Why do so many millions of ordinary voters believe Barack Obama is a Muslim and that he was born in Kenya? Why do millions still believe WMD were found in Iraq after the war? Why did a majority believe that Saddam was behind 9-11 on the eve of the Iraq War? These are some of the important questions answered in bestselling historian Rick Shenkman's Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.
Eight years ago Shenkman raised these questions in Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, but few at the time were convinced our democracy was in trouble. Then Donald Trump came along.
What Trump proved is that exploiting voters' anger works. The burning question of the moment is, then, figuring out how this could happen in an advanced democracy like ours. In his new book, Political Animals, Shenkman uses science to explain why so many people are susceptible to politicians’ manipulative appeals — and why they don’t seem to care when politicians are caught lying.
That so many millions of people succumb readily to the entreaties of wily politicians is a mystery given the extraordinary power of the human brain, which possesses more than eighty-six billion neurons, many more millions than any other animals.
It’s this mystery that is at the heart of the book, which challenges the bromides of civics reformers who claim that our problem is a lack of information. Shenkman shows that the unsettling truth is that when we go with our gut instincts in politics, as we usually do, our gut fails us. Trump voters have been going with their gut. It’s failing them.
Shenkman shows what science says about these four common failings: The failure to engage in politics even when the stakes are high, the failure to correctly size up our leaders, the failure to reward politicians who tell us hard truths, and the failure to show empathy in circumstances that clearly cry out for it. Drawing on cutting-edge research in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral psychology, Shenkman says the explanation is that evolution has left us adrift in a modern world with a brain wired for the Stone Age. While in our personal lives ancient instincts often work to our advantage, in politics they usually don’t. Modern cues set off ancient instinctive responses that prompt us to behave in ways contrary to our own interests and good governance.
Example: Football games have affected the outcome of elections. So have shark attacks. So have even droughts. In a rational world this shouldn't happen, of course. But as Shenkman explains in Political Animals, our world is anything but rational. In the book he explores the hidden forces behind our often illogical choices.
Political Animals challenges us to go beyond the headlines, which often focus on what politicians do (or say they'll do), and to concentrate instead on what's really important: what shapes our response. Shenkman argues that, contrary to what we tell ourselves, it's our instincts rather than arguments appealing to reason that usually prevail. Pop culture tells us we can trust our instincts, but science is proving that when it comes to politics our Stone Age brain often malfunctions, misfires, and leads us astray.
Fortunately, we can learn to make our instincts work in our favor. Shenkman takes readers on a whirlwind tour of laboratories where scientists are exploring how sea slugs remember, chimpanzees practice deception, and patients whose brains have been split in two tell stories. The scientists' findings give us new ways of understanding our history and ourselves—and prove we don't have to be prisoners of our evolutionary past.
In this engaging, illuminating, and often riotous chronicle of our political culture, Shenkman probes the depths of the human mind to explore how we can become more political, and less animal.
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What people are saying
"The book that best explains Donald Trump’s appeal (and it’s not 'The Art of the Deal'). Now, I’m not going to come right out and accuse Rick Shenkman of slipping an early draft of his latest book to Donald Trump last summer. But I will say that 'Political Animals' at times reads like a playbook for the Trump presidential campaign — or, even more, a devastating explainer for why the Donald has dominated the Republican race so far."
"The historian Rick Shenkman is editor and publisher of the indispensable website History News Network. I’m a fan and recently had the pleasure of reading his latest book, Political Animals: How Our Stone-age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics. Shenkman himself possesses quite a highly evolved brain, but he nonetheless admits he has his own share of stone-age brain cells. However, there is no club in his hand at the moment, just this book, which frankly, packs all the wallop he needs. If you want to know why this is the year of Trump, you’ve got to read it. If you want to know why millions of Republicans still believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, you’ve got to read it. Even if you want to hold on and remain an optimist, you’ve got to read it."
"Donald Trump’s popularity—despite his lack of experience and questionable policy ideas—has mystified many political pundits in the US. But his ascendancy is no surprise to Rick Shenkman, author of a Political Animals published earlier this year, who writes on how human’s stone-age instincts are poorly suited to the modern political era."
