Stone Age Brain Stone Age Brain blog brought to you by History News Network. Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 (http://framework.zend.com) https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/author/38 Cheney finally admits no connection between Saddam and 9-11 Now along comes Dick Cheney to say--7 years too late!-- that Saddam had nothing to do with 9-11.

Here's the money quote from CNN:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday that he does not believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the planning or execution of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

He strongly defended the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, however, arguing that Hussein's previous support for known terrorists was a serious danger after 9/11.

Cheney, in an appearance at the National Press Club, also said he is intent on speaking out in defense of the Bush administration's national security record because"a clear understanding of policies that worked [in protecting the United States] is essential."

"I do not believe and have never seen any evidence to confirm that [Hussein] was involved in 9/11. We had that reporting for a while, [but] eventually it turned out not to be true," Cheney conceded.

He's still insisting that:

the evidence was"overwhelming" that al Qaeda had a relationship with Hussein's regime in Iraq, and that media reports suggesting that the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks reached a contradictory conclusion were"irresponsible."

I guess we couldn't hope for him to completely abandon his ill-considered views.

Cheney wants to blame George Tenet and notes that Tenet in open testimony before Congress declared that Saddam and al qaeda had a relationship. But who's Cheney kidding? We know from numerous books that it was his office that was responsible for pushing the Saddam/9-11 angle over the objections of people like Richard Clarke.

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/89209 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/89209 0
What Can a Classics Professor Teach Us About Climate Change?

Editor's Note This article is the first in an ongoing series that will be published on the new Science blog hosted by HNN.  The blog, maintained by the staff of HNN, will feature links to articles and news stories that shed light on science helpful to the work of historians. Click here for a list of helpful sources.  

The Fall of Troy painted by Kerstiaen De Keuninck

Eric Cline teaches classics and anthropology at George Washington University.  That obviously makes him someone we'd all want to turn to for help understanding climate change, right? That's actually not as implausible as it might sound. 

In a recent op ed in the New York Times Cline shows that there's a lot we can learn from ancient history about climate change.  Specifically, he observes, we don't have to imagine what the impact of climate change is.  We can tell by studying the past.  What history shows, he points out, is that thousands of years ago "[d]rought and famine led to internal rebellions in some societies and the sacking of others, as people fleeing hardship at home became conquerors abroad."  

One of the most vivid examples comes from around 1200 B.C. A centuries-long drought in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions, contributed to — if not caused — widespread famine, unrest and ultimately the destruction of many once prosperous cities, according to four recent studies.

The scientists determined the length and severity of the drought by examining ancient pollen as well as oxygen and carbon isotope data drawn from alluvial and mineral deposits. All of their conclusions are corroborated by correspondence, inscribed and fired on clay tablets, dating from that time.

Ancient letters from the Hittite kingdom, in what is now modern-day Turkey, beseech neighboring powers for shipments of grain to stave off famine caused by the drought. (The drought is thought to have affected much of what is now Greece, Israel, Lebanon and Syria for up to 300 years.) One letter, sent from a Hittite king, pleads for help: “It is a matter of life or death!”

Following years of changes in the environment, which included devastating earthquakes, human progress all but ceased, ushering in what became known as the First Dark Ages.

Cline, who shows little patience with climate-change deniers like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), concludes that the difference between what is happening today and what happened in 1200 BC is that their "civilizations collapsed at the hands of Mother Nature."  If ours does, it will be as a result of our own actions. 

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153361 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153361 0
What You're Missing If You're Not Watching Cosmos here. You can watch all other episodes here.]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153363 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153363 0 How bad can an El Niño be? This bad.

"The 1997–98 El Niño observed by TOPEX/Poseidon. The white areas off the tropical coasts of South and North America indicate the pool of warm water. " (Wikipedia)

A paleoclimate scientist reports that the fall of some empires may in part have been due to a weather phenomenon, El Niño. At a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing Lonnie G. Thompson, a professor at Ohio State University, noted that the weather system changes associated with El Niño occurred at the moment that the Mayan and Inca empires began to collapse.  “In climate, I think it’s remarkable that ... in ice fields on both sides of the Pacific, there are recording of major droughts in written histories in terms of major social unrest,” he observed.

Central America is thought to be particularly susceptible to El Niño effects, but other areas have also suffered.  A particular problem for humans is that an El Niño system brings about rapid changes in the environment, so rapid people find it difficult to adapt in time.

Joel Shurkin, a science journalist who has taught at Stanford University, draws attention to the work of Thompson in an article published on the website of InsideScience. Shrunken notes that scientists have even blamed El Niño on the influenza epidemic of 1918:

The connection to the flu pandemic goes back to 2010 when Benjamin Giese at Texas A&M University in College Station reported that a review of centuries of El Niño records showed that the 1918-1919 occurrence was unique. It was strong in the central Pacific but oddly milder along the coast of the Americas.

The location, he wrote, triggered a severe drought in India when the monsoons failed, and 18 million Indians died. The flu coincided with the public health emergency there and spread into Europe and America.

Thompson pointed out that 1918 was not just the year of the flu but the end of World War I and several political upheavals, including the Russian Revolution.

In 1781, the monsoon also failed and 600,000 Indians starved to death. The same year, black swan events devastated Australia, Egypt, Mexico and the Caribbean, Thompson said.

No one is saying that the changes in the weather are wholly responsible for these events.  That would be reductionist.  But they are suggesting that historians take the weather more into account than they have in the past. 

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153520 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153520 0
It Happened a Long Time Ago -- A Really Long Time Ago

This was in the morning newspaper.  A paleontologist at work in Patagonia has discovered a Dreadnoughtus, which is estimated to have been 85 feet long and weigh 65 tons.  But that's not what's most remarkable.  This creature lived on Earth millions of years ago.  Its ilk, we are told by scientists, reigned between 250  and 65 million years ago (MYA).

This is what fascinates me as a historian. 

We historians are used to thinking in time frames of a decade or two or maybe a few hundred years if we are really daring and reckless. The paleontologists' timeframe is considerably longer.  To them something that happened, say, 50,000 years ago, is said to have occurred in the blink of an eye.

We are, of course, principally preoccupied with ourselves.  As E.O. Wilson reminds us in his new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, people are most fascinated by other people.  We don't gossip about dogs.  We gossip about the people who own dogs.  But since we as a species have only dominated Earth for some 50,000 years, and emerged from the hunter gatherer stage just 10,000 years ago, and only invented mass culture 500 years ago, is it not sobering that other creatures were here before us millions of years ago? Whenever I find myself in the middle of an academic debate about history I think about the dinosaurs.  It helps remind me that our perspective is rather parochial.

This is a shocking admission.  Historians are supposed to be in the business of putting things in perspective.  But here we are constantly arguing about events that in the evolutionary time are barely worth noticing.  I remember from a historiography class where we read Collingwood that history only concerns human history.  But in light of all of the paleontologic discoveries of recent years, can we really stick with that claim?  

Climate change demands we take a longer perspective.  If we screw up Planet Earth, the history books will have to start further back than the industrial revolution.  We'll have to place the decline along a timeline that includes the eradication of dinosaurs by an asteroid (65 MYA) and the explosion of the Toba volcano (74 KYA) that nearly wiped out life on Earth, including our direct evolutionary ancestors. 

KYA?  That's science speak for thousands of years ago. See what I mean?  Thinking in terms of decades or even a few hundred years seems almost quaint.  We need to get out, more often.  It's time to think big.  

That's why I find myself drawn to Big History.

I think they're onto something.

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153540 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153540 0
This study claims how we worship may be dependent on the environment

Here's the headline announcing a new study:

"Societies living in harsh environments are more likely to believe in moralizing gods."

The chief finding, perhaps not too surprising, is that "When life is tough or when it's uncertain, people believe in big gods," as the lead researcher, Russell Gray, put it.  The harsher the climate, the more people felt the need to believe.  

But here's what is surprising.  They found a way to demonstrate this statistically.  That's the scientist's holy grail in research of this kind.

Here's how the research developed, according to a press release:  "On a whim," Carlos Botero, one of the researchers, "plotted ethnographic data of societies that believe in moralizing, high gods and found that their global distribution is quite similar to a map of cooperative breeding in birds. The parallels between the two suggested that ecological factors must play a part. Furthermore, recent research has supported a connection between a belief in moralizing gods and group cooperation. However, prior to this study, evidence supporting a relationship between such beliefs and the environment was elusive."

The study was conducted by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a well-respected science institution run by Duke, UNC at Chapel Hill, and NC State.

You can read the whole press release here.

Hat Tip:  HNN intern Erik Moshe. 

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153541 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153541 0
Hillary's Emails: A Prediction

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. 

I am writing this before reading anything about Hillary's news conference.  I don't know if she fell on her face or did a boffo job.  But nonetheless I am confident I know what she tried to do.  I am so confident I am willing to write this blog post and not delete it no matter what it turns out she actually said.

