Be Wary of Collective Explanations, Too

Last week I wrote about confabulations. This phenomenon is understood well and has been well documented in individual behavior. But perhaps it’s not emphasized enough in our collective behavior.

Every society has its own creation myth, for example. This phenomenon, on its surface, would seem to be a collective confabulation. This is a collective decision to explain something that happened in the past that didn’t actually happen. And such myths are a cultural universal.

This happens all the time. And It’s not just about religion. It happens in secular institutions as well. Some of you may be familiar with Robin Hanson’s essay about how, “Politics isn’t about policy.” Hanson’s writing is heavily focused on explaining “why we believe what we do, and why we pretend otherwise.”

Hanson wrote:

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

But whereas Hanson states outright that “school isn’t about learning,” and “charity isn’t about helping,” I think, as with most human explanations, and as Cushman says, the real motivations for our social institutions are only partially explained by our stated motivations. It isn’t that our stated explanations are total shams, it’s that they’re only partially true.  

School is about learning social order, learning how to play by the rules, and it is the most common form of childcare. But it is also the place where most children do most of their actual learning. Much of charity is about the donor looking good and signaling virtue to their neighbors and community. But it is also the way that we tend to the needs of many of the least fortunate among us.

All of our collective myths include an element of reality from our actual experience to make them more credible. That’s what makes them all the more powerful.