"The political elites – and those who commentate on them – may be confused and surprised by what is going on. But, according to the historian Rick Shenkman, the explanation is both simple and not surprising. The twin threads are fear and anger – basic human emotions that over-ride rational thought. In his latest book, Political Animals (Basic Books), Shenkman sets out to explain, in the words of his sub-title, 'how our Stone-Age brain gets in the way of smart politics.' "
"He liberally draws on psychology (from the likes of Daniel Kahneman) and political science to isolate four key failings among voters, including including 'inept' readings of politicians." "
"Readers of Shenkman’s previous book, ‘Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the truth about the American voter’ may be reluctant to pick up another anthology of painfully embarrassing truths about the general public of the world’s most powerful economy. But they should be reassured that Political Animals is a forgiving, empathetic and motivational read."
"In this presidential election year, historian and journalist Shenkman offers a timely look into psychological patterns that drive political behavior. He describes how irrelevant events such as shark attacks, droughts and sports outcomes can stimulate instincts that change how we vote. Football fans whose teams win, for example, are more likely to support incumbent candidates. 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."
"Shenkman (whose new book Scientific American calls “a timely look into psychological patterns that drive political behavior”) analyzes a raft of studies that offer new ways of thinking about why so many humans tend to be so utterly inhumane, and explores how the stories we tell ourselves and others might offer us a path to overcome our utterly human inhumanity."
"Pin your hopes on a charismatic leader and it’s not easy to change your mind: We don’t like to admit that our faith was misplaced. In Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, writer and historian Rick Shenkman argues that because we evolved in intimate groups, we’re woefully under-equipped to appraise faraway personalities—or re-evaluate politicians who turn out not to be the people we thought they were."
"Americans' apathy toward gun control exemplifies Rick Shenkman's thesis about our reliance on Stone-Age instincts in today's world."
“Built to rely on instinct over reflection—instincts more suited to hunting saber-toothed cats than making public-policy decisions—our brains have changed very little since. According to Rick Shenkman, the author of Political Animals: Why Our Stone Age Brains Get in the Way of Smart Politics, this goes a long way in explaining the baffling state of politics today. Why do we believe politicians when they lie? Why do we shun nuance and flock to demagogues? Why do many of us never go to the polls? Do we have any hope of changing?”
"The campaign and the book seem made for each other — the new book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, and you should get a copy when it comes out Jan. 5."
“Shenkman doesn't address the 2016 presidential candidates, but his ideas illuminate an important point that pundits too often ignore, for fear of being called elitist. Yes, the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson often say frighteningly uninformed things. But equally disturbing are poll numbers that suggest voters are all too blissful in their own ignorance. It seems more and more people are happy to vote based on their anger and fears rather than their more mundane personal interests.”
“Rick Shenkman does it again! In Political Animals, his latest—and best—book, Shenkman proffers to explain why voters so often veer away from what seems politically rational. He does so by synthesizing political science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and history to great effect. This book is essential reading.”
“Shenkman’s skillful employment of historical anecdotes as examples...do well to echo the myth thesis from his earlier writings.... This work provokes the idea that perhaps we can achieve a new phase of democratic enlightenment.”
“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.... Telling self-proclaimed rational voters they unknowingly punished a politician for an act of God or an NFL franchise’s post-season collapse seems ludicrous and insulting, but Shenkman’s case is compelling.”
"Rick Shenkman's Political Animals is an engrossing and unique book aimed at understanding our complex and bewildering political world and our inherited myths, lies, and quick-fix solutions that more than often than not end up disastrously in appalling conflicts at home and abroad. Relying upon innovative studies in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology as well as history, and backed by fascinating studies of presidents, people and events, Shenkman offers serious suggestions for overcoming our delusions, historical ignorance, and groupthink."
"In Political Animals, historian Rick Shenkman makes excellent use of the latest research in behavioral sciences to indicate why we Americans so often fail politically. And in highly readable prose he also provides wise advice on how we can do better."
"Political Animals takes readers on an insightful tour of political irrationality over the course of American history, bringing embarrassing political misjudgments into the light of fascinating findings from behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, and the life sciences. In doing so, Shenkman shows us how we can sharpen our political perceptions and improve, each in our own small way, the future of our democracy."
