Man and Cuckoo

August 21, 2016

I recently finished reading The Happiness Hypothesis, the 2006 book by Jonathan Haidt that tries to build a "scientific formula" for happiness based on all the most recent psychological findings and experiments (as of time of publication). I loved the book not so much for the formula (I actually don't think happiness is all that important) but for the deep insights into our common nature that Haidt's coverage of psychology experiments and their results confers. These are some of my most interesting takeaways:

The Rider and the Elephant

The metaphor of the rider and the elephant is introduced early in the book, and it is referenced repeatedly throughout the book to make sense of how our minds work. The idea is that you - the conscious being, the haver of thoughts, the "owner" of your body - are actually merely the product of a relatively late appendage to a brain that has been evolving over millions of years and that had been making decisions long before conscious "selves" were around to think about them. When you see people repeating bad habits, staying in bad relationships, or otherwise being in denial, it is because their subconscious mind is behaving the way it is wired to behave, and there isn't much the conscious mind can do about it. Haidt calls the conscious part "the rider" and the subconscious part "the elephant". The rider, sitting up high, can see far. He is intelligent, and he can pick the best path forward. But if the elephant really wants to go a different way, there isn't much the rider can do about it. In fact, the rider can't make most of the decisions - he is new to his job and very slow. Most of the decisions are up to the elephant to make.

The experiments Haidt summarizes to demonstrate this are very interesting. One is an experiment involving split-brain patients (where the communication between the two brain hemispheres is hampered). These patients were told to stare at a point, and then they were flashed two images, a snow-covered house and car on the left and a chicken claw on the right, such that each brain hemisphere would pick up on a different image. Then the patient was shown a series of images and asked to pick the one that "goes with" the image he had just seen. The right hand would point at the picture of a chicken, and the left hand would point at the picture of a snow shovel (remember that each brain hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body). Where things got really interesting was when the patients were asked to explain their choices. Because the language processing center is on the left, they had no trouble explaining that the image of the chicken "goes with" the image of the chicken claw that they had originally seen. But the left side of the brain was unaware of the original picture of the snowed-in car and house that was shown to the right side. When asked why their left hand was pointing to the picture of a snow-shovel, nobody said: "I don't know. It must be because of a picture you showed the right side of my brain earlier." Instead, the language module simply made up an explanation: "Oh that's easy. The chicken claw goes with the chicken and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed."

Multiple experiments like this demonstrate that people can have a thought without knowing why they have it. When our conscious mind recognizes that we're having the thought, it builds a story around why we have that thought, much like a sports commentator that can build a story around why a player made some move, without being privy to the actual reasoning behind it. For this reason, our conscious mind can be thought of as our "interpreter module" - not, as we might naively imagine, the decision-making module.

In other experiments, scientists have shown that our moral reasoning is similarly shrouded in the mysteries of our subconscious minds. The subconscious decides what is right and what is wrong, and our interpreter module makes up the explanation for it. If you start taking apart one explanation, the interpreter module will simply replace it with another. This is why it is so difficult to change someone's mind without an appeal to emotions and through rational arguments alone.

None of this is to say that the rider is helpless and simply at the mercy of the elephant. The rider can train the elephant by methodical habit-building, meditation, drugs, therapy, or any combination thereof. Even so, in our day to day lives, the elephant is the one that is most in charge. Remembering that is critical to understanding ourselves.

Reciprocity and Tit-for-Tat

We humans are a special species because of the way we can build and organize large societies. Some scientists believe that it was our ability to organize ourselves on such large scale that led to our domination over all the other hominid species (like Neanderthals) who could only organize themselves along bloodlines. One of Mother Nature’s primary tools for building cooperative species is reciprocity - where each member of the species feels compelled to help other members that have helped him/her before. But reciprocity is a tough problem: someone's gotta go first. If you're going to help another individual, what guarantee do you have that they will indeed reciprocate? If most individuals in the species are optimists, they will be taken for fools by a defector individual and, soon the defector's genes will spread rapidly in the population and eliminate any cooperation. If most individuals are pessimistic, no cooperation can take place.

It turns out that the most effective strategy for reciprocity is playing tit-for-tat. You start out optimistically, but if an individual does not reciprocate, you end all cooperation with that individual.

It is possible that many of our uniquely human characteristics, including language and religion, were evolved to facilitate reciprocity. If you can gossip about people, you don't need to have an individual experience with someone to know whether or not they are to be trusted. This means that your network of trusted individuals is now far beyond your blood relatives, who would be the only trustworthy individuals in the absence of language. Similarly, religion can be viewed as a technology that allows strangers to trust one another simply by professing their shared beliefs. Enforcement of the rules of reciprocity is a hard problem, and religion solves it by providing an invisible but all-seeing arbiter of reward and punishment.

