Why Are THEIR Political Views So Blatantly Self-Interested?

Revealing the hidden agenda of the political mind

Posted Nov 13, 2014

Should birth control and abortion be freely available? Should the government take a bigger bite out of the incomes of millionaires and billionaires, and redistribute that money to provide all kinds of benefits for people who don’t earn enough to get by? Should tax money be spent in ways that prioritize universal health care and public education, or should military spending get a bigger chunk of the pie? My answers to those questions, like the answers many of you would give, are driven by higher principles. The people on the other side, by contrast, shamelessly base their answers on blatant self-interest. Right?

Nope, wrong! At least according to Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban’s new book: The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind. These authors claim that if you ask those evil characters on the other side, they would have the audacity to claim that it is their answers that are driven by principle, whereas ours are driven by self-interest! How could that possibly be? The subtitle of Weeden and Kurzban’s thought-provoking book is “How self-interest shapes our opinions and why we won’t admit it.”

Their book opens up with a case study demonstrating how this works at the highest levels. A week after Mitt Romney lost the U.S. presidential election to Barack Obama, he gave his analysis of what happened: “What the president’s campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote...” To back up his case, Romney and his strategists provided several examples: Obama used an executive order to bestow “amnesty” on young immigrants, a move that was “obviously very, very popular with Hispanic voters.” Obama also bought the votes of poorer Americans with Obamacare, “which basically is ten thousand dollars a family.” Obama appealed to the blatant self-interest of college kids and recent college graduates by allowing them to stay on parents’ health care plans, by cutting interest on student loans, and by setting up programs that gave out “free contraceptives.” As Romney summarized it: “It’s a proven political strategy, which is give a bunch of money to a group and, guess what, they’ll vote for you.” 

Romney’s comments led to an uproar on both the left and right. For example, Liberal columnist Clarence Page accused Romney of hypocrisy, pointing out that Romney proposed to give a bunch of money to Wall Street bankers and other rich people (with promises to prevent Obama’s proposed tax hikes on millionaires, and to remove the financial regulations on banks, designed to rein in abuses that led to the 2008 crash). 

Weeden and Kurzban note that this controversy should itself be surprising, given that elected officials, if they are doing their jobs, are supposed to advocate legislative policies. And if those policies become laws they will almost certainly work to promote some people’s self-interests and to hamper the self-interests of others.  

Weeden and Kurzban quote a number of political psychologists who argue that people’s votes have little or nothing to with their self-interest. On the traditional views, our voting patterns, and the attitudes that underlie those votes, are based in deeper principles about morality and society. But then Weeden and Kurzban present abundant data to demonstrate that there are in fact rather strong links between people’s votes and their self-interest. Minorities favor affirmative action much more than do members of established groups, poor people favor economic redistribution more than do wealthy people, young unattached single people favor birth control and abortion more than do older married people, and so on. Indeed, Weeden and Kurzban point out that these narrow self-interests even over-ride party affiliation, with poor Republicans and rich Democrats being more likely to break with the party line on economic redistribution, for example.

We are aware that the members of other groups are self-interested, but we believe that our own beliefs are principled. Why? Are we lying to ourselves, or engaging in some form of Freudian denial? Weeden and Kurzban argue that there is actually nothing nefarious going on here. The mystery can be solved by considering what we have learned from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology about how the mind works. Instead of having one big general-purpose information processing computer inside our heads, we instead have a brain that is composed of multiple motivational systems, each designed to solve different problems, and thereby serving our self-interests in different ways. Weeden and Kurzban refer to those modular motivational systems as the brain’s Board of Directors, but note that our brains also have systems designed to develop explanations of our behavior that make us look competent and generous rather than selfish (other people don’t like it when you acknowledge that you are acting in your self-interest). They call this function the brain’s Public Relations Department. They argue that the motivational and explanatory systems feed their outputs into consciousness, which becomes the brain’s Spokesperson. The Spokesperson does not need to understand how all the inputs were processed to serve self-interests. In fact, like a politician’s press agent, I can do a better job of defending my decisions as enlightened and altruistic if I am consciously unaware of the nefarious and complicated back-room dealings. 

