Everyone else is a hypocrite

hypocriteindexRobert Kurzban is an evolutionary psychologist and author of this book published in 2010.  If I were more organized, this book should have been discussed in the post Justifying our Decisions….  It includes another take on plausible deniability or that Larson Far Side where Larry unknowingly filled the Grand Canyon because the sign was posted in the other direction. Instead of Jonathan Haidt’s driver on an elephant, Kurzban suggests the press secretary as the model for the conscious modules of the brain.

Kurzban suggests our brains are like iphones with lots of apps.  The apps or modules are just as likely to be unconnected as connected.  That is why we can believe conflicting things all at once.  Not only are some of the modules unconnected, but they may work better that way.  Moreover, some modules may actually keep information away from other modules and in some cases modules may actually work better with the wrong information.

Kurzban, by modules means something that has a function.  The modules may be intertwined like nerves, but they are separate–again something like iphone apps. Some modules feed information to the conscious modules and some do not.  Thus, the conscious modules may have to justify a decision for which the deciding module has not provided the necessary information.  Then, the conscious modules just take a stab at a plausible reason.  One of the conscious modules appears to be like a press secretary whose job it is to communicate with and frame things for other people.

Kurzban does not agree that there is really a self or an I. There are different modules with different functions that take control at different times.  There is no: “what I really believe”.  He does not go along with the idea of cognitive dissonance although it seems like he could if the concept only included conscious modules.  I see Internal consistency as something of a priority for the conscious modules.  Kurzban goes beyond Jonathan Haidt’s belief that the modules sometimes conflict. He sees some modules as always conflicting or even working against other modules.

Kurzban notes that with the modular brain, ideas like Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 do not make much sense.  If each module is a system there might be thousands.  Kurzban seems a little off handed in some of this since it seems he would not disagree that within his modules there could still be two systems, maybe conscious and unconscious or intuitive and analytic. But he would still point out that the intuitive brain or the unconscious brain could have many different and conflicting ideas at one time. Philosophers who tend to see the unitary self probably do not like Kurzban’s ideas.

If there is something tike a press secretary module, and the mind’s press secretary, just like the U S Press Secretary can benefit from being ignorant or wrong, then other modules might be designed to keep information away from it, or even to give it bad information because the job of the press secretary-persuasion-is not always served by knowing what is true.

Kurzban certainly does not see humans as truth seeking machines.  He notes that the principal function of the nervous system is to get the parts what they need to reproduce.   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.  Kurzban points out the example for police.  If drinking alcoholic beverages in public is a crime and the police see it, they are seen to have responsibility to enforce the law.  Of course, if the law is broken so often and the punishment is so small, then the police are really wasting their time when they should be doing other police work.  The brown paper bag introduces the necessary ignorance to allow the police to do their main jobs.  Kurzban points out that ignorance is most useful when it is most public, and when the payoffs are not social, ignorance is bad.  In other words, to deal effectively with the environment that excludes the human social environment, you want the truth.  However, humans spend most of their time interacting with the social environment.

Humans might have some modules designed to keep them away from certain kinds ol information because it is too expensive to be worth the cost of gathering it, because some information makes choosing certain options very costly, and because some types of information lead to the periception of duties that carry social costs if left unfulfilled. Kurzban sees these ideas as relatively uncontroversial.  He goes several steps further. He claims that some modules are designed to acquire systematically biased-that is, false information including information that other modules “know” is wrong.

Persuading others that you are valuable is an important, even crucial adaptive problem for humans and it would be reasonable to expect that our brains would be designed both to make ourselves valuable and to demonstrate our value.  We are judged by word and deed, but the conscious modules provide the words and thus try to create the most positive impression.  The press secretary thus tries to promote us through providing a positive impression of our worth, history, and future.  Now the message does have to be defensible.  There needs to be a balance between favorability and plausibility.  In other words, claiming to be a great lion tamer is not useful if you are about to be thrown to the lions.

hypocriteimagesKurzban suggests that if it were possible to maintain one set of representations that were designed for “public consumption” to maintain the most positive possible information about one’s traits and abilities and keep unfavorable representations walled off, to be used only when necessary, that would be the best of all possible worlds. Kurzban says that is indeed the world our brains are in.


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