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Schemas and the Political Brain
Understanding how cognitive shortcuts work when processing new information is crucial to understanding modern politics—and it's a facet of cognition that Republicans manipulate extremely effectively.
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Before you keep reading, try this experiment. Take a blank piece of paper and, in as much detail as possible, draw a $5 bill or £5 note, purely from memory.
If you do, you’ll be astonished to realize how rudimentary and wrong your drawing turns out to be. These are objects that we’ve seen thousands of times in our lifetimes. We instantly recognize them. We have a clear sense of what they’re supposed to look like. But when it comes to recreating them in granular detail, most of us are utterly useless. Our memory can recognize, but not always reproduce.
Our cognitive processing and our memories don’t work the way we think they do. We tend to imagine there’s some sort of file drawer within our heads, in which all sorts of information goes in, gets stored in pristine form, and then we pull it out when we need it. But that’s not true.
Instead, we often process information using schemas, a key concept within psychology, neuroscience, and cognition. Understanding how they work is crucial for making sense of modern politics. The political brain is a brain defined by schemas. Political movements that understand that fact will usually beat those that don’t.
Republicans have battered Democrats on messaging in recent years because they intuitively understand schemas in a way that Democrats often don’t.
What is a schema?
The word schema comes from the Greek schēmat or schēma, which means “form.” But the concept in its modern usage refers to patterns of thought that provide intellectual shortcuts for processing the information we encounter in our lives. Think of it a bit like your brain’s organizational system, which structures our knowledge, old and new. To organize vast quantities of data, we need to sort everything into categories and patterns, with simplified assumptions.
The whole world we experience is, in a sense, a giant set of data. When you go for a walk, the amount of data your brain encounters is overwhelming—the shade of color on every leaf, the patterns of cracks on the sidewalk, the faces of every person you encounter, what they’re wearing, and whether they smiled at you as you went past.
It would be impossible for your brain to process and retain all that information, particularly because most of it provides little value to you. You don’t need to recall in vivid detail whether a random woman you once walked past was wearing a hat or not. As a result, the brain does a bit of intellectual triage, where most of the information we process about the world is culled and discarded. It’s a highly efficient way of dealing with and navigating an immeasurably complex world. Our brains have evolved to process information this way because it helps us survive, able to retain what matters and forget what doesn’t.
However, some information is important—and it needs to be retained efficiently in a format that can be useful to us later on. So, rather than remembering exactly what every office we have ever set foot in looks like, we develop a conceptual representation of what an office looks like. Then, when we remember an office, we fill in the gaps. So, even if we go into an office without a stapler on the desk, we often remember that a stapler was there later on, because that fits with our schema for an office.
Psychology and neuroscience experiments have shown something even more astonishing. The schemas in our heads actually alter how we perceive the world. We tend to pay attention more to that which matches our schemas most — and when reality doesn’t conform to our schemas, we sometimes just reshape reality so it matches better.
This was demonstrated by the British psychologist Frederic Bartlett in 1932, in a series of experiments which showed that people transform reality in their memories to match their worldviews and schemas. When people were told a story that was alien to their culture (such as a Native American folktale) and then were asked to recall the story later, participants changed the story so that it made more sense within their cultural framework. Their memory effectively edited the story subconsciously to fit their schema.
Memory is closer to imagination than we think, recreating what fits rather than perfectly recalling what happened.
This matters for politics, because it means that people have an easier time processing and retaining information that matches their worldview; that they will pay more attention to stories that affirm their mental frameworks for understanding the world; and they will even rewrite reality to match those schemas operating in their heads.
A politician can behave flawlessly, but if our schema has already typecast them as an incompetent or malicious moron, then no fresh facts will dig them out of that hole.
The political brain
Those who are professionally employed in politics are extremely weird relative to the rest of the population. They live and breathe politics, whereas the overwhelming majority of people rarely think about politics beyond the news headlines. While political junkies might be able to rattle off an endless array of statistics and understand the minutiae of policy, very few people devote that level of intellectual bandwidth to politics. That means that most people process political information using a lot more cognitive shorthands, making schemas exceptionally important.
Effective politicians are able to imbue a constellation of facts with a new meaning, providing voters with a fresh cognitive shortcut to make sense of the political world. Donald Trump is not, as he’s claimed, a “stable genius,” but he is extremely skilled at defining his opponents in ways that stick. In effect, he’s providing voters with a new schema with which to understand the political landscape.
In the 2016 primary, for example, Trump took several opponents who had decent name recognition in the general population and redefined them in an instant. What’s less cognitively demanding: reading about Jeb(!) Bush’s policy platform in granular detail, or dismissing him because he’s “Low Energy Jeb"? The same held true for “Liddle Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz.
For many GOP voters, these labels crowded out information about the various candidates. But it wasn’t just that they began to see Trump’s rivals through the prism of these simplified insults, but that they actually paid more attention to aspects of their candidacies that were tied to the insult.
Marco Rubio’s height and shoes became salient aspects of the campaign because voters, with their new schema for how they perceived him, paid more attention to those previously ignored features. Trump’s insults provided voters with a new framework for processing information, but it also affected which information they paid attention to in the first place.
What Trump did was devastating even to candidates who were well known among political activists. But schemas can be much more fluid during first impressions, when there is no existing intellectual scaffolding to dismantle or rearrange. When someone is a blank slate, fresh schemas can destroy political careers in a matter of minutes.
Take former British Prime Minister Liz Truss. She ruled Britain for 49 days, failing to outlast a lettuce. The lettuce gag may have seemed like a silly sideshow, but when I saw it, I knew Liz Truss was toast. She had become defined by a punchline. Every piece of new information in the news was filtered through a schema that was shared across the British political divide: Liz Truss is an incompetent screw-up who crashed the economy and is likely to expire before a comically bespectacled bit of produce.
