Evolution and Political Socialization:

why we believe what we do, and why we think it was our idea

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, evolutionary historian and futurist, Yuval Noah Harari argues that, “in order to understand our nature, history and psychology, we must get inside the heads of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.” I’m inclined to agree with Harari. I want to apply this kind of thinking to one of our more fundamental and complex processes: political socialization. In what ways are our political socializations informed by evolutionary, social psychology.

This is an interdisciplinary approach: There is an evolutionary basis to our psychology- our minds operate in the way they do because, on some level, they have been evolutionarily selected for. There is a psychological basis to our sociology — our social groups organize and operate in particular ways on the basis of the ways in which our minds operate. And finally, there is a sociological element to our political systems — political systems are significantly informed by group identities and group organization. What does this mean for political socialization.

Social Creatures

In chapter two, “Ultra-sociality and the Cultural Survival Vehicle,” of his book, Wired for Culture: Origins of the Social Mind, Mark Pagel argues that humans are not just evolutionarily inclined towards a social existence, but “hyper-social,” or “ultra-social”. In evolutionary theory, there is one relatively basic guideline that informs most understandings of biological and cultural developments: if a development significantly increases the chances of sustainable reproduction, that development will become incorporated into general biological or cultural evolution. And, “natural selection has always made it possible for individuals to align their interests with those of their group.” Aligning our interests with those of the group does not only outweigh the benefits of pure self-interest marginally, it far outweighs it: “by unlocking the psychological means to pool our efforts and skills, it granted our societies a formidable degree of shared purpose that could be put to use in solving the problems of survival.” Indeed, humans are evolutionarily inclined towards a social existence, and are, generally speaking, highly loyal to their social group. When people are of an in-group, we have reason to believe that they are profoundly loyal to that in-group, for the simple reason that it is evolutionarily advantageous to do so.

Social Growth and Elite Rule

In chapter ten of the same book, “Termite Mounds and the Exploitation of Our Social Instincts,” Pagel argues that there is an evolutionary basis for group leadership and direction from elites within groups. He asks the question, how and why did humans move from small, exclusive, cooperative, tribal organization, into large social organization with leadership from relatively few.

When social organizations are small, societies are bound to grow (especially after Agricultural Revolution). Pagel posits that this is for three reasons: 1) large societies emanate from smaller groups following local rules, people follow general rules of and are generally responsive to the spaces in which they exist, and sometimes these smaller spaces combine because, 2) “there are surprising efficiencies of larger groupings,” and 3) most people maintain local ties within society — for most people, society never gets that much bigger, and they are rarely asked to relate to people outside of a localized context, which is what we have been evolutionarily inclined to do anyway.

In order for society to grow successfully, two related things need to happen: centralization and the ability to coordinate behavior around shared goals and in a common context. When you have larger societies, they generally do benefit from some form of centralization. In a paper titled, “The evolutionary psychology of leadership: theory, review and roadmap,” van Vugt and Ronay propose, through evolutionary leadership theory, that “leadership and fellowship evolved in humans…to solve recurrent coordination problems.” When groups of people are unable to coordinate their behavior and actions, they cannot organize around a common goal. This problem is only exacerbated in especially large groups. Pagel argues that centralization provides “systems for distributing goods, systems for resolving disputes, and, not least, systems for organizing society around shared goals.” But, it’s important to note that once we engage in the process of centralization “power ebbs away from the many and into the hands of the few closest to the apparatus of that centralization.”

Common Fictions

These systems for coordinating behavior, and organizing society around shared goals are fictions — common stories we all believe in. In his book, Harari tells us that “sociological research has shown that the maximum natural size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Once we move past that threshold, there is some mechanism we need in order to allow individuals to identify with group members, and a common cultural context that will allow for us to coordinate and organize our behavior around particular goals. That mechanism is fictions. Harari describes these fictions as myths that exist in our collective imagination, but are not necessarily biological or worldly realities: “there are no gods, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” These are ideas that we are culturally invested in, collectively.

In an interview on The Ezra Klein Show, Harari said: “We seldom realize it, but all large-scale human cooperation is based on fiction…Because it is based on stories, human society is far more flexible and dynamic than any other society on earth, and at the same time, it’s also far more fragile…This is why every society invests so much effort in propaganda and brainwashing people from a very early age to believe in the dominant story of the society, because if they don’t believe, everything collapses.”