How can I be so sure I know what she said?  It's not because I have special insight into the way her mind works or because I have a secret pipeline into Hillaryland.  (Do they still call it that?)  But I am familiar with the psychology of partisanship.  And this dictates the way politicians respond to news adversely affecting their fortunes. 

Without further ado, here's my prediction.  I predict that Hillary will provide enough information in defense of her practice that her supporters will be able to feel good about what she did.  She won't have to offer convincing proof that what she did was right.  All she has to do is show that there's not a solid case against her.  She has to provide proof, in other words, of ambiguity.

Psychology tells us that in a situation where information is ambiguous partisans of each side can find a place of comfort.  Pro-Hillary partisans can find enough evidence to justify their faith in her and anti-Hillary partisans can find enough evidence to damn her.

Here's the general rule:  We accept evidence favorable to our side uncritically and scrutinize closely unfavorable claims by an opposing side.

In a jam, all a politician needs to do is therefore create space for themselves whereby ambiguity exists.  Inevitably, partisans play their assigned roles.  Fans cheer and opponents jeer.

We should be able to rise above partisanship, but in these ambiguous situations it's rare when we can.

So:  Was I right or wrong?  What did Hillary say?

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153592 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153592 0
Do our genes determine how we behave? Nah. This is worth reading.  It's an article by Julian Baggini in the Guardian that explains why we should not leap to the conclusion that because genes are important, they are all-important, in determining behavior.

QUOTE

... The launch in 1990 of the Human Genome Project, which aimed to map the complete sequence of human DNA, came at the beginning of a decade that would mark the high point of optimism about how much our genes could tell us. Daniel Koshland, then editor of the prestigious journal Science, captured the mood when he wrote: “The benefits to science of the genome project are clear. Illnesses such as manic depression, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and heart disease are probably all multigenic and even more difficult to unravel than cystic fibrosis. Yet these diseases are at the root of many current societal problems.” Genes would help us uncover the secrets of all kinds of ills, from the psychological to the physical.

Ten years later, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were among the guests gathered to “celebrate the revelation of the first draft of the human book of life”, as Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, put it. “We try to be cautious on days like this,” said the ABC news anchor, “but this map marks the beginning of an era of discovery that will affect the lives of every human being, with implications for science, history, business, ethics, religion, and, of course, medicine.”

By that time, genes were no longer simply the key to understanding health: they had become the skeleton key for unlocking almost all the mysteries of human existence. For virtually every aspect of life – criminality, fidelity, political persuasion, religious belief – someone would claim to find a gene for it. In 2005 in Hall County, Georgia, Stephen Mobley tried to avoid execution by claiming that his murder of a Domino’s pizza store manager was the result of a mutation in the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene. The judge turned down the appeal, saying that the law was not ready to accept such evidence. The basic idea, however, that the low-MAOA gene is a major contributing cause of violence has become widely accepted, and it is now commonly called the “warrior gene”.

In recent years, however, faith in the explanatory power of genes has waned. Today, few scientists believe that there is a simple “gene for” anything. Almost all inherited features or traits are the products of complex interactions of numerous genes. However, the fact that there is no one genetic trigger has not by itself undermined the claim that many of our deepest character traits, dispositions and even opinions are genetically determined. (This worry is only slightly tempered by what we are learning about epigenetics, which shows how many inherited traits only get “switched on” in certain environments. The reason this doesn’t remove all fears is that most of this switching on and off occurs very early in life – either in utero or in early childhood.)

What might reduce our alarm, however, is an understanding of what genetic studies really show. The key concept here is of heritability. We are often told that many traits are highly heritable: happiness, for instance, is around 50% heritable. Such figures sound very high. But they do not mean what they appear to mean to the statistically untrained eye.

The common mistake people make is to assume that if, for example, autism is 90% heritable, then 90% of autistic people got the condition from their parents. But heritability is not about “chance or risk of passing it on”, says Spector. “It simply means how much of the variation within a given population is down to genes. Crucially, this will be different according to the environment of that population....

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153601 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153601 0
Are we born with a universal grammar?

This is not an issue historians generally deal with.  But anybody who writes for a living has to wonder about our capacity for language.  How come we get language and no other species does (save for chimpanzees that can learn rudimentary sign language)?

What's going on in our head when we speak? A linguist who thinks he has the answer is Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, UK and the author of The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct (2014).  Here he explains his theory, which is grounded in the latest neuroscience research.

Excerpt

[B]y the age of four, every cognitively normal child on the planet has been transformed into a linguistic genius: this before formal schooling, before they can ride bicycles, tie their own shoelaces or do rudimentary addition and subtraction. It seems like a miracle. The task of explaining this miracle has been, arguably, the central concern of the scientific study of language for more than 50 years. In the 1960s, the US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky offered what looked like a solution. He argued that children don’t in fact learn their mother tongue – or at least, not right down to the grammatical building blocks (the whole process was far too quick and painless for that). He concluded that they must be born with a rudimentary body of grammatical knowledge – a ‘Universal Grammar' – written into the human DNA. With this hard-wired predisposition for language, it should be a relatively trivial matter to pick up the superficial differences between, say, English and French. The process works because infants have an instinct for language: a grammatical toolkit that works on all languages the world over. At a stroke, this device removes the pain of learning one’s mother tongue, and explains how a child can pick up a native language in such a short time. It’s brilliant. Chomsky’s idea dominated the science of language for four decades. And yet it turns out to be a myth. A welter of new evidence has emerged over the past few years, demonstrating that Chomsky is plain wrong. How much sense does it make to call whatever inborn basis for language we might have an ‘instinct’? On reflection, not much. An instinct is an inborn disposition towards certain kinds of adaptive behaviour. Crucially, that behaviour has to emerge without training. A fledging spider doesn’t need to see a master at work in order to ‘get’ web-spinning: spiders just do spin webs when they are ready, no instruction required. anguage is different. Popular culture might celebrate characters such as Tarzan and Mowgli, humans who grow up among animals and then come to master human speech in adulthood. But we now have several well-documented cases of so-called ‘feral’ children – children who are not exposed to language, either by accident or design, as in the appalling story of Genie, a girl in the US whose father kept her in a locked room until she was discovered in 1970, at the age of 13. The general lesson from these unfortunate individuals is that, without exposure to a normal human milieu, a child just won’t pick up a language at all. Spiders don’t need exposure to webs in order to spin them, but human infants need to hear a lot of language before they can speak. However you cut it, language is not an instinct in the way that spiderweb-spinning most definitely is. But that’s by the by. A more important problem is this: If our knowledge of the rudiments of all the world’s 7,000 or so languages is innate, then at some level they must all be the same. There should be a set of absolute grammatical ‘universals’ common to every one of them. This is not what we have discovered.

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153605 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153605 0
Is Western society responsible for violence and environmental degradation?

This is what we hear all the time.  It's implicit in the leftwing indictment of the West that was made in the Sixties and which you still encounter in certain circles today.  But it rests on a false premise conjured up by Descartes that man in nature is free and peaceful.  Would that it were true!

Here's Michael Shermer, the science writer (who holds a PhD in the history of science).  This is from his 2004 book, The Science of Good and Evil:

When it comes to how humans treat other humans and the environment, the Beautiful People have never existed except in myth. Humans are neither Beautiful People nor Ugly People, in the same way that we are neither moral nor immoral in some absolute categorical sense. Humans are only doing what any species does to survive; but we do it with a twist (and a vengeance)—instead of our environment shaping us through natural selection, we are shaping our environment through artificial selection.  In a fascinating 1996 study, for example, University of Michigan ecologist Bobbi Low used the data from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample to test the hypothesis that we can solve our ecological problems by returning to the mythological Beautiful People’s attitudes of reverence for (rather than exploitation of) the natural world, and by opting for long-term group-oriented values (rather than short-term individual values).  Her analysis of 186 hunting-fishing-gathering (HFG) societies around the world showed that their use of the environment is driven by ecological constraints and not by attitudes, such as sacred prohibitions, and that their relatively low environmental impact is the result of low population density, inefficient technology, and the lack of profitable markets, not from conscious efforts at conservation. Low also showed that in 32 percent of HFG societies, not only were they not practicing conservation, environmental degradation was severe; again, it was limited only by the time and technology to finish the job of destruction and extinction.  Extending the analysis of the BPM to other areas of human culture, UCLA anthropologist Robert Edgerton surveyed the anthropological record and found clear evidence of drug addiction, abuse of women and children, bodily mutilation, economic exploitation of the group by political leaders, suicide, and mental illness in indigenous preindustrial peoples, groups not contaminated by Western values (allegedly the source of such “sick” behavior).

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153606 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153606 0
This is why colleges need to hire historians

A new study confirms what neuroscientists have been surmising for several years:  When we remember something the brain makes room for the new memory by deactivating an old one.  It doesn't delete the old memory the way you do when you hit the delete key on a computer.  But it pushes it back.  The brain automatically privileges new memories over old ones.  

