Frontiers

Divide and Conquer

Robert Kurzban, Associate Professor of Psychology, explains the mind's customized adaptations.
April 2011

No one likes a hypocrite, or so the saying goes. But in a world driven more and more by technology like social networking, hypocrisy has never been so glaring. It has become part of pop culture to expose self-contradiction, with cable news networks and programs like The Daily Show placing contradictory political remarks side-by-side on a nightly basis, pointing out instances of hypocrisy to great effect. What if there was a scientific explanation? In a recent School of Arts and Sciences Knowledge by the Slice lecture series appearance, Robert Kurzban, Associate Professor of Psychology, discussed his most recent book, Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind. Using biology as a stepping stone, the book applies evolutionary insights to human behavior, arguing that the mind does not function as a single unit, but instead a collection of adaptations—modules—customized to take over when a given situation arises.

"The reason smart phones are smart is not because of some single killer app, but because they bundle together a bunch of useful niche applications. The brain works in the same way, and for this reason it is capable of simultaneously housing opposing views. Take optical illusions, for instance—while decoding them we are able register multiple visual 'truths' in reference to a single physical entity. This is an example of our modules at work."

How can this phenomenon be likened to social situations then, and what advantage could possibly come of self-contradiction? Kurzban cites a study in which college professors were asked to rate their own teaching ability. Ninety-four percent of the participants rated themselves above average, while another sixty-eight percent said they would place themselves in the top quarter—an impossible ratio. But whether true or false, Kurzban says, a belief can be useful in persuading others. In this sense, modules are not meant to provide self-comfort, but to generate social advantage. And while ignorance is bliss in some situations, others call for a more active form of looking the other way—literally.

"Modules are designed to play games with other people's modules," Kurzban says. "In Philly, you have to avoid making eye contact with drivers or they'll know you've seen them and barrel through, confident you'll jump back to the curb. But if you pretend to look down at your phone, the driver will assume you don't see them and slow down. In this instance, ignorance is valuable."

While some modules are designed to adapt one's own behavior, others are meant to prevent harm. These are the modules that are responsible for prompting you to pass judgment on those seeking to oppose your value system.

"The reason smart phones are smart is not because of some single killer app, but because they bundle together a bunch of useful niche applications. The brain works in the same way, and for this reason it is capable of simultaneously housing opposing views." – Robert Kurzban

"We're intuitive moralizers, even as children. Moralistic modules identify potential offenders and attempt to punish them. On their most basic level, these modules are sticks, poised over others, ready for use when someone breaks a rule."

Why then are we so eager to reveal the hypocrisy of others but usually not our own? Kurzban says it's a classic example of our modules at war with one another.

"Suppose it's true that certain kinds of ideas in your head 'leak out.' Just like crossing the street in Philadelphia, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. If we were aware of our own inconsistencies, this too might leak out and tip off other people about our own hypocrisy. We're actually better off not noticing."

To view Kurzban's full Knowledge by the Slice lecture, please click here.