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Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind [Hardcover]

Robert Kurzban
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 23 2011

We're all hypocrites. Why? Hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind.

Robert Kurzban shows us that the key to understanding our behavioral inconsistencies lies in understanding the mind's design. The human mind consists of many specialized units designed by the process of evolution by natural selection. While these modules sometimes work together seamlessly, they don't always, resulting in impossibly contradictory beliefs, vacillations between patience and impulsiveness, violations of our supposed moral principles, and overinflated views of ourselves.

This modular, evolutionary psychological view of the mind undermines deeply held intuitions about ourselves, as well as a range of scientific theories that require a "self" with consistent beliefs and preferences. Modularity suggests that there is no "I." Instead, each of us is a contentious "we"--a collection of discrete but interacting systems whose constant conflicts shape our interactions with one another and our experience of the world.

In clear language, full of wit and rich in examples, Kurzban explains the roots and implications of our inconsistent minds, and why it is perfectly natural to believe that everyone else is a hypocrite.


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"Bolstered by recent studies and research, Kurzban makes a convincing and coherent . . . case for the modular mind, greatly helped by humorous footnotes and examples. . . . Taking on lofty topics, including truth and belief, Kurzban makes a successful case for changing--and remapping--the modern mind."--Publishers Weekly

"Using humour and anecdotes, [Kurzban] reveals how conflict between the modules of the mind leads to contradictory beliefs, vacillating behaviours, broken moral boundaries and inflated egos. He argues that we should think of ourselves not as 'I' but as 'we'--a collection of interacting systems that are in constant conflict."--Nature

"Robert Kurzban believes that we are all hypocrites. But not to worry, he explains, hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind. In his book Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, Kurzban asserts that the human mind consists of many specialized units, which do not always work together seamlessly. When this harmony breaks down, people often develop contradictory beliefs."--Victoria Stern, Scientific American Mind

"Kurzban is a luminary in the growing discipline of evolutionary psychology. . . . [P]rovocative. . . . Kurzban devotes much space to explicating and demonstrating ways in which his theory plays out in our everyday lives."--Library Journal

"With wit, wisdom, and occasional hilarity, Robert Kurzban offers explanations for why we do the things we do, such as morally condemning the sale of human organs and locking the refrigerator at night to keep from snacking. . . . Kurzban touches on some complex topics in a manner that's both smart and accessible. He incorporates a plethora of psychological studies to support his theories but the narrative is never dry. . . . By challenging common assumptions about habits, morality, and preferences, Kurzban keeps readers both entertained and enlightened."--Foreword Reviews

"[Kurzban] argues that . . . internal conflicts are not limited to extreme cases; they occur in everyone's brains, leading to illogical beliefs and contradictory behaviors. That's not necessarily a bad thing, according to Kurzban. In fact, being selectively irrational may give us an evolutionary advantage."--Kacie Glenn, Chronicle of Higher Education

"Robert Kurzban has used his view of evolutionary psychology to pursue the concept of 'self' at the heart of both the discipline of psychology and the everyday understanding of human behavior--which surely is of interest to everyone. . . . The book itself is fresh. Kurzban's style is to take traditional questions and apparently reasonable positions and then demonstrate that reasonableness is actually only so under a set of assumptions--and that if they do not conform to the modularity hypothesis then we ought to rethink."--Tom Dickins, Times Higher Education

"Highly recommended."--Jessica Palmer, Bioephemera blog

"I'm sure that Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite will provoke a lot of controversy, and I'm certain that Kurzban's theses will require further refinement. But what a fascinating read!"--Brenda Jubin, Reading the Markets blog

"[T]here is much that is valuable in Kurzban's book."--Peter Carruthers, Trends in Cognitive Sciences

"We're all inconsistent and self-deceiving, says evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban. Our modular minds didn't evolve for consistency, but for patchwork multitasking. . . . As Kurzban says, understanding how and why we can be so 'ignorant, wrong, irrational, and hypocritical' may help us work towards a fairer society."--Susan Blackmore, BBC Focus

