We have evolved a capacity to circumvent rationality to maintain beliefs, which explains the otherwise inexplicable core support for Trump and Clinton.
A group of Danish scientists put religious and non-religious people in an MRI to look for differences in brain activity while they listened to a recording of a highly rated preacher. Nothing special happened in the brains of non-believers, but something striking happened in the brains of believers. Their medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices turned off. And there was a dose-response curve—the more devoutly religious the believers rated themselves to be, the more complete the shut-down of brain areas that orchestrate our ability to evaluate information objectively and make independent decisions based on that information. Prefrontal cortices enable us to think outside the box. Psychologists call that kind of thinking executive function.
The opposite of executive function is inside-the-box thinking. The most inside box is our relationship with our self—our self-image. Successful management of self is key to managing our other inside box—our social network. Both boxes require careful maintenance of core values. From children’s dependence upon their parents to business peoples’ dependence on their connections, we survive by maintaining values that form our identity and are shared across our social networks. So we have evolved a capacity to circumvent clear thinking when maintaining beliefs that strengthen social bonds is more important for survival than thinking outside the box. Put roughly, we get stupid for a reason. We dumb down to manage our self-image so we can present an effective self to others. We fend off challenges, including rational challenges, so we can agree about contentious issues with people we depend upon.
Although the professors’ experiment compared religious to non-religious people, turning off executive function to protect beliefs that strengthen social bonds is not limited to religious beliefs per se. Because we evolved by natural selection, and success in social networks is promoted by shared beliefs, religious convictions are low hanging fruit for detecting the underlying phenomenon with an MRI. Protecting any convictions that keep us at peace with ourselves and in with our in-crowd, including deeply shared political convictions, could generate the same mind-numbing effect.
But can this turn-off of executive function enable Trump supporters to overlook his most crude plans for implementing “Americanism, not globalism”—like building a one-thousand five-hundred mile-long wall on the Mexican border for twenty-five-thousand million (25 billion) dollars? And is prefrontal cortical shut-down powerful enough to cause Clinton supporters to disregard her role in the destruction of Libya and the consequent establishment of ISIS in North Africa?
Based on the capacity of billions of believers to gloss over stark biblical commandments to behave like ISIS and Boko Haram—to blind themselves to the dark side of their most revered religious text so they can maintain an inside-the-box faith that The Bible is a guide to universal morality—The Neuroscience of Core Support: Trump, Clinton and Prefrontal Cortices argues that cortical shut-down is a liability of human nature that explains uncritical loyalty on an epidemiological scale … and so is more than enough to explain otherwise inexplicable core support for Trump and Clinton.