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Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite 8: Self-Control


Following previous chapters, Kurzban is attempting to dissolve sticky issues in psychology that deal with the self. What is controlling what in self-control? Of course, modules are included in the answer here. Instead of relying on a resource model of will-power that seems to be popular now (in psychology or just the media?), Kurzban accepts a model in which different modules exert more of an influence when different contexts arise, with some short term modules (sex, sleep, hunger, flight) get more weight in certain circumstances.

As an example, after spending time doing some tough task (don’t think of a white bear), people are less likely to spend much time solving difficult puzzles. This is not because we lost our glucose. This is because after exerting (wasting?) a certain amount of time on the white bear task, the modules pushing to abandon the task for more rewarding pursuits kick in a little stronger. This is supported by the fact that a non-glucose reward (gift, money) after the white bear task leads to stronger willpower on the puzzles. This makes no sense on the resource model, but makes more sense with context sensitive module model.

Really falsifies my whole view of the willpower as resource thing. How reliable is Kurzban here? And is there a consensus against him?

At the end there’s a bit of an investigation into the idea of self-interest, which Kurzban says makes little sense due to the lack of a single self. This is potentially a big objection to certain pursuits of “rationality” as that which fulfills our goals best. If we are an amalgam of different, often contradictory goals, how can we decide what counts as the rational act? What is rational for split brain Joe to do? If he counts as two people, what do our modular brains count as?

Kindle Notes:

Some modules are designed to get you to satisfy immediate needs. These are important modules. Some of the needs I have in mind are things associated with the basic necessities of survival and reproduction. In biology, you might hear these referred to as the “four F’s”: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and having sex (3078).

very nice recent review of the state of scientific evidence on glucose and brain function similarly notes that the idea that “sugar-rich foods induce … an acute improvement in mood and mental function,” while often asserted by popular writers, is “muddled” and constitutes an “appealing but apocryphal notion” (3374).

Some subjects were, however, given a small gift after suppressing thinking of a white bear. These subjects were able to drink just as much of the nasty stuff as those who were at liberty to think of as many white bears as they wanted. That is, their “willpower” seems to have been restored, making them able to endure the foul-tasting beverage. These findings are very hard to accommodate with a “resource” model (3460).

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