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The Science of Democracy: Are Humans Hard-Wired To Be Stupid Voters?

The Science of Democracy: Are Humans Hard-Wired To Be Stupid Voters?
via Flickr user Denise Cross Photography

The next United States Presidential election is just under 16 months away, and already “silly-season” is in full force. The frontrunner for the Republican party is Donald Trump: a “television personality” and businessman who has filed for bankruptcy four times and receives vocal support from the right-wing base when he calls all undocumented immigrants rapists. The frontrunner for the Democratic party is Hillary Clinton: a woman who is more popular than every other candidate from either party, despite the fact that much of her base thinks she is too hawkish about the Middle East and too friendly with big business interests.

Campaign coverage by the media is a bit of a clown show. Television and radio talk programs scramble to play up gaffes by the Republican candidates, while wringing their hands over what impact Bernie Sanders--the Democrat who trails Hillary in the polls by 37 points but is considered a “more pure liberal” by many hardline Democrats--may have on election dynamics. Many major media outlets are starkly and plainly partisan, while the rest are nothing more than carnival shows: trying to create drama for the sake of ratings.

It can make a person wonder why we’re doing this at all.


By this I mean not just campaigning and media, but the entire election process itself. Amid record-low levels of satisfaction and trust in government, it’s natural, if slightly taboo, that people would begin to question the core assumption of elected government. If people don’t know the issues and vote against their own best interests, while the media is biased towards glitz and hype, and everyone lies anyway, then why exactly are we so certain that elections are the best way to choose our country’s government?

via Flickr user Eden, Janine and Jim

The case against democracy

In just the last few years there has been growing criticism of “democratic government,” which in modern usage refers simply to any government system where the people vote to elect representatives or enact laws. This denunciation has predominantly come from the political right wing.

Last year, the German-born American political philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe published the short book From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy: A Tale of Moral and Economic Folly and Decay, in which he argues the upper classes are more naturally suited to governance. Indeed, he does not tap-dance around his disdain for the lower classes, saying: “the rich are characteristically bright and industrious, and the poor typically dull, lazy or both.”

Journalist David Harsanyi published a book that same year, The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy, where he argues that democracy is inherently dangerous because it represents “the subjugation of the state to all the lust of selfish will.” I reached out to ask Harsanyi some questions about his views on elected government. While he generously took the time to explain how some of this thinking now differs from the arguments he presented in the book, he still stands behind the overall message: a government that is driven by the will of the people has no way to encourage virtue of the good of society, and will instead promote a “sheep mentality” and “mob rule” that lead to outcomes such as gay marriage and minimum wage, which he sees as “limiting freedom.”

Paul Weyrich, Republican political commentator and founder of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, is famous for his public statement: “I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

On the other hand, right-wing political ideology doesn’t have a lock on scrutiny of democratic processes. The idea of elected representation is ancient, rooted in assumptions about human nature that traces all the way back to the Greeks. Aristotle argued for democracy in government based on the assumption that all people are rational and capable of reasoning, and the most effective rational rule of a town will therefore come from the collective rationality of its citizens.


This idea was central to Enlightenment Era political philosophy in the 18th century, the same political philosophy that shaped the crafting of the United States constitution. The philosopher Immanuel Kant was a paragon of enlightenment philosophers: he believed strongly that human beings are rational animals: creatures whose mental abilities allow us to seek out knowledge and learn, focus on important information, weigh alternatives, and make cogent and sensible decisions that will serve our conscious goals and interests.

Unfortunately, over a hundred years of research in psychology has largely proven these assumptions wrong.

The psychology of terrible decisions

In 1990, social psychologist Ziva Kunda set students in a room to watch another person take a short history quiz. They were told either that this person would later be their partner or their opponent in a game of Trivial Pursuit. After the person’s quiz was completed and scored (the person always received a perfect score), students were asked to evaluate how knowledgeable about history the person seemed. Those who expected the person to be

their partner always rated the person higher than those students who expected the person to be an opponent.

