Image by Gerd Altmann
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.
For a long time, people assumed that conscious reasoning evolved to help individuals think logically, make better decisions and find truth, thus providing the tools to help them survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment. But, when scientists studied the human mind, test after test showed that “reasoning doesn’t do all these things, or it does all of these things very, very poorly.” We consistently fail at even the simplest logic problems and our reasoning is chock full of cognitive biases and distortions. But, if reasoning evolved to help us think better, why are we so bad at it?
The likely answer is that we are mistaken as to the purpose of reasoning. Cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier therefore developed the argumentative theory of reasoning: if we change our model from reasoning helps us think better to it helps us win arguments, then the biases and distortions suddenly make sense. They’re not flaws: they’re features, designed by evolution to help reason do exactly what it is supposed to: enable us to prevail in debate and recruit others to our cause.
Like our previous, erroneous understanding of reason, our conception of the political left and right is based on incomplete and inaccurate assumptions. This hinders our ability to make sense of the partisan divide, makes it harder for us to build bridges and diminishes academic social science in the eyes of the public.
We currently understand the political left and right in terms of their viewpoints: the positions they take, the principles and values they claim to advance and the arguments they make. Organizations such as Heterodox Academy were founded on the idea that increasing viewpoint diversity within politically one-sided academia will improve the social sciences and lead to a deeper understanding of the human condition.
But the problems with defining left and right by their viewpoints are many. First, humans are tribal, and viewpoints are situational—meaning that a viewpoint is often adopted simply because a competing tribe is championing the opposite view. Second, viewpoints can change from one era to the next in ways that seem internally inconsistent or even contradictory. The viewpoints of progressives or conservatives in one era can be the opposite of those of their counterparts in another era. Third, viewpoints are expressed using reason which, as Sperber and Mercier found, is plagued with myriad biases and distortions.
The upshot of all this is that viewpoints are ephemeral, and difficult to pin down. Left and right therefore often end up arguing with each other, without ever really communicating: each side calls the other out for its apparent inconsistencies, hypocrisies and failures of logic, but neither side ever really understands what the other side is trying to say. We spend so much of our mental effort on form and structure that we prevent ourselves from grasping content and meaning. The focus on viewpoints and their rationales only exacerbates the partisan divide.
We need a better way to define and understand left and right: a way that is internally consistent from one situation or era to the next, that promotes real understanding and transcends our tendency to argue about arguments. We need a new formulation that gives us an intuitive understanding of what’s really going on, similar to that proposed by the argumentative theory.
An Improved Model
Political scientist Alexander Severson argues that “Most individuals perceive ideological beliefs as being freely chosen. Recent research in genopolitics and neuroscience, however, suggests that this conviction is partially unwarranted, given that biological and genetic factors explain more variance in political attitudes than choice and environmental factors.” Severson shows that, when political partisans learn that genes play a significant role in determining political attitudes, they “increasingly hold favorable attitudes toward political outgroups,” and concludes that, “These patterns suggest a potentially profitable inroad for political polarization interventions going forward.”
Building on Severson’s ideas, I have developed a model of the bedrock psychological aspects from which political viewpoints arise, drawing on sources like John Hibbing’s Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, Robert Plomin’s Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, as well as many of the original studies on which these books are based.
This model clarifies our understanding of left and right in the same way as the argumentative theory clarified our understanding of reasoning: by correcting the assumption on which that understanding is based. It shifts the basis of our understanding from viewpoints, which are ever-changing, to evolved psychological mechanisms of social cognition, which are consistent between situations and across eras. In the language of The Righteous Mind, it shifts our focus from the rider to the elephant.
Inspired by Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, in which he describes the psychological and social building blocks of human happiness, I call this model the viewpoint hypothesis: the biological origins of political thinking.
I’ve chosen to use a mathematical formula to describe the relationships between the building blocks from which viewpoints are formed. My intent is, however, not to convert political viewpoints into numerical results.
The viewpoint hypothesis holds that the building blocks of political viewpoints include both nature and nurture, where:
V = Viewpoint: the position, principle, value, narrative, worldview, etc. held by an individual about a political or social issue, and the rational arguments the individual makes to support her view. This is Haidt’s rider.
N = Nature: the configuration of evolved psychological mechanisms with which the individual was born; a heritable combination of, among other things, a) cognitive style and b) moral foundations. N is the constant in the equation. It’s the essential cognitive structure, shaped by natural selection, with which our brains are organized ahead of experience. It’s determined by the individual’s DNA. It is the elephant at the moment of birth.
n(t) = Nurture: a single life event experienced by the individual at time t. It consists of anything that happens to the individual or that the individual sees or hears about: n(t) is the variable in the equation.
