Our Mind Seems Counterproductive

I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and really love the discoveries, new ways of thinking about the world, and better understandings of the world that we gain from science. Science is a process that strives to be rational and to build on previous knowledge to better understand an objective reality. What is also interesting about science, is that it operates against the way our brains want to work. As much as I love science and as much as I want to be scientific in my thinking and approaches to the world, I understand that a great deal that shapes human beings and the world we build is not rational and seems counterproductive when viewed through a rational lens.

 

Part of the explanation for our minds being so irrational might be explained by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. The authors describe one reason for why our brains evolved to be as complex and irrational as they are: we evolved to be political and deceptive creatures, not to be rational and objective creatures with a comprehensive view of reality. “Here’s the puzzle:” write Simler and Hanson, “we don’t just deceive others; we also deceive ourselves. Our minds habitually distort or ignore critical information in ways that seem, on the face of it, counterproductive. Our mental processes act in bad faith, perverting or degrading our picture of the world.”

 

We act so irrationally and have such an incorrect view of the world according to Simler and Hanson because it helped our ancestors to be more deceptive and to survive. If you wish to tell a white lie to someone or if you really want to appear sincere in your thoughts and actions, it is much easier if you believe the things you are lying about. If you know you are lying and acting in bad faith, you have to be a really good actor or poker player to convince everyone else. We actually benefit if our brains fail to recognize exactly what is driving us and help us systematically not recognize inconvenient truths.

 

For example, I use Strava, a social media platform geared toward runners and cyclists. The app allows us to upload our GPS data from our runs and bike rides and to compare our routes and see who went the fastest along a particular street or who ran up a trail the fastest. At a base level I know that I am using the app because it allows me show off to other people just how good of a runner I am. But if you asked me at any given point why I upload all my workouts to Strava, I would tell you a story about wanting to keep up with friends, wanting to discover new places to go running, and about the data that I can get to analyze my performance. The first story doesn’t look so great for me, but the second one makes me sound social and intelligent. I am inclined to tell myself that is why I use the app and to deny, even to myself, that I use it because I want to prove that I am a better runner than someone else or to show off to my casual running friends who might log-in and see that I went on a long run.

 

Our brains are not the scientifically rational things I wish they were, but in many ways that is important for us as we try to build coalitions and social groups to get things done. We connect in ways that are beyond rationality, and sometimes we need the generous (though often false) view of ourselves as good actors to help us get through the day. We can strive for more rationality in our thoughts and actions, but we should accept that we will only get so far, and we shouldn’t hate ourselves or anyone else for not always having the nice and pure motives that we present.

Deception is Expected

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler consider it normal and expected that humans are deceptive creatures. We evolved, according to the authors, to be deceptive so that we could get a little bit more for ourselves and have a slightly better chance of reproducing and keeping our genes in the mix. We don’t boldly take things and openly cheat to get what we want (most of the time), but instead we do our best to be a team player, with some marginal cheating and stealing under the table. As they put it,

 

“Deception is simply part of human nature–a fact that makes perfect sense in light of the competitive (selfish) logic of evolution. Deception allows us to reap certain benefits without paying the full costs. And yes, all societies have norms against lying, but that just means we have to work a little harder not to get caught. Instead of telling bald-faced lies, maybe we spin or cherry-pick the truth.”

 

This leaves us in an interesting position as we think about how we should act at an individual level and how societies should organize themselves at a larger level. We want to have norms in place that deter cheating and lying to help protect people’s property, to prevent fraud, and to create a system where people can meaningfully engage with one another and trust their institutions. But at the same time, we recognize that there is going to be a substantial amount of deception and a natural urge to be deceptive in order to obtain a little more benefit with a little less cost. Individuals will behave this way, and so will the families, social groups, communities, states, and nations that individuals create.

 

A solution that I would explore would be to accept Simler and Hanson’s views openly, and then begin looking closely at externalities. Externalities (usually discussed in the negative sense) are the additional things that stem from the original action. Deceptive behavior can have negative externalities, such as wastes of money when we buy sports cars to show off rather than using our money for more productive and charitable uses. At the same time, deceptive behavior can have positive externalities, such as the benefits of charity when we donate large amounts of money, again to show off.

