[Sequence] History

I have blogged some on the history of ancient Israel, here:

I have also done some research on the Middle Ages, and the Bronze Age collapse of civilization. I’m hoping to someday present these data, in context of the theory of cliodynamics.

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[Sequence] Anthropogeny

Primatology

Primary Sequence

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Moral Foundations Theory

Part Of: Demystifying Ethics sequence
Content Summary: 1700 words, 17 min read

The contents of our social intuitions is not arbitrary. They are not entirely plastic to changes in environment. Rather, the brain are built with innate social intuition generators, which bias the content of social judgments.

Generator 1: Care/Harm

Parents care for their children. This imperative of natural selection is directly expressed in caregiving mechanisms in the brain. While the proper domain of caregiving is one’s kin, other modules (such as the mammalian attachment module) can elicit caregiving behaviors towards non-kin.

For primates living in close proximity, male violence is an increasingly noxious threat. Accordingly, Cushman et al (2012) show evidence for a violence aversion device, which triggers a strong autonomic reaction to actions of violence committed by oneself (but not others). Here is an example of their experimental apparatus: underneath the X is a fake leg. Even though they knew the action was harmless, delivering the blow caused significant visceral distress, compared to watching it being done by someone else. moral foundations_ violence aversion (1)

The violence aversion device is sensitive to calculations of personal force which is used to generate feelings of agency in the brain. The alarm only triggers when our body directly delivers force onto another person. This explains why the alarm triggers in the footbridge dilemma (“push the fat man to save five lives”) but not the trolley problem (“flip a switch to kill one and save five”).

Generator 2: Proportional Fairness

Main Article: Evolutionary Game Theory

When interacting with other organisms, one can act purely selfishly or cooperatively. The Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates that acting in one’s self-interest can lead to situations where everyone loses. There is strong evolutionary pressure to discover cooperative emotions: devices that avert the tragedy of the commons.

The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (IPD) makes game theory more social, where many players compete for resources multiple times. While one-off PD games favor selfish behavior, IPD can favor strategies that feature reciprocal altruism, such as Tit-for-Tat. More generally, IPD strategies do best if they are nice, retaliating, and forgiving.

Social equality is a special case of proportionality: when contributions are equal, so too should rewards. But when contributions are unequal, most adults affirm reward inequality. We have a deep intuitive sense of karma: what people deserve depends on how much effort they expend.

Generator 3: Dominance

Main Article: An Introduction to Primate Societies

When animals’ territory overlaps, they often compete for access to resources (e.g., food and reproductive access).

Fighting is accompanied with risk: the stronger animal could be unlucky, the weaker animal could lose their life. Similar to human warfare, both sides suffer less when the weaker side preemptively surrenders. The ability to objectively predict the outcome of a fight is therefore advantageous.

Suppose the need for fight-predictions is frequent, and do not often change (physical strength changes only slowly over an animal’s life). Instead of constantly assessing physical characteristics of your opponent, it is simpler to just remember who you thought was stronger last time.

This is the origin of the dominance hierarchy. The bread and butter of dominance hierarchies is status signaling. Dominant behaviors (e.g., snarling) evokes submissive behaviors (e.g., looking away).

Generator 4: Autonomy

Consider the following facts.

  1. The earliest groups of humans seem to have been governed by an egalitarian ethic, much as surviving communities of nomadic hunters and gatherers still are.
  2. That ethic is unique among other species of great apes that are our closest cousins. Most notably, chimps and gorillas live in bands led by despotic alpha males.
  3. As human societies developed settled agriculture and then civilization, despotism and hierarchy reemerge.

How can we explain these things? Perhaps a new emotional system evolved: autonomy. It motivated groups of non-dominant humans to form coalitions against any potential alpha despot. This trend is born out in the data: about half of all murders cross-culturally have an anti-bullying motive. But murder is not the only sanctioning device, followers also use techniques such as criticism, ridicule, disobedience, deposition, and desertion (Boehm, 2012).

Our species never lost its capacity for despotism. But in the human inverted hierarchy, our species discovered a newfound will to tear down authority figures, which created within us a capacity for egalitarianism. These two systems (Autonomy and Dominance) live in tension with one another, and one can “gain the upper hand” by changes in the broader cultural milieu (cf., agriculture and the collapse of egalitarian societies).

