Nothing titillates and arouses like a good scandal, particularly if it involves sex, betrayal, or avarice. The question is why. Among the array of the things that do or could impact us, why are we more interested in a scandal which touches us only in the remotest sense?
One evolutionary psychologist believes he has an answer. In a recent Washington Post article, Why Fluff-Over-Substance Makes Perfect Evolutionary Sense, Hank Davis from the University of Guelph in Ontario explains that the primal parts of our brains evolved long ago when knowing information about “who needs a favor, who is in a position to offer one, who is trustworthy, who is a liar, who is available sexually, who is under the protection of a jealous partner, who is likely to abandon a family, who poses a threat to us” conferred survival advantages. Yes, our brains have become more complex since then, but these primal parts still remain as instinctual guides.
Sounds very plausible, so far. But the article goes on to suggest,
[I]f the evolutionary psychologists are correct, people will tend to choose leaders they can relate to personally — and reject the leaders with whom they cannot see having a personal relationship.
This is true, but I don’t think it’s necessarily for the reasons the evolutionary psychologists propose. Earlier in the article, it was mentioned that questions over the military service of John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush dogged these two politicians for years, yet that didn’t prevent them from being politically successful, as the model might have predicted. And consider Bill Clinton, who long battled accusations, some of which turned out to be true, over sexual infidelity. He also lied about his dalliances. This cost him dearly among some, but for the most part, voters looked the other way–again, contrary to the model. (I could go on…*cough*DC’s Marion Barry*cough*).
Instead, I think perhaps our values wield a stronger influence over our perceptions of others, and our receptivity to them. If I, for example, value economic equality, I’ll be more receptive to thinking I could have a personal relationship with politicians who share it, and overlook whatever “character flaws” they may have. These values don’t necessarily have to be public policy-oriented, but policy proposals should be framed in general value terms, e.g., “the minimum wage is a question of fairness” or “the war on terror is about protecting our families”.
As much as I like their theory, I don’t think the evolutionary psychologists have got it quite right.