Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
- We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives—we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep “us,” our conscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others. Self-deception is therefore strategic, a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly. Understandably, few people are eager to confess to this kind of duplicity. But as long as we continue to tiptoe around it, we’ll be unable to think clearly about human behavior. We’ll be forced to distort or deny any explanation that harks back to our hidden motives. Key facts will remain taboo, and we’ll forever be mystified by our own thoughts and actions. It’s only by confronting the elephant, then, that we can begin to see what’s really going on.
- When we study how people interact with each other on the small scale—in real time and face to face—we quickly learn to appreciate the depth and complexity of our social behaviors and how little we’re consciously aware of what’s going on. These behaviors include laughter, blushing, tears, eye contact, and body language. In fact, we have such little introspective access into these behaviors, or voluntary control over them, that it’s fair to say “we” aren’t really in charge. Our brains choreograph these interactions on our behalves, and with surprising skill. While “we” anguish over what to say next, our brains manage to laugh at just the right moments, flash the right facial expressions, hold or break eye contact as appropriate, negotiate territory and social status with our posture, and interpret and react to all these behaviors in our interaction partners.
- The study of cognitive biases and self-deception has matured considerably in recent years. We now realize that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky—they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible prosocial motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At every single stage [of processing information]—from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others—the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.”5 Emily Pronin calls it the introspection illusion, the fact that we don’t know our own minds nearly as well as we pretend to. For the price of a little self-deception, we get to have our cake and eat it too: act in our own best interests without having to reveal ourselves as the self-interested schemers we often are.
- Humans are primates, specifically apes. Human nature is therefore a modified form of ape nature. And when we study primate groups, we notice a lot of Machiavellian behavior—sexual displays, dominance and submission, fitness displays (showing off), and political maneuvering. But when asked to describe our own behavior—why we bought that new car, say, or why we broke off a relationship—we mostly portray our motives as cooperative and prosocial. We don’t admit to nearly as much showing off and political jockeying as we’d expect from a competitive social animal. Something just doesn’t add up.
- When we study specific social institutions—medicine, education, politics, charity, religion, news, and so forth—we notice that they frequently fall short of their stated goals. In many cases, this is due to simple execution failures. But in other cases, the institutions behave as though they were designed to achieve other, unacknowledged goals. Take school, for instance. We say that the function of school is to teach valuable skills and knowledge. Yet students don’t remember most of what they’re taught, and most of what they do remember isn’t very useful. Furthermore, our best research says that schools are structured in ways that actively interfere with the learning process, such as early wake-up times and frequent testing.
The world is full of people acting on motives they’d rather not acknowledge. But most of the time, opposing interest groups are eager to call them out for it. For example, when U.S. bankers angled for a bailout during the 2008 financial crisis, they argued that it would benefit the entire economy, conveniently neglecting to mention that it would line their own pockets. Thankfully, many others stood ready to accuse them of profiteering. Similarly, during the Bush administration, U.S. antiwar protestors—most of whom were liberal—justified their efforts in terms of the harms of war. And yet when Obama took over as president, they drastically reduced their protests, even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued unabated.6 All this suggested an agenda that was more partisan than pacifist, and conservative critics were happy to point out the disconnect.
- Our Thesis in Plain English 1. People are judging us all the time. They want to know whether we’ll make good friends, allies, lovers, or leaders. And one of the important things they’re judging is our motives. Why do we behave the way we do? Do we have others’ best interests at heart, or are we entirely selfish? 2. Because others are judging us, we’re eager to look good. So we emphasize our pretty motives and downplay our ugly ones. It’s not lying, exactly, but neither is it perfectly honest. 3. This applies not just to our words, but also to our thoughts, which might seem odd. Why can’t we be honest with ourselves? The answer is that our thoughts aren’t as private as we imagine. In many ways, conscious thought is a rehearsal of what we’re ready to say to others. As Trivers puts it, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”8 4. In some areas of life, especially polarized ones like politics, we’re quick to point out when others’ motives are more selfish than they claim. But in other areas, like medicine, we prefer to believe that almost all of us have pretty motives. In such cases, we can all be quite wrong, together, about what drives our behavior.
