Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > We’re suffering from Stone-Age thinking in 2016: Interview

Jan 8, 2016

We’re suffering from Stone-Age thinking in 2016: Interview

tags: ignorance,stoneagebrain

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

I was interviewed this week by Jim Warren, the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune who now runs a column for Poynter. 

The interview, as it happens, ran in US News, where he's a contributing editor.  Here's an excerpt:

... Few politicians will do much of anything if not clearly supported by organizations and constituents. Things are so bad now that one friend of mine, a gun control advocate, jests that his only hope is that pro-gun voters in open carry states such as Texas "extinguish each other and sanity prevails again through a form of natural selection."

But if we really do seem to act stupidly with some frequency, is there an explanation linked to how our actual brains are wired?

Both before and after Obama spoke, I tracked down Rick Shenkman, a journalist-historian who runs the History News Network, a neat website that seeks to imbue news with historical context. It's been hosted by George Mason University in Virginia, though Seattle-based Shenkman is planning to move it elsewhere soon.

He happened to be in Washington Tuesday at the start of a tour touting his new book, "Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics" (Basic Books). It's about how we often respond to instincts rather than coherent arguments, and partly reflects his research into how our human brains work, even how chimpanzees practice deception and how sea slugs remember things.

Rick, does Obama's grappling with gun control provide any insight to you about our current politics? What's its significance, if any?

Shenkman: What I argue is that the issues that resonate the most with people are the ones that trigger an instinctive reaction and involve psychological mechanisms. They have an instant reaction to Sandy Hook, since I argue when people become anxious, that triggers a reappraisal and often action. I thought that would do it for gun control, but forces arrayed in favor are so much stronger than the forces opposed to it. It's really a power issue. I think what you say [about the passivity of many pro-gun control supporters] makes sense and plays into how the human mind reacts most intently to threats it perceives in its immediate environment. If guns do not immediately threaten you, you may pass it off as not one of your top-10 issues.

Your book turns on a thesis about our having Stone-Age brains. What's that mean?

Shenkman: The human brain evolved during the two and a half million years that hunter-gatherers lived in the Stone Age and evolved to address problems of the Stone Age, not modern times. That mismatch often gets us into problems. We respond by instinct to things in our environment. Our instincts don't match our problems. The human brain continues to evolve but not fast enough to deal with a multitude of problems.

So how does that relate to the 2016 presidential election?

Shenkman: The big problem we face is we don't think to put the problems facing us in context. We have an instinctive reaction to, say, the problem of immigration. Or if you see Muslim extremists blowing things up on TV, you have an immediate human reaction to it. Our instinct is not to reappraise our reaction; it is to go with the reaction. The problem is that the instinctive reaction probably doesn't suit our actual circumstances.

Donald Trump has made Muslims coming into the U.S. and Mexicans coming here as his two big issues. So what does he do? He exploits people's fear of the outsider. But what is really going on is he's triggering psychological mechanisms. We are sensitive to fire alarms, or what the social scientists refer to as the fire-alarm bias. If we think a fire alarm is going off, we react instantaneously because if you miss a fire alarm, the consequences can be fatal. So our brain is built to be highly sensitive to alarms. Thus, Trump is not just vaguely playing to our fears but triggering this fire-alarm bias, or what demagogues have done throughout history. It's what Joe McCarthy did in the 1950s. He said we perhaps had several hundred communists in government. Maybe they won't harm us, but maybe they will. That fire alarm drove McCarthyism and now drives the Trump campaign. ...

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