Political Science Ph.D candidate and expert in the psychology of political decision making, David Moscrop discusses how institutions built for rational decision making don't fare well when the human brain proves to be more impulsive and irrational than we'd like to think.

Tracy: Your work focuses a lot on the cognitive sciences when looking at political institutions and the way our democratic system works. Want to begin by explaining what led you to look at politics this way?


David: Yes of course. A big turning point in both my growth as an academic and as someone thinking about democracy was when I read a book by a neuroscientist named Antonio Damasio called Looking for Spinoza in which he discusses how social scientists have to address neuroscience more broadly because that is what's going to inform the sort of society and the sort of policies we should pursue. We used to simply build institutions in part by accident and in part by the sheer will of whomever the ruler was at the time, and then we just let them grow from there.

The questions of how people actually behave and why, was never addressed. So I got to thinking about how well our institutions are designed and adapted to respond to what's actually going on in terms of human behaviour, because there's this implicit idea that human beings are calculative, rational, calm, and reflective beings. But the truth is we're anything but that. A lot of what has been able to smooth over what I call our 'lizard brains' has been that these institutions happened to marginally work. But just imagine what could be if we started thinking about it more explicitly and designed even better institutions. We might be able to actually harness our capabilities with much more potential.


A perfect example of this is the political landscape in the US right now just looking at their two options: Trump and Clinton. It seems ludicrous and baffling to onlookers but it's the impulsivity of the reactionary brain that created them.


Exactly. In some ways we've evolved not only to be impulsive, but also intransigent. There's a thing called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is sometimes known as the fool’s dilemma, where the more ignorant you are, the less likely you are to believe that you're ignorant. So even if you know nothing, you're sure that you know something and you know it very well and everybody else is mistaken. The more confident you are in that belief, the more of a fool you tend to be. And that really holds true. On top of that we've got the boomerang effect: so if there are a group of people and a couple of them don't believe in, let's say climate change for instance, when you sit down with them and you have a rational discussion where you present them with evidence that climate change is real, undeniable, and human caused, they will come away from that discussion even further entrenched in their belief that it doesn't exist. So it will actually boomerang right back. None of this is rational, this is all deeply buried in your sense of self and a need to belong to something greater: to reaffirm who you are, and what you think is important and true.

So this is what we're working against in public policy, but the problem is when you get into thinking about Donald Trump or climate change, all of a sudden the stakes are really high. It's not this cute little psychological tic now, it's the fate of humankind. The question then becomes, how do we deal with this in a way that we can come up with better policy and better debates while also avoiding results like violence, which sometimes seems like the logical outcome with these things.


This reminds me of a guardian article I read about confirmation bias (which can be applied in relationships with friends, coworkers, family, spouses, etc) where the belief that you have about someone becomes more ingrained the further into the relationship - even if it's untrue. The more you think a person is a certain way, the more you look for evidence to confirm those beliefs, and also the more you deny the evidence that proves otherwise. This can be applied to support of politicians as well. If you really believe Hillary Clinton is honest, the more you deny the evidence that she's not. Or if you really believe Bernie Sanders is a communist, the more you deny the evidence that he's not.


That is precisely where the challenges we all face come in: the things you believe are good, or preferable, or true, or right or wrong, or that get wrapped up in your sense of self, well, the more you're going to protect them. You're going to protect them often despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and all the other good reasons that you shouldn't protect those beliefs. It becomes a real problem, but that's because a lot of our politics is about protecting your personality while wanting to believe that you're a good person, and that the things you believe are good. We've all thought to ourselves, "How could that person possibly believe that thing?!" But they believe it because it's part of their identity, it's wrapped up in who they are, so you better damn well believe that they're going to believe it - because the cost of not believing it is really high for them and their sense of self.


Belonging to a 'team' so to speak - those who believe they are Republican or Democratic. "I'm conservative even though I don't really know what they're talking about, but they're also conservative so of course I agree with their platform." Likewise how Vancouver Canucks or New York Yankees fans are die-hard fans even though players get traded between teams all the time.


