Who Benefits From Your Political Behavior? You Do!

Even behaviors allegedly for the common good might be all about you.

Posted Sep 03, 2018

A central assumption of my Cui Bono blog is that, to understand any human behavior, we need to know who benefits from that behavior. The question "Cui bono?" ("Who benefits?") is sometimes used in legal proceedings to ask who might benefit from a crime, thereby casting suspicion on people as perpetrators or accomplices. But I believe that the cui bono question can be applied to any activity, not just criminal activity. I assume that, unwittingly or not, all of us are motivated to do what we think benefits us or people that we care about. Human beings are selfish, not necessarily in a bad way, because we are designed by evolution to promote our own well-being and the well-being of others close to us.

Therefore, the answer to the question, "Why do people do X?" can always begin with "Because they believe that X will benefit themselves or people they care about." We can then ask about specifics such as exactly who the person thinks will benefit, precisely how they or others are expected to benefit, where these beliefs came from, and whether the person is even aware of their beliefs about who benefits.

That's right. I think that some people are deluded about their beliefs about who benefits from a given human activity. I am particularly suspicious of any claims about the "common good." How many things can I do that actually promote the "common good" (that benefit everyone on the planet equally, in contrast to benefiting me or a select group of people)? It seems to me that, more often than not, when people claim that something supports the common good, it mostly benefits them and the people they care about. I know that this is a dangerous accusation because it can be turned against me. But I freely admit to the possibility that I am sometimes deluded about my own motives.

For example, I choose to recycle plastics and ride my bicycle to campus because I believe that these activities help to preserve the environment, making the planet more habitable for everyone. But, seriously, what is the real impact of my environmentally-conscious behavior on the well-being of the other 7.6 billion people on the planet? I would have to admit that it is negligible. Perhaps the main effect of my behavior is feeling good about myself and enjoying admiration from like-minded environmentalists, rather than promoting the common good.

What if I took my environmental interests beyond individual acts of recycling and using my bicycle and joined a movement to protect the environment? Well, in fact, I have done exactly that. A year ago I attended Al Gore's three-day workshop in Pittsburgh and was trained as a Climate Reality Leader. I pledged to help raise awareness about climate change by engaging in at least 10 acts of leadership such as contacting legislators and writing letters to the editor about climate change. I fulfilled that pledge. But I seriously doubt that my behavior has had a measurable impact on environmental policies. Again, maybe the main beneficiary of my behavior is me.

My concern about self-deception regarding who benefits from human activities is supported by research reported in a book by attorney Jason Weeden and evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It. The beginning of the summary description on Amazon reads as follows:

"When it comes to politics, we often perceive our own beliefs as fair and socially beneficial, while seeing opposing views as merely self-serving. But in fact most political views are governed by self-interest, even if we usually don't realize it."

This brought to mind a sentiment I share with someone who wrote the following in a letter to the editor of our local newspaper this past week: "Why would anybody lie about climate change? There’s no profit in that. Why would anybody deny climate change? There is big profit in that, for energy companies, manufacturers and investors."

For me, it has always been easy to understand who benefits from denying climate change. Cui bono? Carbon-based energy companies, manufacturers and investors. But who benefits from the promotion of green energy sources? I have always assumed that green energy benefits the entire world, not just environmental scientists and green energy companies. And I still believe this because I trust mainstream science. At the same time, because I am a psychologist and not an environmental scientist, I find it appropriate to strive for truth and to fight self-deception by continuosly asking, "Cui bono?"

Would you like to see how accurately psychologists can predict your political positions based upon what is in the self-interest of people with your demographic characteristics? Try Weeden and Kurzban's What's the Agenda? webpage.

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