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How Our Stone-Age Brain Undermines Smart Politics: An Interview with Rick Shenkman

Media Appearances -- Rick Shenkman

How can a narcissistic billionaire blowhard who stirs anger and hatred become a leading candidate for the presidency of a great democracy? How can shark attacks or football scores affect how a citizen votes? Why do millions of voters still believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim and that he was born in Kenya? Why do we tend to make political decisions based on emotion rather than reason?

Acclaimed historian and journalist Rick Shenkman looks to science and history to explain how our brain works in response to manipulative politicians and their appeals in his new book Political Animals: How our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books).

Mr. Shenkman, an expert on American presidential history and a renowned debunker of historical myths, struck out to understand how our sophisticated brains packed with 86 billion neurons often make ill-informed and irrational political decisions. After researching history, politics and science from evolutionary psychology and social anthropology to neuroscience, Mr. Shenkman found that our problem is not lack of information but a reliance on instinct rather than reason. The instant, gut reactions of our Stone-Aged brain often lead us astray in our complicated, modern mass democracy. As a result, people ignore politicians who are caught lying.  And demagogues can thrive, as Mr. Shenkman describes vividly.

Yet we need not be imprisoned by our evolutionary past. Mr. Shenkman delves into history and an array of scientific research to reveal new ways that we can understand our reactions and change how we think and how we make political decisions.

Political Animals has been widely praised for its engaging writing, exhaustive research, and groundbreaking insights on politics and the human brain. Bill Moyers recently commented: “If you want to know why this is the year of Trump, you’ve got to read Political Animals by Rick Shenkman.” Scientific American recommended the book: "In this presidential election year, historian and journalist Shenkman offers a timely look into psychological patterns that drive political behavior. . . .  Shenkman details, in particular, four ways that people behave irrationally when it comes to politics: we become apathetic about our government, we incorrectly size up our leaders, we punish politicians who tell hard truths and we fail to apply empathy to political decisions." And Chris Moody wrote in BookForum“Timed almost perfectly, Rick Shenkman’s Political Animals seeks to explain our erratic political behavior using a different lens, one that focuses on the role evolution plays in how we choose our leaders. . . . [Shenkman’s] conclusions are far from flattering to our intellectual vanity, but he draws on a wealth of evidence, demonstrating just how abject our dependence on our Stone Age brain can be.”

Mr. Shenkman is the founder and editor of the History News Network, the website that features leading historians' perspectives on current events. He also is a New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History; Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done; and Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. In addition, Mr. Shenkman is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and the former managing editor of KIRO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Seattle. In 2008 he was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Historians. He lectures at colleges around the country on several topics, including American myths and presidential politics.

Mr. Shenkman responded to an array of questions on his work and on Political Animals.

Robin Lindley: You’re a historian Rick, and you’ve devoted much of your career to making history accessible and debunking myths about history. What sparked your interest in demystifying and correcting misconceptions about history?

Rick Shenkman: This is a great question. I wish I could answer it. Before I did the research for Political Animals I would have given you a nuanced answer drawing on my personal history that probably would have sounded fairly convincing. I’d have mentioned the deep influence Thomas Bailey had on me. (He wrote the textbook I used in high school and was the author of several myth-debunking books.) I also would have told you that I grew up in the suburbs and at a young age noticed the gap between should and was. That is, the gap between the myth of suburban bliss and the reality of life in a somewhat stultifying small town intolerant of gay people. And so on and so on. But after reading a lot of social science books the last five years I’m less confident that it’s possible to know why an individual behaves the way they do. We can understand groups because we can detect patterns that suggest the causes of their behavior. But individuals? That’s harder ironically. As the social scientist Timothy Wilson puts it, “we’re strangers to ourselves.”

All I can say for sure is that the desire to unearth the real story behind the pretense that passes for reality has been a driving force in my life since I was young. When I became a reporter I was drawn immediately to investigative journalism. When I started writing history books I focused on myths. It’s a useful intellectual approach. There’s almost no topic you can think of where the distinction between myth and reality isn’t incredibly handy.

Robin Lindley: In you previous book on citizen apathy and ignorance – Just How Stupid are We? – you noted how little most Americans know about civics and history. How did you come to write Political Animals? Did it grow from the research for that earlier book?

