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Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Neuroscience of Political Decision-Making

Despite an amazing capacity to sort things out, create, and innovate, our brains can also be imperfect, biased, and flawed.

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

All human accomplishments and advancements come from the results of thought. Science, technology, and political ideas come from the same source: human intellect. However, despite this amazing capacity to sort things out, create, and innovate, our brains can also be imperfect, biased, and flawed. The human brain is a fallible, malleable, and limited operating tool whose ability to make decisions can be influenced by a variety of factors.

Our Brain’s Automatic Systems

Before you go on, quickly answer this question: what do cows drink?

If the first word that popped into your mind was “milk,” then you are witnessing your brain’s automatic system at work. Our automatic systems often rush to give quick responses to questions based on intuition, not necessarily fact. We associate cows with milk, and therefore our initial response is mirrored. However, as our brains take time to process the question, our reflective systems begins turning. As our brains start to reflect on the fact that although calves may drink milk, cows for the most part drink water, and so we realize the correct answer is water, not necessarily milk. From this example, you can tell that our reflective systems are slower and fact-based rather than intuition-based.

Your automatic system is certainly trying to trick you again as it shouts that the probability of you getting two heads and two tails is a “50 percent chance.”

Here’s another quick test for you. If someone throws four coins up in the air, what is the probability of getting two heads and two tails?

Your automatic system is certainly trying to trick you again as it shouts that the probability of you getting two heads and two tails is a “50 percent chance.” However, if you truly analyze the number of possible outcomes for the aforementioned question, you will realize that the number of possibilities comes to six out of 16, not 50 percent, as your automatic system wanted you to believe.

If you break it down, you will find that there are six possibilities of getting two heads and two tails out of a total of 16 different outcomes. Below is a representation of such possibilities:

1. H H H H 5. H H H T 9. H T H T 13. H T H H

2. T T T T 6. T T T H 10. T H T H 14. T H T T

3. H T T T 7. H H T T 11. H T T H 15. H H T H

4. T H H H 8. T T H H 12. T H H T 16. T T H T

The Automatic and Reflective Systems

As Dean Buonomano explains, our brains make decisions based on the automatic or the reflective system. As you can tell from the first example, the automatic system has a quicker, almost instantaneous response to things. It is emotional and based on our intuition. It is associative in nature and makes quick and heuristic decisions. The decisions made under this system do not rely upon scientific data before taking place. That explains why your brain quickly shouted “milk” as an answer to the first question and “50 percent chance” for the second.

Evidently, our brains can be extremely fallible. We can end up betraying logic and destroying the most basic principles of economics and freedom.

On the other side, your reflective system is much more deliberative than emotional or intuition-based. It is, in fact, knowledge-based because it lies on symbolic reasoning. It does not rush to conclusions, and it tries to logically consider all information regarding the matter being analyzed before a decision is made or a conclusion is drawn.

Evidently, our brains can be extremely fallible. Whenever we rush to conclusions regarding political circumstances by using our automatic system and fail to take into consideration all of the other variables at play, we run into the possibility of being wrong in our assumptions. In doing so, we end up betraying logic and destroying the most basic principles of economics and freedom.

Should Political Decisions Rely upon the Automatic System or the Reflective System?

As individuals living in a society full of different types of challenges where we need to constantly make decisions about things, we should have a balance between our automatic system and our reflective system. In some cases, we must rely upon our instincts. However, when facing political proposals we should rely mostly upon our reflective system in order to understand all the possible economic, moral, and social outcomes.

As soon as we depart from logic, freedom, and moral reasoning as our guiding principles when thinking about solutions for heavily debated political situations, we inevitably risk falling into political traps designed to provoke our automatic systems, thus making individuals believe that any socioeconomic problem society faces can be invariably fixed by the creation of more regulations that will plunder, coerce, compel, or extort each individual in society.

Our automatic system oftentimes jumps in front of our reflective system and seduces to think that some ideas will uplift us without any logic or data.

As critical thinkers, we should not hasten to adjudicate on any social or economic problem by coming to the illusory conclusion that more government is the answer to every problem we are facing as a society. Rather than having a simplistic proclivity toward government interventions, as individuals, we must use our reflective system in order to see and understand better what is right and wrong, as well as what can or cannot be done within a moral reasoning analysis.

For instance, when we hear politicians making alluring political statements such as: “We need a minimum wage that represents a living wage,” “We should criminalize drugs,” “Health care is a human right,” “America needs higher tariffs against China,” or “We should enact a law forgiving all student loan debts,” our automatic system tends to rush in and oftentimes jumps in front of our reflective system, seducing us into believing that such ideas will uplift us even if there is no logic, economic data, or ethical or philosophical lessons to validate such promises.

The Misguided Economics of Minimum Wage and Prohibition

When you hear that the minimum wage should be increased to a living wage, your automatic system associates that with something allegedly good, and the idea of supporting it gives you the feeling of benevolence. Your brain, through its automatic system, just betrayed one of the ten laws of economics, which is the economic fact that productivity is what determines wages, not legislation. An artificial increase in wages through legislation merely increases unemployment because it is most likely to create inflation and stagnation of the economy as prices for goods and services go up. Look at how that worked for New York City’s $15 minimum wage hike. As a matter of fact, artificially raising the minimum wage is not a good way to reduce poverty.

