An interesting and productive new approach to the understanding of human behavior is that of classifying behaviors into two categories: behaviors that derive mainly from beliefs that originate in the emotional belief system and behaviors that derive primarily from beliefs that originate in the cognitive belief system. Both categories are stratified: Belief systems determine beliefs, beliefs determine behaviors, and beliefs and behaviors determine cultures.
Compared to the primitive emotional belief system, the cognitive system is advanced. It has resulted in behaviors that have made us human and civilized. It has brought modernity and the scientific explosion. Without the cognitive system we would act on the basis of only the emotional belief system and would behave like the infants, children, and animals, who chiefly utilize only the emotional system for belief and behavior.
Infantile and childish behaviors derive primarily from the emotional belief system because the cognitive belief system is not yet developed in infants and children. Characteristics of infantile or childish behavior can be described as immature, demanding, unreasonable, self-centered, and occasionally violent. These characteristics contrast with the behaviors that emanate from the cognitive belief system: mature, civilized, humane, understanding, intelligent, and nonviolent. Animalistic behavior, which may be violent, also derives primarily from the emotional belief system, which is the only developed belief system that mammals have.
Uncivilized humans living in primitive cultures rely mainly on their emotional belief system because they haven’t yet learned to proficiently utilize their cognitive belief system for the beliefs that determine their behavior. Over many millennia hominids have incrementally learned to competently use both evidence-based reasoning and the fruit of evidence-based reasoning, so that evidence-based reasoning is the driving force behind the cultural evolution that has propelled Homo sapiens from being uncivilized toward being civilized, but is still a work in progress. This idea was presented in my essay “An Evolutionary Theory of Everything”, although at the time I did not recognize it as the grand example of cultural evolution that it is. The Flynn effect, which is an increase in intelligence test scores over time, is compatible with the concept of cultural evolution resulting from humans progressively learning to use their cognitive belief system.
Animals and humans do not have to learn how to use their emotional belief system, which is about security. It is innate. The emotional feeling of security motivates behavior to seek security by activating the brain’s reward system. A good feeling of happiness or joy automatically occurs when security is increased; an unpleasantly sad or depressed feeling results when there is a loss of security; and an uneasy feeling of anxiety stems from a threat to security. Threats to security are dealt with by violent fight or flight behavior, which originates primarily in the amygdala, a structure in the limbic system where emotions originate. Violence occurs when the emotional belief system is activated by a threat to security. But there is no known mechanism that automatically motivates the use of evidence-based reasoning that originates in the cognitive belief system. Evidence-based reasoning has to be learned.
Although volitional behavior results from an interplay between the two belief systems, one or the other system often dominates. According to neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, neuroimaging studies show, “There is a push-pull between our frontal lobe and limbic system that can get out of whack sometimes. If we get overly emotional our frontal lobes shut down, and if we become over-logical, our emotional areas shut down.” Competition between the two belief systems results in opposition between religion and science in a zero sum game, with religion being the prime example of a culture resulting from the emotional belief system and science the prime example of a culture resulting from the cognitive belief system.
The desirable behaviors that the cognitive belief system makes possible contrast with the emotional belief system’s inadequacies. The cognitive system, from which science emanates, provides intellectual behavior. It permits us to think for ourselves, to understand, question, change, compromise, invent, and create. It is forward looking and allows us to anticipate and to plan. On the other hand, the emotional system, from which religion emanates, lacks those features. It is unable to question or doubt, even its own beliefs. It does not have the ability to introduce changes, but cherishes unchanged rituals, traditions, attitudes, prejudices, and beliefs, which orient it to the past. In addition, it results in self-centered behavior, lacks the ability to compromise by intellectual means, and prefers physical actions, which may be violent.
Beliefs that emanate from the emotional belief system derive from information that originates from authority or experience. Because the emotional belief system cannot question, theists consider authority to be the “final word” so that whatever is handed down from authority is not subject to change. Abrahamic religions’ faith-based beliefs are based on the authority of scripture: The Bible and the Koran. Attitudes and beliefs, such as those opposing abortion, homosexuality, and gay marriage, derive from the authority of Holy Scripture, and not from reason or evidence. As humans have progressively mastered the cognitive belief system, learned to think for themselves, to question, and to act autonomously, their reliance on authority has diminished. Humans have come to demand equal rights, civil rights, human rights, freedom, and democracy in preference to authority and authoritarian governance.
Corruption occurs when the emotional belief system seeks personal security without regard for others or the truth. The cognitive system, however, uses evidence-based reasoning to make decisions based not on personal security, but on truth. The cognitive system is objective and is able to understand others. Understanding others facilitates identifying with and empathizing with those who might otherwise be feared. Empathic behavior is compassionate. It makes humans humane.
In Chris Mooney’s 2012 book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, differences between Republican and Democratic attitudes and beliefs are noted. These differences make sense when viewed in terms of the belief system from which the beliefs emanate. Beliefs of Democrats derive primarily from the cognitive system’s evidence-based reasoning, which directs them toward being open to change and liberal; whereas, Republican beliefs derive more from the emotional belief system's desire to preserve security, which directs them toward conservatism and maintaining the status quo. Security is a high priority for Republicans, who favor strong national defense and, more than Democrats, support religion, which is based on the belief that god provides security. The religious right holds god-oriented ideas such as creationism, and is against ideas that threaten the primacy of god, such as evolution by natural selection. Both the religious and the Republicans tend to downplay science, including the scientific global warming hypothesis, which derives from the cognitive belief system's evidence-based reasoning. Another reason leading to rejection of the global warming hypothesis by Republicans is that to protect against global warming would be costly and would threaten their financial security. The more a political party is right leaning, the more its beliefs derive from the emotional belief system, and the more it is left leaning, the more its beliefs derive from the cognitive belief system. But there are a number of variables that drive political beliefs. Some result in crossovers, such as when people are financially secure and favor conserving their fiscal security, but are also socially liberal and favor social change.
Political party preference appears to be determined either by the desire for truth and for change, which derives from the cognitive belief system, or by the need to feel secure, which derives from the emotional belief system. The level of security required to feel secure is determined not only by how secure the person really is, but also by previous experience and genetic factors that result in a secure or insecure personality. In this way genetics influences the emotional belief system and in turn affects attitudes. The current literature, such as comparing identical to fraternal twins, suggests that political attitudes result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors, with genetic factors accounting for forty to sixty per cent of the political attitude preference.