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Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite 6,7: Psychological Propaganda, Self-Deception


These two chapters cover the two different kinds of “self deception” from Kurzban’s modular perspective. An important theme running through both chapters is Kurzban’s argument that the only times it is beneficial to be systematically wrong about things is when there are social implications. Humans are more likely to reproduce if they are perceived as better and more valuable than they are, and so the modules that represent a person and can communicate are more likely to be the ones that overestimate their value and chances of success. This is the psychological propaganda aspect of self-deception. The modules responsible for speech are strategically wrong about the value of the human whole, which aids in representing the person as better than he/she is to others.

Another big criticism Kurzban has is of the idea that we deceive ourselves to protect our self-esteem. His argument is that self-esteem doesn’t add any survival value, so there must be more than that. Also, it is pretty shallow to explain self-deception in that way. It is like explaining our desire for burgers by saying we like the taste of burgers. Sure it’s true, but it is the most proximate of explanations. Kurzban is looking for deeper, evolutionary answers to why something like self deception would continue.

The answer, to him, is more of this strategic wrongness. The part of us that speaks is more likely to be strategically wrong about our shortcomings, or likelihood to survive because by being wrong, it can represent the human whole as being worth investment. So the guy who is likely to die in 6 months will likely speak in favor of his own survival chances. Another module, which is more motivated to act based on reality, will bring the human whole to follow the doctor’s advice, as this gives the person the best chances of survival. At the same time, the speaking module may say that the doctor’s interventions are not necessary, just a safeguard, and that the human whole will survive no matter what. This makes him appear more worth investment by other humans.

Kindle Notes:

Finally, the icing on the cake in this literature is delightfully recursive: We think we’re better than average at not being biased in thinking that we’re better than average. A sample of undergraduates were told about biases like the ones discussed here, and asked how susceptible to them they were. They uniformly judged themselves less susceptible than the average American.24 These students are saying: Everyone else is biased; I am dispassionately realistic. And, yes, I really am that good (2051).

Predicting that your team will win is not restricted to sports. Granberg and Brent examined the relationship between one’s preferred political candidate and predictions regarding who was going to win.53 Using data from surveys in which people were asked who they predicted would win the presidential election and who they expected to vote for, they found that consistently between 1952 and 1980, roughly 80% of people predicted that their preferred candidate would win (2262).

Again, however, I can’t stress enough that, absent the social benefits of being overly optimistic, one should be exactly as optimistic as is warranted. To the extent that optimism guides effort and so on, creatures that are good at predicting what’s going to happen and acting on those predictions appropriately are, everything else equal, going to do better than overly optimistic people (2291).

Baumeister et al. reported: “Self-esteem is thus not a major predictor or cause of almost anything. … people with high self-esteem seem sincerely to believe they are smarter, more accomplished, more popular and likable, more attractive, and so forth, but some of those apparent advantages are illusory” (2685).

“If we could deliberately seize control of our pleasure systems, we could reproduce the pleasure of success without the need for any actual accomplishment. And that would be the end of everything” (2779).

The bear food brain is no more plausible than the brain that arrives at various facts—like Fred’s belief that he’s not going to die of cancer—because doing so is “protective” or “feels good.” 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 (2797).

my view of what’s going on with Fred, which is probably clear by now, is that a strategically wrong belief is in his public relations modules and a contradictory belief is in modules that guide his behavior. The public relations system is putting out propaganda that he’ll get better—just as it is designed to do—to persuade others that he’s still a good investment (2872).

The conclusion from all of this is that “self-deception” doesn’t need some special explanation. It just happens because of the way that the mind is organized, with many different compartments, strategically wrong representations in one place, more accurate representations in another (2899).

Finally, what of the conscious/unconscious distinction? Consciousness seems, in some way, to be associated with the social world, and with information that “leaks” to others. Having “conscious” representations of things that are beneficial for others to believe is consistent with the press secretary function for consciousness (2902).

don’t address the issue of legal culpability here. If the mind is modular, then we’re locking up a large number of modules that didn’t cause their owner to do anything wrong, along with the module or modules that did. I don’t see any way around this, since we can’t (yet?) punish one set of modules but not others (4501).

Note: Uh oh. The implications. . .

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