Political Animals by Rick Shenkman: why we shoot our democracies in the foot
Rick Shenkman新书《政治动物》:为什么我们会搬起石头砸民主的脚

Best-selling historian and Emmy award-winning investigative reporter Rick Shenkman is back. He explains in the latest of his seven books, Political Animals – How our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, that despite our species’ pride of rational thinking, our world is anything but rational.

畅销历史书作家和艾美奖调查记者获得者Rick Shenkman回来了。他在最新的第七本书《政治动物:石器时代的大脑如何妨碍政治精明》里解释到,尽管我们人类以理性思考为傲,但是世界却一点也不合理。

Like economists, political scientists base their models on rational choice, and do not want to think that a one off event like a shark attack can have a significant effect on voting. Yet it has been proven time and again that when times are bad, people vote against the incumbents. If a meteor hit Arizona, they’d vote against the incumbents. Extraneous forces have political consequences. Unfortunately for politicians, this is especially the case when the effect is negative.

像经济学者一样,政治学者以理性选择为基础建构其模型,并且不愿意认为一件像鲨鱼攻击这样的一次性事件可以对投票结果产生重大影响。然而事实一次又一次证明,一旦碰上光景不好,人们就会投票反对当权者。如果有陨石击中亚利桑那州,他们会投票反对当权者。外来力量能够造成政治后果。 不幸的是,对政治家而言,如果这种影响是负面的,情况更是如此。

Readers of Shenkman’s previous book, ‘Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the truth about the American voter’ may be reluctant to pick up another anthology of painfully embarrassing truths about the general public of the world’s most powerful economy. But they should be reassured that Political Animals is a forgiving, empathetic and motivational read.


It is tough love, however. Shenkman points out that despite the human brain being packed with eighty-six billion neurons – making human beings smarter than the smartest computer that ever existed (yet) – when it comes to politics, the public is very easily fooled. What is more alarming is that we’re fooling ourselves. We cannot blame the politicians or the Illuminati.


“We often lie about out reasons for doing what we do in politics. We don’t just lie to others, we lie to ourselves. Therefore we can only detect what people are thinking when we study patterns of behaviour in groups.”


Shenkman’s genuine passion for his subject matter shines through. As much as we rationalise our actions in hindsight, we’re not in a position to truly know ourselves seeing as so much of what happens in our brain happens outside of conscious awareness. So attempting to understand why people vote the way they do simply by asking them will get us nowhere. We need science.

Shenkman 对他的研究主题闪耀着真正的热情。我们会在事后尽力合理化自己的行为,鉴于大脑中发生的大量事情处于我们的自觉意识之外,我们就处在一个不能真正了解自己的境地。所以,只是追问人们为什么如此这般投票,对我们理解这一问题毫无益处。我们需要科学。

Political Animals does this. It uses breakthroughs in neuroscience, genetics, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, behavioural economics, political science, political psychology and game theory to give new insights into political behaviour.


The basic premise of the book is that our brain evolved roughly 1.8 million years ago and so the instincts that were baked into human DNA then are now often not the most appropriate or efficient response to our environment: “In politics, [instincts] often don’t work: they malfunction, misfire and lead us astray.” Shenkman even goes as far as to argue that “when it comes to politics, the times when we can unquestioningly go with our instincts is almost nil.”

这本书的基本前提是:我们的大脑大约在180万年前进化形成,因此那些整合到人类DNA中的本能通常并非我们对环境所能做出的最合适或最有效反应。“在政治中,[直觉]通常不可行,他们会失灵,无法奏效,还会带我们误入歧途。” Shenkman走得很远,他甚至认为,“当谈到政治时,我们可以毫无疑问的跟随直觉走的时候基本为零”。

In essence: we frequently sabotage ourselves, upending democracy in ways none of us intended.


Shenkman focuses on four problems that we continually make: political apathy; failure to correctly size up our political leaders; a habit of punishing politicians who tell us the hard truths we don’t want to hear; and our failure to show empathy in situations that clearly demand it.


Hearing all of this, it is sorely tempting to conclude that democracy is hopeless. But all is not lost.


Throughout the book we are reminded that the way our brain is constructed does not mean we are fated to behave as cavemen, even though we might be inclined to think that based on the morning’s headlines. He shows us with numerous thought experiments (that readers can conduct on themselves) that is better to think of our brains as being pre-wired rather than hard-wired. We have certain innate traits but whether they determine how we behave in a particular situation depends on a range of factors. This shouldn’t be so surprising – think how easily and dramatically our energy levels can affect our decision making and self-control.

这本书从头到尾一直在提醒我们,我们的大脑如此构造,并不意味着我们注定要像穴居人那样行动,尽管根据早上的头条新闻我们可能倾向于这样认为。他通过许多思想实验(读者可以自己进行)向我们表明,我们最好将大脑看作是预设的而并非是固设的。我们有某些天生的特质, 但这些特质是否会决定我们在特定情况下的行为则取决于一系列因素。这并不应该让人感到惊讶——想想我们的精力水平能如何容易、如何显著地影响我们的决策和自控能力吧。

What is more controversial is Shenkman’s challenge to the convention that the main political problem society faces is a lack of information: “Modern Platos raise a huge cry over the problem ignorance poses to democracy, turning alarmism about ignorance into a virtual cottage industry”


And he’s right – critics have been beating the same horse for generations, crying ‘mass man is ignorant!’ After the Second World War and the rise of Nazism, university professors became consumed with the problem of public ignorance. It is not that simple, unfortunately. Proving that unknowledgeable voters can be turned into knowledgeable ones doesn’t prove much we didn’t already know. We send children to school because we believe they can learn. The truth is more unsettling: it is not an intelligence or information problem. It’s a motivation, environment, social and, above all else, a human being problem. The problem is that voters on their own don’t try to learn.


Perhaps voters need to be motivated, probably financially. But no government has tried this (directly) because voters would find it insulting – anyone who dared suggest that voters need to be paid because they are citizen delinquents would instantly be branded as elitist.


Equally, the Scandinavian experience shows culture can be just as effective (75% of Swedes participate in adult civics-study circles at some point in their lives having retained an interest in politics from school-age). But why should it take either money or culture to get people to perform their civic responsibilities? Shouldn’t people want to be involved?

同样的,北欧的经验表明文化同样奏效 (瑞典人中凡是曾在生活中某一时间参与过成人公民学习圈的,有75%都保留了从学生时代起培养出的政治兴趣)。但是为什么需要钱或者文化的驱使才能让人们履行公民责任呢?难道人们不想参与吗?

So this is not a guidebook for how to be the perfect citizen. Shenkman is far from being an idealist. Instead, he offers un-patronising, concrete steps to ‘do politics’ better: don’t place a lot of confidence in your natural curiosity; don’t delude yourself into believing you can read politics; whenever possible, try to put yourself in a position where you can experience politics directly.


In this engaging, illuminating and often humourous portrait of our political culture, Shenkman probes the depths of the human mind to reveal what we must do to fix our floundering democracy, and to become more political, less animal.

在这幅引人入胜、发人深省且常常带些幽默的政治文化肖像中, Shenkman窥探到人类心灵的深处,告诉我们必须做什么来修复我们挣扎的民主,多一些政治性, 少一些动物性。

Political Animals was first published on the 21st January 2016 by Basic Books, £17.99 RRP, hardback.



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