Political Puzzles

Some puzzling political phenomena I’ve pondered lately:

  1. We trust government more when we feel vulnerable to it, and then avoid info that might undermine such trust.
  2. We don’t elect actors and other celebrities, who we seem to trust, respect, like, know, etc. more than the politicians we elect.
  3. We think we’d be horrified live under a king, but quite enjoy stories set in such places.
  4. We over-estimate leader autonomy, neglecting their need to serve supporting coalitions.

We love to look down on submissive sheep who accept domination by the powerful. And we think of ourselves as quite different, eager to control our leaders via democracy, and to keep them from becoming kings. Some of our actions even fit well with this story. But many other actions fit badly.

I hypothesize that much of this hails from our homo hypocritus heritage. Humans developed language to express and enforce social norms, most importantly to limit domination and related supporting behavior, such as bragging. But then foragers quickly learned to dominate and submit covertly, just out of reach of language-based norm enforcement. So we should expect to have many complex, subtle, and mostly unconscious capacities to dominate and submit, while pretending otherwise.

Thus we should expect to see people giving lip service to resisting domination, while largely accepting it when resistance is costly. We should be prone to telling ourselves that our dominators serve our interests well, when in fact we are just scared of being beaten down. We tell ourselves that our leaders’ power is solid, even when we notice cracks, to avoid appearing disloyal. And we tell ourselves that we want likable leaders, when we are actually more impressed by strength. Homo hypocritus cowers in a corner, pretending to examine a spot on the ground.

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  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    I’m not sure how much we really like celebrities on the whole. Hating celebrities seems to be a national pastime: we make fun of them, love to hear celebrity gossip about their failings, and talk about how we can’t believe the schlock that’s playing on the radio that’s playing on the radio these days.

    The criteria for success in politics are very different than the criteria for success in presidential elections. Being a successful presidential candidate requires that half the voters to prefer you to the other guy. On the other hand, an actor who can get 1% of the country to anything he’s in is doing pretty well, but that’s compatible with being hated by an overwhelming majority of the country.

    • Jason

      I’d like to second this. Celebrities of today are niche objects of veneration and/or popular targets of disdain, similar to rock bands or (maybe?) sports teams. I imagine there was a brief time (1920s-1950s, maybe? total guess) when media celebrities had sufficiently broad and diverse fan bases.

  • Douglas Knight

    “We don’t elect actors and other celebrities”

    We don’t elect them, or they don’t run? Yes, only some celebrities are electable, but this doesn’t seem like a big mystery.

  • http://www.sethroberts.net Seth Roberts

    “We think we’d be horrified live under a king, but quite enjoy stories set in such places.” Like Braveheart or The Patriot or John Adams? Or Joan of Arc? A lot of those stories are about battles for independence. Contradicting your point. There must be stories about people living happily and peacefully under a wise and generous king, but I can’t think of any.

    • http://twistedone151.wordpress.com/ Kevin C.

      With regard to people living happily under a good king, how about most versions of Arthurian Legend? The reign of Richard the Lionhearted as depicted in Robin Hood stories? Many portions of the Narnia series. The Prydain Chronicles. And “The King’s Speech.” And many of the works listed under “The Good King or Royals Who Actually Do Something on tvtropes.org
      Or how about Lord of the Rings, where putting Strider/Aragorn/Elessar onto a restored throne is held as one of the major victories of the series.

      More generally, people enjoy works set in monarchies that aren’t necessarily good, but not overthrown either. Pretty much the entire epic fantasy/high fantasy genre is set in monarchies, good and bad, with nary a republic in sight, and you can’t say that the genre is unpopular, or that people don’t enjoy reading such tales. And note that in such works, the solution to a bad king/queen/emperor/overlord is to replace them with a good one (usually the “rightful heir” raised in secret, and possibly ignorant of their heritage), rather than ending the monarchy.
      There’s also quite a bit of Alternate History works of a somewhat monarchist bent.

      • Damien RS

        Monarchy and nobility are quite common in standard fantasy fiction and games (and a fair bit of science fiction), probably for a range of reasons including romanticism, assumptions about what the past was like with alternatives being unthinkable or assumed infeasible, the power to make changes via individuals, and simple power fantasy/wish fulfillment.

        But note the stories/games are usually about elites, warriors and magicians and nobles or lost royal heirs, in addition to idealistically good royalty. As Lois Bujold had Cordelia say, “democrats adjust fine to aristocracy as long as they get to be the aristocrats”. Or else the stories are of bad kings, which we read for the conflict, and a good king is a good outcome because no one thinks of Athens or republican city-states or even the old Estates-General.

