Thursday, February 09, 2017

[Rant] More Depression

Last month I discussed how the election got me down (not the way it did for most people) and bemoaned the dominance of irrationality and emotion in human decision making. Outlandish delusions become self-evident facts in the minds of people who, in other circumstances, are steady, intelligent folks. The more I thought about it the stranger a quality it seemed. From an evolutionary standpoint, what possible advantage could a human tendency for this confer. I would certainly think being able to see the world objectively would be a fitness advantage for Joe Caveman not the reverse. The broader question is How on Earth did we evolve to delude ourselves so easily and thoroughly?

The answer may be something called Coalitional Instinct, described at The Edge. As I read it, humans developed the instinct for building coalitions as a way to enhance our security and power -- united groups can better survive and overcome individual threats. Coalitions are cemented by shared qualities, including opinions, and the more fervently you hold those opinions, even to the point of delusion, the stronger your bond to your coalition and theoretically the better off you should be to live long and prosper. In return, your brain gives you a hit of dopamine for positive reinforcement. In other words, losing your mind over the presidential election is just you acting out an irresistible primal instinct for strengthen your place in your coalition. Your brain believes that idiotic meme you posted on facebook enhances your chances of surviving to procreate.

All this is, of course, suppositional. I don't know of any hard neuroscience behind it. But it would explain a lot of it's true in some fashion. It would be the reason that even though we now have almost all the information the human race has ever gathered is at our fingertips, we've only become more irrational and delusional -- because the facts will weaken our fervency and therefore our bonds with our coalition, we must weasel our way around them by being even crazier. It would explain why cognitive dissonance is so devastating and sends people into ever deeper spirals of desperate rationalizations -- because contrary evidence is a direct threat to the foundations of our coalition. It would explain why it's not just contradicting views but insufficient enthusiasm is see as a weakness and threat -- because coalitions are strongest with total commitment.

None of this is a particularly encouraging picture of humanity so I am no less depressed for having a possible explanation.