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May 01, 2009


Dear R. Hanson, are your public activities caused in part by mating goals?

It depends.

They are mistaken in the most insidious sense if they thought they wanted these things for righteous and altruistic reasons. Their brains will spend all processing power channeling their human drives into more socially acceptable activities. They will become confused when their routine stops feeling rewarding. They are the reason there is such a thing as a market for dust-ruffles and "gyms" with the word 'spa' in their marquee. This is the "work hard to play hard" crowd and they are narcissistic to the core. If some of them seem like great people it's due to accident or religion.

But some never quite drink the Kool-Aid. The charade is like a hobby and they find an outlet to do their real work. But they play the game because, let's face it, ascetic hermits do not get laid.

I thought this was covered by "terminal values".

To the extent that it is sensible to ascribe values and intentions to our genes, what our genes want is very simple: to spam the environment with as many copies of themselves as possible. One possible strategy for doing so is create a conscious agent who has the same values and rationally determines the best way to achieve them. In practice, however, evolution has given rise to a kludge. Human genes produce conscious agents which have a set of values which are not identical to the genes' values. By acting in accordance with their own values, humans usually promote the ends sought by their genes.

So, to answer your question, the people in the experiment were not at all mistaken about what they wanted. They may or may not have been aware of the evolutionary process which gave rise to their desires, but in either case their desires are no less genuine.

If anyone wants to insist on using some definition of "desires" whereby the subjects are deceiving themselves as to what they want, I'd like to point out the consequences of such an idiosyncratic definition. If the subjects who claimed to want to help are deceiving themselves, then surely someone who claims to not want to produce offspring must be deeply delusional about their own desires. But that view is mistaken. It really is possible to not want children, and a definition of "desires" which denies this is just plain silly.

Hmmm... this suggests a strategy. When shilling for donations, charities should hire attractive women.

I don't doubt this plays a role in motives -- but women who have found a mate often continue or advance further in their public service roles -- especially in upper class circles. Women are generally more social and empathic beings then men -- this obviously also plays a role in their motives, actions, ,and how they express their worth to society. Although mating strategy is probably part of it -- I'm going to go with multi-factorial, with my guesstimate of mating probably only explaining less than 20% of overall variation.

I agree that priming helps find a connection between actions and words -- but just because a primed pathway exists, doesn't mean it explains all or most of the variance in day to day activities.

Sometimes I think people who are in evolutionary pscyh think God is optimizing the brain to be perfectly Darwinian. Evolution is very messy, not always optimal, and takes advantage of the software/hardware at hand to try and improve performance in some task necessary for reproduction.

Max, no doubt.

nazgul, I don't see how.

Jacob, do you think subjects were aware of how conditional were their desires?

diogenes, women who have found a mate often drop them for new mates. Women also acquire new allies all their lives long.

Do you really find this disturbing? I'm not sure they were or are significantly mistaken about their desires. Our desires, near term, are fickle and I believe most people would agree that that's true about themselves. Priming, as a general phenomena, isn't so unknown; we have numerous words in English for specific examples:

  • Inspired
  • Humiliated
  • Excited
  • Sobered

Don't priming effects typically vanish when subjects are informed of the effect? [Priming 'priming' is an apparently effective self-antidote.] Still, I'm more convinced now that early language was primarily or significantly devoted to manipulating each other's behavior.

Robin, your key question relies on a conflation of meanings of the word "want". Do you mean "feel" or "follow"? Those people were not mistaken about what desires they felt, but ignorant about what caused those desires to arise; what goals they were following and why. Feelings give your brain good directions with false reasons ready-attached. One more point for your "public relations department" concept.

I thought the whole point of terminal values vs instrumental values was that we're not conscious of the relationship between the values we have been imbued with and their effect on fitness. We don't want to spend a bunch of money because we're conscious of signaling fitness to potential mates, we just know that we get a hit of brain chemicals when we do.

Robin, you're correct that I did lose sight of the highly conditional nature of the subjects' desires. I am reminded of Paul Bloom's article, First Person Plural, which discusses a psychological model where each individual "contains multiple selves — all with different desires, and all fighting for control". So I'd say that the subjects were not mistaken as to what desires they had, but they were mistaken if they thought of themselves as unified selves with consistent desires.

In any case, the classical model of an person as a single entity with a single set of well-established desires clearly breaks down in these circumstances.