Generator 5: Purity / Disgust

Main Article: The Evolution of Disgust

The human brain comes equipped with two systems:

  1. Poison monitoring is a faculty of the digestive system. It evolved to regulate food intake and protect the gut against harmful substances.
  2. Infection avoidance is a faculty of the immune system. It evolved to protect against infection from pathogens and parasites, by avoiding them.

In humans, these two systems were entangled in the emotion of disgust. This explains the otherwise baffling diversity of disgust elicitors & behaviors.

Disgust motivated the creation of food taboos (e.g., don’t eat pork) and purity laws (e.g., don’t put your feet on the table).

Generator 6: Group Loyalty

Two people can put Us ahead of Me by belonging to a cooperative group, provided that group members can reliably identify one another. Specifically, we possess a group membership device which uses symbols to delineate different factions. Members of the ingroup are treated warmly (ethnocentrism); members of the outgroup are treated poorly (xenophobia). We even pay more attention to members of the ingroup, leading to such phenomena as outgroup homogeneity (c.f., evangelical Christians describing non-evangelicals as “the world”).

Ethnic psychology describes modules in our brain responsible for constructing groups. We are particularly interested in constructing stereotypes of other groups. Our brains already come equipped with folk biology modules that delineate different species of flowers, for example. Gilwhite et al (2001) adduce evidence that ethnic groups are treated as biological “species” in the human brain.

The Right Kind of List

We’ve discussed six intuition generators: care/harm, proportional fairness, dominance, autonomy, purity/disgust, and group loyalty.  

Is our list too long? So many mechanisms to explain human social behavior would seem to violate parsimony. Are we adorning our theory with epicycles? Are we overfitting our model?

In fact, I affirm the massive modularity hypothesis: that the human brain contains dozens of mental modules, each of which have distinctive phylogeny, ontogeny, anatomy, behavioral profile, and ecological motivation. I have not conjured these entities to explain morality. Rather, I am drawing a small subset from my overarching project to describe the architecture of mind.

Implications for the Norm System

Recall the the moral/conventional distinction:

  • Conventional judgments (should / should not) are intuitions of socially appropriate behavior, and associated with embarrassment.
  • Moral judgments (good / evil) are also judgments about behavior, but more associated with anger, inflexibility, condemnation, and guilt.

Jonathan Haidt claims that these generators are responsible for moral intuitions. But the above generators also underlie the structure of our conventional norms. After all, there are plenty of mildly disrespectful behaviors that even the most conservative people would not describe as evil.

We have identified dozens of other specialized modules in the human brain. Why is e.g.,  feeling of knowing (recognition memory) not on our list? Because there were no biocultural pressures to integrate it with the norm acquisition and norm evaluation systems. We call our six modules social intuition generators because they have become intertwined with our normative machinery.

moral foundations_ module view

An Explanation of American Politics

People are genetically and environmentally disposed to respond to certain generators more strongly than others. Social matrices encode how many stimuli activate a given social intuition, and how strongly. 

People with similar matrices tend to gravitate towards similar political parties. When you measure the social matrices of American citizens, you can see large differences between the social intuitions of Democrats and Republicans (Graham et al, 2009).

moral foundations_ social matrices by political party (2)

These differences in social matrices explain much of American politics.

  • Why do Democrats praise entitlements, but Republicans denounce them? Because Democrats heavily emphasize Care for the poor, whereas Republicans more strongly reverberate to questions of Proportional Fairness (moral hazard).
  • Why are Democrats more skeptical of patriotism than their Republican counterparts? Perhaps because they respond to Loyalty to country less.
  • How can both groups claim to value Proportional Fairness? There are two competing explanations for poor outcomes: environmental (bad luck) or personal (poor character). Liberals tend to focus on the former, conservatives on the latter.
  • How can both groups claim to value Autonomy? For liberals, Autonomy responds ethnic oppression: perceived injustices done in the name of one’s tribe. The foundation is expressed as group symmetry. For conservatives, Autonomy responds to government oppression: perceived injustices in the form of taxes, nanny state, and regulations. The foundation is expressed as political liberty.

