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Modularity, signaling, and belief in belief

18 Post author: Kaj_Sotala 13 November 2011 11:54AM

This is the fourth part in a mini-sequence presenting material from Robert Kurzban's excellent book Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.

In the previous post, Strategic ignorance and plausible deniability, we discussed some ways by which people might have modules designed to keep them away from certain kinds of information. These arguments were relatively straightforward.

The next step up is the hypothesis that our "press secretary module" might be designed to contain information that is useful for certain purposes, even if other modules have information that not only conflicts with this information, but is also more likely to be accurate. That is, some modules are designed to acquire systematically biased - i.e. false - information, including information that other modules "know" is wrong.

Kurzban builds up this argument as follows:

Humans are incredibly social. Our intelligence might have evolved exactly because of competition in social domains, living alone and a lack of social interaction are correlated with poor health and unhappiness, and the pain levels reported by people reliving socially painful events, especially ostracism, are "comparable to pain levels reported ... for chronic back pain and even childbirth". Evolution has very strongly wired us for being social and avoiding ostracism and disapproval by the group.

There's a lot of competition in the social world. Our survival and reproduction are determined in large part by how well we navigate the social world. Our minds are likely to have been designed to compete fiercely for the benefits of the social world: the best mates, the best friends, membership in the best groups, and so on.

Social competition is often framed in terms of competing for the best mate or romantic partner, but Kurzban believes that the importance of friendship jealousy is underappreciated. If you are someone's best friend, they are likely to help you in times of need, and to also take your side in nearly all social conflicts. Having many people consider you to be among their best friends is one of the greatest advantages a person can have, and it would be surprising if we didn't have many modules that caused us to try to be valuable for others. People report satisfaction from helping their friends, and of course from making new ones.

We also like to be part of groups. Some groups are very exclusive, picking their members on the basis of formal criteria. Others are less formal, but no less important. In general, groups - like individual people - tend to value people who provide something useful for the group. Persuading others that you are valuable is an important, even crucial adaptive problem for humans. Our efforts to acquire knowledge, skills, and resources might well be driven at least in part by adaptations designed to make one valuable in the social world.

One's value in the social world is determined by many factors, such as our wealth, skills and abilities, existing social connections, intelligence, and probably many others. Of these, health is particularly important. Part of friendship is trading favors between each other: I do something for you, and then later on you return the favor and do something for me. But if you happen to die before having a chance to return my favor, my investment is wasted. This suggests that we should prefer to associate with people with good prospects, and to make others believe that our prospects are good even if they aren't.

Finally, estimating somebody's value is difficult. It's hard to judge whether somebody is likely to be loyal, caring or giving, or who is intelligent. Making these judgements accurately and choosing the right allies is of paramount importance, as is looking like a good person to ally yourself with. Taking all the above paragraphs together, this suggests that the modules that cause the speech and behavior that lead to others' impressions should be designed to generate as positive a view as possible of our traits and abilities. Likewise, our "press secretary modules" should be designed to cause people to behave in a way that sends out the most positive defensible message about the person's worth, history, and future.

The "defensible" part is important. Suppose that we know that our tribe places immense value on lion tamers, and also that anybody claiming to be a great lion tamer will soon be thrown in the same cage with a lion. If they are not as good as they say, the lion will eat them. In this situation, it would not be beneficial for us to claim great lion taming expertise if we did not actually have it. Likewise, if a person thinks that they are six feet tall, others won't be any less likely to notice that the person is actually only five feet tall.

But other kinds of beliefs do affect others' beliefs about us. In particular, our own behavior and actions do tell something about us. And our actions are influenced by the beliefs of ourselves that we happen to have. The influence can be from false beliefs, but since we must let our true beliefs guide our action at least some of the time, every now and then our true beliefs will leak through as well.

To name one example (in addition to the countless ones Robin Hanson has provided us), it's useful for other people to think that you're not going to die soon. If they believe you are going to be around for a long time, they are more likely to invest in a friendship with you. And our mental modules seem to reflect this, for we tend to avoid learning about our own medical conditions if the condition in question is both serious and untreatable. Why learn about facts that, if leaked, can only hurt you?

The usefulness of many beliefs can be context-dependent. Maybe being seen as a great lion tamer will get you lots of benefits in some contexts, as many people want to ally themselves with you. In other contexts, such as in the ones where you actually had an opportunity to go tame a lion, it would be beneficial to not believe in your lion taming skills if you didn't have any. Now you could be well off if you had a representation in one module that you were a good lion tamer in every single context in which there were no lions to be tamed. When an opportunity actually showed up, you'd want the "true" representation, living in some other module, to "take over".

Long-time readers will recognize the connection to belief in belief: someone might believe that there is an invisible dragon living in their garage, but they still know what exactly to say or do to avoid having their belief falsified. One might also think of the way the public seems so incredibly eager to leap on the smallest contradiction between a politician's words and their actions: the public is looking for a sign of their leader's true beliefs leaking out. Kurzban also mentions that Christopher Columbus is believed to have had two estimates of how far his ship had traveled during the first voyage to the New World. One was a deliberate underestimate to reduce the crew's worries, while the other was his best guess, to be used for practical purposes.

