Updated: Sep 2, 2020
An in-depth look at how our biological systems influence our political opinions.
written by Matt Carpenter & Eric Prince
Why do people have different political views?
This is the question Matt and I posed during an hour-long phone call back in June, right after a string of notable events: the COVID lockdown protests, the George Floyd protests, and the increasingly unstable tweets and press conferences from our president.
Our conversation started innocently enough, but, as a pair of space cadets, Matt and I got existential pretty early in the phone call.
We talked about the underlying issue of political polarization that was taking place, how this polarization seemed to be the driving force behind ALL of our recent social issues, and why there didn't seem to be a straight-forward solution to ANY of these issues.
At some point we started talking about the diverse groups of people who made up these social issues: the conspiracy theorist, the data-driven scientist, the social-justice-warrior, the 2nd Amendment adherent, the individualist, the collectivist, the self-proclaimed moderate, the list goes on.
Which got us thinking. These diverse groups of people really aren’t as different from each other as we’re led to believe. They just seem like they are.
Because, underneath these vast differences all of us have the same biological systems.
We’re All The Same On The Inside
All humans think the same way, relatively-speaking. We all go to the same brain-shaped toolbox and grab the same basic tools. We all use our past experiences to inform our understanding of the world. And while the end results may vary (some of us are more biased, more educated, and more “woke” than others), we all use the same systems when it comes to our information processing and decision-making.
We evolved with these systems because these systems are usually SUPER helpful. They've helped us thrive, both individually and as a community, throughout our entire existence as humans.
Hell, some of our mental systems have existed in some form or another for OVER 400 MILLION YEARS.
So, obviously, these systems are going to play an ENORMOUS role in how we operate at both an individual level and at a community level.
Before we discuss the details of these complex biological systems, however, we should briefly examine how these systems drive our entire species. It's the only way we'll be able to understand what is happening at the molecular level.
So, let’s FIRST discuss these systems with using a top-down approach.
LIFE IS ONE BIG TOP-DOWN APPROACH
Politicians address the nation using a top-down approach. They discuss the dangers of large movements of people across borders. They discuss the large-scale benefits of placing tariffs on other countries. They discuss the vague goal of Making America Great Again.
Sure, it might be irritating to hear politicians speak in these broad strokes, but most humans are no different in day-to-day life, either.
When was the last time you discussed the meticulous details of a 2,600-page tax code with your friends at a bar? Or compared and contrasted the varying degrees of affordable housing access and associated law structures? Or the provision, effectiveness, and efficacy of state-wide government spending across all fifty states?
Unless you specialize in these areas, I’m willing to bet you’ve NEVER had discussions like these.
And it makes sense! There’s just TOO much information out there. We don’t have the time or mental capacity to worry about the details of EVERY issue. Plus, it’s just not productive to get caught in the weeds like this.
That’s why our leaders need to be able to engage us at a macro level to motivate change and growth. They streamline these mental processes and influence us to GET SHIT DONE.
Without the power of widespread influence, we’d still be in the stone age. Human progress relies on a top-down approach to accomplish EVERYTHING: the implementation of heating and electricity in our homes, the creation and delivery of vaccines to every child, the adoption and coordination of the assembly-line to produce good at a mass scale. The list goes on.
We NEED people to understand and influence our underlying biological processes. And we NEED people to do this on a large, societal-wide scale.
That’s why understanding our biological systems is so important. Because even though everyone arrives at a slightly different conclusion based on their life experiences, our leaders can also tug at certain processes to engage and influence LARGE groups of people.
IT’S THE POLITICS, MAAAAAN.
Unfortunately, these mental processes aren’t just used for the good of society. A lot of the time they’re used to further selfish goals and to influence people to do things they normally wouldn’t do on their own.
Our mental processes are like a board game. The rules are provided at the beginning, but if there is someone who is willing to twist the rules to their advantage they stand a better chance of winning “the game”.
And there are a lot of sketchy-ass people willing take advantage of these biological systems to win "the game". I’m talking politicians, business-leaders, managers, cult leaders. You name it.
These people take advantage of our underlying systems and pull certain strings to get what THEY want.
Is it weird? You betcha.
Is it morally bankrupt? Usually, yes.
But is it just the way things are? Oh yeah. And it’s been this way since the beginning of our species.
Hell, even well-intentioned leaders will fall back on questionable techniques. Sometimes it just happens. Even good leaders are flawed.
