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Welcome to Rationalise, speaking the podcast where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Gillard. And with me is today's guest, Jason Wheadon. Jason is a psychologist and a lawyer. He is the co-author with Robert Kurzban of the book The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind. And he's also a blogger at SG SG. We're going to be talking today about the thesis of his book, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind, which is that when voters make choices about which politicians to vote for which policies they support, they are significantly motivated by their own self-interest.
Maybe not one hundred percent, but a lot more than we like to think, and also a lot more than political scientists are. A lot of political scientists think voters are. Jason, welcome to rationally speaking. Great to be here. And how do I do with my summary of your thesis? You want to add or change anything? No, that's exactly right.
I mean, we we mainly think about self-interest, first of all, as mattering more than a lot of political scientists think. But we also think about it mattering more broadly, hitting more different kinds of issues.
So you're arguing that we should be thinking about we should be defining self interest differently than we political scientists tend to define it. And also that if you define it that way, it matters more than we think it does in motivating our voting preferences and choices.
Right, exactly. So self-interest in on a normal political science frame, self-interest is just going to mean money. It's going to mean I I'm interested in my short term economic well-being. And so you think about things like if I'm on welfare, I like welfare payments.
If I'm on Social Security disability, I like Social Security disability payments.
And so part of the equation is political scientists, you know, sort of started in the late 70s and through the 80s and 90s came a lot of them came to believe, even in that very narrow sense, self-interest isn't very important.
And so part of our thesis is, no, just just go look at the data. It's it that that actually is an important set of considerations.
But then we also take it further and say, you know, you can think about discrimination issues, discrimination on the basis of race or religion or gender or sexual orientation. You can also find a kind of self-interest there where minorities are especially interested in racial equality. Religious non Christians are especially interested in religious non-discrimination. Gays and lesbians are especially interested in LGBT discrimination.
So that's another sense of self-interest. And then we and then we really take it further, which is actually, you know, in the history of the ideas that led up to this, actually the place we started is thinking about things like abortion rights, birth control, pornography, these kinds of sexual and reproductive lifestyle issues. We think there's self-interest going on there, too. For example, people who spend a lot of time sexually active but not wanting to have a lot of kids.
Turns out those people are especially pro-choice.
And we think that's the kind of self interest, even though it doesn't relate to getting any money in the short term, it relates more to seeking advantages for your own lifestyle.
Right. Right. It's interesting to think about what what your book is arguing against, because in some sense, it might it might seem kind of commonsensical that, yes, people will prefer policies that favour themselves. But then on the other hand, we don't tend to think of ourselves that way. Yeah, but then on the other other hand, we often think of other voters that way, like, well, of course the rich people vote Republican because they want lower taxes, because they want to protect their money and so on.
And then on the other other hand, of political scientists, how many times do we have now?
Yeah, political scientists often. I don't know if this is common knowledge at all. This might surprise many listeners, but a lot of political scientists have been arguing that self interest is not actually very predictive of votes. So what is your sense of the state of the consensus, if there is one, on how much self-interest matters to voters? I think.
Yeah, I think there is no consensus. You know, look, we get it's like it's like blog comment land.
We get two kinds of comments. One is that's totally obvious. I don't know why you guys bother telling us that. And the other one is that's so obviously untrue. And it's OK. Well, make up your damn mind, right?
You know, I get the same thing with many of my posts and tweets and speeches. Yeah, yeah.
I think I just read each other's comment. That's what I don't get like that. They're just looking to see that other people are, you know, proving them wrong by virtue of their existence anyway.
Yeah, I think among the sort of people who do research and think about these areas, I think everybody would probably agree there's some degree of interest going on. There's some degree of self interest. People are going to disagree about how to define self-interest. They're going to disagree about the extent of the evidence.
There's going to be a lot of technical disagreements about what should you be controlling for, what's actually a causal cause and what's in effect, I think would be helpful to just talk about what are the alternatives to this theory?
What are the other things that people are you're motivating voters, if not self-interest. Sure.
So, you know, political science and really political psychology.
Right. So sort of a subset of political science.
It takes a very abstract view about political issue attitudes, about party identification, about voting. It's a whole lot of stuff about personality features.
So extroversion or conscientiousness or these political personality features things like right wing authoritarianism or racial resentment or moral foundations, the kind of john height stuff about moral foundations, purity and authority or whatever they are.
I forget what the list is, but these are all very you know, and then also in political science, you get a whole lot of you're raised with a certain party identification. You're raised in a Republican household or you're raised in a Democratic household.
And that just makes you a kind of Tidmarsh partisan that doesn't really care about the content of issues. You're just following your party.
And so, you know, one way to think about what we're doing is from Kurzman and I are coming in and saying, yeah, but you know that politics is about real stuff and real people's lives.
Right. You know, when you restrict abortion access, that's a real thing. It affects different people differently. It affects people's real lives. When you're especially when you're talking about things like discrimination versus meritocracy.
This is something real that affects people's real lives. So to answer your question, the alternative version it views politics is this highly abstract thing. It's about personalities.
You know, there's a there's a paper that came out a couple of years ago that says, oh, being liberal or conservative, it's mostly about this thing called negativity bias. It's just sort of how much negativity you see in the world.
And it's all these kind of contentless, very abstract things driving politics.
And, you know, what we're arguing against is saying, no, no, no. To some extent, some of those things are true. But you also just can't neglect the fact that that politics ends up being about competing policy agendas that affect people's real lives. And then when you start trying to connect, well, let's look at these kinds of policies and see who those would affect. OK, now let's go look at the data and see whether it looks like, you know, people who are affected one way adopt that view and people who are affected the other way adopt the other view.
And we went issue by issue through a lot of different kinds of political issues using general social survey data and found that, yeah, typically when you take that approach, you find these connections between people's real lives and how policies are affecting them and that that affects their issue.
