Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

I recently finished the latest book by Robert Trivers (2011), The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, which is an odd title considering how little of the book is devoted to the logic of the intended topic. A better title would probably have been Things Robert Trivers Finds Interesting. After straining to stay awake through most of the 337 tedious pages of the book, I can’t say I came away with any new insights or information on the subject of deception, though I did get the sense Trivers enjoys flirting with undergrads.

And who wouldn’t? It’s just one of the many, many benefits of getting tenure.

As Matt Ridley notes, Robert Kurzban (2010) also released a book not too long ago called Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite – which I can’t recommend highly enough – that made a solid case for why “self” based research is problematic in the first place. The mind isn’t a singular entity, but is rather a collection of different mental organs, each a functionally specific information processing mechanism. Any real mention of modularity is absent from Trivers’ book, much less an active appreciation of it. I’d hesitate to say Trivers takes any idea further (as Matt does); if anything, Trivers stalls and rolls slightly backwards. Another impression I got from reading the book is that I can expect an angry phone call from Trivers if he ever reads this.

I’d like to discuss the merits of your recent review of my book in a calm, academic fashion.

How might this false conception of a self effect thinking in other domains? One good example could be in the domain of morality. In this area, I get the sense the concept of the self has been tied heavily to moral culpability, where consciousness is king. Influences that are seen as originating outside the realm of conscious awareness are often used as attempts to exculpate various behaviors.

As an example, I’d offer up a paper by Sumithran et al (2011), examining how overweight people on diets often relapse and gain weight back after initial success at dropping some pounds. The authors measured various hormone levels in subject’s bodies that are known to influence hunger and related behaviors, like energy expenditure and food intake, finding that dieting leads to changes in these circulating hormone levels. This could be the reason, they argue, that many dieters don’t show long-term maintenance of weight loss. Fine. However, the authors lose me when they write this:

“…[A]n important finding of this study is that many of these alterations persist for 12 months after weight loss, even after the onset of weight regain, suggesting that the high rate of relapse among obese people who have lost weight has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of the voluntary resumption of old habits.” (p. 1602, emphasis mine)

Apparently, the authors find it interesting that they found a physiological basis for people not keeping the weight off, contrasting it with “voluntary” actions. My question would be, “What else would you even expect to find; a non-physiological basis?” After all, we are physical beings, so any changes in our thoughts or behaviors need to be the result of other physical changes. The implication seems to be that truly voluntary actions are supposed to be uninfluenced by physiology, while somehow having an influence on the behavior of the physical body.

“It’s not my choice, as I happen to have hormones”

This doesn’t seem to be a terribly uncommon thought process; while sometimes people actively deny any influences of biology on behavior out of fear of justifying it, or claim (correctly) that biological doesn’t justify behavior, those same people can very quickly accept behavior as being biologically based in the hopes of making it acceptable by saying “it’s not a choice”. That’s some interesting hypocrisy there. Did I mention there’s a very interesting – and a not so interesting – book that deals with that topic?

References: Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sumithran, P., Prendergast, L.A., Delbridge, E., Purcell, K., Shulks, A., Kriketos, A.K., & Proietto, J. (2011). Long-term persistence of hormonal adaptations to weight loss. The New England Journal of Medicine, 365, 1597-1604.

Trivers, R. (2011). The folly of fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

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