The Accidental Hypocrite

I have recently been exploring a Homo Hypocritus (man the sly rule bender) view of human nature, that humans have hugemongous brains in order to conspire to evade social norms. I’ve also known and respected Robert Kurzban for far longer, and so was excited to see his new book, Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind. Alas, while he has lots of thoughtful insight to offer along the way (the book is worth reading), Kurzban’s main thesis seems to be that humans are accidental hypocrites, since pretty much any evolved creatures with social norms would be hypocrites, because it is just too hard to be fully consistent:

The key to understanding our behavioral inconsistencies lies in understanding the mind’s design. The human mind consists of many specialized units designed by the process of evolution by natural selection. While these modules sometimes work together seamlessly, they don’t always, resulting in impossibly contradictory beliefs, vacillations between patience and impulsiveness, violations of our supposed moral principles, and overinflated views of ourselves. (more)

Since we have different modules to criticize the behavior of others and to choose our own actions, Kurzban says, we shouldn’t expect such modules to be coordinated, and so we just happen sometimes to be accidentally hypocritical.

The modules that cause behavior are different from the ones that cause people to voice agreement with moral rules. Because condemnation and conscience are caused by different modules, it is no wonder that speech and action often conflict. Taken together, these ideas make it clear that the modular design of the human mind guarantees hypocrisy. (p.205)

Nothing to see here, move along.

But our mind parts do coordinate a great deal, to a remarkable degree. Yes we shouldn’t expect perfect coordination, but our minds seem evolved in great intricate detail to manage the coordination between the norms we espouse and the actions we perform. In fact, I expect we have a great many mental modules devoted to exactly such functions.

If selection pressures had favored it, we could have evolved to match our norms and actions to a high degree of precision. So I think that our actual lower degree of matching is because most of our norm-act mismatches are functional. We are really quite (unconsciously) careful to monitor when our norm violations would be noticed and get us into trouble, versus when we have a good chance of getting away with them. We even coordinate carefully with our associates to arrange circumstances to be conducive to such violation. If this is true, most of our norm violations aren’t even remotely accidental.

Now Kurzban does admit that some hypocrisy is designed and functional. But he doesn’t think this is due to coordination; he thinks it mainly comes from a few hypocrisy modules:

The press secretary module might be designed to contain certain kinds of information that are 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. (p.86)

Some parts of the mind – some modules – are designed for functions other than being right because of certain strategic advantages. These modules produce propaganda, and, like the more traditional political propaganda, the information isn’t always exactly right.  (p.130)

In contrast, I think a large fraction of the human mind was designed together to facilitate the coordination of diverse behavior to achieve effective hypocrisy.

As Kurzban wrote a whole book to defend his point of view, we might wonder what are his arguments against this opposing point of view. But alas, he offers no arguments. He doesn’t even acknowledge that there is another view. He simply takes the tone that anyone who disagrees with him must not understand that brains are made of modules, and so he should explain that point one more time, with yet another cute anecdote.

I have been collecting and present evidence for my view here at this blog, and I’ll continue to do so. The more detailed and sophisticated seem our capacities for subtle self-benefiting hypocrisy, the less plausible becomes the view that hypocrisy is mostly accidental, or the result of a few small hypocrisy modules.

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  • http://praguestepchild.blogspot.com/ Sean

    Hypocrisy is quite a fascinating topic. It is a form of lying, and lying has many interesting levels. When I am joking around with my four-year-old I am essentially lying. How is that different from a DA who relentlessly prosecutes prostitution only to be be discovered to be addicted to call girls? There’s a world of difference, of course, but the devil is in the details.

  • Philo

    “If selection pressures had favored it, we could have evolved to match our norms and actions to a high degree of precision. So I think that our actual lower degree of matching is because most of our norm-act mismatches are functional.” These sentences point up the problematic status of “evolutionary psychology.” Some aspects of a species’ phenotype are adaptations that arose through natural-selective pressures; others are accidental byproducts of natural selection–”spandrels.” The pre-historical record is so spotty that classifying many aspects is very difficult–hardly more than a guess. So it is (I suspect) with hypocrisy: Kurzban’s “spandrel” account seems about as plausible as Hanson’s adaptive account.

    Hanson thinks convincing evidence supports his view. “The more detailed and sophisticated seem our capacities for subtle self-benefiting hypocrisy, the less plausible becomes the view that hypocrisy is mostly accidental, or the result of one small hypocrisy module.” But *detail* and *sophistication* are awfully vague concepts; they seem to lie largely in the eye of the beholder.

  • michael vassar

    As far as I can tell, outside of a very limited range of cultures and personalities, people don’t disapprove of hypocrisy the way WEIRD subjects do.

    Personally, I would say that the key prediction made by any evolutionary explanation for anything is that modules sometimes break. I’d be more convinced by evolved hypocrisy if we found rare people who were totally non-hypocritical, and if theses people were otherwise mostly normal and showed up at a similar rate in all cultures. A Mendelian inheritance pattern for this trait would be particularly convincing.

