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Robert Kurzban | G Force

Getting inside the brain

March 14, 2011

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Q. You argue in your book that our minds are made up of small bits or modules that act relatively independently of each other. That has lots of implications for how we think of ourselves and how we live.

A. I want people to think about the possibility that these really deep intuitions about how our minds are unitary could — at least could — be wrong.

Q. So, there’s not some metaphoric guy in our brains pulling all the strings, some brain in our brains? We’re just a bunch of interconnected bits?

A. There’s no engineer in brains. Big things get smart by consisting of smaller things which aren’t so smart. The take-home message is not just that this is a viable way to think about the way the mind works, but that if you don’t think about the mind in this way, you can make big mistakes.

Q. One module is to help us recognize faces. How many others are there?

A. I think it’s going to turn out that there’s tons and tons of parts, [but] we’re many, many years away from doing a census or a count.

Q. You believe that many of these modules can hold contradictory ideas, or be in conflict with each other?

A. I can do X and also condemn people for doing X. The reason that happens is you have different systems for guiding behavior as opposed to moral condemnation.

Q. Is it useful to be aware of those contradictions? Can it help us, say, push away that piece of chocolate cake we know we want but shouldn’t eat?

A. All of us suffer from this problem of at the same time wanting to do things that are good for us and wanting to indulge in things that are less good for us. Knowing about [these contradictions] potentially helps you to take measures. I know I get tempted by the Internet for example. As I work, I often [disconnect] as a way to reduce the temptation that my information-seeking modules like.

Q. There must be lots of inconsistencies among these brain bits. Why did you focus your book around the idea of hypocrisy?

A. I think moral inconsistency is one of the most interesting. Modularity explains lots of different interesting kinds of phenomena — there’s these low level phenomena like optical illusions. Morality is the top. Modularity is relevant from everything from top to bottom.

Q. You say that politicians are no more hypocritical than the rest of us, but seem that way because they have to state their opinions and live their lives in the public eye.

A. I don’t mean to forgive hypocritical behavior. [But] it’s easier to identify inconsistencies when everything you do and everything you say is recorded on YouTube or in The New York Times or Boston Globe. Part of what it means to be a politician is to indicate what you’re for and what you’re against. I think that the perception of politicians as hypocritical is probably correct, but I don’t think that necessarily means they’re more hypocritical than the rest of us.

Q. Haven’t you just set yourself up for the same thing, by writing a book about hypocrisy?

A. I try to be very careful about my own inconsistencies. Mostly, I admit the possibility that I’m no different from anyone else.

KAREN WEINTRAUB

This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com.

WHO
Robert Kurzban
WHAT
An associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting associate professor at Chapman University, Kurzban has just published a book titled “Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite’’

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