- These three games—sex, politics, and social status—aren’t perfectly distinct, of course. They overlap and share intermediate goals. Sometimes the prizes of one game become instruments in another. To succeed in the mating game, for example, it often pays to have high status and political clout—while an attractive mate can, in turn, raise one’s social status. The three games also share some important structural similarities. As we’ve mentioned, they’re all competitive games where not everyone can win, and where unfettered competition has the potential to get nasty. This is especially true of both sex and social status in that there are only so many mates and friends to go around. But it’s also true of politics. Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule—especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of pie by cooperating—a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.
- The other important similarity is that each game requires two complementary skill sets: the ability to evaluate potential partners and the ability to attract good partners. In sex, the partners we’re looking for are mates. In social status, we’re looking for friends and associates. And in politics, we’re looking for allies, people to team up with.
When we evaluate others, we’re trying to estimate their value as partners, and so we’re looking for certain traits or qualities. In our mates, we want those with good genes who will make good parents. In our friends and associates, we want those who have skills, resources, and compatible personalities—and the more loyal they are to us, the better. And we’re looking for similar qualities in our political allies, since they’re basically friends chosen for a specific purpose. At the same time, in order to attract partners, we need to advertise our own traits—the same ones we’re looking for in others. By displaying, accentuating, and even exaggerating these desirable traits, we raise our own value, helping to ensure that we’ll be chosen by more and/or higher-quality mates, more and/or higher-status friends, and better coalitions. All of these competitions thereby result in arms races. Just as the redwoods are competing for light from the sun, we’re competing for the “light” of attention and affection from potential mates, friends, and allies. And in each game, the way to win is to stand out over one’s rivals.
- Both of these tasks—judging and being judged—are mediated by signals.
- Signals are said to be honest when they reliably correspond to an underlying trait or fact about the sender. Otherwise they are dishonest or deceptive. The temptation to deceive is ubiquitous. Deception allows an agent to reap benefits without incurring costs.
In the human social realm, honest signaling and the handicap principle are best reflected in the dictum, “Actions speak louder than words.”
- The problem with words is that they cost almost nothing; talk is usually too cheap. Which is a more honest signal of your value to a company: being told “great job!” or getting a raise?
- We rely heavily on honest signals in the competitive arenas we’ve been discussing—that is, whenever we try to evaluate others as potential mates, friends, and allies. Loyal friends can distinguish themselves from fair-weather friends by visiting you in the hospital, for example. Healthy mates can distinguish themselves from unhealthy ones by going to the gym or running a marathon. Initiates who get gang tattoos thereby commit themselves to the gang in a way that no verbal pledge could hope to accomplish. Of course, we also use these honest signals whenever we wish to advertise our own value as a friend, mate, or teammate. Note that we don’t always need to be conscious of the signals we’re sending and receiving. We may have evolved an instinct to make art, for example, as a means of advertising our artistic skills and free time (survival surplus)—but that’s not necessarily what we’re thinking about as we whittle a sculpture from a piece of driftwood. We may simply be thinking about the beauty of the sculpture.
- One thing that makes signaling hard to analyze, in practice, is the phenomenon of countersignaling. For example, consider how someone can be either an enemy, a casual friend, or a close friend. Casual friends want to distinguish themselves from enemies, and they might use signals of warmth and friendliness—things like smiles, hugs, and remembering small details about each other. Meanwhile, close friends want to distinguish themselves from casual friends, and one of the ways they can do it is by being unfriendly, at least on the surface. When a close friend forgets his wallet and can’t pay for lunch, you might call him an idiot. This works only when you’re so confident of your friendship that you can (playfully) insult him, without worrying that it will jeopardize your friendship. This isn’t something a casual friend can get away with as easily, and it may even serve to bring close friends closer together. Thus signals are often arranged into a hierarchy, from non-signals to signals to counter-signals. Outsiders to an interaction may not always be able to distinguish non-signals from counter-signals. But insiders usually know how to interpret them, if only on an intuitive level.
