Why are human animals such hypocrites? Because we are little lawyers riding big elephants

June 26, 2010 | By | 6 Replies More

Possibly the most salient feature of human beings is that they so often act contrary to the principles they publicly extol. People in the process of getting ever more obese sincerely acknowledge that they need to eat less and exercise more. Most Americans freely acknowledge that television is a “boob tube” that makes them stupid, yet they watch an average of 4.5 hours per day. Parents who sincerely claim that spending quality time with their young children is the most important thing they could do, work long hours at the office in order to afford pricey cars, houses and vacations. Most Americans who proclaim that we are in the midst of an energy crisis and global warming are doing next to nothing to change their energy-wasting personal lifestyles. Conservative American church-goers who claim that their highest religious duty is to love their enemies exuberantly support wars in which U.S. bombs shred and burn both enemies and innocent children.

How frustrating it is to try to explain this ubiquitous hypocrisy! This self-contradiction between our (oftentimes sincere) beliefs and our physical cravings defines us so well that we are often surprised when we find humans who are actually living according to the principles they declare to be sacred. Why is it that we such excellent hypocrites?

In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses a simple metaphor to illustrate the extent to which human beings are profoundly conflicted beings.  On pages 12 – 22, Haidt asks us to consider each human being as a tandem enterprise: a lawyer trying to ride an elephant. The part of us that is conscious, careful and calculating (the lawyer) is often outmatched by the huge lumbering bag of electro-chemical processes, appetites and cravings that characterizes the physical human body (the elephant). The good news is that our intellect is often quite reliable in telling us what we need to do. The bad news is that the intellect is often overwhelmed by the “elephant’s” unrelenting unconscious bodily impulses. What passes as human rationality is born of a conflict between these two aspects of who we are.

Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only

Image by Erich Vieth, using images from Dreamstime.com with permission

Image by Erich Vieth, using images from Dreamstime.com with permission

because our emotional brain’s work so well that our reasoning can work at all. Plato’s image of reason as a charioteer controlling the dumb beasts of passion may overstate not only the wisdom but also the power of the charioteer. The metaphor of a rider on an elephant fits Damasio’s findings more closely: reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work. When the neocortex came along, it made a rider possible, but it may be elephant much smarter too.

As indicated above, Haidt explains that human animals each consist of two processing systems that are both constantly at work: A) controlled conscious processes and B) unconscious automatic processes. Most mental processes happen automatically, without any need for conscious attention or control. Our controlled conscious ability depend heavily on language, which is a recent arrival on the evolutionary time scale.

[When language evolved,] the human brain was not re-engineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking). Things were already working pretty well, and linguistic ability spread to the extent that it helps the elephant do something important in a better way. The rider involved to serve the elephant. But whatever its origin, once we had it, language was a powerful tool that could be used in new ways, and evolution then selected those individuals who got the best use out of it.

Haidt also notes that controlled processing is limited in scope–we can only think consciously about one thing at a time. Compare this limited conscious processing to our unconscious automatic processes which, because they run in parallel, can handle many tasks simultaneously.

Language allows us to think about long-term goals, “and thereby escape the tyranny of the here and now.” On the other hand, our controlled system of conscious thinking “has relatively little power to cause behavior,” because it is overwhelmed by the vast automatic system that evolved to “trigger quick and reliable action.” Haidt thus sees our conscious control system as a mere advisor:

It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the writer can learn valuable information by talking to other writers or by reading maps, but the writer cannot order the elephant around against his will. I often believe the Scottish philosopher David Hume was closer to the truth than Plato when he said, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” In sum, the writer is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. . . . the elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system.

What Haidt articulates so well is known and understood by most of us, even at a gut level. We are constantly at war with ourselves. How else can it possibly be that so many people act in ways that are contrary to their cherished principles? How else could it be that so many sincere humans act absolutely contrary to their self-defined best interests?

All is not lost, however. Skilled riders cleverly shift attention away from the elephant. Skilled riders cause the elephant to think about things other than those things that will tempt the elephant. When I absolutely need to be working late at the office, I try to distract myself from thinking about being at home with my family because those sorts of thoughts will sorely tempt me to abandon my work at the office. Instead, I constantly remind myself to keep my attention on the project at hand. Riders must be content to distract the elephant rather than directly confronting the elephant because it’s too hard for the conscious control system to maintain any control over the automatic system of the elephant through will power alone. Haidt writes that sustained attempts by the rider to control the elephant through brute strength inevitably fail. “Just say no” campaigns  and virginity pledges usually fail. The small rider eventually wears down like “a tired muscle.”

What kind of rider is most successful at controlling the elephant? “An emotionally intelligent person has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills.” To illustrate this principle, Haidt discusses a classic experiment involving marshmallows, in which children who grew up to be successful were able (well young children) to distract themselves from eating a marshmallow in order to be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

The same conflict of rider versus elephant plays out in the moral arena. Haidt describes moral judgment is much like aesthetic judgment. We know what we like and don’t like immediately and a gut feeling. Our explanations usually amount to confabulation. “It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly.” (See here for Haidt’s elegant theory of moral psychology)

But again, all is not lost. Not for all of us all of the time, anyway. There are many clever riders out there who can distract their elephants for sustained periods. Not all people overeat. Many people consistently choose to shut down their televisions and choose to live challenging lives in the real world. Further, when those of use with good self-control act collectively, we can assist those without as much self-control (e.g., by enacting laws to force food manufacturers to put food’s nutritional information on a label)

A good rider can assist an elephant to do incredible things, such as the ability to collaborate. “Only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the writer goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.”


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Category: Human animals, hypocrisy, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    "It is obvious, without the need for scientific research, that vastly more of the work of the human mind is unconscious or automatic in this sense than conscious and deliberate. We do not consciously construct a visual image from sensory input or consciously choose the word order and produce the muscle movements to utter a sentence, any more than we consciously digest our food. The huge submerged bulk of the mental iceberg, with its stores of memory and acquired skills that have become automatic, like language, driving and etiquette, supplies people with the raw materials on which they can exercise their reason and decide what to think and what to do.

    The main problem that Brooks addresses in this book is how to understand the relation between these two mental domains. His aim is to “counteract a bias in our culture. The conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species. Unaware of what is going on deep down inside, the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role. It gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn’t really control.”"


  2. Erich Vieth says:

    "In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers (PDF). Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end—winning our "case"—and is shot through with biases. They include "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial."


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