 

If we accept this is happening, then in our own lives and in our societies we can try to add additional costs (such as taxes) on deceptive behaviors with negative externalities, and we can do more to encourage deceptive behaviors that produce largely positive externalities. We don’t have to abandon our human nature, but we can collectively decide to shape the consequences we might face for being deceptive in certain situations. This can help bring our behaviors and actions in line with the outcomes we want, but it does require that we accept what is taking place inside our brains and accept that we are not always as wonderful as we would like to appear.

The Price of Friendship

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggests that our self-interest drives a lot more of our behavior than we would like to admit. No matter what we are doing or what we are up to, part of our brain is active in looking at how we can maximize the world in our own interest. It isn’t always pretty, but it is constantly happening and if we are not aware of it or choose not to believe that we are driven by self-interest, we will continually be frustrated by the world and confused by our actions and the actions of others.

 

Friendship is one of the areas where Hanson and Simler find our self-interest acting in a way we would rather not think about. When we learn new things, build up skills, and gain new social connections, we make ourselves a better potential friend for other people. The more friends and allies we have, the more likely we will gain some sort of social assistance that will eventually help us in a self-interested way. This part of us likely originated when we lived in small political tribes with only a handful of potential mates. In order for our ancestors to be selected, they had to show they had something valuable to offer the tribe, and they had to be in high enough regard socially to be an acceptable mate. Simler and Hanson ask what happens if we look at friendships through a zero-sum lens, as our minds tend to do, where we rank everyone we interact with and apply some type of value to each person’s time and friendship. They write,

 

“everyone, with an eye toward raising their price [Blog Author’s Note: meaning the value of their friendship], strives to make themselves more attractive as a friend or associate-by learning new skills, acquiring more and better tools, and polishing their charms.
Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.”

 

The authors suggest that friendship is as much a selfish phenomenon as it can be an altruistic and genuine kind social phenomenon. We constantly try to raise our own status, so that we can count as (at least) allies and (hopefully) equals among people who are well connected, have resources, and can help us find additional allies or potential mates. We always want to be one step ahead in the social hierarchy, and as a result, when someone else’s status rises relative to us, even if we stay at the same status level, we feel that our status is less impressive relative to them and we feel a bit jealous. All of this paints a complex picture of our interactions and shows that we can never turn off our own self-interest, even when we are participating in ways that can seem as if they are about more than just ourselves. All the things we do to improve ourselves and world are ultimately a bit self-serving in helping us have some type of future advantage or some type of advantage that helps us pass our genes along. We don’t have to hate this fact about ourselves, but we should acknowledge it and do things that have more positive benefits beyond ourselves since we have no choice but to play these status games.

Reputation

How do norms shape our behaviors? As social animals we rely on a good reputation which helps us gain allies, build coalitions, and have close bonds between family and friends. A good reputation increases trust, convinces others that they should invest in our friendship, and tells the social group give us a hand every now and then if we need help. When it comes to building and maintaining a good reputation, norms are crucial.

 

As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “It’s rarely in people’s best interests to stick out their necks to punish transgressors. But throw some reputation into the mix and it can suddenly become profitable. Someone who helps evict a cheater will be celebrated fro her leadership. Who would you rather team up with: someone who stands by while rules are flouted, or someone who stands up for what’s right?”

 

Standing up to point out things that are wrong can be dangerous. The person breaking the rules could fight back, people close to the rule breaker might retaliate, your time could be wasted, and you might lose social status if people don’t really care about the rule breaker’s actions. Being the person who enforces norms is not always the best on an individual level.

 

However, as a social group, our reputation helps us maintain the norms and institutions which help us function and allow us to have whistle-blowers, police, and people who generally care that rules, laws, and regulations are actually being followed. We often have a temptation to slack off, to do something that we enjoy but know to be bad for ourselves, or to engage in some sort of activity that is fun but reckless. Knowing that we will have to interact with people in the future, that we will rely on social groups in the future, and that we will need others for anything we want to do later constrains our actions and behaviors in the moment. We try to be the type of person that society favors because we know it will benefit us at a future time. We care about our reputation because we might need substantial assistance from others at some point in our life, and we know that if we have a negative reputation, people are less likely to trust us and assist us in our time of need. As social creatures, developing an invisible system of reputation is what helps bond our norms together and hold them in place.