- When signals are used in competitive games, like sex, status, and politics, an arms race often results. In order to outdo the other competitors, each participant tries to send the strongest possible signal. This can result in some truly spectacular achievements: Bach’s concertos, Gauguin’s paintings, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, Rockefeller’s philanthropic foundation, and Einstein’s theories of relativity. And sometimes, like the redwoods, humans too compete to reach for the sky, whether by climbing Mount Everest, building pyramids and skyscrapers, or launching rockets to the moon.
- Part of our thesis is that these weaker norms, the ones that regulate our intentions, are harder to notice, especially when we violate them ourselves, because we’ve developed that blind spot—the elephant in the brain. For this reason, it pays to dwell on a few of them, to remind ourselves that there’s a lot of social pressure to conform to these norms, but that we would benefit from violating these norms freely, if only we could get away with it.
- There are at least four ways that self-deception helps us come out ahead in mixed-motive scenarios. We’ll personify them in four different archetypes: the Madman, the Loyalist, the Cheerleader, and the Cheater. The Madman “I’m doing this no matter what,” says the Madman, “so stay outta my way!” When we commit ourselves to a particular course of action, it often changes the incentives for other players. This is how removing the steering wheel helps us win the game of chicken, but it’s also why businesspeople, gang leaders, athletes, and other competitors try to psych out their opponents.
The Loyalist “Sure, I’ll go along with your beliefs,” says the Loyalist, thereby demonstrating commitment and hoping to earn trust in return. In many ways, belief is a political act. This is why we’re typically keen to believe a friend’s version of a story—about a breakup, say, or a dispute at work—even when we know there’s another side of the story that may be equally compelling. It’s also why blind faith is an important virtue for religious groups, and to a lesser extent social, professional, and political groups. When a group’s fundamental tenets are at stake, those who demonstrate the most steadfast commitment—who continue to chant the loudest or clench their eyes the tightest in the face of conflicting evidence—earn the most trust from their fellow group members. The employee who drinks the company Kool-Aid, however epistemically noxious, will tend to win favor from colleagues, especially in management, and move faster up the chain.
- The Cheerleader “I know this is true,” the Cheerleader says. “Come on, believe it with me!” This kind of self-deception is a form of propaganda. As Kurzban writes, “Sometimes it is beneficial to be . . . wrong in such a way that, if everyone else believed the incorrect thing one believes, one would be strategically better off.”32 The goal of cheerleading, then, is to change other people’s beliefs. And the more fervently we believe something, the easier it is to convince others that it’s true. The politician who’s confident she’s going to win no matter what will have an easier time rallying supporters than one who projects a more honest assessment of her chances. The startup founder who’s brimming with confidence, though it may be entirely unearned, will often attract more investors and recruit more employees than someone with an accurate assessment of his own abilities. When we deceive ourselves about personal health, whether by avoiding information entirely or by distorting information we’ve already received, it feels like we’re trying to protect ourselves from distressing information. But the reason our egos need to be shielded—the reason we evolved to feel pain when our egos are threatened—is to help us maintain a positive social impression. We don’t personally benefit from misunderstanding our current state of health, but we benefit when others mistakenly believe we’re healthy. And the first step to convincing others is often to convince ourselves. As Bill Atkinson, a colleague of Steve Jobs, once said of Jobs’s self-deception, “It allowed him to con people into believing his vision, because he has personally embraced and internalized it.”