        And of course there are exceptions, starting with Tolkien himself: the hobbits lived under a king only very nominally. The Shire-hobbits lived in a custom-governed semi-anarchy, overseen by an elected Mayor. The Lake-men elected their Master, and Bree was unspecified but I’d guess weak elected leader and popular consensus in crises.

        ===

        As for us allegedly trusting celebrities more than politicians — to steal from Tolkien, trust them to do *what*? Celebrities have no political power over us and no interaction other than being entertaining with most of us; any claims of ‘trust’ seem ungrounded in anything real. Trust them with your kids? Your money? With power? None of these apply.

    • josh

      You don’t have children, do you?

      • Rudd-O

        That’s what I was thinking too!

  • Aaron

    2. We enjoy actors and celebrities, but I’m not sure we trust them outside of their narrow domain. I think we see them more as standards to rally around rather than leaders expected to influence.

    3. I think we enjoy king stories for a few reasons. A simplified political situation with a simple good versus evil, or a complicated political situation with the protagonist in the inner circle (not no much living under a king as ruling with a king). We want a benevolent dictator when we can choose them (as in a story), but we understand a true monarchy doesn’t give us that control.

    4. People don’t really understand how the government functions in detail. Therefore they tend to allocate all the unallocated power to the few entities they know (ie the leader).

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Once again you seem to think that present-day US culture is the whole of humanity.

    For most of human civilization, people did the opposite of what you suggest: that is, they were outwardly servile and submissive to domination (out of necessity) while subverting authority behind its back, where it was safe.

    The devaluation of kings is also a recent phenomenon. Culture may take awhile to catch up, or perhaps the archetype is so strong that it resists democracy.

  • Rob W

    “Thus we should expect to see people giving lip service to resisting domination, while largely accepting it when resistance is costly. We should be prone to telling ourselves that our dominators serve our interests well, when in fact we are just scared of being beaten down. We tell ourselves that our leaders’ power is solid, even when we notice cracks, to avoid appearing disloyal. And we tell ourselves that we want likable leaders, when we are actually more impressed by strength. ”

    For what it’s worth that doesn’t resonate at all with me as matching my thinking or my friends’ thinking here in Australia. But we may not exactly be representative.

  • richard silliker

    Homo hypocritus cowers in a corner, pretending to examine a spot on the ground.

    What else can be expected when dealing with behaviour of government that can only be described as pathological? Know when to pick your fights.

  • http://twitter.com/sabertaylor1 saber taylor sock

    Celebrities in the phillipines are elected, but that may be for lack of a system to publicize anyone else.

  • Thursday

    We trust government more when we feel vulnerable to it, and then avoid info that might undermine such trust.

    No, this does not have to do with homo hypocritus, which you always seem a bit quick to invoke. When we feel uncertain or under threat our moral foundations of respect for authority, purity/sacredness and ingroup go way up. It’s just a reflex action. Threat = respect for authority.

    See here:
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/willwilkinson/2011/03/28/the-moral-default-setting-liberal-or-conservative/

  • Drewfus

    In the TED presentation The real reason for brains Daniel Wolpert states that the only reason for organisms to have brains is to produce and coordinate complex movement. Interesting evidence for this is the Sea Squirt – an organism that swims around in the ocean early in its life, and then at some point implants itself on a rock, never to leave in it’s lifetime. At this point the Sea Squirt injests it’s now redundant brain and nervous system for food.

    Given that social behaviour is simply an advanced application of brains, the brains-are-for-movement insight can be extended to the understanding of social structures and interactions. For example, status can be defined as; the ability, via social relations, of an individual to induce movement in other individuals.

    Thinking about status in terms of who moves in various social contexts leads to some interesting results. Ceremonies are possibly designed to indicate existing or changing status in terms of both the relative and absolute movement, and the nature of the movements, of the participants. For example, in a military ceremony, lower ranking soldiers move (march, salute, etc) in an exaggerated, syncronized manner, while higher ranking officers look on. At a wedding, the bride and groom move, not a lot, but enough to indicate a slight lowering of their status, relative to society in general, as represented by the guests who remain essentially still. In this case the subtle change in status is probably related to reverse-compensating for the various benefits of being married (ex: men aren’t supposed to compete for married women).

