Cynicism in Ev-Psych (and Econ?)

Though I know more about the former than the latter, I begin to suspect that different styles of cynicism prevail in evolutionary psychology than in microeconomics.

Evolutionary psychologists are absolutely and uniformly cynical about the real reason why humans are universally wired with a chunk of complex purposeful functional circuitry X (e.g. an emotion) - we have X because it increased inclusive genetic fitness in the ancestral environment, full stop.

Evolutionary psychologists are mildly cynical about the environmental circumstances that activate and maintain an emotion. For example, if you fall in love with the body, mind, and soul of some beautiful mate, an evolutionary psychologist would like to check up on you in ten years to see whether the degree to which you think your mate’s mind is still beautiful, correlates with independent judges’ ratings of how physically attractive that mate still is.

But it wouldn’t be conventionally ev-psych cynicism to suppose that you don’t really love your mate, and that you were actually just attracted to their body all along, but that instead you told yourself a self-deceiving story about virtuously loving them for their mind, in order to falsely signal commitment.

Robin, on the other hand, often seems to think that this general type of cynicism is the default explanation and that anything else bears a burden of proof—why suppose an explanation that invokes a genuine virtue, when a selfish desire will do?

Of course my experience with having deep discussions with economists mostly consists of talking to Robin, but I suspect that this is at least partially reflective of a difference between the ev-psych and economic notions of parsimony.

Ev-psychers are trying to be parsimonious with how complex of an adaptation they postulate, and how cleverly complicated they are supposing natural selection to have been.

Economists… well, it’s not my field, but maybe they’re trying be parsimonious by having just a few simple motives that play out in complex ways via consequentialist calculations?

Quoth Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (famous EPers):

“The science of understanding living organization is very different from physics or chemistry, where parsimony makes sense as a theoretical criterion. The study of organisms is more like reverse engineering, where one may be dealing with a large array of very different components whose heterogeneous organization is explained by the way in which they interact to produce a functional outcome. Evolution, the constructor of living organisms, has no privileged tendency to build into designs principles of operation that are simple and general.”

One consequence of this is that it’s more parsimonious—under the evolutionary prior—to postulate many smaller simpler adaptations than one big clever complicated adaptation.

One simple way to signal quality X is by having quality X. But then other simple modifications might accrete around that.

So cynicism in the style of evolutionary psychology might be, “Why yes, so far as your explicit cognition is concerned, you love them for their beautiful mind. It’s just that without the beautiful body, you probably wouldn’t find yourself loving their mind so much. And once the beautiful body fades, you may find their ideas appearing less attractive too.” Mind you, this is not an actual experimental result. It’s just the sort of thing that a cynical evolutionary psychologist would look for—a cross-wiring between a couple of emotional circuits.

Even then, the cynic would bear a burden of proof, because a devil’s-advocate parsimonious evolutionary psychologist would say, “How do you know the extra circuit is there? Maybe evolution wasn’t that clever. Mates looked for signals of long-term commitment, so their partners evolved an actual long-term commitment mechanism when a mate was of high enough quality—can you show me an experiment that demonstrates it’s any more complicated than that?”

By and large, evolutionary psychologists don’t expect people to be clever, just evolution. It’s a foundational assumption that there’s no explicit cognitive desire to increase inclusive genetic fitness, and no reason to think that anyone (except a professional evolutionary psychologist) would explicitly know in advance which behaviors increased fitness in the ancestral environment. The organism, rather than being programmed with machiavellian subconscious long-term knowledge, is programmed with (genuine) emotions that activate under the right circumstances to steer them the right way (in the ancestral environment).

In economics, perhaps, it is more conventional and less alarming to suppose that people are doing explicitly clever and complicated things in the pursuit of explicit goals. But of this it is not really my place to speak; I’m just trying to describe my own side of the contrast I see.

Now it makes sense to suppose that we have certain general faculties—simple emotional circuits—that make us seek high status: that we are magnetically attracted to behaviors whenever we imagine that behavior will make others look on us fondly.

And it makes to suppose that we have a general faculty—a relatively simple emotional circuit—that makes us flinch away from explanations and views of our own behavior that put us in a negative light, and flinch toward explanations that put ourselves in a positive light.

So from an ev-psych standpoint, we can expect a lot of cynicism to be, in general, justified. It wouldn’t even be surprising if people were relatively more attracted to bodies, and relatively less attracted to minds, on a purely psychological level, than they said/​thought they were.

But to modify the emotional ontology by entirely deleting virtuous emotions… to say that, even on a psychological level, no human being was ever attracted to a mate’s mind, nor ever wanted to be honest in a business transaction and not just signal honesty… is not quite what evolutionary psychologists do, most of the time. They are out to come up with an evolutionary explanation of why humans have the standard emotions, rather than telling us that we have nonstandard emotions instead. Maybe in economics this sounds less alarming because people routinely come up with simplified models? But in ev-psych it seems to hearken back to the bad old Freudian days of counterintuitiveness—we’re excited that the intuitive view of human emotion turns out to be evolutionarily explainable. Including a lot of things that people would rather not talk about but which they do recognize as realistic. And including a lot of phenomena that go on behind the scenes but which don’t much change our view of which emotions we have, just our view of when emotions activate, in what real context. On that score we are happy to be cynical and challenge intuition.