Our Brains Don’t Hold Information as Well as We Think

Anyone who has ever misplaced their keys or their wallet knows that the brain can be a bit faulty. If you have ever been convinced you saw a snake only to find out it was a plastic bag, or if you remembered dropping a pan full of sweet potatoes as a child during Thanksgiving only to get into an argument with your brother about which one of you actually dropped the pan, then you know your brain can misinterpret signals and mis-remember events. For some reason, our hyper-powerful pattern recognition brains seem to be fine with letting us down from time to time.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “There’s a wide base of evidence showing that human brains are poor stewards of the information they receive from the outside world. But this seems entirely self-defeating, like shooting oneself in the foot. If our minds contain maps of our worlds, what good comes from having an inaccurate version of these maps?” 

 

The question is, why do we have such powerful brains that can do such amazing things, but that still make basic mistakes all the time? The answer that Hanson and Simler propose throughout the book is that having super accurate information in the brain, remembering everything perfectly, and clearly observing everything around us is actually detrimental to our success as a social species. Our view of the world only needs to be so accurate for us to successfully function as biological creatures. We only need senses that satisfice for us to evade predators, avoid poisonous mushrooms, and get enough food. What really drives the evolution of the brain, is being successful socially, and sometimes a bit of deception gives us a big advantage.

 

It is clear that the brain is not perfect at observing the world. We don’t see infrared wavelengths of light, we can’t sense the earths magnetic pull, and we can’t hear as many sounds as dogs can hear. Our experience of the world is limited. On top of those limitations, our brains are not that interested in having an accurate picture of the information that it actually can observe. We must keep this in mind as we go through our lives. What can seem so clear and obvious to us, may be a distorted picture of the world that someone else can see as incomplete. A good way to move forward is to abandon the idea that we have (or must have) a perfect view and opinion of the world. Acknowledge that we have preferences and opinions that shape how we interpret the world, and even if we are not open to changing those opinions, at least be open to the idea that our brains are not designed to have perfect views, and that we might be shortsighted in some areas. We will need to bond with others and form meaningful social groups, but we should not accept that we will have to delude our view of the world and accept alternate facts to fit in.

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.

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.

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.

A Sense of Demotion

Since I read Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain, I have become really interested in ideas and thoughts about status. We are social creatures living in an interconnected and social world. In order for us to move through this world we need friends, allies, and an ability to impress people around us with our valuable skills, abilities, and knowledge. These social pressures have created an evolutionary reason for why we desire status: the higher our status (historically and ancestrally) the better our chances of passing along our genes.

 

Hanson and Simler argue that as social creatures, direct efforts to raise our status generally don’t work, so we need to raise our status indirectly. When we directly set out to show our dominance by making a lot of money, when we go to the gym and make it explicit that we are doing so to attract the hottest mate, and if we were to admit that we made a large donation just to look good socially, we actually lose status. Instead of being direct about our self-interest and desire to increase our status, we hide our motives behind motives that sound legitimate and are far more admirable. We are making lots of money to provide for our children’s future, we go to the gym to be healthy (again possibly to help improve our children’s lives and not our own), and we made that big donation because we believe in the benefits it will have for other people in society.

 

It is clear from the argument that Hanson and Simler make that much of our behavior is status seeking behavior and that there can be many negative externalities stemming from our status seeking behavior. We will be depressed if we can’t buy a bigger house than our brother-in-law, we may get physically injured by overdoing it at the gym to show off for that hottie, and our large donation to that important sounding cause may be less effective than other less visible means of doing good with our financial resources.

 

These thoughts of status seeking behavior and the dangers of status seeking behavior came to mind this morning as I returned to a quote from Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Wright says the following about some of the angst we see in our country and across Europe as society changes:

 

“Some political scholars have chalked up contemporary support for crypto-authoritarians in the early 21st century as the consequence of older, nationalistic people realizing that in an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, young people and immigrants and people who don’t look like them suddenly have as many rights and privileges as they do. Lacking the advantages they’ve had over these other people for their entire lives, they feel as if they’ve been demoted, when in reality, everyone else has been promoted to a status closer to that which these people always enjoyed. This is a misinterpretation of what’s happening, but their feeling of demotion is still very real, and we’ve seen some very tangible consequences of that.”

 

I think that Wright’s analysis is clearly correct but it is hard to say that it is the only factor or the main factor in the world today. I certainly think people should make an effort to get beyond their own status desires, but the point of bringing this quote in is not to write about the evils of some out-group. What I am thinking about as I write this is the importance of recognizing that our own status seeking behavior can be negative for society and the world. We should make an effort to engage with the world in a way that solves problems, recognizing that addressing big problems will raise our status, but not making our status the main reason we are trying to tackle such large problems. We can also recognize that the people Wright criticizes are no different from us, they are looking to maintain and increase their status just a we are. We don’t need to concede to them, but we can better understand the pressures they face and acknowledge that we would likely feel the same way if we were in their shoes and if our own status was being leveled in the same way.