Here's how psychologist Jeremy Dean explains the process:

The idea that forgetting helps you learn seems counter-intuitive, but think of it this way: imagine if you created a brain that could remember and recall everything. When this amazing brain was trying to remember where it parked the car, it would immediately bring to mind all the car parks it had ever seen, then it would have to sort through the lot. Obviously the only one that’s of interest is the most recent. And this is generally true of most of our memories. Recent events are usually much more important than ones that happened a long time ago. To make your super-brain quicker and more useful in the real world you’d have to build in some system for discounting old, useless info. In fact, of course, we all have one of these super-brains with a discounting system: we call it ‘forgetting’.

This has implications historians should be vigorously trumpeting.  The brain doesn't privilege old memories.  To retrieve them you need to be reminded of them or you forget them.  This is why when voters are asked who their favorite presidents are they quickly name some recent presidents.  It's also why when we are trying to make sense of some complicated foreign crisis we instantly reach for some past event that's top of mind rather than one that might be more salient.  

I can't think of a better reason to encourage students to take history classes.  History teaches us that we have to remember events that took place a long time ago.  History, to be sure, is more than memory.  But the first task of the historian is to remember the past.  If our brain doesn't do this automatically, somebody has to help us.  That's where historians come in. Historians can help us recall events we learned about in high school history class (or should have) that may help us put events into perspective.

Tell that to the STEM folks the next time they say there's no room for history in the school curriculum.

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153607 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153607 0
Why Americans Support the Iran Deal for the Wrong Reason

Rick Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University, is the editor of HNN.  His newest book is Political Animals:  How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (January 2016). This article was first published by The World Post.

Three days before the Iraq War began in 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked on "Meet the Press" how he believed the war would go. He answered: "My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."

In retrospect, this was one of the most laughably bad misjudgments any high official in American history has ever made, and it taught us a lesson. The lesson was never to trust Dick Cheney again. But there was an additional lesson we needed to learn and didn't. The lesson was that we shouldn't presume to know the thoughts of foreign people with whom we have had little direct contact. 

How do I know we didn't learn this lesson? It's clear from the poll results that have come out since the U.S. and Iran agreed on a framework for removing sanctions over Iran's nuclear program. While most commentators have focused on the broad support the public has given the agreement -- 59 percent approve and 31 percent disapprove -- what's more significant is that so many people (90 percent) seem to have an opinion at all. 

That's alarming given that that the details of the framework are both secret and in dispute (the Iranians and Americans continue to spar over what was agreed to) and given that it's plainly unclear what the Iranians' intentions are. The only honest answer about Iran's intentions at this point is: we don't know. 

That, unfortunately, is not something we are likely to admit. Why? Because given the way our brain is wired, we believe we can divine how other people think. Because our brain evolved during a period when we lived in small groups consisting of people who knew each other so intimately that we developed confidence in our ability to read other people's intentions. An alarm bell should go off when we aren't in a position to be able to do so; but it doesn't. 

Another related human bias is affecting how people are assessing the framework -- particularly people who support it. Our "projection bias" leads us to believe that other people think like we do. In this case, we think that if we were in Iran's position, we'd gladly restrict our nuclear program to get rid of sanctions that are hobbling the economy and making life miserable. That just strikes us as common sense. NPR's Steve Inskeep reflected this view in his recent interview with President Obama. Lifting of the sanctions, the journalist noted, "is widely anticipated to cause a lot of economic growth in Iran. Iranian business people are already banking on this." See, they're just like us.

Unfortunately, what may seem like common sense to us may not seem so to Iranians, particularly the hardliners. Other considerations may rank higher. But this is a hard lesson to learn, and once again, it's because we evolved in small groups. We didn't develop an instinct against what social scientists call mirroring since anybody we encountered was likely to think pretty much as we did.

A warning against the bias is prominently addressed in Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, which was published by an arm of the CIA. But knowing about the bias doesn't offer protection against it. Psychology of Intelligence Analysis was published in 1999, four years before the agency (and Dick Cheney) argued that Iraqis would welcome our invasion against Saddam.

Careful journalists have noted that the polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans are skeptical an agreement would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This suggests that Americans have a sophisticated understanding of Iran, balancing an optimistic outlook against a well-earned cynicism.

Actually, what it more likely is that after decades of acrimony (remember, Iran was considered part of the "axis of evil"), most of us remain suspicious of Iranians, particularly since they don't look or dress like most of us, yet another legacy of our Stone Age evolution.

The history of the last forty or so years suggests that we don't understand Iran in 2015 any better than we understood Iraq in 2003 or Vietnam in 1965. Our track record is, frankly, terrible -- replete with one "oops" after another. Jimmy Carter's U.N. Ambassador welcomed Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran in 1979, calling him "a saint." Ronald Reagan sold arms to Iran in exchange for help releasing American hostages. George W. Bush failed to anticipate how Iran would take advantage of the accession of Shiites like Nouri al-Maliki.

A nuclear deal with Iran may be good for the United States, but the only reason to believe it might be is the reason President Obama gave in his NPR interview. As he said, even if Iran "doesn't change, we are so much better if we have this deal in place than if we don't." That is, we can be hopeful the Iranians are turning over a new leaf, but we can't be sure, and that's okay because the deal is structured in such a way as to trigger sanctions if Iran reneges.  (Some critics, of course, doubt sanctions would be restored.) 

But it's not likely that most people in their heart of hearts are willing to admit they don't know what Iranians are up to. That's the one thing most liberals and conservatives have in common: a belief in their ability to read the Iranians' minds.

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153628 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153628 0
New Study: The world's a lot more violent than reported Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (January 2016).

It has a dreary name: "On the tail risk of violent conflict and its underestimation." But this new paper by social scientists Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb could rewrite the history of violence.

It takes direct aim at the thesis of Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker in the 2011 bestseller, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  The paper's already making waves.  On his Twitter page Harvard's Niall Ferguson calls it "hugely important."

In the paper Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, the blockbuster book that alerted economists to the importance of unexpected events, argues that "Violence is much more severe than it seems from conventional analyses and the prevailing 'long peace' theory which claims that violence has declined."

Contrary to current discussions, all statistical pictures thus obtained show that 1) the risk of violent conflict has not been decreasing, but is rather underestimated by techniques relying on naive year-on-year changes in the mean, or using sample mean as an estimator of the true mean of an extremely fat-tailed phenomenon; 2) armed conflicts have memoryless inter-arrival times, thus incompatible with the idea of a time trend. Our analysis uses 1) raw data, as recorded and estimated by historians; 2) a naive transformation, used by certain historians and sociologists, which rescales past conflicts and casualties with respect to the actual population; 3) more importantly, a log transformation to account for the fact that the number of casualties in a conflict cannot be larger than the world population.

The authors base their article on the methods of extreme value theory.

A striking chart accompanying the article dramatically shows the impact of violence on all periods of recorded history. The chart measures conflicts featuring more than 50,000 deaths relative to today's world population.  (Thus, 50,000 deaths today = 5,000 deaths in the eighteenth century.)

What's An Lushan?  Here's Wikipedia's explanation: "The An Lushan Rebellion was a devastating rebellion against the Tang Dynasty of China. The rebellion overtly began on 16 December 755, when general An Lushan declared himself emperor in Northern China, thus establishing a rival Yan Dynasty, and ended when Yan fell on 17 February 763 (although the effects lasted past this)." 

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153632 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153632 0
Why Millions of Voters Are Pre-Wired to Support Donald Trump

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

Excerpt from an interview in Politico:

Question:  There have been some high-profile lies this election season. The most recent that comes to mind is the story about the thousands of Muslims that were supposedly having tailgate-style parties celebrating after 9/11. In the book, you say, essentially, we’re OK with lies. Can you walk me through why we’re built not only for being deceptive, but also tolerating deception?

RS:  Trump’s supporters don’t particularly care whether he’s lying or not. Our brain doesn’t really care—I know that’s appalling. Our default position is we simply want to be right. 

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153701 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153701 0 We’re suffering from Stone-Age thinking in 2016: Interview Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

I was interviewed this week by Jim Warren, the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune who now runs a column for Poynter. 

The interview, as it happens, ran in US News, where he's a contributing editor.  Here's an excerpt:

... Few politicians will do much of anything if not clearly supported by organizations and constituents. Things are so bad now that one friend of mine, a gun control advocate, jests that his only hope is that pro-gun voters in open carry states such as Texas "extinguish each other and sanity prevails again through a form of natural selection."

But if we really do seem to act stupidly with some frequency, is there an explanation linked to how our actual brains are wired?

Both before and after Obama spoke, I tracked down Rick Shenkman, a journalist-historian who runs the History News Network, a neat website that seeks to imbue news with historical context. It's been hosted by George Mason University in Virginia, though Seattle-based Shenkman is planning to move it elsewhere soon.

