Evolutionary Origins of Partisanship

Good morning,

Here I present a paraphrasing of a research paper I put together during the past semester.  I dragged my feet on it but in rediscovering some of the ideas while reading Haigt’s book The Righteous Mind I thought these ideas had more credence and I decided to share them.  I have perhaps made oversights in my sources because the academic papers are harder to source outside of Jstor but if there are any critiques on this account or I need to justify an argument better let me know:


When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if the one tribe included a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other
-Darwin, Descent of Man

In September 2013, unable to resolve budgetary disputes for the US federal budget for the 2014 fiscal year, the government “shut down” due to the impasse over spending. The shutdown lasted for sixteen days and the ultimate costs remain contentious. While some estimates range as high as $24 billion according to the ratings agency Standard and Poor‘s this figure comes with caveats. Some of the furloughed workers were paid back for lost time when a resolution was passed sixteen days later and some government employees such as the military never suffered a day of lost pay. Some of the real damage came from unquantifiable factors in a loss of confidence in the robustness of the American economy, in the form of research projects which were put on hold or from voters who lost faith in the representatives they voted for. Regardless of how the numbers and the effects of the shutdown are configured there are very few people who argue that the 2013 government shutdown was good for the country.

I will argue that evolutionary theory explains both the altruistic communal action which makes politics possible and the partisanship which disables collective action.  I understand that finding an answer to partisan politics encoded into our genetics is not a satisfying conclusion.  It implies that such partisanship is part of our destiny.  This is a misreading of evolutionary theory because our genetics work not in absolute terms but in order to promote certain behaviors probabilistically.  Meaning, that as humans today the choice not to reproduce does not mean that the individual has failed but that most times an evolved strategy will prevail and create more offspring.  Such has been the view since the publication of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  I will paraphrase this to say that Dawkins argues altruistic behavior is not truly altruistic because there are long term benefits which prove more useful than the short term gains of defecting to more selfish options.

Altruism proved challenging to Darwin but its existence appears time and time again in the lab.  First, because this is not immediately apparent to homo sapiens I will argue via Darwin that mankind is not essentially different from the animal kingdom.  Darwin wrote of this position that man and animal are separate only by degree:

the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, &c., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.

A mistaken idea exists that animals are driven only by instinct and show no signs of education or culture. But this presumption fails to account for the appearance of culture and learning in the animal kingdom even if only in a simplistic form. Communities of chimpanzees demonstrate variance of behaviors that can only be described as culture. According to research by Larry Arnhart: “In some chimpanzee communities, mothers teach their children how to crack nuts using stones suitable as anvils and hammers; in other communities, this is not done, although both the nuts and the stones are easily available” (American Journal of Political Science. Vol. 38, No. 2. May, 1994).  The closer one examines animal behaviors the more one sees humanity reflected back at them. Darwin, after acknowledging the separation of degree, goes on to acknowledge the existence of primate curiosity, canine pride and feline personality which humanity reserved for itself.

The view that sacrifice leaves individuals unable to spread their genes to descendants is myopic. The evolutionary struggle is a marathon not a sprint and repeated interactions all altruistic strategies to thrive. Altruistic behaviors provide benefits for kin, those which share close genetic information and inheritance. Altruistic behavior towards kin helps to ensure the transference of the individual’s genetic material even if the individual must perish in the exercise of altruism. The theory was first suggested by the biologist J. B. S. Haldane when asked how far he would go to save another life. He answered (while in a pub) “I would jump into a river to save two brothers, but not one… Or to save eight cousins but not seven”. This theory was later formalized by William Hamilton’s law in a couple papers published in 1964: C < R x B  in which an individual takes an altruistic action if the (C)-cost of the action is less than the product of (R)- relatedness of the individual being saved and the (B)- benefit conferred from the altruistic action. In Haldane’s example saving two brothers at one’s own expense would pass on sufficient genetic similarity but saving only one would not. And the cousins are too distantly related for two to suffice but eight might. Haldane’s numbers are speculative (as are many ideas that come from a pub) but they provide an example of Hamilton’s theory of using altruistic actions to improve the fitness of kin.

The difficulty of applying evolutionary theory to politics is that politics provides a realm of uncertain benefits that are more difficult to quantify than the benefits of survival strategies in animals. In comparison biological evolution reveals obvious rewards and incentives: offspring.  The rewards for political success are less clear. One must assume that the daily excoriation of political figures provides an incentive to follow the party line, but what of the benefits which might explain political action the way that evolution explains biological behavior? For example, could political behavior arise from a desire to remain elected? Loyalty to the party? Coddling favor for one’s constituents? Government pay? Fame and renown?

