FEATURE: Beast of Burden

By on August 2, 2017

How our evolutionary makeup magnetizes us to the national political circus.

Hunched over her smartphone, Chrissy Koriakin shakes her head in disbelief as she reads a tweet from President Donald Trump. Today, she broke her “media diet” to find a balance between her desire to stay informed and the anxiety that accompanies the headlines she reads.

Many Americans are indeed struggling amid the current political climate—a White House in chaos and a president who seemingly thrives in the bedlam. We watch the news, read erratic tweets, and scour social media for information, often leaving more confused than when we started. And many can relate to Koriakin when she laments, “It’s not healthy for me mentally to be plugged in to the 24-hour news cycle, where the most dramatic headline wins.”

To be sure, we’re in a symbiotic relationship with social media and the now interminable news cycle. But what draws us to and repels us from the political chaos; and what factors determine how we process the information? The answers could be buried among the artifacts of evolutionary psychology.

Chaos or a positive shift?

Like a cat chasing a laser pointer, people are finding it hard to focus amid the overflow of daily information. “Content” must be industrial strength to win our attention. As a symbol of our distractibility, we elected a president who averages seven tweets per day with a total of 72,690 tweets since opening his Twitter account in 2009.

Koriakin, 32, had never been on Twitter before Trump was elected, but after he took office she couldn’t look away. “I became an insomniac, exhaustingly following the barrage of information until I couldn’t handle it anymore,” she said.

Other locals also report fatigue. Michael Yin is the vice chair of the Teton County Democrats. He worries the rate of modern communication “amplifies the vitriolic tone of politics today and magnifies people’s unsettled happiness just beneath the surface.”

Yin, a 31-year-old software engineer, said politics has “become more fantasy based, where right and wrong, fact or fiction don’t seem to matter.” In their own bubbles of personal blogs, Instagram and Twitter followers, Americans isolate themselves from conflicting ideologies, he said. “The middle ground has fallen out. The emotional voices have drowned out rationality and this is having a detrimental effect on policy decisions.”

Of course, how you perceive what’s happening in the political sphere has a lot to do with personal ideologies. Bob Culver, 71, of the Jackson Hole Tea Party sees a “sea change” happening in politics— “a profound redirection of political attitude.” An engineering consultant, Culver became involved in politics to “fight against excessive regulation.” He views this upheaval in a positive light: “The political status quo is being challenged and the old ways of doing politics as usual are being bypassed.” What he instead laments are the folks “threatened by these changes who are striking out in fear in the most irrational ways. Claims are made without out factual basis. Ad hominem attacks, directed to the person and not the issue are very heavy and obvious.”

Regardless of your political ideology, there is little question that Americans have become a captive audience to the events peddled on social media and across news outlets. Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head, argues that smartphones, social media, and the 24/7 news cycle has “created an American populace that has become quasi-autistic in its nature.” Symptomatic of autism, we search out repetitive stimulation behind the glow of our phones, preferring disengagement from those around us to gain certainty in an uncertain world.

“When we inhabit a highly-engineered environment, the natural world begins to seem bland and tasteless, like broccoli compared with Cheetos,” Crawford said. “Stimulation begets a need for more stimulation, without it, people feel antsy, unsettled. Hungry almost.” From this description, it is easy, then, to see how Hillary Clinton didn’t satisfy American taste buds and why Trump fit the bill. In today’s world of constant stimulation, it seems only the truly dramatic sound bites make it through the onslaught of information.

Outdated brains

For Yin and Koriakin, it may be helpful to understand the trappings of our evolutionary baggage. Modern culture and the politicians birthed from it exploit “vestigial traits” left behind by our tribal ancestors. For example, our physical “leftovers” that once served a purpose now create problems, like our appendix and wisdom teeth. These traits, though, may also be psychological. In other words, our old survival systems are having a hard time catching up to our modern ways.

From the time of our tribal ancestors, conflict has always commanded people’s attention. Throughout his campaign and now in his presidency, Trump has been the loudest voice, lambasting his opponents and using his audiences, everyone from the Boy Scouts to police officers, to propagate vitriolic messages. Whether you agree with his messaging or not, it’s hard to “stop watching” what will happen next.

“Conflict produces a natural high and people can be unconsciously drawn to drama, reflexively attracted to the chaos that we feel in our everyday lives,” Anne Ellingson, a local certified addictions therapist, said.

From a neurobiology standpoint, the sensations of joy and nervous arousal feel very similar in the body, causing humans in some ways to “like” conflict. It’s a trait that made our ancestors problem solvers, but today this byproduct of evolution is used to create division and gain votes. In tribal times, conflict between group members was intermittent, now it’s a daily occurrence causing our brains to develop a “neural tolerance” to political drama. According to the “cocktail party effect,” studied by cognitive scientist Colin Cherry, the brain will become accustomed to any background noise that is steady and constant.

Like reality television, politics has assumed a “what’s going to happen next” feel and Americans are the captive audience.

Culver has noticed in today’s fast paced world politicians’ mouths and fingers “are in motion before the brain is fully engaged, and electronic media has emboldened many normally cautious people to say stupid things without thinking through the reasoning or facts supporting the idea.” 

In evolutionary terms, this type of unpredictable behavior can be described as “protean,” a survival skill where animals behave in an unsystematic way to throw off predators, akin to a rabbit’s movement when avoiding capture. Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist from the University of New Mexico, argues that we are attracted to this type of behavior because it indicates “outside of the box” thinking and is a “fitness indicator” for future survival success. It’s one reason politicians can keep people confused and still get elected for another term.

Indeed, to remain on the public stage, politicians need to continually tap into our innate desire to crave information.

George Lowenstein of Carnegie Mellon  University argues we’re always looking to gather more data to help reduce our sense of uncertainty. Lowenstein says humans feel a mental itch “between what we know and what we want to know.”  Since modern technologies intensify the amount of information available, our curiosity for gathering abstract information also increases. Functional MRIs show this spike in wonder activates the left caudate of the brain, increasing happiness chemicals and our desire to keep searching for even more information in the media.

Locally, Ellingson said she sees many people that are “maddened and depressed by politics, but they also can’t stop looking at the news. Angry and confused, they then retreat to their own personal bubbles of preferred opinions.”

Flocking to our own homogeneous colonies of political beliefs, however, is part of the problem. Politicians use this to their advantage because without communication between groups, they only need to speak to their base to get re-elected. Divide and conquer seems to exploit our evolutionary roots of “fearing strangers.” These days—and throughout history—that often means immigrants.

Elizabeth Phelps of New York University linked this hidden fear of outsiders to racial bias when she found through a sweat conductance experiment that “white people retained fear of black faces, and black people retained fear of white faces, much longer than for faces of their own race.” Scare tactics work, then, because the emotional brain was around long before the rational brain came online, so it always gets the first vote in any decision.

Politicians utilize this evolutionary trait by using emotional stories to overshadow hard statistics. The mental shortcut of using anecdotal evidence is called the “availability heuristic” and ensures we focus on personal stories when making decisions. It’s one reason why simple, powerful rhetoric like “Islamic terrorism” is so impactful in shaping public perception, even when there is evidence to the contrary. For example, statistics released by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute indicated “that within the past nine years, right-wing extremists plotted or carried out nearly twice as many terrorist attacks as Islamist extremists.”

Drowning in decisions

Crawford points out that humans “are not so much rational optimizers as creatures who rely on biases and crude heuristics for making important decisions.” He notes America is a prime example of this phenomenon with some of the highest rates of divorce, obesity, and credit card debt in the world.

The human brain is programmed to survive in a small tribal culture where life was primarily focused on avoiding threats and seizing opportunities. John Hawkes, an anthropologist from the University of Wisconsin, noted today’s world is culturally much different than thousands of years ago, but our brains are not so different. “Early homo sapiens had brains within the range of humans today,” he said.

