Rider 1.0 and the elephant in the room

The Divided Self: Jonathan Haidt

Excerpt:

For although the controlled system does not conform to behaviorist principles, it also has relatively little power to cause behavior. The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and that trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus). The automatic system has its finger on the dopamine release button. The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will. I believe the Scottish philosopher David Hume was closer to the truth than was Plato when he said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

The point of these studies is that moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons, as Gazzaniga found in his split-brain studies. You search for a plausible reason for liking the painting, and you latch on to the first reason that makes sense (maybe something vague about color, or light, or the reflection of the painter in the clown’s shiny nose). Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made.

If you listen closely to moral arguments, you can sometimes hear something surprising: that it is really the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider. It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly and automatically (as Malcolm Gladwell described in “Blink”), but only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the rider goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.

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19 comments
  1. madhuri said:

    Makes sense. i have always been amused by economic theories and relationship theories for this reason. Chaos is the only rule that works until science advances to a degree of laying out an algorithm for gut reactions.

    Disclaimer: Still reading the linked article.

  2. Mohit said:

    I don’t know if this article is descriptive or prescriptive!

    “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

    So why think and philosophize at all? Just do what you feel like, right?

    I tend to want to rationalize and have a ‘reason’ for my actions. I am trying to move away from this towards a more impulsive, do-what-i-feel-like persona for a while, and see how it feels. My experience over the last year has been that ‘in the moment’ it feels great to be impulsive – a better ‘great’ than a reasoned one. But later, when conditioning and the old persona kick in and start questioning the actions, it can get unpleasant and stressful. The experiment will continue over the next year.

    Eventually it boils down to hedonism v/s objectivism methinks. The elephant follows a greedy algorithm and the rider tries to have a more rational value-based approach to the pursuit of pleasure. See below interview for what I mean by hedonism v/s objectivism.

    “I am profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism. Hedonism is the doctrine which holds that the good is whatever gives you pleasure and, therefore, pleasure is the standard of morality. Objectivism holds that the good must be defined by a rational standard of value, that pleasure is not a first cause, but only a consequence, that only the pleasure which proceeds from a rational value judgment can be regarded as moral, that pleasure, as such, is not a guide to action nor a standard of morality. To say that pleasure should be the standard of morality simply means that whichever values you happen to have chosen, consciously or subconsciously, rationally or irrationally, are right and moral. This means that you are to be guided by chance feelings, emotions and whims, not by your mind. My philosophy is the opposite of hedonism. I hold that one cannot achieve happiness by random, arbitrary or subjective means. One can achieve happiness only on the basis of rational values. By rational values, I do not mean anything that a man may arbitrarily or blindly declare to be rational. It is the province of morality, of the science of ethics, to define for men what is a rational standard and what are the rational values to pursue.

    “Playboy’s Interview with Ayn Rand,” March 1964.

    • unawoken said:

      Mohit,
      I find it interesting that when you come across support for the “elephant” you present the rider’s case, and when you come across support for the “rider”, you present the elephant’s case.

      Anyhow, I think the article was largely descriptive, whereas the book might be prescriptive and David Hume’s quote is prescriptive.

      Think and philosophize because “…the controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps…”

      It is a mistake to read the article and conclude that “f**k the rider, let’s be elephant”. The rider has limited powers, like a minister in an autocrat’s court, but if the minister can persuade the emperor, the decisions made will be more “rational”.

      I find Ayn Rand’s comments “ranting” in that paragraph. I do agree that hedonism and objectivism are opposed. But objectivism is at best a “wishful” goal for a Randian type of elephant+rider. Non-Randian elephant+riders will not agree that pleasure is not an important factor in “what I should do?”.

      Finally, are you in the objectivist camp or the hedonist? Your response seems to show both inclinations.

      My point here is, even if you want and think and believe that the rider should make all your decisions, because of our architecture, the elephant does indeed make a lot (even most) of our decisions.

      • unawoken said:

        and for example, check this: http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/The-Thinking-Read/Ayn-Rand-and-the-World-She-Made/ba-p/1607

        Some excerpts:

        “… (rand) inveighed against tyranny but was a tyrant, and who demanded loyalty from the disciples of her philosophy of individualism and independence, oblivious to the stark paradox involved. The members of her inner circle called themselves ‘the Collective’ as a joke; some of them came to realise too late just how ironic the label was, for Rand in effect organised her devotees into a cult from whose teachings any deviation — least of all into the individual independence she vaunted — was regarded as an unforgivable crime.”

        “Branden was the activist and exponent who turned Rand from a novelist-prophet into a designer label, a phenomenon, and a force. He had been at her side for nineteen years, since he was a young college student. But he crashed from favour when he no longer wished to have sex with her after falling in love with a beautiful young woman who had, in Rand’s view anyway, neither the intellect nor the spirit required to match Randian ideals. When Rand discovered Branden’s ‘betrayal’ she exploded into a jealous fury, anathematizing him as completely and violently as any Congregation of the Inquisition equipped with bell, book and candle. In the Objectivist magazine Branden had started on her behalf she wrote that he (and his former wife Barbara) were no longer associated with the magazine, with her, or with her work and thought, and that she repudiated them ‘totally and permanently as spokesmen for me or for Objectivism’.”

        “… (The character of her philosophy) was black-and-white, without nuance or flexibility, harsh, angry and simplistic. Its appearance of unyielding logic was employed as a smokescreen for absence of compassion and kindness, for the inability or refusal to accept that most people cannot be Roarks and Galts through no fault of their own, and that therefore an educated generosity of sentiment can and should figure among the premises of our choices and the actions that flow from them. Such a thought would have seemed to her too disgusting to contemplate; ”

        “Heller shows that she had her vulnerabilities and insecurities”

        ——————–> You may accuse me of ad hominem arguments here, however note that this is in response to your using AR’s quote to prop your statements. What I want to show using the above, is that AR was as well an elephant with some ridership, and her efforts and philosophy as well are (elephant+rider) efforts. The rider did not trump the elephant in AR’s case.

      • unawoken said:

        and her own statements such as the ones presented by you sound to me to be “wishful thinking” on her part.

      • Mohit said:

        “Finally, are you in the objectivist camp or the hedonist? Your response seems to show both inclinations.”

        I am trying to move to the hedonist camp but find it hard to override my objective brain. Ideally, I’d like to try both and then decide (don’t know if that is even a sensible statement).

      • Mohit said:

        Also, my use of the Rand quote was not an assertion of me being a Randian. I was looking for ‘What is the opposite of hedonism’ in Google and came across that paragraph which I found interesting and relevant to the subject at hand.

        I agree that Rand’s philosophy is: “black-and-white, without nuance or flexibility, harsh, angry and simplistic. Its appearance of unyielding logic was employed as a smokescreen for absence of compassion and kindness, for the inability or refusal to accept that most people cannot be Roarks and Galts”

  3. unawoken said:

    ‎”My opinions may have changed, but not the fact that I’m right.”
    -Ashleigh Brilliant

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