Rick Shenkman: I whipped off Just How Stupid Are We in three months. It was a polemic written in a feverish attempt to make Americans pay attention to the problem of gross public ignorance about politics. What prompted it were the polls showing that a majority of Americans on the eve of the Iraq War believed (falsely) that Saddam was somehow behind 9-11 and that that was the reason we decided to invade Iraq. I found this incredible and decided I had to write about it. I couldn’t believe that a majority couldn’t get the basic facts right about the most important event of our time. This seemed like a ten-alarm fire and I was ready with my ladder and pump to help put it out. It naturally suited my proclivities. Here was as clear an example as you could find of the gap between reality (mass ignorance) and pretense (we live in the greatest democracy on earth).

After the book was published a commenter on Amazon noted that I hadn’t drawn on the research of scientists in addressing the question of public ignorance. This was true. I’m a historian by training and it simply had never occurred to me that I should. But it gnawed at me that I hadn’t and I decided to begin investigating the answers science provided. David Brooks was also a factor. I was intrigued by the science he regularly introduced into his column and thought it would be interesting to take a dive into the kind of sources he was reading.

I thought it would take me a few months to digest the relevant research. Instead, I spent the next five years on the topic and I’m still not done. I find that I can’t read enough to satisfy my intellectual curiosity.

Robin Lindley: Your new book took several years to write. What was your research process and how did the book change during your research and writing from your original conception?

Rick Shenkman: I started with a book that had just come out, Man Is by Nature a Political Animal, by Peter Hatemi and Rose McDermott. It’s a terrific book but very dense. It took me a month to read.

I realized that if I were to truly understand what I was reading I’d need to begin checking out the scholarly papers Hatemi and McDermott cited. Some papers took me on a wild goose chase. Before I’d finish with page one I’d be chasing down a study listed in the endnotes to help me understand the prior research upon which the authors were drawing. So I’d dig up that article or book to read. But that led me in turn to other studies. And on and on this went in a fascinating intellectual voyage of discovery like nothing I’d experienced since I first began reading Richard Hofstadter in high school. It was exhilarating. Eventually, after several years I finally began to form a coherent analysis of the problem we are up against.

There were two turning points in the research. One was when I began to read deeply about Evolutionary Psychology. The other was when I came across the Theory of Affective Intelligence. Political Animals is built around the insights of these two intellectual frameworks.

Robin Lindley: In Political Animals, you contend that many of our political decisions are based on instinct rather than reason. What did you learn from neuroscientists and others about why our brain tends to work this way?

Rick Shenkman: Whatever you make of Evolutionary Psychology, and many people hold it in dim regard, its main assumption seems very compelling to me and that is that our brain evolved to address the problems we faced during the Pleistocene, a two and a half million long period. See a leopard in the jungle and you jump. That’s your automatic brain at work. Your instincts. You don’t have to think about jumping, you just do. We jump out of the way because people who jumped when danger approached were more likely to survive and pass along their genes than those who didn’t.

A scientific consensus now exists that the brain works by using either System 1 or 2, as Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. System 1 is automatic thinking, System 2 is reflective. I found this fascinating. It helped explain how we respond to politics. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that we respond to politics most of the time using System 1. This insight wasn’t my own. I first encountered it watching a video lecture by the Cornell social scientist David Pizarro. It made a deep impression. Fortunately, I came across it early on in my research.

Robin Lindley: Is the “Stone-Age Brain” then our basic instincts, or intuition, or gut reactions resulting from the primitive, reactive limbic system of the brain?

Rick Shenkman: My use of the term “instincts” has led some to conclude I’m talking about the limbic brain. Actually, what I have in mind is what the social scientists refer to as “evolved psychological mechanisms.” But this is a mouthful, so for convenience sake, I use the word instincts. These mechanisms aren’t situated in any one network in the brain. They’re a series of networks that involve automatic responses. A familiar mechanism is the fight or flight response. That doesn’t need an explanation, as it’s pretty familiar to everybody. But take loss aversion. That’s less familiar. It refers to the tendency to feel a loss more intensely than a gain. Where exactly is that mechanism for this in the brain? No one can point to it. But numerous studies show that it exists in human beings in all cultures. It’s a bias and it’s powerful, affecting the way we are inclined to respond in a given set of circumstances. I hasten to point out that we aren’t slaves to our instinctive responses. We can always override them with higher order cognitive thinking.

Robin Lindley: Why are our instincts inadequate for dealing with the modern world?

Rick Shenkman: Well, this is the argument at the heart of the book. What I argue is that when it comes to politics we almost never can unquestioningly go with our instincts. The main reason is that the problems the brain evolved to solve are different from the ones we face today. In the Stone Age we lived primarily in groups that ranged in size between 25 and 150. Today we live in societies composed of millions. That gap is what we’re up against.

