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.

The Ego and Fairness

I am constantly interested in discussions, arguments, and complaints about fairness. Dictionary.com defines fair as “free from bias, dishonesty, and injustice” but I think we all know “fair” to be more complex than that definition suggests. What I suspect we often mean when we say fair is equitable, which is a far more complex understanding of the world, events, people, and our interactions with all three. Another quick Google search gives us a definition of equitable as fair and impartial (not much help here), but Deborah Stone in her book Policy Paradox identifies nine different dimensions of equity. Things can be equitable by membership, so  that something is equal among a group, but not necessarily equal between groups. Things can be equitable by rank, where different segments within a group receive different treatment, but within a given segment everyone receives something equally. And things can also be equitable based on how they are distributed, with people all having equal chances of obtaining something or with people having equal opportunities to try to obtain something.

 

What got me thinking again about fairness and equity is a quote from Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes “Ego loves this notion, the idea that something is “fair” or not. Psychologists call it narcissistic injury when we take personally totally indifferent and objective events. We do that when our sense of self is fragile and dependent on life going our way all the time. Whether what you’re going through is your fault or your problem doesn’t matter, because it’s yours to deal with right now.” What I take away from this quote is the idea that (1) we spend a lot of our time and energy trying to figure out if we deserve something or not, (2) we feel personally injured or attacked when something we deem to be unfair happens to us, and (3) we often don’t have much control over whether we receive what we deserve or not.

 

I started with a definition of fairness because I think it is important to get to the root of what we mean when we say something is not fair. We want our life outcomes and the things that happen to us to be commensurate (corresponding in size or degree) with the kind of valuable person we see ourselves to be. We want good things to happen to us and other good people, and we want bad things to happen to bad people as if our lives are constantly judged and adjusted by an independent arbiter weighing our live on a balance.

 

However, I introduced Stone’s perspectives on equity to show that fairness is not a simple black and white consideration. Sometimes, equity depends on your position relative to society and the events within society that impact you. Would it be fair for everyone in your office to get an equal sized slice of cake on your birthday? Should you get the biggest slice because its your birthday? Should your boss get the biggest slice because they are the big kahuna and after all, if they had not hired you then you would not be there celebrating your birthday with everyone? Or should Cheryl get a bigger slice of cake since she was technically the company’s founder years ago, even though now she mostly sits in her office half asleep not really doing much? There are a lot of dimensions of equity and fairness that are hard to sort through, especially when our own self-interest is involved.

 

When we begin to complain that something is not fair, we should take a minute to step back and think about the various dimensions of equity and try to understand what aspects of equality are in play. Rather than focusing on whether we think we have been harmed, we should try to better understand the system within which we operate. Going further, we should recognize that we have little to no control over many of the things that happen in our lives. We cannot control a cancer diagnosis (for the most part), we cannot control whether a texting teen rear ends our car, and we don’t always have as much control over our income as we would like to believe. Sitting and constantly questioning why something happened to us, complaining that things are not fair, and arguing that something more fair should have occurred is useless. Often, there are different aspects of equity at play (if a social decision has lead to the outcome we don’t like) or we are trying to ascribe meaning to a random event over which we had little influence or ability to shape and avoid. We can think of what happened to us rationally, and then move on without having to critique the abstract universal balancer that we would like to have watching over our lives and adjusting our scales accordingly.

 

Remaining focused on whether something is fair and complaining that it is not fair will hold back us and our society. To move forward we must accept that fairness and equity are more complex than they feel in the moment, and we must accept that we have less control in our lives than we often believe. We can do our best with the hand we are dealt, and if we do not think that something is equitable, we can examine the ideas laid out by Stone to advocate for a different dimension of equity. Or if we don’t have any control over the event we can bear our situation nobly and move forward without feeling personally injured.

Twice as Good

Something I had felt but never put into coherent thoughts was the idea that racial minorities have had to be perfect throughout time to win the trust and respect of the majority population. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats expresses this idea more clearly than I had ever managed to do. He is critical of the idea of double standards, that in order for people to be respected they need to be virtually without fault. When it comes to these types of double standards he writes,

 

“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. … No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to  take twice as much.”

