On Ego - A Response to a Comment from Philip

On Ego – A Response to a Comment from Philip

Philip asked me some thoughts about ego in a recent comment. Several years back I read and wrote about Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy and it has been fundamental in shaping how I see and understand myself within our complex social world. In addition to Ego is the Enemy, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain and Daniel Kahneman’s work in Thinking Fast and Slow dramatically shape the way I understand the idea of the self, how we think, and the role of ego in our lives. Here are some of my thoughts on ego, and some specific responses to questions that Philip asked.
 
 
First, Philip said that he sees, “ego as a closed loop of sort, independent of the acting self.”
 
 
I wouldn’t agree with Philip on this point, but that is because I reject the idea of an independent acting self. Yuval Noah Harari is a great person to read on meditation and the idea of the self. If you ever try meditating, you will quickly learn that you don’t truly have control over your thoughts. This suggests that we don’t have an independent self that is doing the thinking in our minds. “Thoughts think themselves,” Harari has said, and if you meditate, you will understand what he means. Thoughts frequently pop into our head without our control. Ego, and the kinds of thoughts we associate with ego and megalomania, are all just thoughts swirling around in what appears to be a chaos of thoughts. Given the nature of thought, I don’t think we should think of ego as anything independent of the other thoughts within our mind.
 
 
Second, Philip says, “if you are in a state of security, you can choose not to act on ego.”
 
 
I also wouldn’t agree with this point. In his Meditations, Aurelius writes about Epictetus, a slave and a pioneer of stoicism. Epictetus was not exactly secure, but he was able to put aside ego and focus on the present moment. His particular brand of stoicism has resonated with prisoners of war and involves the dissolution of personal ego for survival. We can put aside ego at any point, regardless of how secure we are.
 
 
Also pushing against Philips thoughts is Donald Trump. Certainly, at many points in his life, Trump has been secure in terms of money, fame, power, and influence. Yet Trump is clearly an egomaniac who is unable to set his ego aside and will pursue even the smallest slights and insults against him. I don’t think that a state of security is really an important consideration for whether we act in an egotistical way.
 
 
Philip’s third observation on ego is “as a self preserving mechanism, protecting you and helping you in motivating living the life you do.”
 
 
This is a view on our ego that I would agree with. When we think about how the mind works, I think we should always approach it from an evolutionary psychology standpoint. Very likely, our brains are the way they are because at some point in the history of human evolution it was beneficial for our minds to function in one way over another. There could be some accidents, some mental equivalents to vestigial organs, and some errors in our interpretations, but we probably didn’t develop many psychological traits and maintain them throughout generations if they were not helpful for survival somewhere along the way.
 
 
When we view the ego through this lens, it is not hard to see how the ego could help improve our chances of surviving and passing down our genes. If we are egotistical and think that we deserve the best and that we deserve larger amounts of resources, we will be more likely to advocate for ourselves and fight for a better lot in life. This could help our survival, could help us find a better mate, and could help ensure we pass more genes on to subsequent generations. Without the ego, we may chose to settle, we may be complacent, and we may not strive to pass our genes along or ensure that those subsequent genes have sufficient resources to further pass their genes into the following generation. Ego can push us to strive toward the higher salary, the fancier car, more exclusive golf clubs, and other things that are not really necessary for life, but could help ourselves amass more resources and help our kids have better connections to get into Stanford and ultimately find a spouse and have kids. Ego could certainly be antisocial and harmful for us and society, but it could also be important for genetic survival.
 
 
Philip’s fourth point is about a guy who is hurt because his wife forgot his birthday.
 
 
It is possible that an inflated ego is what made this guy upset when his wife forgot his birthday, but it could also be a number of other psychological or relationship issues between him and his spouse. He may have larger issues of self-worth and value independent of his ego. He may be codependent and perhaps need counseling to better manage his relationships with others. Or his wife could have just been having a bad day. This didn’t seem like a great avenue for discussing and understanding ego to me.
 
 
The fifth point that Philip brings up ties back to his third, by viewing ego as a “fairness calculator.”
 
 
I also think this could be a useful way to view ego and it also seems like it could be understood through a cognitive psychology perspective. We don’t want to feel like we are being cheated, yet we would be happy to bend the rules and cheat a little if we thought we could get away with it. This is a lot of what Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler discuss in The Elephant in the Brain. If we can signal that we are honest and trustworthy, without actually having to be honest and trustworthy, then we are at an advantage. However, if we suspect that another person is all signal and no actual behavior to back up those signals, then we may act in an egotistical way by being defensive and pushing back against the other. Ego does seem to help fuel this mindset and does seem to encourage a type of fairness calculator behavior.
 
 
The final point that Philip makes is that, “ego needs to be controlled in a civilized society.”
 
