[Paleopsych] H-N: Thos. E. Dickins: A Necessary Pain in the Heart

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Thos. E. Dickins: A Necessary Pain in the Heart
[Thanks to Laird for this.]

    Evolutionary Psychology 3: 175-178

    Book Review
    A Necessary Pain in the Heart*

    A Review of Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the
    Unconscious Mind by David Livingstone Smith. New York: St Martin's
    Press. ISBN 0-312-31039, 2004.

    Thomas E. Dickins, School of Psychology, University of East London and
    Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of
    Economics, London E15 4LZ, United Kingdom.

    * This is a line from Stevie Wonder's song Ordinary Pain, on his album
    Songs in the Key of Life, 1976. This song advocates a stringent
    functionalism about emotional responses.

    Six years ago, at the annual Human Behaviour and Evolution Society
    conference, I sat down to dinner with a group of fellow evolutionary
    behavioural scientists. Everyone was in high conference spirits and
    everyone at my table was male. Soon conversation moved from social
    gossip about fellow delegates to talking about relationships, and one
    of our number posed the question "does working in this field hinder
    your romantic relationships?" The table was divided, with half of the
    men claiming no influence whatsoever, for in those intimate
    circumstances their behaviours simply played out naturally. The other
    half saw knowledge about evolved mating behaviours as a hindrance to
    their interactions, for they often failed to seize the moment and
    instead went off-line and observed the interaction with a critical
    eye. I placed myself in this latter camp.

    At the time the conversation was an amusing conceit and I thought
    little more about it. But during the course of the following six years
    my personal life continued and, as it turned out, my relationship
    history unfolded somewhat unfortunately. When my wife and I separated
    I quite naturally tried to think about the situation from an
    evolutionary perspective and I asked myself whether I could
    conceptualize the failure in our relationship in terms of what I knew
    about mating decisions. Of course, I soon chastised myself for trying
    to jump from statements about human universals to an analysis of the
    fine-grained sequences of behaviour that constituted my marriage.
    Nonetheless, I had started down a particular road in my thinking. I
    did not understand the nature of the emotional pain I felt, but I
    recognised that it was patterned; I did not understand my motivations
    for saying certain things during the separation process, but I saw
    that they achieved certain specific effects. Surely, these things were
    not idiosyncratic to me and surely there must be a functional story to
    tell about this aspect of psychology?

    Whilst I reflected on this I remembered the conversation at the
    conference and realised that no one on the table had claimed that an
    evolutionary perspective could help a relationship; the only expressed
    options were no effect or hindrance. Perhaps, I rather grandly
    reasoned, an evolutionary account of the emotions felt around
    separation might form the foundation of a useful therapeutic tool.
    During discussions with a number of patient colleagues, one of them
    reminded me of Freud's ambitions. Freud had hoped to integrate an
    account of personal-level psychological machinations with contemporary
    neurological science. Freud, of course, failed in this attempt but his
    expression of the problem can only be seen as useful.

    Recently, Timothy D. Wilson (2002) has more formally resurrected
    Freud's project in his book Strangers to Ourselves. The subtitle of
    this book is Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, which captures
    Wilson's thesis that much of our psychology is unconscious and adapted
    to solve specific problems. Our conscious, or personal-level
    processing is perhaps best seen as a calibrational tool, or set of
    tools, that finesses work done by the unconscious. In making this
    claim, Wilson brings the Freudian project into contact with modern
    evolutionary approaches. However, Wilson does not offer a detailed
    adaptationist analysis of our unconscious psychology and instead
    tantalisingly hints at a variety of possible functions that are served
    by such processes. David Livingstone Smith's book, on the other hand,
    sets out to achieve an adaptationist decomposition of at least one
    aspect of our unconscious psychology; that which delivers/underlies
    social manipulation.

    The first half of the book is an introduction to evolutionary
    psychology and to theories of deception and self-deception. It is from
    this half that the book gains its title. For those well versed in
    evolutionary approaches to the behavioural sciences this can be
    skipped: however, for those who are not, its light touch and pace will
    bring them rapidly to a point Smith's core thesis can be digested.

    It is as follows. We tell stories; or rather we construct narratives
    about much of what goes on in our lives. These narratives are for our
    own private consumption, to explain events as well as to shape and
    predict futures. Our stories find public uses too, for they act as
    communicative structures. However, most of our conversational
    machinations are not, in fact, under personal-level control, but
    instead are under the unconscious or sub-personal-level control of a
    social module. This module is a domain-specific device, in keeping
    with contemporary assumptions in Evolutionary Psychology, and it
    delivers (small-p) political insight, in keeping with the
    Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis, as well as more general social
    scanning. The key point is that this module renders us highly
    sensitive to other people and it influences our narration in such a
    way as to deliver unintended messages. At the personal-level we tell
    ourselves we are delivering message x, but our sub-personal-level
    cognition is in fact causing us to send message y.

