You may find all this really boring. But it’s important nonetheless, so stick with me for a bit.
A simple answer as to why governments and countries get paralyzed over conflicting values, philosophies, and priorities may be under our noses. No, I don’t mean from the mouths of politicians. There’s something more basic, and we almost never hear any discussion of it.
People of ordinary means around the world wonder why their leaders have such a hard time solving ordinary, obvious problems, for which nearly all leaders claim to have a solution if only other people would pay attention, listen to reason, and do the “right” thing. After all, those leaders are in leadership roles because they somehow rose to the top through voting by their fellow citizens, or by being born to the right parents in the privileged or royal classes, or by grabbing the reins of power with the aid of a military force when a previous leader falters.
Because I’m a U. S. citizen, and since today is the start of what is known as “budget sequestration” to achieve across-the-board spending cuts that nearly all of our political leaders and economists have said for months are a bad idea in general, I chose to write about the larger but rarely discussed issue of the relationship between brains and politics.
We may reasonably ask, “Why do seemingly intelligent people in positions of political leadership sometimes do what looks like very low wattage thinking?” Put another way, “How can they be so stupid?” “Is their thirst for power so intoxicating that reasonable discussions and give-and-take negotiations are bizarrely viewed as weaknesses rather than as strengths of statesmanship?”
My approach here is to help define the problem more clearly, to better understand why political gridlock happens in the first place. Maybe by understanding the underlying problem more clearly, perhaps we can think more clearly about what citizens can do about it. Solutions are tricky in this case because citizens are subject to the same limitations as politicians when it comes time to vote. That is, we are inclined to vote for candidates who think just like we do as individuals.
Recent brain research has produced surprising findings showing that the brain structures of conservatives and liberals are different, that their political beliefs are based in different parts of the brain. An April 7, 2011, report in the online publication, ScienceDaily, read:
“Individuals who call themselves liberal tend to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, while those who call themselves conservative have larger amygdalas. Based on what is known about the functions of those two brain regions, the structural differences are consistent with reports showing a greater ability of liberals to cope with conflicting information and a greater ability of conservatives to recognize a threat.”
It turns out that political beliefs are centered in the amygdala where emotions are controlled, not reason. Yes, our political beliefs may not be reasonable, in a literal sense. Jonathan Haidt reported such findings in 2010, and they have not been given enough attention.
So now we have the cold comfort of scientific evidence to back up the political gridlock that is found within countries and often within families. There is a documented biological basis for our differences, and a documented biological basis for why people so rarely change their minds about political beliefs. By inference, it is fair to argue that our political beliefs are inherited, that we possess our beliefs, and that they are very resistant to change.
Some people are good at reassessing their beliefs when new information becomes available; others are impervious to new information that conflicts with existing beliefs. Our ability to adapt varies widely by individual, just as we vary widely on other traits such as intelligence, understanding, and so on.
So the answer to why we have political gridlock lies not under our noses, but behind our noses—in our brains. Since it appears that political beliefs may be defined biologically in the brain, how can voters deal with that in a practical way?
One obvious way is to seriously consider candidates who don’t think exactly the way we do. If they don’t think just like we do, maybe they know something we don’t. For example, if you happen to be quite certain of your political beliefs—that is if you’re a staunch conservative or a staunch liberal—maybe consider voting for someone who is shaded toward your end of the political spectrum but is closer to the center than you are. People who are closer to the center probably have a greater ability than you do to see both sides of an argument and reach a reasonable compromise for making some kind of progress.
Pollyanish, you say? Maybe. But it makes more sense to me than the do-nothing approach, the “don’t budge” approach, the “go down in flames” approach. The “I’m going to take my toys and go home” approach.