The benefit to being right


Jason Collins


May 25, 2011

In all the debates about human biases, I like to believe that there is some benefit to being right. There must be some evolutionary benefit to knowing the true state of the world (on average). That is not to say that the benefits will always outweigh the costs, as the aim is to reproduce. Attracting a mate or surviving within a group may require holding some beliefs, such as religion. However, knowing that the snake will kill you will have fitness benefits.

Hitting on this subject, John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts has a guest post up at Scientific American on the evolution of common sense. He puts the problem nicely:

With philosopher Paul Griffiths, I call this the Darwin’s Monkey Brain Problem: how can we rely upon a cognitive apparatus which had not evolved for finding out about the world, but instead for the purpose of getting primates laid?

Wilkins splits beliefs into moral, religious and environmental. On moral and religious beliefs, he states:

In the case of moral values, fitness is clearly at least in part down to our behaviour being acceptable to those around us, so that we do not suffer sanctions, and gain assistance when we need it. We are adapted to interpersonal and social interactions.

In the case of religious claims, as Griffiths and I argue, our beliefs are more likely to be fitness enhancing for much the same reasons as moral beliefs – they avoid our being censured, perhaps even executed as apostates or heretics, and increase our likelihood of receiving aid when we are in dire straits.

Beyond the benefits arising within a group, some religious or moral beliefs directly increase fitness. For example, a belief that contraception is not allowed may be fitness enhancing. Even activities that may be wasteful, such as participating in religious observances, might play a role as conspicuous leisure or consumption. The waste signals wealth or status to potential mates.

For environmental beliefs, Wilkins notes that there is generally direct feedback:

It seems likely that some beliefs – let us call them environmental beliefs – gain fitness because they track, if not exactly truth, then satisfactory ecological correlations. Obviously, if you believe there is a cliff in front of you, and there is, then you will tend not to leap over it, and your fitness is thereby enhanced. If you believe that rustling in the undergrowth is a leopard, and take evasive action, you are fitter than the poor thinker who takes a Plantingan line and treats it as a mere Kantian construct.

Some interesting questions arise when we come to debates about issues such as climate change. How are our minds shaped to deal with these questions and what are the fitness consequences of being right? Issues such as climate change seem to fall increasingly in the religious or moral categories. There are benefits of fitting in with a group. Truth seeking may not be the best fitness enhancing strategy. Further, it is hard to find any direct fitness consequences of being on either side of the climate debate. Our belief is unlikely to have fitness consequences, unless someone decides they have a particular interest in beach-side real estate.

I don’t find that very encouraging for my hope that there are benefits to being right (apart from personal smugness - although even that does not require that you are right, only that you believe you are right). I think the best bet is that, eventually, the consequences of climate change are so obvious that some people amend their beliefs to avoid signalling low intelligence. However, given how long people have held out in the evolution and creationism debates, this might be a rather long shot.