    An example of such coded communication happened when I once entered a
    public house in the U.K. with a fellow academic. We were engaged in a
    debate about some aspect of cognition, vigorously disagreeing with
    each other while we found somewhere to sit. We eventually perched on
    the edge of a shared bench and continued arguing, seemingly oblivious
    to the world around us. At one point my antagonist, who had grown
    frustrated with my line of argument, declared that "your argument is
    about as useful as a one-armed man on a building site." Sitting next
    to him, further along the bench, was a one-armed man who was clearly
    manipulating pints, wallets, cash and handshakes in a different manner
    than most. No one had mentioned this man, and my protagonist claimed
    he had not even seen him; but, according to Smith, the likelihood is
    that my colleague had seen him, had registered his loss of an arm, and
    had had a series of thoughts about the consequences of such an injury.
    Such features are of importance to a social animal, and according to
    Smith, are the kind of thing we might comment on to the extent that
    even if we do not directly discuss the issue, it will find a way to be
    expressed in our conversation.

    Smith has many examples of situations in which public pronouncements
    indirectly (and not always too subtly) convey messages about key
    social facts. One striking example is of a conversation among some of
    Smith's students. Three students had turned up to a class on a harsh
    winter's morning, and the remaining four had not. Whilst they were
    waiting for the class to start a conversation ensued that included the
    following exchange:

      : I heard a horrible story on the news, but I can't remember what
      it was.

      : There was this guy who drove up into the mountains with his
      three-year-old child. He went out hunting and left the kid all by
      himself in the truck. When he came back his son was frozen to
      death. He just went off to enjoy himself, and when he came back his
      son was dead. (p. 129)

    Smith claims that this conversation was a coded way of commenting on
    the absence of the other class members, and that the "man in the story
    appears to stand for the absent students and his abandoned child
    stands for the three students who turned up for class" (p. 130). Amy
    and Michelle would not necessarily have been aware of this, but their
    concerns were filtering through, none the less.

    It is clear from the above examples that Smith has retained much of
    the Freudian project. Here we have an attempt to uncover unconscious
    motivations by attending to the content of conversations, which is
    reminiscent of psychoanalysis. Analysing conversations in this manner,
    as Smith readily admits, appears to stretch credulity at points: what
    external measure do we have to validate such claims? Nonetheless,
    Smith is not putting this forward as a fait accomplis but rather as an
    open hypothesis for future refining and testing.

    Smith's thesis presents an interesting counter to many social
    scientists working in the constructionist tradition (see Dickins, 2004
    for a discussion of this tradition and its weaknesses). In its mild
    form this tradition claims that much of our knowledge about the world
    is socially constructed in a language that does not directly represent
    reality. Instead, we create narratives that reflect our various
    interests, and that are malleable in the face of small-p and big-p
    political forces. Such narration impairs our ability to deliver
    objective knowledge about the world, according to some theorists. A
    typical (and adequate) retort to this position is to undermine the
    wholesale application of the concept of narration and present some
    form of realist philosophy of science. Smith has extended this reply
    by treating human narrative practices, in social situations, as a
    phenomenon to be explained; as something that is patterned, seemingly
    designed and therefore open to an adaptationist analysis. Smith has in
    effect asked the question - "if we generate narratives then what are
    their properties and how do we understand them?" His answer is that
    they are highly social and indirect forms of communication that are
    influenced by a Machiavellian module.

    Although the book is well written and engaging, it is not entirely
    clear how to relate the discussions of deception with the discussion
    of unconscious influences on our narratives. One possible link is
    through the discussion of self-deception, in which Smith outlines the
    familiar argument that the best way to deceive others is by deceiving
    ourselves. In this way we are so certain of the untruth that we will
    not give away any "tells" that might undermine the necessary
    deception. Such an idea is clearly an aspect of the relationship
    between personal- and sub-personal-level interactions; but
    functionally this is quite distinct from the indirect signalling
    functions of our narratives. At most, all that can be said is that
    both deception and indirect signalling are about social manipulation,
    but this is too coarse-grained analysis to yield a useful evolutionary
    psychology. Instead it seems that Smith has discussed two aspects of
    the evolutionary Freudian project.

    I opened this review by asking whether or not, as with the original
    Freudian project, evolutionary psychology could ever hope to deliver
    understanding of human troubles, and perhaps even some order of
    therapeutic intervention. Smith has not attempted to do this (despite
    a therapeutic background) but his thesis must surely be of interest to
    those involved in the "talking therapies"; indeed, some of Smith's
    examples come from therapeutic conversations. By turning an
    adaptationist eye to the possible sub-textual social signalling of our
    narratives we might begin to recognise patterns of expression that are
    indicative of malaise and low-mood. We might also begin to see how
    seemingly normal conversations between people, in whatever form of
    relationship, are encoding and signalling discontent and frustrations.
    Just as we are uncovering the necessary elements of emotional pain, so
    we might uncover the ordinary sub-personal signals of everyday


    Dickins, T. E. (2004.) Social Constructionism as Cognitive Science.
    Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 34 (4), 333-352

    Wilson, T. D. (2002) Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive
    Unconscious. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


    Dickins, T. E. (2005). A Necessary Pain in the Heart. A Review of Why
    We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind
    by David Livingstone Smith. Evolutionary Psychology, 3:175-178.

    [9]Thomas Dickins


    9. mailto:t.dickins at uel.ac.uk

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