After that, it didn’t really matter what Truss did. Everything she did would be analyzed in exacting detail, with everyone looking for snippets of information that confirmed that she was an incompetent screw-up. She’d been defined within a framework that was devastating. Reversing a political schema — particularly after it’s set — is extremely difficult. As a result, Truss is now doomed to be a trivia question, the shortest serving prime minister in British political history. (The previous record holder had the rather good excuse of dying in office).
Conversely, Boris Johnson had carefully cultivated the schema that he was a lovable smirking rogue buffoon. It’s often said that he deliberately tousled his hair before appearing on camera to reinforce that image. Why was it that so many scandals that would have destroyed others didn’t destroy Boris? Because each scandal fit into the schema neatly, leading voters to shrug, shake their heads, and say with a smile: “Well, there goes Boris being Boris again.” That intellectual shortcut — which he served to Britons on a silver platter — doubled as his political armor.
The hidden brilliance of 'gas stove’ politics
Because schemas provide intellectual shortcuts, political schemas tend to be defined by a big picture view of who people are and how things work. Republicans have spent a lot of time and effort in portraying Democrats as out-of-touch socialist elites who think the solution to every problem is government intervention. It’s politically useful to the GOP, because new policy proposals sometimes neatly fit into that schema—and it sticks.
This is why the GOP has made gas stoves a rallying call in recent weeks, ever since there was a whiff that they may be banned in the future due to their harmful health effects. To most ordinary people, this was seen as a wacky policy proposal from Democrats that would affect their daily existence in ways that fit like a glove in the schema that Republicans have cultivated for decades. It doesn’t matter that Joe Biden has since explicitly disavowed the idea of banning gas stoves; it will be part of the mental map that voters ascribe to Democrats for years to come, because it’s so perfectly aligned with the “government overreach” schema.
The same is true for “defund the police,” which was a tagline that is likely to haunt Democrats for years. For purely strategic reasons, it doesn’t matter what the actual policy proposals were or whether they had merit. “Defund the police” was a tagline that fit perfectly into a mental slot for understanding the Democrats which Republicans had deliberately chiseled out over the years.
This is why schemas are so crucial to understand. Democrats can repeat, over and over, that Joe Biden has proposed $35 billion in funding for law enforcement and is working to recruit 100,000 new police officers. Still, the average voter is more likely to associate Biden with “defund the police” than “drastically expand police funding.”
It doesn’t matter what’s true. It matters what mental framework voters use to assess political options before them. And on that front, Republicans are often significantly better at ignoring the policy details and focusing instead on shaping schemas within which voters perceive the world. Too many people in politics think you’ll win the argument if you have better facts. But winning the argument in politics isn’t often about finding more or better facts. It’s about perception and the cognitive shortcuts we use to process information as we sort our world into neat categories that make sense.
Perhaps the best example of a politician misunderstanding this basic fact about how politics works comes from Mike Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in the 1988 presidential election.
In his book, The Political Brain, Drew Westen highlights this opening exchange from the 1988 presidential debate.
BERNARD SHAW: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would
you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
DUKAKIS: "No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”
As Westen writes:
On the face of it, Shaw asked the governor a direct question, and Dukakis gave him a direct answer. But he answered the wrong question. The question was not the pragmatic, utilitarian one Dukakis heard (“Is the death penalty a useful deterrent?”). Dukakis answered in the language of rational utility: “I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” But what the average listener heard was his answer to three very different questions: “Are you a man?” “Do you have a heart?” and “Are we similar enough that I could trust you to represent me and my values as president?” For most Americans, the answer to all three questions was no.
Dukakis lost the election in those thirty seconds. No matter what he did after that moment, the schema for understanding him had shifted. Dukakis was an unfeeling robotic policy wonk who would respond to the horrific prospect of his wife being raped and murdered not with a weapon, but with statistics. The moderator’s question was totally out of line, but it didn’t matter. Dukakis was finished.
The Republicans twisted the knife with the now infamous Willie Horton ad, which solidified the schema that most voters used to understand Dukakis. His huge lead in the polls collapsed. He lost in a landslide.
How to use schemas
The lesson, then, is not that fact-based arguments are meaningless in politics, but rather that facts are most effective when they’re nestled within a ready-made intellectual framework for how to make sense of the world. Effective political movements use facts to reinforce schemas, but they understand that the schemas are what matter most. It’s a depressing truth, but getting the right taglines, slogans, and vivid ways of presenting political opponents is often far more important than being right.
So, if Democrats want to loosen Trump’s grip on the modern GOP, then the messaging needs to match the audience, while recognizing the schemas that Trump’s voters are using to process reality. Democrats can shout from the rooftops about how Trump is a racist authoritarian tax dodger who poses an existential threat to American democracy (facts that are certainly worth repeating!). But no matter how loudly those arguments are repeated, voters in the GOP base use schemas that simply don’t have a place for those facts. They’ll ignore them, dismiss them, contort themselves with brain gymnastics until they end up in a position where they remain comfortable within their existing cognitive framework.
What’s more likely to be effective to sway the MAGA base is to brand Trump as a loser, partly because that does fit with Republican schemas, and partly because it’s a direct attack on the schema that Trump has tried to cultivate for himself for his entire life — that he’s a winner who lives in a golden penthouse, a strategic genius who always ends up on top.
If you really want to destroy someone in politics, don’t attack them with a barrage of facts and decimal points, change the fundamental way that their own supporters perceive them. The path to political victory runs, to an astonishing degree, through psychology and neuroscience. That way true power lies.
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