PGS Dialogue: Robert Kurzban, author of Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite

In the last PGS Dialogue, I wrote “Math is everywhere,” and now I find that, with a small modification, this short statement is as applicable to the subject of this Dialogue as the last. I could just as easily write “Hypocrisy is everywhere” and still be on solid ground.

Robert Kurzban, author of Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, spoke with editor Eric Schwartz about his new book, his research, and of course, what might be on the horizon.



How did you arrive at your field of research?

I was lucky enough to have the chance to learn from so many people – and arriving at a research destination is always about the people who take you there – that it’s difficult to say how I arrived. I’ll highlight three stops along the way that stand out to me. Going back to the beginning, as an undergraduate preparing to major in biology, I learned two key lessons. First, that organisms are incredibly specialized to exploit their niches and, second, that inhaling ether in a fruit fly lab was not going to lead me to a satisfying and fulfilling life. Next, in graduate school, a biological anthropologist and a cognitive scientist – my advisers – showed me how the lessons I learned in my biology classes could shed new light on human social behavior. In many ways, my graduate education is reflected in the subtitle of the book, “evolution and the modular mind.” The third stop was a workshop I was lucky enough to attend in which a bunch of really smart people discussed some really interesting issues about human behavior and made really little progress. What was clear from the workshop is that we humans are really inconsistent creatures, and modularity – the idea that the mind consists of a large number of different parts – helps to make sense of why. This book, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, takes ideas from my particular academic journey to explain some puzzling aspects of human behavior. (I might have mentioned a fourth stop along the way. I spent some time working for Disney – long story – and worked on a show called Cranium Command. The attraction explains how the mind is made up of a lot of different parts. Did a theme park attraction influence my academic path? *Shrug*)

What is the most surprising finding in your research?

A lot of people don’t want other people to use recreational drugs. This is so obviously true that it’s easy to miss the fact that psychologists still don’t really know why this is. So, recently, some collaborators and I ran a study designed to try to figure it out. Most people would probably think that opposition to recreational drugs comes from being a conservative, or highly religious, or from some other philosophical commitment. We had a different idea. So, we measured people’s opposition to drugs, their politics, and – the heart of the theory that started this research program – their sexuality, including things such as views toward casual sex, number of prior sexual partners, and so on. From our data, it turns out that if you want to try to predict whether someone opposes drugs, the best questions to ask them – other than, you know, whether or not they oppose drugs – isn’t their political party, but something considerably more personal. (The final version of the book was written before these findings were all in, but the explanation for this link is in Chapter 9.)

Where do you see your work leading you in the future?

Well, if I knew where it was leading, I guess it wouldn’t be “research” – off into the unknown and all that – but I can say that there are two questions that I’m excited to be pursing. The first one is about morality. Along with graduate students past and present, I’ve been working to understand the function of morality. To return to the question above, people moralize all sorts of things other people want to do, and we’d like to understand why that is (and, maybe, what we can do about it). The second line of work asks why people seem to like some sorts of scientific explanations – neuroscience is currently all the rage – but dislike other kinds. This dislike is tangible; as an evolutionary psychologist, I not infrequently have people who have no training as scientists inform me, with quiet, serious confidence, that my field is not, in fact, a science. It’s unclear why this is, and one thing I’d like to do is to understand such people and figure out what, exactly, their problem is.