    Essentially, higher status means movement is “exported” to lower status individuals, who “import” this movement. The idea of investment – simplistically defined as ‘not moving’ – possibly developed from the ability to “move movement” to other individuals of lower social rank. Making others do your work and waiting for the benefits is at least a rudimentary notion of what an investor does. Perhaps the social transfer of movement extended, in an evolutionary sense, to the more fundamental concept of planning (delayed movement).

    In Marxist thought, the emphasis is on the relative movement (work) undertaken by the various social classes, including the idea that these relativities shoud not reflect the inverse relative returns to these classes from the economic system, as they do. Problem is, that’s not how human societies function. High status individuals remain relatively still, and lower classes do the hard labor (until very recently). A traditional king is a chairman, literally. Low status individuals carry the chair and the king, who remains on his arse. To this day, many people (even those who call themselves ‘progressive’) are uneasy with the idea that individuals can enhance their status by not moving – that is, by “passively” investing – and independently of state controlled social relationships. People who fear a “takeover” by AI robots are expressing the idea of a revolution in which hitherto zero-status machines that worked for us rise up to make us their slaves – hence that the status/movement pattern could suddenly be reversed.

    Where the movement-relects-status idea gets more interesting is when the high status/low movement-low status/high movement pattern is reversed. In a hospital, the doctors, who enjoy generally high social status, move around from bed to bed (as do the nurses), while the patients remain essentially motionless. All this movement and fussing about induces healing in the passive patients by implying a promotion of their status. Placebo’s work by “making sense” of this all this counter-intuitive movement. There is nothing magical or irrational about placebos. On the contrary, they allow a rational explanation to occur in the mind of the patient, who would otherwise not be able to comprehend the behaviour he/she was witnessing. The “magical” nature of placebos is ultimately due to the hospital environment itself, which acts to prime the patient cognitively, in an equivalent manner to which magicians prime their audiences before performing a trick. Consequently, i hypothesize that all physical healing is a combination of immune system activity, but which can be substantially enhanced by temporarily changing social status – a hospital simply being a place where this ceremoninal change takes place. The only problem with this status “trick” is that to maintain the status of doctors in a general sense, we have to either worship them uncritically, and/or overcompensate them financially.

    High status performers, artists, actors and sportspeople move for lower status people. They move not to produce work per se, but to fulfil humans subjective demands, and often in a highly complex and sophisticated manner that requires a huge amount of training. Once again the status/movement pattern is reversed. Once again we have to overcompensate these folks to maintain their high status, and once again they are associated with major cognitive manipulations in their audiences and followers (idolization, altered states of conciousness, mimicry). In contrast, jails restrict the movement of criminals, who in that case are societies lowest status members. Perhaps hard labor would work better in terms of both deterent and rehabilitation, than either jails or physical punishment.

    1. We trust government more when we feel vulnerable to it, and then avoid info that might undermine such trust.

    Trust is about social expectations regarding movement. To feel vulnerable to a human/social relationship means that the quality of the relationship has fallen, and therefore to justify existing social heirarchies, in the case of government, we expect governments to move more (“do something”) in times of stress. Effectively the increased trust is no increase at all, but rather an expectation that degraded social relationships we be compensated for by increased high status movement occuring, which signals a maintenance of the social heirarchy, not an elongation of it. This maintenance occurs because the commitment to and act of “doing something” suggests lower status, which keeps social relationships harmonious. So the subjective versus objective understanding of the public’s attitude to government under these circumstances is, one might say, at it’s apogee.

    2. We don’t elect actors and other celebrities, who we seem to trust, respect, like, know, etc. more than the politicians we elect.

    Because they are already moving and trust is saturated.

    3. We think we’d be horrified live under a king, but quite enjoy stories set in such places.

    Because the predicability of relationships under the king is restrictive, yet “romantic”.

    4. We over-estimate leader autonomy, neglecting their need to serve supporting coalitions.

    Perhaps understood in reference to point 1. Vulnerability imples a relative lack of strength, stamina, armour or fighting ability. The general pattern in nature, in a relative sense, is that females are vulnerable, males are not. Females respond to this, both culturally and biologically, by being beautiful. Beauty is an adaptation to vulnerability. The public is always vulnerable to those in power, to some extent at least. The public can appear beautiful to it’s leaders by idolizing them, and by ignoring their faults, indiscretions and corruption. In other words, by romanticizing their leaders.

  • Michael Wengler

    Humankind keeps increasing through cultural and technical development the number of people it can keep peacefully working together. The limits to this number have to do with “features” of human psychology which were just rough evolutionary hacks to enhance survivability of humans in groups of a hundred or so. So our culture and technology bring the optimum further and further away from what our original evolution hacked for us.

