Why the Battle Over Healthcare is Even More Important than You Think: Health, Personality & Politics

With attacks on provision of healthcare in the US and a ‘crisis’ in the NHS in the UK, the debate over governmental responsibility towards health has been raging once again in the news and across social media. This has made me reflect how this debate should not just be about the health of a nation, the quality of healthcare may dictate the entire future direction of the US and UK. One theory on the relationship between epidemiology, personality and political preference suggests good healthcare creates more liberals, bad more conservatives. I will try to explain why.

You may have heard that fear of death increases conservative behaviour, what you may not know is that nations with the most conservative, authoritarian governments have the highest levels of mortality from infectious diseases.

I’ve written before about how psychologically speaking liberalism is open-mindedness, at least the strongest predictor of liberal political views is the personality trait associated with how open someone is to new ideas and new experiences. And those countries with the highest mortality rate from infectious disease have the lowest average scores for open-mindedness in personality tests. Conversely those nations with lower levels of mortality from infectious disease have on average more open-minded populations and more liberal governments. It doesn’t even have to be an increase in mortality, but merely an increase in an individual’s perception of their risk of contagion or a compromised immune system.

If we put these together it seems that open-mindedness and deaths from infectious disease negatively correlate with one another. Why the focus on ‘infectious’ disease and not other diseases or causes of death? Well there’s no direct evidence why relief from deadly infections cause liberalism, but if open-mindedness includes openness to people who are different from yourself (whether because they look different, act different, believe different things or simply from other places) then it’s not a trait that would thrive when coming into contact with other groups of people brings a high risk of catching something you might die of. This is what has happened in those rich, Western nations with the best healthcare, they have produced the most liberal societies over the past 100 years. Remove that problem by removing risk of death and openness can flourish.

These are not my ideas; I came across it in Geoffrey Miller’s Must-Have, which gives a great overview of this research and reasoning. Randy Thornhill, who helped originate much of the research cited above even goes so far as to suggest the liberal moral progress of the last 50 to 100 years; rights for women, minorities and homosexual men and women as well as the growth of concern for the environment, may have its root cause in improvements in healthcare in those countries in the 20th century. It may be why the hippie movement in the 60’s came after conditions improved post-war and broad spectrum immunisations became available.

All of this is a fascinating lens through which to view the battles over health provision in the US over Obamacare and in the UK over the NHS funding deficit. Obamacare may have its problems, but its namesake may have unconsciously done more than any other president to create more liberals in the future, who will vote for candidates which share his views. Trumps attack on Obamacare and the UK Conservative government’s neglect of or outright hostility towards the NHS will create more conservative-minded people in the long run. Again this is unlikely to be consciously known by either government; to most liberals and conservatives the fight over healthcare is one of helping those in need versus desire for small government, low tax and who is deserving of handouts. But each political stance towards healthcare helps create more people who will share that stance, so if this reasoning from psychology and epidemiology is correct the battle over healthcare is even more important than expected, it’s also a battle for the very future of these nations.

– Matthew Dickinson
The Spiritual Materialist


The EU Referendum & the Tyranny of Democracy

In the debate about the referendum for the UK to leave the EU any people are complaining about the perceived lack of democracy in the EU parliament as policy are put up for debate by unelected bureaucrats, although they are voted on by elected members of the European parliament and sent to each national government to look over and they can choose to veto them.

My question is why is this so bad? Surely some policies should be completely off the table and a purely democratic process can theoretically entertain any idea. What if it, for example, the majority of the populace thought the UK should bring back the death penalty? Some would say if that’s what the people say that should be allowed to happen. I’m not convinced, I would have to be presented with strong evidence that threat of the death penalty reduces crimes and outweighs the costs of ending human life and the psychological and social costs to people who live in a society that has the death penalty (fear it will be used on innocents and the effect it has on workers and inmates of prison for example). Yes, bureaucrats who curate the status quo are also unlikely to put forward potentially more positive changes and who they are and how they make selections should be scrutinised.