Looking Forward

Moral Foundations Theory is the invention of Jonathan Haidt, who introduces the concept in his excellent 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. You can explore your moral matrix at yourmorals.org.

This post is 90% exposition, and 10% innovation. I innovate in the preceding two sections, by a) linking the six “taste buds” to mental modules that modulate inputs to the normative system, and b) broadening its reach to conventional (non-moral) norms.

In his book, Haidt makes the case the conservatives are more ethically sophisticated, because their moral judgments respond to a larger number of taste buds. But besides appealing to the ethos of Durkheim and Burke, Haidt doesn’t investigate the normative status of the social intuition generators in sufficient detail.

Here are three questions I would like to explore, at some point:

  • What is the normative status of e.g., disgust? If we could dampen or amplify disgust reactions in human beings, what would be the end result?
  • Social matrices encode different modes of existence that are hard to comprehend unless they are lived. What sort of social matrices are underexplored? Does there exist entirely novel modes of existence that we simply have not yet tried out?
  • What does the moral matrix of a successful metamorality look like? How do we promote positive outcomes when moral communities must live with one another?

Related Resources

  • Boehm (2012). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior
  • Haidt (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
  • Graham et al (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations.
  • Cushman et al (2012). Simulating murder: the aversion to harmful action
  • GilWhite et al (2001). Are ethnic groups biological “species” to the human brain? Essentialism in our cognition of some social categories

The Evolution of Disgust

Part Of: Affective Neuroscience sequence
Content Summary: 1400 words, 14 min read.

Introduction

Why did disgust evolve? Why does it play a role in morality? Should it?

One of the best ways to understand an emotion is to build a behavioral profile: a list of its responses (outputs) and elicitors (inputs).

Disgust Responses

One of the striking features of disgust is how diverse its set of responses. These include an affect program:

  • Gape face. This is characterized by a nose wrinkle, extension of the tongue, and wrinkle upper brow.
  • Feeling of nausea. In fact, the physiological signature of intense disgust closely matches physical nausea.
  • A withdrawal reflex. This reflex need not be physical retreat, but can also yield motivation to remove the offending object.

But disgust also produces an inferential signature:

  • Sense of oral incorporation. That is, the subjective feeling that the offending object is already in one’s mouth.
  • Offensiveness tagging. Even after the object has been removed, it will continue to be treated as offensive indefinitely.
  • Asymmetric transmission logic. See the law of contagion: a clean object that touches something gross is contaminated, but not vice versa.

Disgust Elicitors

Even more diverse than its outputs, the elicitors of disgust include cultural universals, including:

  • Organic decay.
  • People and objects associated with illness
  • Compromised body envelope. These include: cuts, gashes, lesions, or open sores.
  • Substances that have left the body. These include feces, vomit, spit.  

Swallowing the saliva that is currently in your mouth is innocuous, but even imagining yourself drinking a glass of spit (even if it is (was?) your own, is disgusting. These last two elicitors are body perimeter tracking: they not only police the boundaries of the body in peripersonal space, but also seem to enforce a no re-entry policy: anything that exits or becomes detached triggers it.

There exists another suite of elicitors that are culturally tuned

  • Specific foods.  Some foods are deemed disgusting even when they have never been tried (e.g., liver).
  • Specific living animals. These can include: flies, maggots, worms, rates, lice, tics, slugs, snails, and spiders…
  • Specific sexual practices. These can include: homosexuality, pedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia, …
  • Specific morphological signatures. Deviations from bodily normality, however that is construed in a particular culture. These can include: the elderly, disabled, little people, …

It is worth emphasizes that disgust over sexual practices and morphological signatures varies widely across cultures and across individuals. For example, ancient Greece mostly didn’t find homosexuality disgusting but 20th century Americana mostly did.

Finally, people comprise another category of elicitors.

  • Moral transgressors. These can include: murderers, rapists, …
  • Members of an out-group. These can include: untouchable caste, Jews (in Nazi Germany), …

Neuroscientific data suggest that, when people are deemed sufficiently disgusting, brain areas associated with mindreading become deactivated. This is likely the neural basis of dehumanization.