Attitudes, for example.
Well, you know, there are really three big domains and we split them up into different chapters. One is one are these sexual and reproductive issues. So people we call them ring bearers in the book. There are these people who they they don't they're not very sexually active before they get married or at least before they're in highly committed relationships. And then they tend to get married and stay married. They tend to have more kids versus what we call free wheelers.
So these are people who are more nonmarital sex, more sex partners, fewer kids, later kids.
If you look at those kinds of lifestyle indicators, when you get into a data set that has them in the general social survey, lucky for us, has a lot of that data. And they have a number of sex partners, number of kids, whether you've ever been married, whether you've ever been divorced, you take these kinds of factors. And sure enough, those things will predict, you know, not totally, but to a substantial degree. Those things will help you figure out who thinks abortion rights, abortion should be legal, who thinks that's important, who thinks abortion should be legal, who thinks that pornography should be legal?
Who thinks that pornography should be legal? Who thinks birth control should be more widely available versus less widely available on the other?
So that's one domain. We look at another domain or these these issues about discrimination and meritocracy. You know, on what to what extent do you think white, Christian, native born heterosexual men should be favored just because they're white, native born heterosexual men? You know, or to what extent do you think should there be prayer in schools or the Christian prayer in schools? Kind of, which is a way of which is a form of discrimination against non Christian kids?
Or do you think there should be affirmative action on the basis of race or gender?
So these kinds of issues, again, there we looked at, you know, well, what's the alternative to these kinds of discrimination?
Well, it's it's a sort of test based, education based meritocracy where you where instead of saying let's look at.
Race and gender and religion and those things you say, let's just look at where people went to school and how well he did and now how good they are tests.
And when we unpacked those sets of issues, we found, sure enough, the people who test well and have a lot of education really think meritocracy is awesome.
But the people who are white, Christian, native born men who are not good at tests and who don't have a lot of education, those people say, yeah, we're not sure this meritocracy thing is so great. We just think, you know, white Christians are awesome.
And then the third domain is the most obvious one, which are these economic issues about, you know, should we be redistributing money from wealthier people to poor people? And there we find yeah, sure enough, poor people and especially poor people with poor social networks, which includes a lot of racial minorities. And, you know, those those groups tend to think redistribution is great, whereas, you know, white, high income, especially white, high income Christians think no, redistribution is not great.
We would prefer to have this be a private charitable thing where our churches, you know, support people we want them to support and don't support the people we don't want them to support.
Great. So you've as I know you're well aware because you've written all about this and you're a very careful researcher. It's important to when you're thinking about explaining some outcome, like people's stated policy preferences or their votes, and you're looking at independent variables that might help explain that outcome. You have to be really careful about, like cleanly isolating the direction of causality, or at least to the extent that you know as much as you can. And so it seems like some of these there's a lot of different ways that someone's self-interest could be defined, because I you know, every person fits lots of different categories at once.
I'm I'm female. I'm, you know, in my early 30s. I live in California. I have such and such a level of education and so on and so forth. And it seems like some of those variables, some of those independent variables could plausibly also be dependent variables like maybe if I. Well, just to take your example of of the meritocracy question, it it could be, you know, the direction of causality could be going one way in which, you know, I didn't get a very good education.
And therefore, that causes me to not favor policies that depend on, you know, that reward you based on your level of education or maybe it could be going the other way. Additionally, where I just, you know, don't think that education should be important. And that causes me both to not support policies that reward education and also not to get an education myself. Yeah. Yeah. So I guess I'm asking, like, to what extent when you do these analyses, to what extent are you primarily trying to focus on independent variables that don't have that, you know, messy causal nature?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, it's a great it's a great question and something we thought a lot about here. You got to sort of take a step back. Right. So the gold standard for causal analysis are obviously experiments. But, you know, it's very hard to do experiments on things like how do you form your attitudes about immigration?
I mean, you can do short term manipulations in a lab and kind of push people over here and push people over there. But it's really hard to go back and say yes. And these short term manipulations we're doing in a lab also explain to you the long term maturation process of developing this attitude in the first place.
So experiments are hard in this area.
And so what you're left with is, you know, doing cross-sectional data, looking at big databases, trying to find correlations and then having to make assumptions about causality.
Are we preferred demographics to the alternative?
And the alternate demographics are like demographics or things like race, gender, age, education, religion, church attendance, sexual and reproductive lifestyles.
There's a lot of other things like as opposed as opposed to things like party identification. Look, I mean, you go to you go to any political science study that's looking at what causes people to differ on issue X, issue X might be immigration, issue X might be abortion, issue X, might be the Affordable Care Act or whatever. You know what causes people to differ on that? Every political science might. And in fact, we got some criticism for leaving this stuff out.
Every political science model you'll see of these things will use your own self labeled liberal conservative ideology. So it's just going to be a question that says, do you normally think of yourself as super liberal, kind of liberal, moderate, kind of conservative, super conservative?
They'll use that as a causal predictor. They'll use your party ID as a party. So do you normally favor Democrats or Republicans? And that'll be a causal thing.
And then often they'll throw in other kinds of attitudinal scales. So things like social dominance, orientation, which is the scale item where you basically ask people about, you know, do you think dominant groups ought to be dominant and submissive groups ought to be submissive and not complain are big?
You know, we because of our causal concerns, we left that stuff out of our models. We said we're just not going to control for party ID because we are not even a little bit sure that that is primarily causal. We understand that it's in part causal. But we also think a lot of people are choosing to be Republicans or Democrats because of what the how they feel about various kinds of issues when it comes to strong, at least part of your strong default hypothesis that there's causality going that other way.
Right. You're right.
But but but but but, you know, every cross-sectional study in the literature is going to put that in as an independent variable.
