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What kind of political animal is Homo sapiens?

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Recent turbulent events in western democracies have resurfaced questions of whether humans are fundamentally too tribal and too irrational for democracy to work. Plato famously questioned the ability of an electorate to meaningfully judge the competence of a leader from their outward appearance. The last few decades have given more substance to those concerns with the scientific study of “psychological biases”, fuelling concerns that voting behaviour is driven by a basket of biases. Perhaps one of the most consistent lines of critique here pertains to climate change, and the fact that we have a “present bias” and prioritise the present over the future. I will argue however that it can be misleading and damaging to frame failures of politics (such as the massive misinformation campaign from certain fossil fuel companies in the US) as a failure of human psychology. Indeed dismissing people you disagree with as an irrational “herd” is itself a damaging feature of democratic discourse. There are however certainly evolved features of our psychology, such as the way children learn social norms, or the way in which people infer motives or misperceive others intentions that we need to understand better if we are to design democratic systems that are better suited to work with the grain of human psychology.

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