The Entanglement Thesis

Taken together, here is the behavioral profile of disgust:

disgust_ behavioral profile

Puzzle: Why should the sight of a person with leprosy evoke a gape face and a feeling of nausea? Leprosy has nothing to do with digestion.

Solution: Disgust is a kludge! It is the unholy merger of two separate systems.

Poison monitoring is a faculty of the digestive system. It evolved to regulate food intake and protect the gut against ingested substances that are poisonous or otherwise harmful. It was designed to expel substances entering the gastrointestinal system via the mouth. It also acquires new elicitors very quickly.

Infection avoidance is a faculty of the immune system. It evolved to protect against infection from pathogens and parasites, by avoiding them. Not specific to ingestion, but serves to guard against coming into close physical proximity with infectious agents. This involves avoiding not only visible pathogens and parasites, but also places, substances and other organisms that might be harboring them.

Any theory of disgust should explain the unity of responses to disgust. Here is how entanglement theory does it:

  • Poison monitoring produces the affect program. Gape face, nausea and withdrawal all serve digestive (and not immunological) purposes.
  • Infection avoidance produces (most of) the inferential signature. The tendency to monitor disgusting things even when not immediately exposed, and the asymmetric logic of contamination, make perfect sense when tracking the spread of parasites.

Any theory of disgust should explain the diversity of elicitors of disgust. Here is how entanglement theory does it:

  • Poison monitoring is sensitive to certain foods (namely, those that are associated with toxicity)
  • Infection avoidance explains the aversion to certain living animals (flies are more likely to carry disease than dogs), apparently disease-infected substances, to certain sexual practices (sexual practices can bring increased risk of disease) and morphological deviations (e.g., violates of facial symmetry correlate with parasites). It also explains the general tendency for disgust to monitor the body perimeter: which is, after all, how pathogens can enter the body!

Any theory of disgust should explain cultural variation of the elicitors. Here is how entanglement theory does it:

  • The poison monitoring system is very quick to learn features the Garcia effect: one-shot learning.
  • In women, aversion to deviant sexual practices (and not other forms of disgust) vary with where they are in the ovulation cycle.

disgust_ entanglement thesis

Besides the increase in explanatory power, phylogenetic and ontogenic data also support the independence of these two systems:

  • Researchers disagree whether disgust is unique to humans, or whether homologies exist in the animal kingdom. Both are right: animals show clear signs of the existence of both systems but the systems are expressed separately.
  • Ever wonder why children don’t seem to mind disgusting objects & behaviors? It is because poison monitoring appear very early (within first year of life) but infection avoidance emerges significantly later.

The Evolution of Disgust

Why should the poison avoidance and pathogen monitoring have become entangled in the course of human evolution? Why didn’t poison avoidance become entangled with e.g., FEAR instead?

First, the two systems both care about digestion. Food intake can bring both poison and pathogens into the body, and as such it is monitored by both systems.

Why did entanglement only happen in humans, specifically? Compared to other primates, early hominids adopted a unique lifestyle, that combined scavenging with a nascent ultrasociality. These two characteristics put enormous adaptive pressure on the pathogen avoidance system to innovate.

Perhaps the most important reason for entanglement has to do with signaling. As hominids began to increasingly emphasize social cooperation, there became a need to communicate pathogenic information. Before the emergence of language, the pathogen avoidance module had an inferential signature – but how to communicate this contamination tagging information with others? The functionally-overlapping toxin monitoring system had a clearly visible output: the gape face. Plausibly, the two modules merged such that pathogen monitoring system could co-opt gape face to communicate. We can call this the gape face as signal theory.

My Take on the Theory

The theory I have presented here was developed by Daniel Kelly’s book Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. The theory strongly complements Mark Schaller’s work on the behavioral immunity system. The overlap between these two researchers will become clear next time, when we turn to the social co-optation of the disgust system.

I personally find the entanglement thesis (the merger of toxin monitoring and pathogen avoidance systems) compelling, given its tremendous explanatory power outline above.

Despite accepting the overall architecture, Kelly’s theory for why the architecture evolved (gape face as signal) strikes me as incomplete.

I also feel like this theory will remain incomplete until we discover how toxin monitoring and parasite avoidance are implemented in dissociable neurobiological structures (i.e., modules).