Yes! Something that helps explain this is years ago there was an experiment done in the United States where a teacher separated her students into blue eyes and brown eyes (you cannot get away with this stuff anymore), but within a very short period of time they had tribalized, and the blue eyed group didn't like the brown eyed group and vice versa. They had found reasons to denigrate one another and to balkanize. The same thing happened with the famous Stanford Prison Experiment.

You can do that based on almost anything: blue eyes vs brown eyes, prison guards vs prisoners, male vs female, Hutus vs Tutsis - you can make these arbitrary or artificial divisions and create real opposed or seemingly opposed groups. And this absolutely fulfills an agenda; there's a ton of power built up in this that serves a lot of power-hungry people, so all kinds of reasons exist to keep that going. The same happens with partisanship. The same reason that the BC Liberals and I have friends across the political spectrum, many of them are liberals, some of them are BC liberals, and some are federal liberals. Justin Trudeau and Christy Clark are ideologically incompatible in a lot of ways, yet a lot of liberal minded folk will almost mindlessly support both because they've been branded as Liberals. These are very smart, politically evolved people, but you can't possibly have a conversation with them because they've picked their teams. The problem with that is it becomes very, very hard to have policy discussions. It's very hard to alter this behavior because you've signed up for your team and it's now just irrational banter. When it's sports this is fine because the stakes couldn't possibly be lower, but when it's politics, the stakes can be quite high. The question again comes back to, how do we design good institutions that generate better decision making through better behavior?


Do you see any solid answers to this? What would be your way of moving forward?


It's tricky because institutional design assumes that we know what we're doing and that we can predict outcomes of things, but you almost never can. You put these things out into the world and you create them and people are going to do with them what they will. The best you can do is say, "Here's what I think might work." So for one, we should slow things down. I think that's really important; speed is not conducive to healthy politics. The second thing you want to do is get people in a setting where the exchange of reasons is the currency that motivates things. Like a citizens’ assembly or a deliberative forum where everyone sits down together. The goal isn't to defend whatever you believe, the goal is to give reasons for and against your preferences or your priorities and to collectively come to decisions. That might not mean consensus but it means that you don't come in with your mind made up and on the defensive, but you come in and say, "Here's why I'm for legalizing marijuana and this is why maybe it's not a bad idea," and you have that exchange. This requires that people come in fairly honest.

One of the things you can do if you've got a few partisan troublemakers, is you can isolate them through something that's called the civilizing force of hypocrisy, they're going to want to fake playing nicely for the most part. Unless they're entirely un-takeable people. As they fake it, they get held to that standard, so now they have to actually follow through because there all this social pressure now exists. We've seen in the past that you have these citizen assemblies, and you can make really sophisticated decisions while producing really knowledgeable citizens. Then those citizens can go out and become educators and teachers in the broader population. This is what happened in the BC citizens assembly in the early 2000s. The question is, you've got to have resources, you've got to give people the time, and the incentive that what they're doing matters and will make a difference. In the right environment you've got to design the exchange properly so people are actually deliberating. For example, lining people up on opposite sides of the House of Commons where you're dividing them into teams, well that is not a smart way to make good policies.


Going back to Left vs Right wing 'sides', it seems as though we label anyone a 'lefty' simply because they care about other people. The assumption then follows that they must agree with taxing everyone to death. Speaking from the point of view of someone who often gets pegged a Leftist, isn't taxation more about the distribution of our tax dollars? Could you not efficiently help those who are less fortunate while actually lowering taxes if we stopped subsidizing the prison and military-industrial-complex so flamboyantly? The recent mismanagement of $3.1 billion at the DND is a perfect example.


You're on point there. I mean, if you look back at the United States and the Eisenhower era, the tax rate on the highest earners was something like 90%, and you had the early stages of a flourishing middle class, the launch of NASA, they built the interstate system, people had steady jobs. I do think part of it is taxes, and I certainly think part of it is corporations paying their fair share. If you close all the loopholes, you're right, you don't have to tax people into oblivion. By being a little bit more aggressive with the highest earners, maybe implementing a higher inheritance tax, and to your point, not subsidizing the industries that are doing harm, then yes we can afford these beneficial things like our healthcare system and social programs.


