Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Kurzban, Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite

Robert Kurzban’s Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (Princeton University Press, 2011) is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in quite some time. Kurzban is an evolutionary psychologist who tries to understand why we can contentedly embrace inconsistent beliefs. His thesis is that the mind is modular; like a computer program, it has subroutines that can operate relatively independently and that “are often ‘opaque’ or ‘invisible’ to other subroutines.” (p. 24)

As Kurzban develops his thesis he takes the reader on a journey to far-flung corners of our experience, starting with a very funny account of crossing a street in Philadelphia (where you do not want to make eye contact with an oncoming driver) and concluding with a range of moral issues—for instance, the value of monogamy, the illegality of drugs in a society that embraces free markets, and the arguments for and against abortion. He maintains that people on both sides of these debates are inconsistent in their reasoning.

Naturally, for Kurzban there is no ghost in the machine, as Gilbert Ryle described Descartes’ mind-body dualism. By extension, there is also no self but rather a concatenation of modules. Who “we” are changes, depending on which module is doing the quarterbacking. And “we” are not always seekers of the truth. The quarterback can sometimes opt for ignorance, sometimes even opt for falsity. And, in the right context (though definitely not when confronting a bear), can act on these flawed beliefs in an effective way.

The driving force behind Kurzban’s argument is evolutionary selection, which takes me to the first of two examples of his thinking: the quest for self-esteem. He writes: “Mechanisms whose function it is to make someone feel good per se have no real function at all as far as evolution is concerned, since the feeling itself is invisible to selection.” He cites the work of Leary and Downs who “liken self-esteem to a measurement tool, like a fuel gauge. When your gas tank is empty, … you don’t want to solve that problem by taking your finger, sticking it in the gas gauge, and moving the meter from empty to full. … Rather, you want to … fill the tank.” (p. 144) Filling the tank, however, is not a particularly rich metaphor because there is not a single gauge but many, “monitoring how one is doing”—becoming more valuable to others—“in various domains of social life.” (p. 145)

The second example, the illusion of control, is not one of the most interesting, but I include it because it comes from the trading world. A study gave 107 traders from London investment banks the task of moving a fictional market’s chart as high as possible during the course of a game; they could press three keys that “might” affect the price chart. As you have probably already surmised, the keys were irrelevant to the randomly generated price movement. How did the traders’ view of their performance on the game correlate with their real-world performance? “Traders who showed a higher illusion of control earned less money and were rated as less effective at their jobs.” (p. 115)

In Kurzban’s style it is easy to see the influence of such writers as Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Ariely, Scott Page, and James Surowiecki. He peppers his book with allusions to popular culture (films, Homer Simpson, and—importantly—C. J. Cregg in The West Wing) and makes analogies to toasters and vehicles.

After reading this book I can more easily make sense of the findings of behavioral finance where people so often make decisions that are irrational and not in their best interest. By the way, Kurzban critiques the very notion of self-interest.

I’m sure that Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite will provoke a lot of controversy, and I’m equally certain that Kurzban’s theses will require further refinement. But what a fascinating read!

And kudos to the designer of the dust jacket. It doesn't show up well in the Amazon image, but it's terrific.

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