However, in an article published by The Atlantic on the fourth day of the 2013 government shutdown, the writers identified a list of 32 Republicans it held to be responsible for the partisanship which caused the government shutdown. The article admitted that the list was by no means comprehensive and the list is partisan in its own right for laying the blame on Republicans. However, when Congressional elections followed the shutdown in November 2014, twenty-eight of the thirty-two representatives identified won their districts with three losing in their own Republican primaries and one of which declared in May 2013, well before the October shutdown, that she would not run for reelection (by my conjecture in order to seek higher presidential offices: Representative Michele Bachman). Most of these representatives won their district by a wide margin. For example, Marsha Blackburn carried Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District 72.2% to the Democratic 23.5%. One is correct that Tennessee is solid Republican territory but the same cannot be said of Scott Garrett who carried New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District 55.4% to the Democratic 43.3%. These results hardly suggest that those who preferred to shut down the government as part of a partisan strategy were immediately repudiated for their actions.  Outside of elections it is difficult to tell which political strategies are winning and the fickle electorate is itself incoherent about its preferences.

Examining Political Identities Using Ultimatum and Dictatorship Games

In the basic construction of an ultimatum game there are two players. A proposer will make an offer dividing up a shared resource (money, in most variations of the experiment) to a second player whose identity is unknown to them and the second player can either 1- accept the offer in which both players receive the proposed payout or 2- reject the offer in which case both players receive nothing. The fact that the second player is unknown is significant because if the second player is a friend or an enemy the proposal would be altered given an established bias. For example a proposer might have ten dollars with which to make an offer with an even split of five dollars being the most equal (or altruistic) share of the money which the second player would accept. The risk for the proposer in working with an unknown second player is that an unfair offer might be rejected and the proposer would receive nothing. Social norms play a role in determining how much the proposer offers in ultimatum games. Dictatorship games are similar to the ultimatum game except that the second player gets no choice to reject or accept the offer and the proposer cannot be punished for offering an unfair deal.

A homo economicus view argues that in both games a proposer seeks to maximize his own utility and demands the whole pie. “However, even in dictatorship experiments the [proposer] tends to leave a sizable share to the opponent. And in ultimatum games, responders tend to reject small shares. In both cases the equal split is rather common” (Ellingsen, The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Vol. 112, No. 2). If it were true that players in these games are acting only out of an interest to maximize their utility then even if the second player were offered a single penny this would still be better than nothing and the player would accept the offer. Such behavior would support the homo economicus view. However what rejected offers demonstrate is that some other internal calculation is made that justifies sacrificing a portion of utility in order to punish what is perceived to be unfair. (Thaler The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Vol. 2, No. 4. Autumn 1988). These ideas of fairness and justice are rooted in the homo sociologicus model of human understanding which is based upon social norms as predictive of behavior. When offers are perceived to be unfair the second player willingly sacrifices even a generous but unequal payout to punish the proposer.

One last note from Thaler’s paper indicates an effect of tribalism even when the categories involved are not political. Tribalism appeared in experimental settings in which students in one discipline made offers to students in another discipline: “The most generous offers were made by students in a psychology class making offers to students in another psychology class. The psychology students were less generous when making offers to students in a commerce class, but the least generous offers were made by commerce students to psychology students”.

Competing Identities as the Evolutionary Basis of Partisanship

Now I will attempt to explain why partisanship happens in an evolutionary sense.  There exists an infinite number of different identifiers that an individual may ascribe to themselves. One can claim to be a liberal, a parent, a soldier, an intellectual, a Patriots fan, a reader of Women’s Health, a Verizon customer, a black coffee drinker, a runner, a Prius driver, a child of immigrants, a smoker. Race, employment, hobbies, and politics all characterize ways of dividing people. Many of these identities overlap and cause no contradiction even if certain categories correlate better than others (i.e. the smoker correlates poorly with the runner). There are obvious divisions in which one cannot claim to be both a Democrat and a Republican but one may have friends and family across the divide.  This essay will examine two which are not mutually exclusive.

(All research in this section from Klar, Samara. “The Influence of Competing Identity Primes on Political Preferences.” The Journal of Politics. Vol. 75, No. 4. 9 August, 2013.)

In research about competing identities it was demonstrated that participants would adhere more readily to a group identity when they were primed to do so. The simplest method is called a “basic prime” in which an identity is named in order to subconsciously raise salience about an identity and increase participants’ responsiveness to ideas consistent with that group. For example, “during the second Presidential debate of the 2012 election, President Obama stated: ‘Folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives. Veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams… Soldiers who are overseas fighting’”. These were essentially empty rhetorical statements which signaled to the named identities that Obama supports them without having to put forth any kind of specific policy position which benefit them.