- The Cheater “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the Cheater says in response to an accusation. “My motives were pure.” As we discussed in Chapter 3, many norms hinge on the actor’s intentions. Being nice, for example, is generally applauded—but being nice with the intention to curry favor is the sin of flattery. Similarly, being friendly is generally considered to be a good thing, but being friendly with romantic intentions is flirting, which is often inappropriate. Other minor sins that hinge on intent include bragging, showing off, sucking up, lying, and playing politics, as well as selfish behavior in general. When we deceive ourselves about our own motives, however, it becomes much harder for others to prosecute these minor transgressions. We’ll see much more of this in the next chapter. In other cases, it’s not our intentions that determine whether a norm was violated, but our knowledge. Learning about a transgression sometimes invokes a moral or legal duty to do something about it.34 If we see a friend shoplift, we become complicit in the crime. This is why we might turn a blind eye or strive to retain plausible deniability—so that, when questioned later, we’ll have nothing to hide. * * * * * Again, in all of these cases, self-deception works because other people are attempting to read our minds and react based on what they find (or what they think they find). In deceiving ourselves, then, we’re often acting to deceive and manipulate others. We might be hoping to intimidate them (like the Madman), earn their trust (like the Loyalist), change their beliefs (like the Cheerleader), or throw them off our trail (like the Cheater). Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive. Any particular act of self-deception might serve multiple purposes at once. When the mother of an alleged murderer is convinced that her son is innocent, she’s playing Loyalist to her son and Cheerleader to the jury. The prizefighter who is grossly overconfident about his odds of winning is playing both Cheerleader (to his fans, teammates, and other supporters) and Madman (to his opponent).
- Of all the signals sent and received by our bodies, the ones we seem least aware of are those related to social status. And yet, we’re all downright obsessed with our status, taking great pains to earn it, gauge it, guard it, and flaunt it. This is a source of great dramatic irony in human life. Because of their privileged position, high-status individuals have less to worry about in social situations.43 They’re less likely to be attacked, for example, and if they are attacked, others are likely to come to their aid. This allows them to maintain more relaxed body language. They speak clearly, move smoothly, and are willing to adopt a more open posture. Lower-status individuals, however, must constantly monitor the environment for threats and be prepared to defer to higher-status individuals. As a result, they glance around, speak hesitantly, move warily, and maintain a more defensive posture. High-status individuals are also willing to call more attention to themselves. When you’re feeling meek, you generally want to be a wallflower. But when you’re feeling confident, you want the whole world to notice. In the animal kingdom, this “Look at me!” strategy is known as aposematism.44 It’s a quintessentially honest signal. Those who call attention to themselves are more likely to get attacked—unless they’re strong enough to defend themselves. If you’re the biggest male lion on the savanna, go ahead, roar your heart out. The same principle explains why poisonous animals, like coral reef snakes and poison dart frogs, wear bright warning colors. They may not look too tough, but they’re packing heat. In the human realm, aposematism underlies a wide variety of behaviors, such as wearing bright clothes, sparkling jewelry, or shoes that clack loudly on the pavement. Wearing prominent collars, headdresses, and elaborate up-dos and swaggering down the street with a blaring boom box all imply the same thing: “I’m not afraid of calling attention to myself, because I’m powerful.”
When two people differ in status, both have to modify their behavior. Typically the higher-status person will take up more space, hold eye contact for longer periods of time.
- Speak with fewer pauses, interrupt more frequently, and generally set the pace and tenor of interaction.46 The lower-status person, meanwhile, will typically defer to the higher-status person in each of these areas, granting him or her more leeway, both physically and socially. In order to walk together, for example, the lower-status person must accommodate to match the gait of the higher-status person. Most of the time, these unconscious status negotiations proceed smoothly. But when people disagree about their relative status, nonverbal coordination breaks down—a result we perceive as social awkwardness (and sometimes physical awkwardness as well). Most of us have had these uncomfortable experiences, as, for example, when sitting across from a rival colleague, not quite knowing how to position your limbs, whether it’s your turn to talk, or how and when to end the interaction. An especially unconscious behavior is how we change our tone of voice in response to the status of our conversation partners. One study used a signal-processing technique to analyze 25 interviews on the Larry King Live show. The study found that Larry King adjusted his vocal patterns to match those of his higher-status guests, while lower-status guests adjusted their patterns to match his.47 A similar analysis was able to predict U.S. presidential election results. During debates, the relative social status of the two candidates—as measured by tone-of-voice accommodation—accurately predicted who would win the popular vote (if not the electoral college vote).