 

Double standards between races lead to frustrations for minority populations because it steals part of their humanity. We are all going to make incredible mistakes along our paths and in search of what we want, but when you are forced to be perfect to overcome the prejudices of another, your mistakes become much more meaningful. Our nation has held down African American’s by restricting where they could buy housing, limiting who they could marry, and over arresting and over sentencing crimes by African Americans. We have a romanticized vision of the Civil Rights movement, and criticize African American protests of today. Historically, African American’s have been given less than freedom and opportunities than other people, and we have told them that protesting is not the way to address their inequities. We don’t expect them to be human and speak out against a system that fosters such inequalities, or is at least still haunted by the ghosts of such injustice, but instead to succeed and thrive in spite of such injustice and to be superhuman.

 

When we do this we ask a part of our nation to be more than the rest with less than the rest. We decide that we will only respect black people if they become successful and abandon the culture from which they came. What is worse, when they do find success, we use individual success to show that anyone can overcome the obstacles placed on them by society, and we chose to believe that the injustices faced by masses are simply excuses of laziness and failure. We do not see the double standards we set for African American populations, and we do not see the reality that we are asking them to be twice as good before we give people the respect they deserve simply by being human.

Incarceration

Chapter 10 of Senator Cory Booker’s book United focuses on prison in the United States, and Booker begins by quoting Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

 

A few years back I remember someone reading a Facebook post to me about Joe Arpaio, at the time the Maricopa County Sheriff. The post talked about how he was tough on those who had committed crime, deciding that if they were in prison for doing bad things, they would be limited in their rights and freedoms as opposed to coddled and pampered in a jail cell. The post applauded his decision to switch prison clothing to a pink color, his decision to move prisoners outside into tents, his decision to eliminate all television during recreation time and to only keep books on hand for leisure. It was easy to agree with the post, and tempting to share or like it and encourage Nevada prison authorities to move in the same direction.

 

A couple of years later, however, I had a Spanish theater class at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the plays focused on social justice, illegal immigrants, and out nation’s response those who come here by crossing our southern boarder. I was exposed to the stories and realities of those crossing the boarder, and I was also exposed to the dark side of Sheriff Arpaio. One play was filled with criticism of Arpaio’s approach to enforcing immigration laws and quoted many of the unsettling and discriminatory things that Arpaio had said. When I looked back at his priorities as sheriff and thought back to the Facebook post praising his decisions regarding jails, I saw things through a new perspective, and could not help but feel that Sheriff  Arpaio was acting in a way that was meant to dehumanize and belittle those in jail. Looking back, Arpaio was encouraging arrests based on racial motives, then demonstrating his power to control the lives of those members of racial minorities who were incarcerated in his prison system. I think it is fair to argue that his practices as Sherif were as much about power and control as they were about protecting society and creating safe communities.

 

Booker begins his discussion of incarceration in United by looking at the people we arrest in the United States and asking whether these people are sub-human, if they are somehow less than those of us who are not arrested, if the best approach to eliminating behaviors that harms society is to quarantine those who commit crimes from the rest of us, and if we can ignore societal problems by simply removing those who cause trouble. Mandela’s quote shows that the answer to these questions is no. The people in jail are still citizens. They are not sub-human, the problems and behaviors that led to the crimes committed cannot be solved simply with incarceration.

 

There may be a reason to remove television from prison, there may be a reason to change their wardrobe to pink, and there may be a reason to set up outdoor tents for housing, but it may be a mistake to assume that those in prison can grow and find the necessary improvement in their thoughts and lives to become productive and respectable people outside of prison simply by being tough and punishing them. I have not studied how we should treat those in prison, but I believe that treating prisoners as humans and showing them respect in a way that preserves some human dignity is key. Having a system that creates penalties and limits freedoms for those who commit crimes is reasonable, but that system should not de-humanize criminals and reduce them to something that does not deserve mutual respect.