Why We Don’t Understand Our Behavior

on Jan 29, 2010

There’s a simple answer to this: “proximate psychological mechanisms”. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound very simple. Among the clearest examples of this, a favorite of Professor Paul Bingham’s, is below:

Suppose you ate a sandwich. If someone asked you why you did that, you’d probably say because you felt hungry. That feeling is a proximate cause; it doesn’t fully answer the question and is actually a restatement of the question. So we could then ask, “Why did you have this feeling of hunger?” The ultimate (as opposed to proximate) answer to this question is that because we need energy to survive, we evolved the feeling of hunger to persuade us to obtain more energy as this was beneficial. This feeling of hunger is a proximate psychological mechanism.

There are a few important points here. First, proximate psychological mechanisms serve as a proxies for the ultimate causation. This means that we don’t need to understand the ultimate goal in order to fulfill it. This becomes especially apparent when you consider other species. A male lion doesn’t need to understand why he should mate with as many females as he can. He just does it. And a hydra just flips around and eats without understanding why.

Second, because the world we live in today is vastly different than the one our proximate psychological mechanisms evolved for, many of our behaviors are ill suited for our contemporary society. So while many of our behaviors are beneficial, many others are actually causing harm. The scary part is that we could be doing this completely blindly because we act on our proximate psychological mechanisms without understanding why we do so.

Third, these mechanisms can be manipulated and it’s not an uncommon occurrence in our modern world. Companies, advertising, lawyers, and even significant others represent a few sources of manipulation. I’ll have more to say on that in a future post.

Fulfilling Self-Interest

on Jan 29, 2010

It’s a law of life (which is based on the laws of chemistry and in turn physics). All creatures, including humans, seek to fulfill self-interest. Though technically, it’s the genetic information of the individual that is “seeking” self interest (there’s no conscious thought here of course, but in the competitive world, where resources for survival are limited, the ones that don’t seek self interest don’t survive while only self-interested genetic information survives). Still, for the most part, this means that an individual is generally seeking his or own her interest.

But wait; aren’t humans are known to be an altruistic species!? It is true that humans help out other humans on an unprecedented scale, but it’s under the guise of self-interest. An essential component to the uniqueness of humans is that their best self-interested strategy is to cooperate with and help out others. This doesn’t mean that we consciously or intentionally behave selfishly. Most of this behavior is hidden beneath our mind as subconscious processes.

One exception to self-interested behavior is when evolved mechanisms malfunction because they’re operating in a different environment than intended for, as is sometimes the case in our modern human world. Other than that, the rule of fulfilling self-interest will always remain. It scales beyond genetics, to other levels such as cultural information and especially entities within industries. While we sometimes find the behavior morally offensive, we should understand that it is completely rational.

The Meaning of Life and Death

on Jan 21, 2010

Science, from the perspective of evolution, can give us a remarkably simple explanation of ¬†the notion of ‘death’. Simply put: it’s beneficial. Not to the individual organism, but rather to its genetic information. Death allows for adaptability as each new organism that comes to life has varied genetic information from the previous generation (in most species) and this in turn could provide better traits for surivival in the continuously changing environment. So in a way, genetic information is potentially immortal, though in return it gives up a piece of its “essence” every generation. That leaves us individuals in the crossfire of evolution: we have life and death at the benefit of genetic information but at the expense of each of us individually.

Science, the Critical Process for Ideas

on Jan 21, 2010

Under the definition that technology is a tool that helps us advance our lives, science represents a very ancient yet still essential technology. Science is the tool of analyzing and making sense of the world. Its primary weapon is doubt. By constantly subjecting any concept [explaining some part of the world] to skepticism, we test its plausibility. What is left (but still subject to doubt) is an understanding that we can rely on more so.

The creative process is also this scientific process. The way we form ideas follows this. Every idea is subject to critique and it is the good ones that stand this test. It is imperative to have lots of ideas, including seemingly bad ones, because you never know which ones will actually be good ones. It likely takes ninety-nine bad ideas to make a good idea, but the creative (scientific) process will allow good ones to prevail.

Another place that the critical scientific process is present is in our genes. The process of natural selection (evolution) uses the ability to replicate genetic information as the critical yardstick. And while the changes that appear in genetic information are at first random, the critical process determines which changes are better. Consistent with the creative process, there are a large number of bad changes for every positive one. But it is those few positive changes that matter so dearly, as with those few good ideas, and these positive changes or ideas can only exist through having all the bad ones.

So don’t be afraid to explore thoughts that are outrageous. You never know which crazy ideas will turn out to be fantastic ones. And don’t be afraid to mess up or be wrong, because the only way to put out some good things is to put out lots of bad things.

Where else in life do you see the critical process at work?