Cognitive Psychology

The Reluctance to Think is the Problem with our Politics: Reacting to the Democratic Primary in February

The problems that we face are complex. Our economy is complex. We don’t see the connection between Amazon and other online retailers and the closure of bookstores and malls. We don’t see the connection between the unwanted unwarranted tax cuts for the wealthy and our stagnate wages and our struggle for earning enough money to live day-to-day. We don’t see the connection between the gutting of our regulations and the destruction of our environment and the worsening climate change. We don’t see the connection between the election of a president and the Supreme Court and the protection of 80 years of progressive accomplishments.

At one end of all these complex social and political equations lies something that is scary and threatening. The thought of losing the right to choose is frightening. The thought of the destruction that the climate calamity will bring is frightening. The thought of being mired in endless debt and stagnate wages for the rest of my life is frightening. The thought of losing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is frightening. Yet without connecting them to our politics and our vote, we will never be able to make a sensible decision at the ballot box. Making that connection takes thinking.

[O]ur brain uses 20% of our energy!

Thinking is hard, so hard that we avoid it whenever we can. That means making the connection between political decisions and their outcomes is just that much more unlikely to occur. It takes real effort to overcome the impediments to thinking that we’ve evolved.

Thinking is Hard

I conjecture that it is this reluctance for thinking that drives conservative politics, the iNdEpEnDeNt nOn-CoMmItaL and uNcOmMiTtEd voter, and support for Sanders, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Klobuchar. The preference for avoiding difficult decisions and thought manifests itself differently for each group, but it is their common denominator.

Thinking is hard. It just is. Our brain is approximately 2% of our body mass. That’s not much. Our livers and skin make up far more of our body mass. But, our brain uses 20% of our energy! Consequently, we have evolved ways of saving energy by avoiding thinking.

The harder you think, the more energy you use. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether or not you can lose weight by thinking a lot.

Conservative Politics

Conservative politics, as covered in other posts, is driven by fear, fear mongering, and demagoguery. Conservative politicians deliberately engage in doom and gloom rhetoric around the economy, our changing culture, and the unimaginable threats of dirty disease-ridden immigrants from dirty disease-ridden shithole countries. When people are fearful, they become more conservative. It is science fact.

No one changes unless they are in enough pain to change.

Essentially, conservatives reduce all complex problems to simple scary overwhelming problems. If all our problems are simple, we needn’t think about them much. Crimes are committed by criminals not by nice white boys with swimming scholarships and promising futures, right Brock Turner? Welfare disproportionately helps PoC and is disproportionately supported by taxes on rural Christian white voters, which is so bass ackwards that it would be funny, if it weren’t so pathetically sad that these people are so easily manipulated by their racism, sexism, and lack of self-worth.

And, like with all demagoguery, they offer an easy solution. Longer harsher prison sentences is a cure for crime; work requirements cure laziness and welfare “dependence,” cutting healthcare cures disease, good guys with guns stop bad guys with guns. The twisted logic and oversimplification would be funny, except they needlessly kill too many goddamned people every year.

The funny thing is that Sanders offers similar simplified problems and simplified solutions, which, again, have been addressed else where on Ye Olde Blogge. The notion that the transition to Medicare-for-All will be easy, painless, or cheap is an illusion. The transition to the Affordable Care Act was hard enough, right? It doesn’t mean that it can’t be or shouldn’t be done, but it does try to minimize the difficulties and complexities for an easy illusory explanation. Funds are fungeable, so it does mean that the money you save in co-pays and premiums and uncovered care can be paid into a healthcare tax with money left over. But, that is a complex argument to make. It is much easier to just scream about your taxes going up and scream about how M4A is cheaper than the ACA.

Thinking is hard, so voters turn away from these arguments. It is why the status quo wins unless the status quo is crap. No one changes unless they are in enough pain to change.

White Male Privilege

But, Sanders and Buttigieg benefit from the reluctance to think in a different way, too. They are both men — no surprise there, amirite? And, when we look at white neatly groomed men running for president — did anyone else notice how Sanders’ grooming has improved substantially this time round? — then we give them the benefit of the doubt because it is easier than thinking. We assume they are competent in ways that Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar aren’t assumed to be competent.

It is the foundation of white male privilege.


When a candidacy begins to buzz and get good press and lots more coverage, then people stop thinking as critically about it. We assume that because the press is covering it, it must be good, especially when it is uncritical coverage. Remember when Klobuchar was a bear of an employer who made her employees cry with her meanness and feed her with combs? We aren’t seeing that coverage now. All we’re getting is Klobmentum, baby! Remember when Warren was peppered with questions about paying for her plans even though she had explained how she would pay for them? Funny, how that works, right? It’s almost enough to make you believe in conspiracy theories.

Collective Intelligence

We rely on what our friends, family, and neighbors are saying to help form our opinions. This extends to what gets covered by the press. Every time I’ve tuned into the political press recently, it has been Buttmentum, Klobmentum, Bloommentum all the time. There has been some hand wringing over Bloomberg buying the his candidacy, but for the most part it’s been oh wow golly gee those folks are doing great! They’re really connecting with voters. Their message is really resonating.

Well, gamby Gumby, if the message is resonating, it must be good! Bad messages don’t resonate, do they? And if you’re a low information barely aware voter, that’s good enough. If you are just tuning in because election, then it is good enough. You go with it because it is easier than thinking.

In this way those surges become self-fulfilling prophesies as they turn into winning primary elections. Or at least something that is spinnable as winning.

Image Attribution

The image was found using a Creative Commons search. It was found on NeedPix. It was licensed as public domain free for use.

14 replies »

  1. Yes, thinking is hard, and critical thinking is harder. It makes simple certainty slip away, and makes headlines too long. But, without it, disaster is inevitable in this complex universe. I find myself ponder the application of one of my favorite bits of Alice:

    “Crawling at your feet,’ said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in some alarm), `you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly. Its wings are thin slices of Bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.’

    And what does IT live on?’

    Weak tea with cream in it.’

    A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. `Supposing it couldn’t find any?’ she suggested.

    Then it would die, of course.’

    But that must happen very often,’ Alice remarked thoughtfully.

    It always happens,’ said the Gnat.”

    ― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There

    Liked by 1 person

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