If you are even casually aware of politics you must have wondered, with varying degrees of frustration, about people who can’t seem to see clearly what’s so obvious to you. How can people vote against their economic interest (at least the way you see it)? How can women vote for people who treat them as birth machines? How can gay people vote for people who despise them? How can wealthy people vote for a party that is out to raise their taxes? How is it that there are people who can’t see the obvious superiority of the free market system and are trying to overturn it?
Turns out, this “blindness” to what seems so perfectly obvious to you is rooted deep in the human psyche. We are all exposed to the same “evidence”, the same set of facts. But we tend to filter out that which does not agree with the assumptions we live by. For instance, if we assume that all living creatures were created by a super-natural being, then compelling evidence that all animals and plants actually evolved through a trial-and-error process called natural selection is simply filtered out. This phenomenon is known in psychology as “confirmation bias”. We tend to accept evidence that confirms our assumptions, and ignore, or even vehemently reject, evidence to the contrary. Early scientists assumed that the world was at the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies revolved around it. Anybody who dared to question this assumption was either ignored or worse. Just ask Galileo. We see this phenomenon even in modern science. The evidence that stomach ulcers are caused by an organism, H. pylori, was ignored for decades, because we made the assumption that psychological stress is the culprit. The discovery that neurodegenerative diseases such as mad cow disease and possibly Alzheimer’s are caused by an “infectious protein”, called prion, was met with skepticism and derision, because it did not comport with a deeply held belief that infections can be caused only by living organisms, and that in order to propagate they have to transmit to the offspring information encoded in DNA or RNA. How could a protein be infectious, and transmit the information without the aid of nucleic acids? If science were a religion we would call such a claim heresy.
Personal politics is simply an expression of our worldview; and that in turn is built on a set of assumptions. One assumption could be that people who work for the government are “faceless bureaucrats”, lacking in initiative. So evidence that government scientists invented the internet is simply ignored because it doesn’t fit the assumption. The evidence that a certain party contains a large number of racists and misogynists is ignored by black people and women who explain it away as an aberration or simply ignore it. The Bible took a very dim view of such people. It decreed that every Jubilee year (fifty years) all slaves should be set free. But slaves who “love their master” and refuse to acknowledge their abject reality should have their earlobe pinned to the door of their master’s house. Why such harsh treatment? Probably because the ancients felt the same uncomprehending frustration with such willful blindness.
Which brings us to the nub of the issue: isn’t confirmation bias counter-selective? If so, one would assume that such a tendency to ignore reality would be “taken care of” by natural selection. Yet, confirmation bias survived ever since humans weighed evidence of the world around them. In our enlightened democratic system, people still vote for their oppressors. We tend to ascribe it to lack of education, or to clever propaganda. All that is needed is to reason with them, open their eyes. If you’ve ever tried it you’d agree that it is an exercise in futility. My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts.
So what is the explanation?
Our brain is wired to make sense of the universe. All the external stimuli have to make sense, and if they don’t –we invent an explanation. At a most fundamental level we cannot tolerate uncertainty; we cannot operate in a chaotic, rule-less world. Every effect has to have a cause, and if the cause is not self-evident –we invent one. When early man couldn’t explain the seasons, the climatic phenomena, disease and death, he invented an explanation: a pantheon of gods, each in charge of his own task. Hence the ubiquity of rain gods, sun gods, gods of the sea, gods of the harvest, gods for everything. In short, our psychological well-being is dependent on a set of assumptions that are supposed to explain the world and keep us in equilibrium with our environment. Anything that does not conform to our assumptions threatens the equilibrium, and is filtered out. Hence the vehement reaction to anything that challenges our deeply held beliefs.
Are our assumptions so immutable that we are condemned to slavishly reject all evidence to the contrary? Nothing is immutable in nature, everything is subject to change. To wit, very few people believe nowadays that the earth is flat, or that thunder is a bolt hurled by Zeus. But it does take time, and education, and patience. Eventually, reason will prevail.