This underscores the inescapable, if somewhat unpleasant, truth that people will believe what’s convenient, and what makes them feel better. Moreover, they specifically will seek out evidence that helps them to feel that way, or alternatively will fail to seek out evidence that would force them to reevaluate their beliefs. People who know they are overweight, for example, will often avoid stepping on a scale so that they can continue to tell themselves “It’s probably just a few pounds and doesn’t matter.” A woman who feels a lump in her breast often won’t go see a doctor so that she can continue to tell herself she might have cancer, without having to confirm that it’s true. (If you are really fascinated by examples like this and want to check out in-depth discussions of “motivated belief,” curl up with The Psychology of Economic Decisions: Volume 2.)

In politics, these biases affect not only our beliefs about political candidates, but also our beliefs about policy issues. People who want to believe minimum wage hurts the economy will seek out evidence confirming that, and will ignore evidence against. People who want to believe that vaccines are a big government conspiracy will read articles by Jenny McCarthy, but will ignore scientific papers. The same goes for climate change deniers, and on and on.


In addition to people being biased by their motivations, they sadly can also be easily tricked and manipulated. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman performed a large number of studies on the effects of “framing” and “anchoring” on decision-making, and found that it is incredibly easy to systematically bias the choices people make.

You want someone to take a risk? Frame a decision in terms of a loss. People would rather flip a coin in an all-or-nothing bet to lose their money than be told they will definitely lose half of it. You want someone to go for the sure thing? Frame the decision as a gain: people would rather take your 50 cents than have to flip a coin to take a dollar or nothing.

Psychological experiments have also confirmed what car dealers have known for a long time, the phenomenon of “anchoring”: present a really terrible deal initially, and people think end up thinking that a moderately bad deal is a “big win.” This comes into politics all

the time: If your political opponents are running an extreme candidate, it is likely to make you feel that their less extreme candidate, while still an opponent, isn’t as bad. Some people think this is actually why Bernie Sanders is running: to be so extreme that it will make Republicans hate Hillary Clinton less.

Finally, not only do people believe what they want to believe, and not only are they easily manipulated by how choices are presented, but they also have a terrible time filtering out irrelevant information. Daniel Kahneman’s seminal book, Thinking, Fast And Slow, goes through a wide range of examples of innate, biological mental reflexes--extremely quick “instincts” or “gut feelings” that are preprogrammed in our reactions--that often override more rational, considered and deliberate reasoning.


What’s worse is that recent evidence suggests these biases are deeply innate--that they hardwired into our brains, and even shared with our other primate relatives. Apparently, we are built to believe things that make us feel good, to be tricked by the way problems are presented, and to make decisions based on gut instincts instead of rational thought.

There are long and complicated evolutionary theories about why this may have happened; but regardless of why, the end result is the same: we are not entirely the “rational animals” that the Founding Fathers, and other Enlightenment-era scholars, imagined us to be.

Does this mean we should give up elections entirely? Why bother with voting at all, if people are biologically predisposed to make bad choices?

We aren’t just a democracy

Harsanyi’s book, The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong), mentioned earlier, doesn’t refer to these scientific studies, but does cite example after example of people voting emotionally, irrationally, and against their own best interests. He concludes the book by saying that people should simply not vote at all. When he allowed me to interview him about the book, one of my very first questions was whether he stood by this cynical message of “don’t vote,” or whether it was at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

“Someone has to pick our leaders,” Harsanyi admitted to me. “There has to be some level of self-determination.” Here, Harsanyi is referring to the idea from Enlightenment-era philosophy: that governance needs to come from the rational beliefs and decisions of the people. “I simply believe the less direct those decisions are the better. This is why I lament that political forces are destroying our checks and balances and corroding the compartmentalization of voters. What I’m saying is that, generally speaking, the ‘democracy’ part of the equation is far less important to me than the ‘liberty’ part of the equation. I think the Founders came up with the best compromise.”


The United States has a long tradition of balancing between self-determination on one hand, and universal human rights on the other. The things that we decide, as a society, represent universal rights are not things that people get to vote out of existence: they simply are rights. As our culture evolves over time, we may bicker and argue about what belongs in that category; but the fact remains that laws and restrictions are divided in our political consciousness into two categories: stuff that we vote on and stuff that is a fundamental right.

Interestingly, this notion of “fundamental rights” is also deeply rooted in innate mechanisms of the mind. Empathy and reciprocity have been topics of study in social and evolutionary psychology for decades. Despite what some of our more ideological brothers and sisters might want us to believe, there is evidence that human beings are innately social beings who want to cooperate, be generous, and build cohesive social structures.

