Honesty and the Human Body

Originally posted at Ribbonfarm.

In economics and biology, honesty is understood in terms of signals.

Signals are anything used to communicate, to convey information. A price is a signal of value. Conspicuous consumption is a signal of wealth. A growl is a threat — and the growl's depth is a signal of the size of the creature's body cavity.

Signals are said to be honest when they reliably correspond to an underlying trait or fact about the world. Otherwise they are dishonest or deceptive.

The temptation to deceive is ubiquitous. Deception allows an agent to reap benefits without incurring costs. That's why the best signals — the most honest ones — are expensive. More precisely, they are differentially expensive: costly to produce, but even more costly to fake.

This is the reason Apple retail stores are roomy and filled with helpful employees — it's something their lower-margin competitors can't afford. It's also why species with good defense mechanisms (like skunks and coral snakes) evolve high-contrast colors. Unless it can defend itself, an animal that stands out quickly becomes another animal's lunch.

Honesty is thus, in part, an economic proposition.

Humans are the most communicative species on the planet, but we've come increasingly to rely on the very cheapest signals: words. The problem with words is that they aren't a scarce resource. Which is a more honest signal of your value to a company: when your boss says, "Great job!" or when she gives you a raise?

Talk, as they say, is cheap. This is especially true on the Internet. Faced with global deflation in the value of words, we've had to find other ways to gauge quality and honesty. PageRank, for example, works because incoming links are scarce (at least from high-quality websites). CPU cycles are also scarce, which is how the bitcoin network prevents double-spending. CAPTCHAs use a task that's difficult for a computer but easy for a human; in other words, it can honestly detect the presence of a brain. And social networks use real-world identities, with their attendant reputations, to keep imposters and anonymous commenters out of the system (for better or worse).

In each of these examples, we're looking for evidence of things we care about. Words (or bits), by themselves, aren't a good medium for honest signals because they aren't differentially expensive. False and/or low-quality sentences are just as easy to produce as true, high-quality sentences. To gauge honesty and/or quality, we have to look outside the words — to the economics of the process that produces them.

Getting information reliably from point A to point B also hinges on mediation. How many intermediate representations does the information pass through? And are any other agents putting their stamp on the information? Agency is disruptive because it acts as a lens, distorting information as it passes through a field of incentives. And agency is often difficult even to locate, as Mike Travers' catalogue so wonderfully demonstrates.

Incidentally, cutting out the middleman is the cornerstone of science. When I tell you something, as one scientist to another, there's an implied subtext: don't trust me! Or my words! Go check them yourself, against reality. It's a disintermediating move, one that helps maintain honesty across a huge network of agents with different agendas.

Taking the body seriously

As a matter of methodology, it's often wise to ignore words entirely. This is especially useful when trying to understand the human social world, which is rife with agency and deception. Instead we should focus our attention (whenever possible) on the underlying economics, which is ultimately grounded in physical, ecological, and biological reality.

The lynchpin of this enterprise is the human body. Everything that happens to us, and every action we take, passes through the body. It's the most immediate connection we have to external reality. And it's through the body — that fragile nexus of metabolism and reproduction — that we confront the scarcity of the physical world. As such, the body is uniquely positioned to send honest signals.

This is why skilled interrogators are trained to read nonverbal body language — facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, posture, and voice. As former FBI agent Joe Navarro writes,

Understanding the biological basis for body language will help you appreciate how nonverbal behavior works and why it is such a potent predictor of human thoughts, feelings, and intentions.... [The limbic system] is the part of the brain that reacts to the world around us reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought [i.e., unmediated]. For that reason, it gives off a true response to information coming in from the environment.

It's also worth noting that punishment (the basis for extended peace and cooperation) is inherently physical: confiscation of property, imprisonment, ostracism, corporal and capital punishment. Most people don't pay taxes out of an abstract sense of civic duty — they're afraid of men with guns showing up at their door. To the extent that words can be honest, it's because of the (explicit or implicit) threat of physical punishment, whether by the state or by one's peers.

The body is also important because it is primary. It comes first — both in phylogeny and ontogeny.

Our hominin ancestors had bodies well before they learned to use language, before they became properly, verbally self-conscious. (Before the Fall, if you will.) But lacking language didn't stop them from engaging in all manner of activities that require communication: hunting, confrontational scavenging, finding mates, forming political coalitions, etc. Instead they used honest signals grounded in physical and biological reality.