He happened to be in Washington Tuesday at the start of a tour touting his new book, "Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics" (Basic Books). It's about how we often respond to instincts rather than coherent arguments, and partly reflects his research into how our human brains work, even how chimpanzees practice deception and how sea slugs remember things.

Rick, does Obama's grappling with gun control provide any insight to you about our current politics? What's its significance, if any?

Shenkman: What I argue is that the issues that resonate the most with people are the ones that trigger an instinctive reaction and involve psychological mechanisms. They have an instant reaction to Sandy Hook, since I argue when people become anxious, that triggers a reappraisal and often action. I thought that would do it for gun control, but forces arrayed in favor are so much stronger than the forces opposed to it. It's really a power issue. I think what you say [about the passivity of many pro-gun control supporters] makes sense and plays into how the human mind reacts most intently to threats it perceives in its immediate environment. If guns do not immediately threaten you, you may pass it off as not one of your top-10 issues.

Your book turns on a thesis about our having Stone-Age brains. What's that mean?

Shenkman: The human brain evolved during the two and a half million years that hunter-gatherers lived in the Stone Age and evolved to address problems of the Stone Age, not modern times. That mismatch often gets us into problems. We respond by instinct to things in our environment. Our instincts don't match our problems. The human brain continues to evolve but not fast enough to deal with a multitude of problems.

So how does that relate to the 2016 presidential election?

Shenkman: The big problem we face is we don't think to put the problems facing us in context. We have an instinctive reaction to, say, the problem of immigration. Or if you see Muslim extremists blowing things up on TV, you have an immediate human reaction to it. Our instinct is not to reappraise our reaction; it is to go with the reaction. The problem is that the instinctive reaction probably doesn't suit our actual circumstances.

Donald Trump has made Muslims coming into the U.S. and Mexicans coming here as his two big issues. So what does he do? He exploits people's fear of the outsider. But what is really going on is he's triggering psychological mechanisms. We are sensitive to fire alarms, or what the social scientists refer to as the fire-alarm bias. If we think a fire alarm is going off, we react instantaneously because if you miss a fire alarm, the consequences can be fatal. So our brain is built to be highly sensitive to alarms. Thus, Trump is not just vaguely playing to our fears but triggering this fire-alarm bias, or what demagogues have done throughout history. It's what Joe McCarthy did in the 1950s. He said we perhaps had several hundred communists in government. Maybe they won't harm us, but maybe they will. That fire alarm drove McCarthyism and now drives the Trump campaign. ...

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153712 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153712 0
What's the Voters' Problem? That's a Lot Harder to Determine than You Might Suspect.

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). This article is excerpted from the book.  The excerpt was featured on Alternate.

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153713 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153713 0 Ted Cruz’s Stone-Age Brain and Yours

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com in shortened form. This version specifically addresses the challenge historians face when writing about subjects that cry out for empathy.

Related Link Historians Need to Write and Teach with Empathy By Walter Moss

After Senator Ted Cruz suggested that the United States begin carpet bombing Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria, the reaction was swift. Hillary Clinton mocked candidates who use “bluster and bigotry.” Jeb Bush insisted the idea was “foolish.”  Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, tweeted: “You can't carpet bomb an insurgency out of existence. This is just silly.”

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153714 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153714 0 Trump’s Genius

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

If there’s one thing everybody – left, right, center, earthling or Martian – can agree on it’s that Donald Trump projects a larger than life image.  Wherever he goes he draws huge (HUGE!) crowds.  His poll numbers are eye-popping.  His ability to fend off the shooting arrows of fact checkers is little short of stunning.  Ladies and gentlemen:  We stand in the presence of political genius. 

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153722 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153722 0 Our Brain Dislikes Disorder.  That Explains a Lot.

Rick Shenkman is the editor of the History News Network. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is excerpted. 

Think back on all the big events of the last generation that made us feel bad: 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina. Each time, people by the millions were drawn to conspiracy theories. Deciding to go down that path is usually irrational, but once we do, everything makes sense. The reason is that we settle on conspiracies that build on an existing base of knowledge and worldviews. They don’t just come out of nowhere. Thus, people accustomed to finding answers in religion see the hand of God in catastrophe. What is it the right-wing Christian leader Jerry Falwell said after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center towers on 9/11? “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad.” Falwell believed God had plotted against us. God. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. You piss off God and he smites you.

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153730 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153730 0 For Voters, Facts Should Be the Lifeblood of Democracy

Voters in New Hampshire 2016

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article was excerpted.  The excerpt first ran on the website of Bill Moyers. 

In 1988, James Fishkin, a political scientist who now teaches at Stanford, came up with the idea of a deliberative poll. In a normal poll a voter is asked a bunch of questions about subjects he may or may not know something about. That is the extent of the interaction between the pollster and the voter. The pollster then moves on to the next person. In a deliberative poll a voter is asked a bunch of questions about subjects he probably doesn’t know much about and is then educated about those subjects — usually at a weekend conference where he has the opportunity to study materials from all sides and engage in in-depth discussions about what he’s read. Experts are brought in to help participants make sense of the material they are given. At the end of the conference, by which time he has become an educated voter on the issues under review, he is surveyed again.

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153735 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153735 0 Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About Donald Trump's America

Click here to read this article.

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153738 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153738 0
Your Brain on Politics (Video)

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network. You can follow him on Twitter

In this video, taped at Seattle Town Hall on January 28, 2016, I reveal what we need to know about the brain to protect ourselves from manipulative politicians.

The talk is based on my new book, POLITICAL ANIMALS: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016).

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153753 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153753 0
Why Are Trump Voters Not Bothered by His Lies?

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Raise your hand if you believe the following:  1.  Facts matter in politics.  2.  A good argument should sway your opinion.  3.  Elections should be about issues.  I'll assume your hand went up.  That means congratulations are in order.  You have earned an A in civics.  Now that we have that out of the way, we should talk about the real world.

Let's focus on facts.  For either we respect facts or we don't and if we don't neither of the other two points are worth debating. Which brings me to Donald Trump.  He lies flagrantly and promiscuously. He seems to lie so often and so egregiously one wonders if he himself any longer realizes when he’s lying. But the interesting question at the moment is not why Trump lies as why his followers don’t seem to care when he does. What’s that all about?

The temptation is to think there’s something wrong with those Trump voters.  For they aren’t reacting the way we think they should be, making them seem even more cartoonish than they already appear. They’re not just susceptible to xenophobia, misogyny, racism and the other pariah appeals Trump’s making; they’re also dangerously impervious to plain reason. In many ways this seems like the biggest threat of all.  If you can’t reason with people politics doesn’t work.

But since when have voters ever worried much about facts? 

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.  But facts are often held to be less precious than we think they are. Two examples drawn from Democratic Party presidents (I want to be fair and not just pick on Republicans) are illustrative. 

Let’s start with a Democratic Party icon:  Jack Kennedy. On the campaign trail in 1960 Kennedy said it was a fact that the Russians had more nuclear missiles than the United States.  He was wrong.  Okay, so he made a mistake.  But he continued to insist that there was a missile gap to the Soviet’s advantage even after he was briefed by General Earl Wheeler that there wasn’t.  After the election his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, told the press on background that a study had found there was no missile gap, leading to blaring headlines the next morning.  JFK’s reaction?  He ordered his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to tell the media that there had been no study and that there was a gap. The truth was that JFK himself didn’t take his own rhetoric about the missile gap seriously.  At cabinet meetings he cracked on numerous occasions, “Who ever believed in the missile gap” anyway?

Then there’s JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson.  During the election of 1964 Johnson told the American people that the North Vietnamese were guilty of making repeated unprovoked attacks on our naval vessels in the Tonkin Gulf.  This claim was wrong on two counts.  One, the “attack” LBJ drew attention to probably didn’t happen as he himself privately acknowledged.  “Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish," he confided to an aide. Two, America was no innocent by-stander.  For months we'd been engaged in a quasi war with North Vietnam where we were the aggressors.

LBJ’s lies eventually caught up with him, earning him a well-deserved reputation as a prevaricating politician who could lie even about a matter as serious as war.  He told Americans we were winning in Vietnam when actually we were losing, leading to the much lamented credibility gap with which his administration has forever since been associated.

But it wasn’t until thousands of soldiers began coming home in body bags that Americans began to care much about LBJ’s modest appreciation of the truth.  And JFK’s lie about the missile gap never caused the American public to reassess his character though he had built his foreign policy critique of the Eisenhower administration on the claim.  To this day few remember that Kennedy lied brazenly about our nuclear capacity even though the truth had been splashed on the front page of America’s great newspapers. The public preferred to believe the hokum Pierre Salinger peddled at Kennedy’s behest. Not until Kennedy was implicated in numerous sex scandals did Americans finally concede that Kennedy wasn’t the man they had thought he was.