 
I think here Philip is also correct. We live in very complex social societies and ego helps us individually, but also has negative externalities. Ego certainly helped push Trump to the presidency and the history books, but I’m not sure the world was better for it. By pursuing our own self-interest and acting based on ego, we can damage the world around us.
 
 
Hanson and Simler would argue that much of these harmful effects of ego are moderated by our signaling ability. Hanson has said that his estimate is that up to 90% of what we do as humans is signaling, at least in rich countries like the United States. Signaling both helps us get ahead and tempers our ego. Overt displays are frowned upon, leaving less overt signaling as the way we display how amazing we are. An unchecked ego is going to break the rules for signaling, and unless it is Donald Trump in the 2016 election, such overt egotism will be punished. Ultimately, we do have to control ego because of negative externalities if we want to cooperate and live in complex social communities.
 
 
I hope this helps explain some of how I think about ego!
Evolutionary Psychology & Needs Shaped in the Wild

Evolutionary Psychology & Needs Shaped in the Wild

“This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.”
 
 
Harari wrote that passage while discussing industrial farms and milk production in his book. He argues that industrial agriculture does a good job of providing for the objective needs of animals, but a poor job of providing for their subjective needs. It isn’t too terribly hard to ensure that a dairy cow has sufficient food and water, sufficiently sanitary living space, and is inseminated so as to have a calf and begin producing milk. It is difficult, however, to successfully operate an industrial scale milk production facility that allows cows to just be cows and experience the typical subjective experiences that make a cow life worth living.
 
 
Animals in industrial agricultural settings today have been separated from the worlds that their brains and bodies were evolved to live within. “Evolutionary psychology,” Harari writes, “maintains that the emotional and social needs of farm animals evolved in the wild, when they were essential for survival and reproduction.” We can provide a life for animals that meets their objective needs for survival, but that may not meet the needs their brains and bodies were adapted to before they were brought into a human centric industrial setting.
 
 
This evolutionary psychology framing for the needs of animals as shaped in the wild is also helpful for viewing humans. We are still animals, and our needs and psychologies were shaped over millions of years as human beings evolved in harsh, wild conditions. We can explain our late night ice cream binges partly on our evolutionary psychology. We can explain sexual promiscuity (possibly to some extent) on evolutionary psychology. We can also explain our tribalism in terms of evolutionary psychology. Even though we live in a different world today where I can safely sit inside at my computer for hours, I still have fears around social status, threats, and not being able to find a mate. Like a dairy cow, much of my objective needs can be met fairly easy, but that doesn’t mean that my subjective needs, the ones seemingly built into my brain through evolution before humans lived in our current setting, can just as easily be fulfilled. In some ways humans have turned ourselves into factory farmed animals, making it easy to meet our objective needs but creating a world that does little to help us address our subjective needs developed through evolution in the wild. The lesson of evolutionary psychology that Harari applies to farm animals can also be applied to us.
 
The World that we Subconsciously Still Inhabit

The World we Subconsciously Inhabit

Evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary explanations for modern day human behaviors, have become more popular recently. The argument is that much of what humans do today, some of which makes sense and some of which doesn’t seem to make sense, can be understood by looking into the distant human past and understanding how ancient humans lived. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his  book Sapiens, “the flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era.” The era mentioned by Harari was the tens of thousands of years during which ancient humans lived in small bands as hunters and gatherers.
Humans lived with scarcity for tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Humans were not the most physically dominant and impressive species on the planet, didn’t often have a lot of food to eat, and didn’t have much security in terms of shelter or family. In such an environment, humans evolved specific genes to help them survive as relatively weak scavengers in small groups. But evolution for humans did not stop there. Cognitively, humans continued to improve and brains became more powerful, ultimately allowing humans to shoot up the dominance ladder, creating modern societies. Our new environment is dramatically different than the environment that almost all humans have lived in. Over a few hundred years we have created societies of abundance, of hundreds of thousands to millions of humans living together in close contact, and societies of impressive technological comfort. But evolution is much slower than our ascent, and has created challenges for us.
Regarding our modern environment and situation, Harari continues, “this environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed, and pressured. To understand why, evolutionary psychologists argue, we need to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that shaped us, the world that we subconsciously still inhabit.”
Harari explains that our bad habit of overeating sugary and greasy food becomes understandable if we look back at the environment that our human ancestors found themselves in and evolved through. Sugary food was rare. Ripe fruit, and greasy meat was hard to come by for a foraging species that couldn’t compete with larger animals to defend a downed antelope or tree full of figs. If a human did find a bunch of ripe fruit or a carcass that wasn’t being attended to by some hungry hyenas, then the human’s best bet was to eat as much as possible in one sitting. Today, in affluent societies, we have all the food we can want – we can even have it delivered to our door – but we still have the  genes that told our ancestors to eat as much as possible when sugary and greasy food was available. This mismatch doesn’t serve us well in the modern day, but the evolutionary psychology argument suggests that it was beneficial for survival in the past. Evolutionary psychology allows us to better understand ourselves today by exploring how our ancestors lived and what genetic pressures were placed on them. The challenge we now face, extending far beyond genes that influence our preference for foods, is that we no longer inhabit the world that our genes and bodies evolved to fit within. Subconsciously, and at an instinctual level likely influenced to a high degree by our genes, we still inhabit worlds that no longer exist. Our evolutionary past and psychology haven’t caught up with the modern world we live in, but we don’t always realize that is the case.
Co-opting Mental Machinery

