What's Sexier than Public Policy?

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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.

http://z.about.com/d/politicalhumor/1/0/p/0/2/honest_politicians_lk0311d.jpg

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.

NEXT: Condolences and Hopes for a Quick Recovery for Bill Kalles

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  1. It really is pathetic that of all the evil wicked things John Edwards has done to society in his life. People get upset over him having an affair?

  2. “The human brain does not have any special module for evaluating welfare policy or immigration policy…”

    AHA! No wonder they’ve buggered it up so badly.

  3. “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.”

    How would they know there were marriages 100,000 years ago?

  4. Sex and violence are what get people interested. Why this is a mystery to anyone is beyond me.

  5. the visceral distaste people feel about Edwards stems from there being an ancient part of the human brain that says,

    This man would eat me, and tan my hide to use as a parasol, if it served his purposes.

  6. We’ve all been brutally fucked by politicians for years. Why wouldn’t we have an interest in fellow victims?

  7. “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 [etc]”

    Thank goodness for evolutionary psychologists – without them, we’d have no idea why sex scandals were so interesting.

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

    Gotta admit, that does explain Lonewhacko.

  9. Episiarch | August 25, 2008, 10:36am | #

    Sex and violence are what get people interested. Why this is a mystery to anyone is beyond me.

    Basically agree; those things are visceral, exciting in a primal way, and so they elicit stronger reactions and emotions.

    Also – evolutionary advantage is conferred to traits which enhance the likelihood of survival for those who possess them, assuming that these traits are something which can be passed on to offspring repeatedly and unchanged. So are they saying that within the smaller clan-based societies we assume existed ~100,000 years ago, it was basically correct (proven by survival of the gene) to mistrust those who were liars and cheaters to their friends/spouses, to deny them positions of leadership or responsibility because there was no ‘professional/private life’ divide, whereas for a professional politician or government official today, there is? [lots of assumptions in this paragraph]

    Like, for example, Bill Clinton’s compulsive libertinism and hurting/shaming of his family didn’t reflect upon his ability to be president with integrity and devotion to the idea of serving the people? (Don’t everybody laugh too hard, that IS the ideal isn’t it…) I don’t know.. I thought the impeachment spectacle was shameful, hypocritical, and unneccessary, but the actions of his which it exposed DID reflect upon his character, which if you know it well enough should tell about where he stood vis a vis those ideals of integrity and devotion. So maybe the sex scandals are important for that reason, although it’s obvious that it’s the scandalized SEX and not the morality/character drama that is the main draw.

  10. Obama will not have your back in a Mastodon hunt.

    McCain will try to mate with your woman, may also steal the roots and berries you harvested.

  11. Did they then conceed that nobody probably read this article about articles about Edwards’ affiar becasue they were too busy reading articles about Edwards’ affair?

  12. “Sex and violence are what get people interested. Why this is a mystery to anyone is beyond me.”

    Absolutely right Epi – infotainment’s reason for existence is to deliver eyeballs to their sponsors. Not that there is anything wrong with that…standard libertarian disclosure.

  13. I’m willing to continue to believe that most people are just ignorant, petty, and stupid.

  14. So we somehow have to turn every case of wasting billions of taxpayer money into a sex scandal.

  15. Short version of the article: “If his wife can’t trust him, why should I?”

  16. But we really care because these famous people have become part of our monkeysphere.

  17. Wanting to read about Craig’s creepy bathroom misadventures, or Edwards’ morally defunct dallying is like slowing down to stare at a car crash.

    We’re not interested because we necessarily imagine these things happening to us (although that’s part of it). It’s about the vicarious thrill of adrenaline, accompanied by the feeling of relative safety since we’re comfortably removed from the wreckage.

  18. “people will tend to choose leaders they can relate to personally — and reject the leaders with whom they cannot see having a personal relationship.”

    You know, I can definitely relate to wanting to have sex with Rielle Hunter.

  19. “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.”

    If thier name is on a ballot you can’t trust them.

  20. It’s about the vicarious thrill of adrenaline, accompanied by the feeling of relative safety since we’re comfortably removed from the wreckage.

    And the enjoyment of watching sanctimonious assholes crash and burn. Never forget that part.

  21. Just another round of “this is why people are stupid and need edjumakated people like us progressives to make their decisions for them.”

  22. Does the reptilian brain have a visceral reaction to boring old farts with fanatical fixations? Could such old farts have been presented a danger in the Stone Age by giving off a stench that attracted predators? That could explain the meagre success of Ron Paul and libertarians in general. We might be on the something!

  23. So, Lefiti = Neil = Edward = Cesar, right?

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