Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics
One day in 1891, a wealthy world traveler who enjoyed puncturing public myths offered $500 to anybody who could prove that a shark had ever attacked a human being off the East Coast of the United States. The offer drew headlines. People were sure he’d have to make a payment. They were wrong.
This came as no surprise to the country’s leading shark experts. They had long reached the conclusion that the man-eaters that sailors often talked about darkly were highly unlikely to appear in our non-tropical waters. There simply was no proof, the experts categorically stated, that sharks found in the vicinity of America’s East Coast seaside communities ever went after human beings, except perhaps by mistake. What then lay behind the grave fear of sharks among people living along the coast? The experts chalked it up to pure superstition. They maintained this for decades.
In 1916, on the eve of the summer vacation season, as they had on occasion in the past, the experts reassured the public that they had nothing to fear from sharks. This wasn’t a matter of opinion, they insisted. It was science.
And then the calendar page flipped to Saturday, July 1.
That day, the Vansants of Philadelphia crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey in time to catch the 3:35 P.M. train from Camden to the Jersey Shore. A little after 5 P.M., they arrived in Beach Haven, an elegant resort community some twenty miles north of Atlantic City, and then checked into the Engleside Inn, one of the finest hotels in the area. While his parents relaxed, Charles Vansant, dressed in a black swimsuit that stretched from his knees to his neck, headed to the ocean for a swim. It was shortly before 6 P.M.
Vansant was a college man. He had made varsity in two sports, golf and baseball. Upon hitting the water he fearlessly swam farther out than anybody else. But as a group of onlookers watched him playing with a paddling dog, he suddenly began to shriek for help. Something was dragging him under.
It was a shark. As Vansant fought for his life, his blood turned the seawater bright red. A brave lifeguard quickly swam to help, dragging Vansant toward shore. But the shark hung on. Not until the fish scraped the pebbles on the bottom of the ocean as they neared shore did it finally swim off. By then it was too late. Little more than an hour after he had stepped off the train from Camden, Charles Vansant, athletic and fearless, was dead. He was twenty-five years old.
Five days later Charles Bruder, the bellboy captain at the Essex and Sussex, a top-notch hotel in Spring Lake, forty-five miles north of Beach Haven, went for a swim on his lunch break. In full view of hundreds of tourists, including the well-known socialite Mrs. George Childs, a shark attacked him. Mrs. Childs reported seeing the shark dart at Bruder “just as an airplane attacks a Zeppelin.” As he screamed, the shark took off his right leg above the knee and then went after his left foot. Women watching the gruesome scene vomited and fainted. Charles Bruder, in shock, died shortly thereafter on the beach, his body a tangled mess of bones and cartilage. He was twenty-eight years old.
More shark attacks followed. In one attack, a shark ventured up a creek all the way to the small New Jersey community of Matawan, sixteen miles inland, far past where anybody had ever thought a shark might go, and killed a boy out for a swim and a man who tried to save him. Finally, a seasoned angler, fishing from a beat-up boat early one morning, caught a shark and killed it. Though no one was sure this one shark had been responsible for all of the attacks, its death ended the terror that had gripped the seaside communities of New Jersey for two weeks and ruined the local economy. No one else that summer felt the jaw of a shark sink into their flesh.
The lesson of 1916, it seems obvious, is that no matter what the experts say, you should follow your instincts. Sharks are large and dangerous, and you should fear them. When the experts told people not to worry about shark attacks, they were wrong. Four people had died. Listen to the experts? They were as wrong as wrong gets.
But is the seemingly obvious lesson the real lesson? Aren’t distinctions necessary? The experts weren’t wrong about sharks in general. They were right. Only a few species of sharks out of hundreds pose any danger to humans, and they aren’t native to the East Coast. The real lesson of 1916 isn’t that we should ignore experts. The real lesson is that context is everything. If you see a shark swimming offshore, get out of the water. If you see one swimming toward a group of boys, try to get off a warning to them. Err on the side of caution. But if sharks haven’t been in the news and none have been spotted in years, feel free to take the plunge on your next Atlantic Ocean holiday. Enjoy yourself. That’s the real lesson.
That is exactly the conclusion the people of New Jersey drew in 1916. Once the danger passed they didn’t let the fear of sharks keep them away from summer fun. The following year they returned to the beaches and resumed swimming in the ocean. Their instincts told them doing this was okay. Their instincts were right. Their instincts were carefully calibrated to the circumstances in which they found themselves. They knew when to be fearful and when not to give in to fear.
Our instincts are not only nuanced, they are also automatic. When a rock is thrown in your direction you don’t have to think about what to do, you just do it. Instincts are quick. That’s the whole point of an instinct. If you had to think about how to stop a rock from hitting you, it would hit you before you had a chance to protect yourself.
When you stop to think about it, the fact that we can rely on our instincts to avoid getting hit by a flying rock is a stupendous achievement of neural engineering. Instincts, quite simply, are amazing. Think of what your brain has to do before signaling that you should be fearful and take action. First, it has to make a correct assessment of the environment. This assessment can involve one or two or all of your senses. Which senses this time? That’s a decision your brain has to make, and that’s just one of many it has to make in an instant. After that your brain has to decide on the context. Is that a rock coming at you or just a ball? Is a friend or a foe throwing it? Is it a big rock or a little rock? Then there’s the decision of how to react. That’s a decision the brain makes using an “if/then” formula. If it’s a big rock, then duck. If it’s a small rock, then block it. And so on and so forth through a myriad of “if this/then that” possibilities. And all of this has to happen in milliseconds, usually out of conscious awareness.
We rely on our instincts in all kinds of situations. When we hear the squeal of tires as we are crossing a street it is our instincts that tell us to halt dead in our tracks or risk getting run over. When we find ourselves in a dark alley late at night and suddenly detect someone else’s presence, it is thanks to our instincts that our body instantly tenses and we become incredibly aware of our surroundings. Fight or flight? That’s a decision we make using our instincts.
Animal behavior is almost wholly driven by instinct. We possess higher cognitive abilities that give us the power of reason. But scientists say we possess dozens of instincts—perhaps even thousands depending on your definition—and they involve virtually any human activity you can think of. William James, the father of American psychology, held that instincts guide us from birth. He even included crying and sneezing as instincts. You don’t have to be taught to cry or sneeze, after all.
But we shouldn’t in all cases. Sophisticated as they are, our instincts don’t always work. What happens then? What happens when our brain makes an incorrect assessment of a situation? What if it doesn’t get the context right? We don’t have to wonder. Look around. That’s our problem with politics
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