Out of Character

The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us

The Nature of the Social Mind

What's the basis of the social mind?

David Brooks had a great article (The New Humanism) on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times yesterday where he argues that many of the policy failings of the past decades have stemmed from "a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature." Picking up on themes that have flowed from the fields of psychology and behavioral economics, he points out a common error - separating rationality from intuition (or, as it's often termed, conscious reasoning from nonconscious or intuitive mechanisms). The result, Brooks suggests, is that when it comes to understanding character, we're often at a disadvantage, as we simply don't understand how the system really works. One of the biggest mistakes people make, he asserts, is in the ways they picture the conscious and unconscious minds working together. "The unconscious parts of the mind," Brooks states, "are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place." And with respect to motivations: "The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God."

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Up until the last part, we have to agree with him. Many policies and decisions of high import, whether they be in the social, economic, or security realms, have run into difficulties simply because assumptions about the minds they were supposed to affect or were incorrect. As scientists, we are extremely gratified to see columnists of the caliber of David Brooks delving into this work (and in that vein, kudos to David for his new book The Social Animal and new blog at the Times). But we think Brooks (and he is in good company here) makes an important error in conceiving of how the rational and intuitive "minds" work together.

There has been a seemingly never-ending debate going on in many fields about which mind is better. Should we trust intuition or reason? Are emotions craven or are they (as Brooks, channeling Adam Smith, suggests) moral sentiments? The scale keeps tipping back and forth. The reason for this, Carlo and I think, is that most people are still missing the point. Successful social living requires balancing two needs: gain in the short-term vs. gain in the long-term (or what economists often term intertemporal choice). Should you exert effort to help a friend move now in the hopes that she'll help you later or should you save yourself the effort? Should you go out and buy that Ipod or should you save the money to repay a loan from a friend? Should you wait to be with the one you love or love the one you're with? It might seem like the long-term option is always more virtuous, but, like Aristotle suggests, virtue is often better found between two vices. Yes, if you're too selfish, you'll be shunned. But if you're too selfless you may end up a sucker. If you're too focused on the long-term, you might forget that not everyone makes it there. What's adaptive may not always be what we conventionally term virtue, but evolution is not concerned with building saints.

Given that humans have lived in social groups for much longer than they've had the cognitive abilities to engage in abstract rational simulation and deliberation, it only makes sense that the older intuitive mind, like the newer rational one, had to solve problems of long-term vs. short-term tradeoffs. Therefore, the intuitive mind has to be both craven and moral. Like Aesop's Fable, it has to have competitive mechanisms that represent the impulses of both the ant and the grasshopper - those that favor short-term gains and those that favor long-term ones. This is why we see virtue and vice in both intuition and reason. Both minds are trying to solve the same problem; they just do it in different ways. Emotions can be prosocial, as Brooks suggests, but they can also be quite self-interested. Reason can lead to incredible generosity just as it can to hypocrisy. If we're truly going to understand the social animal, we need to recognize that both "minds" are trying to guide us to what they think is best. It's just that sometimes they disagree.

 

David DeSteno, Ph.D., directs the Social Emotions Group at Northeastern University.

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