"A fascinating, well-told account of how our nature both prepares and ill-prepares us for politics in the modern age."
"Politics in America has this Alice in Wonderland quality: what makes sense often doesn't happen, and what happens often doesn't make sense. Drawing on science, history, psychology, mounds of evidence and political insight, Rick Shenkman's masterful book shows us why. What Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point does for society, Political Animals does for politics."
"The most predictable thing about politics is that it's often unpredictable. In his fascinating and illuminating new book, Rick Shenkman discovers the problem isn't with our fancy statistical models or forecasts, it's with our brains. When it comes to politics, humans sometimes do things that just don't make sense."
"Every era has its false prophets; today's are the neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists who claim that all we need to know about human behavior lies in our hard wiring. In Political Animals, Rick Shenkman explodes their just-so stories, showing that the best way to understand politics is not through instincts but though history, with all its richness and complexity."
"For generations political scientists have argued over whether voters address political issues rationally. Rick Shenkman vigorously asserts that for the most part they make decisions that more closely resemble the instinctual behavior of animals and early prehistoric man. He further argues that our institutions encourage such choices. Clearly written and accessible to ordinary readers, this book is an important contribution to an ongoing debate."
Tools for you
"Politics. n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage." — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.
Worried that politicians are taking advantage of you? What follows below are ways to protect yourself — from both politicians and your own biases.
● How to Watch a TV Debate
● Why It’s So Hard to Tell a Politician Is Lying
● Why Going with Your Gut Doesn’t Work in Politics
● Why We Don’t Second Guess Our Choices
● 8 Biases to Watch Out for (in yourself and others)
● How to Find Out Basic Facts About Politicians
● Where to Search for News
The temptation to judge candidates at a TV debate the way we judge actors on a television soap opera is impossible to resist. But there is a way to move beyond the superficial aspects of a television debate. Surprisingly, it doesn’t require that you become a political junkie.
While knowledge is obviously important – heading into a debate it helps to be aware of the key issues and the candidates’ positions – no amount of preparation is likely to help you sort out the conflicting claims the candidates make as the debate unfolds in real time. There are simply too many arcane subjects to master to be able to know with confidence whose version of the truth actually is the truth. This invariably leads most of us to throw up our hands in frustration and do the only thing that seems reasonable under the circumstances and that is to watch the debate as if we’re theater critics, casting praise on the candidates who manage to deliver pithy sound bites while scornfully dismissing those who fumble.
But there is a way out of this trap. It’s a sure-fire method to finding substance even in the midst of the glitz that envelops and subsumes candidate debates in the modern age. Here’s how it works. Say you are about to watch a presidential candidates’ debate. After preparing as best as you can by reading as much as you can from as diverse an assortment of media sources as possible, sit down and watch the debate with a pad and pencil at the ready. As the debate begins your job, contrary to everything you were probably told by your civics teacher, is not to take notes on what the candidates say but on what you feel as they are speaking. That’s right. Don’t worry about the fine points of the argument, which there’s no way to spot check in real time anyway, even with Google. Just focus on how you feel, noting what you experience when Candidate X says this and Candidate Y says that, whether the feeling is positive or negative. Feeling patriotic? Note who made you feel that way. Feeling fearful? Note that, too.
At the end of the debate review your notes. This is the magic moment. Those notes in which you recorded your emotions as you watched the debate amount to a roadmap to each candidate’s strategy. How you felt as they barnstormed their way through the debate is a clue to how they are trying to manipulate you. The emotions we feel in the course of a debate as candidates make their pitches are the result of the calculated strategy of the candidates and their handlers. Your little list is your campaign cheat sheet. With it in hand you can tell how the candidates are trying to con you, whether by fear or patriotic blather or whatever.
The reason it’s important to note your feelings on your note pad is to be able to distance yourself from them. While we are feeling what we’re feeling as the debate unfolds it’s too hard to be able to make a proper assessment. Only in the calm afterwards can we do so, as social science research shows.
Why is this exercise important? Because it helps you answer one of the most important questions that you face as a voter: How the candidates are trying to manipulate you. Fortunately, it doesn’t require knowing a lot about them. Rather, it requires knowing a lot about yourself and being honest with yourself. Like Dorothy we don’t need a wizard to help us figure things out. All we need is to be able to pay close attention to our own feelings.