The history books are full of nuggets like these.  Politicians lie. In our cynical moments we admit that, but still we can’t seem to acknowledge the implication.  I’ll spell it out.  They lie because the voters often don’t care about the truth.  Our fixation with the truth and facts and all that is a bit of a sham.  It’s not just the pols who lie.  So do the voters.  We lie about our unwillingness to put up with lies. 

It’s not that we’re congenital prevaricators.  The answer is more complicated.  Our brains are partisan.  While we are quick to seize on the misstatements of other candidates, we give them a pass when it’s our own.  When the social scientist Drew Westen put voters in an MRI machine he discovered that their brains quickly shut off the flow of information contrary to their beliefs about their favorite candidates.  The neurons actively involved in the transmission of this information literally went inactive. 

Donald Trump's voters have been ridiculed for their willingness to overlook his inconsistencies and lies, but this is what all voters do once they've become committed to a particular candidate.  Cognitive dissonance theory explains why.  Once we have made up our mind about something contrary information disturbs our feeling of well-being and we do whatever we can to ignore it or explain it away.

From the looks of the faces of the journalists quizzing the candidates at the presidential debates the candidates' indifference to the truth is shocking.  But neither history nor the findings of social science justify this naive faith in the truth.

Human beings do indeed care for the truth and we come equipped with cheater detection software to help us detect lies.  It's that software that helps us detect nervousness in a deceiver.  Without trying and often without conscious awareness we pick up on subtle clues:  a higher voice pitch, twitching hands, or even a fake smile. 

So why doesn't that wonderful human technology help save us from lying politicians?  The reason is disturbingly straightforward.  It doesn't work if the person speaking believes their own lies.  In those situations no flare goes up in our brain warning us to be on alert.

Mitt Romney has beseeched Trump voters not to be suckers.  But as long as Trump continues to give the impression that he's being sincere his voters won't have cause to think he's misleading them if they judge him strictly on the basis of his debate performances, which many thus far have been doing.

Here’s the good news.  We aren’t sitting ducks.  When a politician lies repeatedly and egregiously they eventually get a reputation for lying (as LBJ did).  Once this happens people begin to reshape their perceptions.  But this process often takes a long time.  Richard Nixon succeeded in fooling millions that he was innocent of charges related to Watergate for eleven months after the break-in.  Only then, after the resignation of his two top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, did his support finally dip below 50 percent.  When the allegation first surfaced about Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky millions refused to believe it until prosecutors revealed they possessed her infamous blue dress with a semen stain, which prompted Clinton to (sort of) admit the truth.

Donald Trump is responsible for dragging this campaign down to the level of the gutter.  And he has told more lies than any other leading political figure probably ever has. But he’s not the first politician to lie egregiously. He’s building on an all-too well-established tradition. So are his voters in declining to acknowledge his lies. 

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153756 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153756 0
C-SPAN Interview: Book Discussion on Political Animals

Friday I faced off with actual REAL voters in a one hour interview on CSPAN. I am happy to report the conversation was entirely civil. I even went after Trump for telling lies and no one screamed. We are making progress People!

The interview is now online:

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153760 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153760 0
Bill Moyers Interview with Rick Shenkman

It's been a busy week. On Tuesday I was interviewed by Bill Moyers. I wish my mother were still around for this. She loved Moyers. He stopped doing his TV show a year ago but has now begun doing podcasts. He had to get back into the game. Who could sit out this incredible political year? (Jon Stewart -- are you hearing this? Get back in the game Stewart.)

I was the fortunate beneficiary. He's now posted the podcast. It's the first one he's published. I'm honored. Seriously. This is one hell of an honor!

(Click here for a transcript.)

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153761 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153761 0
How Our Stone-Age Brain Undermines Smart Politics: An Interview with Rick Shenkman here for the interview, which was done by Robin Lindley.]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153765 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153765 0 Why the Media Underestimated Trump's Appeal

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

With the triumph of Trump the media are now going into Deep Navel Gazing Mode. This is what they do whenever the conventional wisdom is upended as it has been this week.

In the New York Times there have already been two mea culpas (here and here) and one j'accuse.

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153766 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153766 0 Yes, It's Time to Panic

Rick Shenkman is the editor of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain. This was cross-posted at Facebook. 

After watching the GOP convention this week I'm more convinced than ever that Evolutionary Psychology (EP) holds the key to understanding politics. It helps make the seemingly irrational performance of the delegates screaming "Lock Her Up" understandable. 

Years ago, before I started researching Political Animals, I would have been stupefied by the frenzy of the crowd. These people after all aren't dopes or low-information voters. Delegates can be presumed to know something about politics.

EP explains what's going on. They aren't thinking. They're reacting. This is what we do when we feel under threat. We need to blame someone when things seem out of whack. So we seize on a scapegoat and dehumanize and vilify them.

All this week we have watched thousands of people demonizing Hillary Clinton.

Partisanship explains why they decided to pick on her. EP helps explain why they don't have to be taught to demonize her. It comes naturally given the circumstances.

Culture can ameliorate our natural responses. As I wrote in Political Animals, that's why we no longer get pleasure watching live cats being thrown into open fires. 

But culture is unlikely to stop delegates at a Trump convention from going crazy because norms of political behavior have been seriously eroded this year. Anything goes! 

Brace yourselves!

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153790 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153790 0
Why Is Trump So Popular?

At the start off the summer I answered a bunch of questions by the website, 52 Insights.  Today they published excerpts.  Here's the full interview. 

In your article in ‘Wired’ you discuss how the public is fooled into supporting candidates on the basis of ‘good looks’. Can you tell us a bit about the science behind this phenomenon?

Remember John Edwards, the good-looking American politician who ran for president in 2004? The first thing people noticed about him was how good-looking he is.  Those looks helped him immensely, quickly separating him from the pack of candidates who ran that year.  Normally, good looks in politics can be a red-flag; voters often draw the inference that good-looking people are superficial.  But Edwards’s story helped ease people’s concerns.  He was reported to have a great marriage.  And most importantly, his wife wasn’t a “looker.” In fact, she was kind of dowdy. That helped.

Here’s what the science says.  Science tells us that we make up our minds about people we meet in milliseconds.  Within 167 milliseconds – faster than the blink of an eye – we begin to decide if we like the person.  A lot of factors can shape our response:  whether they look like someone in our family, our tribe, or our friendship circles, for example.  But one of those factors is their attractiveness.  Numerous studies done in the last half century demonstrate that we are inclined to respect and trust people who are good-looking. They tend to get better higher-paying jobs and are promoted more often.

But what makes someone good-looking? It’s how average they look.  Let me explain, because this sounds crazy. I’m not talking about a person with a non-descript look.  Science defines average differently.  An average looking person to a scientist is someone whose face is well balanced and even from side to side and up and down.  Balance is the key.  You can get this effect by morphing the images of a hundred people into one.  Scientists find that when they do this the resulting image is considered attractive.

Why is favouring good looks in a leader evolutionarily a smart thing?

Now we get to the interesting part.  Evolutionary Psychology teaches us that a person with average looks – as scientists define average – is favored by potential spouses and others because people who look this way are more apt to be healthy.  And we all naturally respect and admire healthy people.  In addition, good looks are an evolutionary sign of good genes.  A person who looks good is naturally going to find it easier to win the spouse they want (probably someone with lots of resources of one kind or another), which creates a virtuous circle.  The good-looking people draw spouses with more resources, benefitting their children, who in turn are able to attract other people with lots of resources, and on and on.  This is one of the powerful results of what Darwin called sexual selection. 

Now you may ask yourself what this has to do with selecting leaders. Well, apparently what happens is that we often apply the same criteria to our choice in a leader as we do to our choice in a mate, resulting in our favoring leaders who are better looking. 

But the process is much more complex than I’m suggesting.  Studies show we are drawn to leaders who are strong, tall and decisive, whether they’re good-looking or not.  In war-time we are drawn to leaders with squarish faces and in peacetime to those with round faces.  As with everything involving human beings, there’s usually no one criterion at play in our behavior.  We are drawn this way and that by multiple instincts.  An individual’s looks are just one of many traits we take into account when selecting a leader.  A good-looking leader who is unable to develop strong coalitions with others probably won’t go far.

Can you talk about some of the candidates we’ve seen in the presidential race over the last few months? Has there been evidence that this science has played a role in the success of certain nominees? (Call me a cynic but I don’t think Trump has a particularly appealing face.)

Trump won the GOP nomination for a variety of reasons.  I don’t think people were drawn to him because he’s attractive like John Edwards.  As I said above, looks are just one of many qualities we want in a leader.  In Trump’s case he clearly projects strength, which is always a high priority for voters. He’s also narcissistic, and we know from studies of corporate leaders that narcissism (up to a point) is often helpful as an individual climbs the greasy pole. He’s also tall; in US elections the taller candidate almost always wins.  Finally, he’s white.  That’s a critical and obvious factor.  Because we are tribal by nature we are inclined to trust people who look like us and a majority of voters are white (though that will be changing).

