Act: Inspiration

Democracy Rising 4: This is your brain on deliberation

December 8, 2021

Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributors only.

This Is Your Brain on Deliberation

Quick, what’s the answer to this problem?

If it takes 5 minutes for 5 machines to make 5 widgets, how long will it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

If you (like me) answered 100 minutes, no gold star for you either. The correct answer, of course, is 5 minutes.

Now, if forced to stop and think—to take things “deliberately”—most people will figure this out. But of course most of us don’t stop and think—we go with what seems intuitively to be right.

The tendency to leap to snap, intuitive conclusions is a characteristic of the human brain, possibly evolved over eons when deciding quickly if a streaky shape was a snake, a tiger, or a shadow meant the difference between life and death. But in other circumstances it can lead us astray. And while we all would like to think that we rely on cool, rational analyses when we formulate our opinions, in fact our brains are susceptible to all kinds of distractions, shortcuts, hangups, and other “bugs” whether they’re operating individually or in social groups.

Consider the social and cultural influences on our thinking. These start with the obvious: we tend to ignore anything we don’t want to hear, we hang out with people who think like we do so as to avoid disagreeable facts and viewpoints, and we tend to favor information from sources we already like. We are susceptible to simple, tidy stories, whether or not they actually capture the complex truth of a situation or event. If we hear information from somebody identified as an “expert,” our willingness to believe what they say is affected by what we think their cultural worldview is—and that can be based merely on what they look like.[1]

Individually, our brains display some serious cognitive weaknesses, such as the unhelpful tendency to remember mainly the last thing we heard on a topic, whether it’s sounder than other input or not. A particularly troubling feature, called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, is the inability of the ignorant (which is all of us, at one time or another) to understand how ignorant we are; if you know very little, you can’t appreciate how much you don’t know, because only delving into a topic can reveal how complex it is. Such people routinely overestimate their competence and knowledge.[2]

zipperWait, how does that work again?
Source: Rabensteiner, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A related cognitive bug is the illusion of understanding—the belief that we know more than we really do.[3] Consider the humble zipper: we know how it works, right? After all, hundreds of millions of people use zippers every day; they are as familiar as forks and spoons. But how many people can explain exactly how a zipper works to someone who has never seen one? That turns out to be surprisingly hard. Most of us trying to explain a zipper will find that our knowledge is actually vague, partial, and/or inaccurate. We have confused familiarity with understanding.

This principle is vividly on display with current affairs. As cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and  Philip Fernbach have written, people routinely overrate their grasp of political issues like tax policy and foreign relations, and of scientific topics like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and climate change. They do it with their own finances, too.

But, thankfully, the same body of research that has identified these cognitive flaws has also found offsetting traits—which the institutions and practices of strong, deliberative democracy can support and develop. For example, encouraging people to explore their understanding of a topic by explaining it to others often reveals its weaknesses and softens extreme positions. Asking people for causal explanations brings them to confront the limits of their understanding as they acknowledge what they do not really know.

That’s one reason deliberation is so valuable: it encourages and supports a conscious approach of thoughtfulness, rather than intuition, to problem-solving. Arriving at a useful solution to a shared problem very often requires suppressing or setting aside your own intuitive answer and instead engaging the more deliberative part of your brain. Intuition might get us into the ballpark, and that’s often good enough to reinforce the illusion of true understanding. But deliberation usually forces us to confront the hidden complexities of a topic—things our intuition didn’t spot. At the same time, deliberation reveals and reinforces the sense that much of what we think we know ourselves is actually knowledge that resides in other people, and vice versa; it’s shared within the community.

Cognitive science has also confirmed that, while humans are certainly competitive, we are also made for collaboration.[4] The same evolutionary history that gives us the ability to make “good-enough” intuitive decisions also hard-wires us, as social primates, for interaction and community in small groups. Although many of us live in industrial and urban mass societies that are vastly larger, the need for smaller, more intimate communities persists and is met in church congregations, social clubs, fraternities and sororities, etc. It’s also very clear that our deeply rooted tendencies toward cooperation can be either suppressed or supported depending on how we design and operate our institutions.

So why doesn’t our political system take greater advantage of these facts?

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One powerful reason is that the current system of representation is the path of least resistance. As the journalist Robert Samuelson put it some years ago, “Americans consider freedom from politics to be part of their wellbeing.”[5] Our system has often worked well enough that no more than a few of us have felt the need to become more intensively engaged in political decision making. And, especially in modern times, the power of the consumer lifestyle has seduced many of us into putting our time and energy into working, getting, and spending. When wealth, or the promise of wealth, is freely available to most people, the incentives to engage in politics are undermined.

