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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: So you don't stick to your goals? Blame your kludgebrain ... or maybe not

I see where Gary Marcus, author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind encourages us to blame "the sloppy engineering of evolution" for the fact that we often do not stick to our goals.

But why evolution? What happened to our stars, our parents, our societies, our religion, and our genes as the explanations for why we do not meet our goals? Oh, come to think of it, evolution is in the news right now, what with Darwin's anniversary celebrations and the Expelled film.

Marcus's basic thesis is this:
Our attempts to pursue our goals are often thwarted by the fact that evolution has built our most sophisticated technologies on top of older technologies -- without working out how to integrate the two. We can plan in advance, using our modern deliberative reasoning systems, but our ancestral reflexive mechanisms, which evolved first, still basically control the steering wheel. When the chips are down, it's those mechanisms that our brains turn to, and that means that our brains frequently wind up relying on machinery that is all about acting first and asking questions later, squandering some of the efforts of our deliberative system.

No sensible engineer would have designed things this way. Why design fancy machinery for making long-term goals if you're not going to use it? Yet the brain is structured such that the more tired, stressed or distracted we are, the less likely we are to use our forebrains and the more likely to lean back on the time-tested but shortsighted machinery we've inherited from our ancestors.
Which is nonsense. The examples he gives are failure to lose weight and failure to meet deadlines. But it takes no very great insight to see that goals like these are too socially and personally complex to be often met.

Take losing weight, for example: Most people don't lose weight because - overall - thinness doesn't matter as much to them as living comfortably. It doesn't matter as much in their forebrains or anywhere else. That has nothing to do with evolution.

As I have written elsewhere - there is very little evidence that overweight, all by itself, is an important health hazard. Lack of physical activity is a much more serious health problem.

Now that probably has a lot to do with evolution!

Obviously, the human body evolved or was designed to support specific activities, not to support a lack of activity. But it's hard to imagine the body either evolving or being designed in such a way that a bit of extra weight would be a serious health hazard. After all, food shortages and wasting illnesses have been endemic through human history, so a bit of padding is a good insurance policy.

At any rate, people who are trying to achieve an arbitrarily set weight dictated by health professionals or fashion gurus - when they are in no physical discomfort with the weight they now carry - are likely to experience internal conflict over their goals. But don't blame evolution or poor engineering. Blame the adoption of goals that conflict with reality.

Now, what about deadlines? In my line of work (writing), there is an expression "phantom deadline." That means a deadline with a weak relationship to reality. Young freelancers often half kill themselves to finish a project for a Friday deadline only to discover that the boss left at noon - so the job will just sit on her desk all weekend!

Actually, most people learn to fudge deadlines for their own well-being. Again, if this is evolution, it is the evolution of survival skills in relation to one's environment, and not a symptom of poor engineering. Sometimes, lateness is also a social message.

Some people even use lateness as a form of manipulation. And then we must ask, does it work? Often, it does - but only for accomplished practitioners. (If you have never in your life tried to control others by being chronically late, trust me, it would be a mistake to start now. You just haven't evolved in that direction.)

In short, I don't think that "blame it on kludgy brain evolution" will fare any better than the 1950s' "blame it on cruel potty training" as a reason why we behave as we do.

See also: Evolutionary Psychology: Eliot Spitzer is a kludgebrain! psychologist opines (but so are we all)

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