I certainly don’t hold to a reductionist view, though.  Culture can trump biology. But science does help explain Trump’s appeal.  When a series of aversive events (as the social scientists put it) strike a community the people living in that community, save for those who possess enough knowledge to frame the events in a broad perspective, let their instincts drive their response.  That’s apparently what has been happening this year.  Bad and bewildering things have happened to white middle class voters in the last generation.  In the Bad category:  Incomes are flat. Millions have lost good-paying manufacturing jobs.  And in the Great Recession many lost their houses. In the Bewildering category: Blacks got civil rights. Gays began to marry.  And men lost the right to rule the roost.  What science tells us is that when people face adversity in circumstances like this they vote against the incumbents and go for outsiders or for politicians who exploit their fears. That favored Trump.

Proof?  His voters haven’t cared that the media have rated his statements lies over and over again or that he seems uninformed about most of the issues he’s addressed.  What they care about is that he’s avowedly been in their corner.  He’s regarded as their champion.  This is important because in the end elections are always about the voters.  Trump makes his voters feel smart.  He validates their deep-felt view that they have been trampled on by elites uninterested in their welfare. 

To those taking a strictly rational approach to politics, Trump’s appeal is hard to fathom.  But for most voters – a majority of whom don’t know we have 3 branches of government – what matters is not reason so much as what they feel. 

It’s not a surprise that he’s drawn much of his support from so-called low-information voters.  They aren’t so much thinking hard about the qualities they want in a leader as reacting to what they hear when Trump turns up on their television screens. They’re going on instinct. These instincts were shaped by evolution:  We are drawn to our own kind. We give in to fear when our amygdala is activated by scary headlines and demagogic politicians. And so on.

You mention how masculine faces are more appealing to voters during wartime and feminine features more appealing in peacetime. This is fascinating. Does this fact hold up historically, if you look at past heads of state?

No one has performed controlled experiments involving subjects shown a large data set of the images of past presidents. But studies show that college students taking the measure of a face shaped like George W. Bush versus a face shaped like John Kerry preferred the face that resembled Bush’s. This was back in 2004 during the Iraq War.

Now we do know that the taller candidate has almost always defeated the shorter candidate in US presidential history, so that certainly tells us something.  It helped that George Washington towered over his peers (he was around 6 feet two inches).  He looked like a commanding figure. Back in the Stone Age an individual’s sheer size would have mattered to people.  It’s no surprise that we favor tall leaders, therefore.

What are the other main ways in which our stone-aged brains hinder us when it comes to politics?

I think I addressed this earlier.

Do you think that being aware of this tendency to make instinct based decisions means that we can force ourselves to think more rationally? Or will we continue to make the same mistakes?

Low information voters are always going to be less rational than is desirable.  Lacking information they are going to go on instinct.  And they are in the majority.  But we can teach everybody how their brain operates.  People who understand how their instincts shape their responses can second-guess those responses.  That’s what makes me hopeful.  Science is giving us the chance to act more rationally.

It’s important to note that our problem is not that we get emotional.  Intelligence is married to emotion, scientists have found.  Brain-damaged individuals who lack an emotional response to events find that they cannot make decisions.

The key then is to ask ourselves whenever we go on instinct – and we do all the time in politics as in life – whether our instinctive responses in a particular situation are appropriate.  Is the context right? In some cases it’s right to fear a stranger.  But in our multi-cultural world it’s not right to fear people solely because they look different or talk different. So if we catch ourselves demonizing someone on those grounds we know we need to second-guess ourselves.

Do voters care about the truth at all or is this another thing the more primitive side of ourselves doesn’t care about? People must know that what Trump says isn’t true so does this suggest that it just doesn’t matter to them?

Truth matters less to voters – all voters – than you’d suspect.  Why?  Because we are biased.  The more biased we are toward a person or party the less willing we are to acknowledge that they may have lied or mangled the truth.  As Harvard’s Steven Pinker says, we aren’t interested in the truth prevailing so much as our version of the truth, which can be quite different.

Once we have settled on an opinion we are very reluctant to change our minds.  Neuroscience studies performed by Drew Westen show that when we are exposed to information that is contrary to our beliefs we immediately discount it.  Our neurons stop firing.  As social psychologists discovered in the middle of the 20th century we don’t like dissonance and automatically try to eliminate it.  One way to do that is to ignore evidence that goes against our beliefs.  When we do that we feel better – and our physical health improves.

You say that voters made an irrational decision by getting behind Sanders because it is “a year when the anti-politician was cool.” Do you think that was all it was about? What in our stone-aged brain is tricking us in exactly the same way as with Trump?

I have never said that people voting for Sanders were irrational.  What I’ve said is that people have been drawn to him primarily because they wanted an outsider.  He confirmed his voters’ bias against the establishment and offered an indictment of the establishment.  His supporters found this pleasing.  He told them what they wanted to hear.  When the media did the arithmetic and found his prescriptions wanting his voters didn’t particularly care. By then they had already made up their minds. That his tax plan wasn’t well-thought out didn’t matter. Hillary’s numbers have added up better.  But that doesn’t mean that her voters are more rational.  Her voters by and large had their own instinctive reasons for giving her their support.  As human beings we are all of us subject to the pull of instinctive behavior.  Most importantly, we go along with our group.  This is because we don’t break ranks.  If the group with which we identify shares a particular point of view on a political subject we will tend to go along.  We’ll either conform our view to the group’s or convince ourselves that the group shares our view. 

I know that this is distressing to hear.  We’d like to believe in the Enlightenment view that politics is about the settling of differences through the exchange of views based on hard evidence.  But this simply isn’t true.  Most of the time we come by our views through other means. But as I said above, science is giving us reason to hope.  By learning how our brain works we can second-guess ourselves.  I know I’m repeating myself. I just want to make sure your readers don’t walk away dispirited.

 

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153799 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153799 0
Democracy Failed Us in this Election. We Need to Admit that.

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

T. Harry Williams opens his celebrated biography of Huey Long with a story about the time Long went to campaign in “rural, Latin, Catholic, south Louisiana.”  A local boss was worried because Long was from Protestant north Louisiana. But when Long stood before the crowds he began by telling a reassuring story:  “When I was a boy, I would get up at six o’clock in the morning on Sunday, and I would hitch our old horse up to the buggy and I would take my Catholic grandparents to mass.  I would bring them home, and at ten o’clock I would take my Baptist grandparents to church.”  The local boss afterwards appreciatively told Long:  “Why Huey, you’ve been holding out on us.  I didn’t know you had any Catholic grandparents.”  “Don’t be a damn fool,” Long chided him.  “We didn’t even have a horse."

This is not the kind of story that is going to upset a lot of people concerned with politicians’ lying.  But it’s worth understanding what even this charming tale says about voters.  One lesson is that they easily can be hornswoggled. 

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153803 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153803 0 How to Become Better Informed Politically

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

This is an email interview I did with AMFM Magazine.  It just went online.

Rick, is the American voter misinformed, and sadly lacking in knowledge of world affairs?

I guess you decided to start with an easy question. The answer is yes, of course.  Studies going back half a century show that a majority of Americans know next to little about government, politics or history.  A majority don’t know we have 3 branches of government.  A majority don’t know there are 100 US senators.  A majority don’t know that the only country to drop an atomic bomb in a war was their own, the United States.  Most Americans can’t find Iraq on a map even though we’ve been bombing the country since the 1990s.  So the answer is unquestionably yes. 

Why are Americans so easily misled, given that there is so much technological advancement (social media, etc.)? Why don’t more people investigate what we are fed by the media?

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153806 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153806 0 How to Watch the Debates

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

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. ]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153816 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153816 0 Thank You Donald Trump. Seriously. Thank You.

Donald Trump's Misleading Twitter Feed (see below)

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

I owe a great debt to Donald J. Trump. Let me explain.

Eight years ago, in 2008, I wrote a book called Just How Stupid Are We. It was a cri de coeur. ]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153829 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153829 0 Are Voters Easily Manipulated?

Supporters of Donald J. Trump (Trump campaign website)

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

This election will not only settle the question of who next gets to sit behind the large desk in the Oval Office. It will also settle another question, formerly of interest mainly to scholars, but now, for obvious reasons, of concern to a broad audience:  How gullible voters are in the 21st century.  

There are two broad schools of thought about this. One school, best represented most recently by historian David Greenberg in his book, A Republic of Spin, argues that voters are plenty savvy.   Greenberg goes so far as to discount claims that the Bush administration manipulated public opinion in support of its decision to invade Iraq. After 9-11, he says, polls showed the voters were anxious to go to war. They were blood thirsty. In deciding on war, therefore, Bush merely gave the voters what they wanted. 

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153831 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153831 0 Russiagate

Illustration by Wes Jenkins

Rick Shenkman is the editor of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Donald Trump lies repeatedly to the public like no one else ever has.  But Michael Flynn lies once to Mike Pence and he's out on his ear? 