= The accumulated effect on the individual of all nurturing events experienced from the time of birth tb to the current moment tc. It’s the totality of the environment in which the individual grew up and currently lives. It includes home, family, school, religious organizations, civic groups and peers. It’s the local, national and global culture in which the individual is immersed, including social constructs like beliefs, values and narratives. This plus N is the elephant all grown up.
Nurture is expressed as an integral (∫ ), rather than as a summation of a series of discreet life events (∑) because the brain never switches off. It processes information twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, even while we sleep. Events experienced years ago can be reassessed in the light of new information. A viewpoint is a function of time, not of a collection of events.
The plus sign (+) between nature and nurture is important. At birth, nature gives us the essential cognitive scaffolding that nurture then fleshes out, and even, to a limited degree, reshapes or expands. Nurture is additive to, and, to some degree transformative of, nature. But only to a degree.
To illustrate this, imagine that the subject in question is an individual’s physical body. The formula would still apply. V would represent the individual’s body as it exists at the current moment. N would represent the individual’s genetic make-up, inherited from his or her parents. The integral to the right of the plus sign would represent everything that has happened to the body since birth: for example, aging, growth, training, injuries, accidents, etc. The body may or may not have been well fed and cared for.
But no amount of nurture can change a person whose adult height is genetically predisposed to be in the vicinity of five feet nine inches into a person whose adult height is six feet two inches. It can’t change blue eyes to brown. It can’t change a person’s genetic heritage from Scandinavian to African. It can’t change white skin to black. Nature (N ) places limits on what is possible.
The situation is similar for viewpoints. As Haidt observes in his 2008 TED Talk, “The worst idea in all of psychology is the idea that the mind is a blank slate at birth.” We are born predisposed by nature (N ) to favor the ideas of either the political right or the political left. It’s no coincidence that John Hibbing uses that word in the title of his book, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences. As Alexander Severson argues, “genetic factors explain more variance in political attitudes than choice and environmental factors.” Musa al-Gharbi summarizes the current findings of psychological social science: “in many important respects, progressives and conservatives are not just the same kinds of people who happen to vote differently … but increasingly are different kinds of people.”
Viewpoints are to our understanding of partisan rancor as a fever is to our understanding of a disease. They’re visible effects of invisible causes. They’re the symptoms, not the underlying condition.
An Improved Diagnosis
Effective treatment of a disease requires an accurate diagnosis of its cause, without which the treatment may not work, and might even make things worse. If the symptoms are treated without regard to their underlying causes then the result may be to harm the patient by giving the disease more time to spread or fester unnoticed until it’s too late. A treatment that’s effective for one type of disease may exacerbate another type.
The first principle of moral psychology is that intuition comes first, strategic reasoning follows. In other words, Nature (N ) comes first and viewpoints (V ) follow. An important lesson of both Predisposed and The Righteous Mind is that the nature of the left (i.e. N l) is distinctly different from that of the right (N r), with different modes of social cognition and differently prioritized moral foundations. It’s not so much what people think (their viewpoints, V ) that distinguishes left from right, but how they think, which is determined by differences in their genetic natures (N l and N r), acted upon by nurture. Those differences are described in more detail in my essay “Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics.”
If all of this is true, then the assumption upon which we base our understanding of left and right—that we can and should know them through their viewpoints (V )—is a roadblock preventing us from achieving increased mutual understanding and improved social science, and should be replaced by the more accurate assumption that we should know them through their Natures (N ), refined by nurture, as expressed by the viewpoint hypothesis.
An Improved Prescription
As Severson has shown, when people grasp the idea that left and right are best understood in terms ofN, rather than V , they “increasingly hold favorable attitudes toward political outgroups.” The importance of this finding cannot be overstated. Merely understanding the relationships between viewpoints, nature and nurture reduces partisan rancor.
The prescription is education. We need to spend less time and effort trying to persuade people of the benefits of viewpoint diversity, and more time teaching them how evolution has given us different natures. We can’t expect people to get along unless we give them the tools with which to understand why that can be so hard to do.
I recommend a class that might be taught at high schools or to first-year college students: Freshman Class: How Education Can Shrink the Partisan Divide. This sample lesson plan details some of the content that might be covered in such a class.
People have a greater tendency to hate that which they don’t understand. As Severson illustrates, improving our understanding of one another is a necessary ingredient for reducing hate.