An “Efficacy prime” is a statement which demonstrates how a certain identity group might benefit from a policy. In the same debate President Obama stated “We’ve expanded Pell Grants for millions of people, including millions of young women… that’s going to make sure that young women are going to be able to compete”. This kind of prime proves more effective because in addition to identifying the target audience it also makes an appeal to how the President’s policies can benefit them.

The third priming strategy and the primary focus for this essay is a “threat prime.” This type of rhetorical statement makes the identified group feel defensive that the opponent might initiate policies which threaten their interests. In the debates an example reads as follows: “Governor Romney will veto the DREAM Act that would allow these young [immigrants] to have access. His main strategy is to encourage self-deportation, making life so miserable on folks that they’ll leave”. In this case President Obama identified the target group to which he was trying to garner support and activated their emotions by describing threats against their livelihoods via his opponent Governor Romney. At such a juncture it no longer matters whether the claims are true but the signal has been sent to immigrants that one candidate supports them and another does not or that the opponent actively threatens them.

This research on identity primes analyzed how conflicting identity groups interact given priming. What is interesting in the research about these subjects is one identity can take preference over another identity depending upon how an individual is primed to think about them. Klar specifically invokes evolution in describing the theory at work: “The evolutionary relevance of survival causes a process known in cognitive psychology as ‘motivated attention’. Across disciplines, we see that group-based threat increases both the salience of one’s in-group identity and interests”. The research produced a quantifiable effect which shows shifts in preferences from control groups towards a preference for the parent or Democratic identity. The following chart demonstrates how the different primes affected preferences in a controlled experiment made up of respondents who identify as both “Democrat” and “Parent”:

Parent Identity:

Basic Prime


Parent Identity:

Efficacy Prime


Parent Identity:

Threat Prime


Democrat identity:

Basic Prime


No change from control group

Efficacy prime will overshadow basic prime. Parental concerns will most influence policy choice

Threat prime will overshadow basic prime. Parental concerns will most influence policy choice

Democrat identity:

Efficacy Prime


Efficacy prime will overshadow basic prime. Democratic concerns will most influence policy choice

No change from control group

Threat prime will overshadow efficacy prime. Parent concerns will most influence policy choice

Democrat identity:

Threat Prime


Threat prime will overshadow basic prime. Democratic concerns will most influence policy choice

Threatening prime will overshadow efficacy prime. Democratic concerns will most influence policy choice

No change from control group

The issues examined in the experiment were social services spending, anti-terrorism spending, and prison sentencing. An example of the CxE prime on prison sentencing might prime respondents with two competing ideas about prison sentencing such as a Democrat Efficacy Prime: “prisons are filling up with non-violent offenders at a cost of $27,000 of tax dollars per each inmate” and the Parent Threat Prime: “claims to rehabilitate and reintroduce criminals to society are unleashing a menace to our children.” In this case Democratic parents presented with both arguments are more likely to indicate preferences for higher prison sentencing. What this research demonstrates is that both the efficacy and the threat prime push respondents to favor one preferences over the basic prime but that the threat prime is more effective over both the other primes.

Perhaps the greatest concern for those wishing for an enlightened debate about policy is the diagonal across the center which shows no change from the control group. The ideal position from which to make policy should be the center at BxE in which one encounters arguments about efficacy from both sides of an issue. Because this reasoned approach confers no benefit politicians and pundits descend rather to the language of fear and threat in order to compel political action which perhaps explains the current state of media.

The effect finds an origin in Darwinian theories about the struggle for existence. If the political realm and influence are the limited resources for survival then the polling station and available congressional positions are the resources upon which voters trust that their interests will be protected. There is an evolutionary benefit in going to the polling station to represent a partisan identity when it appears that an individual is under threat, not to mention the public excoriation and the cold shoulder to those across the divide in work and civic life.  Partisanship is part of survival.

One final addition that I discovered in reading to Jonathan Haight’s The Righteous Mind is the idea that winning a partisan argument gives one a shot of dopamine.  We as humans might be biologically addicted to partisanship if only to support an identity no matter how arbitrary it might be.

The Consequence of Inertia

Writing about why political identities coalesce around key ideas, Tom Nichols writes in his book The Death of Expertise that most people have no time to consider complicated issues and thus prefer to opt for that which sounds closest to what they believe or that which seems to be represented by a familiar figure. The problem is that citizens are seldom aware of this default reliance and they mistake the details of policy when they are manipulated for experimental purposes. In surveys which switched the tax plans for one candidate with their opponent’s plans respondents were unable to identify that a change had been made. Respondents supported the plan they believed was held by their preferred candidate.

