“Think it Possible You Might Be Mistaken”: Thoughts on the Evolutionary Psychology of Political Debate


“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
― Oliver Cromwell

Human beings are bundles of ironic contradictions, but the most ironic of them all might be this: we have exceptionally advanced reasoning skills, but it is not terribly important that our use of these skills lead us to correct conclusions. Evolution is to blame. Natural selection selects for what is useful, which may or may not be what is true. This may be why we are so spectacularly bad at discussing things like religion and politics.

Most of the things we talk about in the modern world require the kinds of distinctions that we are very bad at making: the difference between a religious and a political position, for example, is at best a few hundred years old. And the difference between one’s beliefs and one’s essential worth to the community is not much older. These distinctions appeared too recently to have had anything to do with our cognitive evolution, which had much more to do with factors such as these:

    • Self-Protection: Nothing is more important to evolution than survival. When we feel attacked—physically or emotionally—our limbic fight-or-flight response kicks in. Though we may rationally accept the difference between somebody criticizing our ideas and somebody attacking us, we rarely make this distinction emotionally. It is extremely difficult for us not to perceive a disagreement as an attack, and, unfortunately, we are designed to respond to perceived attacks by shutting off our higher reasoning mechanism and flailing about like cornered animals.
    •  Winning Fights: Henry Clay once said, “I would rather be right than be president.” He was lying. And he was lying in the hopes that being perceived this way would help him become president. Natural selection rewards winners, and cognitive scientists are now assembling impressive evidence that our entire critical thinking apparatus evolved to win arguments. As the author of one important article puts it, “Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions. It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us. Truth and accuracy were beside the point.”
    •  Forming Alliances: We are tribal creatures, and, for nearly all of our evolution, our survival depended on our having good relations with our core in-group. In a world of airplanes, satellite TV, and the Internet, in groups are ideological, rather than geographical, and they can be seen very clearly in political parties and ideological groups. Most of us see ourselves on some kind of political “team” (Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Progressives, Environmentalists, Conservatives, etc.), and, once we so identify, we become very reluctant to hold or express ideas that go against the perceived positions of our ideological group. And we almost always use our reasoning to support the positions that we feel required to hold.
    • Confirming our Beliefs: We believe things for lots of different reasons. Some are genetic (hard-wired preferences for order, or structure, or fairness cause some types of people to become more liberal or conservative than others) and some are environmental (people tend to adopt their parents’ religion and political beliefs). Very few of us ever come to our beliefs through a process of disinterested rational considerations; but, once we believe things, for whatever reason, we tend to apply all of our reasoning powers to the end of not changing our minds. This makes us highly susceptible to what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” As we gather evidence and exercise our critical facilities, we are astronomically more likely to notice, believe, and assimilate information that confirms our beliefs than information that challenges them.
    • Acting Decisively: In the end, it is Fortinbras, not Hamlet, who is fit to sit on the throne of Denmark because, while Hamlet ponders every aspect of his decisions, Fortinbras acts quickly and decisively to get what he wants. In many evolutionary situations, several courses of action can produce positive results, while indecision can be fatal. This means that natural selection favors the tendency to simplify complex information and act on it quickly and decisively without worrying too much about whether or not it is actually true. In contemporary public discourse, book sales and television/radio ratings reflect much the same dynamic.
    • Justifying our Actions and Our Decisions: Both history and literature give us examples of Machiavellian hypocrites who achieve great power by acknowledging, and not worrying about, their hypocrisy. But most of us like to believe that we are honorable in our action and consistent in our beliefs. And we are not particularly good liars. And yet, there are clearly times when honorability and consistency work to our disadvantage. To act dishonorably or inconsistently in our own best interest, we must first of all convince ourselves that we are on the side of the angels. This is why, once we make a decision or taken an action, we employ our immense reasoning powers to convince ourselves and others that we are right. Especially when we are wrong.

The good news in all of this is that biology is not destiny. These evolutionary factors determine our initial emotional reactions, but they need not control our debates and our discussions. We simply have to be aware of them and be willing to correct for them when necessary. To a great extent, living in a civilized society means acknowledging and controlling for the deepest impulses of our reptilian brains. Civil political and religious discourse is possible, but it is not easy, as it requires us to always keep in mind Cromwell’s dictum that that we might be mistaken.