"Kurzban brilliantly (and often hilariously) breaks down the system of functional modules, explaining their existence through evolution, and their hypocrisy through a lack of communication. Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite delves into a part of psychology that has famously been ignored by many prominent members in the field."--Haley M. Dillon and Rachael A. Carmen, Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology

From the Inside Flap

"Robert Kurzban is one of the best evolutionary psychologists of his generation: he is distinctive not only for his own successful research and sophisticated understanding of psychology, but also because of his wit--Kurzban is genuinely clever, sly, succinct, and sometimes hilarious."--Steven Pinker, Harvard University

"In this amazing book, Robert Kurzban carries out a brilliantly thought-provoking conversation with himself that made me think hard--and laugh out loud. Using clever examples and a revolutionary scientific approach, he shows that contradiction is truly a fundamental human experience. No wonder, then, that I wanted to share this book with my friends--but I also wanted to keep it for myself! If you don't read this book, you'll be left wondering what everyone (else) is talking about."--James H. Fowler, coauthor of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

"Here is a fun counterpoint to the explosion of examples showing that humans do not act in accordance with the predictions of standard rational models. But Kurzban is no defender of the standard models. Rather he seeks an understanding of why our actions may appear contradictory in particular contexts, but serve us well in others, and why that helps to improve our fitness for decision, if not always for a life of liberty."--Vernon L. Smith, Nobel Laureate in Economics


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but not quite rock-solid Aug. 28 2011
By A. Volk #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Kurzban takes on the question of why people are hypocrites. Specifically, how "self-deception" can possibly occur. How can you deceive yourself since you know what you know and thus can't be deceived? Why do people need to hide the cookies from plain sight when they are on a diet? After all, they want to lose weight. Why is there a struggle within one brain? Why do people tend to hold other people to a higher standard than themselves?

To answer these questions, Kurzban turns to evolutionary psychology and the modular hypothesis. Briefly, it states that the brain is made up of many different software packages, each separate from each other. There's software for living long, and there's software for preventing survival. They conflict with each other over diets. Some software modules might not talk to other modules. Some modules might even not want to know about other modules' information, since that information can be costly. Kurzban argues (fairly well in my opinion) that this is especially true for modules that deal with social information. Because it makes no sense to believe you can fly when you can't, and then jump off a building to discover you're wrong. But it might make sense to pretend you can fly an airplane to impress that special girl you just met. Particularly in areas that are hard to objectively measure (e.g., honor, kindness, intelligence), people consistently overrate themselves. Kurzban argues that this is due to our trying to build a strong image of ourselves that will appeal to other people. I found the argument convincing.

So why only four stars? Well, the evidence isn't quite rock-solid. In particular, the last two chapters on morality where weak and speculative.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A great read to get the brain firing Dec 1 2011
Format:Hardcover
Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite took the topic of evolutionary biology and made it accessible and entertaining. Robert Kurzban uses humour to break up potentially boundary pushing material. The book will make you think about "you" and what that really means. A great read that I would recommend to anyone
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  38 reviews
54 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly foundational book for anyone serious about Psychology. Feb. 24 2011
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"I" almost didn't purchase this book - what a serious mistake that would have been! Having read The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self by Philosopher Thomas Metzinger, I felt I was thoroughly acquainted with the notion that there is no self. Also, I have read: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and How the Mind Works by Psychologist Steven Pinker (all three cited by Kurzban). Now, I don't mean to name drop, I simply say that to say this: Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite is better. Yes, better.

