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Shawn Vestal: Politics makes us dumb

Two questions for the morning after: Who’d you vote against yesterday? And are you feeling smarter yet, now that the fog of politics is lifting?

The day after Election Day is, perhaps, not the most opportune time to point this out, but despite our lionization of citizenship and participatory democracy, politics often brings out the worst in us. I don’t mean politics can be a dirty business, though it can. What I’m referring to now is the fact that political battle very literally makes us worse at being people – it makes us less rational creatures.

The emerging picture of political influence on the human brain is not promising: Politics turns us into lower-order animals, transforms us into weasels crouched in corners, hungry and desperate and fearful. Makes us dumber and angrier, quick to disgust and slow to admiration, resolutely certain of ourselves and cynically doubtful of others. Facts morph before our eyes.

It makes us bad at math, too.

Perhaps all that’s a bit of an overstatement. But it’s truer than the civic-minded among us would like to believe. And the math part – that’s no exaggeration.

This rumination begins with a phone call I received a while back from a man who enjoys engaging in friendly disagreements with me. During the course of our talk – involving gun control proposals, the devourer of rationality – my friendly opponent continually threw Democratic shibboleths at me. Obama this. Patty Murray that. I finally told him that he had mistaken me for a lover of Democrats – when in truth, my real passion was not for them and their ideas but against the other guys and theirs. This was more or less how my sparring partner felt – he was practically ambivalent about the Grand Old Party, but deeply, passionately opposed to its opponents.

How typical is this, I wondered? When we vote, how much are we voting for, and how much are we voting against?

Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University who studies elections and political behavior, said many people are more likely to seize on and remember negative information than positive, in politics and in life. “There’s a hypothesis that people are more sensitive to negative information about stuff than positive information,” he said. “People worry more about loss and threats than potential gains.”

This is a well-supported notion. People are more upset about losing $50 than they are made happy about winning $50, according to a 2001 journal article titled “Bad is Stronger than Good.” A co-author, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, said people are much more likely to remember and be influenced by negative experiences and impressions.

“Research over and over again shows this is a basic and wide-ranging principle of psychology,” he told the New York Times last year. “It’s in human nature, and there are even signs of it in animals.”

Add to that the fact that many people form political loyalties that are so deep they’re almost instinctive, as opposed to careful and rational, Donovan said. Children begin learning the shapes and expressions of their parents’ politics at an early age; in presidential election years, teachers will often ask young children in classes to engage in mock elections. Donovan said kids at very young ages are already learning the habit of expressing an opinion, of forming loyalty to a side.

“All these 5-year-old kids – they’ve got an opinion,” he said.

Politics appears to actually make us dumber. To make our brains work improperly. I certainly feel this way; at moments of maximum political disgruntlement I feel less like a cool, rational post-Enlightenment being than a frantic, hot-headed, poop-throwing baboon.

A Yale law professor recently published research suggesting that political passion turns mathematically smart people into mathematical dummies. Participants were asked to interpret the results of a fake scientific study – but in one case, the study was described as being about the effectiveness of a skin cream, and in another, it was described as being about the effectiveness of gun control. Highly “numerate” Republicans and Democrats both did well on the skin cream study; on the gun control study, however, even the smartest conservatives and liberals came up with the wrong answers when those answers contradicted their views.

In other words, when the “right answer” of the study was that gun control reduced crime, almost all numerate liberals got it right, and many numerate conservatives got it wrong. And when the “right answer” was that gun control increased crime, the opposite was true.

Politics makes us bad at math.

Of course, in the Spokane city election that has just passed, passions likely ran a bit cooler. The campaigns and their benefactor PACs did their best to rile us up and make us stupid – every day there was a new, minor “outrage” being peddled, a new inflation of molehills-into-mountains, each side hurling its poison darts and then turning into thin-skinned dainties when the returning volley arrived, waving off a fainting spell with a hankie and a press release.

Maybe we’ll all be just a bit smarter now that it’s over. Of course, in politics, it’s never really over.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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