This seems like a paradox.  It isn't.  Here's why.

 ]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153896 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153896 0 No, Democrats Shouldn't Learn to Hate Like the Right

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics , from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Michelle Goldberg, a columnist for Slate, writes in the New York Times that Democrats are discovering what Republicans have long known:  anger works in building a movement.  As she rightly notes, the GOP has used anger for decades to energize conservative voters by the millions.  The list of things that made these conservatives angry was long.  In the 1950s it was commie spies infiltrating the government.  In the 1960s it was pot smoking hippies, murderous (black) criminals, and socially disruptive (black) protesters.  In the 1970s it was pro-choice "feminazis."  In the 1990s it was the Clintons, especially the female member of the pair.  It burned to hear her mock women like Tammy Wynette who stand by their man and bake cookies.

 ]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153924 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153924 0 Don't Trump's Voters Care About the Truth?

Clever graphic circulated by Democrats.

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, from which this article was adapted. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Why don't Trump voters seem to care that their president is frequently caught telling lies?  To answer this question I want to start with a story.

Not long after the Watergate burglary, the Republicans held their national convention in Miami to nominate Nixon for reelection. After he gave his acceptance speech, delegates and supporters in the hall were allowed to meet the president, who stood on stage as people, one by one, passed by to shake his hand. In the long line that immediately formed was a young man, all of seventeen years of age, from New Jersey. He had come to Miami without a ticket to the convention, but he had managed to wangle one that afternoon. “Mr. President, I’m a Democrat,” the young man said when he got his turn. “But I am supporting you.” Nixon looked a little flummoxed. Even though he was courting Democrats, he apparently wasn’t expecting to be shaking hands with one at this point in the proceedings of the Re- publican convention.

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153929 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153929 0 When Will Trump Voters Realize They've Been Had?

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

When will the people of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, those stalwart Trump voters who believe he’ll be bringing back coal jobs, finally figure out they’ve been had?

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153939 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153939 0 If We Go to War in Korea Trump's Poll Numbers Almost Certainly Would Go Up

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Liberals are convinced Donald Trump will either be driven out of office or at the very least be fired by the voters at the next election three and a half years from now.  But there’s a plausible scenario that ends with his re-election.  Surprisingly, it involves Korea, which everybody, liberals and conservatives alike, seems to regard as a disaster in the making. 

How could a second Korean War help keep Donald Trump in the White House for another four years?

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153973 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153973 0
Country Guitarist Changes His Mind on Gun Control after Vegas: Why That's Not Surprising. Caleb Keeter is a member of the country group that was performing on stage the night a shooter began spraying the area with bullets fired from guns equipped to work like a machine gun.  In the hours after the shooting Keeter took to Twitter to explain that he had changed his mind about gun control. Now he supports it.  This blog post, by Rick Shenkman, the editor of HNN, explains why we shouldn't be surprised by Keeter's change of heart.  The article is drawn from Shenkman's book,  Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

We believe human beings are naturally empathic. We take pride in our capacity for empathy. It’s what keeps us human. But our capacity for empathy is limited. Most of the time empathy only works under four restricted circumstances:

1. When a story tugs at our heart. 2. When we are face-to-face with someone in pain or jeopardy. 3. When somebody is going through something we ourselves have experienced. 4. When we identify with a person in pain, either because we know them or their group, or we are members of the same group.

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153987 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153987 0 Is Facebook’s Decision to Downplay Politics Really a Blow to Journalism?

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Some journalists are alarmed by Facebook’s decision to deemphasize news in users’ News Feeds. I don’t share their concern. First, Facebook was never a desirable platform for hard news. You don’t want to get into an argument with your aunt over Donald Trump on Facebook. Facebook is like a friends and family picnic.  It’s a place for exchanging recipes.  It’s not for food fights over politics. And anyway it wasn’t designed to feature news or political discussions. By deciding to deemphasize hard news Facebook is going back to its roots. This is probably good for Facebook and it’s undoubtedly good for family peace. Now Red State Auntie Em can share her favorite photos of her dog Spot without worrying that she’ll have to see her Blue State nephew’s screed about Trump’s latest racist tweet.

The change might even be good for politics.  Because Facebook wasn’t designed to feature hard news the display of news evolved organically in a hit or miss fashion. Tools weren’t installed to reward readers for searching out news that might conflict with their partisan proclivities. Nor did the site feature incentives to explore issues in-depth. To be sure the platform may have prompted some people to turn out to vote; studies show that people who displayed an ‘I Voted’ sticker had an impact on their close friends’ own decision to cast a ballot. But social media should be having a far greater positive impact. 

Facebook’s decision gives journalists a chance for a do-over.  As long as Facebook was featuring their content, journalists didn’t feel the need to create a social media platform designed expressly to meet the needs of users interested in news. Facebook already had the users. Under the circumstances it made little sense to set up a new platform. You go hunting where the sitting ducks are and they were on Facebook. 

I came to learn this firsthand in one of those life-teaches-hard-lessons moments. In 2011 I joined a Seattle-area start-up to create a new social media platform for politics called Vote iQ. It was going to be a kind of Facebook for politics, as I told investors.  The theory was that Vote iQ would give users a one-stop-shop platform where they could find out everything they needed to know:  how to register to vote, where to vote, who their elected officials were, which special interests these politicians turned to for contributions, and how they voted on key issues.  To put voters in the driver’s seat we intended to give them multiple ways to Take Action by making donations, filing a grievance with a bureaucracy or joining an activist group. Politicians in turn would establish profiles on the platform to give them a chance to showcase what they were doing for constituents, who would be able to exploit the system of two-way communication social media platforms offer.  Want to yell at your senator for voting with the National Rifle Association?  On Vote iQ you could by simply posting a complaint you, your neighbors and your senator could see.

Central to our vision was giving users an opportunity to access the news they need to know to make informed political decisions.  Most voters know little about politics.  A majority can’t even name the three branches of government. Despite the investment we as a society have made in education — a majority of adults now attend college —  surveys show most people remain at least as ignorant about issues as Americans in the 1940s when the vast majority hadn’t gone past the eighth grade. By some measures people today are actually less knowledgeable than their great grandparents. (Their great grandparents could rely on cues given by labor leaders.  Very few people today can, given the shrinking footprint of labor in American society.)

One solution was to sign up journalists and media companies. Like politicians they would create profiles and users could follow them. If, say, you like Paul Krugman, you could follow him on the site and be able to comment on his page about his columns and blog posts.  This would be a classic win/win situation.  Voters would be in a position to be their own journalist by curating the news they see.  In return, media companies would gain traffic.

Because the platform was expressly built around news and politics special tools could be built to give users an incentive to explore communities outside their bubble. One suggestion was to work out a partnership with Starbucks to award users points toward a gift card when they followed mainstream media outlets like the New York Times. To encourage voters who otherwise might shy away from wonky articles heavy on policy and numbers, we’d offer information in clever, game-like ways, picking up on an innovation pioneered by Yahoo.  We began with a Match Quiz that gave users a chance to see which presidential candidates in 2012 lined up with their own views on various issues. Another quiz helped voters figure out where they fell on an ideological scale ranging from left to right.  (The media generally assume voters know whether they are liberal or conservative and what those terms mean.  Studies show most have no idea.) 

We actually began building the vote iQ platform after raising about 3 million dollars. But we ran out of money before we could fully implement our vision.  Media companies, while intrigued, held back because we lacked the millions of users they could already access on Facebook.  In effect, Facebook made reaching users so easy it seemed pointless to move to a second platform even if it might better serve their own needs and the voters’. Why go to the trouble of creating a new destination site for politics when there already was one?

But maybe now the media are willing to give the idea a second chance. I am confident Americans would welcome a major social media platform solely dedicated to politics the same way LinkedIn is devoted to career building.  The country’s never been more engaged in politics than it is right now. The time is right for a platform where we can discuss politics and only politics and leave Auntie Em free to post her favorite pictures of Spot on facebook.

Facebook’s decision isn’t a big blow to the media.  It’s an opportunity.  All the media have to do is show the imagination to seize the moment. Carpe Diem!

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154049 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154049 0 Why Stories Are so Important in Politics Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is drawn. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154055 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154055 0 Americans Have Again Ranked JFK Among the 3 Best Modern Presidents

Related Link HNN Hot Topic:  President's Day

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Think for a moment about John F. Kennedy. What comes to mind, excluding the assassination, which obviously is memorable, and the stories of his adultery, which I just mentioned, and which are therefore easily called up from memory? I will guess that it is an image of some kind: Kennedy on his sailboat, his hair flying in the wind. Or Kennedy playing touch football on the lawn of the family estate in Hyannis Port. Or Jack and Jackie out for a stroll. Or Kennedy (hatless) delivering his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .” Or, my favorite, a tanned Kennedy wearing his Ray-Bans and an Izod Lacoste open-collar shirt.

