Thursday, January 20, 2011

Robert Kurzban's "Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite"

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, and reported the following:
On p. 99 [inset below, click to enlarge], I quote a remark by K. Patricia Cross to the effect that 68% of all faculty members think that they are in the top 25% of their colleagues in terms of their teaching ability.

That’s funny because, of course, only 25% of faculty members can be in the top 25%, and so most of those 68% are 1) quite pleased with their teaching abilities and 2) quite wrong about their teaching abilities.

Why do so many people (not you, of course) have impossibly positive views of just how great they are? The usual answer among psychologists is “self-deception,” that because believing good things about ourselves makes us happy – and because we like to be happy – well, we believe good things about ourselves even if these beliefs conflict with other things that we know.

There are a number of problems with this answer, not the least of which is that there is no “self” in your head somewhere to be deceived.

To get around these problems, I offer a different explanation. I argue that your mind consists of a large number of different “modules” – sort of like those little applications on a smart phone – that have different jobs. Some of these applications are in the propaganda business, designed to make you look as good to others as is plausible. As a consequence, these modules adopt certain beliefs that, while they might not be justified given what you actually know about your teaching skills, are useful because they can be used to persuade others about how great a teacher you are.

This is just one example of how the central idea in the book – modularity – helps explain various kinds of the many varieties of human inconsistency.

One particular kind, the one referred to in the title, is the one where you notice other people’s moral lapses while conveniently missing your own.

Not, of course, that you would do such a thing…
Learn more about the book and author at the official website for Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite.

--Marshal Zeringue