Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019
How Our Evolved Psychology Is Used to Exploit Us
On Blind Tribes and Becoming Sighted
One fact that I wish to convey to all readers, liberal or conservative, is that if you fail to understand your evolved psychology, others will use it to exploit you. Typically this is achieved by prodding our evolved fears, particularly our inborn fear of outsiders. Moreover, there is empirical evidence to suggest that conservatives, those on the threat-sensitive end of the natural curve, may be more vulnerable to this sort of manipulation.
One study examining credulity, for example, presented subjects with a series of false statements connoting danger, such as, “Sharks pose a significant risk to beachgoers,” and “Terrorist attacks have increased in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001,” along with false statements with a positive valence, such as, “When flying on major airlines, you are more likely to be upgraded from economy to business class if you ask at the gate.”29 Subjects were then asked how much they felt the statements were believable. Conservative subjects were significantly more likely to believe false information than liberals when the misinformation posited a threat. This led the researchers to conclude that “some individuals are more sensitive to the possibility of threats, and correspondingly pay higher precautionary costs; other people are less sensitive to this possibility, and pay higher costs when hazards are encountered.”
The tendency to have a greater emotional or behavioral reaction to negative information, called negativity bias, is a universally shared trait shaped by the dangers of our ancestral environment. When our ancestors heard rustling in the bushes, it benefitted them to think, Bear, and respond accordingly, even when it was just the wind. In other words, negativity bias kept us alive in the cases when it really wasn't just the wind. It's not that liberals don't ever have this bias—it's just that conservatives have a greater tendency for it.
Unfortunately, negativity bias is also an easily manipulable trait, frequently used for profit by the sharks of the business world. One striking example comes from a company that owns a number of fake news sites, under the brazen moniker Disinfomedia. Disinfomedia's owner, Californian liberal Democrat Jestin Coler, peddles fake news stories for advertising dollars. Coler reportedly started the company to punish right-wing news outlets by selling them misinformation, with the goal of later exposing them for using it.30 In keeping with the research above, Coler stated that he tried to write fake new stories for liberal outlets but was unsuccessful—that is, liberals wouldn't buy them. Here he boasts about how easy it was to bilk conservatives: “It was just anybody with a blog can get on there and find a big, huge Facebook group of kind of rabid Trump supporters just waiting to eat up this red meat that they're about to get served.”
While Coler wouldn't disclose exact numbers, he stated that other fake news sites’ $10,000 to $30,000 monthly earnings apply to him. One example of his for-profit fabricated news is a story with an ominous headline reading, “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Clinton Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.”
A nascent but growing scientific literature is finding that Coler's observations were accurate—conservatives believe and share fake news on social media more than liberals. In one study examining “extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial, masked commentary, fake news and other forms of junk news” on Facebook and Twitter, a team of Oxford researchers found that the highest percentage of sharing and circulation of these kinds of misinformation was concentrated on the political Right, in particular by Donald Trump supporters, and extreme Right social media pages.31 Similarly, in a report summarizing the research on fake news, a team of Harvard scholars recently remarked that “while any group can come to believe false information, misinformation is currently predominantly a pathology of the right.”32 This vulnerability is not limited to rejecting evolution or global warming. Falsehoods widely popularized by conservative media outlets and politicians have included ideas such as the Obama administration's healthcare included “death panels” to decide on euthanizing patients,33 and that President Obama is a Muslim,34 both of which were false but believed more commonly within the conservative Right. But again, if, as I suggest, conservatism evolved in response to the pressures of violent group-based male coalitions, falsehoods about death panels or about a black president being from the outside tribe's religion would have high incendiary value. Theoretically, those fears could be exploited to kill popular support for a healthcare plan by those with financial interests in seeing the plan fail.
In chapter 2, we examined research linking xenophobia and fear of pathogens to conservatism. Conservative radio show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has demonstrated that he clearly understands these links, and he has used this knowledge in a conservative fear-for-profit scam. In one segment, he brought on a young man whom he introduced as Dr. Edward Group III, who claimed to be an MIT alumnus. As it turns out, Dr. Group was a chiropractor with no undergraduate degree and his MIT degree was flatly refuted by the university. Here is a transcript of “Dr.” Group selling Jones's supplement, “Harmful Organisms Cleansing Dietary Supplement”:
If you're suffering from abdominal pain, allergies, even like headaches, anemia, weakened immune system, gut problems, depression, hair loss, excess gas, muscle pain, nervousness, I mean all these things. If you look at some of these conditions, and then us opening up our borders, and all the other countries opening up their borders. You're just dealing with mass amount of parasites or harmful organisms. You can type in “refugees spreading disease,” I mean the CDC is going crazy right now.35
By intentionally tapping into our evolved fear of germs and outsiders, which is concentrated among his conservative viewership, Jones makes a fortune using preposterous claims to sell worthless products. (In describing a key ingredient in one of his supplements, Jones once stated, “This stuff is only found in comets…with trace amounts in blueberries.”)
Producing fear and subsequently providing a “solution” to force a behavior is a common grifter's technique, known by researchers as the “fear-then-relief social influence technique,” and it has been studied in the lab. Research has confirmed that subjects are more likely to comply with various requests when fear followed promptly by relief is experimentally manipulated.36 Interestingly this manipulation impairs the ability to process emotional expressions in faces37—a task on which conservatives perform more poorly than liberals but which is invaluable in detecting falsehoods. But again, the feared stimulus in this kind of manipulation is often the threat of an outside tribe, as we see in the case of Jones's bogus supplements.
