Natural Human Political Behavior

© 1993 Donald E. Watson

"Man is a reasoning animal," declared Seneca. But he was describing a theoretical ideal. Real humans reason as cats swim: They can do it, but they avoid it whenever possible.

 Reasoning requires effort and discipline; it certainly isn't automatic. Therefore, instead of using their advanced brain to cultivate their gift of abstract thought, typical humans use their primitive brain to think, believe, behave, and vocalize. Because this makes them slaves to their primal drives, humans prefer shouting to debating, fisticuffs to philosophy, and physical fitness to mental fitness.

 As a species, humanity expresses its undeveloped mentality through its political behavior, which does not differ significantly from the social behavior of other animals. That is, human political behavior is driven by the same instincts that guide the behavior of sheep, wildebeests, and other herding animals. For example, the majority of humans stampede to join the herds, or "bandwagons," of charismatic leaders. There, they delight in winning decisive victories, though it isn't always clear exactly what they win. Nevertheless, having won, the majority regards minorities as losers, unfit to participate in the activities of the herd. That's democracy as we know it.

 Included with the instincts to follow leaders is the warning that straggling invites predators. Yet, a minority of humans do straggle, preferring to override their instincts with their own thinking. In the history of humankind, a few such non-herd individuals have produced the ideas and inventions that account for what is romantically, but unrealistically, termed the "ascent of man." Naturally, members of the herd shun these stragglers as pariahs.

 Still, the herd adopts a select few of their technological products, particularly those that entertain them, or support their destructive urges. Of course, giving potentially destructive tools to instinct-ridden political leaders is like giving loaded guns to a party of six-year-olds: Sooner or later, a catastrophe will occur.

 After the atomic bombs were detonated in Japan, Albert Einstein observed, "Everything has changed, except human nature." He was noting that humans destroy each other with any available tools. In this way, leaders invite mass extinction by turning the products of abstract thought against their own species. In other words, in their advanced brains, most humans carry a powerful potential resource for adaptation and survival, but since they don't know how to use it, they abuse it. Moreover, they do this to popular acclaim.

Popular Opinion

Contrary to popular opinion, popular opinion does not constitute truth. Nevertheless, when humans gather in large herds, they think with one mind, and this mind assures them that their numbers secure them from predators. The irony is, many leaders are themselves predators, leisurely feasting on the minds, bodies, and property of their followers. Many other leaders are simply compelled to lead, regardless of their mental fitness to do so. Thus, as pods of whales beach themselves by following their surrogate thinkers, humans obliviously, but fashionably, flock to their deaths.

 One herding trait obvious in political behavior is caucusing in exclusive cliques. Cliques organize human behavior by relieving their members of reasoning for themselves: The group's dominant members determine the beliefs, values, and behaviors of all the members. This is agreeably efficient, for each clique requires only one mind. Indeed, typical humans carry this characteristic over to larger groups: mobs and political parties. Clique mentality probably indicates a natural limit on the size of human flocks. That is, typical humans can't comprehend huge herds as collections of individuals. To distinguish friends from foes, they must rely on uniforms, if not literal, then figurative--e.g., religion, ethnicity, or skin color.

 Humans are herded by strong personalities because instinct merely requires following leaders; it does not compel evaluating their abilities and motives. This would require reasoning, and instinct doesn't reason. Yet, though their political behavior is not rational, humans do rationalize: They contrive specious reasons for their behaviors after they act, not before. Then, to save themselves further mental work, they crystallize these rationalizations in the language and other symbols of their political mythologies.

 These icons develop lives of their own, for they disguise primal instincts, and distort potentially accurate perceptions of reality. In these ways, the brutish nature of humanity masquerades as political idealism, and distorted reality-testing postures as self-evident truths. Hiding their subhuman behavior behind such curtains of meaningless words, political leaders secure immunity from critical scrutiny by their followers. This masquerade points to the major flaw in the evolution of humanity: its capacity for speech.

Speaking vs Reasoning

Herds require effective communication to maintain their coherence, and because speech is available to humans, it is the principle organizer of human politics. Of course, to be effective, the ideas expressed in political speech must be comprehensible to the majority. Most members of the majority avoid serious intellectual tasks, so human politics must be conducted at the lowest common denominator of thought. And this level of thought is decidedly low.

 The use of language is one of the highest achievements of abstract thought. However, speech itself is quite primitive. Children learn to speak several years before they can learn to think--even before they can control their bowels and bladders. Indeed, for the rest of their lives, most humans speak before they think.

