Easier Done Than Undone: Asymmetry in the Malleability of Implicit Preferences (plus comments)

From the paper:

“Because we began by putting forward a theoretically derived hypothesis and calling its viability into question on the basis of experimental data, it behooves us to listen carefully to what that data has been trying tell us and to draw together plausibly the various strands of evidence. The most parsimonious inductive explanation for our cumulative findings, we contend, is that automatic attitudes are asymmetrically malleable. That is, like creditcard debt and excess calories, they are easier to acquire than they are to cast aside. Thus, when people construe an object for the first time, their conscious fondness or antipathy for it is swiftly supplemented by an automatic positive or negative reaction. However, once people have acquired an attitude toward the object, attempts to subsequently undo it are differentially successful at different levels of the mind and lead its automatic component to lag behind its conscious one. Thus, Devine’s (1989) key prediction—that automatic attitudes will be generally be [sic] harder to shift that their self-reported counterparts — may be correct after all, not under the boundary conditions that we initially proposed but under a new set of boundary conditions that our data have subsequently suggested. […]

We contend that automatic attitudes operate like rapidly established perceptual defaults: although they can initially be engendered by conscious cognition, they later become relatively resilient to its influence.”

So, there might exist a variety of perhaps even non-overlapping reasons why one might be interested in stuff like this. I’m interested because I believe that some of the automatic attitudes I have implicitly come under the influence of are attitudes which does not make me happy, which is why I feel that I at the very least should try to understand them better. Understanding might make it easier for me to successfully challenge them. Though I’m not optimistic about that. I should specify that the automatic attitudes I have in mind here are perhaps of a somewhat different kind than the ones described in the study; but it doesn’t seem like a lot of stuff is written about how to overcome biological imperatives, and you need to take what you can get.

Human males my age – not only human males my age, but also human males my age – are ‘supposed to’ look for a mate to have children with, and if they can’t find one they are supposed to work towards gathering power and resources so that once someone is there to be found, they can compete more successfully with the other available males in the bidding war that will ensue, and perhaps win the right to have offspring. The male brain has not yet caught on to the fact that contraception has changed everything, in a way that means that power and resources no longer matter all that much when it comes to reproductive success. As Kanazawa put it in this paper; “men’s wealth still translates into their greater reproductive success had it not been for modern contraception, which men’s brain, adapted to the ancestral environment, has difficulty comprehending.”

To the Paleolithic brain, sex = offspring. The whole ‘offspring’-part is why sex feels good. Most (/non-ignorant?) males (/and females) know that the reason why sex feels good is because sex is nature’s (/your genes’) way of tricking you into having offspring. Just as the reason why chocolate cookies taste good is because they contain a lot of fats and sugars, i.e. calories; and calories are good if you want to avoid starving to death, a risk our ancestors spent a lot more time worrying about than we do. But whereas people are quite open about how it’s probably a bad idea to eat too many cookies, because it will make you fat and unhealthy, and thus people do not eat all that many chocolate cookies, there are, to put it bluntly, certainly a lot less people who seem to be open about drawing the conclusion that partnership and children is not worth it and that they ‘refuse to be slaves of their biology’. At least in that area of life…

I have this strange feeling that a lot of male (/and female) behaviour today might look completely crazy to someone who’s not as invested in the underlying ideals of the Paleolithic Era as are (all?) (/fe)males today. For a male, it looks like this: ‘The way to be happy/the good life is to find a fecund-looking female, court her and then have sex with her a lot, have babies and provide for them, die.’ A slightly more elaborate version would also include ‘convince your partner on an ongoing basis that you’re the best male available (by doing all kinds of weird things that signal to the female that you are there for the long haul, even if you’re not – and by golly, the modern economy/-world has certainly increased the number of insane-looking jump-through-the-hoops signals a (self-identified?) high-quality female can demand of her partner..)’, as well as ‘try to cheat on her as often as you can get away with – so that you can have more babies – but try your best to hide the cheating from her so as not to incur significant switching costs.’