“Our basic argument is that, with respect to group-based policies, people typically take positions that align with their strategic inclusive interests. People’s Boards of Directors are focused on rules that produce outcomes that help themselves, their families, their allies, and their social networks. People’s Public Relations departments then, to sell their positions, concoct public-friendly stories that often rely on lofty-sounding principles and values. People’s mental Spokespersons then believe—really believe—that their views are in fact caused by their benign principles rather than by their own inclusive interests.”

“The Spokespersons are not lying when they pass along the stories that paint themselves as clever and noble and paint their opponents as clueless and nefarious.” But they go on to point out: “That’s not to say that they are not, in an important sense, often wrong.”

To develop their case, Weeden and Kurzban go deeply into the data on three issues: 1. Sexual freedom (where they paint an interesting picture of the lifestyle conflict between what they call Freewheelers versus Ring-Bearers). 2. Group-based policies such as affirmative action (where the conflict is between those with high versus low levels of Human Capital [skills, intelligence and education] and high versus low levels of inherited status. 3. Income redistribution and spending on entitlements and social safety nets (where the self-interest conflict is between the rich and the poor). 

They then go on the point out that the so-called Liberal-Conservative dichotomy is too simplistic, and to analyze the diverse self-interest sub-groups of the Republican coalition (introducing distinct groups they dub with clever nichnames such as Boehners, Johnsons, Church Ladies, and Downscale Kansans) and the Democratic coalition (made up of some different groups with names like Barneys, Steinems, Hillarys, and Springers). 

Their final chapter is particularly interesting and amusing. A final section is titled: “Can we all get along? (Well, you know, probably not).” As they point out, it is common for other political analysts to conclude their books on political divisions on a Hallmark-card positive note: “By shining additional light on the sources of our political divisions, we hope not to have fanned the flame of discord but rather to have lit the way forward on a path we can all walk together…blah, blah, blah.” But they say: “We find ourselves unable to follow suit.” Instead, they note: “Most people hope for lower volume but higher tones in political arguments; we’re not holding our breath.” They argue that a hard-nosed data-based analysis of people’s political decisions unveils a picture of “self-interest disguised through self-deception” and conclude that this “isn’t very pretty. Which is, of course, why these agendas tend to remain hidden.”

Begging to Differ (Slightly)

I love that Weeden and Kurzban do not pull their punches and go all Hallmark in the last chapter. I know both of them, and they each, in slightly different ways, personify the characteristics that one hopes for in a good scientist—they are both incredibly intelligent and they are serious critical thinkers, willing to put the pursuit of truth ahead of personal marketing considerations. In a sense, they have managed to use their critical thinking skills to defeat the talking points emanating from their brains’ Public Relations Departments. Or perhaps, they are embodying their own arguments: Telling themselves they are in pursuit of Truth whilst simply trying to sell a controversial book. If their arguments are right, there’s no way to know (for us or for them)!

But let me try to put a slightly more positive spin or two on their arguments. For one, I think there’s something very useful there for those of us who read and understand their arguments. If I can really accept that my political choices are driven by self-interest (I vote for Democrats because I was raised poor, did well in school, and now personally benefit from tax dollars spent on education and science, for example), and that my neighbor down the block who votes Republican simply has a different set of interests, then I don’t have to get all self-righteously angry when I see those bumper stickers that say things like “Conservatives don’t want your money, Liberals do!” I can take a Zen perspective, and say we all want the resources allocated in ways that serve our self-interests. So, my neighbor isn’t any worse than me, and I don’t need to burn those angry calories which increase my risk of cardiac arrest.

Meanwhile, I highly recommend their book; it really is a thought-provoking, well-documented, and entertaining read. 

Related Blogs:

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Jew, Jesuits, and Geniuses: The religion-IQ link is JUST a correlation.

Recent article by Weeden and Kurzban in New York Times:

Election 2014: Your very predictable vote

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