Is Culture Far?

Humans are culturally pliable – raise us different, and we become different. But we are not infinitely pliable; there seem to be many human universals. So what sets the limits of how culture can change humans? My guess today: culture mainly changes our far feelings, not our near feelings. Consider:

  1. While we hold laughter as one our highest ideals, our farmer ancestors held it in lower regard. They were not to laugh in public, while we like to hear public laughter. But I’ll bet their experience of laughing was pretty similar to ours.
  2. To our farmer ancestors, romantic love wasn’t required for marriage, but sexual fidelity was extremely important. To us, romance is needed for marriage, but we are much more forgiving about sexual promiscuity. Yet I’ll bet that what sex and love felt like to them was pretty similar to how they feel to us.
  3. Western culture looks down on conformity, and celebrates independence. But more Eastern cultures, and our farmer ancestors, thought well of conformity. Yet I’ll bet we get a similar raw feeling of comfort from knowing that others are doing the same thing we are.
  4. Our ancestors swore allegiance to lords and kings, while we are proud to live in a democracy without formal classes or rulers; we must bow to no one. Yet I’ll bet we feel a similar resentment at having to acknowledge the higher status of someone who was once our equal (such as an old college friend who is now a CEO), and feel a similar ease at showing our submission to someone with far higher status (like a president or movie star).

In all these cases our basic near feelings haven’t changed much, even though we have changed our far opinions on which feelings we respect or feel guilty about, which seem pure or dirty, which are to be public or private, etc.

If culture is far, then in near mode we become more like a common universal human, and in far mode we diverge to become the different “subspecies” according to our different cultures. Culture being mainly far might help explain why schools try hard to promote a far view, to make students more culturally pliable. It might also help explain why we are far more paternalistic toward kids than adults; perhaps we distrust kids as folks from other cultures, since kids have not yet fully diverged to join our subspecies.

Added 3p: In these terms near and far minds resemble Freud’s id and super-ego.

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  • donK

    Western culture may say it celebrates independence, but it demands conformity. A ready example is the little band-aids covering facial piercings. While the range of acceptability has broadened over time there are standards of dress and speech that you conform to as a professional. You may push against those boundaries in any number of ways but cross the line and there will be consequences, as small as a band-aid over an eyebrow piercing or an invitations to seek other employment.

    • Cezary

      Hehe, the Western Culture makes you conform to the mindset of individualism. 😉

  • cournot

    I’m not sure in near mode we become more universally human. I’d bet there are a lot of religious and cultural proscriptions which becomes so ingrained that one’s sense of what is repulsive or repugnant even in near mode is heavily conditioned by early training. Just consider the evolution of cuisine. Even poor Americans and Englishmen (often just one level above starvation) were reluctant to eat or cook foods (say in the late 19th century) that would be part of the normal habits of Frenchmen or Chinese.

    • Seems to depend onj the granularity of your analysis. We could say that all these nationalities are acting humanly in near mode: we may enjoy very different foods, but we all have strong food preferences.

      The same trick applies to Hanson’s examples: Number 4, we all have the (nauseating) drive to submit to authority, but we submit to different authorities. Americans, for example, at one time didn’t much like submitting to a king.

  • nazgulnarsil

    tangential: Vladimir Nesov comments on this thread on lesswrong about a possible difference in the physical reward mechanisms of near-far thought.

  • Emile

    I’ve recently been thinking quite a lot about the gap between how much parents (and psychologists) seem to believe parenting styles can shape a child, and how little difference studies on that topic found when they controlled for genetic effects – i.e. except for extreme cases of abuse, parenting style (and more generally, the environment one is raised in) has little measurable effect on a person’s personality, IQ, work ethic or success in life.

    Once you think in terms of far mode and near mode, it becomes obvious – near mode behaviour is heavily determined by genes, and as you say, far mode behaviour is determined by culture.

  • arch1

    You say that culture mainly changes our far feelings, and appear to define our far minds as resembling Freud’s superego. Freud’s superego, in turn, is defined as

    “…the component of personality composed of our internalized ideals that we have acquired from our parents and from society.”

    So is your posting just a roundabout way of agreeing w/ Freud?

