Near Mindedness Vs. Far Mindedness

Robin Hanson explores the causes and nature of our double-mindedness that makes us talk a good game about long term goals and make grand long term commitments only to default to short term preferences in practice:

All animals need different ways to reason about things up close vs. far away.  And because humans are especially social, our forager ancestors evolved especially divergent near and far minds. Far minds could emphasizepresenting an idealized image to others, while near minds could focus on managing our less visible actions. Homo hypocritus could see himself from afar, and sincerely tell himself and others that when it mattered he would do the honorable thing. Even if in fact he’d probably act less honorably.

One reason this was possible was that foragers had pretty weak commitment mechanisms. Yes, they could promise future actions, but they rarely coordinated to track others’ promises and violations, or to organize consistent responses.  So forager far minds could usually wax idealistic without much concern for expensive consequences.

In contrast, farmer norms and social institutions could better enforce commitments. But instead of generically enforcing all contacts, to give far minds more control over farmer lives, farmers were careful to only enforce a limited range of commitments. Cultural selection evolved a set of approved standard commitments that better supported a farmer way of life.

Even today, our legal systems forbid many sorts of contracts, and we generally distrust handling social relations via explicit flexible contracts, rather than via more intuitive social interactions and standard traditional commitments. We are even reluctant to use contracts to give ourselves incentives to lose weight, etc.

Hanson’s practical takeaway:

encouraging folks to commit more to decisions ahead of time should result in actions being driven more by our more idealistic far minds. In your far mind, you might think you’d like this consequence. But when you take concrete actions, your near mind will be in more control, making you more wary of this grand idealistic plan to get more grand idealism.  Our hypocritical minds are a delicate balance, a intricate compromise between conflicting near and far tendencies. Beware upsetting that balance, via crude attempts to get one side to win big over the other.

Your Thoughts?