During the 2016 presidential debates, Donald Trump frequently used this same misdirection tactic. In the example below, Trump was attempting to deflect attention away from a newly released recording of him bragging about grabbing women's genitals by highlighting the threat of ISIS, followed promptly by his promise to make America safe:38
Moderator Anderson Cooper: You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?
Trump: No, I didn't say that at all. I don't think you understood what was said. This was locker room talk. I am not proud of it. I apologize to my family, I apologized to the American people. Certainly, I am not proud of it. But this is locker room talk. You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have them, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over and you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven't seen anything likes [sic] this. The carnage all over the world and they look and they see, can you imagine the people that are frankly doing so well against us with ISIS and they look at our country and see what's going on. Yes, I am very embarrassed by it and I hate it, but it's locker room talk and it's one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We are going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS. We need to get on to much more important and bigger things.
At this point, Anderson Cooper ignores Trump's smoke screen and doggedly returns to the question at hand, but Trump quickly reverts to the threat of ISIS:
Cooper: For the record, are you saying that what you said on the bus 11 years ago, that you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?
Trump: I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.
Cooper: So for the record, you're saying you never did that?
Trump: Frankly, you hear these things. They are said. And I was embarrassed by it. But I have respect for women.
Cooper: Have you ever done those things?
Trump: And they have respect for me. And I will tell you, no I have not.
And I will tell you, that I'm going to make our country safe and we're going to have borders, which we don't have now. People are pouring into our country and they're coming in from the Middle East and other places. We're gonna make America safe again, we're gonna make America great again but we're gonna make America safe again and we're gonna make America wealthy again. Because if you don't do that, it just, it sounds harsh to say, but we have to build up the wealth of our nation. Other nations are taking our job and they're taking our wealth.
So it is that tyrants rise to power, as James Madison wrote, “on some favorable emergency.”39
The use of fear as a leverage point can be far more sinister. One notorious example concerns the Iraq War. In 2003, US troops were sent into Iraq based on faulty or manufactured intelligence reports that Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, was harboring weapons of mass destruction. Because the move played upon the lingering fear of outsiders generated by the 9/11 attacks, which were less than two years fresh in the minds of the American populace, the invasion gained wide popular support. Here is how then president George W. Bush framed the threat on March 17, 2003: “We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over…. We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities.”40 What was not broadcast was the fact that then vice president Dick Cheney was also the former CEO of the mammoth energy company Halliburton, a company that Cheney failed to fully divest himself of after he assumed office. One Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, made nearly forty billion dollars in a no-bid contract for reconstruction, private security, and feeding the troops in Iraq. Cheney and his friends made a personal fortune off the Iraq War. To a great extent, the fear of attack was the wool pulled over the eyes of the American public, and it made many powerful men very rich. Indeed, TMT research conducted during this time found that when death fears were primed, subjects across the political spectrum were more likely to support Bush's foreign policy, and that reminders of 9/11 boosted support for Bush.41
The great irony is that outsiders can also harm us not just by invading but also by using our irrational fear of outsiders to make us turn on one another. Political orientation is so persistently tribal that it is frequently imputed based on patterns of online behavior—shopping habits, likes, browsing history, responses to seemingly innocuous online questionnaires or quizzes (e.g., “How well do you know your guns; test your firearms knowledge”). Foreign interests have made a new kind of warfare out of targeting specific internet users by launching politically divisive memes. This includes publicizing entirely fabricated stories about the opposing party or enflaming sensitive social issues around race, or guns, for example.
As one example, in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement formed in America to protest racially biased police killings. To support the movement, in 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling at games during the national anthem. For its basis in equal rights, liberals widely supported this gesture, whereas those on the extreme Right railed that it meant Kaepernick was a traitor to the United States. Emboldened by Donald Trump's election, white supremacy groups began counter-protesting the Black Lives Matter movement at rallies, shouting racist taunts and waving Nazi and Confederate flags. The ensuing turmoil turned into fistfights in the streets and resulted in one young woman's death when a white supremacist sped his vehicle into a crowd of liberal protestors.42
This rupture had some help. US intelligence agencies have linked fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to Russian bots. With knowledge of what is most likely to infuriate a liberal or conservative, the Russian government and possibly others have taken to spraying the fires of discontent with incendiary misinformation. In the Kaepernick case, bots blew up the controversy by spreading fake news and opposing memes (with hashtags such as #standforouranthem, and #takeaknee) across social media, making the posts look as though they came from American activists.43 Intel agencies also discovered that a flood of automated fake news stories about the candidates in the 2016 US presidential election was instrumental in Donald Trump's win, and that foreign bots continue to target socially divisive partisan issues in the United States. It is concerning that two billion individuals around the globe (close to one-third of the global human population) currently use Facebook and a high proportion use social media as a news source.44 This spectacular connectivity amounts to a worldwide arid field ready to take flame. Even more concerning is that the flood of fake, divisive news so intelligently targets our evolved tribalistic psychology, already primed for taking irrational stances against the rival tribe and for deflecting corrective information.