Evolution and Decision Making

There is an evolutionary basis to all of our decision making processes, too. In chapter nine, “Deception, Consciousness and Truth,” Pagel argues that, “Natural selection should have created in us a tendency to do what is good for our survival and reproduction, and not necessarily what we ‘want’ to do.” We think that we make most of our decisions with conscious, rational minds. But this isn’t the case. Pagel cites studies that have concluded that our brains make decisions “up to ten seconds before the decision enters our awareness.” Our unconscious, or subconscious, minds make decisions for us, those decisions enter our consciousness, and we articulate, or act on those decisions, thinking that they came from our conscious minds, thinking that we will it to happen. As much as we may like to think that we are in control of our minds, there are very real senses in which this is simply not true. In many ways, we are merely “observers being diligently, if belatedly, informed of what our brains are up to.” We don’t control what are minds are exposed to, or understand how they react: “our environments routinely give us clues to be thinking about certain things, but the clues and our thoughts about them sit mostly beneath the surface.” The result is this: “we do not have privileged access, or a particularly acute sense of our inner selves, or of what is going on in our minds that we might imagine, and that most of us take for granted.”

There are even arguments that our moral sense is innate, and not reasoned out. Our moral nature and how we distinguish from right and wrong — “might just be ‘dispositions and the behaviors they bring about” — coming both from our genetic makeup and social context. For most people, our moral sense is far more intuitive and subconscious than it is explicitly reasoned — “the evidence for this is that people presented with moral dilemmas can often quickly tell you how they would behave, but often struggle to explain why.”

‘The Very Basis of Reasons’

In chapter eight of their book, Democracy for Realists, titled “The Very Basis of Reasons: Groups, Social Identities and Political Psychology,” Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels attempt to understand the role of group life in political socialization and ideology. People are social and organize themselves into groups, and are then highly loyal to these groups, for the simple reason that it is evolutionarily advantageous to do so. Groups are highly significant as mechanisms by which to promote survival and reproduction, but they serve other purposes, too. Or rather, there are things that groups do because they make them more effective in promoting survival and reproduction, like centralize power and resources and create common fictions. European sociological scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to emphasize the idea that “mental life was group life.” The general argument is that all beliefs and values are taught, are socialized into us, by our “families, their culture and their subcultures”.

This process can be applied more specifically to political socialization. Barrels and Achen cite The Process of Government, in which Arthur F Bentley (1908) argued that groups are “the mainsprings of political attitudes and interests.” In being socialized into a particular group, we inherit an ideology, and a lens through which to process information about the world. Bentley wrote of groups and reason, “when we go down to the group statement…we get down below reasoning to the very basis of reasons.

Evolution and Political Socialization

People do what is evolutionarily advantageous: they conform to and exist within groups and are loyal to them, they allow for leadership from a small elite, and they invest in common fictions. This necessitates a particular socialization, and an investment in certain common fictions; to believe certain things to be true and right. The basis of our reasons and beliefs is not reason at all. We are evolutionarily predisposed to believe and invest in the things we are socialized into. But if you ask someone why they made a particular political decision, it is possible, if not likely, that they will have an answer that is intellectually reasoned.

Rationalization and Intellectual Back-writing

This is because once someone has been socialized into a particular political group, they are submerged in a conceptual framework that contains what Bartels and Achen call a “relatively coherent universe,” of ideas, people, statistics and facts. People have pre-existing preferences that are based on emotionality and socialization, exist submerged in these conceptual frameworks, and are able to intellectually justify and rationalize their thinking and behavior. Political views are products of dispositions, and genetic makeup and social context, just like moral values are. But we submerge ourselves in conceptual political worlds that allow us to intellectually back-write our decision making processes to make it “feel like we’re thinking.”

What Does This Mean

Our political values are far less reasoned, and far more emotionally, socially and evolutionarily influenced, than I think we would like to admit. But, given the political context in which we live, and the intellectual work done by elites to rationalize and intellectually back-write our political values and decisions, we feel not only emotionally and socially aligned with these values, but also intellectually aligned. Our political values feel rational, but there’s a good chance they aren’t.

Confirmation bias “is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.” Our socialization gives us a lens through which to see the world, and a way process information through such that our core beliefs remain intact. But that doesn’t mean that we are correct in doing so.

What does this mean for what we know and believe? And how should we address it?