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Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  163 ratings  ·  34 reviews
Can a football game affect the outcome of an election? What about shark attacks? Or a drought? In a rational world the answer, of course, would be no. But as bestselling historian Rick Shenkman explains in Political Animals, our world is anything but rational. Drawing on science, politics, and history, Shenkman explores the hidden forces behind our often illogical choices. ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published January 5th 2016 by Basic Books
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John Kaufmann
Fabulous book. This book doesn't deal with what makes us liberal or conservative. Instead, the focus is on the biases and brain bugs we (collectively as well as individually) use to choose our leaders.

These biases, or heuristics in the scientific nomenclature, are part of our nature. They are mental routines and shortcuts we use to make decisions, the result of evolutionary pressures on our hunter-gatherer ancestors to make good-enough decisions with minimal expenditure of brainpower (energy).
Jackson Schad
Jan 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing
As someone who has recently become interested in being a civically engaged citizen, this book proves an excellent primer.
Kathleen (itpdx)
Mar 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This explains a lot! Rick Shenkman takes us through what we have learned about our instincts. Our instincts evolved in the Pleistocene when we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers. Our curiosity, empathy, view of truth and ability to read people are adapted to very different circumstances than we currently live in now. Shenkman explains what this means for our politics. At the beginning this interesting but discouraging. Are we capable of adapting our gut reactions to the modern political pi ...more
Feb 22, 2017 rated it liked it
I made a list of books about how our minds affect political behavior in unconscious or non-intellectual ways. I began with this based on a Washington Post review that spoke of its relevance to the 2016 election.

Not having read the other books, I can't compare them. This book has significant gaps / biases. He seems to get half of the lessons of some studies and to only understand some of the relevant differences between hunter-gatherers and our society.

I agree with him that using a "story" to pre
Jul 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
There's nothing earth shattering in this account of how our rational brain tends to break down in the irrational world of politics, but with election season upon us, it's a helpful reminder of four proven truths: (1) People are surprisingly incurious and apathetic about politics, (2) We have a hard time seeing the truth in politics and politicians, (3) We punish politicians who try to tell us the truth, and (4) We can feel empathy on a small scale but not on a big scale, where it's needed most. ...more
May 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some people have found this superficial, and if you are a policy wonk it probably is. It isn't AIMED at policy wonks. It's aimed a people like me who are deeply puzzled by the current election season. And it helps understand it in an entertaining way. If you are anti-evolution, don't bother. If you have no trouble thinking our distant ancestors had different life requirements from us, it will explain how we still have behaviors useful for hunter-gatherers messing up modern democracy. ...more
Mar 02, 2016 rated it liked it
First section very interesting. dropped off a bit by the end
May 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing

Our brains are marvels of evolution, the result of hundreds of thousands of years of our specie’s struggle for survival. However, as Rick Shenkman so ably demonstrates in his Political Animals: How our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, they can also mislead and even deceive us in our current world in which we are daily bombarded by efforts to intentionally mislead and manipulate us.

The Evidence
It appears that our brains’ structure and our wired-in behavioral instincts were f
Jurij Fedorov
Dec 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
It's a really good intro psychology book for beginners but as you may expect it is a bit more of the same for psychologists who already know a lot about biases.


The author explains everything with simple terms and I was time after time surprised by how well he explained theories and studies that are usually are a bit hard to explain in practical terms. He presents the science of bias in an evolutionary psychology light and along the way I learn a few new things even as a nerd on this topic.

Oct 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
When I read these types of books, I have a hard time deciphering if my reaction is lukewarm because I'm already familiar with a lot of the studies referenced, or if the book is simply just not that great. I was hoping for more concrete take-aways, but maybe my disappointment is more driven by the complexity of human nature. I did find that the author's anecdotes and explanations became very repetitive, almost like he couldn't trust the reader to understand a concept the first time he explained i ...more
Oct 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
An excellent evidence based discussion on how and why politics and the discussion of them is so difficult in America. Using scientific studies, particularly in the realm of Social Behavior, the author sites several examples, of both conservative and liberal politicians that exhibit the behaviors that we as the people keeping them in power, need to recognize, and why we keep them in power even after they are, obviously to some, may not be working in our best interests as members of the voting pub ...more
Nov 14, 2017 rated it liked it
A good book but a difficult read at times. It also gets dragged down by the fact that it could've been shorter (although I appreciate the thoroughness that Shenkman takes to detail all the research he did) and also that in some chapters it just keeps saying the same thing but in a different way. Don't know if that was the author's intention but that's how I perceived it. ...more
Jul 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was an exceptional book! Really helped understand the irrational tenancies of voters and people in general - myself included. It explores human tendencies towards various biases and their evolutionary origins.