OK, we left it out. Yeah.
So the things we were choosing to focus on were these demographics, things like, you know, and you know, Robin, I had a paper in political psychology that came out, you know, not maybe it was five months ago, six months ago where we really that was where an academic audience and there we really talked about this stuff in depth.
And what we what we discussed there was.
Yeah, look, with demographics, some of them, you're pretty sure what you're looking at, right? Race, gender, age. I mean, you're just pretty know there may be a little bit of causality going the other way. So I'll here I'll give you an example with race.
I mean, maybe, you know, you get somebody who plausibly could call themselves Hispanic, but they have a very conservative ideology on racial issues. And so they just have decided they're to call themselves white.
Right. Which happens all the time. Right. That the definitions of what white means change all the time. Right.
So there could be a little bit of reverse causality there. But, you know, I'm pretty comfortable saying the lion's share, the big share of the causality, when you see a correlation between race and political items, most of that correlation is causality going from race to politics. And same thing with gender. Same thing with age.
Right. You know, I education, I would I would argue education and test performance. It just seems very unlikely to me that a whole bunch of the causality between education and politics is about self, about, you know, sort of libertarian people, self selecting a bunch of education.
Well, test performance, I agree with that. But couldn't there be, like, I don't know, people with more traditional values, ring bearers, they are less likely, maybe especially women are less likely to get higher education, maybe because they're more focused on creating, you know, building a family.
Yeah, maybe. Maybe for sure.
Yeah, it gets messy. And then, you know, I think one of the messiest things is actually religion. There's if you go look at people who have looked longitudinally at people's own religious descriptions of themselves, it turns out people jump around all the time between, um, Christian versus them. Nothing in particular.
Yeah, a person would. Oh, yeah. Yeah. A single person go back and forth. Interesting. Yeah. There's a lot of self-description are about how active they are in the religion of the church. I think both.
And so you really got to think about there's an example of the causality going both ways.
But again, I think, you know, if you think about things like are you Jewish or Christian or agnostic or atheist, I think most of the causality is going to be causality from religion to politics.
But, yeah, there's always this possibility that there's some of it coming back the other way and then and a different variable variable.
You know, there are some variables where you really are pretty safely assuming that's a causal variable, other variables where it's harder here. I'll give you one.
That's one of the hardest.
And in fact, we we had to address this in the book is things like when we used how many people you've slept with as a predictor. This is something general social survey allows you to information they have how many people you've slept with as a predictor variable? Well, there you could totally and obviously see people's religious and ideological commitments, things that were causing them to adopt different sexual lifestyles or Tili.
Oh, I see. So you're. Well, you can't really. Oh, I see. So so at some point if you become Christian, then you stop sleeping with people and that could reduce your total number.
Well, or more to the point, you let's say, well, here, let's think about let's get concrete, think about abortion rights.
You know, is somebody not sleeping around and having lots of kids because they're pro-life or are they pro-life because they're not sleeping around and having lots of kids?
That's a very hard one to untangle. And so actually in the book, what we do is we kind of bring these things in and out of our models and kind of show you well, you know, you can think of religion as causal. You can think of these. Sells as Kosal, right? But either way, at least what we found is there's a big relationship between these lifestyles and religion in these kinds of lifestyle, political issues like abortion and pornography and premarital sex and the rest of it.
And how would you distinguish how would you tell whether religious or ring bearer voters are supporting pro-life policies? Because that's they think that's what's good for the country and that's what's morally correct versus that's good for them. I guess we didn't even make the case for why that's good for them. But I suppose it's.
Yeah, well, the answer. I mean, I hear. Right. I'll give you the why it's good for them. Well, I mean, let's start with the easy one. Young people in a big city, late in their education or early in their career who are sexually active, really think they're going to get married down the road and settle down and have kids later.
But right now, they really don't want to have kids. Right. Pretty much everyone would agree. OK, right.
The availability of birth, birth control and abortion are in your interests under those circumstances. Right.
So that's one side of that coin. The free Willers. Those are the three wheelers, right? Yeah. The ring bears are harder there.
Rob Kurzban and I both have an evolutionary background, so we're both used to thinking about lifestyle, conflict and the strategic conflicts that can arise from competing lifestyles.
And the kind of more folksy way to say it in this particular case is you can think of ring bears, right? The people who are not sleeping around, getting and staying married, having these large families and having a large family is a precarious thing.
You know, little things can go wrong for you financially. You know, divorce is very hard on large families, on mothers with young children. You can think of ring bears as kind of like people who are trying to diet in a place where there's a bunch of candy around. Right. And so what ring bears really want to do to advance the stability of their own relationships is to try to get people around them to offer fewer temptations.
And they do this in part. This is in part what religious involvement is for people.
Religious involvement is surrounding yourself with people who tend to agree with that and tend to agree with it so strongly that they'll express attitudes that say, yeah, people who don't abide by monogamous sexual codes ought to be punished and ostracized and they ought to bear costs for those norm violations.
So that's how we think of bring bears, ring bears or people who in their own lives are trying to navigate these monogamous high fertility relationships. And part of their strategy is they're going to try to surround themselves with other people who agree with that to smooth out the road. But also they're going to try to use what influence they have to try to keep other people from engaging in promiscuous lifestyles. So it does have these funny implications.
Like normally you think about the well, look, my dissertation was about abortion rights and normally you think about abortion rights as well. It's this philosophical conflict about when life begins. We would say no. Deep down, it's really about regulating promiscuity. And that's why, for example, with abortion rights, you see things like in surveys. You ask people, should a woman be able to get an abortion if she's raped or if the child has a developmental problem.
A lot. A lot. A lot of people say yes, including a lot of people who think of themselves as pro-life. But then you ask things like, well, what if she's just single and doesn't want to marry the man? No, no, no, no. She shouldn't be able to get an abortion then.