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154065 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154065 0 Why This Was the Generation Cursed with a Donald Trump

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Here's a question we need to be thinking about.

Why did a Donald Trump arise now?

The answer at first glance is that he is sui generis.  But this answer doesn't get us very far.  While Trump is a force of nature and has been his whole life apparently from my reading of his biography, we have had plenty of other people in American history who were his equal if not his superior.  Remember P.T. Barnum?  He too created a brand around his name and survived bankruptcy and became popular.

No, there's something about our era that has given us this dreadful chaos-leader-in-chief.  The question is what.  

But before we get to that there's a paradox to be dealt with.  It holds the key to our conundrum.  Here's the paradox.  Donald Trump, a man who appeals to the lowest common denominator and literally is most popular with those who know the least, has come to power in an age when we've never been better educated. 

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154076 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154076 0 The Malcolm Gladwell Presidency

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

In the last few weeks President Trump has replaced both his secretary of state and his national security advisor.  Each move came amid reports that he was acting on instinct.  This is a matter of no little significance. A lot is riding on his gut — nothing less than the possibility of war.  Both of his new hires are said to be hawks eager for war with both Iran and North Korea.  As a headline in Slate announced:  “It’s Time to Panic.”

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154083 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154083 0 The Psychology Behind the Trump Cult

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

A psychological mechanism inclines us toward consistency, especially when our beliefs and behavior are in conflict. While we often hold contradictory views, obvious contradictions make us feel uncomfortable. By nature we aren’t Walt Whitmans. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” Whitman says in his poem “Song of Myself.” But that’s not how the brain operates. The human brain does not like cognitive dissonance—as social psychologist Leon Festinger dubbed the phenomenon in the 1950s. Rather than live with contradiction, we figure out a way to reduce it. How far are we willing to go to do this? Pretty far.

]]> Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154117 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154117 0 Trump's treating his voters like chumps

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

This is excerpted from an interview I did with Salon's Chauncey DeVega.

How was Donald Trump able to become president?

There are ultimate causes and proximate causes. As for the first, once the Democratic Party became committed to civil rights that inevitably meant there was going to be a revolution in our politics. The Democratic Party for a century had been composed of people in the South and urban parts of the North and elsewhere. There was tension between those two elements but party elites kept things unified more or less.

But when Lyndon Johnson pushed through civil rights laws, Southerners bailed wholesale from the Democratic Party. The Republican Party saw all these Southern voters now up for grabs and they gravitated toward them. So now you've got the two political parties, one striking out in favor strongly of civil rights and the other party increasingly uncomfortable with its own past as a civil rights pioneer under Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party decided to use racial grievances and in some instances outright racism to win over the voters who abandoned the Democrats over civil rights. 

Considering that the United States has only been a full democracy (under the law) for approximately 50 years since the civil rights movement, is the white backlash that Trump represents in many ways just a return to the norm in America? 

I am more impressed with the similarities in Donald Trump's politics than I am with the differences when we look back over the long arc of American history. But of course I do see very real differences between Donald Trump and all previous presidents. 

He's like having elected Joe McCarthy as president. Trump is not only using racist tropes in his rhetoric but he's just a pure demagogue and we've just never had that kind of a combination in the presidency before. Trump is wrong for this country in so many different ways such as his egotism, his self-aggrandizement, his gross ignorance, his unwillingness to learn basic facts about the issues that he's talking about....

Donald Trump has little to no respect for or understanding of America’s democratic norms and traditions. He appears to lack basic human decency and seems to relish embarrassing the United States globally. His personal and moral failings also include his racism, sexism, misogyny, bigotry, cruelty and willful ignorance. Yet, Trump has an almost unbreakable hold over his followers. How do you explain this?

My explanation is informed by social psychology. That framework provides the best explanation, which is that politics is about group cohesion and group identification. Trump’s supporters have a shared sense of resentment which for many of them is not economic: It is social and cultural. Donald Trump is addressing that. Moreover, politics is all about making voters feel smart and Donald Trump did that for his public. Politicians on both the left and the right haven't been able to accomplish that goal for decades. Trump’s voters also feel smart because he's rich and powerful. 

He also validated the instinctive feelings of his voters and made them feel that their resentments are permissible and legitimate. 

Now consider what Barack Obama did in a much more positive way. Obama succeeded in winning a lot of white votes because he made people feel good about voting for a black man. He did not try to make white voters feel guilty or discuss topics which were negative in terms of race relations. 

Then Donald Trump comes along and he has figured out another way to make those white voters feel smart and that's by playing on racial resentments. 

When Trump makes these racist appeals he's deploying insights from social psychology. He's appealing to people such that they feel they are members of a group and feel strongly united as a result. 

So the more he gets attacked by others, the more united his followers feel. In a way this makes him more powerful. There is a way out of this cycle. We feel anxious if there is a widening gap between our view of the way the world works and the way the world is actually working. When that gap becomes so large that we can't deny it anymore, our brains are triggered to re-evaluate our commitments. We then change our commitments when the burden of hanging onto existing beliefs becomes greater than of changing them. 

Even with all the horrible things that have come out about Donald Trump, his voters are not getting anxious. Several things have to happen for this to change. Really important voices in the Republican Party have to come out against Trump. An indictment by Robert Mueller would also be something concrete that would change some of his supporters’ minds too.

Let’s entertain a scenario where Mueller presents irrefutable, obvious, watertight evidence that Trump and his allies colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election. Furthermore, let’s also assume that subsequently more and more prominent Republicans begin to publicly condemn Donald Trump. Trump will say he is the victim of a “witch hunt” and that it's all “fake news.” Given that he leads a political cult won’t his followers just become even more devoted?  

The key turning point will be when people feel that supporting Donald Trump is a bad reflection of who they are. Suppose Trump is indicted and his tax returns show that he is worth much less than he claims. Well, that's the kind of thing that's going to make people feel like chumps and will drive a huge wedge between the supporters and the cult leader.  

There will be dead-enders of course. Even Nixon at the time he resigned was at 23 percent in the polls. You're never going to be able to change those people's minds.

But for the great bulk of the population, particularly the people who don't follow politics all that closely, they'll be more willing to shift their commitments … but hard evidence is going to have to come out. It can't just be a headline in the New York Times. It's going to have to be something really explosive that moves the needle. We're not there yet.... 

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154133 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154133 0
Why Can't Americans Accept the Fact that Columbus Was Not a Hero?  

This goes far toward explaining one of the most troubling facts historians have uncovered about myths: they don’t die. They just go into hibernation, ready to spring back to life when circumstances become favorable. Take Joseph Stalin. He was officially repudiated by the Soviet Union shortly after his death in 1953. His horrors were fully exposed. But on the sixtieth anniversary of his death, who did Russians tell pollsters was the greatest Russian leader in history? Joseph Stalin. It’s not the man Russians were celebrating. It was the myth of the Great Leader. In myths, fact and fable get all mixed up. The facts are incidental. What counts is the meaning the myths have for the people who believe them.

Americans, like others, are susceptible to myths. The reason for this is that myths serve the same purpose for us as they do for others. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out, myths bind groups together. As he says, they bind the hive. Myths bring us closer. As a heterogeneous society we have more of a need for myths than homogenous societies. Unlike most people around the world, our history is short—so short, we have not had time to meld into a single people with a common culture. We come from everywhere. Unlike, say, the Germans or the French, we have not lived in the same place for thousands of years. Nor do we share a common tribal identity. E pluribus unum? Out of many one? That is what we like to believe, but it’s not really true. What unites us is not a common identity but a loose set of beliefs. This is why myths are so appealing to Americans. They help answer the burning question, to quote the eighteenth-century French émigré writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur: “What then, is this new man, the American?”

Two centuries on we still aren’t sure, but a clue is in our myths. Our myths make us, us. We therefore cling to them and can’t give them up. It’s who we are. Myths are so important to us that writers and intellectuals after the Revolution set themselves on a conscious path of mythmaking. This was to create an authentic American identity. They did not want children growing up on the stories of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. They wanted children to learn American stories. The story of Paul Revere did not become part of American culture by accident. Longfellow wrote a poem about him. Plymouth Rock became iconic because Daniel Webster gave a famous speech about it. Why do we have myths, after all? They tell us who we are and what values we cherish.

That is why we see such fierce battles over figures like Christopher Columbus and holidays like Christmas. They have become part of American mythology. We define ourselves by these myths. Plymouth Rock, Betsy Ross, the Liberty Bell—these are part of the bedrock foundations of American culture. We take them seriously. So when critics challenge Columbus’s virtue and Christmas’s universality, many Americans naturally recoil. It’s not the myths that they are defending. It’s themselves. Myths R Us.

So what's stopping us from changing the name of the holiday?  Italian Americans would probably complain vociferously as they have in the past, but it's not their opposition that's stopping us. It's us.  Or at least "us" minus Native Americans and historians. 

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Fri, 18 Jan 2019 02:58:50 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154149 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154149 0