5 Logical Fallacies That Make Humans Terrible at Democracy
Did you know that 63-65 percent of Americans think we're spending too little on welfare? Well, as long as the polls calls it "assistance to the poor." Use the word "welfare", and that number drops to 20-25 percent. Yeah, as we've mentioned before, just the way you word a question can change people's opinion on important matters, but, at least, this isn't a U.S.-only problem: The entire human race sucks at democracy. And we can't even help it because ...
We're Programmed to Conform (Even When Everyone Is Obviously Wrong)
Common sense says that angsty, rebellious teens who use words such as"sheeple" not ironically aren't the greatest source of thoughtful political analysis, but it turns out there's one thing they got right: Everyone does want to conform. Or, at least, that's what some psychologists determined when they did a series of experiments that were half Candid Camera episode, half soul-crushing mindfuckery.
"Most of us majored in mindfuckery, actually."
Put yourself in this scenario: Someone asks you and seven other people a stupidly simple question, but all of the others give the wrong answer. Do you contradict the majority and answer correctly, or do you say the wrong thing, too, despite everyone else being a dumbass? If you said, "I'd tell the truth and laugh in their faces," you're either in the minority or delusional -- in a series of famous experiments in the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch put people in that exact same situation, and 75 percent of them conformed and gave the blatantly wrong answer at least once. And it's not like they were solving complex arithmetic problems: They just had to look at four lines and tell which ones were the same length. When there wasn't a group of actors being wrong around them, the rate of error was less than 1 percent.
And no, it's not just because everyone was a bunch of mindless conformists in the 1950s -- the experiment has been repeated over and over again with similar results. Here's a version from the '70s, judging from everyone's sideburns:
What does this have to do with democracy? Everything. What we described is democracy in action. In another experiment, those tricky researchers showed groups of participants the same presidential debate, but edited the crowd reactions to make it seem as if the crowd was right behind the candidate or held the candidate in utter disdain. Every time, the duped participants rated the candidates higher on areas such as intelligence, sense of humor, competence, and sincerity when they thought everyone else loved them. You could put a cat on a podium, and, if you edit the audience reactions correctly, someone will go, "Sure, I would vote for that guy."
President Whiskers got elected on his own merits, though.
But, did the people in these studies actually agree with what they said, or did they simply want to avoid coming off as idiots? We may never know ... is what we would tell you if a guy called Gregory Berns hadn't repeated basically the same experiment in 2005, only armed with MRI scanners and shit. When he looked at the brains of participants who were peer pressured into saying some images were different when they actually weren't, he found activity in the regions devoted to perception -- meaning that their brains were trying to make them see the wrong thing. Like in They Live, but without the need for aliens and magic shades.
It's not that complicated, we suppose -- humans evolved to be social animals, and our ability to cooperate in groups is what got us to the top of the food chain. That means we're always going to have a biological, knee-jerk urge to put "get along with the group" first on our list of priorities -- even if the group happens to be a bunch of dipshits. You may be wrong, but at least a bunch of other wrong people will have your back. Speaking of which ...
Our Brains Aren't Designed to Think Rationally
Democracy is built around the principle that despite all of our irrational fears and hatreds, when we really have to, we're capable of putting aside our emotions and thinking rationally. The system assumes you're gonna vote for the candidate you've determined to be best for the country, not which asshole would piss off your mom the most during dinner conversation.
"Sorry, Romney voters eat on the floor."
At the same time, the democratic process requires being able to empathize with our fellow man -- Candidate A's proposal to ban erotic cutlery may not affect you personally, but what about all of the people employed at the dong-shaped spoon factory? Is it fair to make them live poorer, less sensual lives? In order to make the best decision, the system asks us to find a balance between empathy and logic. Too bad our brains literally can't do that.
To understand why, please look at this duck. Or rabbit.
Or the product of some late-night farmyard depravity.
