Friday, September 11, 2015

Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary

From The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker, Chapter 3.
Before the revolution, commentators invoked enormous black boxes such as "the intellect" or "the understanding," and they made sweeping pronouncements about human nature, such as that we are essentially noble or essentially nasty. But we now know that the mind is not a homogeneous orb invested with unitary powers or across-the-board traits. The mind is modular, with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action. It has distinct information-processing systems for filtering out distractions, learning skills, controlling the body, remembering facts, holding information temporarily, and storing and executing rules. Cutting across these data-processing systems are mental faculties (sometimes called multiple intelligences) dedicated to different kinds of content, such as language, number, space, tools, and living things... Still another layer of information-processing systems can be found in the affect programs, that is, the systems for motivation and emotion.

The upshot is that an urge or habit coming out of one module can be translated into behavior in different ways — or suppressed altogether — by some other module. To take a simple example, cognitive psychologists believe that a module called the “habit system” underlies our tendency to produce certain responses habitually, such as responding to a printed word by pronouncing it silently. But another module, called the “supervisory attention system,” can override it and focus on the information relevant to a stated problem, such as naming the color of the ink the word is printed in, or thinking up an action that goes with the word. More generally, the interplay of mental systems can explain how people can entertain revenge fantasies that they never act on, or can commit adultery only in their hearts. In this way the theory of human nature coming out of the cognitive revolution has more in common with the the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature ... than with behaviorism, social constructivism, and other versions of the Blank Slate. Behavior is not just emitted or elicited, nor does it come directly out of culture or society. It comes from an internal struggle among mental modules with differing agendas and goals.

The idea from the cognitive revolution that the mind is a system of universal, generative computational modules obliterates the way that debates on human nature have been framed from centuries. It is now simply misguided to ask whether humans are flexible or programmed, whether behavior is universal or varies across cultures, whether acts are learned or innate, whether we are essentially good or essentially evil. Humans behave flexibly because they are programmed: their minds are packed with combinatorial software than can generate an unlimited set of thoughts and behavior. Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary. Intelligent behavior is learned successfully because we have innate systems that do the learning. And all people may have good and evil motives, but not everyone may translate them into behavior in the same way.

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