Social Games

June 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

In a recent article by NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that examines the brain’s predisposition for liberal or conservative biases, Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia is quoted: “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.” The professor’s statement it seems, takes aim at the human capacity for rationalizing biases and behaviors, the unique talent that allows for the reconciliation of mean to ends.

Our skill at rationalization is often called upon in the social games Prof Haidt refers to, helping to move along the strategies and schemes that we hope will serve our desired ends. It is the unguent that binds together traits and agendas that may be wildly at odds with one another, enabling us to overlook inconsistencies in the courses of action that we pursue. Within the domain of the human brain, the truth often becomes so malleable, so porous, it consists more of empty space than hard fact. The crowning jewel of evolutionary processes, this brain that has developed such an exquisite facility in crafting the truth, has been very well matched with a reality that is itself utterly unreliable. Perhaps there is a grain of poetic justice in this arrangement. Two kindred, dancing spirits, mind and cosmos, spinning the world into existence.

Everyone has encountered situations in which thoroughly likable people resort to strategies that range from inconsiderate to Machiavellian. My own sense of exasperation at these occasions is in response to the ease with which civility and consideration can be swapped for expediency, selfishness, even ruthless disregard. On the other hand, reflecting on my behavior reminds me that I have a remarkably thick skin (and skull) when it comes to the oblivious pursuit of my own desires. Inconsistency of behavior can be an astonishing thing, and trying to guess how incongruous actions and values can be reconciled in the human mind is a fool’s (or neuroscientist’s) mission.

The latest model of the human brain comes equipped with a wide range of potential behavioral patterns – from bottom feeder all the way up to better angel. When these don’t add up within an individual it is easy enough to slap on a label of hypocrisy as a blanket characterization. While this may be an apt judgment, it doesn’t shed light on the smoky rooms of the mind out of which behaviors emerge – or creep. As they say, no one sees them self as a villain; it’s just not a self-image we care to wake up to in the morning.

A snoozing conscience promotes a good night’s sleep.

To this end the human mind has found ways to compartmentalize matters of self-interest. The brain’s capacity for moral elasticity (a.k.a. self-delusion) is in keeping with its penchant for weaving associations, often out of thin air, between aspects of experience that are entirely unrelated. This characteristic plasticity expresses itself in ways that are both blessing and curse. The imagination is the birthing ground of creative enterprise. Likewise, it blurs and blends experience to create and sometimes tyrannize a picture of the world. Bending reality to conform with our designs invariably comes with a cost. In the form of inner conflicts and tensions, bad karma, another blemish upon the immortal soul – pick your metaphysical framework – or simply a mind that is mired in delusion. Take the great man with fatal flaws, or just the good man who ends up in a jail cell for the weekend.

Considering this aspect of the human condition brings to mind a simple maxim that describes an enlightened, upstanding character: He is one who does as he says, and says as he does. Period. The simplicity of this characterization issues a challenge but also sets an inspiring standard. It provides a handy mirror by which to gauge one’s trajectory on the spiritual and moral continuum; i.e. whether one is ascending Jacob’s ladder or taking a swan-dive into the abyss. It provides the clearest of roadmaps by which to orient a creaky moral compass.