The body also precedes language and abstract thought during individual development. A child first comes to know the world through his or her body, and later developmental steps build on top of that understanding. As George Lakoff argues, our capacity for abstract thought is grounded in (conceptual) metaphor. We reason about abstract domains in terms of more concrete, embodied domains. "The very words which form the building blocks of explicit thought are themselves all originally metaphors, grounded in the human body and its experience," writes Iain McGilchrist, channeling Lakoff.

Finally, the body is the locus of emotion, the glue that holds relationships together. David Gelernter laments that online communities still haven't figured this out:

The physical body is not irrelevant to a human community. The emotional subtext of human communication is crucial to human thought. It isn't a footnote. Too many computer scientists don't understand this.

Demography is destiny. History is subject to geology. To this I would add: society is grounded in biology. But, as I will now argue, the modern world has become particularly disembodied. This is most pronounced in the West.

The Cartesian Delusion

By and large we [in the West] locate ourselves behind the eyes and somewhere between the ears. It is as if within the dome of the skull there was some sort of arrangement such as there is at the SAC Air Force headquarters in Denver, where men sit in great rooms surrounded with radar screens and all sorts of monitors, watching the movements of planes all over the world. So, in the same way, we have the idea of ourselves as a little man inside our heads, who has earphones on (which bring messages from the ears), and who has a television set in front of him (which brings messages from the eyes), and who has all sorts of electrodes all over his body (giving him signals from the hands and so on). And he has a panel in front of him with buttons and dials and things. So he more or less controls the body... but he isn't the same as the body.

Alan Watts calls this the "myth of the skin-encapsulated ego."

By 'myth' he doesn't mean falsehood, but rather an image or metaphor that affects how we think about the world on a very deep level.

'Skin-encapsulated egoism' is an organizing principle, if you will, for Western civilization. A shared fiction or collective delusion. A cultural frame we've been raised in, which shapes our inner mental lives and the societies we build for ourselves.

The myth of the skin-encapsulated ego — aka Cartesian dualism — is a decidedly disembodied worldview. It privileges the mind (or soul) and downplays the importance of the body. To make a caricature of it, Descartes would happily sit in a vat, cogitating and perhaps exchanging thought-packets with other Cartesian beings. His body is merely a vessel.

This way of looking at the world produces a disembodied consciousness. It's an abstract, analytical, representational, cerebral mode of experience, one in which our bodies (and the world beyond them) are incidental — mere tools for our minds to manipulate.

In contrast, an embodied consciousness is concrete, empathic, enactive, and visceral — the awareness of being a creature with a body situated and enmeshed in the world.

It's the difference between the kind of awareness required for finance, and the kind required for police work. The difference between a taking a math test and reading body language. The difference between linguistics and musicology. The difference between offline and online processing. The difference between self-consciousness and 'presence.' The difference between saying, "I have a body," and saying, "I am a body."

Embodied consciousness satisfies both of the criteria for honesty we discussed earlier. Because it is not mediated through the verbal, egoic parts of the brain, there's one fewer agent whose agenda you need to discount. And because it's anchored to the body, it's subject to the economic constraints of the physical world, making it easier to send and receive honest signals.

Of course, both embodied and disembodied consciousness exist simultaneously in any culture, and also (at various times) within any given person. But it's a matter of degree. How frequently and how deeply do we experience disembodied consciousness, vs. how frequently and deeply do we experience embodied consciousness?

The answer, I think, is that we experience disembodied consciousness more frequently, and more deeply, than at any other place or time.

WEIRD Culture

In 2010, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan made a splash in the behavioral sciences community with a paper entitled The weirdest people in the world? It's a critique of a rather large swath of the research agenda in modern experimental psychology, i.e., experimenting on Western college students and using the results to make pronouncements about 'universal' human tendencies.

The paper revolves around the concept of WEIRD, which stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. The problem is that WEIRD people are, well, odd. Along various dimensions, they sit at the extremes relative to people raised in all other types of societies. They have different ideas about fairness, cooperation, and punishment; about the self and its relation to others; and about conformity and personal choice. They reason differently about morality, taking a more analytical approach. They even have different patterns of visual cognition. WEIRD people literally see the world differently.

