Currently, there is a major revolution going on with regard to our human identity, the third one in history. The first revolution was the recognition that the earth is not the centre of the universe. Thus, we had to accept we are not the centre of everything. The second revolution was the recognition that human beings are just a by-product of evolution. Thus, we had to accept that we are not the centre of all living creatures on our planet. The third revolution concerns recognizing that the “I” that we experience is a mere by-product of our social brain. Thus we have to accept that our consciousness is not the centre of our identities.
Each revolution brings about a new blow to our human pride. If it was hard to swallow that we are an insignificant spot in the universe and that our existence is just a coincidence among other coincidences, we still could fall back on the feeling of our own individual importance. We could point at our consciousness as the centre of gravity for our uniqueness. But what if our consciousness is no more than a set of brain modules that try to make us look good, to ourselves and to other humans, as Robert Kurzban[i] claims?
Identity is context-sensitive
During our research we consistently found that human auto-narration is context-sensitive rather than the pre-given, autonomously created detailed auto-narrative that scientists like Anthony Giddens[ii] described. In their vision we spend our lives creating a sophisticated story about ourselves. This auto-narration, according to them, is permanently present in our mind and only needs to be triggered to be presented by us. In this line of thinking, our auto-narration is a more or less coherent, consistent whole of which there can only be one version at any point of time. Although the story changes, the changes that replace elements of our auto-narration are evolutionary.
After having heard several hundreds of individuals, both (very) young and adult, answer the question “Who are you until now” in various settings, at various points in time, we concluded that auto-narrations are constructed by individuals on the fly, taking among other factors the context in which the question is asked into consideration.[iii] This finding is one of the founding blocks of our concept of Generation F, Generation Fragmentation.
As it turns out, Robert Kurzban independently came to a similar conclusion. Take for instance his position on human preferences: “far from preferences being listed in a book in one’s head they are constructed on the fly as one is faced with difficult decisions.” Just as we did, Kurzban also links this constructing on the fly to a state of fragmentation. But, according to him, this fragmentation is not a cultural or sociological thing, as we proposed. As an evolutionary psychologist he claims that fragmentation is the natural state of our brain.
In Kurzban’s view “the brain consists of a large number of specialized systems, or modules, with various functions associated with solving our ancestors’ problems.” These modules do not form a unitary whole. They can come up with different solutions for an individual task and generate different, often contrary, preferences. They do not even necessarily inform each other: “some of these systems feed information to one another and some don’t … This notion of restricted information flow among the brain’s many modules … explains why brains contain inconsistencies.”
No dominant module
Among these modules there is no dominant module. There is no mini-me who lives in our heads – because then the inevitable question would be: what or who steers the mini-me? A mini-mini-me? Different contexts trigger different modules to become active, according to Kurzban. The modules that we are most aware of, the conscious modules, are just a set of modules among other modules. Like any other modules their general evolutionary task is to ensure the reproduction of our genes. The specific task of the conscious modules is to “make you a valuable social partner – mate, friend, group member”. They implement this task by functioning as our “press secretary modules”. These are designed to send out “the most positive defendable message about [our] worth, history, and future”. They are our PR-machine, writes Kurzban, a machine that is often kept in blissful ignorance by the other, unconscious modules about our shortcomings and deficiencies so it can perform its task effectively. As a result we have “positive illusions”: “(1) [people] have more favourable traits than would be realistic, (2) think they have more control than they do, and (3) are more optimistic about the future than facts justify.”
This state of blissful ignorance only works when we are confronted with other humans. When encountering cold forces of nature like gravity or Newtonian mechanics persuasion does not work. This means that we also possess modules that are “designed to do the best job they can about distilling truth in the service of making good decisions – and ignoring information in the public relation system.” Kurzban concludes: “Consciousness seems, in some way, to be associated with the social world, and with information that “leaks” to others.”
We are hypocrites
The fragmentation of the brain into different modules leads to inconsistencies in our words and deeds, in our auto-narration, our moral judgments, our legitimating explanation, our choices and our decisions. Kurzban: “Consistency is not a default. It takes careful engineering to keep systems consistent. In some cases, the human mind is engineered that way. But in many cases, it is not.”
With regard to our preferences this means that they are, in the view of Kurzban, context-sensitive, state-dependent (f.i. does our organism needs something immediately, or not) and history-dependent: dependent on our experiences how much returns on investment of our time and attention spent specific types of behaviour generate over time. With regard to moral judgments this means: “People tend to judge acts first, and search for justifications and victims afterwards”. Since behaviour and voicing agreement with social rules are caused by different modules we are doomed to be hypocrites.
Kurzban’s analysis has a powerful effect on our concept Generation F. As Kurzban claims that human fragmentation is a given, this fragmentation no longer can be seen as a mere consequence of current cultural, social and technological processes. So how does Kurzban’s theory impact Generation F’s central thesis that fragmentation is a hallmark of our current times?
To answer this question we first need to take Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid life” into consideration. As was mentioned before, events and processes in our current society, in the view of Bauman, emerge and follow-up so swiftly that we have no time to build interpretative frames to understand these, let alone indulge in reflections or forge new routines to handle these processes and events. Rather, writes Bauman, we are in a state of permanent anxiety in which we have to run to remain where we are. We all, according to Bauman, live in a realistic fear of becoming obsolete and losing our rights and privileges, in case we do not comply. We have to live in a state of permanent flux to function within our societies. Our role rather is that of a consumer than of a citizen. What has remained of our individuality and uniqueness is the privilege of choosing from a menu of pre-given items. The rise of identity-related politics, as f.i. can be seen in the USA in the movement led by Donald Trump, is a resistance call to this state of affairs.
