Is Your Brain Like an iPhone?
A new book suggests that it is...
Posted January 19, 2011
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (Section 52).
Like Walt Whitman, we all contradict ourselves. Decades of research in psychology and economics have shown the human mind is capable of extraordinary self-contradiction.
Why is that?
So, with apologies for the blatant self-promotion, today I'll just tell you a little bit about my new book, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, which has just been released, which explains various ways in which people show striking inconsistency.
A big part of the answer comes from the fact that Walt Whitman got things right in the little verse quoted above. Research from various parts of the social sciences suggests that the mind consists of a large number of specialized mechanisms. This idea, often referred to as "modularity," suggests (roughly) that the reason that people are so smart is the same reason that their phones are so "smart." The iPhone, for instance, is a "smart phone" not because it has a fancy chip inside it - though of course that matters - but because of the large number of applications that it runs make it useful for doing a large number of different tasks, such as surfing the web, giving you directions, and even, occasionally, making phone calls.
The idea that we contain multitudes, as Whitman wrote, means that even though we sort of feel that we each have a "self" - a "me" that's somehow in charge of it all - this is, really, an illusion. If this is right, then the theories in psychology that you read about that refer to a "self" might not be quite right because there might not be a "self" to be "protected," "deceived," "esteemed", "controlled," "verified," "affirmed," or whatever else.
Further, the idea that there are "multitudes" in your mind helps to explain various kinds of inconsistencies. If there's a lot of applications in your head, then they can be doing different things at the same time; oddly, this means that different applications can have different and contradictory beliefs in them. Further, suppose that, just like a smart phone, different applications are in the foreground or background at different times. If behavior depends on which applications are currently active, then individuals can seem to be very different people at different times, depending on all the details of which modules are currently active.
The book also addresses some classic questions in psychology, and the answers might surprise you. Here are just a few:
- According to one study, 68% college professors think they're in the top 25% of all instructors. They can't all be right. But they're not alone in having generously incorrect beliefs about our skills and traits. Why do people have such impossibly positive views of themselves? (Important note: The answer is not to feel good about themselves.)
- People often have mutually inconsistent beliefs. How can two contradictory ideas exist in the same head? (Note: The answer is not something to do with "cognitive dissonance.")
- Exerting self-control, resisting tempting snacks or activities, is good for us, but feels hard. Why is that? (Note: the answer has nothing to do with "willpower" or blood sugar.)
- What about hypocrisy? Well, it turns out that this is usefully thought of as two questions. The first is, why do people morally judge other people? And, secondly, why do people do morally wrong things? (Note: The answers to these questions aren't what you'll be expecting either.)
And then of course, there's the question of why everyone else is a hypocrite...