Something you've written about before is mandatory voting. You used to be against it, and now you're for it?


[Laughter] My flip flop, or my evolution. It was actually a pretty straight-forward conversion. Andrew Coyne made an argument that I just bought, plain and simple. My initial concern was that if we force people to vote, it's only going to assure that people vote for whomever they last heard on the radio, or whichever sign they saw last. I argued that it wouldn't produce better outcomes, and it would only make us feel better that the voter turnout was higher. What we actually want to do is to create an environment in which you'll want to vote, and inform yourself on each platform. I still retain all those concerns today, so nothing has changed about that. But where Coyne stepped in is when he wrote about how with forced voting, parties would then have to appeal to a larger voter base; they're not going to ignore poor people, they're not going to ignore young people. Campaigning will no longer be just about senior citizens (who vote more often and who are paid more attention). So in a way, forced voting is going to apply the attention to a wider voter base. Some people say that maybe it will also incentivize people to actually learn something. I'm not convinced, but maybe. I've weighed the risk of people voting for whichever name stuck out to them most versus parties having to appeal to more people, and I agree with Coyne. It's worth the risk if parties are forced to take seriously different policy agendas because all of a sudden young people matter. What's interesting is this last election confirmed that for me because young people came out en masse, partly because they were in some ways listened to. You don't get the legalization of marijuana on your agenda if young people aren't being taken seriously, even if only moderately seriously. We got out of Syria in part because of young people as well. Youth were the ones who had a huge impact on the election going the way it did. For me that helped confirm the hypothesis.

What was interesting about the piece I wrote on this was that it was a counter piece to myself, so I expected a hugely negative reaction from readers. People spend a lot of time typing out mean things on the internet. (It upsets my mother but I mostly don't mind it--actually sometimes I like getting into it: I have a Facebook album called the CBS hate mail bag where I take screenshots of all the hate mail and post it because I think a lot of it is quite funny, and some of them are real gems. I mean just fantastic stuff.) But what I didn't expect was that people were generally receptive to an honest and reasoned change in opinion, which was really encouraging. If I was politician maybe that would be different, but you know. [Laughter]


It's wonderful to see people who aren't afraid to change their minds on an issue. I met a journalist who shakes his head at every decade-old article he's written, as well as a professor who joked about not asking any questions about his old publications.


If you're not changing your mind, you're probably not learning anything new. You should be changing your mind, because things change. I do think there are good examples of this happening, same sex marriage is a great example of this nationally. In 2000, 2001 and 2002, most Canadians were very clearly opposed to it. Then around 2003 and 2004, it started to change. It went to the Supreme Court as a reference case from the Liberal government and the Supreme Court in its own reasoning framed same sex marriage as an issue of equality, not special rights. Now if you look at numbers from 20 years ago and numbers from today, it looks like people are living on two different planets. People changed their mind on that not because there was new information, but because it was different framing. It's really encouraging because this is how we get the rights revolution that we've had over the last 30 years, to the point where today we've come all the way to having a mature discussion about assisted dying which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.


Absolutely. I remember just a decade ago when it was an untouchable topic in high schools.


Yes, because the Rodriguez case had happened. The courts rejected the right to die not all that long ago and now they've affirmed it. Even the highest court in the land has done so. Of course, you have different justices but the court tends to get slightly ahead of the public and gently pulls us along which gives us all new ways of thinking about things - so the public moves alongside the court. I see that as a rights evolution in some ways, it does slowly happen.


We recently saw the first sitting US president ever in history to openly declare that addiction was a mental health issue and not a crime issue. That's a huge shift in the way an entire governing body is permitted to think.


The president of Colombia just came out and said the same thing. To have the Colombians saying the same thing as the Americans was previously unthinkable--but then again we also saw a sitting US president visit Cuba. These things are unfathomable until they happen, like the fall of the Soviet Union. Sometimes things change slowly, sometimes they change quickly.

