Pavel Kondov catches up with Exeter lecturer Dr. Darren Schreiber after the ‘Pint of Science‘ presentation,
discussing the topic of how your brain is built for politics.
Dr. Schreiber began the interview by explaining how his political research relates to neuroscience.
‘I use brain imaging to study how the human brain thinks about political information. The argument is contending that the very reason that we have the brain that we do is that Aristotle was right and we are, by nature, political
This works on more ways than we would usually imagine.
‘What I mean by politics are these constantly coalitions; we are members of coalitions that are part of coalitions, which in themselves are part of coalitions. Take tonight’s crowd for example – we gathered here today for a
common purpose and coordinated in incredibly complex ways, and formed a coalition that will probably never see each other again. This isn’t unusual, but we don’t think about it – the nature of human coalitions is that they are constantly forming and dissolving. This dynamism requires us to have an incredible amount of flexibility’.
Dr. Schreiber points out that this is actually what sets us out even from our closest relatives.
‘Humans are really closely related to chimpanzees (share 95%), and we are massively more flexible in our cognitive abilities. Technical problem-solving in young chimpanzees and young humans is identical. What is really different is that young humans can coordinate with each other and form a coalition to solve a common problem – something which chimpanzees cannot keep up for long’.
I ask how his argument fares with the fact that a lot of people simply do not care about politics or voting. Take the General Election 2015 for example, 34% of the eligible population did not vote at all.
‘Political scientists have been so focused on things like the act of voting. It is an important political act, but is one of millions of politics acts that take place in a human lifespan.
Having conversations within their families about what values they have, negotiating
relationships with clients or sharing responsibilities in the office – those are all political
decisions. The fetishizing of national and international politics, which are a fairly recent
invention, disguises how incredibly political our everyday interactions are’.
A key point of his talk was that as our brains grow more complex, so do the political problems we deal with, which is bad news for all of us who watch the news and go ‘oh, dear’.
‘There’s an awful lot of computational power in the brain that tries to make the world simpler. In the context of politics, we are constantly trying to figure out if the person opposite us is an ‘us’ or a ‘them’. But because there are constantly shifting coalitions, ‘them’ becomes ‘us’ at a
certain level. We have to be very careful about who we form alliances with, who we make
commitments to. By trying to reduce this complexity without oversimplifying, the brain can
He also acknowledges the fact that we are creatures of instinct whose emotions can be played on.
‘If I want to induce fear in you, there are buttons I can press like playing scary music, or speaking in a deep voice. The mistake comes when people start believing that they can control others in this way, because it turns out we are much more complex than this. My favourite example is Joe McCarthy who was going around in the 50s,
promulgating this sense of fear from communism in America. Fear was incredibly
productive for him… for a while. Now when you mention his name you almost
instantly think about someone who goes on a witch hunt, so he pushed the fear
button too many times. You can even observe that even in pop music. Britney Spears’ back catalogue does not sell anywhere near what she sold when she first gained prominence, but if you look at artists like The Beatles, Elvis or even Beethoven
– people still buy them a lot. We can hit the saccharine button or the fear button with some success, but in the long run it turns out we are much more sophisticated’.
Finally I ask about where he is taking his research next.
‘One of the questions that is left is what is going on in children. Evidence from genetics suggests that from 8 to 18 there’s no role of
genetics, but as soon as they leave the environment the genes kick in. The old model in political science is socialization – that we
socialize children into politics. But the biological data suggests that after you leave home, your political attitudes change quite dramatically and are about 40% related to your biological
Does the brain change rapidly when you leave home, or is there a latent, say, conservatism in the brain that can manifest itself freely after leaving a liberal home. One of the interesting policy implications is the proposal to extend the right to vote to 16-year-olds. If they vote for a party at 16 when political opinions aren’t fully formed, do they get into the habit of voting for it because of a sense of commitment, or do their political views change at a later stage? Societies are now speaking about introducing this change, which will be a very large social experiment whose consequences we
simply do not know’.
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