Bryan Caplan  

Political Irrationality and the Brain

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I think that brain research is overrated. A lot of it does little more than confirm the obvious points that (a) unusual people have unusual brains; (b) people doing unusual things have unusual brain states. If nuns had unusual brains, we wouldn't conclude that being a nun was a disease; so why do people leap to the conclusion that if people with Intermittent Explosive Disorder have unusual brains, then Intermittent Explosive Disorder is a disease?

Nevertheless, the study that Arnold discusses on politics and the brain is interesting, particularly because in his debate with me, Donald Wittman said that someone ought to run such an experiment:

A more serious test of whether voters are less rational than consumers is test #6: Scan the brain and see whether voters use more primitive centers of the brain when voting than when making purchases.

Now we can see whether Wittman will backpeddle in the way I suggested:

Wittman of all people should presume that the division of cognitive labor in the brain is functional. If we use our “primitive centers” to form political beliefs, why not conclude that these are the optimal centers to use for this purpose? It is at best premature to equate the output of the “primitive centers of the brain” with irrationality. In fact, since lower animals do not hold political ideologies, my guess is that ideological thinking uses centers of the brain unique to man.

Admittedly, Wittman originally left himself the following out:


One would have to control, however, for the possibility that people get more excited about politics than about what clothes to wear (at least this is true for the people that I know). So perhaps one would have to compare political matters, like where one stands on the war in Iraq, to questions more akin to day-to-day matters, like where one stands on whether dog owners should clean up after their dogs.

So maybe he'll just say this test didn't do the right comparison.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
James writes:

I recall wondering about Wittman's proposed experiments last August. I guess it's hard to resist the temptation to leave oneself an out.

Tom West writes:

It is elephants all the way down.

This is *such* a great line. I wish more people wrote papers like Mr. Caplan.

If people have rational expectations, how can the free market be "under-rated"?

Um, doesn't this implicitly assume that rational people desire a free-market?

It's quite possible that a free-market makes people less happy by removing security (for the benefit of higher growth). Since increasing wealth of society as a whole doesn't make people happier, but decreasing their security does reduce happiness, I'd say there's an argument that rational people aren't necessarily pro-free market.

Also, I find it quite likely that Wittman's non-hypothesis is correct. People are likely no more rational as consumers than as voters. On the other hand, democracy with irrational people works pretty well, as long as it is fettered by a system of constraints (from the courts to the market) to stop more pernicious irrationality, just as the free-market works pretty well when it is tempered by a well-regulated government.

Dezakin writes:

"If nuns had unusual brains, we wouldn't conclude that being a nun was a disease"

You're kidding, right?

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