It’s Not Obama’s Fault – It’s His Brain’s (and Yours)

Feature photo by digitalbob8

New research seems to suggest that the human mind is neurologically wired to conform to popular opinions. Yep. That’s why there’s a photo of you somewhere rocking parachute pants and a shirt with a Calvin pissing on some rival sports team.

A neurological research fellow from the Netherlands – another sinverguenza in a lab coat – summarized his findings: “We show that a deviation from the group opinion is regarded by the brain as punishment…the group opinion actually changed participants’ perception of what they saw.”

So, unless you’re into whips and chains, you’ll probably demonstrate a similar tendency in many decisions you make in an effort to avoid punishing your brain. This is something most of us won’t be too keen on acknowledging. Perhaps this explains why significant change does not occur at the pace one might expect – even in those situations where it seems obvious, necessary, even critical

Those disillusioned by politics (a pretty substantial group judging from congressional approval numbers) have probably had enough of what they see as hollow claims from politicians promising to fix what’s broken. The cynics among us repeatedly watch elected officials roll into office and quickly acquiesce to the popular norms that they were shouting hysterically against on the campaign trail. A politician rails against a broken system, and then, once elected, becomes a critical cog in the very same mess, conforming quite readily to the institution’s day to day business.

Don’t blame them.

Blame the primitive part of the brain that recognized that being part of a tribe was critical to avoid starvation and getting mauled by hungry mountain lions. As a result, branded into our psyche is the idea that if you play nice (at least “nice enough” that people will begrudgingly tolerate you) you get protection, a better chance at a steady diet, and, fingers crossed, laid.

As you’ve probably assumed, most lawmakers are just not that evolved. Theirs is a peculiar dilemma – their entire political careers rest entirely on finding an acceptable sweet spot that is the overlap of many oft- conflicting groups. Picture a really complex Venn diagram. And since so much time and energy is spent on polling, it’s relatively simple to find where particular groups fall on certain issues and then craft messages that plant the candidate firmly in that sweet spot where he/she can grow and sprout bland fruit that will be neither loved nor hated but that will be ingested by many.

It becomes a delicate balancing act for a politician. Theirs is a schizophrenic existence of walking into many rooms and trying to find that sweet spot in each. They tend to “lead” from very restrictive boxes that won’t ostracize the people they need – their base, their party mates, their constituents, lobbyists, donors, etc. The list is pretty exhaustive; it’s a wonder they don’t all blow a gasket.

This is why when a candidate hints at a non-conventional idea- one outside the accepted party norm- it becomes the focus of the media for days.

When a Senator spends his days in rooms with fellow lawmakers, mostly millionaires, hobnobbing at $5,000-dollar-a-plate fundraisers with other millionaires, courting celebrity support from still more influential millionaires, meeting consistently with lobbyists representing the interests of millionaires and billionaires, it is of no surprise that they will conform to practices that will be acceptable to this very important slice of their tribe.

In 2008, Obama stormed into office with the electrifying mantra of change ringing through the air. But, like most, his neurocircuitry spoke. It muted his courage.

How else do you explain the fact that he demonized the economic policies of the previous administration and then brought on many of the same advisers who played roles in leading the nation toward financial ruin?  He took no courageous stance on a broken immigration system despite a campaign promise that this was a major goal of his presidency. In fact, the numbers of deportations under his watch rose compared to the previous administration. He compromised significantly on healthcare. He failed to, in any real way, challenge the inherently dysfunctional culture of Washington because to be courageous means to override the synaptic popping telling you to duck and cover.

Of course, singling out Obama isn’t entirely fair. The Republican’s front runner for the GOP nomination spends most of his time distancing himself from the former policies he supported as governor of Massachusetts. These ideas are, according to strategists, too liberal. Why the change? The new room he’s in now is different than the previous. He needs to conform to a more nationally electable set of “Republican” ideas. The tribe has spoken. The sweet spot has moved, and he’s gotta go with it. His fellow candidates, additionally, spend most of their debates trying to out-Reagan one another for the title of Grand Conservative.

And, like the people in the aforementioned experiment, it’s not that these guys are lying to fit in (although I’m certain plenty of this is going on too) – at some point the need to conform actually changes what they perceive.

Your handsome and humble servant-
El Guapo

*Only recently, Newt Gingrich seemed to advocate for a more nuanced approach to the immigration issue. After getting a cold reception from his tribe, he quickly shifted gears back to the red meat they are accustomed to getting and all but clarified that undocumented workers should get clubbed on the head.

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