An examination of how selfishness and self-deception characterize political thinking.
Psychologists Weeden and Kurzban (Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, 2011) argue that one’s opinions on social and political issues, liberal or conservative, are shaped by self-interest. No matter the issue, they write, “policies people fight over have real-life consequences that help some people and harm others. In our view, all sides typically seek to advance their interests and are hypocritical in the way they present their views.” In support of their argument, they use data from the U.S. General Social Survey, which asks for responses on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration reform, government-provided health insurance, legalization of marijuana, gun control and income equality. About a third of the book consists of appendices summarizing the results of the surveys, with respondents distinguished by race, income, religion, ethnicity, level of education and intellectual ability. All individuals, the authors assert, behave like politicians or CEOs, hiding their real motives behind “socially attractive veneers. The Public Relations Departments of people’s minds craft stories about the benevolent wisdom of their own views and the malevolent idiocy of their opponents’ views.” Admitting the limits of their analysis, the authors cannot explain why some people show concern over environmental issues, defense spending or physician-assisted suicide. What, they wonder, are the “real-life interests” that motivate them? “[W]hile we understand why news stories involving floods and storms, environmental catastrophes, or terrorist bombings are particularly attention grabbing for human minds…we don’t see how this leads to widespread, passionate conflict within society.” Self-interest, in the authors’ view, is myopically focused on immediate needs.
“Our view is…a deeply cynical one,” write the authors, and is “unlikely to change anything about how people argue publicly about their preferred policies.” However, this disturbing book may provoke debate, dismay and considerable anger.