That's the inscrutably named rabbit-duck illusion. You can see the above image as a duck or a rabbit, but you can never see both at the same time -- and the same problem applies to the way our brain makes emotional or analytical decisions. The part of your brain that analyzes cold, hard facts and the one that empathizes with others are in direct opposition with each other; they simply can't function at the same time. When a big shot CEO makes a decision that earns his company millions, but leaves thousands of employees on the street, people wonder, "Didn't that dickhead think of their families?!" Well, no. That part of his brain was off.
The part that calculates how many hookers he can buy, on the other hand, was working overtime.
For most people, though, it's the emotional side that usually wins out when we're trying to make tough decisions. Researchers used brain imaging scans to study how the human brain operates when the shit hits the fan (they didn't actually throw poop through a ventilator, though; we're assuming the funding ran out). They discovered that, when faced with a moral dilemma, the emotional part of the brain tends to light up while the analytical one closes shop until the next time you have to calculate how much to tip your pizza guy. This means that when the going gets tough, there are no reasoned moral principles, no logic -- our immediate emotional reaction makes the calls -- which, knowing ourselves, is freaking terrifying.
If this sounds like some caveman shit to you, well, that's just because ...
Deep Down, We Think We're Still Living in Small Groups
This whole "knowing what people in every corner of the planet had for lunch today" thing is a pretty recent invention -- for most of our evolutionary history, we operated in groups of 25 to 200, and that was pretty much someone's entire world. There was no walking around and bumping into people you didn't know; everyone was "Joseph who hunted that boar," "David who can do math," "Jenny who farts super loudly," etc. Our brains were built to work in a small, tight-knit tribe ... and they still think that's where they are.
Want evidence? Go watch some porn.
If your boss says something, tell him it's for a Cracked thing. He'll get it.
One of the simplest examples of how our brains have no idea we're living in a massively interconnected world is that, if you look at pictures of boobs, your body will react like there's a real mate in front of you, waiting to have wild monkey sex. Adorably, your brain doesn't know you're sitting alone in a dark room, pawing at your own junk. Well, the same concept applies to the second dirtiest part of our society after porn: politics. When we're contemplating the decisions of our countries, we're subconsciously evaluating them as if they were small-scale local issues, and thus choosing the course of action that would work in such situations. No matter how many times economists explain balancing a federal budget isn't the same as household one, people can't stop wondering why the government doesn't just cut movie nights and switch to the cheap toilet paper.
"Look, if it doesn't have bear drawings on it, I can't use it."
Another bizarre side effect of our outdated brains: Your upper body strength shapes your opinions. Once upon a time, the strongest male would be in control of the group and be able to press his interests the hardest. Researchers discovered this correlation between strength and self-interest is still present today, despite it being irrelevant to modern society. Men with greater upper-body strength will endorse whatever position happens to serve them best -- rich, strong men will oppose sharing the wealth, while poor, strong men are all about redistribution. Part of them is thinking, "If I flex hard enough, I can make the government do whatever I want."
"Or, at the very least, the state of California."
Meanwhile, the weakest men on the study had no strong affiliation to one side or the other. Strong men will still feel psychologically in a position to express their interests, while the weaker men huddle on the edge of the group and hope they get a share of the berries. But, hey, at least we've moved past that silly "my tribe is better than your tribe" shit, right? Yeah, about that ...
We Identify (and Start Hating) Our Political Opponents Before They Say a Word
Show of hands: How many of you intentionally quiz people about their political beliefs before deciding if they're worthy to hang out with you? We're guessing the only ones with their hands up are those who can't get anyone to hang out with them, anyway. (You can take it down now. You look ridiculous.) The rest of us meet new people in places where politics aren't really relevant, like parties or cake-decorating class -- and, yet, almost half of liberals and 63 percent of conservatives in a poll said their friends belong to their same political persuasion. It's almost like they can smell each other.
Mainly because, yes, you can subconsciously tell how similar someone's politics are to your own just from how they smell.