Though I might be inclined to agree that we are biologically motivated to engage in activities that we believe will propagate our genes (showing off), I am doubtful of the idea that HOW we choose to engage in this propagation is determined by our sex. I feel that too often the word "sex" was being used at times when "gender" would have been more appropriate. There are certainly women who manage to scratch through socialization just enough to care about seeming attainable through "conspicuous luxury." There are certainly also men who sell themselves through "public ... helping." I know nothing of the original data, but even if it doesn't reflect this to a considerable degree, it would be irresponsible to claim that our methods are biologically determined by our sex from the sheer fact that the opposite can certainly be observed at times. That's one of the bigger problems with making bold determinations from rounded data. There needs to be more room for its granularity (or lack thereof) to be discussed.

The social science literature on female human reproductive strategies seems deformed and incoherent to me. I haven't seen a good resolved framework that encompasses women wanting high status mates, and women falling for broken males that are "projects", for example. There seems to me to be tension between competing motivations that have existed for thousands of years. Most of the literature seems to me to be selling one point of view or the latter -I haven't seen a coherent unified theory presented yet (or even a good faith attempt in that direction): too often theories and studies seem to me to be partially deformed as propaganda for one image of female sexual attraction towards one male archetype/subpopulation or another. I don't think your post or the quoted article escapes this deformation.

@Hopefully Anonymouse,

I don't see much tension. Indeed it seems to be very similar to men's behavior. Sure there is a sense in which every guy would 'prefer' to be married to Angelina Jolie or another world famous model/actress but it's only the very weak counterfactual sense that if they'd been invited to Hollywood parties and been hit on by movie stars during their teen/early adult years they would have most probably taken that option instead of pursuing the kind of girl they did/are hooking up with.

Going for broke and refusing all but the very best potential mates regardless of your own pulling power isn't a very good genetic strategy. Much better to cut your chances of getting with a super model by a tenth or even a hundredth if that bumps up your chances of landing the slightly more fit mate in your league. In particular once you realize certain mates our out of your league it will be advantageous to signal to those who are that you're willing to make long term commitments to raising offspring with them instead of trading up first chance you get. The obvious way for this to happen is to evolve the ability to genuienly feel strong sexual attraction and strong devotion to your best plausible option.

In other words men and women are evolved to find mates in their own league attractive even if that's pretty far down on the desirability scale. Women find project boys attractive because they look like an evolutionary fire sale. Since her competitors don't see the boy's potential the girl has a good chance or landing him even though mating with him offers more benefits than most of the guys in her league.


I realize I'm not giving you a theory. I'm just suggesting why this doesn't seem problematic to me.

As to the broader question under discussion I think we are approaching a region were our standard models start to break down and the concepts we've built on those foundations start becoming incoherent.

By way of analogy consider the Newtonian model of physics. So long as we are describing objects that move slowly relative to the speed of light it's meaningful to say that 1/2mv^2 is the definition of kinetic energy while also thinking of kinetic energy as the capacity to do work. In the Newtonian model those two notions are necessarily coextensive so as Quine classically points out there is just no fact of that matter as to which of these is the 'real' definition of kinetic energy pre-Einstein. However, when we leave the Newtonian realm and try to deploy the concept of Newtonian kinetic energy and insist it both be computed using 1/2mv^2 (m=rest mass) and satisfy our idea of energy as capacity to do work the concept itself is revealed to be no longer well defined.

I would argue that once you leave the world of folk psychology and start doing these kinds of experiments concepts like 'want', 'desire', 'motivation' etc.. suffer a similar fate. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that once you start doing serious brain science even our notion of causation is rendered incoherent (yes there are regularities across time but I submit that causation is a concept rooted in the simplifying assumption that our deciscions are made 'freely').

So ultimately I think it's just misleading to describe the observed result as showing that people are 'really' doing these things for ignoble reasons or the like. Rather those concepts simply stop being good ways to describe the world in these kind of situations.

The primed men were also willing (or at least said they were willing) to act heroically as well as spend—but only if the action suggested was life-threatening.

I wonder if for the same reasons it works the other way too - being in such situations when potential mates are watching increases arousal. I'm thinking of a certain study by Dutton and Aron (1974)...

In the study, an attractive woman approached men while they were walking across the Capilano River Bridge in British Columbia. Only those without a female companion were approached. The woman asked the men to make up a brief story for a project she was doing on creativity. The Capilano River Bridge sways precariously more than 200 feet above rapids and rocks. The female interviewer made the same request of other men crossing a much safer, lower bridge. The men on the Capilano River Bridge told more sex-ually oriented stories and rated the female interviewer more attractive than did men on the lower, less frightening bridge.

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