    • Buck Farmer


      How dare you plant this idea in Robin’s head…rehabilitating Freud might be just the sort of contrarian project he’d like…

      That said…the far vs. near distinction is also reminiscent here of the conscious vs. subconsious distinction (particularly if we look at Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind conjecture).

      There are deep currents of memetic drift in our society and these little ideas bob up on the surface occasionally before sinking again under the flood. Francis Bacon had a great analogy of the history of human thought as a river…of course he was using the sinking/floating bit to discredit Aristotle and the Ancients.

  • I highly recommend Kenrick et al on this:

    These two papers explain this phenomena very well.

  • Ray

    To us, romance is needed for marriage, but we are much more forgiving about sexual promiscuity.

    The farther the forager culture gets from the farmer values, the more emotional their thinking is allowed to become. Thus romance is an artful way of saying lust and lust is fleeting.

    So our ever more youth orientated culture demands more and more feeling, that is romance, and the consequence is less and less commitment. As a society then it appears that we are more forgiving of sexual promiscuity, but individually it still stings as badly as it ever stung any farmer ancestor.

    Do we feel the same way about it now as then? Yes, I believe so. Are we really more forgiving as a culture? Perhaps in a very broad sense, but since human nature itself has not changed (universals if you will) we are not truly more accepting of promiscuity, but are forced to take what is available. Everyone wants to whoop it up when they’re 20, but settle down with someone more chaste than themselves a little while later. Then they take the best they can find.

  • mjgeddes

    Robin’s certainly presented an impressive collection of evidence in favour of the usefulness of the near/far distinction, and all this fits right in, but what hasn’t been considered is the exact relationship between the two modes of thought. Is far-mode really just a superficial error-prone ‘signalling’ mechanism tacked on to an independent module – the more trustworthy near mode (as Robin seems to think), or is something deeper going on? And what precise cognitive mechanisms are at work for each of the two modes? Keep thinking readers, surely you know my views by now.

    It’s plausible to connect near mode with Bayesian Decision theory, and the unconscious mind (analytic intelligence). And I’ve suggested connecting far mode with Information Theory (of which signalling is the central concept). In far mode and the generation of creative analogies, the metrics, as I mentioned in previous postings, would be similarity (for categorization), and complexity (for signals). Certainly, the plausible supposition is indeed to connect far mode to conscious thought and culture.

    But I make a much bolder hypothesis, stating that the real purpose of far mode is more general: reflection, or manipulating internal representations of our goals.

    To clearly state my hypothesis again for the last time, summing up everything I said, in case some readers missed it….

    utility + probability + complexity + similarity = reflective decision theory!

  • Clothes, language, hairstyles, food and drink?

  • If far mode is (more or less) the super-ego, then psychopathy is a defect in far-mode thinking. Which I think is correct. Then, the adaptive function far mode has is what psychopaths lack.

    This looks bad for homo hypocritus; psychopaths don’t lack hypocrisy. Or maybe they do; hypocrisy, after all, isn’t a synonym for deception. But this doesn’t save homo hypocritus, because deception is hypocrisy’s goal. Absence of hypocrisy, however, doesn’t impair deception, which is psychopaths’ area of expertise. functioning in near mode exclusively furthers deception.

  • Dave

    The near far/ idea seems to hold pretty well. The forger/ farmer dichotomy seems culturally specific to Victorian or Puritan times,and doesn’t even hold here.For example fishing and whaling seems like foraging,but was carried on by Quakers and Puritans.

    At the same time in the South,a more violent, hard drinking ,dueling,fighting culture prevailed. Almost all production depended on agriculture. Now you could just be using the terms forager and farmer in a novel,personal way I just don’t understand.

  • Your old post Ancient Political Self-Deception speaks to #4.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Can Kids Consent?()

  • brendan_r

    Culture is far. And much of humor (picture a few friends joking around over drinks) consists of near mode mockery of some outgroup’s (or outsider’s) far mode ideals (like patriotism, religion, or racial/sexual equality).

    It’s interesting, humor that targets and attacks everyone equally (like Daniel Tosh, or South Park; but not Jon Stewart or Dennis Miller) seems to get diverse audiences to briefly suspend and see through their own far mode thinking. For the length of a show folks accept and find humor in the insincerity of their own ideals; it’s a relief to cut the pretensions and admit that we’re all animals. For 30 minutes at least. Then, poof, self awareness gone.