The Role of Gossip

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have an interesting idea about gossip in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Instead of seeing gossip as some terrible moral failure on the part of human beings, the authors take a more deep and close look at gossip to try to understand just what is taking place. By understanding the role gossip plays, the authors are able to provide a more concrete reason for why we gossip.

 

They write, “Among laypeople, gossip gets a pretty bad rap. But anthropologists see it differently. Gossip–talking about people behind their backs, often focusing on their flaws or misdeeds–is a feature of every society ever studied. And while it can often be mean-spirited and hurtful, gossip is also an important process for curtailing bad behavior, especially among powerful people.”

 

Some discussions are hard to have out in the open. It is hard to go around openly asking people if the president’s behavior is crossing a line and is inappropriate. It is hard to openly ask the office if a co-worker’s clothing is unacceptable, and it is hard to openly ask the world if someone else is trying to do something just to show off. If we are on the wrong side in these situations, we can look really bad ourselves, and we can be very embarrassed if our opinions and ideas are rejected by the rest of the group.

 

Instead of putting ourselves out in a vulnerable place, gossip allows us to test the waters. We can quietly get a sense of other people’s opinions and ideas without actually revealing our thoughts and ideas completely. We can start to moderate our ideas and opinions and update our model of what is and is not acceptable, tolerable, or popular at a given time. Gossip lets us connect with others in a way that broad publicity does not. It can encourage social bonding between small groups within larger groups and it can help enforce the norms that our culture develops. These can all be positive and negative aspects of gossip, but it happens because we live in a complex and confusing world where we develop opinions socially as opposed to just individually. Sometimes, we need some cover to develop opinions that align with our social group to reduce our vulnerability to attack and isolation.

Language, Rules, Punishment

I studied Spanish during my undergraduate degree and I frequently listen to John McWhorter’s podcast Lexicon Valley. I enjoy thinking about language and I’m sometimes fascinated by the fact that sounds produced by one person can impact so much about the world. The language we have developed can shape so much of how we act and behave and how the world is structured around us.

 

In a short passage Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reflect on humans, the societies we have built, and the roles we have evolved into over thousands of years in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “We are social animals who use language to decide on rules that the whole group must follow, and we use the threat of collective punishment to enforce these rules against even the strongest individuals. And although many rules vary from group to group, there are some – like those prohibiting rape and murder – that are universal to all human cultures.” 

 

Their quote really describes the state that humans have evolved into, but I think it is interesting to consider the role of language in this evolution. A species without a complex language likely would not have been able to develop the complex system of rules that we have adopted. So many of our rules are written down in statutes, laws, and regulations. Without them, following a collective set of rules and developing shared norms and punishments would be next to impossible. Even with a standard written language, we spend tons of time debating the meaning of the language we use to codify rules, and slight changes in understandings of language can change the outcomes that manifest in the real world.

 

Human societies have existed with rules and norms without written language, but the written word allowed us to build corporations, to organize criminal justice systems, and to develop social contracts that hold everything in place. Our language can boost the strongest and most brash demagogues, but it can also provide the spark to organize resistance and topple that same tyrant. Language allows us to take universal understandings of right and wrong and build outward, to create a system of fairness and justice that we can all operate within. Without our language, and without the evolution of our brain to allow for language, we might be doing just fine as small hunter-gatherer tribes, but we certainly would not be able to thrive in huge social societies with collective rules.

Deceiving Ourselves

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about evolutionary psychology of the brain in their book The Elephant in the Brain to explain why it is that we have hidden motives and why those hidden motives can be so hard to identify. The authors write (brackets mine, italics in original), “The human brain, according to this view [evolutionary psychology], was designed to deceive itself – in [Robert] Trivers’ words, ‘the better to deceive others.'” The authors look at how self-deception can be positive from an evolutionary perspective, and how that shapes the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

 

Fudging on the rules from time to time and making ourselves look better than we really are can be good strategies to survive, or at least they potentially were for our ancestors. Humans evolved in small, political, social tribes with rules and norms that were adhered to and enforced to varying degrees. Slight amounts of cheating, if they can go unnoticed, can be beneficial for survival. This drives an evolutionary pressure to pass along selfish genes that favor individual survival, adhere to the rules when it is convenient, but push rules aside when it benefits us. Simler and Hanson argue that this pressure is so strong, that we evolved to not even notice when we bend rules or apply them flexibly in ways that benefit us.