Kurzban states in the Prologue, "This book is...an attempt to explain why we act the way we act, and, perhaps partly in our defense, to show that if we are wrong a lot, well, being right isn't everything. My argument is going to be that much, or at least some, of what makes us ignorant, mind-numbingly stupid - and hypocritical - is that we evolved to play many different kinds of strategic games with others, and our brains are built to exploit the fact that being knowledgeable, right, or morally consistent is not always to our advantage. Because humans are such social creatures, while being right is still really important, it's very far from everything. In fact, being ignorant, wrong, irrational, and hypocritical can make you much better off than being knowledgeable, correct, reasonable, and consistent."

The amount of research that Dr. Kurzban utilizes in fulfilling this aim is staggering. There are many classic examples (i.e. Muller-Lyer Illusion, "Spandrels," "Framing Effects") but, also plenty that were new on me. Also, and more importantly, I loved the presentation. Kurzban's style is wry, witty, and always entertaining. I was laughing throughout. I loved the method, the material, and the message. As a long-time fan of evolutionary psychology, this certainly is a welcome addition; Dr. Kurzban is definitely one of my new favorite authors. Also, the new information dovetailed nicely with what I read in Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran, and Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions by Read Montague; I just might have to re-read some of my favorites with this new modularity view in mind. In sum, this is a great book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in morality, Philosophy of Mind, psychology, economics, social policy...well, everyone really. Here is one more great quote, "Modularity explains why everyone is a hypocrite. Moral(istic) modules constrain others' behavior. The mob's moral sticks can be used to prevent an arbitrarily wide set of acts. At the same time, other modules advance our own fitness interests, often by doing the very same acts our moral modules condemn. In this sense, the explanation for hypocrisy lies in the rather quotidian notion of competition. Organisms are designed to advance their own fitness interests, which entails harming others and helping oneself and one's allies. Hypocrisy is, in its most abstract sense, no different from other kinds of competition."
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kurzban's Mind Feb. 17 2011
By Mike McCullough - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
We're living in a world in which social scientists are able to study human behavior in incredibly clever ways--not the least of which is their ability to take pictures of the brain as it implements mysterious patterns of neural finding that somehow eventuate in your getting up to get a sandwich, posting or reading a book review, or letting your dog outside one last time before you head off to bed. But even with all of the clever experiments and pretty pictures of brains in action, most scientists who study complex social behavior couldn't begin--even on their best day--to explain to you how the brain might be structured so as to create behavior.

No matter what else turns out to be true about how the brain gives rise to mind, there is one cardinal principle to remember: The force that creates brains is natural selection, and natural selection operates exclusively by rewarding genes that give rise to good designs with a singular prize: More copies of themselves in the world, courtesy of sexual reproduction. What that means, above all, is that the structures that genes produce are in response to selection pressures that ancestral humans faced while our species was evolving. And there's no such thing as a "general selection pressure;" only specific ones. As a result, the structures in your head can't be general solutions. Whatever you've got up in your brain, then, is bound to be a collection of information-processing mechanisms for solving specific jobs.

Few other books are as effective as Kurzban's fine book at sketching the implications of this cardinal principle for our understanding of human mental life, so on that count alone this is a book worth reading. But by viewing mental life as the result of modular computational entities, Kurzban also shows us completely imaginative ways of looking at some of human beings' most interesting foibles and follies--from why we fall prey to optical illusions that we've already seen hundreds of times, to self-deception, to the seeming absurdity of many of our moral stances. It is these creative new ways of thinking about the richness of our psychological and social lives that really makes this book shine.

The prose in "Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite" is crystal clear. Its argumentation is persuasive. The examples from the social science literature are interesting and fun, and Kurzban's personality comes through on every page. But most importantly, it's a book that will give you a brand new way of thinking about what you've got between your ears. Kurzban is one to watch, and "...Hypocrite" is one to read.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book! Jan. 19 2011
By PsychGradStudent - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is an excellent book. Kurzban explains, using plenty of humorous examples, how evolution designed our minds one piece at a time (a concept called modularity), and how this explains important mysteries of the universe like why people lock their refrigerator doors at night. Ever had the feeling that part of you wants to finish the giant slice of cheesecake on your plate, and part of you is shrieking "no! no!" Kurzban explains that, in a certain sense, there really are two parts of you who are arguing over dessert, and that whether you devour it depends on which part gains control. There is plenty to learn and Kurzban leads you through with style.

