One Among Many

The self in social context

Caveman Rationality

A review of “The Rational Animal”

the bishop
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The bishop’s gambit. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is the bishop of Limburg, Germany. He made front-page news when he built a residence for ~42 million Euros instead of the estimated 5.5 million (Sonnabend, 2013; Smale, 2013). His Excellency is also accused of having perjured himself. Among the faithful, this kind of episcopal behavior brings forth hand-wringing and defection from the church (50 in two days in the small town of Limburg); among the secular, it brings forth amusement and perhaps Schadenfreude; among psychologists, it is ignored. But it should not be. Psychologists might be called upon to explain His Eminence’s behavior and predict what he will do next. There is a chance that the good shepherd will concede an “error of judgment.” This is a popular phrase among the powerful who have been caught. It sounds like, “It was an honest mistake. It could happen to anyone.”

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The psychology of dumb decisions. Many laypeople and psychologists will treat the “honest mistake” maneuver as a transparent deflection, designed to preserve dignity and dodge responsibility. They will deduce that His Eminence was being irrational. Psychologists, being more specific, might charge the Monsignor with the cognitive illusions of overconfidence, self-enhancement, self-serving bias, or the planning fallacy, inter alii. The charge of illusion is the hallmark of the contemporary cognitive science of judgment and decision-making (Kahneman, 2011).

Douglas Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius take a different approach. In their recent trade book, The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think, they (hereafter: KG) claim that most errors in judgment are only seemingly irrational. If one puts them under a Darwinian loupe, one sees their adaptive value. This value arises from these decisions’ long-run contributions to distal goals of evolutionary fitness. Perhaps the loupe is the wrong metaphor then. KG suggest we zoom out to realize the deeper rationality of that behavior, which seems nutty to people in the street and social scientists of the rational-agent school.

To KG, we humans are wicked smart and we don’t even know it. This includes the drunken teenage boy who speeds down the highway to impress his pretty date. This boy is really a collection of boys, one of whom is currently in charge of body and mind. Fueled by testosterone, it’s the mate-seeking self that is calling (and downing) the shots. The self-protection self, formerly dominant, has taken a backseat, while the mate-retention self and parenting self are not even online yet. The mate-seeking self has to prepare the ground for those two selves (lest they never get to play), and it has to do it over the objections of the self-protection self.

The multiple-self theory has a lot of support (Kurzban, 2010), and many of the best papers come from KG and their colleagues. According to this theory, human behavior arises from the conflicts among these selves. The perception that a particular behavior is irrational represents the perspective of a particular self that is currently not in charge. The randy youngster speeding down the lane is being irrational from the perspective of the self-protector. The mate-retainer and the parent, in contrast, are conflicted. If the mate-seeker crashes, they will never get to dominate, but if he gets the girl, they can take over. The mate-seeker himself will consider his own behavior to be rational – by definition – that’s why he did it.

KG seek to solve the riddle of rationality by redefining it. While the current rules of engagement ask researchers to design judgment and decision tasks that have an optimal and decontextualized solution, KG look to the long-term consequences these behaviors have inclusive fitness. Whereas the conventional strategy computes differences between normative decisions and empirically observed decisions, KG acknowledge that the most rational (i.e., adaptive) behavior must produce some disastrous errors from time to time in order to succeed in the long-range battle for survival.

From the evolutionary point of view, much of the current research on judgment and decision-making misses the point. Its missing the point is not just a matter of a trembling hand, but it stems from a systematic failure to design judgment and decision tasks to be aligned with the evolved capacities of mind. Not rooted in the exigencies of Pleistocene life, the tasks that are typically used are too difficult. Presenting humans with abstract problems of logic or statistics does not engage any of the Darwinian selves. Being able to use modus tollens to solve a syllogism or knowing how to cognize the conjunction rule to estimate probability did not provide an adaptive advantage in evolutionary time. Sometimes, reframing these problems in ways that map onto evolved capacities helps. From Atlanta to the Amazon, humans use modus tollens to sniff out cheaters, and they think coherently about numbers when those numbers are small frequencies.

KG have written an engaging book. It is provocative and supported by excellent scholarship. Yet, by redefining the rationality debate in evolutionary terms, they dissolve the concept of rationality. If all behavior is deeply rational with regard to distal goals, what is the fate of the short-term analysis? Does overconfidence, for example, become a meaningless concept if proximal criteria are deemed irrelevant?

Veblen

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Back to the bishop. This question returns us to Bishop van Elst. Conventionally, his grandiosity meets the test of irrational hubris. By the lights of KG, however, we conclude that one of Elst’s subselves drove the bus, pushing other subselves out of the way, all in the interest of Darwin-Dawkins fitness. To KG, all risks are calculated, and calculated well. The long Darwinian view will confirm that.

post-hoc interpretation of the good Bishop’s behavior would note his conspicuous consumption (Veblen, 1899). KG see conspicuous consumption as a mate-acquisition tactic; it is also an instrument of social dominance, but social dominance (among males) is in turn a mere subroutine to the ultimate goal of getting into the girl’s genes. The bishop’s misjudging of the price tag for his residence project, his disregard of critical public opinion, and his (alleged) lies can be seen as mere ripple effects of the original decision to consume conspicuously; therefore, they need to be examined closely in normative terms. In its entirety, however, the evolution-based interpretative construction must deal with the reminder that a bishop is presumably not in the business of propagating his genes. The concept of celibacy makes trouble for Darwinians. They cannot claim, for example, the celibacy is a costly signal that enhances sex and procreation (Henrich, 2009).

An evolutionary analysis of judgment and decision-making, much as it seeks to prove rationality by asserting it, must eventually deal with such direct behavioral violations of evolutionary mandates. KG have not taken up this challenge in their book, but, they being smarter than we think they are, I am inclined to predict that they soon will. As to the bishop, Deutsche Welle (Oct. 13, 2013) reports that “Tebartz-van Elst is now appealing to the Vatican to keep his post. His future lies in the hands of Pope Francis, a leader known for promoting humility.” What will an evolutionarily smart Pope do? This is a good opportunity to make a testable prediction.

Finally (Oct 21), the Pope is seeing the bishop. Making lesser players wait is the prerogative of the powerful, and an assertion of their power. Will the Pope continue to play his cards well?

Deutsche Welle (October, 13; English Language) Bishop of Limburg Tebartz-van Elst case referred to the Vatican. http://www.dw.de/bishop-of-limburg-tebartz-van-elst-case-referred...

Henrich, J. (2009). The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion: credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 30, 244-260.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kenrick, D. T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013). The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sonnabend, L. (2013, Oct. 13). Limburg verzweifelt on seinem Bischof [Limburg despairs of its bishop]. Süddeutsche Zeitung online. http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/tebartz-van-elst-limburg-verz...

Smale, A. (2013, Oct. 11). Bishop’s lavish spending angers Germans. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/12/world/europe/bishops-big-spendi...

Veblen, T. (1899). Theory of the leisure class. New York, NY: Penguin.

 

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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