Here’s an example. When we see someone on TV we instantly make an automatic assessment of their character and abilities. Studies show we begin to reach our conclusions about them within 167 milliseconds – that’s faster than it takes to blink an eye. Speed was important to our survival in the Stone Age and it’s useful even now on occasion. Whether you confront a stranger in a dark alley or a leopard in the jungle, you need to be able to make a quick assessment. But in politics voters never need to make a fast assessment. We have time to reflect. But often we just go with our gut response.

That’s an error because our instinctive assessments are apt to be wrong. Our ability to read people’s character in a flash only works when we actually know someone well the way our Stone-Age ancestors knew the people in their communities. They knew them well because they lived and worked with them daily for years. This isn’t true of the situation in which we find ourselves. Few of us ever live or work with the politicians we see on television. Yet we have great confidence in our ability to read them. This makes no sense when you stop to think about it. But our brain plays a trick on us. It thinks that because we’re seeing someone we know them. That was true 100,000 years ago, but not now.

A warning flare should go off every time we make an instant judgment about a politician we see on TV. But this flare won’t go off automatically. You have to train your brain for it to go off. That takes higher order cognitive thinking. Fortunately, we’re capable of that. We aren’t slaves to our instincts. That’s the optimistic message of the book.

Robin Lindley: In your new book, you describe how elections may be influenced by events outside politics such as shark attacks and football results. What happens in the minds of voters in these circumstances?

Rick Shenkman: I begin the book with the story of the worst shark attacks in American history. Four people died over a two-week period. This happened 100 years ago in New Jersey. It’s the story Jaws is said to have been based on. Four months later there was an election. Woodrow Wilson was running for his second term. He won in New Jersey but lost the beach towns where the shark attacks had taken place. (Four years earlier he’d won in those towns.) Why did the people in these beachfront communities turn against him? It made no sense for them to have done so. Wilson couldn’t do anything to stop the shark attacks. But people were mad and needed to take out their anger on somebody so they took it out on the incumbent.

Social science studies show that any number of extraneous events like this can affect the outcome of an election, even football games. That’s crazy. But it’s how human beings are built.

Robin Lindley: Your book was finished before real estate mogul Donald Trump announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for President, but you were quite prescient in describing citizen response. Trump has tapped into a cruel vein of our history of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, anger, ignorance, and violence, yet followers have flocked to his candidacy. How do you explain Trump’s appeal in our supposedly advanced democracy?

Rick Shenkman: Trump was almost inevitable. If he hadn’t stepped forward to exploit people’s fears somebody else probably would have. It’s happening around the world this election cycle and it’s for an obvious reason. We’re still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession. People are in an angry mood. In the 60s we had the Liberal Hour. Right now we’re living through the Angry Hour. And unfortunately, there’s plenty of reason for people to be angry. The Great Recession was just the latest assault on our confidence in the future. Inequality is obviously bothersome as is the fact that we are not able to stop terrorists from blowing things up. For decades we’ve been losing manufacturing jobs that pay well. So we’re angry. This is true of people on the left and the right.

What Trump has been doing since he joined the race is to trigger ancient instincts that swamp our other faculties. Like a sadistic dentist who seems eager to make us feel pain, he’s constantly drilling around sensitive nerves as if he wants to make us cry out with a loud yelp, the louder the better. One nerve that he keeps hitting is our sensitivity to outsiders. As human beings we can’t help but be wary of people who dress, look and think differently than we do. This is because we have an ingrained suspicion of The Other. For low information voters who lack an independent basis of knowledge upon which to assess Trump’s claims that these outsiders are responsible for our woes, his message seems salient. For the rest of us it seems crazy. But millions fall into the category of low information voters. A majority of Americans don’t know we have three branches of government, after all.

Distressing as Trump’s popularity is there are grounds for optimism. Trump isn’t winning with every group. He’s winning with low information voters. What that suggests to me is that education matters. Again, we don’t have to be slaves to our instincts.

Robin Lindley: Democratic Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders is another outsider candidate this year who is attracting hordes of voters. He is also tapping into citizen anger, but the character of his campaign differs from the Trump juggernaut. How do you see Sanders’s rise and his appeal?

Rick Shenkman: Sanders is tapping into the anger the left feels. Like Trump’s voters, his are responding because he’s tapping into an emotion, anger, which feels real. He’s also tapping into young people’s idealism. They really want to feel hopeful and he’s making them feel hopeful.

What then is the difference between Trump and Sanders? Is there a difference? The mainstream media seem confused about this. They say both are exploiting people’s emotions and that sounds like a bad thing. Here’s my take. It’s perfectly acceptable for a politician to use emotion to connect with his supporters and to give focus to his campaign. It’s not emotion per se that’s a problem in politics; civics reformers are wrong about that. Emotion generally becomes a problem when the context is wrong.

