system—is not yet anywhere near being fully developed?

    Here’s my two-cents about our educational system: High schools should cease to exist. By ninth-grade a child is ready to attend either a technical trade college or university, and like Europe, no tuition fees.

  3. after reading the whole text I have felt the lack of a fundamental thinker who discredits all this supposed American “pragmatism”. his name is Nietzsche.

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