Co-opting Mental Machinery

The human mind is great at pattern recognition, but it is not the only brain that can recognize a pattern. Pigeons can recognize patterns for food distribution with button presses, mice can remember mazes and navigate through complex patterns to a reward, and other animals can recognize patterns in hunting, mating, and other activities. What humans do differently is use pattern recognition to determine causal structures by imagining and testing alternative hypotheses. This is a crucial step beyond the pattern recognition of other animals.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “It is not too much of a stretch to think that 40,000 years ago, humans co-opted the machinery in their brain that already existed for pattern recognition and started to use it for causal reasoning.” This idea is interesting because it explains our pattern recognition linkage with other animals and helps us think about how brain structures and ways of thinking may have evolved.
In isolation, a brain process is interesting, but not as interesting as when considered alongside similar brain processes. When we look at pattern recognition and its similarities to causal reasoning, we see a jumping off point. We can see how brain processes that helped us in one area opened up new possibilities through development. This helps us think more deeply about the mental abilities that we have.
The ways we think and how our brains work is not static. Different cultural factors, environmental factors, and existing brain processes can all shape how our brains work and evolve individually and as a species.  As Pearl notes, it is likely that many of our brain processes co-opted other mental machinery for new purposes. Very few of what see in human psychology can be well understood in isolation. Asking why and how evolution could have played a role is crucial to understanding who we are now and how we got to this point. Causality is not something that just existed naturally in the brain. It was built by taking other processes and co-opting them for new purposes, and those new purposes have allowed us to do magnificent things like build rockets, play football, and develop clean water systems.
Can You Remember Your Prior Beliefs? - Joe Abittan

Can You Remember Your Prior Beliefs?

“A general limitation of the human mind,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.”

 

What Kahneman is referring to with this quote is the difficulty we have in understanding how our thinking evolves and changes over time. To each of us, our thinking slowly adapts and revises itself, sometimes quite dramatically, but often very slowly. Our experience of our changing mind isn’t very reflective of these changes, unless we had a salient change that I would argue is tied in one way or another to an important aspect of our identity. For most changes in our mental approach, we generally don’t remember our prior beliefs and views, and we likely don’t remember a point at which our beliefs changed.

 

In the book Kahneman uses an example of two football teams with the same record playing each other. One team crushes the other, but before we knew the outcome, we didn’t have a strong sense of how the game would go. After watching a resounding victory, it is hard to remember that we once were so uncertain about the future outcome.

 

This tendency of the mind wouldn’t be much of a problem if it was restricted to our thinking about sports – unless we had a serious betting problem. However, this applies to our thinking on many more important topics such as family member marriages, career choices, political voting patterns, and consumer brand loyalty. At this moment, many Democrat voters in our nation probably don’t remember exactly what their opinions were on topics like free trade, immigration, or infectious disease policy prior to the 2016 election. If they do remember their stances on any of those issues, they probably don’t remember all the legal and moral arguments they expressed at that time. Their minds and opinions on the matter have probably shifted in response to President Trump’s policy positions, but it is probably hard for many to say exactly how or why their views have changed.

 

In a less charged example, imagine that you are back in high school, and for years you have really been into a certain brand of shoes. But, one day, you are bullied for liking that brand, or perhaps someone you really dislike is now sporting that same brand, and you want to do everything in your power to distance yourself from any association with the bullying or the person you don’t like. Ditching the shoes and forgetting that you ever liked that brand is an easy switch for our minds to make, and you never have to remember that you too wore those shoes.

 

The high school example is silly, but for me it helps put our brain’s failure to remember previous opinions and beliefs in context. Our brains evolved in a social context, and for our ancestors, navigating complex tribal social structures and hierarchies was complex and sometimes a matter of life and death (not just social media death for a few years in high school like today). Being able to ditch beliefs that no longer fit our needs was probably helpful for our ancestors, especially if it helped them fully commit to a new tribal leader’s strange quirks and new spiritual beliefs. Today, this behavior can cause us to form strange high school (or office) social cliques and can foment toxic political debates, but it may have served a more constructive role for our ancestors forming early human civilizations.