After the psychological mechanisms are mapped to their physical roots, we could attempt to integrate our knowledge of disgust with other systems:

  • What is the relationship of disgust to the generalized stress response? Stress & the immune systems co-evolved to share the HPA axis, after all.
  • How is disgust implemented in the microbiome-gut-brain axis, which also has links to both the digestive system (enteric nervous system) and the immune system (e.g., leaky gut)?
  • How does the MGB axis differentially produce both disgust and other social phenomena like anxiety?

Open questions are exciting! To me, it suggests a clear research program where we can start integrating our newfound theory of disgust into the broader picture of visceral processes (the hot loop).

Takeaways

The human brain comes equipped with two systems:

  1. Poison monitoring is a faculty of the digestive system. It evolved to regulate food intake and protect the gut against harmful substances.
  2. Infection avoidance is a faculty of the immune system. It evolved to protect against infection from pathogens and parasites, by avoiding them. 

In humans, these two systems were entangled in the emotion of disgust. This explains the otherwise baffling diversity of disgust elicitors & behaviors.

Related Resources

  • Kelly (2013). Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust.
  • Fessler & Haley (2006). Guarding the Perimeter: the inside-outside dichotomy in disgust and bodily experience.

[Excerpt] The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality

Part Of: Demystifying Ethics sequence
Content Summary: 1500 words, 15 min read.

Excerpts are not my writing! This comes from Joshua Greene’s excellent book:

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

The book goes on to present an interesting solution to the below problem. Check it out!

The Tragedy of the Commons

The following parable – entitled tragedy of the commons – originates from Garrett Hardin’s 1968 paper:

A single group of herders shares a common pasture. The commons is large enough to support many animals, but not infinitely many. From time to time, each herder must decide whether to add another animal to her flock. What’s a rational herder to do? By adding an animal to her herd, she receives a substantial benefit when she sells the animal at market. However, the cost of supporting that animal is shared by all who use the commons. Thus, the herder gains a lot, but pays only a little, by adding an additional animal to her herd. Therefore, she is best served by increasing the size of her herd indefinitely, so long as the commons remains available. Of course, every other herder has the same set of incentives. If each herder acts according to her self-interest, the commons will be completely eroded, and there will be nothing left for anyone.

You may recognize the economic structure of this game from the Prisoner’s Dilemma. To win such a game, you must find the magic corner; that is, to accomplish cooperative outcomes despite the temptation of selfishness.

The problem of cooperation is the central problem of social existence. Fortunately, our brains come equipped with the following mechanisms, all of which foster cooperation.

  1. Concern for others. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they place some value on each other’s payoffs in addition to their own.
    • Faculties: empathy, violence aversion.
  2. Direct reciprocity. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they know that being uncooperative now will deny the benefits of future cooperation.
    • Faculties: punitive motivation, forgiveness, gratitude
  3. Commitments. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they are committed to punishing each other’s uncooperative behavior.
    • Faculties: shame, guilt, loyalty.
  4. Reputation. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they know that being uncooperative now will deny us the benefits of future cooperation with others.
    • Faculties: gossip, embarrassment.
  5. Assortment. Two prisoners can find the magic corner by belonging to a cooperative group, provided that group members can reliably identify one another.
    • Faculties: identity markers, tribalism

We have cooperative brains, it seems, because cooperation provides material benefits, biological resources that enable our genes to make more copies of ourselves. Out of evolutionary dirt grows the flower of human goodness.