- Depending on the type of status at play in a given interaction—dominance or prestige—the participants will adopt different patterns of body language. This becomes especially clear when we consider eye contact. In contexts governed by dominance, eye contact is considered an act of aggression. It’s therefore the prerogative of the dominant to stare at whomever he or she pleases, while submissives must refrain from staring directly at the dominant. When a dominant and a submissive make eye contact, the submissive must look away first. To continue staring would be a direct challenge. Now, submissives can’t avoid looking at dominants entirely. They need to monitor them to see what they’re up to (e.g., in order to move out of their space). So instead, submissives resort to “stealing” quick, furtive glances.51 You can think of personal information as the key resource that dominant individuals try to monopolize for themselves. They use their eyes to soak up personal info about the other members of the group, but try to prevent others from learning about them. In contexts governed by prestige, however, eye contact is considered a gift: to look at someone is to elevate that person. In prestige situations, lower-status individuals are ignored, while higher-status individuals bask in the limelight.52 In this case, attention (rather than information) is the key resource, which lower-status admirers freely grant to higher-status celebrities.
- Many interactions, of course, involve both dominance and prestige, making status one of the trickier domains for humans to navigate. When Joan the CEO holds a meeting, for example, she’s often both the most dominant and the most prestigious person in the room, and her employees must rely on context to decide which kinds of eye contact are appropriate. Whenever Joan is talking, she’s implicitly asking for attention (prestige), and her employees oblige by looking directly at her. When she stops talking, however, her employees may revert to treating her as dominant, issuing the kind of furtive glances characteristic of submissives who hesitate to intrude on her privacy, and yet still wish to gauge her reactions to what’s happening in the meeting.
- Why do we continue working so hard? One of the big answers, as most people realize, is that we’re stuck in a rat race. Or to put it in the terms we’ve been using throughout the book, we’re locked in a game of competitive signaling. No matter how fast the economy grows, there remains a limited supply of sex and social status—and earning and spending money is still a good way to compete for.
- And it’s not just the products themselves that signal our good traits, but also the stories we tell about how or why we acquired them. Depending on what kind of story we tell, the same product can send different messages about its owner. Consider three people buying the same pair of running shoes. Alice might explain that she bought them because they got excellent reviews from Runner’s World magazine, signaling her conscientiousness as well as her concern for athletic performance. Bob might explain that they were manufactured without child labor, showing his concern for the welfare of others. Carol, meanwhile, might brag about how she got them at a discount, demonstrating her thrift and nose for finding a good deal.
The fact that we often discuss our purchases also explains how we’re able to use services and experiences, in addition to material goods, to advertise our desirable qualities.
- As consumers, we’re aware of many of these signals. We know how to judge people by their purchases, and we’re mostly aware of the impressions our own purchases make on others. But we’re significantly less aware of the extent to which our purchasing decisions are driven by these signaling motives. Most products offer a mix of personal value and signaling value. A car, for example, is simultaneously a means of transport and, in many cases, a coveted status symbol.
- Perhaps the most surprising consequence of Obliviation is that a lot of product variety would dry up. Consider the question of what to wear. In an Obliviated world, we’ll soon shift to the most functional and comfortable clothes. But we’ll also start wearing the same outfits, day in and day out. And if we happen to wear the same thing as our friends, family, and coworkers, it won’t bother us because we won’t even notice.19 Today there’s a stigma to wearing uniforms, in part because it suppresses our individuality. But the very concept of “individuality” is just signaling by another name.20 The main reason we like wearing unique clothes is to differentiate and distinguish ourselves from our peers. In this way, even the most basic message sent by our clothing choices—“I’m my own person, in charge of my own outfit”—would have no place or value in an Obliviated society.
- Similar standardization would occur in other product categories like cars and houses. Today, many people cringe at the idea of cookie-cutter homes. It’s somehow less dignified to live in a house that’s identical to all the other houses in the neighborhood, or to drive the same car as everyone else on the road. It conjures an image of a totalitarian society where everyone is forced to conform to the same, tired “choices.” In an Obliviated world, however, our choices wouldn’t be restricted by an oppressive government, but simply by our own indifference.