And this is the kind of thing that we think gives evidence that abortion, the deep conflict over abortion is not about when life begins. The deep conflict about abortion is about regulating lifestyles.
OK, so I'm just accepting that premise because too much stuff in total to talk about. It's still like the the strategic picture that you're painting sounds I mean, it rings true to me and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it were true. But it still seems to speak to this trickiness in in describing what we should expect to be in someone's self-interest, because I'm not sure it's hard to know in hindsight, but I'm not sure apriori that it would have been obvious to me that to expect that ring bearers, people with this pattern of having fewer sexual partners and having children earlier to expect them to be the ones voting in favor of abortion restrictions as opposed to, say, women sorry, as opposed to, say, men being more likely to vote in favor of abortion restrictions and women to be more likely to oppose abortion restrictions or to be in favor of, you know, pro-choice policies like.
And I think that we don't correct me if I'm wrong about the statistics here, but I think that we see men and women roughly equally supporting abortion, which they. Might seem naively like a falsification or like a piece of data that undermines the people vote in their self-interest theory. If you think that, like it's in women's interest to have abortion allowed, well, we don't actually see that playing out in the data. And then you can say, like, well, no, it's not about men versus women.
It's about ringbark versus free Willers. Right. And that totally has this plausible story behind it. But I feel like there are lots of different plausible stories that we could tell and a lot of these cases. Yeah, right.
And then that's that's going to be an issue here. And there's no way I can talk you out of or talk you into the full range of these things.
But yeah, that's one one thing, one point we for sure make about abortion is strategically it's really not men versus women.
It's ring ring bearer men and ringbark women versus freewheel or men and freewheel are women. And when you go to the data, that's how it shakes out.
But I agree with you that someone who is clever can come up with lots of different kinds of arguments for what might be in someone's interests and might actually played a political game with myself where I tried to come up with a self interest story and then reverse it and come up with a story for that, too, which I like to do in general, just to sort of test my reasoning.
So I was able to think of like, well, you know, what if like what if there was a political candidate advocating for four more interventions, like more U.S. military intervention in other countries, maybe men of draftable age might we might expect them to oppose him because it's in their self-interest not to get drafted and have to go fight in other countries. But then, on the other hand, maybe, you know, this candidate is raising the status of.
Right. Of the military and people who have family members who fought in the military, people who maybe were in the military themselves. And so now their social status is raised. And so that would be appealing to them and in their own self-interest. Yeah, yeah.
No, I totally I totally agree with all that. And in fact, we had a set of issues that we just didn't touch. We talk about them in the last chapter of the book and we say we aren't addressing this set of issues because it wasn't clear to us at all what to expect from a self-interested perspective. One of those was military stuff. Another one was environmental stuff, environmental regulation. We you know, Rob and I sat around and talked about, you know, do we think there's any expectation on environmental stuff about who would do?
And, you know, you can come up with some things, people who work in certain kinds of industries, maybe people who have certain kinds of jobs, but it's suddenly come up with pretty plausible stories for why some people would oppose environmental regulations.
Yeah, the harder it seems to come up with stories for why some groups would be in favor of environmental regulations that rely on self-interest.
Yeah, in general, I just think it's a difficult area. Another area we didn't come come out with opinions on was a right to die, you know, assisted suicide issues. We couldn't see strong arguments on one side or the other. So we really tried to focus on three areas. And I mentioned them. You know, life's sexual and reproductive lifestyles, social status through discrimination, meritocracy, and then the redistribution of wealth.
And partly why we stuck to those areas is I've mentioned we're both we both have an evolutionary background. These are all areas that evolutionary psychologists are very comfortable thinking about. These are these are conflicts that have been around for a long time where the sides are pretty clearly divided. It's pretty it's pretty obvious what people are looking for and thus what they would consider deep down to be in their interests.
And so I think on the three broad things we looked at, we're pretty comfortable. We found stuff that that plausibly fit what we were expecting to see. But sure, there are lots of different kinds of issues. And you can especially you can get down into the weeds of policy making. And there's zero expectation, you know, should we have single payer versus a public option? Well, I you know, I have absolutely no prediction about how people are going to shake out about that.
And one thing that we haven't talked about yet is whether whether you're looking at what is, in fact, in people's self-interest or what they think is in their self-interest, because, you know, you have, for example, these people who oppose Obamacare, but they like ACA and they don't realize that the same thing or, you know, it's not clear what people what we should expect people to think about minimum wage policies or something like that.
Yeah, exactly. So I in general. Well, look, I mean, we have Rob Kurzman and I were both psychologists and the book the book presents a psychological model. And that psychological model is, I think about it like a corporation or a presidential administration. So you have a set of decision makers that are hidden from public view and back offices making their decisions based on interests.
So if it's if we're talking about I'll just stick with the corporation model. So we're talking about a business corporation. There's a board of directors. They do not meet in public.
They meet in private. They talk about the company's interests and they make large set strategic decisions based on what's what's in the shareholders financial interests.
They then pass along their sort of high level decisions to different departments within the company. And those different departments do different things. Some of them are about ordering products. Some of them are shipping some more about HRR or whatever. But there are also communications departments that are tasked with the job of, OK, figure out how to say this, how to talk about what we're doing in public and how to defend it.
And so, you know, I think the example we give in the book is a bank wants to sponsor a local arts fair. Why do they want to do that? Well, because their board and their financial people have made calculations that say we're going to get an advertising benefit out of this, that will get us more customers, and that will offset more than offset the costs of funding this arts fair. But it gets.
But but it's given over to a communications office.
And the communications office isn't going to say that.
The communications office is going to say we just we really think it's important to be good members of the community.
And we just think and it's especially about the children who benefit from these festivals and we just really care about children in the community.
