Likening the human mind to an iceberg, Sigmund Freud speculated that most of what motivates behaviour is hidden far below the surface, lurking deep in the unconscious. In our current era of fake news, election meddling, and endless allegations that one side or another has been totally duped, it’s interesting to think about political choice and decision-making, and consider the extent to which we’re truly the independent and impartial freethinkers we so often believe ourselves to be.

Since Freud and his sofa, psychological study has tightened up. I recently read Thinking, Fast and Slow, a game-changer in the field, throughout which behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman refers to unconscious cognition as System 1 and conscious as System 2. The first is automatic and involuntary; the second is associated more with our subjective experience of choice, directed effort, and what we mean when we say ‘I’.

System 1 will be responsible whenever you find someone inexplicably annoying, catch a falling glass, or finish 2 + 2 = ? System 2 is engaged while searching your memory for the capital of Peru (provided you know it to begin with), maintaining a faster walking pace than you otherwise would, or trying to conceal how annoyed you are by our annoying person.

Being evolutionarily much older, System 1 runs on constant, scanning and evaluating our environment for potential threats or benefits. As a result, everything we encounter produces tiny and fleeting feelings of approval or aversion. Merely picturing something either positive or unpleasant in your mind’s eye can generate this flash of emotion. System 2 is far lazier, however, only called to task when conscious effort is required.

Although we like to think that we (System 2) have full control of the reins, System 1 runs the show, continuously feeding its partner impulses, impressions, and intuitions, which, if endorsed by System 2, will readily convert into actions and beliefs.

For the most part, we’re clueless as to the origins of our beliefs and behaviours, even though, subjectively, we feel like we author them.

It’s revealing that we’re more likely to buy French wine when French music is playing and German wine when German music is playing, and less likely to cheat in an exam if there are pictures of eyes somewhere in the room. Our System 1, or unconscious, produces a gut intuition, and we do our best to accommodate and justify this intuition.

This revelation is particularly fascinating when it comes to politics, as increasing evidence suggests almost all political, moral, and social judgements are steered by intuition, not logic or reason, and such a realisation can account for much of the conflict and confusion that dominates political life.

Thinkers as far back as Plato believed that we best form opinions about right and wrong using cold rationality in a detached search for objective truth. In opposition, 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume claimed that reason alone has little influence and can never pretend to be anything other than ‘the slave of the passions’. To use our phrasing, Hume recognised that System 2 (conscious thought) is employed long after System 1 (intuition) has constructed our position.

Anyone unlucky enough to hold an ardent moral or political point of view has surely found themselves locked into an argument where even their most lethal piece of logic did nothing for persuading the opposing side, even though little was offered in return.

For me, one standout example is a post-Brexit conversation with my parents, during which every claim in Brexit’s favour was essentially dismantled (I’m sure much better ones exist), until we arrived at the fact that it just ‘felt right’. Clearly, all previous arguments were post hoc rationalisations of this feeling.

The idea that unconscious cognition drives opinion on topics like these has been tested by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt presented students with made-up controversial scenarios containing no concrete harm suffered by any party. One story described a medical researcher who plucked some flesh from a recently deceased and disease-free corpse and ate it at home without anyone knowing. Participants had an obvious negative reaction but couldn’t locate any specific harm-based wrongdoing. After every rationalisation for their intuitive judgement had been dismissed, the feeling that it was wrong remained. They were ‘morally dumbfounded’.

So, we’re left wondering where these root intuitions come from, but, as political leaning is influenced by a huge range of factors from innate personality traits to the year one is born, a comprehensive account is well beyond this short post. It’s intriguing, however, to consider how our System 2 choices can be unknowingly hijacked by System 1.

Attractive people are generally treated more favourably than they otherwise would be, but in the political space this bias plays out differently. One experiment revealed how voters opt for the most ‘competent’ looking candidate when no other information is available, with a competent look (in male candidates) defined as a ‘strong chin’ and a ‘confident-appearing smile’, even though these characteristics are obviously no indication of genuine political nous. This result persisted even when participants were flashed images of the candidates for a mere tenth of a second, proving just how intuitive these decisions are.

Curiously, the chance that someone will be swayed by these surface characteristics isn’t the same across the board. Researchers found that watching lots of TV and being politically uninformed made you three times more likely to go with your gut: education was inoculation.

Votes can also be influenced by one’s surroundings, even polling locations, as one study showed. People who casted their vote in a school were far more likely to favour a new school funding initiative than those who were assigned some other nearby location (like a church).

We think our voting preferences and political attitudes are so personal and unchangeable, so it seems absurd that such trivial influences can alter them. Conspiracy aside, we should be wary of crafty campaigners armed with such knowledge.

Our approach-avoid circuitry can even be manipulated into moving us along the political spectrum. A triggering of our primordial disgust mechanism, for example, may make us more conservative, as the change in our environment is unwanted and previous states are favoured (essentially the definition of conservatism, politically). In one experiment, passersby were questioned, either standing near a smelly rubbish bin or not, about controversial issues, and were remarkably more conservative when subjected to the stench.

System 2’s pursuit of justifications for System 1’s intuitions is often called confirmation bias, one of innumerable built-in flaws in our reasoning that would’ve been useful in the environment for which they developed but fall away under scientific scrutiny, many of which really rear their head in political contexts.

Confirmation bias is the phenomenon that we see things as we are. Opposing sets of ideologues can be shown identical, neutral, and ambiguous information about an issue and find only material supporting their position. Unthinkingly, we seek out what we already like. Further, studies show that smarter people are rarely superior excavators of accuracy, but are instead far better at finding good reasons to support a previously held belief. The bias is so inescapable that, even as I was researching for this article, I found myself only looking for evidence in support of its pervasiveness.

Amazingly, fMRI experiments show that maintaining cherished beliefs can be addictive. While having their brains scanned, partisans were given information that came down unfavourably on their preferred political party, but then had the indictment revoked. At the point at which they read the hostile information, their brains were active in areas related to punishment and negative emotion, whereas, once excuses were provided, their brains were most active in reward-related parts, and participants were hit with dopamine.

Above all, it’s simply easier to see things as black and white. System 1 longs for a consistent, coherent, and straightforward world; nuance is a job for System 2, and is annoyingly effortful. But, if we want to upgrade our discourse, and understand each other a little better, perhaps we should give it a go.


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