In their extensive review of the research, economists and behavioral scientists Ernst Fehr and Herbert Gintis detail the evidence for what is known as “strong reciprocity.” In their article “Human motivation and social cooperation: experimental and analytical foundations,” published in the Annual Review of Sociology, they describe this tendency for people to not only want to cooperate, but to reward people who do cooperate in a society and punish those who do not, even if that punishment will end up hurting themselves.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this tendency biases people toward cohesion and cooperation. Neuroimaging studies show suggest the tendency is hard-wired: our reward

systems are activated both by giving benefits to people who cooperate with a group and punishing people who do not. This is consistent with evolutionary models that the wiring of the brain predisposes us to promote cooperative social activity.

Another innate mental bias is dubbed essentialist thinking: the assumption that the categories that we use to talk about the world are defined by some kind of immutable essence that gives them their uniqueness and their character. Dr. Susan Gelman has studied the development of reasoning in young children, and found that essentialist thinking appears at a very early age. For example, as early as the age of four children will reason that a “leaf bug” (a bug that looks like a leaf) should behave more like other bugs than like leaves, even though it looks more like a leaf. Children know that “being a bug” is an essential quality that matters more than outward appearances.

In other experiments, Gelman found that young children assume that baby kangaroos that are  switched at birth and raised by goats will grow up to hop, even though goats can’t hop. Again, this shows that children are reasoning based on a sense that things have an “intrinsic nature”.

This type of reasoning can sometimes give bad results. For example, essentialist assumptions about differences between the sexes or different ethnicities, usually rationalized by an appeal to genetics, are often used to justify racist or sexist beliefs. Anthropologist Lawrence Hirschfeld has conducted a number of studies showing that essentialist reasoning about race begins very early in childhood.

On the other hand, when coupled with empathy and reciprocity, essentialist thinking can also lead to the idea of basic human rights. After all, the notion of a “basic human right” is at its core the epitome of essentialist reasoning: human beings do not have rights and dignities because of what they do, or because they are given those rights by the state, but rather because those rights are intrinsic properties that are simply tied to the very essence of what it means to be human. Our strong belief in universal human rights can be interpreted as a direct product of the core psychological tendencies toward essentialism, on the one hand, and empathy and cooperation, on the other hand, working together.

So although our biological biases can sometimes lead us astray, they aren’t all bad. Sure, we may be hard-wired to be terrible decision-makers. We may be hard-wired to be easily fooled. We may even be hard-wired to jump to conclusions impulsively instead of using logic and reasoning. But, we could also be hard-wired to cooperate, build communities, and believe that humans are endowed with inalienable human rights. The question is, then, which biological impulses will we allow to rule?

Why you have to vote

Biology is not destiny, and it is not an excuse. Our biology makes us want to do all kinds of things. We have a strong built-in desire to overeat on salty, fatty and sweet foods; but we don’t need to do that. We have a strong instinctive desire to have sex with every attractive person we see, but part of being a civilized human being means you don’t act on that desire either. Part of the beauty--and the responsibility--of the human condition is that we can overcome our hard-wired biological desires.

This is true of the psychology of decision-making as well. Just because we have what Daniel Kahneman called the “fast system” of decision-making--our mental reflexes that make quick, gut-level decisions that are often right but sometimes terribly wrong--doesn’t mean we can’t control our behavior and train ourselves to use the “slow system” of decision-making--rational thought--instead. Just because we have evolved to prefer believing in things that make us feel good doesn’t mean we can’t take a step back and evaluate alternatives in a rational way. It simply takes some effort.

But there is another message here as well: biology does not only cut one way. Many people are quick to turn to biology to excuse or explain the negatives of human behavior: anger, aggression, prejudice, and sloppy-thinking. But we also have inborn reflexes toward good. We have a predisposition toward empathy, and toward reciprocity. And our bias toward essentialist thinking means that our belief in fundamental human rights is likely a product of inborn mental instincts as well.

Ultimately, no matter how much humanity may seem haunted by demons at times, there is true scientific evidence for the better angels of our nature, as well. And that is enough of a scientific reason to believe in democracy.