And that's what they're going to say. Hmm.
And then you have spokespersons and the spokespersons often I mean, sometimes they're part of these communications teams, but sometimes the spokespersons are literally just spokespersons.
They're handed the message and they just go out in public and say, hey, you know, the reason big bank is sponsoring this arts fair is because they love communities and children.
Mm hmm. And they and they literally don't know any any differently. Our view is that that kind of an analogy actually describes pretty well some things we know about how human minds work. There are lots of different departments, lots doing, lots of different things. You've got kind of deep emotional systems that set broad priorities that kind of react in broad ways to these sorts of things I like and these sorts of things I don't like. Those broad responses have a whole lot to do with evolutionary interests, interests in mating outcomes, interest in social status, interest in in defending people who are related to you and etc.
So to the extent that you, your spokesperson, genuinely believes that you're acting altruistically, that can convince other people in your tribe that you're exactly stick and then they like you more, want to collaborate with you, trust you. Yeah, exactly.
So so so we've got these emotional systems that are that are producing our gut level reactions, which are really think of them like a board of directors. It's just this high level agenda setting.
It's like the great analogy.
It's like, hey, you know, you winning a competition in front of lots of people where everyone's patting you on the back, that's a great outcome. Try to do that, right? I mean, that's that's what your emotions tell you. But then you've got all these other systems that are figuring out, OK, well, how do we make that happen?
What do we need to what do we need to do to actually make that plan come true?
But then you also have these communication systems that are not going to say, oh, yeah, I'm just trying to get attention because I want people to think I'm awesome and maybe it'll help me get laid or make a bunch of money or something.
No, you're your communication systems will say something else.
They'll say something about how you're a good, honest, reliable, reasonable person that other people ought to like. And so anyway, so now to bring it back, finally around to your question.
That's how we by the way, I hope you will. It's how to self interest actually manifest versus what you think is in your self interest versus what you may or may not be in your self interest.
This is how we think about it. We think about it as the high level emotional responses that really drive whether different policies are appealing to different people. Those high level judgments are are based on neural systems that are doing the best they can with the information that they can to actually advance these concrete interests about social life, about your resources and your mating status and your kin, and whether you know, whether you're high or low status within your social group.
It's thinking about those things and doing the best it can. By the time you get all the way down to consciousness, which is just the spokesperson who's clueless, you're constantly you know, we think of consciousness is like the captain of the ship. Now, the consciousness is this little spokes model, right? Who doesn't who doesn't know a damn thing other than the talking points that they're handed.
Right. Like spokes model, even better than spokesperson. It really, really emphasizes the ornamental nature.
Right? Exactly right. So it's it's just some dumb actor who's given a script and, you know, and so, of course, your consciousness is going to say, oh, I don't favor my politics because it helps me.
No, no, no, no. I favor the politics.
I favor because it's best for you. In fact, mostly I just want to help other people and not me.
I mean, that's the message you get. But it's very similar to the message that a corporation would produce. It's very similar to the message that a presidential administration would produce to justify what it's doing. So, yes, on the conscious level, everyone thinks they're not self-interested. And so if you ask people what's motivating you to hold this political position, hardly anyone will say, well, because it's in my self-interest.
So what you have to do, you have to be a detective or a good reporter.
You have to think about what do I think would be in their interests and then see whether that's lining up with what they're actually doing. And that's that's what we're doing in the book. We're connecting these demographic features to these political items and showing you on a plausible argument about what self-interest means.
You can find these connections where for these kinds of issues, it's these kinds of demographics that matter. So if it's immigration, you know, it's native born white people who aren't very highly educated, don't do not like immigration because it's their jobs that are.
Well, yeah, exactly. Actually, a great example because there are a bunch of very reputable economists, although it's not a universal consensus yet, who argue that no immigration actually helps. It doesn't threaten the jobs of of low income American workers. But so you might if your model was strictly about people's what is good for people then and it wasn't paying attention to what do people think is good for them, then it might not expect people to mind. Yeah, but, you know, my my my opinion and I'm not an economist and I'm not an expert in this literature, but my opinion is what you've just said is not really an accurate depiction of the sum total of the economic I think the economics literature.
Well, I think the economics literature will tell you that overall immigration is good for an economy and then it's going to be especially good for people at the top of that highly educated people.
So I don't want actually want to argue the economic. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So it's not all that relevant to the the question I'm trying to ask. It just seems to me like there are a lot of cases where people it's actually it really is about the board of directors, the information that they have and not what the spokes model thinks is the reason. So, you know, people might might have a a false perception of their chances of making it into the top 10 percent of the absolute reason.
And given that they might support policies that aren't good for the top 10 percent because they think they're going to be there soon. And the model might say, no, I'm just doing what I think is the right choice for the country, but their board of directors is actually self-interested. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. There's they know their perception of their self-interest, but not exactly self-interest because they're not going to make it into the 10 percent. Yeah, exactly.
There's there's there's no there's no there's no Plato idealism in this model. Right. It's not that people are born with some kind of magic knowledge of what's in their interests. They have to try to figure it out and they have limited knowledge and they sometimes get it wrong. And it's especially true. This is why I was going back to policy details about I use the example of single single single payer health care versus a public option on Obamacare.
You just cannot expect more than zero point zero two percent of the population to even understand what the implications of that difference are. And so, therefore, you can't expect people to sort that out.
The kinds of things we're looking at in the book are much kind of grosser and broader than that. So, for example, one of the things we look at in the economics chapter, it's this item. It's actually a couple of different related items in the general social survey that ask the following question.
You know, do you think we ought to be doing more to get taxes and other resources from high income people and use that to redistribute money to poor people? It's just super basic stuff like that.
And sure enough, you look at that item and one of the one of the really great demographic predictors of that item is what's your income?