So, why does this happen? Why do people arrive at different political conclusions? Why do some of us buy into what a specific leader says? How do we decide to trust someone? And why does it seem like liberals and conservatives will NEVER agree on ANYTHING?
Now, let’s take a look at things using a bottom-up approach. Let’s take a look at the world of human psychology and basic biology.
Back to Basics (Rest in Peace Amy Winehouse)
Does anyone actually remember biology class in school?
For some people, biology class was a chance to take a nap. For others, it was a hazy jumble of dissections and obnoxious latin nomenclature.
But, beneath all of the superfluous information is a real and impactful truth: all life follows the same basic rules.
In our evolution from the ocean to the plains of Africa, the human brain has become incredibly complex. Many unique and semi-independent structures have developed at different times and for different reasons. Some of these structures developed while we were little rodents scurrying around with the dinosaurs, and others developed while learning to grasp a rock between our fingers and our opposable thumbs.
The end result is a complex system of structures that function together to take in external information and create a response.
Here are the specific sections of the brain we’ll be discussing today:
The Reticular System
All mammals have a complex sensory pathway called the reticular system.
The reticular system monitors all of the sensory inputs going into the brain. This bunch of neurons decides what inputs get our full attention and which ones get ignored. Basically, it's a traffic light in our brain deciding which thoughts can pass and which thoughts have to stop.
It’s not a perfect system. For example, have you ever driven down a highway for a while and just start drifting into your own thoughts?
Maybe you are thinking about all the different ways the Hobbit movies could have been better
Maybe you are thinking about how much easier it would have been to fly instead of taking a 25-hour car ride.
And while you're drifting off into these thoughts, you fail to realize that you're drifting into the oncoming lane, and a truck is bearing down on you fast.
So, the reticular system of your brain decides what gets your attention.
But once something has your attention, how does your brain react to it?
The Limbic System
This is where the limbic system comes in.
The limbic system is the area in the center of our brain that controls our physical and emotional responses to all of that sensory information.
Let’s look at an example to see how it works. Back when you were a kid, let’s say your parents forced you to eat some yucky lima beans.
You would refuse to eat it. Your parents would get mad at you. There would be a stand-off.
In the end, you're left with a healthy dose of vitamin B-6 and an unhealthy dose of resentment.
Fast forward to the present. For some strange reason, someone is choosing to eat lima beans in the cafeteria, and you feel a shiver run down your spine.
Let’s take a look at how your limbic system responds to this situation.
First, you notice the person eating the lima beans.
Then, you smell the lima beans. These signals are sent to your olfactory bulb (smell center).
Next, the hippocampus retrieves all of those old (and horrible) lima bean memories from the past: the gross texture, the sour taste of injustice, the frustration toward your parents.
Then, your amygdala takes these senses and memories and comes up with an immediate emotional response: you feel disgust towards the person eating this gross food.
At the same time, your hypothalamus sends signals to your body to produce stress hormones. These hormones cause your heart to race, your skin to sweat, and your muscles to tense up.
Finally, your hippocampus adds this memory as another drop in the lima-bean-experience bucket. All of this happens subconsciously with little-to-no control.
The Frontal Lobe
Lastly, we have the frontal lobe.
This part of the brain is super complex (and still not completely understood).
What IS certain, however, is that this part of the brain is the logic center, where we process our “higher functions”.
What are higher functions? Well, they’re all of our conscious thoughts and reasoning.
Everything we have discussed up until now have consisted of immediate and emotional reactions.
But after these immediate and emotional reactions humans begin to think more consciously about things. The frontal lobe is where you self-reflect and problem-solve. Where you combine two different pieces of knowledge and form an answer to something that’s been troubling you. It’s where you can re-evaluate your stance on lima beans.
Maybe they ARE a good source of vitamins and MAYBE my parents were right. Maybe I SHOULD try lima beans again. All of this occurs in the frontal lobe.
So, now that we've identified the BASIC pieces of the brain, let's discuss what happens when we put these pieces together.
The Recipe of the Brain
Grab yourself a bowl and a whisk. Got it? Good.
Now, take all of these individual components of the brain and stir them together in the bowl.
Stir for three-to-five minutes. Once you're done, take a look at what you've got in front of you. That's right. You've got the nervous system.
This is the nervous system.
The nervous system is basically the hard drive for our body. It takes in all external stimuli and sends it to the brain for processing.
Let’s take a step back and look at the nervous system in operation. Here’s how it works.
Information enters at these locations:
Each piece of information that enters our body gets assigned a value. Interestingly enough, we tend to measure this information the same way we measure computer information: in bits. For example, the average word is 5 bits of information.