Politics in the end always comes down to feelings, whatever the civics teachers say. Understanding our own emotional responses is therefore critical. Once you know a politician is trying to reach you by appealing to your fears, say, it’s a lot harder for him/her to do so. This leaves you free to make a more rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses and your own real priorities.
Facts are important, but when most of us are trying to size up a politician what we do is rely on our gut. Social science studies show we make preliminary assessments in as little as 167 milliseconds. We do this whether we consciously want to or not. It’s how our brain is engineered.
What makes us good at this is that we come equipped with cheater-detection software. It’s part of every normal human being’s operating system. Often it takes us just a glance to spot a robber on the street who has just robbed a jewelry store or a student in class who is reading the answers off a friend’s quiz. Cheaters often give themselves away. They act funny or they twitch.
But one thing jams our radar, preventing us from reading people. And that’s something politicians know how to do masterfully and that’s to fake being sincere. When we read people what we are doing is figuring out if they are sincere. But with politicians (among other classes of people such as the legendary used car salesman) it’s often impossible to know if they are.
Why is that? It’s because often they actually believe what they’re selling. Most successful politicians don’t believe they are lying to voters. They convince themselves they are telling the truth. This is dangerous because as long as they believe what they’re saying our cheater detection software doesn’t work. It can only ferret out a lie when the liar knows what he’s saying is untrue.
Despite our belief in our mind reading abilities we can’t protect ourselves against good liars who believe what they’re saying. Since there’s no way to protect ourselves from a politician’s fake sincerity the only rational approach is to remain ever vigilant. This, unfortunately, goes against everything we feel in our bones. While by instinct we are suspicious of outsiders, we aren’t suspicious of people who seem sincere. We aren’t exactly sitting ducks for sincere liars. Over time a sincere liar’s lies will usually trip them up. A person who lies a lot gets a reputation for lying. But in politics so much fairy dust is thrown around politicians that they can often escape unscathed. And thanks to cognitive dissonance once we commit ourselves to a politician for one reason or another we are loathe to abandon them. No one likes to admit they’ve been duped. Rather than admit it we insist on believing we weren’t.
Going with our gut is what we all do in life. We are engineered to do this. It
feels good when we do. But in politics it’s dangerous.
Social scientists say that we have two ways of making sense of the world. System 1 thinking is automatic and fast. You are using System 1 when you step back from the curb as a truck whizzes by. System 2 thinking is contemplative and involves higher order cognitive faculties. You are using System 2 when you work out a math problem.
In most of the challenges that face us in our day-to-day lives System 1 is immensely helpful. Relying on our instincts can be life saving. You wouldn’t want to have to consciously think about the threat to your life that a truck flying down a road poses as you step into a crosswalk. In this kind of situation you want your brain to take over your response without taking the time to consciously sort out your choices. Speed is of the essence.
But in politics we rarely face decisions that need to be made in an instant. This doesn’t stop our brain, however, from making instantaneous decisions. In general our brain doesn’t distinguish between political choices and other choices. It sizes up a politician you see on TV for the first time the same way it sizes up a stranger you pass on a sidewalk. Our conscious brain later makes adjustments in our assessments. But all too often we don’t revisit our initial impressions even though those impressions are, by definition, superficial.
Once we make a political choice we are unlikely to revisit our decision even when the facts change. This tendency reinforces the status quo, putting reformers at a disadvantage.
Why don’t we like rethinking our choices? There are many reasons. First, as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, our brain is lazy. Since our brain consumes 20 percent of the energy our body uses it is always looking for ways to take energy-conserving measures. One sure-fire method is not to relitigate issues it believes it’s already decided. Second, once we make a decision, particularly decisions that involved high costs, we tend to stick by them to avoid the uncomfortable feeling that we might have made a bad choice. As the social scientists say, we humans don’t like cognitive dissonance. We do everything in our power to avoid it. Third, our brain is partisan. Once we make up our mind we root for our team and boo the opposition. Campaigns are geared to motivate partisan voters by making blatantly biased appeals. To outsiders these appeals often seem brazen and crude. But to a partisan they’re merely the truth. Seldom, sadly, do we want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We prefer instead the truth as our allies see it.