To come back to thinking about complex systems through the lens of psychology, there's something called ontological security. And basically - to oversimplify - human beings tend to want the world to make sense and they more or less want tomorrow to look like today. They need that stability about what reality is and how it works, but when that ontological security starts to break down, we develop anxieties and some pretty serious afflictions. One of the psychological constructions of this is known as meaning maintenance which is fantastically interesting. It was worked on among others, by a UBC psychologist named Steven Heine. Meaning maintenance is basically where we have these meaning networks, or frameworks and we try to maintain them. When they break down we try to affirm other ones.

The study Heine did is a few years old now, but it was where you have a control group and a treatment group. Each group is asked to assign a hypothetical fine to a sex worker who had been busted.  I don't have the exact number but let's say the control group set the fine at $40. The treatment group was subjected to things that were meant to subconsciously affect their meaning maintenance. They were either read an absurdest story by Kafka, or they were reminded they were going to die, or they were asked to play a card game where the colour of the suits were flipped (so spades were red, hearts were black, etc) or they had the examiners switched - it would be a woman in a white lab coat but she would suddenly be switched with a very similar looking woman but she was a different person. And of course what happened was, with the treatment group the fine when up considerably.

The conclusion was that these individuals' sense of the world had been interrupted so what they were doing was reaffirming strict law and order as a way to grapple with it. This is happening all the time in society, but when it happens in our politics, we vote for Donald Trump. "I'm going to lose my job, I don't recognize the world anymore. It's all changing so fast, I want to go back to something familiar." And suddenly here's this guy that looks awfully confident, he's saying he's going to fix everything, and he's pointing to the alleged perpetrators who must be pushing their luck and trying to take more than they deserve and so on. That gets exploited, and frankly it happens all the time - especially on the right. We say often that it's a classic tactic from the right to exploit people’s fears. But it's not just their fears, it’s their very sense of what reality is.


Fascinating. Something I believe strongly is that social connectivity and community (let's say living in a friendly neighbourhood) not only leave us happier, but also increase our overall political engagement. If we did have mandatory voting, would we then have to look at how we're living as a society? If we're increasingly self-focused, separated from the family/neighbourhood, and only able to depend on ourselves, we're left with increased resentment and competition towards others, which subsequently influences who we vote for.


Precisely, and this has been studied and written about a ton. I think getting people to think about others is much easier than we think. The environment matters: if you walk up to someone on the street and say, "What do you think about taxes?" You're going to get a lot of people saying, "They're too high." Then if you were to say to them, "By the way, how high are they? Tell me what the rate is." They have no idea. They have this general, affective gut sense that taxes are too damn high. When you ask, "How many people are on welfare?" you'll get answers like, "I don't know, 20 million?" People don't know the actual facts, they just have a sense.

But if you take these people and put them in a room with some experts and say, "You've got 2 or 3 days, we're going to feed you well, we're going to take care of your kids, we're going to pay you a decent amount and we want you to talk about tax policy and come up with a recommendation," it’s different. People can have phenomenal capacity when they're put in an environment where they're able to flourish, and are encouraged to flourish. The important part is that they're told that what they believe and what they're going to say matters. It really is an issue of getting that set up right in order to encourage better decision making.

It's similar to when you hear people say that Canadians don't care about politics, or that young people are apathetic -- I think that's all bullshit. I've never in my life met a person who doesn't care about politics. They might tell you they don't care, but when you say to them, "How do you feel about schools?" or, "How do you feel about the war in Syria?" or, "How do you feel about marijuana?" or, "How do you feel about health care?" - they have opinions about these things, but they don't identify with politics because they don't like or trust politicians. They've been exposed to a lot of odious affairs or not-particularly-charming things about politicians. But when you encourage them to actually participate, they perform phenomenally well.


That's a wonderful note to end on right as we're out of time. Thank you for sitting down with me David, and for continuing to put your voice out on the psychological mechanics of political decision making. It's both fascinating and enlightening!


Of course, Thanks Tracy!

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