Social cognition and “no-self”

To put it in more sociological terms: Reasons are social constructs. They are constructed by distorting and simplifying our understanding of mental states and of their causal role and by injecting into it a strong dose of normativity. Invocations and evaluations of reasons are contributions to a negotiated record of individuals’ ideas, actions, responsibilities, and commitments. This partly consensual, partly contested social record of who thinks what and who did what for which reasons plays a central role in guiding cooperative or antagonistic interactions, in influencing reputations, and in stabilizing social norms. Reasons are primarily for social consumption.

– Mercier and Sperber, The Enigma of Reason

It seems to me (but what do I know) that the things I cling to most tightly are the things I perceive as most inseparable from my unique self—memories (and the sense of having a sharp memory), quirks, moral traits, and as Mercier and Sperber remind me, reasons. Reasons on all tiers, for all objects: reasons for supporting decentralized governance, reasons for abstaining from pork, reasons for trusting A and not trusting B. Turns out, all of these things are inaccurate by design, hazy at best.

The good news is that even a momentary release from identification with them—whether experienced or merely conceived—feels very freeing. I want more of where that came from.

This is not to distort Mercier and Sperber (or any descriptive attempts at cognitive psychology) toward the end of an idealized post-self that overcomes its “deceptive” programming, and casts off the shackles of narrative once and for all. We are built to deal with our environment exactly as we need to, given the constraints of our evolutionary history. There is nothing sinister about this.

And even if there were, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought there was a way out. That said, our self-awareness shouldn’t be limited to the psych lab and the page. An honest appraisal of why we tell the stories we tell about ourselves reveals a bundle of fictions. What does that mean for that grand frame story, identity?

1. That it’s functionally important, and largely for social reasons.
2. That it’s not so important that we should let it hurt us.

The work of taking our attachments (and the I they add up to) less seriously is what we might call a “mental health hack”, with roots as far back as the Gangetic Plain, 2,500 years ago. Studying cognitive psychology, and chewing on its ideas, wherever we find ourselves, can be part of this work.

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