Robert Kurzban: why everyone else is a hypocrite...

Posted: 02/07/2017 - 20:56

Robert Kurzban, Ph.D., an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the Psychology Department, is a proponent of evolutionary psychology as a key to understanding human behaviour in all of its complexity.

It’s an intriguing subject, made even more intriguing by the title of his first book, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. His point is that the key to understanding behavioural inconsistencies, both personally and in business, lies in understanding the mind's design. He explains: “The human mind consists of many specialised units designed by the process of evolution by natural selection. While these modules sometimes work together seamlessly, they don't always, resulting in impossibly contradictory beliefs, vacillations between patience and impulsiveness, violations of our supposed moral principles, and overinflated views of ourselves.”

Sound familiar?

In a TAM talk in 2014, Kurzban noted that the poet Walt Whitman was correct when he said that we all “contain multitudes.” This is not to say that we are all clinically schizophrenic, but we “contradict ourselves because we contain multitudes of specialised systems that are designed for different functions…and sometime those functions come into conflict. For instance, the “PR” part of our brain can often compete with specialised adaptations and strategic thinking. This might explain why politicians are often perceived as inconsistent or hypocritical.

In fact, he goes on to say that while we usually can recognise inconsistencies in others, we often cannot catch ourselves so easily in our own inconsistencies.

Kurzban’s book posits that his modular, evolutionary psychological view of the mind “undermines deeply held intuitions about ourselves, as well as a range of scientific theories that require a ‘self’ with consistent beliefs and preferences. Modularity suggests that there is no ‘I.’ Instead, each of us is a contentious ‘we’--a collection of discrete but interacting systems whose constant conflicts shape our interactions with one another and our experience of the world.”

Kurzban is on to something here, especially if you consider the difficulties and competing interests (and personalities) involved in forging strategic relationships. It is one reason why contracts often get bogged down in extensive protective and restrictive liability and risk provisions in attempts to make them “bulletproof”.

It also why a “getting to we” mindset, embodied in the book Getting to We, is a way to take agreement negotiations beyond the typical I-win-you-lose strategy to a consistent and collaborative place grounded in essential norms, or guiding principles. The premise provides a template for alignment among the parties by basing their relationship on a clear, unambiguous foundation of common social norms. The six social norms, or core guiding principles, which are based on trust, apply Vested’s “what's-in-it-for-we” (WIIFWe) business relationship approach and create a formal “Statement of Intent” that is embedded right up front into the contract: clearly setting out the intentions for how the parties should behave. The common set of principles - reciprocity, autonomy, honesty, equity, loyalty and integrity - drive cooperative, consistent and aligned behaviour. When one party strays, they simply need to pull out the Statement of Intent and gently remind the other party they have agreed to a set of behaviors with the intent to keep the relationship fair and balanced.

Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed in contract negotiations, but committing to the principles in the Getting to We process will nurture a partnership entity that can help the parties “evolve” their behavior to a non-contentious “we”.

About The Author

Kate Vitasek's picture

Kate Vitasek is an international authority for her award-winning research and Vested business model for highly collaborative relationships. She is the author of six books on the Vested model and a faculty member at the University of Tennessee. She has been lauded by World Trade Magazine as one of the “Fabulous 50+1” most influential people impacting global commerce.