 Speech appears early in life because the human brain possesses specific regions dedicated to the mechanics of vocalizing and perceiving complex patterns of sounds. However, the brain does not include regions dedicated to logic, judgment, or reality-testing. That's why we humans are not inherently wise, discerning, or sagacious. Hence, our species designation, Homo sapiens sapiens (tool-making bipedal primate, wise, wise), is gratuitous: We are not born sapient; to acquire wisdom, we must learn it.

 As with any other acquired skill, learning wisdom requires mastering an innate talent; in the case of language, this talent is our capacity for abstract thought. Yet, our ability to master it develops slowly, in four periods, as categorized by the Swiss scientist, Jean Piaget.

 Sensori-motor mentality
In our first two years of life (Piaget's sensori-motor period), our mental capacity is limited to motor activity and sensory learning. By the age of two, we can recognize and vocalize words, but our brain does not support interpreting these sounds as abstractions. That's why sensual words and phrases can drive behavior, regardless of whether they carry meanings:

Rhythmic flowing streams of words
Can soothe and still like lullabies.
But words that bite
Incite to fight.
Clearly, redundant political chants and slogans are relics of infantile thinking.

 Sensori-motor thinking is also revealed in raucous shouting matches (usually called "debates" or "discussions"), wherein contestants behave as though noise can substitute for reason. Fortunately, humans can progress beyond this point in their mental development.

 Pre-operational thinking
From the ages of two to seven years (the pre-operational period), we learn by rote, like parrots, using nouns for labeling things, adjectives for describing things, and numbers for counting things. To the brain, however, all linguistic symbols are equivalent, so it does not matter whether the things named, described, and counted are real or imagined. Thus, humans who don't progress beyond the pre-operational stage of development can't discern the differences between reality and political fiction. This deficiency makes them extremely vulnerable to manipulation by opportunistic leaders.

 Humans could reduce their susceptibility to political manipulation by learning the rudiments of abstract thinking, for example, that self-aggrandizing symbols such as "sapiens," "reasoning animal," and "in the image of God," are mere words, fanciful verbal constructs that lack any correspondence to real human attributes. Of if they figured out the implications of such words being learned by children--and by parrots.

 It is critical to recognize and understand the products of pre-operational mentality, for most human political behavior is driven by two aspects of this deficient mode of abstract thought: self-reference and animistic thinking.

 As children, we are vulnerable to reality distortions produced by our self-centered view of the world. These perversions are typically expressed in the mental attribute of autistic certainty, where "autistic" means self-generated without reference to external reality, and "certainty" means the unequivocal conviction that a particular belief constitutes knowledge of reality (Watson, 1993).

 Autistic certainty is supported solely by self-reference: "I would not believe something that is not true. I believe [this]. Therefore, [this] must be true." Though self-reference is absurd, its nonsense is lost on persons locked into pre-operational thinking. If they don't outgrow this method of thinking, adults perceive themselves to be the models for ideal humanity. In this way, their self-reference produces the standards for "good" (like themselves) and "evil" (different from themselves). They say, "If only everyone were like me, the world would be perfect." Even if they don't say this aloud, they think it privately, and act accordingly--that is, self-righteously.

 Autistic certainty is reinforced by a second characteristic of pre-operational thinking, animistic thinking. Using animistic thinking, children attribute self-modeled qualities to other persons, and even to lifeless objects. These qualities include self-awareness, free will, and the spirits of good and evil.

 In its most common political application, animistic thinking is expressed as animistic labeling--that is, tagging whole human beings with one-dimensional labels, as though they were possessed of animating spirits that totally determine their thinking and behavior. Humans use animistic labeling for the same reason they wear distinctive uniforms: They can't comprehend strangers as complicated, sentient beings that differ very little from themselves. That's why judges, preachers, journalists, and politicians alike characterize fellow humans simply as good or evil, Jew or Moslem, liberal or conservative, guilty or innocent, worthy or unworthy, and gay or straight. Similarly, primitive thinking has been known to label entire nations: as The Great Satan, for example, or The Evil Empire.

 Though animistic labeling is a product of pre-logical thought, it occurs regularly in humanity's most respected institutions. Not only does it support holy wars, it produces the ad hominem arguments popular in legal proceedings. In courtrooms, for example, witnesses are regularly labeled as liars. Then, acting as though liars are inhabited by the spirit of falsity, which categorically prevents their speaking the truth, judges and juries dismiss their words as unbelievable. Witnesses judged as credible, on the other hand, are wholly believed. Familiar with this trait, persons who make their livings by lying--e.g., swindlers, salespersons, prophets, politicians--conspicuously speak the truth, for it serves to establish their credibility.

