Demonization becomes a winning Darwinian strategy

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

We learn by paying attention to what others attend to, which is why, Arnold Kling speculates, in-class learning works better than watching a lecture on line:

When I am in a classroom, others are paying attention to the speaker. This makes my attention to the speaker instinctive. I don’t have to use so much willpower to pay attention. But when it’s just me sitting in front of a computer, I have to will myself to pay attention. It uses up more effort and takes more out of me.

That’s not his main point though:

In the twentieth century, watching television or listening to the radio were often social activities. TV and radio could command our attention the way the speaker in a classroom would, through people paying attention to what others were attending to.

But we use 21st-century media in isolation. That means that the media need other means to command our attention. They cannot rely on our use of social cues. Instead, they have to rely on dopamine hits. Porn. Games. And demonization.

We get a dopamine hit by seeing the demonization of people with whom we disagree. So demonization becomes a winning Darwinian strategy in the age of contemporary media.

The whole point of writing The Three Languages of Politics was to describe demonization rhetoric under the assumption that people would not want to demonize. I thought that if you recognize the rhetoric, you would back away from it.

Instead, the religion that persecutes heretics justifies demonization. To criticize demonization is to be a heretic. In a world where people consume media in isolation, an ideology that justifies demonization has an advantage.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    People demonize for a reason. Who woulda thunk it?

    Love leads to fear, and fear leads to hate. This is the oxytocin path. This is what drives all tribal politics.

    (War is lovehate by other means.)

  2. Dave says:

    Demonization has always been a winning Darwinian strategy. Tribes have been killing off other tribes and taking their women and hunting grounds since forever. Much easier to do that when your language depicts people of other tribes as animals, vermin, demons, etc.

  3. Sam J. says:

    “…When I am in a classroom, others are paying attention to the speaker. This makes my attention to the speaker instinctive. …”

    Interesting story I read. I think it was in the book “Influence” but I could be wrong. A bunch of university students decided to try an experiment on their professor. When lecturing if he moved to the right of the class everyone would look down, read papers, not pay attention but if he went to the left of the classroom everyone would pay rapt attention and watch everything he did. By the end of the lecture the professor was wedged up against the left side of the classroom.

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