Evolutionary Psychology

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Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Advantages of Error?

Published 1 November, 2011

And…action!

John is at a Halloween party. (For those not familiar with Halloween parties, these are social gatherings in which people get together to socialize, usually dressed to resemble fantastical creatures, such as vampires, elves, or poor libertarians.) After milling about for a while, he meets Mary, dressed as Captain Janeway, from Voyager.  (John was outfitted like a Jedi Knight.)

Mary talks to John, but appears bored. As the conversation progresses, it’s impossible not to notice that Mary barely looks at John, but instead has eyes only for Phil, who is dressed as Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. Mary sees no obvious opening to leave the conversation, and fidgets, as though impatient. Nonetheless, John deceives himself into thinking he might have a chance. A few minutes into their conversation, John’s friend comes by and asks him if he wants to go to another party. John, persisting in believing he still has a shot with Mary, declines. Eventually, the topic of their conversation turns to skateboarding, which John has recently taken up. John detects that Mary is impressed by this, and John insists she put his skills to the test by naming a feat for him to accomplish. Mary suggests a trick involving three flights of stairs, and John, deceiving himself into thinking he is better than he really is, takes up the challenge, and makes it a few feet down before crashing and falling to his death in the stairwell.

[The curtain falls, and then rises again, and all the positions are reset exactly as they were. Action!]

John is at a Halloween party. (For those not familiar with Halloween parties, these are social gatherings in which people get together to socialize, usually dressed to resemble fantastical creatures, such as vampires, elves, or people who will admit to being Miami Dolphin fans.) After milling about for a while, he meets Mary, dressed as Captain Janeway, from Voyager.  (John was outfitted like a Jedi Knight.)

Mary talks to John, but appears bored. As the conversation progresses, it’s impossible not to notice that Mary barely looks at John, but instead has eyes only for Phil, who is dressed as Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. Mary sees no obvious opening to leave the conversation, and fidgets, as though impatient. John correctly judges that Mary isn’t very interested, but continues talking to her nonetheless. It’s a small chance, but a big payoff if he’s misread her, so he persists. A few minutes into their conversation, John’s friend comes by and ask him if he wants to go to another party. John, with his accurate representation of Mary’s interest – i.e., little or none – excuses himself and makes his way to a second Halloween party. There he meets Alice, who is dressed like a she-devil, which makes her look a little bit like Darth Maul’s sister. (Too many science fiction references?) They hit it off well, and eventually the topic of their conversation turns to skateboarding, which John had recently taken up. John detects that Alice is impressed by this, but refuses to try to skateboard down three flights of stairs with a blindfold on and his ankles cuffed together with novelty handcuffs. He does tell Alice that he’s sure he’s going to be a great skateboarder one day, and Alice, with little information about John other than what he tells her, believes him, and an hour later they have sex.

[Curtain]

What have we leaned?

One lesson we take from this is you should never try to bridge the Star Wars/Star Trek fan gulf. It’s just too far.

Another lesson is that being wrong carries costs. If you’re wrong about how much he or she is into you, then you run the risk of missing other opportunities. If you’re wrong about your skills or abilities, then you run the risk of falling down a stairwell.

This isn’t to say that there is no advantage, ever, to having false beliefs. In the realm of persuasion, they can be useful. If you’re wrong about how good you will be – in the future –  at skateboarding, that’s probably ok, and useful to the extent it impresses.  By and large, however, persuasion is the only case in which you’re better off with false beliefs. In other cases, you’re better off with true beliefs, but choosing actions based on expected value. This might mean taking a low probability risk for a high payoff, for instance. Yes, you’re likely to lose, but what matters is the expected value.

Oh, and, you know, just by the way, Robert Trivers’ new book, The Folly of Fools came out last week. Stuart West reviewed it in Nature (pay wall).

note: A few little errors fixed after posting.

  • http://popsych.blogspot.com/ Jesse Marczyk

    The nature review was a lot kinder than I expected it to be. The part of it I would say they got right is that Trivers raises more questions than he answers.

  • Ian

    John’s gonna have a tough time getting laid if he stays so firmly in beta-male provider mode. I think he should put a ring on that finger while he has a chance, no prize for being a slowest, lowest status pair-bonder.

    Yes, I’ve been spending entirely too much time on the Death Star of evolutionary psychology, aka Chateau Heartiste.