- Another compelling reason to switch to standardized goods is that they’d be significantly cheaper. The costs of manufactured goods can be broken down into fixed costs and marginal (or per-unit) costs. Fixed costs include things like designing the good and setting up the factory. Marginal costs include the price of raw materials and the energy and labor costs associated with running the factory. When a factory produces 10,000 goods to serve a niche market, the cost of the final product is dominated by fixed up-front costs. If the same factory instead cranks out 10 million copies, the fixed costs are amortized and the final cost plummets. To give one example, consider the difference between a basic black Hanes T-shirt, which you can buy for $4 through Amazon,21 and a uniquely designed, custom-printed T-shirt, which will cost you more than $20 through CustomInk. That’s a fivefold difference. If all of us were willing to wear identical black T-shirts, manufacturers could keep the same looms spinning out the same items at a tiny fraction of the cost.
- If lifestyle ads worked primarily by Pavlovian training, then we’d expect all product categories to make liberal use of them—even strictly personal products like brooms, peanut butter, and gasoline. A household cleaner like Lysol, for example, might market itself as high-end and luxurious, the kind of product that celebrities and upper-class people use to keep their homes in tip-top condition. Consumers would then, presumably, form an emotional association between Lysol and luxurious living, and be willing to pay a premium for it.
- But we rarely find such ads for personal products. Instead, a good rule of thumb is that the easier it is to judge someone based on a particular product, the more it will be advertised using cultural images and lifestyle associations.28 Keep in mind that a product doesn’t need to be literally visible to be judged. If you’re wearing perfume, someone might ask about it. When you go on vacation, you’re expected to tell stories about it. A digital music library is hard for others to “see,” but “What are your favorite bands?” is a common enough question, bringing the relevant information to the surface where it can be evaluated.
- The U.S. Marine Corps, for example, advertises itself as a place to build strength and character. In doing so, it’s not advertising only to potential recruits; it’s also reminding civilians that the people who serve in the Marines have strength and character. This helps to ensure that when soldiers come home, they’ll be respected by their communities, offered jobs by employers, and so forth.
- Miller argues that while ecological selection (the pressure to survive) abhors waste, sexual selection often favors it. The logic, as you may recall from Chapter 2, is that we prefer mates who can afford to waste time, energy, and other resources (see Box 14). What’s valuable isn’t the waste itself, but what the waste says about the survival surplus—health, wealth, energy levels, and so forth—of a potential mate.
As a fitness display, art is largely a statement about the artist, a proof of his or her virtuosity. And here it’s often the extrinsic properties that make the difference between art that’s impressive, and which therefore succeeds for both artist and consumer, and art that falls flat. If a work of art is physically (intrinsically) beautiful, but was made too easily (like if a painting was copied from a photograph), we’re likely to judge it as much less valuable than a similar work that required greater skill to produce. One study, for example, found that consumers appreciate the same artwork less when they’re told it was made by multiple artists instead of a single artist—because they’re assessing the work by how much effort went into it, rather than simply by the final result.
- Imagine that one of your friends, an artist, invites you over to see her latest piece. “It’s a sculpture of sorts,” she says. “Smooth swirls punctuated by sharp spikes. Rich pinks and oranges. Pretty abstract, but I think you’ll like it.” It sounds interesting, so you drop by her workshop, and there, perched on a pedestal in the center of the room, is the sculpture. It’s a delicate seashell-looking thing, and your friend is right, it’s beautiful. But as you move in for a closer look, you begin to wonder if it might actually be a seashell. Did she just pick it up off the beach, or did she somehow make it herself? This question is now absolutely central to your appreciation of this “sculpture.” Here your perceptual experience is fixed; whatever its provenance, the thing on the pedestal is clearly pleasing to the eye. But its value as art hinges entirely on the artist’s technique. If she found it on the beach: meh. If she used a 3D printer: cool. And if she made it by manually chiseling it out of marble: whoa!