The connection to supernatural beliefs is also one that Kurzban discusses. Historically, having different religious beliefs from the rest of your social group has been very dangerous. Giordano Bruno is claimed to have been burned at a stake for disagreeing with Rome on the issue of transubstation, for other things. Even in today's world, some surveys indicate that 60% of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist. Belief in the supernatural, then, is one more way in which it has been crucially important to be wrong in order to survive.

My apologies for taking so long with this series. One of the things that was holding me up was that I felt I should cover two and a half chapters in one big post, which would have been exhausting to write and possibly exhausting to read. So to get over my block, I'm cutting it up into smaller pieces, even if some - including this one - risk only saying things that regular readers here already know.

Comments (14)

Comment author: taw 23 November 2011 05:27:26AM 11 points [-]

Christopher Columbus is believed to have had two estimates of how far his ship had traveled during the first voyage to the New World. One was a deliberate underestimate to reduce the crew's worries, while the other was his best guess, to be used for practical purposes.

This story is known to be totally false, so please don't repeat it.

However, according Oliver Dunn and James Kelley,[21][22] this was a misunderstanding by Las Casas. Columbus did report two distances each day but one was in measurements he normally used, the other in the Portuguese maritime leagues used by his crew.

I expect most such stories to be just as false as this one. Don't use them unless you really have to.

Comment author: EphemeralNight 14 November 2011 02:43:18AM 5 points [-]

living alone and a lack of social interaction are correlated with poor health and unhappiness, and the pain levels reported by people reliving socially painful events, especially ostracism, are "comparable to pain levels reported ... for chronic back pain and even childbirth".

And yet, when a person finds themselves in this sort of situation, they're near-universally treated as though they're living that way by choice, and can expect only empty platitudes or outright disdain in response to pleas for help getting out of said situation.

Comment author: Swimmer963 14 November 2011 03:40:49PM 3 points [-]

Do you consider yourself an example of this? If not (and even if so), what are some other examples?

Note: it might have something to do with the apparently innate human tendency to want to "save face." One way to save face in socially painful situations is to try to appear as though you are doing it all on purpose, to present yourself, for example, as a 'free spirit' rather than a 'loser.' I know for sure that I did this a lot as a child, and even now I have a tendency to emphasize the 'weird' things that I do, to look like I do them confidently and deliberately.

Comment author: DoubleReed 16 November 2011 07:30:41PM *  0 points [-]

One way to save face in socially painful situations is to try to appear as though you are doing it all on purpose, to present yourself, for example, as a 'free spirit' rather than a 'loser.' I know for sure that I did this a lot as a child, and even now I have a tendency to emphasize the 'weird' things that I do, to look like I do them confidently and deliberately.

I always associated this behavior more with machismo. The idea that "acting like you know what you're doing" is more important than "knowing what you're doing." Certainly in social situations, but especially in sexual situations, I never want to signal doubt in my actions, even if my actions turn out to be silly or stupid (which is hilariously often).

Comment author: taryneast 19 November 2011 12:37:54PM 1 point [-]

machismo is, itself, just an aspect of "face" - though perhaps more aligned with the "look how cool I am" aspect rather than the "I meant to do that" face-saving aspect.

Comment author: taryneast 19 November 2011 12:41:48PM 2 points [-]

This is interesting, and i agree with most of the points (in a "ok, but lets see where it goes from here" kind of way).

Though I am not so sure about the concept of "hiding one's likelihood to die soon". After all, lots of people play the sympathy card with great social results (at least for a while, until it gets tired).

I suspect that having a friend that is dying isn't actually likely to cause a person to ostracise them... after all, it's a chance to show all your other friends how valuable you are by taking care of the sick friend.

Comment author: falenas108 13 November 2011 04:02:57PM *  2 points [-]

This seems to be mostly speculation about a possible way the brain could be divided, with little evidence to support it. Are there studies that affirm these claims in the original book, or is it all just conjecture?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 13 November 2011 05:35:04PM 4 points [-]

It's a pop-sci book, so it doesn't follow the "provide a footnote for each sentence" convention of academia, and often appeals to examples from popular culture. But the list of references does run 22 pages nevertheless.

For the content mentioned in this post, some cited papers were e.g. the one about people with serious but untreatable diseases not wanting to know about it as well as the author's own paper about the alliance hypothesis for human friendship.

Comment author: usedToPost 16 November 2011 06:50:23PM 1 point [-]

Christopher Columbus is believed to have had two estimates of how far his ship had traveled during the first voyage to the New World. One was a deliberate underestimate to reduce the crew's worries, while the other was his best guess, to be used for practical purposes

That is a very nice model for the human mind.

Comment author: hairyfigment 13 November 2011 08:10:04PM 1 point [-]

Definitely interesting.

Typos etc: "believes to have" seems like a failed attempt to avoid using gendered pronouns (you still said "his garage").

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 14 November 2011 07:32:49AM 0 points [-]

No, that was... actually, I'm not entirely sure what it was. Anyway, fixed. :)

Comment author: taryneast 19 November 2011 12:39:14PM 0 points [-]

while we're on typos, I think "transubstation" should be "transubstantiation".

Comment author: TheOtherDave 19 November 2011 05:39:40PM 2 points [-]

Though this makes me want to write a Catholic-ritual themed modern fantasy story just so I can include a mechanical prayer network of transubstations.

Comment author: kpreid 27 November 2011 12:42:10AM 0 points [-]

You might like James D. Macdonald’s Peter Crossman stories.