"Ugh, Bob Dole? Really?"
In a recent study, 146 people had to rate the "attractiveness" of the body odor of complete strangers (the same game we play in the subway), and guess what? The more they had in common politically, the more the participant liked the stranger's stench. In other words, we all think our shit don't stink. Again, it's not as weird as it sounds when you stop and think about it: As a species, we want to be around people who are similar to us -- but, this attraction is less about agreeing on basic principles and more about feeling like we belong to a side.
And if we're forced to spend time with another "tribe"? We adapt. People who move to conservative neighborhoods end up becoming more conservative. That lifelong San Franciscan who just bought a house may not like the sweet smell of small government and low taxes at first, but he'll get used to it. Because, you know, you gotta root for the home team.
"This slam poetry session is very weird, but I'm loving it!"
If it's starting to sound a whole lot like humans join their group for irrational reasons and just make up some "logic" for their choice later, that's because that is exactly what happens. In another of those brain imaging studies, researchers determined that when faced with a moral decision, our brain very quickly reaches a conclusion and then scrambles to come up with reasons to support it after the fact. Much like that time you accidentally said you liked Grease 2 on a message board and then got on a 200-post debate to defend it.
Or, like ... every single message board debate ever, actually.
Side note: If you can master the art of getting groups to join your side by convincing them it was their idea all along, you can rule the world. Well, assuming that you have the right face ...
We Can Tell Who's Going to Win an Election, Just From Looking at Their Face
We all know that image is incredibly important to a politician, but it's still only one of many elements -- it's not like you can just show pictures of candidates to little kids for five seconds, and they'll be able to predict who would win in an election, right? Nope, in reality, the kids only need one second to do that. Seriously.
Might as well throw all of these in the trash now.
In a 2009 study, children aged 5 to 13 were made to play a video game where they had to choose who would captain their virtual voyage. But instead of cute animals or talking fruits, the options were the faces of candidates from the 2002 French parliament elections -- and 71 percent of the time, the kids picked the candidate who won. Since the kids had never seen the faces before (it's only at around age 15 that you really get into that European politics fanaticism phase), the study proved that children are pretty good at thin-slice judgments: the ability to make social judgments from experiences that go for less than a second.
Don't be too creeped out, though: Adults can do this as well, and with about the same accuracy as kids. In another experiment, people were shown faces of candidates from U.S. congressional elections and asked to decide, very quickly, which one looks more competent. Like these two party animals here:
Good thing the question isn't, "Who is more competent at rocking the fuck out?" -- or we would be in trouble.
Did you go for the guy on the left? So did two-thirds of the people in the experiment, and, yeah, he's the one who won -- which speaks horribly of our whole democratic system. Why? Because there are a number of things you can tell about a person by looking at him or her for a second (attractiveness, skin color, whether there's a duck sitting on their head ... that's about it, we think), but "he sure is competent at politics and stuff" isn't one of them. As that anti-guns senator who was running guns on the side recently reminded us of, the guy who won the election isn't necessarily the guy who deserved to win. And, if asking a 5-year-old to make a split-second decision yields the same result as letting an adult make a careful, informed deliberation, then man, how much do we suck at electing our leaders?
Unless that adult was three kids in a trench coat, then it's OK.
Of course, this doesn't mean the other candidate wasn't shit either -- the fact that candidate even made it to an election probably means he won dozens of other face battles like this one in the past. The guy who was truly right for the job may have lost on the first round because he had weird mole on his forehead. Luckily, there is a way to assess someone's character correctly, according to those same studies above: When we have no clue how the person looks. So, until all politicians start wearing luchador masks like that guy in Japan, we're probably still screwed.
You can follow Hoss down his street or on Twitter @M_Hossey if you prefer to stalk discreetly.
For more things we're not very good at, check out 4 Ways We Don't Realize We Suck at Coping With Adversity and 5 Ways You Suck at Customer Service Without Realizing It.