- This way of approaching art—of looking beyond the object’s intrinsic properties in order to evaluate the effort and skill of the artist—is endemic to our experience of art. In everything that we treat as a work of “art,” we care about more than the perceptual experience it affords. In particular, we care about how it was constructed and what its construction says about the virtuosity of the artist.
- Consider our emphasis on originality in works of art. We prize originality and spurn works that are too derivative, however pleasing they might otherwise be to our senses or intellect. Here again, we betray our concern for using art to evaluate the artist. Insofar as art is a perceptual experience, it shouldn’t matter whether the artist copied another artist in producing the work, but it makes a world of difference in gauging the artist’s skill, effort, and creativity.
- The advent of photography wreaked similar havoc on the realist aesthetic in painting. Painters could no longer hope to impress viewers by depicting scenes as accurately as possible, as they had strived to do for millennia. “In response,” writes Miller, “painters invented new genres based on new, non-representational aesthetics: impressionism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism, abstraction. Signs of handmade authenticity became more important than representational skill. The brush-stroke became an end in itself.”
- Art originally evolved to help us advertise our survival surplus and, from the consumer’s perspective, to gauge the survival surplus of others. By distilling time and effort into something non-functional, an artist effectively says, “I’m so confident in my survival that I can afford to waste time and energy.” The waste is important. It’s only by doing something that serves no concrete survival function that artists are able to advertise their survival surplus. An underground bunker stocked with food, guns, and ammo may have been expensive and difficult to build (especially if it was built by hand), and it may well reflect the skills and resources of its maker. But it’s not attractive in the same way art is. The bunker reflects a kind of desperation of an animal worried about its survival, rather than the easy assurance of an animal with more resources than it knows what to do with.
Thus impracticality is a feature of all art forms. But we can see it with special clarity in those art forms that need to distinguish themselves from closely related practical endeavors. Consider the difference between clothing, which is a necessity, and fashion, which is a luxury. Fashion often distinguishes itself from mere clothing by being conspicuously impractical, non-functional, and sometimes even uncomfortable. “The history of European costume,” writes Alison Lurie, “is rich in styles in which it was literally impossible to perform any useful function: sleeves that trailed on the floor, . . . powdered wigs the size, color and texture of a large white poodle, . . . and corsets so tight that it was impossible to bend at the waist or take a normal breath.”42 Even today we encumber ourselves in the name of style. High heels, for example, are awkward for walking and brutal on the feet—which is precisely how they’re able to convey the message, “I care about fashion.” Neckties are utterly superfluous, of course, as are dangly earrings and elaborate updos. Meanwhile, durable, low-maintenance fabrics, like cotton or denim, don’t have nearly the same cachet as fabrics that are delicate and hard to clean, like silk, lace, or wool. And polyester? Please.
- Discernment becomes important not only for differentiating high quality from low quality (and good artists from mediocre ones), but also as a fitness display unto itself. The fact that the princess could feel the pea, even under the mattresses (i.e., when handicapped), is itself an impressive feat, a mark of her high birth. We spend an incredible amount of our leisure time refining our critical faculties in this way. Rarely are we satisfied simply to sit back and passively enjoy art (or any other type of human achievement for that matter). Instead we lean forward and take an active role in our experiences. We’re eager to evaluate art, reflect on it, criticize it, calibrate our criticisms with others, and push ourselves to new frontiers of discernment. And we do this even in art forms we have no intention of practicing ourselves. For every novelist, there are 100 readers who care passionately about fiction, but have no plans ever to write a novel. Thus discernment, artistic or otherwise, is a critical skill, and yet it can be something we take for granted, in part because we do it so effortlessly. Think about how rarely we’re impressed by truly unimpressive people. When it happens, we feel as though we’ve been taken in by a charlatan. It can even be embarrassing to demonstrate poor aesthetic judgment. We don’t want others to know that we’re inept at telling good art from bad, skilled artists from amateurs. This suggests that we evaluate each other not only for our first-order skills, but for our skills at evaluating the skills of others.