The bidding wars these days in the partnership setting relates far more to the quality of the offspring than to the number of offspring. The Paleolithic fecundity markers are more or less completely out of whack with reality today. Today it is mostly preferences – which are to a very large degree driven by socioeconomic factors, religion, culture and societal norms more broadly – and not biological factors (waist-hip ratio etc.) which decide how many children a female is likely to/willing to have. Kanazawa (see above) found that resource access is pretty much irrelevant too. However the lives of most males and females continue to follow the age-old recipe, to some degree. To be happy you need to find a mate and have children. For a male, in order to get the best possible female you need access to resources, you need power. So you need money, which means that you need to work hard, both to obtain access to resources and incidentally also to actually convince the high-quality female that you’re the most suitable partner available. It’s not that these ideals seem completely true to everybody; it’s more that when you defend a different version of the good life, my impression is that you most often will have a hard time making that defense sound credible, even to yourself. People often reject some of the defining characteristics of the traditional partnership equation, like the idea that a partnership necessarily needs to involve children, that it makes sense to look for ‘the one’, that romantic relationships need to involve members of both genders, or perhaps that a monogamous relationship is the best way to deal with the romantic stuff in your life; but how many people openly reject the idea of having a relationship as a major life goal in favour of the alternative in the (‘semi’…, see my remarks below regarding the commitment issues here)-long run, for no other reason than that they think that they will be probably end up happier in the long run if they do? Surely only a person who has no chance in the dating market would do such a thing, right?

I assume the standard narrative will not work for me. It seems like too much hard work that you just know that you’re only undertaking because your Stone Age brain is trying to trick you into undertaking it, just like it’s trying to trick you into eating too many chocolate cookies – and with not too dissimilar consequences. I will probably not be willing to work hard enough to find a long-term partner who would not reject me in favour of someone more suitable, given the amount of competition. And if I do find someone, I will still have major problems trusting her, because I’ll assume that if she follows the standard narrative here, she’ll also follow the Paleolithic recipe later on. Which tells me that she’ll be more likely than not to leave me when I start getting really sick. Yeah, I may not get really sick and a potential she may not leave even if I do, but in expected terms this needs to be taken into account; as does my loss aversion at that point.

So why was I reading the paper again? Because it seems to me at this point that the smartest thing for me to do would be to rewire my brain somehow, to make it like stuff it currently does not like as much as would be optimal, and to dislike stuff it currently seems to enjoy thinking about. To let go of a lot of the counterproductive narratives which were never about people like me in the first place. I’m perfectly well aware that this is all about rationalization, and Paleolithic mind has views about that stuff too. Given what I’ve previously said about the Stoics, naturally I’m not very optimistic about this whole endeavour. But it seems worth trying. Maybe my mind can actually outsmart my Paleolithic mind. In the eyes of most females, I probably won’t be proper partner-material for some time (because of ‘resources, power’) anyway – at least not for the kind of partner my Stone Age brain is trying to convince me I’d like to have. I know about the assortative mating-aspects of the college/university experience, but I also know that that part of the university experience is probably not likely to be relevant for me. Either way, I hope that I can obtain a state of mind such that my period of thinking about dating and similar stuff is over – at least for the time being. The only way not to lose the bidding war is not to play or think about playing.

Incidentally, I ought to at post a few remarks here about how this post relates to my commitment to change: I was writing this and publishing it here at least in part to more efficiently commit myself to this change. I know how strong ‘the opposition’ (‘the Paleolithic mind’ and all its friends and allies…)  is, and I might give up on this idea before long. But writing this here can not hurt my chances much, and I’ve been thinking along these lines for a while now. I’ve found that it’s much easier to (knowingly) ‘rationalize’ not looking for a partner than it is to actually be perfectly okay with not doing it. And if it turns out to be impossible to obtain that mind state, it seems suboptimal in most scenarios to not be dating. I’m not trying to commit myself to not dating/finding a girlfriend; I’m trying to commit myself to thinking that I can be perfectly happy even though I don’t. It’s the thoughts in my head, not the behaviour they engender, which are central here. Interestingly enough, if I’m succesful it also probably means that long-run credible commitment to this state of mind is impossible (if preferences such as these can actually be changed over time, such changes can also be reversed later on), which should if anything make commitment in the short run easier, rather than harder, to achieve.


May 31, 2012 - Posted by | marriage, Papers, Personal, Psychology, rambling nonsense

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