Sunday, January 08, 2006

We are not really in charge of how we act

This is another recurrent thread. I already mentioned Herb Gintis' piece from another source. Here is Andy Clark.
So much of what we do, feel, think and choose is determined by non-conscious, automatic uptake of cues and information.

Of course, advertisers will say they have known this all along. But only in recent years, with seminal studies by Tanya Chartrand, John Bargh and others has the true scale of our daily automatism really begun to emerge. Such studies show that it is possible (it is relatively easy) to activate racist stereotypes that impact our subsequent behavioral interactions, for example yielding the judgment that your partner in a subsequent game or task is more hostile than would be judged by an unprimed control. Such effects occur despite a subject's total and honest disavowal of those very stereotypes. In similar ways it is possible to unconsciously prime us to feel older (and then we walk more slowly). …

It now seems clear that many of my major life and work decisions are made very rapidly, often on the basis of ecologically sound but superficial cues, with slow deliberative reason busily engaged in justifying what the quick-thinking zombies inside me have already laid on the table. The good news is that without these mechanisms we'd be unable to engage in fluid daily life or reason at all, and that very often they are right. The dangerous truth, though, is that we are indeed designed to cut conscious, aware choice out of the picture wherever possible. This is not an issue about free will, but simply about the extent to which conscious deliberation cranks the engine of behavior. Crank it it does: but not in anything like the way, or extent, we may have thought. We'd better get to grips with this before someone else does.
Richard Dawkins takes this one step further.
Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.

Basil Fawlty, British television's hotelier from hell created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down and wouldn't start. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and then acted. "Right! I warned you. You've had this coming to you!" He got out of the car, seized a tree branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty? Or at King Xerxes who, in 480 BC, sentenced the rough sea to 300 lashes for wrecking his bridge of ships? Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes? …

But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car.
The usual answer to why we don't "fix" criminals is that it would be disrespectful to them as persons. But one can look at it another way. Fixing them could be thought of as their punishment. How about giving people a choice: get your brain fixed or spend 10 years in jail. Which would you choose?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Today I was watching c-span2 booktv and there was Gourge Lakoff talking about his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant”. He had an interesting talk which had some points about “Framing”; basically how the far-right is using framing as a way to win the political discourse in peoples mind by acting on their subconscious level! Not exactly, but somehow related to this post.