Sacred Distance Hides Motives

My book with Kevin Simler describes many hidden human motives, common in our everyday lives. But that raises the question: how exactly can we humans hide our motives from ourselves?

Consider that we humans are constantly watching and testing our and others’ words and deeds for inconsistency, incoherence, and hypocrisy. As our rivals are eager to point out such flaws, we each try to adjust our words and deeds to cut and smooth the flaws we notice. Furthermore, we habitually adjust our words and deeds to match those of our associates, to make remaining flaws be shared flaws. After a lifetime of such smoothing, how could much personal incoherence remain?

One way to keep motives hidden is to hide your most questionable actions, those where you feel you least control or understand them. If you can’t hide such actions, then try not to make strong claims about related motives. And I think we do follow this strategy for our strongest feelings, such as lust, envy, or social anxiety. We often try to hide such feelings even from ourselves, and when we do notice them we often fall silent; we fear to speak on them.

How easy it is to check deeds and words for coherence depends in part on how dense and clear are their connections. And as all deeds are concrete, and as concrete words tend to be clearer and more densely connected, it seems easier to check concrete priorities, relative to abstract ones.

For example, it is easiest to check the motives that lead to our conscious, often written, calculations of detailed plans. Our time schedules, spatial routes and layouts, and our spending habits are often visible and full of details that make it hard to hide priorities. For example, if you go out of your way to drive past the home of your ex  on your way home from work, it will be hard to pretend you don’t care about her.

We have more room to maneuver, however, regarding our more hidden and infrequent concrete choices. And when we are all in denial in similar ways on similar topics, then we can all be reluctant to “throw stones” at our shared “glass houses”. This seems to apply to our hidden motives re schools and medicine, for example; we apparently all want to pretend together that school is for learning job skills and hospitals are for raising health.

Compared to our concrete priorities, our abstract priority expressions (e.g, “family is everything”) are less precise, and so are harder to check against each other for consistency. And abstract expressions can be even harder to check against concrete actions; large datasets of deeds may be required to check for such coherence.

We ground most abstract concepts, like “fire”, “sky”, “kid” or “sleep”, by reference to concrete examples with which we have had direct experience. So when we are confused about their usage, we can turn to those examples to get clear. But we ground other more “sacred” abstract concepts, like “love”, “justice”, or “capitalism”, more by reference to other abstract concepts. These are more like “floating abstractions.” And this habit makes it even harder to check our uses of such sacred concepts for coherence.

This potential of abstract concepts to allow more evasion of coherence checking is greatly enhanced by the fact that our brains have two rather different systems for thinking. First, our “near” system is designed to look at important-to-us close-up things, by attending to their details. This system is better integrated with our conscious thoughts. For example, we often first do a kind of calculation slowly and consciously, and then later by habit we learn to do such calculations unconsciously. This integration supports coherence checking, as we can respond to explicit challenges by temporarily returning to conscious calculation, to find explanations for our choices.

Our “far” system, in contrast, is designed to look at less-important-to-us far-away things, about which we usually know only a few more abstract descriptors. This system uses many opaque quick and dirty heuristics, including intuitive emotional and aesthetic associations, crude correlations, naive trust, and social approval. If someone else is using this system in their head to think about a topic, and then you use this system in your head to try to check their thinking, you will have a hard time judging much more than if your system gives the same answers as theirs. If you get different answers, it will be hard to say exactly why.

As our minds tend to invoke our far systems for thinking about more abstract topics, that makes it even harder to check abstract thoughts for coherence. But, you might respond, if that system is designed for dealing with relatively unimportant things, won’t the other near system get invoked for important topics, limiting this problem of being harder to check coherence to unimportant topics?

Alas, no, due to the sacred. Our sacred things are our especially important things, described via floating abstractions, where our norm is to think about them only using our far systems. We are not to calculate them, consider their details, or mix them with or trade them off against other things. Our intuitions there are sacred, and beyond question.

Making it hard to check the coherence of related deeds and words. The main thing we can do there is to intuit our own answer and compare it to others’ answers. If we get the same answers, that confirms that they share our sense of the sacred, and are from our in-group. If not, we can conclude they are from an out-group, and thus suspect; they didn’t learn the “right” sense of the sacred.

And that’s some of the ways that our minds tend to hide our motives, even given the widespread practice of trying to expose incoherence in rivals’ words and deeds. Floating abstractions help, and the sacred helps even more. And maybe we go further and coordinate to punish those who try to expose our sacred hypocrites.

Note that I’m not claiming that all these habits and structures were designed primarily for this effect of making it harder to check our words and deeds for coherence. I’m mainly pointing out that they have this effect.

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