Our political system sometimes produces such skewed results that it’s difficult not to blame bloviating politicians. But maybe the deeper problem lies in our brains.
Evidence is accumulating that the human brain systematically misjudges certain kinds of risks. In effect, evolution has programmed us to be alert for snakes and enemies with clubs, but we aren’t well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought.
If you come across a garter snake, nearly all of your brain will light up with activity as you process the “threat.” Yet if somebody tells you that carbon emissions will eventually destroy Earth as we know it, only the small part of the brain that focuses on the future — a portion of the prefrontal cortex — will glimmer.
“We humans do strange things, perhaps because vestiges of our ancient brain still guide us in the modern world,” notes Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and author of a book on how our minds assess risks.
Consider America’s political response to these two recent challenges:
1. President Obama proposes moving some inmates from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to supermax prisons from which no one has ever escaped. This is the “enemy with club” threat that we have evolved to be alert to, so Democrats and Republicans alike erupt in outrage and kill the plan.
2. The climate warms, ice sheets melt and seas rise. The House scrounges a narrow majority to pass a feeble cap-and-trade system, but Senate passage is uncertain. The issue is complex, full of trade-offs and more cerebral than visceral — and so it doesn’t activate our warning systems.
“What’s important is the threats that were dominant in our evolutionary history,” notes Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. In contrast, he says, the kinds of dangers that are most serious today — such as climate change — sneak in under the brain’s radar.
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