So I totally agree. If you if you try to get to small scale, if you try to get into the weeds too much, you're just going to lose the capacity of ordinary people to even figure out what's in their self interest. But again, I think on these large scale policy conflicts, a large scale policy conflict is should we have more or less redistribution from rich to poor? I think people figured out a large scale conflict is.
Do you think the game should be rigged in favor of white male heterosexuals or do you think it ought to be mostly a meritocracy? That's a large scale conflict.
Another large scale conflict is do you think we ought to be trying to regulate people's sexual and reproductive lifestyles or do you think it should just be to each his own? It's another large. And so I think when you start getting to these large scale conflicts, you see people's boards of directors having enough information to figure that out.
And then and then it shows up in the numbers. It shows up in the data.
So there is this spectrum of what could plausibly reasonably be called in someone's self-interest, where on the one hand, you have this very strict definition, like purely financial and just about me right now, as opposed to my family or in the future. And then at the other end of the spectrum, it's almost tautologically. It's just saying, well, if I feel good when I'm voting, then I'm like happy with my vote, then that's my self-interest because I made myself happy or something.
And it's like kind of a dumb way to define self-interest. And you're so you're sort of defining it somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Yeah, exactly.
We're somewhere in the middle of that. So what we think is well, actually, first of all, let me say political scientists will often say in this very limited sense of self-interest, it's just short term economic stuff, that self-interest doesn't have a big effect.
We show that we we talk about it some in the book and especially in this paper in political psychology from a few months ago. We really break it down and say even on that limited definition.
Right. To say that self-interest doesn't matter is just not true. There's study after study after study that will find, for example, that people who have less money and have more precarious economic situations and have more economic hardships, those people are significantly and substantially more likely to favor social welfare safety nets than are people who are very wealthy and have very stable, wealthy situations are much less likely to favor these things.
So even on the limited definition, it doesn't make any sense. But then, yes, we try to walk it forward without going crazy, without saying self-interest is whatever makes you feel good.
It was a great thing. That was a great example. Without taking it that far, we try to say, look, we're just going to try to expand it into these areas of evolutionary conflict where we're pretty sure everybody is equipped to think about the conflicts and where your brain is not.
We should expect people to unconsciously or consciously be trying to get to optimize for these things, even directly, these just large scale conflicts.
We ought to expect people to be able to to have the equipment in their heads to want to sort that out and how it affects them and then to respond to how it affects them. And then that's when we go to the data and say, yep, looks like that's happening.
That. OK, have two questions. Now, the first question is about why do you think politically like the way you describe it? It's like you just look at the data and you can see the connection between people's short term material self-interest and their policy preferences or their votes. Why are so many smart political scientists not coming to that conclusion if they have access to the same data that you have?
Yeah, this actually links back to an earlier thing we had about because they put a bunch of can, I guess here. Yeah, because they put a bunch of shit in their models. That's why go out of learning on this or I'll give you an alternative.
Take a view because they put a bunch of junk in their mouth because he can help motivate me. All right. Ahead anyway, because they'll put in party ID and liberal conservative self labeling and they'll put in these attitudinal scales that look a whole lot like the things they're measuring. So, for example, you know, you're trying to predict some political attitude about discrimination and you go measure some quote unquote value about discrimination, which just ends up looking like discrimination items.
And and sure enough, the correlations between values and policy attitudes, if you measure the right values in the right policy attitudes where they just overlap a bunch, those correlations are huge.
Well, of course they're huge. You're taking the same question and asking people twice and then correlating it and pretending like it's a cause because you. Well, I called this one a value when I called that one an attitude. So it must be causal, right? No. And then also, you know, party affiliation, a liberal conservative self identification. These are also big correlations, but are especially causally questionable.
And if you make it a horserace, if you say I'm going to have self-interest on the one hand and on the other hand, I'm going to have what these symbolic attitudes, I'm going to have party identification, ideology and values and the racial resentment and right wing authoritarianism or whatever else you put in there.
If you just make it a horse race about who can explain the most variance. Yeah, the symbolic things are going to win.
And then it's especially true if you have a very poorly developed idea about what interests mean then and you restrict your interest predictors down to a very, very small subset.
So here, I'll give you a real world example.
A lot of the papers that and I swear to you, I'm not making this up.
A lot of the foundational papers in the literature on self interest not mattering in politics, they would go measure. Are you on let's say they're trying to predict welfare attitudes, attitudes towards welfare spending.
They would ask things like, are you on welfare right now? And that would be a predictor and that would be one of the self-interest predictors.
But then they would take your income level and say, oh, that's not a self-interested predictor because income is too broad and they would control for income in the model.
And so income would have this big coefficient. But they would say, oh, that coefficients irrelevant to our judgment. About what? Self-interest matters because what really matters is this thing about are you on welfare right now, it just so look, there are always statistical tricks you can use.
You can control for highly related things. You can flood the model with a lot of different variables so that no one predictor looks very big. You can put in a lot of things that are likely not causal predictors. And we actually have this demonstration in the book about how if you put a non causal predictor in a model, it will totally suck up variance from causal predictors.
So there are all kinds of ways to kind of work your data analysis where you hide these effects.
So what we try to do in the book was we said, OK, we're just going to simplify it. We're just going to look at these demographics issue by issue. We're not going to flood the model with a bunch of junk. And in fact, I don't know how technical I can get. We ran stepwise regressions to not let the model get flooded with too many variables. And when you clear out the junk, you see the relationships actually quite clearly.
Before I lose track of my second question, I just wanted to ask about something that seems like very to me at least, seems very much in the gray area on that spectrum between a very tight definition of self interest and a very tautological definition of self interest, which is something that is good for a group that you belong to without necessarily directly being good for you. And and there are two ways that this could be could define something that's good for your group.
