Here’s the exciting thing about brains: “The same idea in your head can be represented along with its contradiction.” At least that’s what fascinates Robert Kurzban, author of Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.
Kurzban, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, paced the stage and explained the scientific causes of hypocricy to a politically attuned crowd at the Actor’s Gang in Culver City.
Built for Inconsistency
Kurzban explained that our bodies and minds are filled with modules, devices that have “a narrow function.” The sole purpose of retinas, for example, is to examine light and interpret what bounces off of the eye. On their own, these modules aren’t necessarily impressive. (“How is it that we’re so smart, given the fact that we’re made of bits that are so dumb?” Kurzban quipped.)
“You get smart things like brains by building together less smart pieces.” Kurzban sees human minds as akin to Smart Phones in their multi-functionality. Just like the Smart Phone has the job of reporting the weather, news and GPS location, the mind reports auditory messages, memories and social cues.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Since they are working independently, these modules can arrive at different, conflicting conclusions.
As an example, Kurzban asked the audience to imagine drawing two lines of equal length, one drawn with arrows pointing out, and the other drawn with arrows pointing inward. “It’ll appear as though they are different sizes, but you just made the lines yourself so you know they’re equal in length.” The visual module will have a “belief”, Kurzban explained, while the head, knowingly, has a different conclusion.
In another study, random subjects were asked to pick their favorite pair of pantyhose out of what was actually an identical group. They picked one (usually the farthest to the right), and when asked why they picked that particular pair, people would just make something up.
“One part is making a decision, the visual, and the other part has to justify it,” Kurzban explained. “You can understand the inconsistencies in human behavior when you get these little pieces next to each other.”
Morality and Competing Modules
“People are biased, but they think other people are even more biased than they are,” Kurzban said to laughter.
Human minds have a moralistic modual. At a certain age, kids obsessively point out moral violations and tattletale. “They’re little moralistic machines,” Kurzban said.
The same is true for adults. Kurzban used drugs, sex and alcohol as examples of things that prompt people of all ages to moralize. (“I’m not Mr. Drug guy–they’re just good examples,” he joked.)
Some people are more moralistic than others. “We don’t know why people care so much,” said Kurzban. “If we knew what morality was for, then we would have better insights.”
While many of us assume that the “same principals are guiding behavior and condemnation,” that’s not really the case, according to Kurzban. The morality module can work in contradiction to the ignorance or “press secretary” module, forming hypocrisy. “You can have a module in your head saying not to do X,” he explained. “At the same time, you have things driving you to do X.”
Press Secretaries and Imaging the Self
“Some parts of your mind are designed to be ignorant,” Kurzban stated. He believes this ignorance module was evolutionarily beneficial.
“Ignorance can be a weapon in social situations,” Kurzban said, pointing to a line from the television show The West Wing, in which a press secretary claims, “I do my best work when I’m the least informed person in the room.”
Kurzban considers certain modules of the mind to be like that press secretary. Lack of self-awareness can be helpful in projecting a positive image to others. “You believe things based on what I say and what I do,” he stated. “You make inferences about my value.” Therefore, there’s something valuable to presenting ourselves, even unconsciously, as better than we might actually be.
The audience was particularly vocal about politics during the Q&A. Obama, Bush, Reagan, the media, religion, and even the Middle East were all brought up in the context of hypocrisy. Kurzban gracefully dodged the most divisive questions and remained focused on the mind as a whole.
“I don’t want to go easy on the politicians, but there’s a funny thing about them,” Kurzban said. “One, things they say tend to get recorded and two, a politican tends to be taking a stand on things they don’t like.” Still, he conceded, “There’s a reason these guys go into politics.”
When suppporting a political side, people can be swayed by narrative, Kurzban explained. People are willing to forgive inconsistencies when “bound up” in the story of their political party. “People are inconsistent about the enforcement of inconsistencies.”
The question that Kurzban touched on but left hanging as “complicated” are the reasons why people don’t like hypocrites. During the Q&A someone asked if people might evolve to be more consistent, particularly in an information age where everything was scrutinized. Kurzban thought this was “a reasonable possibility.”
Nobody asked if people would evolve to be more accepting of hypocrisy.
See photos here.
Watch a highlight of the lecture here.
Watch full video here.
Read an excerpt of Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite here.
Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon
Read Kurzban’s “In the Green Room” Q&A here.
*Photos by Aaron Salcido