Bias As Objectification II

The other day I wrote a post in which I suggested that being caught out as insincere is unpleasant not only for the material consequences that might follow from it, such as damage to your reputation which will cause others not to want to enter into relationships with you; but also because it causes you to be objectified in the eyes of others.  Commenter TGGP replied:

"How might we distinguish between the hypotheses that people are concerned with reputation or objectification?"

It is tempting to reply that one could distinguish between the cases by looking at instances in which there are no reputational effects; for example by seeing whether people who are caught out still feel objectified when it is by someone who they are never going to see again. But this won’t work for TGGP, who goes on in the same comment to say:

I could see how evolution might adapt for the former by making "getting caught" inherently unpleasant."

TGGP’s point, as I understand it, is that feeling bad is not a separate thing sitting alongside the material motivation to avoid being caught out, but rather is itself the mechanism that evolved in support of that material motivation.  In this view, the fact that you feel the same way even for people that you will never see again doesn’t mean anything; if feeling that way was adaptive in the ancestral environment, then you will still feel that way now, regardless of whether it is actually adaptive in any particular situation.

My answer is as follows.  It seems like a pretty good bet that every psychological impulse we have must ultimately have some sort of evolutionary origin.  That is, every impulse that we have must have evolved because, on average, it conferred some material advantage on the individuals who had it or on close kin.  This is true for altruism, and for shame, and for other things like that.  The question, then, is whether that’s the only thing going on, or whether there is any meaningful sense in which reason and culture refine these evolutionary raw materials to the point where you get something new that is not readily traceable to this or that evolved impulse.  If the answer is yes, then there is meaningful human psychology that is not properly evolutionary psychology, and that, while informed by evolutionary psychology, should be its own thing. 

And it seems to me that the answer is in fact yes.  People take their evolved sexual desire and have sex using birth control, and people take their evolved competitive desire and use it to play video games where winning will confer no higher status, and people tell themselves that they have moral obligations to help others even when their evolved altruism impulse doesn’t seem to be kicking in (i.e., when they don’t feel like it).  And so on.  If I didn’t know better, I might even be tempted to call some aspects of human psychology emergent phenomena!

P.S.  I got at least some of this from Richard Dawkins, but I can’t recall where he said it.

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  • Robin Hanson

    It is not clear to me that you have successfully distinguished what it means for a behavior to be best described as where

    reason and culture refine these evolutionary raw materials to the point where you get something new that is not readily traceable to this or that evolved impulse.”

    Why aren’t birth control, video game playing, and aversions to “being caught out as insincere” best understood as the usual evolved impulses perhaps clumsily mapped into a new environment? What is so refined about them?

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    “Individual organisms are best understood as adaptation-executers, rather than fitness-maximizers.”
    — Tooby and Cosmides

    If I didn’t know better, I might even be tempted to call some aspects of human psychology emergent phenomena!

    I’m glad you know better. What would saying this tell you, which you do not already know? Incidentally, it doesn’t fit Jed Harris’s improved definition.

    By the way, note how not readily traceable means, in this instance, “It is in fact traceable, but subjectively, I feel like I’m losing track of the trace.” A subjective, not objective, property; moreover, one which describes a form of ignorance, rather than knowledge.

  • Vladimir Nesov

    In cases like this it’s tempting to single out an Evolutionary Bias Bias, that is blaming something offhand on evolutionary programmed bias.

  • TGGP

    I would like to note that my second statement referenced was not intended to advocate the point that it is all reputation rather than objectification but to give an explanation of how an aversion to objectification rather than simply reputation damage could emerge. I am willing to refer to kin-selection and reciprocal altruism as “altruism” even if it is selfish from a gene’s eye view.

    I would guess that people weight the opinions of others non-uniformly. Many people like to call themselves “politically incorrect”, and I enjoy their willingness to creep close to the edge of unrespectability, but very few of them are actually unafraid of seriously being thought to be, say, a Nazi. Most try to let on that they are not really that bad and will only violate the less sacred taboos or are obviously not being serious when they violate others. Even though I am commenting anonymously, I too am a coward. I am willing to be considered a psychopath nihilist philistine by anyone due to my disregard for certain things, and I expect that statements I make elsewhere will result in claims I am hateful or evil/malevolent. Those will most likely come from the easily offended, and I am not too concerned with their reaction but will instead be entertained. There are other people I respect (including many of the contributors here), and I genuinely would be upset if they thought of me that way because I know I am not.