One is, you know, it's it's good for the group. And therefore and it might therefore end up being good for you personally, like a policy that helps, you know, your race, maybe say it's an affirmative action policy and you don't necessarily know if you're going to end up needing affirmative action, but maybe you will. And so you could say that, you know, that's a policy that helps your group, might help you directly, personally, but then there are other ways of helping a group you belong to that are definitely not going to help you personally.
Not directly anyway. Like, let's say your group is Christians and it's a policy that helps Christian women and you're a Christian men, that it seems harder to say that that's self-interest. I'm guess I'm wondering where you draw the line of including group interests in your definition of self-interest. You draw it before both of those. You draw it after both of those. Do you draw between those two?
You know, so we talk about this in the book and we really talk about it in our academic article. Right. Because a lot of political scientists will say to you, well, self doesn't matter, but group interests do. Yeah, our problem is trying to split the two apart is just in practice so much harder than it looks.
Yeah, it's hard for me. So that's right. Because even the thing you said about Christian women. Yeah, well, but if it raises the status of Christians.
You know, even if you're a Christian man, the policy may be about Christian women, but it might be but might be more a more complex deal about whether it's helping Christian families or something.
Right. So you could marry a Christian and then she helped financially, financially by this policy that helps your household. Maybe that could be right.
Well, or here to take an example. You know, the example you raised of affirmative action? We actually looked at that. We looked at these general social survey items that had people respond to affirmative action, but it also asked know to ask them about their own race.
But it also asked them this question about, you know, are you personally being held back in a job because white people are being favored or if they were African-American or if they were white?
Or are you personally being held back because minorities are being favored?
Because the more determined it turns out and it turns out both of those things matter.
So you can find the direct self-interest effect. You can also just find an effect of race. But now seriously trying to sort of take a step back and say, how do you distinguish even on affirmative action? So even if it doesn't help you today, you know, if you're a minority having a political environment, that's more accepting of affirmative action generally. And part of it is we're here. Let me let me take another step back. Everybody in this game, everybody in the self interest in politics game agrees that affects on family members.
Family members should be thought of as effects on yourself. So every definition of self-interest talks about what's in the interest of you or your family. It actually creates this funny effect where it's like self interest. The definition of self-interest for everybody literally includes a group of people.
Yeah, well, that that makes a lot of sense. It would be very weird if if a self-interest model predicted that you didn't care about what happened to your kids.
Yeah, right. Exactly. And it's and again, from an evolutionary point of view, we there's just zero mystery about why people care about kids and other family members.
So right off the bat, the group self distinction is sort of thrown this curve ball where the definition of self-interest, everybody's definition of self-interest includes a group.
And then you start thinking about, is that group statistically more likely to share your race and religion and educational status? Yes, of course it is.
And then also we you know, Rob, Rob and I were also thinking about social networks and not social networks in some highly abstract, far flung sense, but social networks in a very concrete everybody, not everybody.
Most people have a circle of friends who are close to them, who they share rewards and harms with.
So when you get in trouble, you have a group of friends you can go to who will help you out when you do well, there's a certain group of people, you know, who get some reflected glory of that.
Once you start thinking about family members, your close personal social networks, it just gets really hard to talk about. I know how to draw the line between group and self-interest.
And so and look, we just made a practical point at the end of, you know, at the end of our discussion about these group interests, things we just make a practical point, which is whenever people talk about a group interest versus a self-interest effect, it's they're almost never talking about something that harms the individual. They're either talking about something that is likely to help that individual. Well, know the right way to say it is they're often talking about either something that's almost sure to help that individual or something that will probably help that individual right or something that but it's definitely not going to hurt them.
Right. So it's a tricky case. It doesn't seem to come up a lot, you're saying is a case where someone would support a policy that's bad for them personally, but good for the group that they belong to. And that would make it that would make it a tricky question, but that doesn't really come up. Yeah, right.
I mean, it's it's hard to it's hard to even think it's hard to even think of examples.
But, you know you know, John, Jonathan Haidt in his in his recent book on politics from a few years ago, he actually defines group interest that way. It's interests that harm yourself, but help the group right.
And lean way to separate it from self-interest in that context. But in the sense of voting, it's not.
Yeah, and my response and my response to Jon on that is, John, can you give me some examples there, buddy? Because I don't see them.
Well, I mean, there seems to me to be examples in in other contexts that are not the one you're focused on. Like, you know, when I like when I take out the trash and that's like a small cost on me, but it helps my house or I you know, I do something for my community, but it's just like those aren't things we're voting for.
Yeah, but but there's also a whole lot of psychological stuff that goes along with that. You keep track of what your roommates do. And if they don't take out the trash, if they don't do their chores to the level that you do, you get upset.
Then you start imposing costs on them by haranguing them and, you know, whatever.
So, you know, even that example of taking out the trash to help other people, I mean, it's it's the.
That humans have all these psychological mechanisms to make sure that those arrangements are fair and they get very upset when they're not fair. Yeah, I mean, if you're if yeah. If you're defining group interest that way, then it becomes. Yeah, but but but look, I don't want to take an extreme position here. Let me freely admit, there are lots of people in lots of different circumstances who do things that are not at all self-interested. And that's but that's just not what we're talking about.
What we're talking about is on average, in general, is it statistically more likely that people come down on the side of what looks like their self-interest?
And our argument is looking at a data on a bunch of different issues.
Our argument is, yeah, it looks like in general they're more likely to come down on the side of self-interest than not to. And in fact, and it's not that they're trivially more likely to do so, they're substantially more likely to do so. But there of course, there are exceptions.
I mean, you know, in all these kinds of social science models, you know, you could predict at random 50 out of 100 people correctly in a really kick ass social science model.
Maybe you're getting 70 out of 100 people, correct? You know what I'm saying?