This is a must read for those wanting to reach large crowds and organize political movements.
Jan 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
In these days of divisive rhetoric and post-truth politics it is hard to understand the reasons why voters make the choices they do. Rick Shenkman's book, Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, gives readers many clues. Recommended. ...more
Paul Manytravels
Nov 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shenkman offers scientific research to help explain why we make political choices which are neither in our own best interests nor in the best interests of the society and nation as a whole. Many forces within our own psychology contribute to this bad decision making and we are also very much influences by our heredity and upbringing.
The analysis offered in this book rests upon research and surveys explaining many forces not previously factored into evaluating why elections turn out the way they
Billie Pritchett
Nov 24, 2016 rated it liked it
The book is fine, I guess, but most of it smacks of common sense and those things that don't ring familiar. Better to hear Rick Shenkman talk about his ideas in Political Animals on YouTube or on a podcast, putting for instance the ascension of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate in perspective. Here are some highlights from Shenkman's book.

One has to do with this longstanding idea in anthropology and it amounts to this. We've got brains that are only designed to keep track of about 150 peo
John Ronald
Nov 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pretty interesting discussion about human evolutionary pressures and its impact on our psychology through the ages and how what worked on the Savannah may be ill suited in a modern, high tech Democracy like ours. Makes a good companion piece to the writings of George Lakoff, among others. Spends more time outlining problems but rather limited in proposed solutions.
Chris Aylott
Aug 23, 2016 rated it liked it
This book takes the predictably irrational actors of economics and applies them to politics. Shenkman calls out some interesting research and historical outcomes to show that -- again, not surprising to an economist -- we're not nearly as rational as we like to think we are. We have all kinds of biases and an amazing ability to rationalize political "decisions" that have been influenced by random, unrelated events.

All of which is good stuff that is well worth covering in the book. At the same t
Malin Friess
Aug 23, 2016 rated it liked it
Shenkman argues that the public often makes irrational choices when voting for political candidates. We are guided by our instincts and not rational arguments.

If you enjoy Presidential History you will enjoy this book.

Did you know President Grover Cleveland had oral cancer on his hard palate. He kept the Surgery secret by being operated on a cruise ship leaving from Washington DC and keeping his mustache intact.
Did you know Clinton did far more to reform Welfare than Ronald Regan?
Did you know
Sep 01, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Our brains and first reactions have not caught up with our quick pace society. An interesting study of all kinds ways this plays out.

pg 231
Humans...are bad at predicting the future...because (it) is unknowable. All we have to go on is the past, and the past is often a poor guide, particularly in times of great flux.....but as long a we are open to evidence.....willing to try new approaches...we'll probably hit on a solution. FDR 'If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, Try
Apr 26, 2016 rated it liked it
Has some good points but Franz DeWaal said it better in "Chimpanzee Politics." Worse, he succumbs to his own descriptions when talking about Watergate. On page 102, he points out that, "the trial of the Watergate defendants began in January 1973 ... In March one o the Watergate burglars confessed to the judge in the case that he had committed perjury to protect the White House." The point is that the first confession that it was a coverup that went all the way to the White House happened five mo ...more
Tom Zingarelli narrates Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics by Rick Shenkman with character and wisdom. As we face a major season of election, this timeless book instructs and advises the listener how to wisely choose their candidate, and how events affect the outcome of elections. The material is user friendly for the common man to learn how the political machine works. Recommended to voters of all ages, especially those young voters who are confused and ...more
Ian Rose
Mar 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Really interesting. There are some points I would argue with, but those are hugely overshadowed by the study results and examples that go into why we make the political decisions we do and how we interpret the flood of information that comes at us these days. One of my favorite nonfiction books of the last few years.
Doug Cornelius
May 18, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2016
People are overly reliant on their peers in guiding their political views. Most of us are less likely to read a story with a position that we oppose. We have less personal interaction with our politicians and rely on television ads and news snippets to guide our views. Then add in human biases. No wonder we can't figure out who to vote for. ...more
Richard Scholtz
Apr 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
It contains the cure to our problems, but few will ever do what's required. Rick Shenkman has encapsulated a very common sense approach, with anthropology, psychology, and political-science. The unfortunate truth is uncovered, as the cliché says, "nothing comes without effort." ...more
May 27, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-govt
Really well thought out and created look at how politics and politicians operate and integrate in our lives. The examples used to dissect the ideas are spot on and recognizable. The author does a great job putting together a narrative that is curious, intelligent, and interesting.
Angela Juline
May 21, 2016 rated it it was ok
Well...a lot of interesting information - just not sure what should be done with it. He does have a chapter that attempts to answer that question, but I didn't find it to be very well laid out. ...more
Jul 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Lucid, sometimes wryly humorous, extremely informative, and with a minimum of redundancy, this is an excellent read for politics, science, and philosophy enthusiasts alike. Recommended.
Chris Hokanson
Oct 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The practical application of Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow for our modern political world. ...more
Apr 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Really thought-provoking and very timely...
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