    I do not know which explanation that would fit. Anonymity would point against reputation being a serious concern, but I’ve been using this pseudonym for long enough that it is something of an avatar for me which has value I do not wish to discard. It is a common lament that you cannot punch someone over the internet for the things they say, and this encourages much more “trolling” or “griefing” than we see elsewhere. What others can do to you over the internet is choose to ignore you, and this we generally do to those we do not merely dislike but cannot stand. It is once again because you cannot punch people over the internet that there are not important status hierarchies of the type we see in real life, but I nevertheless hold certain personae (for all I know Spengler, the War Nerd and our own H.A are the same person but they are distinct in my head) in higher regard than others. If, as folks here have claimed, my brain is my P.R department issuing orders I am not consciously aware of you certainly can’t trust me to explain why any of those things are.

  • Curt Welch

    The connection between our impulses and evolutionary advantage is indirect. This indirection happens because of the fact that we are adaptive learning machines. Our brain is not genetically wired to make us drool at the sight of burgers cooking on a grill, and we are not genetically wired to have an urge to grab a burger and stick it in our mouth. These are things we have learned through experience of interacting with our environment. But the prime motivations, like our reaction to the taste of food, or the reaction to putting food in an empty stomach, or the pain created when we are burnt by the grill, is genetically wired. All our higher level urges, are learned – and they depend on the environment we were raised in. You don’t develop an urge to eat a hamburger if you grew up in an environment where there were no hamburgers.

    It’s extremely difficult to separate what is genetically wired in us (nature), and what is learned (nurture), but it’s easy to show that some things are genetically wired (which we can’t change – like how being burned will always hurt you), and that others are learned. Most high level urges we talk about, are clearly learned behaviors because they don’t exist in babies and young children – they were learned through experience after birth.

    “Getting caught” for example is a high level behavior learned through experience. When we got caught eating cookies as a kid, and got slapped on the butt the brain made a connection between the genetically wired pain of being slapped on the butt, and the complex environmental events of “being caught”. But it wasn’t that one example of getting caught that trained us. It was probably more like 1000 events in our life that shaped our current feelings about getting caught.

    Humans don’t just learn behavior, they learn motivations as well. It’s called secondary reinforcers. We learn to see money as a reward not because it was genetically wired in us, but because we learned that money leads to actual rewards (food, sex, etc). Only the most primitive rewards like food and hunger and sex and physical pain are genetically wired to be bad or good events. All other high level motivations are complex learned traits which for the most part, are too complex to ever fully understand their source – simply because they are the product of thousands of events from our past.

    David’s comment about a large chunk of human psychology being an emergent phenomena is precisely correct. It’s emergent simply because it’s learned. We weren’t born with it, we learned it based on our genetically endowed prime motivations, combined with the operation of a very advanced learning system interacting with a very complex environment. The behaviors and motivations emerge in us as we learn. The learning machine is a direct product of evolution (with obvious survival advantage), but what we each learn in our life times, what loves and fears we develop, what we seek out and what we avoid, is all learned as a result of our past experience.

    The connection between our urges and evolution, is that evolution built in us prime motivations which define what is good, and what is bad for us (being burnt is bad, filling an empty stomach is good), and the learning machine then learns to predict what types of complex environmental conditions tend to produce the good things in life, and what complex environmental conditions produce the bad things of life, and most important, which behaviors tend to keep our environment in the “good” states, and away from the “bad” states. The connection is indirect, because evolution didn’t build in me hardware to make me sense the sight and smell of a hamburger as a “good state” of the environment, but it did build in me a learning brain with the power to use past experience to predict that the sight of a burger is likely to lead to one of the prime good things in life (filling an empty stomach). All our loves and fears, and complex altruistic behaviors, can be explained in these terms – but to understand the exact nature of such things in a given person, would require us to record, and analyze, their entire life (and all their thoughts) because their entire life of experience is what led to how their brain currently reacts to any given situation.

    (I tried to keep these comments short, but they have gotten a bit long again – sorry about that).

  • David J. Balan

    Even if it were true that our behavior is always and forever determined by nothing more than our ancient evolved impulses “clumsily mapped into a new environment,” I think the point of the post would remain. The modern environment is so different from the ancestral one that much of the intesting stuff is in the clumsy mapping process, and not in the raw materials provided by the evolutionary heritage. Moreover, I don’t think that’s what’s going on anyway. The clearest example of this is when people explicitly consult their reason and use it to overrule their feelings. If you feel like punching somebody and you don’t do it *because it would be the wrong thing to do*, then something is going on that is not closely related to the evolutionary heritage reasons why you might punch somebody nor to the evolutionary heritage reasons why you might not. Unless you believe that never really happens, but is just an illusion when it feels like it’s happening.