 In their most malignant forms, autistic certainty and animistic thinking drive the destructive behavior of self-righteous persons: Certain that the spirit of good animates them, they know they can do no evil. Therefore, they are justified in any kind of violence, provided only that it is directed against "evil" ones. Humans abusing abstract thought in this way routinely express themselves through subhuman savagery. The irony is, though Serbian gunners aim their weapons at Croats, human beings die, not the imaginary spirit of "Croatness."

 In short, when blinded by autistic certainty, persons are oblivious to external reality. Yet, guided by animistic self-righteousness, they are aggressive in proclaiming their opinions. Astonished that others don't appreciate their beliefs and values, they take steps to correct these disbeliefs: If they can't verbally impose their beliefs on the infidels, they kill them--if not literally, then figuratively. Such thinking has written much of human history, and probably foreshadows its future. Given today's arsenal of nuclear weaponry, and the willingness of primitive humans to use it against each other, it is difficult to imagine how humanity can escape a thermonuclear catastrophe, triggered by virtual six-year-olds. Yet, humans are capable of higher levels of thinking than that.

 Concrete Operations
Between the ages of seven and twelve (the period of concrete operations), we can learn how abstractions apply to concrete objects, e.g., "Two apples plus three apples equals five apples." However, we can't yet grasp pure abstractions, for example, that two is the set of all pairs. Because persons using concrete operations can use the language of abstract thought without appreciating its significance, they regularly abuse it, though unwittingly.

 For example, adults abuse the language of logic to disguise the illogic of fallacies such as non-sequitur arguments. Even more popular is disengaging words from their original meanings, and flinging them about as free agents to whimsically gather new meanings on the fly. Though such concrete thinking is absurd, it is a staple of human political behavior. Yet, these abuses are inexcusable, for most humans can learn to think beyond the level of concrete operations.

 Formal Operations
In our twelfth year, when we enter the period of formal operations, we can begin to master our abstract thought. Then, we can learn that we readily confuse our perceptions of reality and fiction, for neither is more than a fleeting, abstract pattern of neuronal activity in our brain. We can also learn that words are abstractions of abstractions: They carry no intrinsic meaning, but merely symbolize our perceptions of reality or fiction.

 Because abstract thinking is so powerful, humans who have mastered it can critically reflect on a wide range of topics, including the complexities of government. Yet, this potential is never realized by most humans, for their journey toward mastery is derailed in an accident of nature: During the spring of life, when they could be learning the elegant intricacies of abstract thought, the thoughts of young humans turn to a primal biological imperative: the instinct to reproduce, as expressed as the drive for sexual pleasure.

 Despite its overriding influence, the instinct to reproduce doesn't necessarily preclude mastering abstract thought, for most humans are capable of enjoying both sex and thinking, though at different times. Nonetheless, nature makes it difficult to learn to think, for unlike the seasonal mating seasons of other animals, the human period of reproduction is continual. Because human sexual physiology doesn't provide respites for learning to think, to humans using primitive modes of thought, the constancy of their mating season symbolizes the importance of mating, and diminishes the importance of thinking.

 In short, the sex drive naturally entails ignoring mental fitness in favor of physical fitness. Moreover, with their minds still governed by the thinking modes of childhood, members of each sex carry their peculiar mating roles and rituals into their political behavior.

Sexualized Politics

For subhuman males, mating rituals take the form of physical contests for dominance, with nature's promise of attractive females as prizes. Moreover, these characteristics of primitive thinking translate directly to human behavior. In medieval times, for example, male combatants marched to war flanked by women baring their breasts to demonstrate what the men fought for. Today, cheerleaders fulfil this role, displaying their assets to male athletes as they compete for dominance. Similarly, female political groupies lavishly praise their men, urging them to prevail--and thereby to prevent strange men from reaping the feminine harvest of victory.

 Subhuman mentality dictates much of today's politics. For example, the notion of females exercising choice over their reproductive resources is unthinkable to lower animals: Prizes don't award themselves. If they did, the contests of males would be rendered purposeless. As obvious as this primitive thinking is in dumb animals, it is not self-evident in human politics, for politicians use the foggy verbiage of religious dogma or political idealism to disguise the real trophies they seek--sex and power. Nevertheless, as with the phallic displays of monkeys, human political dominance is prominently symbolized by manly symbols: dangling neckties, and penetrating weapons such as swords, guns, and missiles.

