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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Politics and Neurons


Sunday, September 27, 2015
Politics and Neurons

From the Ames Tribune
Posted September 26, 2015
Steffen Schmidt: Neurons and politics
By Steffen Schmidt

A neuron is “… an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information through electrical and chemical signals.”

When we analyze political behavior we inevitable veer into the notion that people select from among alternatives and make conscious, self-aware, rational choices.

A recent MIT study instead suggest that, “We are creatures of habit, nearly mindlessly executing routine after routine. Some habits we feel good about; others, less so. Habits are … thought to be driven by reward-seeking mechanisms that are built into the brain. This study is the first to show that cost considerations are wired into the learning of habits.”

In other words people subconsciously take actions that they believe are cost effective.

We can argue that politics, like neurons, is also an “excitable process” that transmits information.

Just observe the 2016 race to the White House and you will at the very least see the “excitable” part.

Politicians and the media rest on the premise that voters are well informed, knowledgeable, smart/intelligent, analytical, responsible citizens and comparative in their choices of candidates or political parties.

I won’t trot out all the evidence that these may be rebuttable presumptions, in other words, assumptions that are taken to be correct unless someone comes forward to contest them and prove otherwise.

Example: “Innocent until proven guilty.”

There is lots of research that people are not well informed about most of the very complex economic, social, moral, and foreign policy issues facing the America.

In fact, a large percentage of people cannot point to where they live when shown a map of the United States.

Research shows that a substantial number of voters select candidates by their name.

In some places, if your name is Kennedy people will vote for you just for the name. On the other hand, in other parts of the nation, that name is the kiss of death, regardless of the candidate’s position on issues.

If we are indeed creatures of habit on many day-to-day activities as the MIT research demonstrates, we should consider the possibility that people also choose their candidates for president by responding to the firing of neurons.

In fact, when people are interviewed in focus groups or at political events they often say they support a candidate because he is “strong,” “seems like a good leader,” or “looks presidential.” One woman at the Iowa State Fair said, “I just like Trump.”

While the mainstream media rarely talks about it, some candidates just don’t look presidential by some generic, often subliminal, and probably “patterned” standard.

Think of the 2016 contenders. Do any of them seem not presidential?

We have a long way to go in the field of biopolitics which is associated with the work of Michel Foucault and his seminal lecture series at the Coll√®ge de France from 1970-84. Another new and cutting edge area of research is “Biological Political Science” as well as studies of genes and politics, which is also called “genopolitics.”

John R. Hibbing, the Foundation Regents Professor of Political Science and Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln argues that, “Biology, not genetics alone, is the key and it is now possible to measure politically relevant biological predispositions with physiological, endocrinological, cognitive, and neuroscience techniques.”

I realize I’m stretching the credulity of many of you reading this, but please keep an open mind. Political scientists are pushing the envelope on understanding political behavior. Hibbing’s essay, “Why biology belongs in the study of politics” in the Washington Post is well worth a read.

What is the take away? Politics is not all that meets the eye. Some political behavior is hidden down in the neurons.

How else to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon?

Steffen Schmidt is a professor of political science at Iowa State University

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