Researchers have found that humans can consciously process 50 bits of information per second. (For some scale, my current internet connection is 44.2 megabits per second-111,500 times more!)
So, consciously, humans are nowhere close to the computing capacity of a computer. But, from a sensory perspective humans receive WAY MORE than 50 bits of information per second. In actuality, we receive around 11 million bits per second (this includes everything we can hear, see, smell, touch, and taste).
So, if we can receive so much info, but only process 0.00045% of it, what happens to the other 99.99955%?
The other 99.99955% doesn't disappear. Instead, our body has created some short-cuts so that we DON'T HAVE TO take in the same amount of information as a computer.
HEURISTIC? BUT I BARELY KNOW HER…ISTIC.
These short-cuts have been given a broad title by scientists: they’re called heuristics.
Heuristics are essentially different tricks to help us perceive the world around us.
Here's your brain WITHOUT heuristics.
And this is your brain WITH heuristics.
These shortcuts are powerful and extraordinarily useful.
These are the systems that sets off alarms when danger is near. And helps to make an immediate decision based on broad assumptions (aka stereotypes). Or cause you to lock your door at night (aka risk).
But, because heuristics minimize the amount of conscious thinking we have to do, they can also cause cognitive blind spots (aka mistakes).
Let’s look at an example of a heuristic and its blind spot.
A Heuristics Example with Money
First, humans tend to think logarithmically. And we suck at thinking linearly.
What does this mean? It means humans are great at imagining proportions and rates, but are pretty bad at imagining things in terms of addition and multiplication. A lot of studies have shown that logarithmic thinking is our default way of thinking.
For example, let’s say you buy a new phone for $1,000. At the store they give you an option to add an extra 100gb of memory for $100. This gets you thinking. Hmmm. A 100gb of memory for ONLY $100? What a steal! An additional $100 is NOTHING when I’m already spending $1,000. So, you buy that extra 100gb of memory for $100.
A few weeks later, you’re sitting at home using your new $1,000 phone and your additional 100gb of memory. Life is good.
But then you get hungry.
You have two options here: You can get food delivered for $18 OR you can put an order in and go pick it up yourself for $10.
You consider the options and realize that spending an additional $8 on delivery food is outrageous! Why would you pay that much JUST for delivery!? So, you decide to go pick the burrito up and save yourself $8.
When you think about it, this logic doesn’t make a ton of sense. You JUST spent $100 on 100 GB of memory you’re NEVER going to use (I’ve had my phone for two years and still haven’t hit 50GB). An extra $8 dollars is NOTHING compared to that.
But, remember, our minds operate logarithmically. We consider both of these amounts as PROPORTIONS of the larger amounts. A $100 dollar add-on is only 10% the cost of the phone. But the delivery fee of the burrito is nearly 40% the cost of the meal itself!
THIS is a textbook example of a heuristics-based flaw. Humans naturally create double standards when their mental reasoning is applied to different situations.
First side note: People take advantage of this flaw all the time! In this situation, the phone store KNOWS that you won't really think logically here. So, they take advantage of of your mind and push the extra $100 purchase.
Add in a dash of experience and…
Let's return to that biological recipe we've been working on. We're almost done. There's just one more addition that's needed to make this dish TRULY unique.
What’s this final part of the recipe you ask? Well, it’s your personal and unique life experiences, of course.
Everyone’s life experiences are different, even for two people who grow up under the same roof.
Our experiences act a lot like the food we eat. Every human digests food the same way, but if you put shitty foods into your body your entire life you’re going to look a lot different than someone who eats healthy foods.
With that said, let’s take a look at how our experiences plays into our existing systems.
Let’s go through a simple example.
I only like about 40% of people. I am also a staunch supporter of Bernie Sanders (a Bernie Bro if you will). Out of the 100 people I know 20 of them are also big supporters of Bernie Sanders. And of these 20 people, I like all of them. So, if I meet a person who says they don’t like Bernie Sanders, what is the chance I like them? Well, let's do some quick maths:
(40-20) / (100-20) = 25%.
All of this happens subconsciously. It’s not like we pull out a pen and paper and jot down this math equation.
No, we do all of this in a split second. For example, if a Bernie Bro is swiping through a dating app and sees a person with “MAGA” in their bio, the Bernie Bro is probably going to swipe left.
But, we have to be careful. Because this way of thinking is how prejudices arise. When we encounter a new person, place, or thing, we use our initial observations to make wide preliminary conclusions.