A Close Look at Individuals

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander finds a common ground between Republicans and Democrats when looking at who we consider change agents in our system. Both groups look at the power of the individual as the driving force of America and see the individual as the mechanism through which change and a better future are possible. The two camps may see the actions of the individual a bit differently, but nevertheless both focus on the individual.

 

Throughout her book however, Alexander is critical of the idea that the individual is capable of creating and instigating the changes in America that are necessary to overcome enormous challenges. There are too many structural barriers for individuals to overcome, and even if the individual does rise to the top, the idea that they can lift an entire group is unrealistic. The individual may play an incredible role, and in America the strength of the individual may be fantasized by popular culture, but the individual exists in a complex society that can only truly change and advance through the mobilization of entire social groups. I agree with Alexander that the structural barriers are too great for us to address on our own, and I want to look at how we think about the individual versus the collective, and examine the ways that Alexander believes this plays out in our criminal justice system.

 

Since our founding, the idea of the individual has been a palpable force in shaping our democracy. Protestant settlers tended to believe that their hard work would be rewarded with great riches from above, and success was (and still is) viewed as an individual’s divine blessing, given by a greater power to those who are hard working, virtuous, and special. If one was successful it was because a divine being had recognized and rewarded them, and through this same view, those who were not successful were in their position due to individual moral failures. On this foundation we built a nation and a constitution that centered around the strength and responsibility of the individual for personal gain. Our primary responsibility was to be a good Christian so that God would bestow great bounty upon us, and if we all focused on this goal as individuals, collectively we would all find an everlasting success. Failure was a result of individuals not living up to the contract from above, and within this lens we developed the idea of the deserving and undeserving.

 

From this foundation our nation has developed to where we are today. Describing the role of the individual in The New Jim Crow, Alexander writes, “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.” Alexander is critical of this theory and I think she is right to criticize the focus on individualism. I do not believe there is a liberal and a conservative America, because when we use those terms we mean different things in different contexts, so I will drop her terms and simply use Republican and Democrat because party identification is more consistent and to me seems to be more causal than liberal or conservative ideology.

 

Alexander describes the Republican Party as being focused on individuals changing the system through entrepreneurship and insight. The individual can create great innovations if they are not constrained and limited by the system within which they operate. The Democratic party sees the individual as the flagship leader, raising up and pulling the status of the group and the fortunes of others up with them. Both of these views see power as resting with great individuals and leaders, and see exceptional leaders as the key to growth, progress, development, and a better future. Alexander finds this narrative lacking and dangerous, and I agree with her that it is an incomplete view.

 

To me, this focus on individuals is misplaced. What we get from our focus on individualism is instability, delays, and stagnation as often than we get flashes of brilliance, advancement, and progress. An incredible leader and voice may come along to lift up an entire group, as Dr. King Jr. did during the Civil Rights movement, but expecting a great leader to instigate meaningful change causes delays in achieving justice, making scientific advances, and solving substantial problems that impact people’s every day lives. This focus also creates instability since people change and die, and pinning all of our hopes on an individual leaves movements of change and advancement  vulnerable, as the assassination of Dr. King Jr. demonstrated.

 

The real power of the individual is not in change and progress as both Democrats and Republicans would hope. The true power of the individual is in the status quo. It is the power to defend the injustices that exist, the power to delay advancement and equality, and the power to be a barrier that limits other individuals. The reason why an individual has greater power to be a pest and not a hero is because we live in a society that requires collective action. The Republican Party has demonstrated that a few high minded individuals with great influence can derail the ideas of societal responsiveness and democratic representation. As an example, Grover Norquest’s anti-tax pledge is a commitment to abandon the collective more than it is a commitment to improve society. The Koch brother’s campaign against moderate candidates (candidates who more accurately reflect the majority of the country) is a demonstration that a few individuals can block progress and block the strength of our social groups while upholding structural barriers. President Donald Trump clearly shows us that a single individual can reverse and hold up equality and group advancement, while President Barack Obama showed us that even the best among us can only make so much of a dent without the support of broader communities.

 

In America we love our superheroes that pull the world back from the brink of destruction and manage to triumph in the face of adversity. We focus on what the individual can achieve and use material and financial success to demonstrate our value as individuals. What hides below the surface of our love for the individual is the fact that no one can be a superhero without some form of support from a larger group. What we hide in our past is that those who became incredibly wealthy in the early days of our society did so by exploiting the black body, justifying their actions as divinely ordained and rightful by biology and manifest white destiny. This attitude continued and the white individual was able to achieve their own success while holding the entirety of black society back. If we focus on individualism we allow such evils to persist. We must find a new way to be individuals and be successful on our own, but with the understanding that our individual success in terms of wealth, possessions, jobs, and family has as much  to do with with us as individuals as it has to do with the stability and protection offered by the larger society in which we live.