The Brain's Fixation on the Short Term Is Hurting Politics

The Senate’s use of the “nuclear option” and what it says about humanity.

Posted Apr 11, 2017

The White House (Public Domain)
Source: The White House (Public Domain)

In April 2017, the United States Senate potentially changed the country forever. Overshadowed by news of U.S. missile strikes in Syria, the Senate’s confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court received surprisingly little fanfare, though it should have. In the past, confirming a Supreme Court nominee has required the backing of at least 60 Senators (of 100 total). However, when Senate Republicans realized they couldn’t assemble 60 votes for Gorsuch, they took the so-called “nuclear option,” changing the rules to lower the required number to 51. Because Republicans hold 52 seats, this meant that Gorsuch was confirmed to one of the most powerful posts in America along a mostly party-line vote. The more significant issue, however, is that this rule change is permanent, making it easier in the future for very politically biased judges to ascend to the highest court in the land. Whenever either party holds more than 50 percent of seats in the Senate (which is nearly always), the president will be able to nominate any person he or she wishes to the Supreme Court without fear that the opposing party could nix the confirmation. Any incentive there previously was to nominate politically fair-minded judges is now gone.

Here’s the really curious fact: Most Senators on record have said that the rule change was a bad idea—even those who voted for it. Despite voting for the rule change, Republican Senator John McCain said "I fear today’s action will irreparably damage the uniqueness of the Senate, and along with it, any hope of restoring meaningful bipartisanship." Even the Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, has said that he’s not a fan of the nuclear option, but blamed the need to invoke it on Democrats: "It should be unsettling to everyone that our colleagues across the aisle have brought the Senate to this new low.”

So why did so many seemingly intelligent legislators vote for something they think might damage the country? 

The answer is bigger than politics. It cuts to the core of who we are, psychologically, as human beings. I’m talking about the fundamental human tendency, likely built into our genes, to favor short-term over long-term outcomes. Republicans wanted the short-term win of confirming their nominee. Winning this proverbial battle ultimately could make everyone lose the political war, but they did it anyway. 

To be clear, it’s not just Republicans who are shortsighted in this way. The current invocation of the nuclear option was preceded by the Democrats’ use of a similar strategy in 2013 to confirm some of President Obama’s nominees.

The tendency to prioritize short-term over long-term concerns is a human thing, not something that follows party lines. It even has a name—the “present bias”—and it leads to what behavioral economists George Ainslie and Nick Haslam call “the pervasive devaluing of the future.”

You probably do it yourself. Here’s a quick quiz. Choose which you would prefer to receive: (A) one apple today, or (B) two apples tomorrow. Provided you like apples, you probably chose option A, even though you could get double the number for waiting a mere 24 hours. Now, let’s slightly revise your options. Choose one: (A) one apple in one year, or (B) two apples in one year and one day. Under these circumstances, almost everyone chooses option B. Here’s the strange thing: Logically, the question is exactly the same—is it worth waiting a day to double your payout? But, we tend to get irrational and swayed by emotion when the reward could be received right now.

To understand why, let’s leave modern politics behind us for a moment and dive into the mists of evolutionary time. We are a species of primates that shares 96 percent of our genetic code with chimpanzees. Although there is some debate among scientists, it’s likely that 50,000 years ago our species (homo sapiens) existed in pretty much its fully formed version. Like most animals, our brains were evolved to fit an environmental niche where survival was a moment-to-moment concern. Threats were everywhere. If we didn’t gather enough food or erect the right defenses in the short term, we could die today, rendering any long-term view unimportant. In that harsh ancient environment, having more resources at one's disposal in the short-term also would have lent a reproductive advantage, helping protect a woman during the precarious months of pregnancy or prevent one’s children from coming to harm during their most vulnerable years. Individuals who too easily prioritized long-term planning over short-term outcomes were less likely to successfully survive and pass on their genes.

We’re all the genetic beneficiaries of ancestors who paid attention—sometimes obsessively—to short-term concerns. As a result, even with our large and otherwise logical brains, the short term grips us in a way that the long term never could. It’s the reason we eat that donut, even though we know it thwarts our weight-loss goal. It’s the reason gamblers keep betting even though they know, logically, that the long-term odds are stacked against them. It’s the reason companies and their investors are more swayed by quarterly profits than the long-term health of their organizations. It’s the reason the stock market can be so volatile. It’s the reason we can’t fix the healthcare system. We’re wired to seek short-term reward, even when we know it doesn’t make sense in the long term. Short-term gain is just too tempting to ignore, even when we know playing the long game is far more important.

Fortunately, according to research, there are things we can do about it—though none of them are panaceas. 

One way to overcome our obsessive focus on short-term concerns is to delay decisions until the “heat of the moment” passes. The brain seems to be wired with two competing systems that drive our behavior, the so-called hot and cool systems. The hot system is driven by emotion and quick to react to the possibility of reward in the moment, whereas the cool system is reflective and driven by longer-term principles and goals. So, if we can slow down our need to make decisions and build opportunities into our political system for self-reflection, chances are the cool system will win the day. Unfortunately, some members of the Senate want to do exactly the opposite, pushing for shortening the time allowed for debate before certain kinds of presidential nominees can be confirmed.

If we can’t slow down the pace of decision-making, however, another option is to speed up the rapidity of feedback. If short-term myopia has gripped our political system, then let’s work with it. A study appearing in the journal Psychological Science provides a clue to how. In that study, college students who were told they would get feedback quickly after an assignment ended up earning higher grades than students who expected feedback later. In other words, when people expect to be held rapidly accountable for their actions, this changes their decisions. 

If we as informed citizens want our leaders to make decisions with the country’s long-term future in mind, we don't have to wait two years until the next election to offer feedback. We can do it now. Representatives pay attention to letters, emails, and calls as well as tweets and blog posts. Using these tools, we might be able to make our desire for decisions that favor the long-term health of our government more immediately felt by our elected representatives.

No matter which end of the political spectrum we find ourselves on, we’ve all felt the tension between short-term and long-term concerns, and we’re all subject to the “present bias.” Even as we vehemently disagree about many issues, let’s be sure not to sell our long future short for a short-term win.

More Posts