Availability Bias This is the tendency to go with the first answer that pops into our head. What’s wrong with that? It mistakes the ease of recall with accuracy. Just because an answer comes easily to mind doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. If someone asks you who your favorite president was and you answer Ronald Reagan, that’s probably not because, upon reflection, you believe that Reagan was the greatest president in our history, but because Reagan’s name is a lot more familiar than others who probably should be remembered as the greatest (Washington? Lincoln?).
Perseverance Bias This refers to our inclination to stick with an opinion once we have enunciated it. Studies show that once we have formed an opinion we don’t easily give it up—not even after contradictory evidence surfaces that un-demines our position.
Source Confusion After a short period of time we tend to treat information — of both the reliable and unreliable sort — similarly since we forget where we learned it. And if it comes to mind quickly (Availability Bias) we are apt to conclude it’s reliable even though we picked it up from a tawdry grocery store tabloid.
Projection Bias This refers to the inclination to project your own values onto others, a bias that show up mostly in foreign policy debates. It was owing to this bias that Dick Cheney believed the Iraqi people would greet us with flowers after our invasion. He believed that Iraqis thought like Americans.
Self-Serving Bias This is the inclination to take the credit when something good happens and to shuck off the blame when something bad happens. It’s summed up in the old farmer’s cry that some people like to take credit for the rain but not for the drought.
Superiority Bias Think you’re a better than average driver? It turns out most of us think we are above average drivers. Indeed, most of us think, even college professors, we are better than average in nearly everything we do. This, of course, is a mathematical impossibility. But the feeling gives us the confidence to believe that our political views are right and others are mistaken.
Planning Fallacy Anybody who’s ever built a house or a website knows that projects rarely come in on time or within the budget. But when politicians announce plans for government programs or construction jobs they almost always make the mistake of believing their own timetables and spreadsheet projections.
Optimism Bias This bias afflicts more than 80 percent of the American people. It’s one reason the Planning Fallacy is so common. We walk around with rose-tinted glasses.
● Find out where your public officials stand on the issues by going to Project Vote Smart. Go here to find out how interest groups rank your elected leaders.
● Track how your member of Congress voted by going to Congress.org.
● Compare where you stand on an issue with your member of Congress or Senator by going to Congressional Report Cards.
● Get an app that allows you to get the facts, contact your legislator, and influence Congress by visiting BythePeople.us.
● Put the news into proper historical perspective by reading the non-partisan History News Network. You can sign up for their free newsletter here. (Disclosure: Rick Shenkman runs the website.)
● Find out where politicians get the money to run their campaigns and which interest groups dominate political races in your state by checking out OpenSecrets.org.
● Find out how much your member of Congress is worth by going to CQ Roll Call.
● Track bills in Congress by going to GovTrack, though the site hasn’t been updated since 2014.
● Find out how 31 key advocacy groups rate your member of Congress by consulting The Hill’s comprehensive list.
● Track the lies politicians are telling by consulting Congressional Quarterly’s PolitiFact, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, and the liberal Media Matters.
● Read the news websites that the people who run this country read: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.
● News magazines: Newsweek, Time.
● These websites provide a conservative take on the news: Weekly Standard, National Review Online, Daily Caller, Hot Air, Drudge Report.
● These websites provide a liberal perspective: The Nation, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, New Republic, Slate, The Atlantic, Salon, Daily Kos, AlterNet, Counter-Punch, TruthDig, MoveOn.org, Bill Moyers.
● Websites for political junkies: Political Wire, Real Clear Politics, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, The Hill, NPR, DailyBeast, Politico, Mike Allen.
— Liberal blogs: TPM (Talking Points Memo), Conscience of a Liberal (Paul Krugman), Informed Comment (Juan Cole), Crooks and Liars.
— Conservative blogs: Instapundit, PJ Media, Volokh Conspiracy.
● Think Tanks
— Liberal: Center for American Progress, ThinkProgress.
— Conservative: American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation.
— Middle of the road: PewResearchCenter, Brookings Institution.
● Public opinion polls: Rasmussen Reports, Gallup, Real Clear Politics, Public Policy Polling.
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