Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Stone Age tribes going to the polls

By Malcolm Potts

"Democracy," as Winston Churchill once told the British parliament "is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The Founding Fathers had a vision of democracy that was probably the best that wise people could achieve. Tragically, over the years US democracy has turned into something entirely different and a genuinely worse form of government.

I take a wonderful peer reviewed journal called Evolution and Human Behavior and on Election Day the November copy came through the mail. A husband and wife team, Patrick and Charlotte Markey had made a profound observation about US elections. They started from an unexpected view point - hits on the Internet by people looking for erotic sites. It is not clear how much Internet traffic falls in this category, but it is a lot. According to Nielson Online one quarter of employees visit Internet porn sites during working hours. The Markeys looked at hits after an election result was announced. The found that in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 US election cycles, individual located voting for the winning party tended to search for pornography more than those voting for the losing party.

In men, or in male mammals as whole, testosterone levels fluctuate throughout the day and in response to the environment. In competitive situations, such as American football, testosterone levels rise during a game in both sides then fall in the losers, but remain elevated in the winners. Even old men playing dominoes in France show this pattern. Testosterone is associated with violence, risk taking and seeking erotic outlets. It is also a ‘feel-good’ hormone. The hypothesis in the election is that the winners have higher testosterone, they feel good, and they are more likely to look for erotica on the web. The hits vary by a few percent but the numbers are huge and the results robust.

We are not electing thoughtful people trying to tackle weighty problems facing a nation fighting two ways, burdened with unprecedented economic woes and bitterly divided on environmental and social issues. We are electing warriors. Politics has ceased to be local. What was planned as a democracy has morphed into a competition where the goal of the combatants, who are supposed to be our representatives, is not to represent us but to defeat the enemy party – and we are their fans, caught up in the same Stone Age predispositions to form in-groups and out-groups and to want to eliminate our enemies.

I don’t have a solution, but solutions do begin with diagnoses and my diagnosis is that we don’t live in a democracy, but in the middle of war between men - and most politicians still are men- with Stone Age tribal behaviors. The winners get a testosterone high and run off to close the office door and turn on their computers. And the genuine problems of governance remain unsolved.

Markey PM and Markey CN changes on pornography-seeking behaviors following political elections. Evolution and Human Behavior. 31;442-446. 2010.