Let me explain. If you see an innocent young kid getting beat up by a gang you’re likely going to feel anger. That’s the right emotional response. But if you lose your job and then lash out at Mexican immigrants and demonize them, that’s unhelpful. You can’t assume an immigrant took your job or that building a wall is going to help make things right. The context is wrong. Trump is directing his voters’ anger at outsiders who aren’t responsible for their situation. Sanders is directing his voters’ anger at Wall Street, which actually was responsible for bringing down the American economy. In Sanders’s case the context is right. (This is a separate question from whether Sanders’s solutions are well thought out or practical.)

I should mention that one form of emotion is dangerous in politics when it becomes widespread. And that is anger. Anger closes peoples’ minds. Once the insula is activated in the brain (the insula is where anger emanates from), people are less open to new ideas and less willing to compromise. While anger is useful in a small group to help give focus to their energies and to help supply the drive needed to force social change – think of Act Up in the eighties – it’s downright debilitating in a large group. That’s one of our major problems now. Angry polarized people don’t compromise. And compromise, of course, is essential in a mass democracy like ours.

Robin Lindley: Our trust in leaders is often misplaced. You’re an expert in presidential history and you recount numerous examples of when presidents lied but there was little public reaction, such as when Grover “Jumbo” Cleveland failed to disclose he had cancer and Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Richard Nixon lied about Watergate. The public response was muted and you attribute that response to an innate credulity. How do you explain that?

Rick Shenkman: Human beings are basically believers as Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert has demonstrated. To borrow a line from another social psychologist, we’re more like Mulder than Sculley from the “X Files.” The reason is fairly straightforward. We couldn’t accomplish much if we went around skeptical of everything. Once we decide on a matter we are inclined to consider it settled unless a good reason comes along to make us question it. That gives our brain a chance to focus on threats and opportunities around us. Experiments with sea slugs that I cite in the book show this is a feature of the animal brain. It has to do with our habituation to information. Once we become accustomed to something we stop thinking about it. We grow bored by it. That’s our brain helping us keep focus on what’s new. It’s a survival instinct and it shows up, as I say, even in snails, as the scientist Eric Kandel proved half a century ago.

Another factor comes into play. We want to believe in our leaders. So it takes us quite a bit of time to become convinced that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And once we cast a vote in favor of a leader we tend to come to their defense when attacked. That’s our partisan brain at work. We like being consistent. So if we decided that someone is a good leader we tend to dismiss any evidence to the contrary. Our brain literally shuts off the flow of electricity to neurons telling us something we don’t want to hear that might make us doubt our beliefs.

There are other factors, to be sure. I spend several chapters addressing these.

Robin Lindley: You suggest that survival trumps truth. How have you seen this in our history?

Rick Shenkman: So here’s the good news. The way our brain works we ultimately do acknowledge the truth. We have to. As a species we would have died out long ago if we didn’t correct our errors.

What triggers reappraisal? According to the Theory of Affective Intelligence, it’s anxiety. When you feel anxious your brain is telling you that there’s a conflict between your beliefs and the real world and you need to sit up and take notice. This is why civics reformers are wrong to insist that we need to get emotion out of politics. Anxiety is an emotion and it’s vital to politics.

It was this sort of reappraisal that finally led the American people to turn against Richard Nixon. The anxiety they felt as the details about Watergate emerged prompted them to favor his impeachment and removal from office. That’s anxiety doing its job. By the time he left office most Americans had abandoned him even if their partisan brain wanted to stand by him to the end.

Robin Lindley: You discuss climate change and how there’s not much citizen concern despite the warnings of most scientists of imminent peril for life on earth. How do explain this indifference?

Rick Shenkman: Well, a majority of Americans are concerned with climate change. We know that from polls. The number of out and out climate change deniers is actually small. But when you ask people whether we should take drastic measures to remedy the situation they respond with a meh.

The reason is clear. Human beings are designed to react to immediate threats. Climate change is not immediate. We are not likely to feel what we need to feel until it’s too late and the glaciers in Antarctica are melting and ocean levels begin rising.

There’s a way out of this dilemma. We could use advertising to trigger a strong nervous system reaction by flooding the airwaves with 30-second commercials of what’s happening right now with melting glaciers. So count me among the optimists. I think we can change people’s thinking. But some billionaire out there is going to need to finance these ads and fast.

Robin Lindley: You note that effective leaders have been proficient storytellers and mythmakers through history. Who are a couple of your favorite examples of this trait from our history? Does Trump possess this talent?