Another reason is our history: Outside of New England, where traditional town meetings continue to this day, we have little tradition of deep citizen participation in politics. As noted in the Introduction to this blog series, that’s no accident: most of the Founding Fathers didn’t want ordinary citizens taking a strong, active role in routine decision making, so they did not create institutions to encourage it. Instead they built a system in which collective decisions are delegated to elected representatives, who then create public policy mainly through the adversarial clash of interests. The theory and rhetoric of this process is rooted in the Enlightenment idea that the truth or a common purpose can emerge from contrasting views that are contested via logic and debate.

But if this was ever true of our system, that premise has by now become a thin façade. One striking token of this is the commonplace nightly-news scenes of members of Congress standing at the rostrum in the House or Senate and delivering impassioned speeches, apparently to their colleagues. But these are largely show biz; the video is for TV viewers back home. If the camera pulled back it would often reveal, not rows of thoughtful legislators carefully sifting every word, but an empty chamber.

Now more than ever we live in an age of “alternative facts,” brazen propaganda, deeply siloed perspectives, confirmation bias, public speech that masks private aims, and obsession with “public opinion” based on inherently superficial polls. These reflect the shallowness of our political discourse. We’ve increasingly abandoned engagement for partisanship, polarization, the demonization of opponents, and raw power grabs that nakedly favor some interests over others.

Clearly, our democratic institutions and processes need overhauling; the current system simply doesn’t serve us well. Deliberative democracy scholar and practitioner Martín Carcasson puts it this way:

[I]f I were to purposefully design a system to ensure polarization and division, I would likely conjure up a two-party system with winner-take-all elections that are so exceedingly expensive that they require absurd amounts of fundraising and that are heavily influenced by both unproductive social media interactions and a politicized, profit-focused media. Such a system takes the inherent features of negative motivated reasoning and exponentially multiplies their effects.[6]

A deeper democracy, one that relied on deliberation as a decision-making tool, would hardly be a complete cure for these ills, but by its very nature it would tend to diminish them. Deliberation is a fundamentally collaborative method of collective decision-making that accounts for our error-prone thought processes, supporting and channeling our brains’ best features while mitigating and working around the worst. Deliberation events help manage and leverage the quirks of human cognition by:

  • providing a measured forum to explore political divisions and seek common ground;
  • offering a structure for probing the illusion of understanding and for pooling knowledge;
  • encouraging participants to move beyond shallow, intuitive views of complex issues by encouraging public reflection about them;
  • deepening understanding by revealing the wider universe of community knowledge, as well as crowdsourcing the analysis of problems and their solutions; and
  • satisfying and building upon the human need for communities with common concerns and willed collective action.

Democratic deliberation is thus a strong example of how intelligently designed institutions can take advantage of the “better angels of our nature,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words. Over and over again, democratic deliberation has shown its power to counteract the “mass folkway of resignation”—the widespread sense among Americans that politics doesn’t work very well—to alter structures of power and privilege.[7] People who take part in deliberative events usually find that their engagement with the issues and with other people of differing views, in a space designed to encourage civility, actually empowers them.

When deliberation works in this way, it becomes a kind of populism with a humane face—one that can reclaim populism from the ugly nativist connotations it has acquired in modern times. Deliberation creates a process for educating ourselves—and each other—into citizenship and gives rise to what Daniel Kemmis has called “neighborliness—to finding within shared space the possibilities for a shared inhabitation.”[8] It could be the most potent tool for restoring Americans’ belief that they can act to shape the country’s governance to better distribute benefits and more equitably share hardships.

[1] Susan Clark and Woden Teachout, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), chapter 5. See also Martín Carcasson, “Why Process Matters: Democracy and Human Nature,” National Civic Review, Spring 2018, pp. 36–39.

[2] William Poundstone, Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up (New York: Little, Brown, 2016). The original study is J. Kruger and D. Dunning, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6), December 1999, pp. 1121–34.

[3] See, for instance, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), and Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017).

[4] Something the original Populists knew and built upon. See Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[5] Robert Samuelson, “Why Clinton Hangs On,” The Washington Post, April 1, 1998, p. A19.

[6] Carcasson, op. cit. note 1. p. 38.

[7] Goodwyn, p. xiii.

[8] Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), p. 118.


Teaser photo credit: By Jens Maus ( – Own work, Public Domain,


Tom Prugh

Democracy Rising posts are curated by Tom Prugh. Tom is a former senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute and the editor in chief of World Watch magazine. He co-directed the Institute’s State of the World 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy, State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? and State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability. In 2013 he was also lead writer and editor for the Royal Government of Bhutan’s New Development Paradigm initiative. Tom is the lead author of two books: The Local Politics of Global Sustainability (with Robert Costanza and Herman Daly) and Natural Capital and Human Economic Survival (with Robert Costanza, John H. Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland, and Richard B. Norgaard).

Tags: American politics, building resilient societies, deliberative democracy