 

We can also seem to justify our actions, a process known as motivational reasoning, which says that we didn’t really do anything bad, we were just making the best decision we could given the circumstances or we were upholding fairness and justice in the absence of a greater authority to administer justice and fairness for us. The more we can convince ourselves that we are right and that we are on the correct side of a moral argument, the more we can convince others that our actions were just. If we are blatantly lying about our motivations, and we know we are lying, it will be harder to convince others and build support around our actions.

 

If however, we convince ourselves that our actions were right and our motives pure, we will have an easier time convincing others of our correctness and of our value to them and to society. When we give to charity, at least part of our donation is probably driven by a desire to want to be seen as the person who gives to charity or as a person with enough money to give some away. These two motivations, however, would be frowned upon. Instead, we convince ourselves that we gave to charity because it is the right thing to do, or because we think the cause is incredibly important. Those both may be true, but if we completely convince ourselves that we are donating for the high minded reasons, we will be more authentic and better able to convince other people that we made donations for high-minded and not selfish reasons. We are wired not to see the world as it is, but to see it through a filter that magnifies our greatness and minimizes our faults, deceiving ourselves so we can do a better job of presenting the best version of ourselves to the world.

More on the Role of Weapons for Evolution

Weapons reduce the distance between the strongest and weakest members of a group, especially projectile weapons, and change what it means to become a powerful and dominant leader within a social group. When weaker individuals can band together in coalitions with the use of weapons to topple a physically dominant alpha, new skills become more valuable than physical dominance alone.

 

“Once weapons enter the picture,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain“physical strength is no longer the most crucial factor in determining a hominid’s success within a group. It’s still important, mind you, but not singularly important. In particular, political skill – being able to identify, join, and possibly lead the most effective coalition – takes over as the determining factor.”

 

Political skills are not so important if your species rarely interacts in groups. If you live mostly in isolation, occasionally meet another member of your species to mate or fight over food, being politically skilled is not too important. Hanson and Simler argue that weapons and a change in power dynamics is what set the human brain on a path toward ever greater evolution. Political skill requires mental acuity, deception, the ability to signal loyalty, and the ability to relate and connect with others. The better your brain is at doing the complex work required for these skills, the more likely you will survive long enough to reproduce. This created the environment for our brains to begin to enlarge, since individuals with bigger brains and more intelligence were generally favored over those who were a little less cognitively capable and therefor less politically and socially skilled.

 

I think it is interesting and important to consider the factors that shaped human evolution. Understanding how our brain came to be the way it is helps us understand why we act the way we do, why we see certain types of biases in thinking, and how we can overcome mistakes in our ways of thought. By acknowledging that our brains developed to be devious, and that our brains did not develop to give us a perfect view of reality, we can better think about how we design institutions and settings to help us think in the most productive ways possible.

The Political Role of Weapons for Our Early Ancestors

Weapons are in interesting consideration for early human evolution and how we ended up in the place we are with large brains and strong social groups. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson address the importance of weapons in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Weapons change the value of physical strength and the nature of conflict on the individual and group levels. They alter the threats and defenses that our early ancestors faced and could mount.

 

“Weapons are a game changer for two reasons.” write Hanson and Simler, “First, they level the playing field between weak and strong members of a group. … Another way weapons alter the balance of power applies to projectile weapons like stones or spears. Such distance weapons make it much easier for a coalition to gang up on a single individual.”

 

Physical force has been a dominating aspect of human relationships (and probably early human ancestors’ relationships), but we don’t live in societies where just the most physically dominant individuals rule. Weapons are a big part of why this is the case. Once we could hurl projectiles, even just heavy or sharp rocks, at opponents, our social grouping had to change. Coalitions could push back against a dominant individual who did not care about the well being of the group or of others. The role of politics and cooperation could naturally be expected to rise in a system where physical dominance was not the sole determinant of leadership and power.

 

What weapons did, Hanson and Simler argue and I will discuss more tomorrow, is create a system that favored brain development. Social intelligence and intellectual capacity became more valuable when coalitions could rule with weapons, and that created a space where the brain could evolve to become larger and more complex. If pure physical dominance was the best predictor of power and of passing along our genes, then we would not have expected our early ancestors to begin evolving in a way that favored the development of a large and highly energy dependent brain. By bringing physical prowess down a level, weapons it seems, helped further the evolutionary growth of the human brain.