Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book “review”: Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite

“Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite” by Robert Kurzban is written in an extremely clear prose that made me envious of his ability to explain things in a simple, yet precise way. Lots of (to me) new ways of thinking about/interpreting, for instance, cognitive dissonance, morality, procrastination and preference “instability” and time inconsistency.

Basically, the book presents the modular view of the mind, that sees that mind as consisting of a number of specialized modules (specialized information-processing mechanisms)  linked together (or not) in various ways, and then proceeds to discuss a number of implications this view has for psychology, economics etc.

One idea I liked, was that when you add modules, linking them up to pass and receive information with other modules is work, and only undertaken if it is worth it. (All quotes out of “actual” order)

Evolution must act to connect modules, and it will only act to do so if the connection leads to better functioning.

As Nisbett and Wilson put it, “there may be little or no direct introspective access to higher order cognitive processes.” In other words, the cause of the decision in this case –whatever it was , and whether you want to call it “higher order” or anything else – is not available to the modules that are explaining the decision. The part of the mind that talks just doesn’t get the information from the decision-making modules.

The strong version of this argument is that some systems might be engineered specifically not to get information from (or send information to) other modules.

[…] an even more extreme version of this claim is that not only do some modules work better when they have less  information, some might work better when they have wrong information.’

As a result:

It’s a mistake to pay attention only to what comes out of the mouth when we’re trying to understand what’s in the mind, because there are many, many parts of the mind that can’t talk.

An example of this is

[…] “moral dumbfounding", [...]. At least for some kinds of moral judgments, people can’t give good reasons for their views, though they often try quite hard.

An important implication is that there is no singular, unitary “you,” your consciousness is just one amongst many modules, and lacks information about a number of causal reasons for your actions. Indeed, it may be “deliberately” misinformed:

[…] communication is obviously useful for manipulating what others think in a way that works to one’s advantage, and many modular systems in the mind seem to be designed for this purpose. Indeed, I think there is some sense in which the part of you that feels like “you” is, more or less, designed to serve this public relations function.

This is an important argument in the book, as it is our connections to other people, our need to have status and be accepted and valued by others, that provides us-as-organisms with strategic motives for not consciously being aware of our true motives. As an example of this, Kurzban discusses some interesting experiments where participants seem to actively refrain from getting information that would reveal whether benefitting themselves would hurt others (thus giving them plausible deniability).

Having information – especially information others know you have – changes how your choices – and, consequently, actions – are evaluated by others because there is the reasonable sense that you now have a duty to act on that information.

As Roy Baumeister put it, “Self-presentation is . . . the result of a trade-off between favorability and plausibility.”

As Sedikides and Gregg recently put it, “self-enhancement occurs within the constraints imposed by rationality and reality.”

Along the way Kurzban also explains how the serious and scientific business of evolutionary psychology is ridiculed and rejected by researchers with competing explanations from other disciplines who don’t even have any relevant expertise in ev-psych. He also spends some time explaining how ridiculous explanations from competing disciplines can be easily rejected by him (and us) even without expertise in those areas.

Kurzban also makes (justified) fun of economists and their view of the person as a unitary thing with one, consistent set of preferences.

It turns out that people might not have “real” preferences in the same way people don’t have “real” beliefs.

Instead, we have a number of modules that aim for various goals, are activated by various cues, and interact to determine action. The outcome of this system is not likely to be a consistent, simple and “rational” set of preferences. This seems to me somewhat inconsistent with Kurzban’s later praise of the free market:

Markets leave buyers and sellers better off. The sellers now have money, which they value more than the item they just sold, and the buyers have something that they value more than the money they just paid. Everyone’s better off.

Everyone is better off. The beauty of the markets is that – I really think it’s worth repeating – everyone is better off.

[…] Markets are a great way to ensure that the people who want something the most get it.

And so on. Yeah, I get it, and mostly agree with it: Markets are good in many cases. But it seems weird (hypocritical) to use this way of arguing about it after having written a whole book about how there is no unitary self whose interests can be easily identified, how evolution doesn’t care whether your consciousness is happy or not, how evolution doesn’t even care if the actions and thoughts caused by your modules make your consciousness happy or not, and so on.

Anyway. Good book. Well written. Neat, elegant theories consistent (not surprisingly) with the evidence he’s chosen to include. To me, quite persuasive and insightful (although I feel that I’m too easily swayed and drawn in by evolutionary-psychology theories. Evolution seems so self-evidently true, that it has shaped human brains seems so obvious, that I first become very enthusiastic and then kind of suspicious of my own enthusiasm). And, who knows, the instances of hypocrisy in the book may even have been added as a subtle joke?