    “Homo Hypocriticus” maybe the name is too fraught, tending to demonize some of human nature? Of course if your intention is to be a partisan, to push humanity in a direction you like using means other than just straight rational argument and information sharing, it may be a perfect name. But it would seem presenting your “Homo Hypocriticus” arguments and points AS IF they were rational scientific observation/information to the people you are trying to manipulate is exactly what “Homo Hypocriticus” would do.

    Yes, I do this to my kids. The perhaps unusual thing I also do with my kids is teach them explicitly to lie in some circumstances of self- or family- interest. I think the advantage of bringing essential human biases in to consciousness is to consciously teach human nature, and not to force it to bubble up around a hypocritical cleansed version of what we really are.

  • http://infiniteinjury.org Peter Gerdes

    We trust government more when we feel vulnerable to it, and then avoid info that might undermine such trust.

    That simply isn’t what the evidence you linked says. Instead it says we trust government/authorities more on issues feel are too complex for us to understand (note that if we in fact feel we don’t understand an issue we are obviously highly inclined to think it’s complex). Well actually the study only backs up the idea that we trust the government less on contested issues that we think are simple. If you started asking people whether they trust the government policy of punishing murder I suspect you would find extreme trust. So basically all this says is that if you think an issue is simple then you can easily see that government policy isn’t adopting the ‘obviously’ right answer so you are more likely to distrust the government on that issue. Also it’s eminently rational to avoid spending time learning more information about an issue you feel is too complex for you to form a useful opinion about.

    The only irrational behavior the study seems to demonstrate is a bias toward believing the government isn’t powerless to deal with threatening situations. So on this minor point there is probably some Homo Hypocritus style behavior going on where we talk up the positive even while preparing (hoarding oil) for the worst. However, this particlar bias is easily explained on it’s own without invoking an entire Homo Hypocritus theory (better moral/loyalty helps avoid the bad outcome and those groups who experienced the bad outcome didn’t reproduce).

    We don’t elect actors and other celebrities, who we seem to trust, respect, like, know, etc. more than the politicians we elect.

    If you will note popularity and trust are highly context dependent. Traits we might admire in a celebrity would make them unelectable as a politician.

    Asking if you trust/like/etc.. a celebrity is simply a different question than asking if you trust/like/etc.. a politician as only the later question is implicitly about their ability to govern.

    We think we’d be horrified live under a king, but quite enjoy stories set in such places.

    Umm so? No woman really wants to be raped yet studies show large majorities of women enjoy rape fantasies (yes ok with 7 billion people there is bound to be someone who is screwed up enough to want almost anything but the point stands).

    As pointed out above a king provides for individual narratives that get out the vote drives don’t. Besides, often fantasy novels assume that good and just kings do exist, are in fact supernaturally ordained for their role, and yield good just heirs (with only occasional exceptions). Liking kings in fiction is about as relevant to what government we prefer in the real world as is liking stories about magic is to whether we believe in ESP. Besides, I think you radically underestimate how willing people would be to accept a divinely ordained king.

    We over-estimate leader autonomy, neglecting their need to serve supporting coalitions.

    I’d like to see some evidence. I suspect we underestimate leader autonomy simply because such a small set of issues they decide is ever covered in the media. Indeed, I suspect the leaders tend to make much better decisions than the voters who choose them would advocate.

    Sure, congressmen and presidents may grant tax giveaways and other benefits to certain groups and sometimes these benefits come in the form of market inefficiencies like monopolies. However, the total percent of GDP they affect is likely quite small and I suspect the giveaways more often they take the form of simple tax breaks, land/resource usage and other pure transfers and by Coarse this just rearranges who has the money but doesn’t harm overall efficiency. Additionally the leader often has the choice of which bone to throw to a given constituency.

    Moreover, this influence is often conducted right out in the open (liberals pressuring Obama on DADT) and people are extremely cynical about the extent to which leaders are further influenced by industry lobbyists. On the other hand there are so many minor issues that are decided by congress and the president every day that don’t even rise to the level of attracting significant interest groups that have massive implications for social utility.

    So to the extent this is even a measurable claim (how does one measure leader autonomy, how do you phrase the question to the public) I’m far from convinced it’s true.

  • Loren Michael

    I think the claim that “we don’t elect celebrities” needs to be substantiated. They may simply not run. In elections where celebrities do run, does their celebrity status help them or hinder them?