I mean, that's that's like a point for multiple correlation, right. Would be getting 70 out of 100 people. Right. Which is about as good as you're going to do with demographic predictors, even piling them on top of each other. And so, you know.
Yeah. Look, are there exceptions to that? Well, yeah, there are a ton of exceptions to that. It turns out 30 out of 100 are exception to that. And you'd be getting 50 50 at random again.
But you're still making a substantive claim in the sense that other theorists think it's, you know, much lower than you think it is. Oh, yeah.
Other theorists will come out and say that it's that it's trivial, that it's almost nonexistent. And I'm saying we can we can get we get 70 out of 100. That's pretty good. Again, I'm making up those numbers off the top of my head.
But yeah, it's good for illustration. Yeah. I guess I'll just ask one more question and then we can close. Um, I'm just thinking about this topic apriori. Without looking at any of the data, I, I would not be surprised if people weren't really motivated to vote in their self-interest, just in the sense that your vote actually doesn't have that much causal impact on the policies that get passed. I mean, a little bit maybe. But but especially in competitive states or competitive districts, it's almost zero.
And so, you know, people this is kind of a point in favor of the like people vote as a way to cheer for their team, for their tribe. Right. Theory that, like you do get short term benefits from voting, emotional benefits. It makes you feel good about yourself. You feel like you're, you know, like voting for some symbolic value, that it's like a narrative about who you are and who your people are and what kind of country you stand for, etc.
. And if, like, I wouldn't really expect that to win out over self-interest if you had a way to actually benefit yourself materially or your family or your group. But if you can't, then maybe it just makes sense to and this is all apriori. I'm not talking about the data, but maybe you should expect people to just vote in a way that, you know, it feels validating to them since that's like the only real large benefit they're going to get from.
Yeah, look, it's a really great point. So let me make a distinction that I didn't and I haven't made before, which is our book is not actually about why people vote or whether they vote. You know, our our our book is really about you. Ask somebody a question in a public opinion survey. What do you think about abortion? What do you think about immigration?
And what we can tell you is their answers to those questions relate substantially, non trivially, much more than the conventional wisdom tells you. Those things relate to self interest. We also looked at party identification. Who favors Democrats, who favors Republicans. And what we can tell you there, too, is, yes, the the kind of self-interested demographics flowing through these different issue opinions will tell you a lot about who favors Democrats and who favors Republicans. So you just you just used an example talking about voting to cheer on your team.
Yeah, well, we're telling you what what our data speak to is telling you why somebody chose that team and one of the one of them.
That's a good distinction. One of the things one of the things we did in the book.
And so it's in in a couple of chapters, we actually go through different Republican demographic groups and different Democratic demographic groups and show you about all these intraparty all these differences within the parties in these different groups and how they think about issues.
So like an example from the Republican side, you have kind of, you know, less educated, poorer, but highly religious.
White evangelicals is one group and the Republican coalition, but another group are the sort of, you know, sort of the libertarian captain of industry kind of guys.
You know, quite often they're Christian, they're white Christians, but they're not. But they don't go to church and they're not ring bearers. They're more free wheelers.
And sure enough, you know. The downscale religious people will say, yeah, we're kind of in favor of social safety nets, what we what we really care about is outlawing abortion and outlawing pornography in those kinds of things. Whereas the kind of captain of industry group, they'd say, yeah, what we really care about is low taxes and less regulation. But, you know, on abortion rights or on immigration, we're actually center left.
And then, you know, you can go to the Democratic side and there are lots of white, highly educated non Christians.
So people who are Jews or agnostics or Buddhists with a lot of education, very, very socially liberal, but actually on economic stuff, kind of centrist versus versus, you can think about sort of churchgoing African-Americans. Now, you get very liberal on racial issues, but actually pretty conservative on things like abortion and divorce and pornography and marijuana legalization and things like that. So that's really what we're trying to get at. We're trying to show you about why is it that these kinds of people care about those issues and these other kinds of people care about these other kinds of issues?
And and it and it's a it turns out the world is really, really not just divided into Democrats and Republicans and liberals and conservatives. It's not just about you choose a team and that determines everything about your views. There are all these different demographic sub clusters within Democrats and Republicans, within liberals and conservatives that have these issues, specific profiles that relate to their demographics, which we then argue. And those demographics relate to their interests.
Right. And because demographics aren't really changeable easily in most cases, we can pretty fairly conclude that the demographics are the self interest based on those demographics that's causing the choice of those positions. Yeah, right.
Again, some demographics. You're more sure than others, but on the whole, you can be much more sure about demographics being called so than you can about things like party identification and personality or political issues or values or things like that. Sure. Excellent.
Yeah, that's really helpful. Cool. That's probably a good place to close. Before I let you go. Jason, I want to invite you to give the rationally speaking pick of the episode, which is a book or an article or blog or something that has influenced your thinking at some point in your life or your career. So what would your pick be for this episode?
Well, I think for me and a lot of a lot of people my age, I was in high school in the 80s.
It was really reading Carl Sagan, you know, Dragons of Eden and Cosmos.
And I think that really got me excited, not just about doing science, but it got me excited about communicating about science in a way that other people can understand.
And you'll and you'll you'll see that in my blogging and in the book, it's trying to adopt a more conversational tone, trying to be an effective communicator of complicated ideas. And that really ultimately comes back down to Sagan for me and I think a lot of people.
Is there a book of science that you think is underappreciated relative to the others or just what's your favorite?
Well, my favorite was Dragons of Eden, because it's the one that really got me started. It's it's a book that's largely about evolution.
Oh, excellent. Well, we'll link to Dragons of Eden on the podcast website, as well as to your book, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind and your blog, Klip SDG. Jason, thank you so much for joining us. It was a lot of fun. Thanks very much. This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.