Bauman’s process of “liquid life” denies us the time to build detailed, consistent auto-narrations, as we argued in our report. Whereas in decades before we could take the time to reflect on ourselves by means of individual introspection or meditation or with the help of a therapist or psychiatrist, now we only have time and resources to react to whatever it is that is happening on the moment. This is partially why, as a result, our auto-narration is created on the fly.[iv]
The value of auto-narration
As auto-narrations are a result of what Kurzban calls our press secretary modules, they cannot be accurate auto-descriptions in the first place, if only because these modules do not have access to all potentially relevant information that our brain has gathered about us and the world. This is not the function of these modules. They are merely there to send out “the most positive defendable messages about [our] worth, history, and future” to ourselves and to others.
This, at once, explains why in the near past individuals cared so much about their auto-description[v] and even went into therapy to upgrade it: to them it was a powerful tool to influence others to accept them as valuable individuals. This does not mean that they used their auto-narration consciously as a manipulation of the will of others. Given that the unconscious modules of the brain send only positively biased information to the press secretary modules, this is the only available type of information about themselves they could believe in and pass on to others. The modules have no access to different types of information. So, one first believes it one’s self and then other might be influenced. Kurzban describes this process as follows: “having a positive representation in your head, because of the way this representation affects your own behaviour, might persuade others that the strategically false thing in your head is actually true, making you better off”.
There is a limit
Our press secretary modules generally do not send out unrealistically positive information. The information rather has to be plausible and defendable. One of the ways to ensure plausibility and defendability is by claiming consistency in one’s auto-narration. According to Robert Cialdini[vi] consistency in human communication is key: “a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability and honesty.” On the other hand: “Inconsistently is commonly thought to be an undesirable personal trait. The person whose beliefs, words and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced or even mentally ill.” Kurzban stresses that consistency for us only is instrumental to being accepted as valuable individuals. As long as we seem to talk and act in accordance with our proclaimed moral judgments, and the moral judgments are in line with the social rules in our society, we seem to accept the principle of impartiality of our society’s morality and thus seem to be good, valuable citizens.
The consistency, according to Kurzban, nevertheless is a sham. It is a sham on many levels, including the level of moral judgments: “Because different parts of the mind, with different functions, are generating different moral judgments, there is nothing that keeps them mutually consistent.” And it is a sham on the level of behaviour and words versus moral judgments: “The modules that cause behaviour are different from the ones that cause people to voice agreement with social rules. Because condemnation and conscience are caused by different modules, it is no wonder that speech action often conflict. Taken together, these ideas make it clear that the modular design of the mind guarantees hypocrisy.”
Since hypocrisy undermines the concept of impartiality of our society’s morality, if found out, it will expose us as enemies of the common good and therefore ruin our image of valuable individuals. That is why, to be believable, our press secretary modules should not notice our hypocrisy. They receive information that we are consistent and their job is to confabulate legitimizing narrations to explain why this is so.
Fragmentation has become more noticeable
As a result of the “liquid times” the job of the press secretary modules has become harder. There simply is far less time to create detailed, coherent, plausible and defendable auto-narrations. The cover up of our hypocrisy and fragmentation is thus far less effective. It is not that we have become fragmented, where once we were not. Rather our fragmentation has become more noticeable. And, according to us, it has intensified. The hallmark of our times is not so much the fragmentation itself but the increased visibility of the fragmentation.
Why is fragmentation hardly noticed
So why do so little people draw attention to this fragmentation, even now when it is so much more visible? One reason for this is that our brain seems to crave consistency. According to psychologist Martin Conway, our long-term memory is concerned with the need for coherence. After interviewing many scientists journalist Anil Anathaswamy concludes: “The self’s need for coherence is paramount.” He adds: “without a coherent story about oneself, one seems unable to act; it seems that we need our narrative to function”.[vii]
Kurzban writes: “It seems that we’re just not all that good at noticing these sorts of inconsistencies, which is an asset for hypocrites. Given this fact, that many inconsistencies remain unnoticed, one can exploit the advantages of hypocrisy without worrying, in every case, about the costs of detection.” As can be seen in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump also the costs of detection themselves have been minimized currently. Possibly as a reaction to the greater visibility of fragmentation many people have moved from critical thinking to emotional responding, a trend that was mentioned before.
[i] Robert Kurzban – Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite (2010)
[ii] Anthony Giddens – Modernity and self-identity (1991)
[iii] Beata Staszyńska-Hansen/ Onno Hansen Staszyński (2015)
[iv] Taking Kurzban’s description of dependencies of human preferences into account, it seems to make sense to consider two other sensitivities that Kurzban mentions for auto-narrations, in addition to the context-sensitivity we also found: state-dependency and history-dependency.
[v] Jean Paul Sartre saw this as a life task – Being and nothingness (1943)
[vi] Robert Cialdini – Influence. The psychology of persuasion (1984)
[vii] Anil Ananthaswamy – The man who wasn’t there (2015)