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This Is Your Brain on Democracy

The idea of a rational voter is a myth. The hard-wiring of our brains determines a lot about how we form opinions on politics, policy and voting.

We often think of politics as the occupation of career politicians. But this is not the case — it encompasses most of our socio-cognitive and moral lives. Politics can be thought of as a coordination problem, wherein our collective belief about entitlement is the primary goal. For example, when children decide to divide certain common toys in their classroom with some, but not others, it is a political act. In modern democracies, citizens elect leaders who decide who gets to have resources, and who does not. Thus, voting is one of the most important political decisions a citizen can make.

What, then, happens when citizens do not have the resources to make such decisions? To what extent are we as citizens capable of making decisions? And what happens to citizens who are entirely apathetic?

One way in which this problem of coordination may be settled is through persuasion. Modern-day career politicians often use strategies to persuade and change our minds in favour of their policies.

Political marketers may activate goals that are relevant to us about policies that they want to promote. For example, if they want to promote a no-immigration policy, they might scare us against out-group members by saying that they are vile and untrustworthy. This could be done by emphasizing their untrustworthiness and downplaying evidence to the contrary. Another way in which this is done is through moralization by reframing an issue as a taboo. For example, moralizing homosexuality (“homosexuality is a sin”), creates a general disdain against it.

Formation of political opinions

However, this would be a very simplistic explanation of political behaviour. All citizens do not follow the same behavioural patterns, and hence do not vote for similar reasons. This complexity might be instigated by individual differences in voters’ general ability to reason about politics — voters might differ in their political knowledge, education, and awareness, as well as their inclination to acquire this knowledge. They may have either a general level of knowledge that certain political parties exist, and that some of them align with their beliefs. Or they may have specialized knowledge, for instance, knowing a given political party’s stance on specific issues. Even the most unaware voters hold stable and consistent opinions about limited, but specific issues of environmental and psychological reinforcement processes. How are these stable political attitudes formed?

A number of features of our minds may cause the formation of political attitudes. Selective exposure is our selective attentiveness to favour certain information, often that which reinforces our previously held beliefs, while ignoring or de-emphasizing contrary beliefs. The content and the source of the message play important roles in whether or not we believe in the message. However, we know that we do believe in low-credibility sources and fake content that align with our beliefs. Contrarily, we also have self-defensive mechanisms that shield us against manipulation, for example, ones that help us detect self-interest behind a moral rhetoric.

We also tend to react to different types of information differently. Whether or not we believe in issue-specific information is contingent upon our interest in the issue and the availability of it. Thus, we are more attuned to information that is salient to us. For example, on an average, a person with disability is more likely to be interested in disability rights, and therefore more attuned to related policies, while caste-minorities are more attuned to minority rights.

Objective political competence is the information an individual has stored about their political history and current events. Given a minimal interest in politics, this could be accumulated as a result of exposure to news, participation in political events, or through social media. The more political knowledge one has, the more likely they are to have political opinions.

As citizens, we are required to attend to various information, hold them in our memories, and integrate it to form judgements. This is greatly dependent on cognitive sophistication. Those who engage in political thought, including professional politicians and policy makers, write in fairly byzantine jargon that may be comprehended by a relatively few citizens. While, on the whole, we do have mechanisms that help us from being cheated, this kind of cognitive sophistication is especially required to discern fake news from real news.

Our perceptions about the extent of our abilities to understand political events could also affect the strengths of our opinions. If we overestimate our knowledge, we may hold stronger attitudes. The Dunning-Kruger effect has been observed in this sphere. That is, those with low objective political competence believe they have enhanced ability. This is further exacerbated when their partisan identities are emphasized.

Higher education is also thought of as affecting political attitudes. Higher education could lead to citizens paying more attention to political information critically. Highly educated citizens are also more likely to know others who have relevant information, and are more likely to be exposed to critical media. They are less likely to use their partisan identity as a psychological crutch, and hence pay more attention to short-term factors like critical issues, rather than long-term factors like loyalty to parties. Imagination also plays an important role in opinion formation. Those who are creative, and are able to create lucid mental images are more likely to form political opinions.

The Myth of the Rational Voter

While the underlying assumption of any democratic system is the well-informed, rational voter, voting behaviour is actually ‘erratic and incoherent.’ For instance, while upper-body strength was important for leaders in ancestral environments consisting of small groups, it doesn’t imply military strength. However, we continue to laude and vote for male politicians who signal it. In fact, we continue to rely on cues relevant to success in ancestral environments to make modern political judgements. Even when issues that have no parallels to our ancestral environments emerge, we tend to interpret it from an ancestral standpoint. For example, we may moralize genetically modified products, stem cell research, or even vaccination, because they suggest a contamination risk. Thus, we are ecologically rational — that is we have evolved to function well in small-scale, ancestral environments and not mass-scale modern ones.

Most of our political debates are focused on distinct groups and sub-groups, and hence, takes the focus away from the individual. Our minds, however, have evolved for information processing of concrete information, about contexts that are similar to us. Thus, the opportunity for persuasion tactics increases as we are unable to keep ourselves in check. This increases opportunity for conflict. For instance, even if the differences across partisan lines is based on abstract concepts like morality and personality, the conflicts that arise from them are very real.

On the one hand, political issues may fail to activate relevant psychological mechanisms, but on the other, we also differ in terms of our perceptions of politicians’ interest in citizens’ opinions on policy issues. Those of us who believe that professional politicians are interested and responsive to public opinion on policy are more likely to form them, because we believe that their voices would be heard, and hence are motivated to engage more. Besides, on the whole, citizens tend to be ignorant and disinterested in politics. Attention is captured when marketing is focused on concrete, emotionally framed stimuli, rather than objective, abstract statistics. People who are more imaginative are better able to do this, and they are better able to exploit cues relevant to our survival, such as the cheater detection mechanism.

“But politics is a trivial pursuit!”

What, then, happens to the citizens who are completely uninterested in politics? They are more likely to be gullible to propaganda and fake news – not necessarily because of a lack in cognitive sophistication or analytical reasoning, but because they simply are apathetic in discerning the fake from the real. Some political scientists advocate a shift in focus from competence to motivation exactly for this reason. Even tabloids and satirical media like VeepParks and Recreation, or On Air with AIB could potentially instigate the curiosity necessary for political involvement. For instance, after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton’s approval ratings only increased.

Beyond doubt, it is not that we are unable to understand politics — our minds have certainly evolved to solve coordination at the level of smaller groups. It is simply that individuals are uninterested in politics. For any democracy to flourish, it is important to inverse this trend of indifference, and motivate citizens to engage in the processes of democracy.

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About the author

Arathy Puthillam

Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit research organisation based in Mumbai, India. Her research interests include Evolutionary Psychology, Social Cognition, and Psychological Methods.