Sunday, September 30, 2012

Theory of Mind, Racism, and Collectivism

Without our cognitive "theory of mind" by which we are able to attribute mental states, intentions, etc. to others, our human level of social complexity would be impossible. But what is it we are really doing when we use our "theory of mind" to attribute mind to others? We are in fact theorizing that because I have a mind, others have minds. And therefore their mind will be like my mind. Their goals will be like my goals, their values will be my values, etc. And it is here, in overattributing oneself into others, that many of our cognitive failures emerge.

An important cognitive feature humans have is this tendency to "overattribute." This is important in our early evolution, because it is more important to make a mistake in the direction of too much than of too little, particularly when reading signs. If you see order, it is better to make the mistake of thinking that all order is made by an orderer than to make the mistake of failing to recognize that said order means there is an orderer -- who is likely to be close by. An orderer is potentially dangerous -- another tribe, for example. It's not that big a deal if you make a mistake of thinking even natural order means an orderer, but it is potentially fatal to fail to recognize when other people are around.

The same is true of theory of mind. We probably assume too much mind being present in many things without minds -- but that's less of a problem than failing to realize another person has a mind. However, this tendency to overattribute, when applied to theory of mind as believing others are like us, can create problems.

Perhaps an obvious error we commit is our tendency to homogenize. With theory of mind, not only do we assume others do have minds similar to our own, we assume they should. And by "similar," we often in fact think "the same." A difference between an other and oneself creates cognitive dissonance and mental discomfort. We can resolve this by either changing our ideas about others' minds, or by insisting others change to conform to our own model, or  by dehumanizing the other.

The last case is why there is racism and sexism. Many consider differences in others as evidence of lack of mind. Lack of mind means the other is not human. One cannot truly be racist or sexist toward those one considers to be "human," by which one means, "like myself." Those who look the same, act the same, have highly similar beliefs, values, etc., and share the same culture are all "like myself," and are therefore properly human. Those who don't are suspect.

In the second case, there is acceptance that others have minds, but their minds are "wrong" because their actions, beliefs, values, etc. are different. From this we get the drive for conformity. People "should" think how we think, meaning we should try to get them to think as we think. In its healthy form, this is known as "education." In its unhealthy form, it is collectivism, socialism, re-education camps, censorship, etc. It is an insistence that my values are the only good and true values, and that my value rankings are the only good and true value rankings. This is what socialists, and especially Marxists, insist to be true. It is no coincidence that all communist countries engaged in re-education camps and censorship, and tried to get rid of those who would not conform. Again, in its healthy form, this is simply social living; in its unhealthy form, it is collectivism.

But there is a third possibility -- one which we are still learning to embrace. That third possibility is understanding that differences in the way others think is not an indication that they do not have a mind. It is simply an indication that different social conditions, cultures, etc. create different ways of thinking. However, there are also healthy and unhealthy versions of this. The purely pluralistic, postmodern version, which insists that there is nothing but difference, is the unhealthy version. In this, nobody can understand each other, with the result that the only way there can be peace is to have a single, dominant ideology. It is the individuality of constructivist rationality Hayek rightly criticized. However, there is a healthy version, which understands that humans are united in their cognition, but also demonstrate differences. We probably all do share the same values; we just rank them differently. We are social individuals, with different ways of doing things that can, nevertheless, be coordinated with the right institutions. And this can happen because, though we are all different, and though we differ in our values, we also share values and our basic cognitive features.

This suggests that it is our theory of mind that causes two different kinds of collectivist beliefs. But we hardly want to do away with our theory of mind! Of course, that's not even an option. What is an option is realizing that our tendency toward homogenization is a cognitive error. The answer is not to go to the extreme of unconnected heterogeneity, but rather to combine the two, to understand humans both have a basic nature and commonly-evolved mind, and that there can nevertheless arise differences in our thoughts and actions and, consequently, in our cultures and societies.
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