Jonathan Haidt summarizes it for us in The Righteous Mind:

Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.

Seeing separate objects is the hallmark of disembodied consciousness. Disembodiment produces distance and detachment, and the less you feel enmeshed in the world, the more likely you are to parse it with a clinical, analytic mindset.

Let's look at how each of the five WEIRD factors reinforces disembodied consciousness.

Western. In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington gives the following characteristics of Western civ: a Classical legacy, Catholicism and Protestantism, European languages, separation of spiritual and temporal authority, rule of law, social pluralism, representational bodies, and individualism. (He conveniently omits imperialism.)

Of these, the two most important for producing a sense of disembodiment are the rule of law (which we'll discuss in the section on democracy) and individualism. Individualism holds that people are isolated centers of awareness, action, responsibility, and moral worth. Relationships are seen as incidental features of the environment, not intrinsic to personal identity.

Educated. If modern education doesn't produce a very strange kind of consciousness, I don't know what does. Consider how unnatural classroom-based education is for a human creature. It's a comprehensive exercise in restraint, in training the mind to exert control over the body. We force our children to sit still for hours upon hours; to focus on boring, repetitive tasks; to control their impulses; to delay gratification; to use words and reasons instead of violence; to wake up at prescribed times; to move from place to place when a bell rings; to ask permission before going to the bathroom (think about that for a second). We systematically reward children for exerting control over their bodies and punish them when they don't — reinforcing the ego-centered neural pathways and starving the body-centered ones. This enterprise, which lasts for over a decade, exalts the mind as the owner and master of its body.

(I find it singularly amazing that in 13 years of public education in America, I received literally thousands of hours of instruction in math, science, writing, history, etc., but not a single lesson on how to interpret body language. It's as if our culture is scared of something — though I can't quite make out what.)

Industrialized. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx explored the implications of living in a highly specialized, heavily industrialized society. The result was his theory of alienation — disconnection and estrangement from one's own humanity. He identified and distinguished four types of alienation:

  • Alienation from the work product
  • Alienation from the work act
  • Alienation from the motivation for work
  • Alienation from fellow humans

To summarize his point: when your work becomes increasingly specialized, and when your body becomes an instrument (especially of external agency), you start to think of your body as a machine, as a tool. That's how the industrial system sees your body, after all, and when you spend enough years being worked by that system, you can't help but adopt its way of thinking.

If living in a world of bewildering social and technological complexity induces nausea, then working in an industrial economy induces alienation and detachment from the body. (And both fuel the desire to self-medicate.)

Rich. Wealth is an important part of the WEIRD complex because it insulates (alienates) us even further from the material conditions of our existence. Freed from resource constraints, the rich aren't threatened by leaking roofs, loan sharks, or the spectre of living on the street. Most of us manipulate paper, pixels, and bits for a living. We might wear metaphorical yokes, but few among us get paid for raw physical labor. In short: being rich makes our bodies increasingly irrelevant for getting along in the world.

Democratic. Democracy is, among other things, a rational process, by which I mean that reasons have at least some currency in the system. Powerful people can't do things simply because they're powerful. When their actions impinge on others, the norms of a democratic culture demand reasons. Those reasons won't always be good or sound (there's an art to justifying an a priori position: confabulation). But they will at least be reasons, not just threats of violence. However meager, this is progress — and another step in the direction of disembodiment.

Also crucial to democracy is the separation of office from office holder. Barack Obama, in the flesh, isn't really that important; most of his power lies in the Presidency itself. And this separation exists at all levels, not just at the top. But it wasn't always like this. In feudal societies, offices were hereditary. Kingdom and earldoms passed along genealogical lines. The office existed in the man; his physical person — and his loins — were paramount.

... In addition to the five WEIRD elements, I would add two others that have helped shape our disembodied consciousness: peace and secularism, by which I mean the absence of violence and religion. It's easy to see how violence cultivates an embodied worldview: fearing for your breath makes the body vivid in ways little else can. And religion has a similar effect, though it's a bit harder to see with WEIRD lenses on. So let's try to take them off.

Religion and the body

Religion has baffled me for nearly all of my adult life. Then, about a year ago, I had a realization: religion is not about beliefs.