The Tragedy of Common Sense Morality

To the east of a deep, dark forest, a tribe of herder raise sheep on a common pasture. Here the rule is simple: each family gets the same number of sheep. Families send representatives to a council of elders, which governs the commons. Over the years, the council has made difficult decisions. One family, for example, took to breeding exceptionally large sheep, thus appropriating more of the commons for itself. After some heated debate, the council put a stop to this. Another family was caught poisoning its neighbors’ sheep. For this the family was severely punished. Some said too severely. Others said not enough. Despite these challenges, the Eastern tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the west of the forest is another tribe whose herders also share a common pasture. There, however, the size of a family’s flock is determined by the family’s size. Here, too, there is a council of elders, which has made difficult decisions. One particularly fertile family had twelve children, far more than the rest. Some complained that they were taking  up too much of the commons. A different family fell ill, losing five of their six children in one year. Some thought it was unfair to compound their tragedy by reducing their wealth by more than half. Despite these challenges, the Western tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the north of the forest is yet another tribe. Here there is no common pasture. Each family has its own plot of land, surrounded by a fence. These plots vary greatly in size and fertility. This is partly because some Northern herders are wiser and more industrious than others. Many such herders have expanded their lands, using their surpluses to buy land from their less prosperous neighbors. Some Northern herders are less prosperous than others simply because they are unlucky, having lost their flock or their children to disease. Still other herders are exceptionally lucky, possessing large fertile plots of land, not because they are especially industrious but because they inherited them. Here in the North, the council of elders doesn’t do much. They simply ensure that herders keep their promises and respect one another’s property. The vast differences in wealth among Northern families has been the source of much strife. Each year, some Northerners die in winter for want of food and warmth. Despite these challenges, the Northern tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the south of the forest is a fourth tribe. They share not only their pasture but their animals, too. Their council of elders is very busy. The elders manage the tribe’s herd, assign people to jobs, and monitor their work. The fruits of this tribe’s labor are shared equally among all its members. This is a source of much strife, as some tribe members are wiser and more industrious than others. The council hears many complaints about lazy workers. Most members, however, work hard. Some are moved to work by community spirit, others by fear of their neighbor’s reproach. Despite these challenges, the Southern tribe has survived. Its families are not, on average, as prosperous as those in the North, but they do well enough, and in the South no one has ever died in winter for want of food or warmth.  

One summer, a great fire burned through the forest, reducing it to ash. Then came heavy rains, and before long the land, once thick with trees, was transformed into an expanse of gently rolling grassy hills, perfect for grazing animals. The nearby tribes rushed in to claim the land. This was a source of much strife. The Southern tribe proclaimed that the new pastures belonged to all people and must be worked in common. They formed a new council to manage the new pastures and invited the other tribes to send representatives. The Northern herders scoffed at this suggestion. While the Southerners were making their big plans, Northern families built houses and stone walls and set their animals to graze. Many Easterners and Westerners did the same, though with less vigor. Some families sent representatives to the new council.

The four tribes fought bitterly, and many lives, both human and animal were lost. Small quarrels turned into bloody feuds, which turned into deadly battles. A Southern sheep slipped into a Northerner’s field. The Northerner demanded a fee to return it. The Southerners refused to pay. The Northerner slaughtered the sheep. The Southerners took three of the Northerner’s sheep and slaughtered them. The Northerners took ten of the Southerner’s sheep and slaughtered them. The Southerners burned down the Northerners farmhouse, killing a child. Ten Northern families marched on the Southerner’s meeting house and set it ablaze, killing dozens of Southerners, including many children. Back and forth they went with violence and vengeance, soaking the green hills with blood.

The tribes of the new pastures are engaged in bitter, often bloody conflict, even though they are all, in their different ways, moral peoples. They fight not because they are fundamentally selfish but because they have incompatible visions of what a moral society should be. These are not mere scholarly disagreements, although their scholars have those, too. Rather, each tribe’s philosophy is woven into its daily life. Each tribe has its own version of moral common sense. The tribes of the new pastures fight not because they are immoral but because they view life on the new pastures from very different moral perspectives. I call this the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

Five psychological tendencies tend to exacerbate intertribal conflict:

  1. Naked group selfishness. Human tribes are tribalistic, favoring Us over Them.
  2. Moral disagreement. Tribes have genuine disagreements about how societies should be organized, with different emphases on e.g., the rights of individuals versus the greater good.
  3. Authority question begging. Tribes have distinctive moral commitments, whereby moral authority is vested in local individuals, texts, traditions and deities that other groups don’t recognize as authoritative.
  4. Asymmetry capitalization. Tribes are prone to biased fairness, allowing group-level self-interest to distort their sense of justice
  5. Punitive escalation. The way we process information about social events can cause us to underestimate the harm we cause others, leading to the escalation of conflict.