    • http://popsych.blogspot.com/ Jesse Marczyk

      But John did apparently have enough skill to get a hook-up that night when he wasn’t busy killing himself, showing he was able to overwhelm a woman’s senses by using just his awesome powers of manliness, like those PUAs.

      • Ian

        Sort of. John’s problem is that by bringing attention to his own good qualities he is signalling to women that he is relying on those qualities to increase his mating value. In essence, by demonstrating his mating value he is signalling that he feels the need to demonstrate his mating value, which in turn undermines the very mating value he seeks to demonstrate.

        Now, in a small group society this is not a problem. Everybody knows everybody’s value, and therefore our instincts are calibrated to both assume near-perfect information, and to assume that their is no benefit to falsely signalling mate value.

        However in the modern society with it’s preponderance of novel individuals, information is largely imperfect, and it is easy to falsely signal mate value. Thus, the better strategy for John would be to forget about learning useful talents, and instead to learn to manipulate women’s evolved instincts like those PUAs.

        • http://popsych.blogspot.com/ Jesse Marczyk

          You lost me: do you think John should not be attempting to display mate value at all, or actively display fake mate value – which I’m pretty sure attempts at psychological manipulation constitute?

          • Ian

            And that’s why evolutionary psychologists need to try running pick up. I mean, shit, it’s all psychological manipulation, it’s just that the old fashioned way was done using unconscious instincts. Us modern types prefer to fine-tune our manipulation, given the low cost in risk of violent death that modern society presents. Technically that’s fitting into the psychopath social niche, you say tomato, I say tomato.

            Essentially, by not attempting to show mate value, John can show that he has so much more mate value than Alice that he doesn’t have to try. Check out the latest article at Chateau Heartiste (aka Darth Vader’s blog) on “The power of the back turn” for an example of this.

            Also I’ve started a blog (linked above). All the cool kids seem to be doing it, why not me?

          • Ian
  • http://www.adamkrasowski.com Adam

    Thank you !!

  • David Pinsof

    Just started reading Trivers’ book (so far, I recommend it). One claim he makes, that I think readers of this blog will find interesting, is “the more social the discipline, the more retarded its development.” According to Trivers, science thrives because it has built in anti-self-deception devices, and disciplines with greater social content face “greater forces of deceit and self-deception that impede progress.” According to Trivers, the old focus on group selection in biology, the neglect of biology in anthropology, and behaviorism in psychology are examples of self-deception retarding science. He even suspects that the lack of progress in social psychology, as compared to other branches of psychology, is due to its greater social content. Of course, this may not be news to the people on this site, but it’s nice to see a prominent academic saying it out loud, and with an interesting theory to back it up.

  • MJU

    There’s an article titled “The evolution of overconfidence” in a recent Nature issue you might be interested in.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v477/n7364/full/nature10384.html

    • Robert Kurzban

      Thanks for the link. I read the paper when it came out, and I would offer the same critique, that having true beliefs is better, while adjusting one’s action policy to maximize expected value (given the uncertainty in the relevant distributions). The way the Johnson/Fowler model works is that agents are acting as if they are computing expected value, but doing so by route of a false belief. (See p. 319, 2nd full paragraph.) Their response to me would be that having the false belief is cheaper than having the correct one: “the simpler mechanism of overconfidence provides a short-cut that yields equivalent outcomes. Such short-cuts may have been favoured in our evolution because they have lower operating costs, were more easily available to natural selection or are capable of reaching decisions faster.” I dispute this, including the claim that these sorts of beliefs are cheaper, and would suggest that the issue here, offsetting costs of false beliefs, runs counter to this line of argument.

  • http://psychology-schools.com/categories/how-to-become-a-psychologist/ Tarry

    Great scenario, Robert
    If we tell the truth about the past, we can tell the truth about the present, act cool and confident

  • Alison Aylward

    Where are the Battlestar Galactica costumes?

  • Jordi Puch

    Hello. My name is Jordi and I’m from Barcelona.
    I think John will have a bad sexual season and has everything to launch and demonstrate that he has sufficient capacity. I think he has a problem for their own sexual identity and has the need to demonstrate that he is a man virile and sexually potent, which generates more of a problem. I think the best you could do is stop trying to manipulate women and focus on enjoying them in a more noble.
    Sorry for my English.
    Good year 2012.
    Jordi Pons http://www.psicologos–barcelona.com http://www.barcelona-psicologo.com

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