Our cooperation circuitry has made us what we are. We are constantly in "reputation-management" mode, trying to communicate our goodness to our fellow humans through our conduct, appearance, or other means of signalling. (Although some of us, like yours truly, seem to be somewhat defective in this arena and take particular pleasure in singing to a different tune, that strategy, too, must have some payoff - I'll let you know when I find out).

One of the best ways to show people that you are a good and trustworthy tit-for-tat player, is to actually be an honest one. But an even more rewarding strategy would be to appear to be an honest player but to actually defect when you get the chance, and experiments seem to show this to be case with most of us. In one experiment by a University of Kansas psychologist Dan Batson, participants were told:

One member of each team of two will be rewarded for correct responses to questions with a raffle ticket that could win a valuable prize. The other member will receive nothing. Subjects were also told that an additional part of the experiment concerned the effects of control: You, the subject, will decide which of you is rewarded, which of you is not. Your partner is already here, in another room, and the two of you will not meet. Your partner will be told that the decision was made by chance. You can make the decision in any way you like.

The participants were given a coin in case they thought that the only fair way of deciding who gets rewarded would be with a coin toss. About half of the participants used the coin. Of those who did not, 90% decided that they themselves should be rewarded. For those who did use the coin, the laws of probability were suspended and 90% of them decided they themselves should be rewarded. And here's the real kicker:

People who reported being most concerned about caring for others and about issues of social responsibility were more likely to [use the coin], but they were not more likely to give the other person the [reward]. In other words, people who think they are particularly moral are in fact more likely to “do the right thing” and flip the coin, but when the coin flip comes out against them, they find a way to ignore it and follow their own self-interest. Batson called this tendency to value the appearance of morality over the reality “moral hypocrisy.”

This is the Machiavellian tit-for-tat that most of us are wired to play: keep the appearances of fair play while using every chance to get more for oneself. And protestation of virtues - the upkeep of the appearances - is much more compelling when the person making the protestations actually believes them. In other words, not only are you playing the reciprocity game dishonestly, your own mind is lying to you when it tells you that you are playing it fair. (This is, in fact, quite typical of our minds. You can watch this fascinating video to learn how your mind lies to you about what you're seeing.)

The Cuckoo in All of Us

All of this reminds me of another book that I read a few years ago that completely reshaped my perception of the world: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. One of many examples of evolved traits that Dawkins discusses in that book is the ability of cuckoos to fool other birds into raising their children for them. See, progeny are expensive. First, the parents must expend bodily resources in making them, then they have to expend large amounts of resources to keep them fed and protected until they can be on their own.

Cuckoos have evolved a mechanism for avoiding the latter expense by placing their eggs in other birds' nests. To help with this, they have evolved several other traits as well. For one thing, the colours and patterns of their eggs resemble that of the species that they target. Secondly, when the cuckoo eggs hatch, the cuckoo chick begins violently pecking at any other chicks in its vicinity and then tries to push any unhatched eggs out of the nest. You can watch a nice video of this here.

It's easy to learn about the cuckoos and be amazed at how cold and brutal nature is. That was certainly my takeaway from Dawkins' book. It illustrated so well how indifferent nature is to us and how all that it produces are simply runaway chemical reactions. But we humans have a bad habit of thinking of ourselves as somehow above or separate from all the other life forms on earth. This is probably another way that our brains lie to us. The two studies above about the nature of our decision making and our Machiavellian tit-for-tat are some of the most potent things I've heard for disabusing of our notion of superiority.

I find the view that us humans are every bit on "auto-pilot" as any animal - and thus mostly not conscious of what we do - strangely liberating and comforting. It seems to eliminate much of my judgement against others' irrationality, and it also serves as constant reminder that I'm not as good, rational, and impartial as my mind might make me believe. From "why did that asshole cut me off in traffic!?" to "how can corrupt politicians and tyrants hurt so many millions of people!?", it all becomes so much easier to take in if you can remind yourself that getting angry/frustrated at what amounts to a chimpanzee 2.0 is just plain silly. In those moments, we can remind ourselves that that person's mind has probably constructed a reality for him/her that is far different from what we see. In that reality, cutting you off in traffic is well within his/her rights and the tyrant is only doing what he's doing for the good of society. Similarly, our own reality isn't as reliable as we'd like to think. As a great bumper sticker once said, "don't believe everything you think."