    I know essentially no physics, but let me try this. When people talk about things like the weather as “emergent,” they don’t mean (or at least I don’t think they mean) that it is random and so could never be predicted. As far as I know, that is only true at the level of sub-atomic particles. So you are exactly right that the weather is something that is traceable and what we mean when we call it emergent is nothing more than that we can’t hold on to the trace. “Emergence” is not a thing in itself, it’s just a word meant to point out the fact that unlike some other phenomena (including other phenomena that you might have guessed would be no more complex than the weather), it turns out not to easily yield to the kinds of tracing tools that we’ve had lots of success with in other settings. The same thing is true for the features of human psychology that I discussed in the original post. There deserves to be a word for that.

    I thought you were going to come at me hard with the claim that basic evolutionary stuff is really all that is going on and that any appearance to the contrary is a self-serving illusion.

  • TGGP

    David, stop objectifying me!

    Seriously, like a good reductionist I believe all that is going on on is basic evolutionary stuff affecting how our neurons fire though perhaps in a context it is not adapted for, but if talking about it in terms of other phenomena helps us understand it I will not object. I’ll leave that to Elizer, since he seems to have a better grasp on whether such concepts are actually helpful.

  • Robin Hanson

    David, I see no reason not to think that our distant ancestors did not also “explicitly consult their reason and use it to overrule their feelings” and avoid doing things that seemed wrong. These seems part of our evolved heritage of behaviors, rather than being a consequences of old impulses being mapped into our new environment.

  • michael vassar

    You know, sometimes people use emergent as a synonym for “Chaotic” which has a fairly precise and technical meaning. Also, sometimes as a synonym for “reminds people who know about Chaos Theory of chaotic phenomena, though may not actually be one, but seems like a member of some larger inclusive class” which is subjective, but not obviously more so than ethical/aesthetic judgments or judgments of Go move quality.

  • David J. Balan

    As I understand it, non-human primates, and presumably our pre-rational ancestors, have things like empathy and shame. Rationality in the sense of self-conscious philosophizing evolved later. Feelings came first, and thinking and thinking about feelings came later, which means that the ancient evolved impulses don’t just get mapped into modern environments, but do so after having been mediated by this relatively new interloper called rationality.

  • Robin Hanson

    David, by “modern” I mean the last ten thousand years, not the last ten million. Yes before ten million years ago our ancestors didn’t do much self-conscious philosophizing, but they surely did well before the last ten thousand years. My claim is that thinking about feeling appeared long enough ago to have been subject to a lot of evolutionary pressure.

  • David J. Balan

    I agree with what you say. But the point of the philosophizing example is just to highlight an instance in which what seems to be going on inside you (it feels like you’re thinking about the *right* thing to do here) is something other than just a veneer on some more basic evolutionary psychology thing (doing this or not doing that will redound to your advantage).

  • Robin Hanson

    David, all evolved mechanisms are onions made of veneers layered over veneers many times over. I thought the issue was whether a particular behavior had been “evolved” in the sense of being subject to and responding to substantial evolutionary pressure.

  • David J. Balan

    Robin, My understanding of evolutionary history is that altruism is far older than conscious reason and hence much older than moral philosophizing. If that is true, it means that the methods we use for dealing with the interests of others are cobbled together from multiple, originally independent sources. You are right that there is nothing unusual about this; evolution works by appending new things on old platforms. But I think this is enough to make the point I was trying to make, which is that when you feel like you are philosophizing, you may really be philosophizing. Philosophizing is not just the older altruistic impulses crammed into a new smart brain, it’s an actual thing in its own right. It’s not independent of other things, but it’s enough of its own thing to not be easily reducable to this or that evolved impulse.

  • TGGP

    Chip Smith of the Hoover Hog has been taking ethics in an odd direction in his series on anti-natalism. In the fourth and latest part (it was supposed to be the last but now he says there will be a fifth) he discusses how are intuitions are shaped by evolution as well as the project of transhumanism, so I thought some of you might be interested in it.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    TGGP, I was disappointed by that Chip Smith piece. He seems to live in a reality where thinkers like Aubrey de Gray, Nick Bostrom, and Anders Sandberg don’t exist. I suppose a good case could be made that all this clever writing (particularly by the non-anonymous) is sexual signalling. If so, I’d like it to be better harnessed towards pragmatic problem-solving (like the problem of our appparent mortality!), rooted in empiricism, than this fluffy “let me show you how clever I am in arguing this counteruntuitive thing” sort of stuff.

