Over the last 45 years or so, science has made amazing strides in understanding how people see the world and think about what they see. Those advances in cognitive science came from research in several disciplines, including economics, neurobiology, political and computer science, and especially psychology.
Although those disciplines rarely cross-fertilized, they now often work together. Those cross-discipline collaborations accelerated the progress.
Tools available to scientists are sufficiently powerful, but non-invasive to visualize areas of the human brain while they are involved in thinking and applying logic to problems or situations. Looking deeper, the still-emerging picture of how the human mind works is not just an academic curiosity.
The basic subjective or intuitive nature of human cognition has far-reaching implications for real world politics. Humans are much more intuitive or subjective in how they see the world and apply logic to it than most people, especially ideologues, would be willing to accept.
Big picture politics: Human cognition isn’t what you might think
The dominant, fast, intuitive (subjective) brain & the ideology trap:
Most of the time, the human mind operates intuitively, fast, and effortlessly. This kind of cognition operates unconsciously, in an auto-pilot mode. Under most circumstances, we intuitively see reality (facts), assess situations, and draw conclusions without knowing what we just saw, heard, or thought and why we saw or judged it as we did.
Intuitive perceptions and thinking are fast but usually not critical or analytic. Intuition, which is synonymous with being subjective, biased, or nonobjective, dominates perceptions of reality and logic in American politics. Although human intuition often gets things right, intuitive perceptions and logic can easily mislead.
People operating in normal intuition mode rarely question asserted facts or political opinions that fit into their ideology, beliefs, or values, and the common sense (logic) and perceptions of reality (facts) that adhering to an ideology requires.
When a politician or pundit tells a group of like-minded believers objectively false things that accord with their core beliefs (ideology, values, morals, or first principles), most people in the group will believe the false facts and flawed reasoning they hear without question. Once false facts are perceived as true or flawed logic seen as sound, it is usually hard or impossible for people to later see those things either as wrong or as sufficient to change opinion or behavior.
Although human intuition often gets things right, intuitive perceptions and logic can easily mislead.
Personal ideology is the intellectual framework or lens through which (i) reality or fact is perceived and (ii) logic is applied to those perceptions. With that biology, logic can be flawed, because facts are either distorted, denied, ignored, or wrong, and/or because facts are perceived correctly but unreasonably or “irrationally” weighted.
The upshot is that personal values constitute an “ideology trap” that unconsciously makes facts and logic conform to its dictates (Example 2). Understanding that point is critical.
That is not an argument that intuition or emotion — i.e., subjectivity or personal bias — is always bad or needs to be completely removed from politics. It is an argument that this aspect of human biology needs to be understood.
Human memory (facts and logic), intuition/emotion and decision-making (logic) are processed together to a large extent. Because of that hard wiring, it is impossible to fully separate objective facts and logic from subjective ideology, faith, or values.
For most political issues, facts rarely or never fully align with any particular ideology, but subjective thinking tends to effectively create false alignments. Until outside factors intervene to alter the status quo situation in American politics, distortion or denial of contradictory facts and use of flawed logic will be the norm.
The small, slow but not quite objective brain:
The much less dominant aspect of the biology of human cognition is more rational. It is smaller in the sense that the objective or “rational” brain typically doesn’t control perceptions or critically assess facts. The biological point of applying logic is not to critically examine the reasons or facts behind one’s own judgments or opinions.
In politics, humans apply logic or “do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment.” Again, political reasoning or logic is trapped by the mind’s ideological beliefs, values, or morals. Facts and logic are routinely distorted in the process, most of which is unconscious.
All of those factors affect political logic and judgments, and even when facts are set in stone, the subjective mind fights to escape objective constraints such as uncomfortable facts (Example 3).
Political rationality varies with intellectual engagement and open mindedness. People who are mentally engaged are “less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers [and] more skeptical about their intuitions.”
A political mindset where the slow, hard-to-use rational brain has conscious impact is more rational than a mindset that relies on the easy, comfortable, subjective political auto-pilot that people normally rely on. Objective politics is neither easy nor for the faint of heart.
Which side is the two-party system on – subjective or objective?
Where does the two-party system come out in this? It is solidly on the side of subjectivity. In terms of promoting and relying on objectivity, the entire two-party system is heavily incentivized to be subjective and deceptive. Voters generally penalize blunt talk and reward ideological fantasy.
There are few exceptions to the dominance of subjectivity over objectivity. One observer analyzing court opinions for ideological impacts labels it like this: “Mis-Conception: Why Cognitive Science Proves the Emperors Have No Robes” (Example 4).
For politics, the Emperors are the two-party system and the subjective ideologies, facts and logic it uses against the American people for its own purposes. The two-party system relies on subjectivity and intuition/emotion to keep Americans distracted, misinformed and polarized while maintaining a false veneer of logic and reason. Sadly, the tactic is effective. From an objective point of view, two-party politics is the easy way out for the morally corrupt. The Emperors of two-party politics are truly naked.