Adhering too closely to an idea or opinion forces one into uncomfortable justifications when it appears that the central node of his worldview has stepped out of line. When trying to defend their actions which shut down the government Representative Paul Broun stated “[the Democrats] need to look in the mirror, because they’re the ones to blame. They’re the ones that shut the government down” and Representative Scott Garrett stated “I am deeply disappointed that President Obama and the Senate refused to come to the negotiation table and failed to fund the government” (from the Atlantic article). Whether or not these representatives spoke the truth or whether or not they are responsible for the shutdown matters little because individuals will defend their own party and blame the other.

What concerns writers like Nichols is that not only are the partisan opinions uninformed but that the citizens maintain certainty in their opinions even when the policy positions at stake are fictional. According to Public Policy Polling asking Democratic and Republican primary voters whether they would support bombing Agrabah, “nearly a third of Republican respondents said they would, versus 13 percent who opposed the idea. Democratic preferences were roughly reversed; 36 percent were opposed, and 19 percent were in favor”. The problem: Agrabah is a fictional country from the 1992 Disney film Aladdin. Regardless of the groundless positions those polled were certain that they had an opinion even when the premises were fictional. This provides a dangerous precedent from the fact that one assumes they have a view when they should admit to being uniformed.

In a final example on this topic the Huffington Post conducted a survey and discovered that people are flexible about their opinions depending on who they think is responsible for them. Respondents were presented with identical policy positions with the name of the candidate proposing the policy position switched. On the subject of universal health care Republicans shifted from 16% supporting the position when they believed that President Obama proposed the idea to 44% supporting the idea when they were told that candidate Trump proposed the policy. The author of the report argued “Most Americans, regardless of their political views, don’t have a solid opinion about every single issue of the day, particularly when it comes to a complicated or obscure topic. People tend, reasonably, to rely on partisan cues- if a politician they support is in favor of a bill, they’re likely to think it’s a good idea, or vice versa”. What these examples demonstrate is the uncomfortable position in which an individual takes ownership of a given political idea and comes face to face with contradictory evidence. The action that one should take in such a case is to admit to their lack of experience, that one has not considered in detail the question on offer, the fallibility of the position they have previously defended, or even worse, the possibility that the individual being questioned might have made a mistake.  I suspect that few have the humility to be so honest.

It is ironic that evolution provides both the altruistic action which makes political action possible and the defensive partisanship which divides politics. Although some of the research demonstrates humorous consequences to the intransigence of political opinions when policy positions are switched these studies reveal an underlying tragedy in how divided the nation has become.  On 14 June, 2017 there was a shooting which appears to have targeted Republicans practicing for a baseball game. The subject is dead but if he targeted Republicans because of partisanship then we are witnessing the worst excesses of political division- to take the fight from the ballot box to the machines of warfare. (Similar to those blaming Sarah Palin’s violent rhetoric for the Tuscon shooting, Virgina congressman Tom Garrett blamed the violence on the rhetoric of liberals: “The hyperbolic vitriol from the left has spurred threats and now action without historical parallel” (The Economist). I will maintain that direct causation from political rhetoric to violence is dubious.

An ideal political position would be one in which patient evaluation of issues deferred to research and studies rather than besmirching opponents based upon character or held rooted to sclerotic dispositions about partisanship.

A proscriptive path forward would be, perhaps, in future debates to call citizens to attention when appeals to fear or threat primes are made and how these rhetorical positions are taking politics off course. The risk, of course, as argued in Tom Nichols’ book, is that even positions from efficacy can be dismissed and dragged into partisanship:

When people are told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism or stimulating economic growth is a lot harder than it looks, they roll their eyes. Unable to comprehend all the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame elites for seizing control of their lives.

Bringing all citizens back to the negotiating table and solving the partisan split requires combined effort. First, citizens need to maintain the effort to question the information presented to them. They should gather information from multiple sources including ones which they know they disagree with. Such actions will help them to communicate with citizens on the opposite side and understand how they are thinking in addition to receiving alternative view points. (I suspect that few people will make such an effort.) Secondly, politicians and pundits need to be more aware of when they are making groundless claims or using threatening and specifically partisan rhetoric. Such language benefits partisan organizations, but if the consequences of such action is shutting down the government then such activities benefit no one and the country gets dragged through the mire of embarrassing and uninformed conjecture.

take care,


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