At the risk of oversimplification, consider a few key findings of researchers into human beliefs and their evolutionary foundations.
- Human belief systems are rooted in biologically evolved senses of morality. While beliefs about many matters differ widely from culture to culture, there are certain underlying belief systems that are virtually universal in human culture, such as the social reinforcement of fairness and the punishment of free riders and incest taboos.
- What is more, there are certain personality types that are inclined to react to social issues in predictable patterns. Certain personalities are inclined to defer to hierarchy, to resist change and to be suspicious of innovation, particularly in deep-rooted social institutions. There are also personality types who are constantly interested in identifying what is wrong with society and how it can be improved. The specific issues on which these groups tend to adopt opposite positions vary widely over time and cultures, but the underlying pattern of personalities and their reaction to societal decisions is quite resilient. Each of the basic personality types has an evolutionary logic to it that makes it unlikely that it will fade from the population. There are debates about exactly how many human personality types there are, but a near-consensus has emerged around five or six.[i] Because of its genetic roots, the share of the population represented by various personalities cannot vary significantly in any time frame faster than a generation.
- We use the rational part of our brains primarily to argue for the innate views that our personality predisposes us to have.[ii] We are not readily persuadable by inconvenient facts that challenge our worldview, which cause us to reconsider our views only reluctantly. Leftist apologists who were slow to repudiate Stalin or Mao and conservatives who deny global warming for fear of the policy implications are examples that illustrate the near-universality of these tendencies. This reluctance to shift views is particularly strong when reinforced by group allegiances, such as membership in a church or political party, that we give up only at significant social and psychological costs.
- In fact, it appears that the only time that people willingly consider changing a deeply held belief is when confronted by a bit of cognitive dissonance, where someone whose values and judgment they trust has a point of view that they find surprising. Even then, it is clear that changes in perspective come slowly and with difficulty, as illustrated recently by the painful spectacle of former Vice-President Cheney’s daughters reacting to each other’s obvious value differences over gay marriage.
All of these findings suggest that political alignments should be quite stable over long periods of time, at least for a generation. And we do see evidence — there are many polling results that persist over very long periods. Notably, there is a large gap between the location of the political center in the United States and the rest of the Western nations with which it shares a common cultural heritage. For example, only in the States do roughly a third of those polled always believe that taxes are too high, regardless of what the tax burden actually is at any moment in time. Nor is this difference in location of the political center by location a matter of geography. Despite a common North American heritage, Canadian public opinion is closer to European than American public opinion on many if not most such barometers of political thought.[iii]
On the other hand, we do have examples of relatively rapid change in cultural norms and political beliefs. Jon Haidt has pointed to the parallels between the speed of the change in social attitudes in the United States regarding gay marriage and the speed with which sushi eating became commonplace. The mainstream view shifted from disgust at the idea of raw fish and gay sex to a shrug of the shoulders in much less time than a generation.
To reconcile the factors making for stability with the undeniable facts of change, we need to better understand the underlying mechanism of change in social and political attitudes over time.
- If individuals cannot be appealed to change their minds by rational argument, what accounts for the fact that the consensus of mainstream opinion can and does shift?[iv]
- If the mechanism is generational, how do we account for the examples where change happens much faster than generational differences can explain?
- If it is not generational, what is the alternative explanation as to why broadly stable differences in public opinion among countries persist over time?
- Are the personality mixes of populations different from one country to the next, or do history and culture play the key role in shaping how those personality mixes have settled their differences in each political construct?
Perhaps we need a theory analogous to punctuated equilibrium in biological evolution to explain the incongruous mix of stability and change in political thought that we see in the social record. But even if a kind of punctuated equilibrium is a good description of how change happens in public opinion, we would still benefit from a deeper insight into why it follows that pattern.
While it is a cliché to call for more research as the right next step in dealing with a problem not yet well understood, this conundrum certainly seems to warrant it.
- At a minimum, it would be interesting to trace what we know about what has been stable in public opinion and what has changed, and to develop a measurement of how quickly shifts occur that could be used to analyze the data.
- Comparative research among countries also seems likely to be a source of insights, given the obvious differences in public opinion by country that would seem likely to be uncorrelated with the mix of personalities in each case.
- But it is also possible that the personality mix does vary significantly from country to country. If true, analyzing that phenomenon in itself would be a potentially fascinating source of insights into cultural evolution.
This kind of research falls at the boundary of multiple disciplines, including political science, psychology, biology, and arguably others. Hopefully, that will make it more likely to happen rather than less, since so many different fields would be informed by the results.
[i] See, for example, Daniel Nettle, Personality.
[ii] See, notably Jon Haidt, The Righteous Mind and Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences by Hibbing, Smith and Alford.
[iii]For an argument that these differences are rooted in the origins of populations, see the work of David Hackett Fischer, most explicitly in Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States.
[iv] Peter Richerson suggests in Not By Genes Alone that different rates of diffusion of new ideas can be linked to what it takes for the specific idea in question to spread, drawing out the differences between cultural practices that are taught and those that are spread by observation and imitation.