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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

Irritating Explanations

Published 17 December, 2012

Back when I was in college, some of my friends used to annoy each other with conversations that went like this:

Dan: Did you hear about the guy at MIT…?
Dave: Yeah.
Dan: The cause of death was just, uh, ruled suicide, right?
Dave: No. He died of deceleration trauma when he hit the ground.
Brian: Nope. Cause of death was concrete-induced disorganization of brains, leading to loss of control of autonomic nervous system.
Dan: You two are jerks. (Note: he might not have said, “jerks,” but something more colorful.)

In their defense, college is a morbid time for a lot of people, and suicide was a hot topic of conversation at Cornell, so, there’s that. But the point is that some explanations are annoying. In this case, depending on the details of what you take causality to be, these explanations have the interesting feature of being both annoying and true. That is, it is true that someone who falls from a great height died, in at least some sense, because they hit the sidewalk at a very high rate of speed. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s not irritating.

Why are such (true) explanations annoying? Well, in this sort of case, I think it has something to do with conversational pragmatics. (See, e.g., Sperber and Wilson’s book, Relevance). So, yes, it might be true that hitting the ground caused the poor MIT student’s body parts to become disordered and therefore stop functioning as they are designed to function. Effects have an arbitrarily large number of causes, and one can attend to any subset of them. Proponents of counter-factual accounts of morality would say that the Big Bang caused the student’s death; if it hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have died.

However, when the speaker is asking about the cause of death in this case, they are really interested in only one type of explanation, namely an explanation at the level of folk psychology, the language of beliefs and desires. This answer is something like, he believed he failed his organic chemistry midterm, and so he also believed his pre-med GPA was in trouble, so he believed that his life would no longer be a satisfying and fulfilling one, and as a consequence he desired his own death, or something like that. (Side note: My guess is that explanations at the level of folk psychology will turn out to be the least irritating sort of explanations for human social behavior. Are there data on this?)

I don’t think that all explanations that are irritating are irritating for this reason. I suspect that some are irritating for other reasons. People have asked me, for instance, why I have been doing work on “self-control,” which has nothing to do with the areas I historically have investigated. The reason is, I’m a little ashamed to admit, I find the glucose-as-willpower model irritating. In this case it’s not irritating because it’s obviously true, but rather because it’s so obviously not true. Again, that’s not the only reason that explanations might be irritating; I also find the explanation of tides irritating. In the case of tides, this isn’t because it’s true, but because I’m sure it’s right but I never feel like I really completely get it; I find that frustrating.

I’m not claiming that in any of these cases I’ve provided a good and complete explanation for what makes an explanation irritating. In the first case, pragmatics, at least one more step is needed; it might be irritating because the speakers are wasting your time, which is a cost, and irritation is a way to motivate appropriate action to stop subsequent gambits. (My memory is that this didn’t work. We all had to sort of grow out of it.)

But the broader point I want to make is just that some explanations elicit strong emotional responses, and this is the case even if the explanations are correct.

In the case of explaining the bits and behavior or biological creatures, this might pose a particular problem. As has been discussed at length in various places, there are many levels of explanations for an organism’s behavior that are of potential interest for various reasons. For instance:

Question: Why is your dog making that whining sound?
Irritating answer 1: When she pushes air through her mouth, it produces vibrations in the air blah blah blah…
Irritating answer 2: My ancestors allowed her ancestors to breed if and only if they signaled that they had some need to be addressed blah blah blah…
Not irritating answer: I forgot to feed her dinner.

The history of science is replete with people getting very irritated with explanations. In fact, it might be hard to think of a major scientific breakthrough that didn’t irritate substantial numbers of important people. Galileo’s ideas about the motion of the Earth around the sun seriously irritated the religious authorities. The furor surrounding Darwin’s ideas about natural selection irritated many of his contemporaries, and seems to continue to irritate people today. Wikipedia uses the term “displeased” to refer to Einstein’s take on the theory of quantum mechanics, and most are familiar with his testy remark that “God doesn’t play with dice.” Perhaps less well known but not less interesting is resistance to the idea of continental drift. Cherry Lewis wrote that “for fifty years dogma formed obstructions to continental drift, and only a few enlightened individuals recognized early on that it was the only way so many geological phenomena could be explained” (p. 157), and that leading geologists “were exasperated by these ideas” (p. 158).

