Our brain’s organization biases it towards preferences and decisions that enhance our survival and the quality of our life. These biases are evident during the current presidential campaign, and five underlying brain properties seem especially significant.
A Social Species
Humans are a social species and this gives us an important advantage over species in which individuals only get together to mate. Our individual capability on any given task is limited, but since others may exceed our personal limit, the combined capability of a collaborative group will be greater than that of any individual in it. Since we function within a complex system of informal and formal collaborations (such as friendships and governments), we tend to appreciate virtuosos and leaders whose capabilities exceed our own, and so expand our possibilities.
The recent Olympic Games thus identified individuals and teams in the upper range of human movement capability, and the current presidential campaign will select the management team that will administer our complex federal government for the next four years.
Team sports exemplify the roles of virtuosity and leadership within a collaborative enterprise (such as a democracy). Although all players on a football team have ball-handling skills, only those who are among the best at each skill will pass, catch, run, or kick the ball during a game. None of these specialists work alone. Passers need receivers; runners need blockers; place kickers need holders. A successful team needs many specialists, but also a commitment to collaborate for a common goal. Running backs may get the headlines, but they must acknowledge that the offensive line opened the holes that made their gains possible if they expect such support in subsequent games.
A football team also needs a coach and assistants to set and manage game strategy. Selecting the best specialists, such as a team’s place kicker, is fairly straightforward. A continuing competition among candidates typically determines who has the best potential. Selecting a new coach similarly involves checking out what happened during previous coaching assignments-such as the won/loss ratio, the ability to recruit and work effectively with players and assistants, and the ability to adapt when the planned game strategy is unsuccessful.
Selecting the president and vice president of the United States is obviously much more complicated than selecting a football coach, but functional similarities exist. The basic question is: How competent is the candidate to recruit and manage the team of specialists who will execute specific executive branch functions?
None of the four current candidates has direct prior experience with the assignment, and the challenges confronting the US range from a domestic economic crisis to a foreign military crisis-with a lot of thorny issues in between. Further, the executive branch shares governance with legislative and judicial wings at both the federal and state levels-and it needs a large appointed support staff and the cooperation of the civil service bureaucracy to carry out its decisions.
To make matters worse, the presidential selection committee is composed of upwards of 150 million voters, and they certainly aren’t all of one mind about the criteria for selection. In the end though, our basic two party system means that, like a football game, the election will provide us with a winner and a loser.
It seems a hopeless task, but we’ve been doing it with reasonable success for over 200 years. Our collective collaborative brain is thus up to such a daunting task.
Voters typically want the campaign to focus on the challenges that the next administration will confront-and the candidates to provide clear strategies for confronting these challenges. The problem is that the US is huge, the issues are complex, and our attention span is short. The realities of US campaigns tend to reduce complex issues and proposed solutions to short bits of often-deceptive information-phrases and images the candidates hope will get into voters’ brains and bias our decision.
Researchers have been studying how voters make their choices, and the consensus seems to be that how we relate to a candidate on a personal level is very important, given that candidates typically are reasonably matched in such characteristics as experience and intelligence. We may consider our choice to be rational, but our emotional reaction to a candidate plays a stronger role than we may want to admit. Emotion is an arousal system that alerts us to deviations from normality, and so we emotionally respond to anything heroic or demonic in candidates. This election will help to break down one or more emotionally loaded demographic barriers, regardless of the outcome. Polls suggest that race, gender, and age may become a key element in some voters’ decisions.
All four candidates have compelling narratives that provide a sense of the challenges they’ve confronted, and how they resolved them. I suspect that all four narratives are tidied up a bit, but voters seem to be able to sort out major duplicities, and the Internet now immediately posts anything that is demonstrably false.
Our brain is tuned to sequences of information. Twenty-six letters can create a language of 500,000 words because dog and god have the same letters but a different sequence. We also process words sequentially. John hit Mary doesn’t have the same meaning as Mary hit John. Sentence sequences become narratives that our brain can much more easily understand and remember than a candidate’s explanation of a proposed health care system. Narrative dominates novels, TV, films, and conversation. We’re very good at it, and we’re impressed or are turned off by a candidate’s narrative. We have to relate to the person behind the narrative in order to become a supporter.
We’re especially fascinated by plot twists and turns in personal narratives-and also by those that occur during election campaigns. The current campaign has had several so far, and we can expect more. The term “October surprise” has almost reached mythical status in presidential politics.
Our brain is also very good at interpreting the body language that accompanies a narrative, and much of this is because of our amazing mirror neuron system that allows our brain to replicate the neuronal activity of another person. Since cameras now record every public activity of the candidates, and selected segments are broadcast on TV and posted on the Internet, voters have many opportunities to determine whether or not they believe that a candidate is trustworthy and compatible. Candidates also spend a lot of time in personal contact with voters. The body language implicit in a handshake, eye contact, and two-sentence exchange may be enough to garner a vote.
Our brain is organized into a variety of dichotomies-from a neuron’s excitatory or inhibitory response to the two-hemisphere organization of the cerebral cortex. We also mentally think in terms of such dichotomies as true/false, right/wrong, happy/sad, and fair/unfair. The US has two dominant political parties, and most voters prefer the basic beliefs of one to the other. It’s a form of brand loyalty that simplifies decisions. After all, voting is an off/on switch, and not a dimmer switch.
A political party allows us to identify with a large subgroup of our population, and such identification tends to be rewarding. We are after all, a social species. And just like we’re willing to put up with periodically obnoxious relatives because they’re family, we’ll often overlook a weakness or two in our preferred party’s candidate.
So how will these cognitive properties and predispositions blend in the minds of 150 million voters? Stay tuned, and enjoy the final chapter of the 55th edition this continually fascinating narrative.
Five previous columns reported on related issues, and provided links to useful research reports, journal articles, and books:
The U.S. Collective Brain Selects a President (January 2008)
Our Brain, Our Mind, and Free Will (October 2007)
Social Intelligence (December 2006)
What Determines Your Vote? (September 2004)
The Importance of Political Fairness (June 2004)