News / Science & Technology

    Author: Trump Appealing to Voters' 'Stone Age' Brains

    FILE - An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology. Shenkman said the mismatch between our Stone-Age brains and 21st-century reality has worked especially well for Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
    FILE - An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology. Shenkman said the mismatch between our Stone-Age brains and 21st-century reality has worked especially well for Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

    When we step into the voting booth, we’re bringing Stone-Age brains to bear on 21st-century issues, author Rick Shenkman concludes in his new book, Political Animals.

    And Shenkman said the mismatch between our Stone-Age brains and 21st-century reality has worked especially well for Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

    "All of us like to think that we’re rational creatures,” Shenkman said. But after diving into research from evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, behavioral economists and more, Shenkman concludes, “when it comes to politics, we mostly go on instinct."

    Those instincts served us well when we were highly social hunter-gatherers living in small groups of 100 to 150 people.

    But the world has changed in countless ways, and in many situations, "nothing that we experienced back in the Pleistocene is comparable," he said. "So, our instinctive reactions tend to be off.”

    Or, as the book’s subtitle puts it, our Stone-Age brains get in the way of smart politics.

    As seen on TV

    One way our Stone-Age brains fail us: As highly social creatures, we evolved brain circuits that read faces in a flash. But Shenkman says we put an undue amount of faith in the judgments we generate from very little information.

    Researchers showed test subjects photographs of unfamiliar candidates and asked them to rate each one’s competence. Subjects saw the photos for just a fraction of a second. "At this speed, humans aren’t making a thoughtful judgment," he wrote. "They are simply reacting."

    And yet, the candidate that subjects judged as more competent based on seeing just a flash of a photo was the one who won the election 70 percent of the time.    

    That kind of rapid-fire assessment might have been OK when we spent more time with our leaders and knew them intimately, Shenkman said. “Today,” however, “we just see people on TV. We instantly make judgments about who they are and what they're capable of and what their character is based on what we’re seeing. And yet, it’s extremely superficial.”

    Voters have seen Donald Trump on TV for years. “Just because we see somebody on TV doesn't mean we know them,” Shenkman warns, “but our brains trick us into thinking we do.”

    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a rally at Radford University in Radford, Va., Feb. 29, 2016.
    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a rally at Radford University in Radford, Va., Feb. 29, 2016.

    Emotional thinking

    Two primal emotions -- anger and fear -- are riding high in the American electorate. Both get in the way of rational decisionmaking, Shenkman says. And both work in Trump’s favor.

    Fear of outsiders was an asset to our ancestors, he noted. “Back in the Stone Age days, when you couldn’t trust people outside your community, that was an instinct that could very well save your life.”

    Modern societies mostly ignore that instinct. But “at times where people feel vulnerable” -- as they do with a lackluster economy and the threat of terrorism -- “then that ancient evolved mechanism can be activated.” Trump is pushing that ancient fear button with his proposals to deport millions of people and ban Muslim immigrants, Shenkman said.

    Anger is a common theme in this year’s election. “When people are angry, they become closed-minded,” he noted.

    Shenkman points to a study in which subjects read a made-up news story about a controversial topic. They were offered links to read more about the topic. Those who were made angry by the story did not click the links. “They did not want to know more,” he said.

    FILE - Protesters opposed to the appearance of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's appearance as a guest host on this weekend's "Saturday Night Live," shout anti-Trump slogans in front of NBC Studios in New York, Nov. 4, 2015.
    FILE - Protesters opposed to the appearance of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's appearance as a guest host on this weekend's "Saturday Night Live," shout anti-Trump slogans in front of NBC Studios in New York, Nov. 4, 2015.

    Brains in overdrive

    And once people’s minds are made up, they’re remarkably hard to change, even when presented with facts. That may have worked for our ancestors, when our beliefs helped shape our group identity, Shenkman said. But it’s not good for rational decisionmaking.

    In one eye-opening experiment, researchers put test subjects in a brain scanner and showed them clear evidence that their preferred candidate made hypocritical statements.

    It made them uncomfortable. But it didn’t change their minds. In fact, he said, “Their brains immediately went into overdrive,” working hard to discount the new information and shut down the unpleasant emotions it triggered. When their minds expelled the offending facts, they were rewarded with a feel-good burst of serotonin.

    What they did not do was make independent, rational assessments that could lead them to change their opinions. Unfortunately, “that’s the opposite of reason,” Shenkman noted. In a democracy, that’s a problem.

    Voters cast ballots in Georgia's primary election at a polling site in a firehouse in Atlanta, Georgia, March 1, 2016.
    Voters cast ballots in Georgia's primary election at a polling site in a firehouse in Atlanta, Georgia, March 1, 2016.

    Voter revolution

    The good news, he said, is that “if you become aware of all the different ways in which our brain tricks us, then you can at least recognize in yourself when you’re having an instinctive reaction,” and you can start to work against it.

    In the same way that the consumer revolution of the 1960s and 70s raised awareness about how marketers work to trick us into buying things, “we now need a voter revolution,” he said, “so that we start second-guessing our basic, automatic responses to stimuli.”

    One tip Shenkman offers for broader thinking: “If you find yourself in a tightly knit circle of like-minded people, get out and start talking to people with other ideas.” We have to fight our instinct to stick with our tribe.

    It’s good advice, said psychology and political science professor Matt Motyl at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Motyl is studying how to take the acrimony out of controversial debates. But it’s still a work in progress, he said.

    “Right now, I don’t think there’s much evidence to make any good claims about ways to overcome some of these Stone-Age mindsets,” he said.


    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Uncle Ron from: Austin, Texas
    March 06, 2016 7:10 PM
    The author says, “If you find yourself in a tightly knit circle of like-minded people, get out and start talking to people with other ideas.” We have to fight our instinct to stick with our tribe."

    Unfortunately, in this election season, those with the most dangerous ideas, racism, misogyny, etc., and the lowest IQ's, will never read this article, will never consider and idea outside their "tribe," and will never -consider- rethinking their decision. It is only squishy, thoughtful, intelligent liberals who are wishy-washy in their thinking, and attempt to see both sides of an issue, and the shades or gray therein. The Right is historically replete with examples of this. The term "rock-ribbed Republican" has been around -all- of my life--at least 70 years.

    by: Al Holt
    March 06, 2016 2:52 PM
    Cute article. Common sense under attack!
    Trump is so much a threat to the Left they try to blame his followers as being psychotic Neanderthals. The article speaks more to the author's mindset than to President elect Trump's.

    by: 94c2500
    March 05, 2016 10:41 AM
    The author of this article is obviously left wing and disingenuous in the belief that most republicans are not thinking "correctly."

    Demonizing the opposition is a fundamental aspect of democrat politics.

    by: Greg
    March 03, 2016 12:22 AM
    Very interesting and insightful story.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora