A single self-deceived or several subselves divided?


Douglas T. Kenrick and Andrew E. White
Department of Psychology, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85282.
[email protected] [email protected]

Would we lie to ourselves? We don’t need to. Rather than a single self equipped with a few bivariate[1] processes, the mind is composed of a dissociated aggregation of subselves processing qualitatively different information relevant to different adaptive problems. Each subself selectively processes the information coming in to the brain as well as information previously stored in the brain.

Von Hippel and Trivers (VH&T) drive home a point psychologists often miss – a functional explanation cannot begin and end inside a person’s head – people do not strive to “feel good” for its own sake, they feel good when they act in ways that, on average, increased their ancestors’ chances of survival and reproduction. VH&T’s target article underscores the theoretical functions of interdisciplinary work – broadening the significance of a generation of experimental studies (previously interpreted as a random array of apparently senseless information processing biases) while simultaneously grounding the fuzzy philosophical problem of self-deception in solid empirical findings. But their view raises two questions for us: First, is there really a “self” to be deceived? Second, are we really talking about “deception” or simply division of labor between mental modules?

VH&T do not go far enough in applying recent views of modularity. They focus on bivariate cognitive processes such as implicit versus explicit memory. But from an adaptationist perspective, important cognitive subdivisions cut along lines of content rather than process – different adaptive problems require qualitatively different sets of decision mechanisms. How a person’s brain crunches information depends critically on whether he or she is thinking about attracting a mate, avoiding a fistfight, seeking status, making a friend, or caring for a child. Understanding those differences requires us to think about content and to think about divisions larger than two.

Thinking about the mind as composed of several motivational subselves, each dealing with different classes of problem content, has already begun to build bridges between research on social cognition and ideas in evolutionary biology, as well as generating a host of novel empirical findings (e.g., Kenrick et al. 2010). For example, people in whom a self-protective motive is activated are more likely to remember angry faces, especially on male members of out-groups (who are otherwise homogenized in memory; Ackerman et al. 2006) and to encode a neutral facial expression as anger (but only when it is expressed by an outgroup male; Maner et al. 2005). Consistent with Trivers’s classic theories about parental investment and sexual selection, males (but not females) in a mating frame of mind are more likely to interpret an attractive females’ facial expression as expressing sexual interest, and mating-conscious males are likely to think more creatively and independently and to conspicuously display in other ways (Griskevicius et al. 2006; Maner et al. 2005; Sundie et al., in press).

In a brilliant article in the inaugural edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review, titled “Subselves,” Martindale (1980) described how mental dissociations could be understood in rigorous cognitive terms. Building on cognitive concepts such as lateral inhibition and state dependent memory, Martindale described how the brain accomplishes parallel processing without attentional overload. Only a small portion of the information available to the brain can be consciously processed at any given time, requiring mechanisms for suppressing most of what is going on up there. At the level of single neurons, there is lateral inhibition; at the level of the whole functioning brain, Martindale proposed that we have different subselves – executive systems with preferential access to different memories and different action programs. Because it is simply impossible to have conscious access to all our memories, attitudes, and ongoing experiences, an implication of Martindale’s analysis is that we are all, in a sense, dissociative[2] personalities.

[1] BIVARIATE: (mathematics) Having or involving exactly two variables.
[2] DISSOCIATIVE: A defense mechanism where certain thoughts or mental processes are compartmentalized in order to avoid emotional stress to the conscious mind.