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Why Politics Makes People Crazy

Here's how politics creates a neurochemical roller coaster.

L Breuning
Source: L Breuning

Your brain evolved to promote survival, so your neurochemicals create a sense of urgency about everything relevant to survival needs. Social needs feel as urgent as physical needs because the survival of your genes depends on it.

Politics triggers your happy brain chemicals by creating expectations of your needs being met; but it likewise stimulates unhappy chemicals by illuminating obstacles to meeting your needs. You can easily end up with a roller coaster feeling.

When you were born, the world revolved around your needs, but as you age, you face the devastating fact that the world does not meet your needs or revolve around you. From your survival brain's perspective it feels like something is wrong with the world because everyone else is focused on their needs! Politicians appeal to this pain by promising a world that revolves around you after all. This illusion seduces people in the short run, and leads to devastating disappointment in the long run. [More in my prior post, Why We Love to Hate Politicians]

Fortunately, we learn to live together by building social alliances that enhance our ability to meet needs. Our animal ancestors survived by building social alliances, so we have inherited a brain designed to do that.

Awajishima Monkey Center
Source: Awajishima Monkey Center

Small-brained animals tend to stick with one social group, but big-brained primates constantly scan for better social opportunities. Brains good at social alliance-building made more copies of themselves, and natural selection built a brain that responds to social opportunities and threats with neurochemical surges.

Political alliances feel good because they help you meet social needs. Your political affiliation stimulates the sense of belonging that makes a mammal feel safe. But the mammal brain seeks more than survival: it seeks superiority. You don’t think this consciously, but reproductive success depends on social status in the state of nature, and natural selection built a brain that seeks social status. (This is the subject of my book, I, Mammal: How to Make Peace With the Animal Urge for Social Power; more citations here.)

In the modern world we have learned to avoid violent conflict over physical superiority by having verbal conflict over moral superiority. You trigger your happy chemicals by embracing a "higher cause," but every threat to your cause triggers your threat chemicals. (More in this slide show on the political brain.) You can make peace with your political roller coaster when you understand your mammalian urge for social dominance.

L Breuning
Source: L Breuning

It's hard to sustain an alliance made of brains focused on their own needs. In the state of nature, common enemies are the glue that binds a herd or pack or troop. We mammals relieve in-group conflict by focusing on out-group conflict. Political leaders keep their herd together by focusing attention on external threats. When a political alliance relieves your sense of threat, even for a moment, your brain learns to expect relief by being part of it. (See my prior post, How Baboons Choose their Leaders.)

In the end, politicians fail to relieve our threatened feelings because the mammal brain always scans for the next potential threat. Your brain evolved in a world of constant threat, so when your daily life is far safer than anything your ancestors ever dreamed of, your cortisol surges in response to everyday disappointments, setbacks and frustrations.

You have a choice. You don’t have to interpret every political issue as a matter of life and death. It's easy to believe that your very survival is threatened by your political adversaries until you know how your inner mammal creates that feeling. The neurochemical roller coaster is less threatening when you know that you've created it yourself.

L Breuning
Source: L Breuning