What's Sexier than Public Policy?


Sex, of course. That's why newspapers obsess over Sen. Larry Craig's (R-ID) (alleged) public bathroom romances but not his position on the Medicare prescription drug benefit program which is costing taxpayers billions. And why CNN ran 24/7 coverage of Gov. Elliot Spitzer's (D-NY) high cost hotel dalliances, but not his serial abuses of prosecutorial discretion.

The Washington Post's Shankar Vedantam's always interesting Department of Human Behavior feature delves into the question of why media tend to focus on sex over policy. Evolutionary psychologists argue that thanks to our evolutionary biology gossip is what interests readers, listeners, and viewers. As Vedantam explains:

[University of Guelph in Ontario psychologist Hank] Davis and other evolutionary psychologists argue that the reason John Edwards's adultery has more zing in our heads than a dry policy dispute that could cost taxpayers billions of dollars is that the human brain evolved in a period where there were significant survival advantages to finding out the secrets of others. Since humans lived in small groups, the things you learned about other people's character could tell you whom to trust when you were in a tight spot.

"We are continuing to navigate through the modern world with a Stone Age mind," Davis said.

In the Pleistocene era, he added, there was no survival value in being able to decipher a health-care initiative, but there was significant value in information about "who needs a favor, who is in a position to offer one, who is trustworthy, who is a liar, who is available sexually, who is under the protection of a jealous partner, who is likely to abandon a family, who poses a threat to us."

We may consciously know that we are no longer living in small hunter-gatherer groups and that it no longer makes sense to evaluate someone like Edwards as we might a friend or intimate partner, but our reptilian brain doesn't realize this. Our prefrontal cortex might reason that a man who cheats on his wife while she is fighting cancer could make a perfectly fine president in a complex world, but the visceral distaste people feel about Edwards stems from there being an ancient part of the human brain that says, "Gee, I don't want to get mixed up with this guy, because even in my hour of greatest need I might not be able to count on him," said Frank T. McAndrew, an evolutionary social psychologist at Knox College in Illinois.

Most Americans, of course, will never have any personal interaction with the people they elect president. Nonetheless, if the evolutionary psychologists are correct, people will tend to choose leaders they can relate to personally -- and reject the leaders with whom they cannot see having a personal relationship.

"The human brain does not have any special module for evaluating welfare policy or immigration policy, but it has modules for evaluating people on the basis of character," said Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics. "That is probably why we have this gut reaction to affairs and marriages and lying. All of those things existed in the ancestral environment 100,000 years ago."

Whole Vedantam feature here.