10/02/2014 11:00 EDT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 EST

Why our brains aren't built for democracy

While electing a mayor or prime minister can often be a head-scratching process, a provocative new thesis from the University of British Columbia suggests our brains may not be cut out for the political system we’ve created.

We may, in fact, be too dumb for democracy.

David Moscrop, a Ph.D political science candidate at UBC, points out that modern democracy was built on the idea that citizens are rational and autonomous.

But he says voters across the political spectrum are more likely to vote with instinct than reason.

“We’re motivated by our so-called 'lizard brains,'” says Moscrop.

He says the voting public isn't encouraged to wade through political platforms to make informed decisions.

“It’s about messaging and name familiarity. And it reflects our own vulnerability to being manipulated -- which is why attack ads work and sound bites work.”

Mental limitations

The “lizard brain” is a catch-all term for the areas of our brain that developed between 500 million and 150 million years ago and are primarily responsible for instinct, emotion and recording memories, as well as visceral feelings that influence or even direct our decisions.

The neocortex, on the other hand, is the area of our brain responsible for reason, language, imagination, abstract thought and consciousness. Scientists say the neocortex has only been around for two or three million years.

When it comes to understanding the workings of the human brain, it's worth remembering that only a small percentage of our active brain is conscious.

It is impossible to quantify, but scientists say roughly 95 per cent of our brain activity is subconscious or unconscious.

“It is flawed to think that we’re fully in control,” says Tanya Chartrand, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Duke University.

“We don’t have the mental capacity to process everything in our environment with conscious awareness and intent, so we pay attention to a small percentage of the environment at any given time. But in the background, we’re non-consciously processing much, much more. And non-conscious processing later influences the decisions we make.”

Chartrand points to a famous study published in 1996, in which psychologist John Bargh and his team at New York University assigned research subjects the task of reworking sentences.

The subjects working with words associated with the elderly – words such as "retirement" and "Florida" – left the research lab walking more slowly than their counterparts who were given neutral words.

Psychologists refer to this effect as "priming," and this experiment is just one of many that demonstrates our susceptibility to suggestion.

Political preferences are pre-formed

“You would think that for high-involvement situations, like deciding on who to vote for, we should be creating spreadsheets of pros and cons and deliberately considering the pros and cons of candidates’ platforms,” says Chartrand.

But the truth is, most of us don’t.

Moscrop says that election campaigns are run on a presumption that voters’ political preferences are already formed.

A campaign, then, isn’t really about engaging citizens in a rigorous exchange of transformative ideas, but rather reaffirming people’s existing ideological biases and mobilizing citizens to vote for their respective camp.  

If the goal of democracy is to engage in a rigorous exchange of ideas that results in a greater good for all citizens, one of the first things to do is downplay the role of television ads during election campaigns, says University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath.

“Reason resides in language and our ability to explicitly articulate how we get from point A to point B in an argument,” says Heath.

“If you’re trying to communicate through visual stimulation, it won’t encourage a rational appreciation of things, and that has a bunch of implications. Reason is very, very slow. Speed encourages gut reactions.”

Heath also thinks it would be a good idea to get rid of cameras in the House of Commons.

“The way we organize Question Period in Canada is ridiculous,” he says. He believes providing MPs with questions in advance of Question Period, for example, would foster a reasoned exchange of ideas.

Right now, he says, “It’s gotcha moments -- questions are not provided in advance. The goal is to catch the minister unaware. And that degrades Canadian political discourse.”

Designing a ‘user-friendly’ democracy

In his recent book, Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives, Heath argues for a re-think of the expectations we have of individual citizens as well as the democratic structures we operate in.

“We’ve tended to think of human rationality as something located deep inside our brains. Whereas new psychological research shows that rationality is achieved through collaboration with people in groups and in a particular environment,” says Heath.

Heath says that the political system should be conceived with our cognitive limitations in mind. He puts an emphasis on design. Two-year-olds can figure out how to operate an iPad, for example, because it is designed in a way that plays on human instinct.

“I would love to see a discussion about social institutions that could be built to better suit the way we operate,” he says.

Moscrop is a strong supporter of the idea of “deliberative” democracy, providing resources and incentives to citizens from all political stripes so that they can gather to discuss and advise on policy, using the results to influence politicians and also educate other citizens.

Such a practice, Moscrop hopes, would build civic engagement better than the current game of party politics, with its narrow focus on the ballot box.

He believes that if we acknowledge our mental limitations, we can design a democracy that takes into account our cognitive flaws.

“You change the structure, and the way things operate is going to change. But at the moment, the incentives are all there to do things at a base level.”

Listen to the Ideas documentary Too Dumb for Democracy on Thursday, Oct. 2 at 9:05 p.m. ET on CBC Radio One.