If you are used to people giving you the cold shoulder in a city (looking at you, New Yorkers), you may be distrustful of a person in Atlanta talking to you on the subway.
Side note: this is also why people stress the importance of first impressions, because the first time you meet someone it impacts your brain waaaay more than all the other times you encounter the same person.
The Complete Puzzle
When you combine all of these systems, both biological and psychological, what do you get?
That’s right, you get us. The recipe is complete!
ALL HUMANS use these cognitive filing systems to condense information, to prioritize what gets our main focus and what can be ignored. We use our experience and our past associations to make, in the interest of time, quick conclusions.
It’s why you still can’t take tequila shots. And it’s why your best friend ONLY takes tequila shots.
It’s why your parents probably hate rap music. And it’s why you LOVE rap music.
It’s why someone can become liberal. And why their next-door neighbor can become conservative.
And it’s why some of us are easily swayed by politicians. And it’s also why some of us become conspiracy theorists.
So, is there ANYTHING we can do to counter some of these effects?
Yes. I’m glad you asked. We’ve got two answers for you.
1) First, self-awareness is key.
In order to counter the effects of your lizard brain, you first need to be aware that these systems exist. Which (congratulations) you’ve just finished reading about!
The next thing you can do is practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of noticing your thoughts and emotions, becoming aware of said thoughts and emotions when they occur, and labelling them for what they are.
So when you’re about to make assumptions about someone upon your first meeting with them, you can take a step back and say, “Why am I feeling this way? What mechanisms are at play?”
2) Second, talking it out is ALSO key.
Yes, it is easy to shy away from difficult topics and conversations. Difficult topics and conversations require active, conscious thinking (and patience), which is NOT something our body likes to do. On top of that, our emotions can get the best of us, especially when a conversation deals with a close, personal identity, such as politics.
If we constantly get aggravated or disengage while talking with people who don’t share our views, how can we EVER expect the other person to be open-minded with us? Disengaging with difficult conversations also hurts our own personal growth.
Remaining open-minded (or at least empathetic) and openly discussing the mental processes taking place can help people become aware of why they support certain politicians, political stances, and policies.
Communication is ESSENTIAL for societal growth.
So, take these keys and go communicate.
No matter how well-spoken, rich, good-looking, charismatic, well-traveled, or formally-educated someone is, they use the same underlying systems that everyone else uses.
Sure, mental health conditions DO exist. And these conditions DO create more subconscious obstacles for many of us. For example, those with anxiety (like me) may have to work harder to address certain subconscious reactions.
Additionally, those with a more formal education DO have a deeper well to pull from when making conscious and subconscious conclusions. But this is only circumstantial. Even people with more formal educations are STILL tied to their underlying biological systems. Formal education won’t do someone much good if they can’t address and control these underlying biological systems.
With that said, we sincerely hope that you come away from this article with a better understanding of yourself and your neighbor.
This year has been difficult and divisive for many of us. It’s become obvious there's a large communication gap happening between different groups of people. These groups aren’t listening to each other. They're making immediate and emotional assumptions about others. They're becoming defensive when confronted with opposing information. They're falling back on comfort and existing information instead of growing as people.
But we NEED to bridge these communication gaps. It's the only way forward.
Educating ourselves isn’t just about picking up facts and spitting them back out at the people around us. It’s also not about absorbing these facts into our existing mindset, either. Educating ourselves requires thinking more deeply about how our overarching psychological systems operate. How we think. What shortcuts we make. How conditioning guides (and misguides) us. Let’s educate ourselves on our biological blind spots. We all have them.
So, the next time you find yourself confronted with those who disagree with you, be it a politician, your neighbor, a coworker, or some troll on the internet, please take a step back and recognize the underlying biological systems that are being engaged.
Matt Carpenter attended Lafayette College and is currently an actuarial analyst living in Norwalk, CT. His interests include running, cooking, history, politics, Settlers of Catan, making piano arrangements of Grateful Dead songs, and writing short descriptions about himself.
Eric Prince is the creator and operator of howwegottonow.com, a platform designed to provide content and context on the most important events happening today. Eric enjoys the daily NYT crossword puzzle, underlining entire paragraphs in books, and pretending to look busy while scrolling through Instagram.
Key words: Problems we face in the world, Current events, Blogs about current events, Global innovation forum, Context for world issues, Issues we face today, Non partisan blogs, Blog about social issues, Understanding social issues, Cultural context.