“So you’re saying … we should live like lobsters?” or: Why does politics make us stupid?

9 02 2018

That’s the title of a very important and interesting blog post by Pascal Boyer, a French anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who was discussing a now infamous interview of an academic by a UK journalist. I would encourage anyone whose job involves reasoning and persuasion to read the post.

Boyer discusses the damage that “politics inflicts on people’s intellects. Living among academics, it is of course always a wonder to witness how people who display great sophistication in understanding multiple intertwined factors, or the way some variable modulate the interaction between tow other factors, etc., suddenly turn into four-year olds when they talk about politics. It is a wonder that the same people, who are so careful with the logic of arguments, suddenly get into a passionate refutation that b could possibly imply a, when all you suggested to them was that perhaps a implies b.”

I’ve long noticed the same phenomenon: otherwise smart people suddenly become stupid and ignorant when talking about politics. If you talk to someone about their parenting strategy, or the relative merits of two different cars, or their investments, they will be calm, judicious, and will tend to base their statements on evidence. The moment the conversation turns to politics, the IQ of everyone in the room drops.

Boyer advances one explanation for why smart people say really stupid things when the subject is political, namely, that people are engaged in furious signalling of affiliation when they are in the political sphere.

I tend to support a somewhat different explanation for why politics makes people stupid that relates to the sheer size of most of the political units that are controlled by our collective decision-making processes. (I’m thinking especially of nations, not municipal politics here). When we make decisions individually, or in very small groups, we often suffer the consequences of our negative consequences of poor decision-making. For instance, if I indulge my emotions and whims too much when making consumer decisions, I will soon run out of money. If I convince myself that eating lots of sugar will make me thin, I will get fat. I am, therefore, held accoutable for my decisions. But when I am asked to participate in an election or some other decision-making process involving millions of other people, I can free ride on the intelligence of others. If I fail to vote or make voting decisions based on stupid considerations, I am most unlikely to face any consequences, given that the chances of my casting the decisive ballot in a national election are slim indeed.

Bryan Caplan develops this idea in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter.


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2 responses

9 02 2018
((Jonathan Weisman)) (@JJWeisman)

Andrew, you’ve reminded me of an encounter from law school. A colleague, on learning of my pre-law background, preened about the superior significance of her own: “If you get something wrong in Chemistry, people can get hurt!”
As we know, politics has never hurt anyone.

10 02 2018
andrewdsmith

When I say that politics makes people stupid, I’m talking about the sharing of normative political opinions. The academic study of politics is very different, as it encourages deliberate, cool, reflection.

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