Morality is nature’s solution to the Tragedy of the Commons, enabling us to put Us ahead of Me. But nature has no ready-made solution to the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality, the problem of enabling Us to get along with Them. And therein lies our problem. If we are to avert the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality, we’re going to have to find our own, unnatural solution: what I’ve called a metamorality, a higher-level moral system that adjudicates among competing tribal moralities, just as a tribe’s morality adjudicates among competing individuals.

Confabulation: saying more than we can know

Part Of: Demystifying Sociality sequence
Content Summary: 1500 words, 15min read

Anosognosia

It is unfortunate to experience illness. It is strange to fail to recognize illness within oneself. Anosognosia is the name for this inability. A few examples:

Example 1. In a letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca (40 CE) described a woman who obstinately denied her blindness.“….You know that Harpestes, my wife’s fatuous companion, has remained in my home as an inherited burden….This foolish woman has suddenly lost her sight. Incredible as it might appear, what I am going to tell you is true: She does not know she is blind. Therefore, again and again she asks her guardian to take her elsewhere because she claims that my home is dark…..It is difficult to recover from a disease if you do not know to be ill….”. 

Example 2. After a right-hemisphere stroke, she lost movement in her left arm but continuously denied it. When the doctor asked her to move her arm, and she observed it not moving, she claimed that it wasn’t actually her arm, it was her daughter’s. Why was her daughter’s arm attached to her shoulder? The patient claimed her daughter had been there in the bed with her all week. Why was her wedding ring on her daughter’s hand? The patient said her daughter had borrowed it. Where was the patient’s arm? The patient “turned her head and searched in a bemused way over her left shoulder”. 

Spend enough time with these patients, and it becomes clear that their problem is not cognitive dissonance. No, the delusion has a much deeper, subterranean, hold on their mental lives.  These patients freely generate explanations for their illness-related behavior (“I can’t walk around because the house is dark”, “The unmoving arm isn’t mine, it is my daughters”). These explanations are not examples of dishonesty. They are genuine perceptions of a misfiring mind. The word for these honest lies is confabulation.

Confabulation_ Comparing to Dishonesty (1)

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find such epistemic fences a bit unsettling. Is it possible our entire species is entertaining a similar delusion that increases biological fitness? Do we actually have four fingers but are collectively convinced that little fingers exist?

Split Brain Patients

The vertebrate brain has two hemispheres. Some neural functions are bilateral: visual processing occurs in both right and left hemisphere (one per eye). Other functions are unilateral: language processing is usually left-lateralized (with the exceptions tending to be left-handed). The advantages & disadvantages of lateralization of brain function is an active research area.

In neurotypical animals, there exist traverse fibers (commissures) which integrate information between the hemispheres. The corpus callosum is the overwhelmingly dominant bridge between hemispheres:

  • Corpus Callosum: 250 million fibers
  • Anterior commissure: 0.5 million fibers
  • Posterior commissure: 0.5 million fibers
  • Habenula commisure: 0.1 million fibers

Split brain patients are those that have had their corpus callosum severed. These patients tend to exhibit selfhood fracturing: each hemisphere constitutes a largely autonomous entity with its own beliefs and desires.

Present the left hemisphere with a picture of a chicken claw, and the right with a picture of a wintry scene. Now show the patient an array of cards with pictures of objects on them, and ask them to point (with each hand) something related to what they saw. The hand controlled by the left hemisphere points to a chicken, the hand controlled by the right hemisphere points to a snow shovel. So far so good.

But what happens when you ask the patient to explain why they pointed to those objects in particular? The left hemisphere is in control of the verbal apparatus. It knows that it saw a chicken claw, and it knows that it pointed at the picture of the chicken, and that the hand controlled by the other hemisphere pointed at the picture of a shovel. Asked to explain this, it comes up with the explanation that the shovel is for cleaning up after the chicken. While the right hemisphere knows about the snowy scene, it doesn’t control the verbal apparatus and can’t communicate directly with the left hemisphere, so this doesn’t affect the reply. The patient instead confabulates.

What did ”the patient” think was going on? This is a wrong question. Once you know what the left hemisphere believes, what the right hemisphere believes, and how this influences organism behavior, then you know all that there is to know.