Read on!
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Definitely the Hedgehog! June 18 2011
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In philosopher Isaiah Berlin's analogy, there is a hedgehog and a fox. The hedgehog who knows a lot about one big idea, and the fox who knows a little about a lot of different ideas. Robert Kurzban appears in this book to be very much a hedgehog: his idea is that our brain is not really a unitary whole so much as a collection of modules that sometimes might communicate with each other and more often might not. There is no "one" in charge in the brain, but it is better compared to a government of many parts, where the "conscious you" is not so much the executive director as the press secretary. The problem is that I am on about page 150, the point where it is evident that Kurzban, the hedgehog, is going to repeat and repeat himself. To put it kindly, the book gets quite a bit repetitive.

Kurzban' thesis, though, is interesting precisely because it is not the best accepted theory in neuroscience (I'm largely taking the authors word for it, as I am by no means an expert on neuroscience). Most neuroscientists, it seems operate on the idea that there must be some 'master controller' in the brain, such that even if different modules do different things, there must be one that is in charge of integrating these things into a unitary experience. Kurzban presents evidence (generally from behavioral economics, behavioral psychology, and neuroscience) that he thinks are better explained by his "modular mind with no "one" in charge" thesis: experiments, say, where a person seemingly deceives themselves by holding two incompatible beliefs at the same time, experiments where someone performs an action but can't explain why (or tries to explain why in a seemingly post-hoc manner). Early in the book, the author also gives reason as to why it would make sense from an evolutionary standpoint that complex organisms - like the human brain - would be the culmination of many less complex parts than the culmination of one big design.

And the theory is great to think about; it has bearing on everything from whether or not we have 'free will' (if a module we are not consciously aware of does x, did we choose to do x?) to morality (if two different modules evolved to think about things differently, then why is it irrational to hold contradictory beliefs?). The author not only gives us a clear explanation and defense of his theory, but goes into some of these implications.

As a non-neuroscientist, I hesitate to criticize the theory too much, but I do have some questions about it which weren't addressed by the book. First, if 'no "one" is in charge' of our brain, then I wonder how it is that when we have dialogues with ourselves, one side 'wins' at all! I am not tied to the idea that our brains have to have a director-of-affairs, but if I cannot engage in contradictory actions (turning the steering wheel left and right; uttering one sentence and not another), surely there must be some way inner conflicts are resolved and doesn't resolution often require a mediator? Next, even if there is no one part of my brain in overall control of me, it sure does feel like I am a unitary whole. And we can't really say it is an illusion (because to be known as an illusion, we have to be able to step back and see that it is an illusion, but to do so here begs the question).

Anyway, these are not objections to the theory so much as questions I'd like to see answered. But my bigger objection is really that this book is quite repetitive. I debated on whether to continue to the end, but did so when the last 30 pages I'd read essentially said things I knew the author would say before he said them. And whenever that happens, I generally assume that it is an indication that nothing new is being presented.

So, this is an interesting book with an interesting, and pretty well argued, idea. But Kuzban is a hedgehog, who presents a lot about one thing and, at some point, represents it. If you could buy the first 100 pages of this book, I daresay that would be your best deal.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Modules and You made understandable Jan. 28 2011
By nandonoise - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Kurzban has strong opinions that he supports with data, and more importantly, logic. Evolutionary logic, specifically.
Modules, like iPhone apps, work both independently, and as part of a whole. Some of our evolved preferences sometimes conflict. Kurzban deftly demonstrates that understanding and retrofitting evolved modules can resolve seemingly complex and intractable problems in psychology.
Highly recommended as both an underpinning of evolutionary psychology and as a good quick read.

Nando Pelusi, PhD
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