Take for instance the algorithm of the brain to give humans a pleasure bump when they come across novel information. The brain doesn’t necessarily care about the quality of the information, it just wants us to pay attention to “new things,” according to Nancy and Kenneth Squires of University of California San Diego. This is called the “oddball effect” because scientists discovered it when showing people pictures of circles, squares, and odd shapes. Hence, every time Trump makes a remark that falls outside of the ordinary, our brains receive a dose of dopamine to figure out how that information affects us.

Culver indeed attributes some of Trump’s success to his unorthodoxies. Many Americans were drawn to his “refreshing and hopefully direct approach” and came to see Trump as a solution to “the problems created by the past politics as usual.”

To confuse matters, however, many of Trump’s “odd” remarks are often untrue. According to Politifact, “Seventy percent of Trump’s statements during the campaign were false.” This causes many problems for our brains due to the “false tagging theory” introduced by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. It says humans initially believe everything they hear and then go back afterward to rationally dissect the information for validity. This hiccup in the brain runs under the dictum that it’s better to be safe than sorry. So if someone were to tell us there is a bear behind us, we better at least first believe they are telling the truth.

But that’s problematic behavior. Gilbert explains that “when faced with shortages of time and energy, we may fail to [reject] the ideas that we involuntarily accepted during comprehension.” In other words, when we’re overwhelmed with the fast-paced culture of today, our brains stop trying to sift through everything and instead believe what is in front of us. In addition, sheer repetition of the same lie can eventually mark it as true in our heads. It’s an effect known as “illusory truth,” named by a group of psychologists at Villanova University who found participants would rate a statement as true if they heard it often enough, regardless of its legitimacy.

To compound the issue of “alternative facts” is the unwritten rule of the brain to dig deeper into its previously held belief when shown contradictory information. For both sides of the political spectrum, we stare in amazement at the “other side’s” inability to see common sense. On Facebook and at government meetings we attempt to “help” others see the light, only to witness the “backfire effect.” This psychological curiosity states that when a person’s deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, their initial beliefs get stronger.

So when you confront someone of a different political opinion you have little chance of changing their minds and are in fact pushing them further into the opinion you are trying to alter, according to researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler of Dartmouth University. 

Everyone believes their “facts” are the right ones and both sides are passionate about their stances. Yin said he “tries to keep an open mind” but worries “about the example President Trump is setting for children when he lies, cheats, and bullies.”

Focusing on Trump’s policies instead of his behavior, Culver said he looks to Trump’s core values of “a constitutionally limited government, fiscal responsibility and free markets,” when forming his opinions. “Political principals have been distorted by all players over the decades,” Culver continued. “Logic and facts take much longer to overcome emotional arguments, it takes a while for someone with a strong ideology to see the light and feel the heat of the long-term impact of their issue.”

Many grow frustrated when others can’t see their point of view and most likely never will. This is because the brain blocks out contradictory information and produces feelings of euphoria in the brain when it does so. The prefrontal cortex will activate when a belief is challenged in order to counteract—not consider—the information. The pleasure pathway of the brain will then produce dopamine when the conflicting idea is successfully shot down. Evolution, in this way, rewards us for being close-minded to promote group cohesion and consistency in ideology.

To survive in a “tribal” world, then, it makes sense to agree with your friends and to block out information from the “out-group.” This may be one reason why 71 percent of teenagers in a 2005 Gallup poll reported their political and social ideology is the same as their parents. Once a political loyalty and social identity is set it is then very unlikely to change, according to Donald Green and Bradley Palmquist from Yale University. They found partisan identification is a remarkably stable factor over a voter’s life.

A brighter path

For Koriakin, there are days of news binging, followed by social media and news abstinence when it becomes too overwhelming. She commiserates with friends who call her during “true meltdowns and panic attacks when they think about the future.” She said often it feels like everything is falling apart, “but I realize my anxiety isn’t helping, so I’ve started to focus on ways to move forward.”

As a founding member of the local activist group JH Activate, she now spends her time looking for practical solutions, instead of just staring at the problem. Recently she helped organize the March for Science on the Town Square and is working to find a common ground with people of different opinions, instead of “just preaching to the choir.”  She still fears what is coming next, but realizes that she can never be an advocate for change if she’s a “walking zombie of overstimulation.”PJH

About Ryan Burke

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