Gazzaniga has described this propensity of patients to confabulate reasons for the behavior of the right brain as the left-brain apologist. The left hemisphere functions as an interpreter, a lawyer, a press secretary:: it justifies behavior to make the organism look good. V.S Ramachandran, drawing on observations that right-brain lesions disproportionately produce delusions, claims the existence of a right-brain revolutionary. It is the failure some module in the right hemisphere that causes anosognosia: the left-brain apologist to go unchecked: confabulation exacerbated by delusion.

Confabulation in Neurotypicals

We have so far explored confabulation in patients with brain damage. Do neurotypical, everyday people produce “honest lies”?

We confabulate all the time.. We just don’t realize that we are.

In Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes, Nisbett & Wilson (1977) review hundreds of studies, across dozens of disciplines. Their evidence admits a theme: people’s attempts to explain their behavior is almost always unhelpful in identifying the important factors influencing their decisions. Let me briefly review four example findings.

Study 1: Insufficient Justification.

Zimbardo et al (1969) ask participants to accept a series of painful shocks while performing a learning task. Participants were split into two groups:

  • Adequate Justification (“nothing will be learned unless shocks administered again”)
  • Inadequate Justification (“I’m curious to see what happens”)

Who suffers less?

→ The Inadequate Justification group. This group learns much more quickly, and admit lower galvinic skin response (lower “fight or flight”).

Why do they suffer less?

→ These people were given a poor justification for continuing, and yet they continued anyway. To explain their own behavior, they generate intrinsic motivation for continuing. (As an aside, this phenomenon is similar to the overjustification effect).

Do they know that they suffer less?

→ No! Subjective reports of pain were the same across groups.

Study 2: Attribution Effect

Storms & Nisbett (1970) ask insomnia-suffering participants to sleep under observation. Participants were split into two groups:

  • Arousal Attribution: placebo given, claimed to cause restlessness, alertness
  • Control: no placebo administered

Who falls asleep more quickly?

→ Arousal Attribution group (28% faster).

Why do they fall asleep more quickly?

→ Attribution of restlessness to placebo, rather than cognitive factors.

Do they know why they fall asleep more quickly?

→ No! More than 80% of patients would not attribute sleep improvement to pill, even after the experiment being explained to them.

Study 3: Counterattitudinal Advocacy

Bem & McConnell (1970) ask participants for their view on a political topic. Then ask they write an essay against their own view. Participants were split into two groups:

  • Coercion: bribed to write the essay
  • Freedom: led to believe they had a choice

Who changes their position after writing the essay?

→ Freedom group.

Why do they change?

→ Difficult to explain writing that essay, unless they wanted to.

Do they know that they changed their position?

→ No! In contrast to the Coercion group which had accurate memories, those whose opinions had changed failed to remember their previous position.

Study 4: Choice Blindness

Johannson et al. (2005) ask participants to evaluate which of two female faces was more attractive. Researchers then hand subjects the face they had chosen, asking them to explain the motives behind their choice. Participants were split into two groups:

  • Switch: used a sleight-of-hand trick to switch the photos, showing viewers the face they had not chosen.
  • Control: show the face they had chosen

Does the Switch group notice the change?

→ Most don’t. ⅔ of participants believe they had chosen the other face.

Did those who didn’t notice explain of their (non-)choice?

→ Without missing a step. They happily explained why they preferred the face they had actually rejected, inventing reasons like “I like her smile” even though they had actually chosen the solemn-faced picture.

Putting It All Together

Confabulation is “honest lying”: communicating an untruth, while earnestly believing in its veracity.

  • Anosognosia patients cannot admit that they are paralyzed. When asked to explain their inability to move, they confabulate answers.
  • Split brain patients similarly confabulate explanations for the behavior of the non-linguistic right hemisphere.
  • Confabulation is not merely a medical curiosity. Confabulation is everywhere: most self-reports are utterly useless. Some evidence includes:
    1. Insufficient Justification: people didn’t notice when they were suffering less
    2. Attribution Effect: people failed to understand the reason why they slept better
    3. Counterattitudinal Advocacy: after people change their minds, they fail to remember they ever thought differently
    4. Choice Blindness: once tricked into thinking they chose something different, people are happy to explain their reasons.

Confabulation_ Evidence Overview

Why do human beings confabulate so often? How can we be such utter strangers to ourselves?  We shall explore these questions next time. Until then!