    A lot of the uncritical aspirations of transhumanism, Fukuyama’s criticisms of transhumanism, and Chip’s criticisms of Fukuyama seem like so much wasted energy to me. I’d rather they all be tearing apart the weak points of Aubrey, Nick, Anders’, etc. ideas regarding solving aging and minimizing existential risk. Sexually signal that way folks -I think it does more for us, and we’re on an unforgiving deadline.

  • TGGP

    Linking to his anti-natalist posts got Chip (if that is his real name, who knows on the internet) to appear on the Mises blog. Maybe he’ll show up here. Heck, given your shared quirk of not wanting to die, you might even get along.

    I’m not a scientist. I’m not sure what Chip does when he’s not signaling to single women looking for someone to discuss holocaust denial with, but I infer it’s not science either. I don’t know anything about the meatspace-you, but I have fairly high confidence that if all three of us were to simultaneously drop dead this second, it would not prevent any existential threats to humanity from being thwarted. In the meantime before I die I intend to stop and smell the counterintuitions, which would seem to be Chip’s reaction to impending demise as well.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    “… I have fairly high confidence …” As best as I can tell, that’s a deoptimized opiate from the perspective of maximizing our mutual persistence odds. In apparent reality, optimized effort often makes the difference between survival and death. So as far as I can tell, the best opiate for us to pick is an effort to optimize our persistence efforts. I gather your analysis from my writing quality is that I’m not in a relatively influential position regarding thwarting existential threats to humanity. Sadly, I’m probably much better connected, and more influential in those ares, than you think. That’s how f*cked our situation likely is. But I also think you’re underestimating your and Chip’s intelligence. I don’t think your smarts is a problem (I’m guessing you’re an undistinguished lawyer) I think it’s more focus and motivation. Drop this libertarian, etc. bullsh*t and focus on using empiricism to try to solve aging in the next few decades. That would be my general advice to all those white collar guys sold libertarianism, etc. as a belief-as-attire counterhierarchy for second rung elites.

  • TGGP

    I gather your analysis from my writing quality is that I’m not in a relatively influential position regarding thwarting existential threats to humanity.
    Actually, it’s because I would expect an important person to be using their own name (there have been several anonymous bloggers whose identities were revealed, all were nobodies) and also because I reject Great Man theories of history in favor of large impersonal forces. Your writing quality is fine.

    That’s how f*cked our situation likely is.
    I agree that’s a bit disconcerting.

    But I also think you’re underestimating your and Chip’s intelligence.
    I don’t know about Chip, but I’ve taken an online Raven’s in addition to some other standardized tests, so I’d say I have a decent grasp on my cognitive capabilities. Mencius Moldbug similarly overestimated me, after he had gotten puffed up about trying to gather the most intelligent at his corner of the web (why he thinks Lawrence Auster is unwittingly doing something similar is a mystery to me) though got him to state what his IQ cutoff point was before revealing myself. I’ve been trying to wean him from ideological mental constraints, but not because I think he’s important; I just think it would lead to more interesting conversation.

    I’m guessing you’re an undistinguished lawyer
    You’re right on the undistinguished part, wrong about being a lawyer. If you were to imagine that I make a living selling furry artwork over the internet to perverts you would likely be exaggerating my influence, but feel free to do so anyway.

    I think it’s more focus and motivation.
    Guilty as charged, though since both of us have claimed to focus on self-interest, it would be odd if one could induce feelings of guilt in the other for not doing their part for the rest of humanity.

    Drop this libertarian, etc. bullsh*t and focus on using empiricism to try to solve aging in the next few decades.
    Albert Jay Nock once said “I don’t advocate the Single Tax. I believe in that”. In as far as advocating libertarianism required more than posting on the internet, I may be said merely to believe in it unless you ask the champions of libertarian orthodoxy, in which case I don’t even do that. Ironically enough, if you click the link to the Mises blog you’ll see me attacking libertarian theorists for misplaced priorities that lead them away from pragmatic work (which they deride as a “technical problem”), though like you they respond that I’m hardly doing my part.

  • TGGP

    I don’t know if this will reach you since this post fell off the front page, HA, but a response to your comments has just appeared at the Hog.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    TGGP, you’re a great blog cross-pollinator. In fact probably the best non-blogging cross-pollinator in this econoblog, etc. niche. The Hog’s response was well-written (so well-written that I think it undermines his central claim).

  • TGGP

    Thanks, HA. I try, but aside from the Hog all I can remember accomplishing is getting Robin to correct Mencius Moldbug on Bayesianism, despite my best efforts to get the latter to comment here.

    I have decided to start my own blog, but there’s not much there now.
    It’s at