Fels Inclusive Public Leadership Series: How to Understand the Motivations and Mindsets of the U.S. Electorate

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Abigail Dym, Dual MPA/MS Education ‘18
February 7, 2017

On Friday, February 3rd, Fels hosted the second event in its newly launched Inclusive Public Leadership Series, focused on understanding the motivations and mindsets of the the U.S. electorate.


The discussion was moderated by Professor Robert Kurzban of the Penn Psychology Department. In 2003, Professor Kurzban founded the Penn Laboratory for Experimental Evolutionary Psychology and has published numerous articles on topics spanning morality, friendship, supernatural beliefs, self-control, cooperation, and more. He has recently launched a website called “We The Pleeble: Social Science for the Pleeps”.  


During the discussion, Kurzban argued that political ideology is a downstream variable from lifestyle choices. This philosophy on the causality between variables turns upside-down the more commonly understood relationship between political views and lifestyles choices, where the former influences the latter. Based on Kurzban’s assertion, we choose our political views based on our self-interest – functioning on a deeply subconscious level – to foster a government that enforces laws to reflect how we hope to live our own lives.


For example, if an individual has ‘won’ the genetic lottery, having met societal standards of beauty and extroversion, “it’s more likely that s/he will choose a more promiscuous lifestyle akin to that of the protagonists of “Sex and the City” than that in, say, “Leave it to Beaver”. Attractiveness and social affirmation drives the types and amount of sex (see: casual and lots). Choosing this lifestyle will then influence the individual’s ideology to support the absence of the state in intervening in choices pertaining to relationships and sex. A policy position to reflect this self-interest might be supporting equal marriage or access to birth control and reproductive services. Ultimately, based on this research, it appears we don’t want people interfering with our preferred lifestyles and we will seek out political platforms that allow us to live as we please.


Recognizing the difficulty inherent in understanding humans’ “hidden agendas”, Kurzban did an excellent job fielding questions and humbly acknowledging the caveats of his work. He urged those in attendance to entertain the notion that we neither know the motivations for other people’s political views, nor are we all that familiar with our own. As we move forward into a new political environment, we ought to remember that all people have tangible interests that they will work to promote in the public realm.


After a fascinating lecture and fruitful discussion, Kurzban ended the talk with the following suggestion: “Have more charity about your opponents’ views. Self-interest can be dark, but your opponent’s self-interest is no darker than your's”. Useful advice you can take or leave, depending on your self-interest. 

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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