It is equally irrational, unfair, immoral, and counterproductive to forcefully prevent people from using one or more illicit substances. As Mark Thornton explains in his book The Economics of Prohibition, the government has failed miserably trying to win the drug war, and along with that failure have come innumerable social-economic factors that have deteriorated society more than they have helped people. The graph below shows data revealing the astounding number of drug arrests throughout the years.

So when you hear elected religious zealots claiming to hold the moral higher ground in order to dictate what we can or cannot eat, smoke, drink, inhale, or use in our own bodies, their position merely constitutes a vain attempt to restrict, prevent, and stop people from using illicit substances. The result of such political hubris has produced nothing but massive incarceration rates for victimless “crimes.” What may have sounded like a benevolent action in your mind is nothing but a failed government attempt to legislate behavior, which is inherently immoral. It is not the government’s job to protect me from myself.

The same idea goes for calling goods and services “human rights.” When you hear politicians say “health care is a human right,” your automatic system again tricks you into believing that because it is supposedly a noble cause and a benevolent proposal, you should support it. However, in doing so, your automatic system again rejects all the evidence that reveals universal health care systems cannot deliver what politicians promise. Before your automatic system yells “O Canada” be aware that the Canadian health care system is a massive failure.

Politicians and Economic Knowledge

If you thought politicians knew economics better, you went wrong again. The living proof of this is the imposition of higher tariffs on China. The idea of an eye for an eye and a tariff for a tariff is an economic misconception, as economist Johan Norberg demonstrates on Dead Wrong.” In a trade war, the worst thing to do is to fight back, so a country operating under a trade deficit still does better by not imposing higher tariffs in return.

The lack of logic behind the “student loans forgiveness” proposal is not any different. In this case, if for any reason you believe this policy is a good idea, then your automatic system has failed to identify why becoming student debt-free would be immoral under Rep. Elizabeth Warren’s plans. This political proposal constitutes blatant immorality for three reasons.

1) It forces people who have already paid off their student loans to keep on paying for somebody else’s student loans via higher taxation;

2) It compels people who paid their tuition in full out of pocket to keep on paying the cost of the students’ insolvency, also via higher taxation;

3) It obliges people who never attended higher education institution, and most likely never will, to pay for student loans they never contracted or will ever contract themselves.

If you still believe it is a good political proposal, you might have again failed to realize that in all three scenarios, the government would be forcing individuals to take on debt liabilities they never contracted themselves, which places this idea even beyond immorality.

No, You Cannot Be Morally Right If You Are Factually Incorrect

Clearly, when pondering political problems we should rely on our reflective system because it aims for precision since it does not rely on intuition in order to make decisions or reach conclusions. The reflective system worries about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct because it relies not only on logic but also on empirical and scientific data before forming a decision.

Politicians, however, may not be as worried about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct as you should be. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the popular congressional representative from the Bronx, implied that it is possible to be morally right without also being factually correct. You don’t have to be an expert in law, economics, or philosophy to realize the mistake Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made.

It is absolutely impossible to be morally right if you are not factually correct simply because in order to be morally right you have to tell the truth. If you are factually incorrect, it means you are basing whatever information you are passing on solely on misconceptions, faulty logic, or incorrect economic analyses that do not represent the truth. Therefore, you cannot be morally right by being factually incorrect.

If by using our reflective system we were to combine moral reasoning with an economic analysis of almost every political statement we heard, we would most likely find that whatever politicians are promising is either not economically feasible or outright immoral.

Once you acknowledge that you should not rely on your intuition, also known as your automatic system, for political decisions, you start noticing that it is time to change your political position or your spot on the political spectrum. Every time you hear a politician proposing a policy, you should check the economic feasibility as well as the morality behind it before advocating for it.

The Reflective System is More Discerning

By using your reflective system, you might be able to achieve discernment and common sense, which will help you make better political judgments whenever you hear politicians promising something that often times they cannot deliver. You might also realize that choosing freedom over sides, as well as not falling for populism, is always a smarter choice when it comes to political decisions.

Politicians have learned that the human brain can be very malleable, which has created the opportunity for them to try to capitalize on the fallibility of our brains;After all, politicians are very keen on promising people “free stuff” that was never truly free in the first place. they understand that the high level of human susceptibility to anything that brings the idea of fast rewards without previous effort can attract vast numbers of followers and voters.

Just keep in mind that in order to achieve rationality that fosters the principles of freedom, you must rely upon your reflective system when making a political decision. After all, politics is too much a complex reality for us to choose our representatives with the part of our brains that can be rather intuitive, and emotional and that innately ignores scientific data when making political decisions. After all, politicians are very keen on promising people “free stuff” that was never truly free in the first place.

  • Brazilian professor and researcher in the interdisciplinary areas of Law, Political Science, and Economics.

    Member of the Libertarian Party and a Libertarian Activist. Founder of the facebook page “O Libertario” (The Libertarian).

    He holds an LL.M (Master of Law) from the State University of Sao Paulo and is also a member of the group Observatory of Bioethics and Law at the State University of São Paulo, Brazil.

    Author of the books published in Portuguese and translated as “The right of belonging to yourself” and “Social Security: contemporary reflections on the effectiveness of public policies of inclusion”.