The best way to sort through the various potential policies, to bring new things to the table and weigh their costs and benefits is, as always, the use of strong scientific and other evidence in the use of policy, not popular opinion. Yes we need democracy in some form; it is quicker to adapt to changing circumstances and people’s voices should be heard. But I’m becoming more and more convinced democracy is its own form of tyranny, one dictated by the many rather than the few. Unlike some commentators I don’t think that the electorate is unqualified to make certain decisions (that’s just snobbish), but when science is revealing the variation among people more and more it becomes more and more clear that the obeying beliefs of the many will always come at a cost for the few. Different people have different needs to make them happy and society should aim to maximise that for all of them as long as it is not at a cost to others (again this comes back to the argument about capital punishment). Science is guilty of this too, because statistics works by looking at what works for the majority, this is one of the reasons many feel modern medicine doesn’t work for them and choose to have complementary or alternative treatment. But science doesn’t discount the minority and the outliers and its nature means it does correct itself when it overlooks them and is more capable of building up a more nuanced picture.

 – Matthew Dickinson,
The Spiritual Materialist

Why the Prime Minister of Great Britain Should Not Be Elected Democratically

Why is it that the general public is expected and trusted to be fair and impartial when called to jury service, interviewing for jobs or working in almost any occupation, but this is not the case when it comes to making the most important decision: voting for who will run the country? In almost any other job we trust people to be objective and we punish them if they aren’t, judges, doctors, managers, if they don’t follow where the evidence points but where their personal opinions guide them or if they break protocol they risk their reputation and their job. Politicians can have a reputation in ruins but still keep their job.

Ideology and the persuasive power of image have been known to be the biggest drawbacks to democracy for time immemorial, yet very little has ever been done to reduce their effects and arguably in the past few decades they have been exacerbated with a move towards the political extremes in both the US and UK. This is likely to get even worse with the rise of social media as image and celebrity become more pronounced and they tend to be echo chambers reinforce people’s ideologies and runaway processes take place as things go viral. Irrelevant characteristics relating to candidates image such as facial structure and vocal range and style are known to influence voters.

Would Donald Trump (née Drumpf) have been a contender for the presidency without social media? Would he persuade anyone if political candidates had to wear burkas and disguise their voice when appearing in public? One day soon we will get a politician who is the Boaty McBoatface of parliament, elected because he amuses people to do so (one could argue Boris Johnson proves this has already happened). Continue reading

Conservatives, Fairness & the Hard-work Myth at the Core of Capitalism

Imagine a friend invites you and five other friends over to help paint his living room, he promises a slice of cake he’s baked as a reward. Between you the room is finished over the course of the afternoon and the cake is brought out to be served. The question is how to you slice it? You could all be given an equal sixth slice, but two of the other only turned up two hours in, another pair was messing around writing messages to each other with the paint and you were the only one who got up on the ladder to do the hard to reach bits, surely you deserve a larger slice of the cake? Continue reading

Vicious Circles in the Current State of Politics

Apologies to long-time readers for the long absence while I got my PhD back on track and sorted out some health issues, I’m back with a complete change in subject: politics!

This is the first in a series of planned posts that will talk about some of the issues in our political systems and later start to lay out some possible solutions (and will be mercifully shorter to boot). Continue reading

Study: Religious Belief Acts as a Cue for Open-mindedness when Choosing Romantic Partners

Some time ago I wrote about Geoffrey Miller’s brilliant thesis that we adorn ourselves with consumer products, ideologies and religious beliefs that allow us to best display our personality traits as detailed in the Big Five model. This means we try show off our degree of Open-mindedness, Consciousness, Extraversion, Emotional Stability and Agreeableness by our choice of conversation topics, body and home decorations and attendances at religious and secular groups (among many other strange things we do). He further argues that these displays are unique to the human species and are a huge part of what made us evolve our intelligence, sense of humour and other physical and mental characteristics that make us different from our closest animal relatives. These came about through sexual selection, which is usually overlooked or denied as a significant factor in human evolution.

A new study from the University of Otago, New Zealand provides strong confirmatory evidence for Miller’s theory. Continue reading