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From My latest Mind and Matter Column at he Wall
The science of evolutionary psychology has flourished in recent
years by asking "why" as well as "how" questions about animal and
human behavior, and answering them with historical
For example, why are most male mammals keen on promiscuity,
while most female mammals are keen on picking high-status mates?
Because-given that fertilization takes seconds, while gestation and
lactation take years-mammals are often descended from philandering
males or females that chose resource-holding mates, but not so
often from promiscuous females or choosy males.
Evolutionary psychologists are now turning their attention to
more culturally variable cognitive conundrums. Hypocrisy and
self-deception, for example. Last year Robert Kurzban of the
University of Pennsylvania published a book called "Why Everyone
(Else) Is a Hypocrite," and this month Robert Trivers will publish
a complementary explanation of self-deception in his book "The
Folly of Fools."
The Kurzban theory of hypocrisy takes as its starting point that
the mind is modular. That is to say, just as the body uses
different organs to achieve different ends-bones, kidneys, skin and
nerves each being designed for different jobs-so the brain uses
specialized mental circuits honed for tasks like vision, social
interaction and fear. Mr. Kurzban uses the parallel of the
smartphone. Different apps are built for different jobs.
If the mind is modular, says Mr. Kurzban, then sometimes the
modules will contradict each other. The hunger module will demand a
cheeseburger, while the vanity module demands a diet. People break
New Year's resolutions because willpower is just one module, up
against some formidable mental rivals. Eliot Spitzer's moralistic
module led him to condemn prostitution; his lust module chose a
different path. Presumably, we disapprove of hypocrisy because we
have a fairness module: We demand that others practice equal
treatment, and we see their hypocrisy as evidence that they exempt
themselves from their own rules.
Mr. Kurzban says there is no reason to expect consistency from a
modular mind. "A foolish consistency," said Emerson, "is the
hobgoblin of little minds." This leads him to the conclusion that
self-deception comes about not for some holistic purpose such as
"protecting the self" from damage to self-esteem (as many
psychologists have argued) but simply because it serves the purpose
of one module to deceive another. In his view, we deceive ourselves
as a sort of public-relations exercise: so that we project a
particular perspective to the outside world.
Indeed, because there's no such thing as a unified self, just a
collection of modules, the very phrase "self-deception" is
misleading in the author's view. It's more accurate to say that
many of our conscious beliefs are "strategically wrong." In a
remarkable experiment done at the University of Georgia in the
1990s, heterosexual men with strongly homophobic views were more
physiologically aroused by gay pornography than heterosexual men
with more neutral views. There was no difference with straight
Mr. Trivers takes further this idea of hiding potentially
damaging information away in an unconscious bit of the brain where
it cannot leak, arguing that we deceive ourselves the better to
deceive others. In one experiment, people were quicker to spot a
picture of themselves if it was enhanced to be slightly better
looking, and slower if it was made uglier. Given that much human
communication is essentially manipulative in motive-hoping to make
people like us, for example-it's not a bad idea to begin by
Which may explain why Mr. Trivers
finds that intelligent people are more likely to deceive themselves
than the average. More than 90% of professors think they are in the
top half of their profession.