Steven Johnson believes his Congressman wants what is best for him. “Government primarily attracts good people,” he told me, “people who want to help others.” It’s a common belief, but is it true? We decided to find out by turning a cutting edge technology, brain scanning, on to some politicians and government employees.
Actually, I just made that paragraph up. But I wrote it because a question has been gnawing at me for years now. In an age where neuromarketing reveals that what we say we want and what we really want are two different things, and behavioral economics shows that humans don’t always behave according to theory, why has government and politics stayed off limits to these researchers?
Imagine if brain scans of bureaucrats showed that discussions of cost cutting triggered the “disgust” centers of their brains, while discussions of an increased budget triggered the areas associated with status and power. Imagine if brain scans of high level politicians showed that, when making decisions, the brain areas at work aren’t those evaluating right and wrong or help and altruism, but those involved in self-preservation and power seeking? Is it so inconceivable that it could turn out that way?
I realize Barack Obama isn’t heading to a fMRI machine any time soon, but research could still move in that direction by creating a field called “behavioral politics.” The premise of the new field would be simple: politicians have personal and professional incentives that skew their decision making, and behavioral politics is the field of identifying those incentives and measuring the impact on policy.
I think what you would find from such research is that politicians aren’t problem solvers at all, that they don’t have a solid understanding of the complexity involved in most issues they address, that they overestimate their abilities and skills, and that they are more focused on advancing their own careers and the power of their party than on the will of the people.
So if by chance you know a grad student looking for a dissertation topic, pass this along. I think this idea has legs, and as a country, we need to change the way we think about politicians before they ruin our country and our future. Proving that their incentives are misaligned is the first step in exposing them for what they really are.