In some ways, it seems odd that explanations are the sorts of things that would irritate, displease, or exasperate scientists. Scholars might think an explanation is wrong, but the emotional reaction seems to be more of a puzzle. More closely related to evolutionary psychology, in The Blank Slate, Steve Pinker suggests that biological explanations of human nature make people anxious, and suggests four reasons why this might be:

  • If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified.
  • If people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile.
  • If people are the products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions.
  • If people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose.

In the book, Pinker shows that the logic of these conditionals don’t hold, and argues that denying biological explanations can have unpleasant consequences. For the present purpose, however, the point is that people seem to find certain sorts of explanations of human behavior especially irritating.

It seems to me that there is another twist to the tale of irritating explanations. How irritated people get seems to depend on how they have understood the explanation. Because different sorts of explanations are more or less vexing, it’s very possible, if one hasn’t studied the explanation in question carefully, that a casual reading of it might lead one to think the explanation on offer is of an especially aggravating sort, even when it’s the sort of explanation which, if properly understood, isn’t troubling at all. One can argue about whether one ought to get emotional about explanations in the first place; one might assume the enlightened position that they might be right or wrong, but in either case one should treat them dispassionately rather than emotionally. But, given that explanations can be so irritating, it’s important for this reason – as well as good practice more generally – to ensure that one understands an explanation before getting discomfited by it.

Oh, and, you know, just by the way. Edward Clint has some remarks about a recent talk by a somewhat irritated Rebecca Watson at a conference called Skepticon. Just thought I would mention that.

Note: One typo corrected after initial posting.


LewisC. (2000). The dating game — One man’s search for the age of the Earth:Cambridge,UK, Cambridge University Press

Pinker, S. (2002) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.New York: Penguin.

Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (1986). Relevance.Oxford: Blackwell.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance theory.” Handbook of pragmatics (2002).



  • http://profiles.google.com/hugo.mercier Hugo Mercier

    I guess the explanation for true and false explanations is different (ie there’s no real need to explain why false explanations are irritating). It would also make sense that explanations we don’t really understand should be irritating — just like some other things we don’t quite understand.

    For true, understandable explanations, a naive suggestion is that people use intuitive psychology to evaluate explanations, and intuitive psychology usually treats explanations as mutually exclusive. So a new explanation has to displace the older one. If you were attached to the older one for some reason, the new one becomes irritating.

    I’m not sure that can explain Einstein being displeased by quantum physics, but that could explain why people often don’t like evolutionary explanations of behavior (particularly, I would predict, of their positive behaviors or other people’s negative behaviors).

  • Lee_Kirkpatrick

    Dan: Did you hear about the guy at MIT…?
    Dave: Yeah.
    Dan: The cause of death was just, uh, ruled suicide, right?
    Dave: No. His anterior cingulate cortex and subgenual cingulate were metabolically overactive. .
    Brian: Nope. His brain had elevated levels of monoamine oxidase A and seratonin re-uptake.
    Dan: You two are [jerks]. 

  • Goods JL

    I think you could derive an answer by looking at the functional purpose of the irritation in relation to the particular explanation, and it could be acting on a number of problems. For instance, in a conversation it might not the explanation itself that causes the irritation, but issues in social status confrontation with getting a smarty-pants explanation from a social peer. Or, in relation to individuals or institutions getting irritated at scientific explanations, the irritation might be helping in a number of ways to protect investment in a strategic direction or status quo etc etc. In sum, you would definitely want to have a look at the situation-specific function of the irritation at the explanation.                   

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