  • http://twitter.com/opirmusic Spencer Thomas

    I’m with you on this, Robin. I think that overall his view is a bit hand-wavy. He’s right that sometimes (many) people are accidental hypocrites, especially in cases where they’re not able to see certain second order effects. I think for the general case, however, they’re able to see with a fair amount of clarity the disconnect between their particular values and the hypocritical nature of their actions. Some do it anyway, for several reasons – like the compulsion overrides their far-mode morality, or they temporarily don’t care, etc.

    I think the more interesting question is, why is guilt so bad a de-motivator? There are people who know they will feel guilty before the fact, do in fact feel guilt after the fact, and perhaps even continue to live with that guilt every day, but still continue the behavior. Guilt seems like it evolved exactly for the purpose of preventing people from acting in a way they consider immoral or unethical, so why does it so often seem so bad at its job?

    • http://twitter.com/afoolswisdom sark

      Deception is an arms race. First came those who could consciously lie. Then guilt evolved for credibly signaling your honesty, which is how lie detection can work. Then hypocrisy evolved for you to continue deceiving other people. Why does guilt remain? Because if it goes the lie detectors would sense that the ‘test results’ were ‘too clean’. In this equilibrium the best liars are the guilty hypocritical ones.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Any theories about why people keep inventing rules that don’t make sense to follow?

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      Yes, so they can punish others who do not follow them. Punishment at a minimum reduces the social status of the punished individual. Social status is a zero-sum. If one person loses social status, all other persons gain social status.

      Hypocrisy only causes a loss of social status among non-hypocrites, and then only if it is found out.

      • Ivo

        Is social status really zero-sum?
        I’m asking this as a precise mathematical modeling problem. How do you handle equal status situations? (e.g.: if three individuals are in a strict descending hierarchy, or if one dominates two others with equal status, or if the three of them have equal status, is the total status the same in all three situations? Or does the total change as a function of the available depth, or what?)
        And should “status” model perceived status, or how others see you? because the first variant seems to me to clearly not be zero sum (each could think they are above their neighbors, so the net sum is positive… indeed, this may well be the psychological reality in many situations). And the second variant needs some way of aggregating all the other views into a single status.

        Only half serious here, but still…

  • richard silliker

    “The human mind consists….”

    Should brain instead of mind be used here?

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Re: “I have recently been exploring a Homo Hypocritus (man the sly rule bender) view of human nature, that humans have hugemongous brains in order to conspire to evade social norms.”

    There seem to be quite a few other better explanations of why humans have large brains, IMO.

    • http:/juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R. Diamond

      There seem to be quite a few other better explanations of why humans have large brains, IMO.

      Do foragers really have the machiavellian personalities attributed? Maybe someone can bring some actual anthropological knowledge to bear, but my impression is that the theories of human intellectual development emphasizing social manipulation was an over-extrapolation of the hierarchical structure of chimpanzee bands. Foragers are egalitarian rather than hierarchical, and in egalitarian societies there’s little to gain by evading and conspiring.

      Psychometric data, as I interpret them, also tell against the human intellect’s evolution being driven by “social intelligence.” Social intelligence does not have a high g loading; in fact, recent studies show that at its higher reaches, IQ is _negatively_ correlated with “common sense.”

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        >recent studies show that at its higher reaches, IQ is _negatively_ correlated with “common sense.”

        This is known as “sour grapes”.

      • Ivo

        But then how come we are so good at recognizing faces, remembering social and family relationships, and speculating about John’s wife’s best friend’s intentions towards his brother?

        If I recall correctly, it has been demonstrated that such higher-order relationship manipulations are more promptly and much better understood when they are cast in terms allowing us to apply our theory of mind, rather than in terms involving only inanimate objects and suchlike.

        Of course, this doesn’t imply that social thought is necessarily Machiavellian, as for trying to evade rules, only that for some reason it has been extremely important in our evolutionary past.

        Anybody has some hard data indicating whether we are better at cynical self-serving social thought, or at other more community-serving sorts? (Bar sociopaths, say, who are firmly in the first camp)

    • Proper Dave

      I hear another one, the reason is also conspiracy, humans conspired to kill the aggresive alpha-males, this was the result of the devolopment of language apparently, thus creating a negative selection pressure for aggresiveness (where it may have been positive previously).
      Does hypocrisy require conspiracy? Isn’t it mostly an individual thing, yes it requires allot of “logic” etc. but it usually collapse when you share and “conspire” with others using it, that is why we call it hypocrisy.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R. Diamond

    The homo hypocritus thesis is implausible because it assumes, without argument, that we hide the truth from ourselves to fool others (rather than, say, to avoid cognitive dissonance). Fooling ourselves is not self-evidently the best way to fool others. Prima facie, its high cost makes it a particularly dumb way.

    Unless that a priori implausibility is dispelled, Kurzban’s parsimony wins.

    • http://twitter.com/afoolswisdom sark

      How to get others to trust you? Cripple yourself such that you cannot lie, with morality, guilt, etc. This allows you credible signaling. But lying would still pay off, if you could actually carry it off. How to get around this? Be a hypocrite. Truly believe what you say, but behave differently, or say something else in a different context not realizing the contradiction.