Rick Shenkman: Jesus told parables. FDR and Ronald Reagan told stories. Stories are what connect unrelated human beings to one another. They help explain how the world works, who we are, and what values we cherish.

Trump has a gift for lying, but is not a particularly effective storyteller. But he knows how to connect with people. How else can you explain a billionaire’s ability to convince white working class voters that he cares about them? He does it by serving up a simple story that outsiders are responsible for our troubles. Simple stories receive a far more favorable response in politics than a complicated story. Trump knows this. This year we are at an ugly moment in history where his simple, warped, ungenerous, and bigoted story sells.

Robin Lindley: You carefully describe empathy and how it affects our preferences. How can the quality of empathy help us make better political decisions?

Rick Shenkman: Empathy is essential in politics because most of the time we are voting on matters that affect others as well as ourselves. If we turn them into abstractions we can’t understand their situation. It’s this difficulty of imagining what other people feel that lies at the bottom of so many of our social conflicts. Politicians count on this. It’s why they feel free to rail against minority populations. They know that the majority aren’t disposed to look favorably on programs or laws helpful to people the majority know only at a distance. Politicians know that an easy way to draw attention is to stigmatize a minority. That’s because the majority are often willing to indulge the fantasy that they’re being ripped off by a minority.

With the exception of psychopaths, fortunately, human beings are born empathetic. But empathy in politics takes effort. It doesn’t come naturally. While we automatically feel empathy for someone in our immediate presence who’s in pain, we don’t for someone who happens to live in a faraway place. Bombs can be raining down on their heads and we can’t feel what they’re feeling. This gives the advantage in politics to people who propose taking action against minorities or foreigners when action is considered desirable for some reason.

The wealthy have a particularly hard time, MRI studies show, feeling empathy for those less well off. My favorite study shows that it’s rather easy to slip into this mindset. You don’t have to be rich. You just have to feel rich. Subjects who win at a monopoly game show the same level of inattention to the problems of the homeless as rich people do. And they’re playing with fake money.

Robin Lindley: How can we escape our evolutionary past and be better citizens and more reasonable, reflective and informed in responding to politics?

Rick Shenkman: Theanswer is to understand how our own brain works. Once we do we can take measures to compensate for our natural mental shortcomings. For example, once you understand how quickly your brain wants to read people you don’t know at all you just have to learn to second-guess your automatic response. I go into the many ways we can train ourselves in the Conclusion.

Robin Lindley: You’ve shared suggestions on how to listen to speeches and comments from politicians. How should we assess what we hear from political figures to get beyond instinct?

Rick Shenkman: So here’s a simple suggestion. It can be helpful to voters who never read a newspaper and know relatively little about politics.The suggestion is to monitor your own reactions as you listen to politicians talk. Jot down on a pad all the emotions you feel as Trump, say, holds one of his mass rallies. Afterwards look at your notes. You’ll have in front of you a roadmap of the candidate’s strategy. You’ll be able to clearly see how he’s trying to manipulate his audience. This isn’t just true of Trump. It’s true of all politicians. They’re all pushing emotional buttons in the hope of drawing a strong response. Your notes will tell you exactly how they’re trying to manipulate you.

Robin Lindley: What do you hope historians will learn from Political Animals?

Rick Shenkman: I hope they will come away from the book with a new appreciation of the important work being done by social scientists and scientists. I was largely unaware of this work I am embarrassed to admit. Now I can’t think about the past without filtering what I learn through the lenses they provide.

Robin Lindley: The spirit of your brilliant mother Phyllis Shenkman seems to loom over your book. Can you talk about how she has influenced you, particularly in terms of civics and history?

Rick Shenkman: My mother pops up frequently in the book. Alas, she didn’t live long enough to see it published, which is one of my greatest regrets. She would have enjoyed it. I owe my love of history and politics to her.

Politics runs on her side of the family. Her brother served as a New York City Councilman and later as a New York Supreme Court judge. She was enthusiastic about life and loved to talk about politics. This was a great gift to me. I cherish it. She often said I was lucky to know what I wanted from life, which I did from the time I was in high school and I first read Hofstadter. I wanted to understand where we all came from and how we came to hold the ideas we do. This was her doing. Whether it’s the result of the way she raised me or some genetic behavior she passed on, or some combination of the two (most likely), my life’s work is derived from her. She died from cancer when I was about halfway through the book. She’d beat cancer twice before, but this time it got her.

Robin Lindley: Thanks so much for your new book and your thoughtfulness and fascinating insights Rick.