The Vote…and Our Biology

Many of us voters were never really on the fence. We’ve been decidedly decided on who/what we’re voting for on this election months ago, before the first debates, and only hardened our choice as this day arrived. Though not with all these voters, it is within this population that there exists a tendency to allow something deep within ourselves to decide our choice in vote, and oftentimes, our entire politics and morals.

The video below barks up this tree–er, plateau–by addressing the influence our physiology has on our morality. It’s very insightful–and freeing–for two reasons…

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt starts his presentation by telling a story of two friends–Adam and Bill–going to Italy and seeing Michelangelo’s David:

These two guys have quite different responses to this image: Adam enjoys the artistic expression; Bill is distracted by the nudity. Haidt then asks his audience: which of these two men is more likely to vote liberal and which conservative? Stereotypes tell us the answer; science reveals their truth.

Human personality is divided into five major areas of measurement. These areas all make up the acronym: OCEAN. “O” stands for “openness”–as in one’s  “openness” to try new things, to have new experiences. People who rate lower on this trait like things consistent and dependable. Those who rate higher like new ideas, diversity, etc. Not surprisingly, those more socially liberal tend to score higher on this personality trait.

It seems basic enough, yet few appreciate or are aware of its influence. As a result, we simply feel how we do, assume we’re right and more easily dismiss those who feel differently than us as “wrong” or “stupid”. Haidt shows a map of the U.S. with a derogatory label over Red States to demonstrate this judgmental tendency and then invites his audience to “step outside the moral matrix”. Rather than letting this trait lead our judgments astray, we can observe it and keep it in check.

Haidt continues by digging into the innateness of high/low openness, and in turn, how it comes to determine our morality. He says we’re not born with a clean slate. In fact, he says, that is the “worst idea” in all of psychology. Nature gives us a “first draft” and we go from there. And Haidt goes on from there, addressing his take on morality based on research, history, and his original insight. It’s an amazing talk, and I highly suggest a watch below.

But first let’s wrap things up here by relating this theory to something closer to home…

This is an ideal topic for election day, and it also happens to apply particularly well this year because of an added debate in Minnesota: the marriage amendment. (I need to first say that I’m not here to claim that everyone who votes a certain way–on this amendment or any other ballot measure–invariably has high or low openness. But I believe it is a factor for some.) 

Following the lead of Haidt’s video, we can observe how different people view the marriage amendment and homosexuality. Some are totally comfortable with it and, barring no other social factors such as religion, see no reason why marriage between gay people should be prohibited. Others, though, react to homosexuality in an unfavorable manner. Haidt would argue that an element of these responses are part our personality make-up. In other words, some simply just find homosexuality “gross”, and they use this as support for their moral disagreement with it.

I mentioned at the top two reasons why this insight is freeing. The first is that a conscious understanding of this tendency can allow us to stop being automatically led by these unconscious reactions. On one end of the spectrum, this means a negative reaction to something new or nontraditional and then assuming that that behavior, person, art or what have you in question is “bad”. On the other end, we can see how our high openness toward a new idea or movement can allow us to be okay with them, but also perhaps lead us to crave change and believe that new is always right, that change is always good. In either case, we can see a propensity in ourselves to let biological reactions determine what we think is right or wrong.

This can be overcome; it’s not hard-wired. One might be turned off or even repulsed by homosexuality, but one can also separate themselves from their reaction so as to allow thoughtful insight to win out.

The second freedom of this knowledge is that we can increase out patience with one another. Looking at the marriage amendment again, opponents of the proposition might look at a proponent as taking away equal rights, being bigoted–in short, simply being a “bad” person. But when you appreciate that lower openness can lead to a literal, physical reaction which you don’t have, it might not have you siding with your opponent, but at least you’re allowed to better understand the impetus for their stance.

Likewise, a couple summer’s back in Bemidji, MN, the annual decorated beaver statues were displayed around town. One artist painted hers as a six foot display of female genitalia. Conservatives were upset; liberals came to the artist’s defense. Liberals won, and in their quest for openness, they were rewarded with a giant vagina in their downtown. I, myself, had a tough time empathizing with their desire for such art on a downtown sidewalk, but I could see how a factor such as described above could influence their perspective.

The main point is to see that much of what we feel and believe is a product of our knee jerk reactions, and sometimes we should take a step back. In the spirit of this idea, and by the concepts brought up in the video, we can take a little more insight with us to the voting booth. It all has one asking themselves why they vote the way they do: is it because it’s right?–or because you’re simply being led by your reaction or lack thereof to determine your ideas of what “right” is.

This is a plateau of actualization and patience.


1 Response

  1. Tom Janus

    Brandon, I really appreciate this post, and it is very insightful.
    I’m a college student, and I’m on a learning curve about myself and the realities about me. I’ll work hard to hold on to these thoughts as I move forward.

What say you?