      • http:/juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R. Diamond

        How to get others to trust you? Cripple yourself such that you cannot lie, with morality, guilt, etc.

        That’s the theory, but it’s by no means obvious that this is the only or most efficient way to gain trust. One obvious alternative: pretend to be crippled. Evolution then would strengthen your acting abilities, instead of crippling you.

        Psychopaths, in fact, do better in gaining a rube’s trust than one burdened with morality and guilt. They’re able to do this, it’s true, because most people aren’t psychopaths, but the point is that an arms race in conscious pretense versus detection, prima facie, makes a lot more sense than an arms race between hypocrisy and its detection.

        At the least, such acting ability should develop alongside hypocrisy if humans evolved big brains for deceit. One could ask, why do so few of us have dramatic talent? If evolution didn’t even find it useful to provide us with acting ability, it’s unlikely that it went so far as to cripple us for the same ends.

  • http://www.freedomofink.com Ray

    The key to understanding our behavioral inconsistencies lies in understanding the mind’s design. The human mind consists of many specialized units designed by the process of evolution by natural selection.

    That is stated far too certainly relative to our actual knowledge of the brain and how it came to be as it is today.

  • http://twitter.com/afoolswisdom sark

    While I do believe there is social norm evasion, this does not seem quite enough to drive the evolution of our intellect. I much prefer Geoffrey Miller’s sexual selection theory of the evolution of our brains. You can count on sexual selection to go all out on any trait, until it balances survival costs. Kanazawa seems to think intelligent people like novelty because it helps solve problems. A more plausible hypothesis is that intelligence is about searching for good jokes/music/art which does not work without a taste for novelty.

    In any case, your homo hypocritus theory does not require social norm evasion to be the main factor driving increase in human intelligence.

  • http://www.freedomofink.com Ray Gardner

    billswift:
    recent studies show that at its higher reaches, IQ is _negatively_ correlated with “common sense.”

    This is known as “sour grapes”.

    That’s funny.

    In an article I read years ago on the validity of IQ, a Harvard professor was arguing against the idea of IQ altogether, and he mentioned as anecdote how he had only scored 120. This had apparently laid his foundation of doubt since he obviously disagreed with the score.

    • Desertopa

      I can’t help but be skeptical of the tests myself; my own score is fairly reflective of where I estimate my general intelligence to fall relative to the population average, but I’ve known another person who I considered to be as intelligent as myself or more so, who revealed his tested IQ to be approximately half of my own, out on the on the opposite side of the mean. Provided he was being honest, that suggests to me some significant oversight in the testing methodology.

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      The idea of a unitary IQ or ‘g’ is a statistical myth.

      http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/523.html

      The correlation is spurious because the system is under specified. Especially look at note 2.

  • Jim Stone

    I find implausible the idea that our modules for action and avowal are so radically insulated from each other that we are largely unconstrained by the universal norms we have avowed.

    However, I do think that the nature of normative discourse itself leaves us vulnerable to accidental hypocrisy.

    Our moral norms start simple. For instance, “do not lie”, and “help others.”

    When these norms conflict with each other, if we’ve avowed both, we will have to be hypocritical with respect to one or the other.

    This leads us to refine our moral norms to something like “do not lie, unless you are concealing a surprise party”, or “do not lie, unless you are concealing Jews from Nazi soldiers” and such.

    Our moral code starts to branch out via a fractal rule-ex branching process, with much re-factoring along the way.

    And, regardless of how subtle our normative systems become, we continue to encounter novel situations that force first hypocrisy, and then a re-thinking of our norms.

    Of course the story gets more complicated when some of the norms in question are personal permissive norms that align with self-interest.

    In that case, it’s often unclear whether something should be considered accidental hypocrisy, or a designed circumvention of holding yourself to the same standards you hold others to.

    We can seek clues by noticing what happens after the hypocrisy.

    If the hypocrite comes to notice the hypocrisy, and is embarrassed, and uses the event as a chance to refine her moral norms, to clear the way for acting more consistently with avowed universal norms going forward, then I’m apt to call it accidental hypocrisy.

    If one continues avowing one thing and doing another, or if one engages in lame rationalization after the fact, then the capacity for that type of hypocrisy is probably being maintained by a pro-hypocrisy cognitive process of some sort.

    My guess is that there is plenty of both going on.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Thanks to a controversial Jesse Bering article, I discovered that Robert Kurzban blogs.

  • Kyle

    After living a life of struggle I figured out that life is not necessarily good and evil but instead positive and negative.

    The second idea allows for more variation then simply saying something/someone is good/bad.

    Just like we all know that light has many different wavelengths.

    I do not feel positive vibes so I am not going to claim I know a whole lot about those even though I feel like being a hypocrite about it and saying I do.

    I do however believe that lying has many MANY different vibrations which is why people respond differently depending on how deep you go and of course the other persons experience with liers.

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