 Humanity loses much in investing its political behavior in male instincts, for females carry two instincts that make them far better than males at organizing social behavior. First, they dedicate themselves to posterity, not to the passions of the moment. This means they think first of protecting their progeny, not destroying the progeny of others. Second, females naturally appreciate the survival value of cooperation and mutual dependency. This means they can comprehend peace as an active process of economic interdependence, not merely as an interval between wars. (Shupe, pp. 35-52).

 These female qualities notwithstanding, the war between the sexes, as fought in the political arena, is always won by males. That's because instinct drives humans to resolve their conflicts by the most decisive method. This is always the most primitive, and often the most savage, because eliminating an enemy is far more decisive than negotiating with him--or her.

 Hence, male aggressiveness leaves females only two choices in subhuman politics: Stay on the sidelines to cheer, or blend into politics as a mock male. That's why the typical behavior of women who join politics, like that of female whales that lead their pods, is indistinguishable from males. Not only do they speak in familiar terms of penetrating weapons, they often modify their physical appearance, adopting neckties as phallic symbols of dominance, to emulate the male posture.

Hope for Healthy Politics

The ultimate outcomes of using primitive mentality are familiar facts of life: First, the political behavior of humans is driven by subhuman instincts because representative members of the species never bother to master their capacity for abstract thought. Second, typical humans learn to speak before they learn to think, and transform their primitive mentality and patterns of speech into their political behavior. Third, they institutionalize primitive thought by incorporating concrete, imaginary perceptions of reality into their religious and political traditions. And fourth, individuals who comprise human herds are easily manipulated by their leaders who control them with seductive words. For example, humans engage in self-destructive actions, following leaders who assure them that their obedience entitles them to celestial immortality or worldly booty--depending on whether the actions are holy or secular.

 The ultimate result of humanity's failure to master its capacity for reasoning is ironic: The same instincts that have perpetuated the species in the first order operate to extinguish it in the second order. Recognizing human political behavior as the natural product of instinctive drives creates dreary prospects for the future of the species. Yet, where there is potential, there is hope.

 This hope, in turn, inspires the question, "Is it possible for humanity to govern itself through democratic rule?" The affirmative answer to this question follows from a qualification of Seneca's assertion: "Humans are reasoning animals if they are forced to think for themselves."

 We know this, because opportunities for independent thinking occur frequently during life crises, and many persons prove adept at taking advantage of them. For example, many persons today inherit the opportunity to find new careers when their old ones disappear. Many others are confronted with ethical dilemmas surrounding the technically prolonged deaths of their loved ones. In critical circumstances such as these, many persons, perhaps the majority, can rise above clique mentality to resolve these challenges by themselves. They may even find reasoning so rewarding, they choose to develop their mental talents further (Watson, 1994a).

 On the other hand, many other persons remain slaves to primitive beliefs and superstitions they learned before they were old enough to think for themselves. The most malignant of these thought patterns is blind obedience to authority, for it annihilates the discriminating thinking imposed by the responsibilities of democracy.

 The bottom line is, we can assure democratic rule only if we learn to respect mental fitness at least as much as we revere physical fitness. For more than 30 years, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports has encouraged our young persons to develop their physical potentials. Were our political leaders to listen, wisdom would counsel them to invest no less in developing the uniquely human mental gifts of our young. Yet, there is no corresponding Council on Mental Fitness. This absence undoubtedly reflects the reason for political intolerance of advanced individual thinking: Self-serving shepherds of human flocks would have much to lose if their followers started thinking for themselves.


Obviously, many political factors retard mental fitness. Therefore, the transformation from instinctive to reasoning political behavior, if it could occur at all, would likely require several generations. Given the lethal mixture of primitive politics and powerful technology, our species may not have enough time to realize such a revolution in thinking.

 Nevertheless, we have only one reasonable choice: to proceed as though we can ultimately learn to govern ourselves in healthy ways. This means that, even if we offend those whose minds are bound by primitive thinking, we must teach the elements of mastering abstract thought in our homes, schools, broadcast media, and religious institutions. Meanwhile, we can develop governmental mechanisms that deliberately bypass clique mentality in favor of the cultivated wisdom of individual humans (Watson, 1994b).


Shupe, C. (1989). The Natural Patterns of Human Bonding. Phoenix, AZ: Spiritual Freedom Press.
Watson, D. E. (1993). Autistic Certainty. Telicom Vol. XI (7), pp. 43-46. April, 1993.
Watson, D. E. (1994a). Surviving Your Crises, Reviving Your Dreams. New Bedford, MA: Mills & Sanderson.
Watson, D. E. (1994b). The Uniform Code of Political Justice. In this volume.