In hindsight this should have been obvious. In trying to understand the phenomenon of religion, how could the (specific) beliefs matter? They're what makes each religion unique, different from all the others.

But I grew up in the West, and a hazard of the Western (disembodied) sensibility is to focus on the beliefs — those verbal, propositional units that yield to analysis. Either gods exist, or they don't. That's what religion is about, right? Who cares about the menagerie of bizarre rituals; they can't be particularly important.

I now maintain almost the exact opposite. Religion is a thin dross of verbal confabulation clinging to a bedrock of embodied practices. Talk is cheap. Behavior speaks louder than beliefs. And beliefs about the supernatural and/or esoteric are especially cheap, because those are precisely the domains where holding false beliefs doesn't cost anything. Say whatever you like about the afterlife, but be careful what you believe about tigers.

So what happens when we ignore the beliefs and focus instead on the behaviors?

Enter, again, the human body. Religions pertain to the body in all sorts of weird ways:

  • Funerary practices are quintessentially religious. Burial (the disposal of dead bodies) is cited as the oldest religious behavior.
  • There's no math in the Bible, but there's plenty of genealogy, food taboos, and rules about what you can do with your genitals. (Snicker if you must, but remember that monogamy makes for more stable, less violent societies.)
  • Nearly every religious ritual makes use of the body. This is so striking it warrants a list: kneeling, bowing, prostrating, holding hands, dancing, chanting, singing, wailing, quaking and shaking, congregating, meditating, wearing special clothes, shaving one's head, fasting, sharing meals, eating crackers, drinking wine, gathering around a fire, animal sacrifices, self-flagellation, circumcision, pilgrimage, yoga....

The fact that rituals are embodied serves a number of separate but complementary purposes. (1) It reinforces body-centered neural pathways and suppresses ego-centered ones (the exact opposite of modern classroom-based education). (2) It enables kinesthetic learning by connecting abstract ideas (especially ones of great social significance) to bodily experiences, and vice versa. And (3) it allows members of a group to send honest signals of their commitment, especially when the rituals involve an element of sacrifice (whether time, energy, or material resources).

Sosis and Alcorta elaborate on the use of honest signals in their wonderful survey paper, Signaling, Solidarity, and the Sacred:

Religions often maintain intragroup solidarity by requiring costly behavioral patterns of group members. The performance of these costly behaviors signals commitment and loyalty to the group and the beliefs of its members. Thus, trust is enhanced among group members, which enables them to minimize costly monitoring mechanisms that are otherwise necessary to overcome the free-rider problems that typically plague collective pursuits.

The point is, religions 'get' that the body plays an important role in human social life, and that it can be harnessed to help groups cohere. And they encode this understanding in the deepest parts of their DNA. This, along with the tribal nature of most religions, is what has enabled them to endure for millennia, outlasting almost every other institution on the planet.

We may object to the politics or epistemology of some modern religions, but if we trivialize or dismiss them, we're missing an opportunity to study how they have thrived for so long, and how we might apply those lessons in other areas of social life.

Toward an Embodied Worldview

As a shared fiction, the myth of Cartesian dualism is extremely useful. You might even say it's the stone in the stone soup of the West. As such, it's helped generate an incredible amount of peace, wealth, and technological progress, which we would be fools to forget.

But myths are necessarily lossy. By highlighting certain parts of reality, the disembodied, Cartesian worldview casts a shadow on other parts. It marginalizes important aspects of human nature, making them less prominent, less visible — but no less a reality.

It's those marginalized aspects of human nature — and of the societies we've built to hide them — that I want to explore over the course of this year. I want to pursue and reconnect with an embodied worldview, one that sees the human body as an important source of honesty in our increasingly abstract political and social lives.

It's not that I want to ignore or downplay the disembodied worldview, but I want to complement it with another, equally important perspective.

This is an extension of the project I started last time. In Anthropology of Mid-Sized Startups, I wrote

To fully appreciate what goes on at a growing startup, it pays to remember than an engineer is also a primate.

That's the right idea, but I'd like to expand the scope a bit. To fully appreciate the modern world, it pays to remember the world it grew out of — one more tightly anchored to the underlying physics, ecology, and biology.


Thanks to Alex Vartan for reading a draft of this essay. Image credit: Jolyon.

Originally published March 5, 2013.