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John Edwards’ Modular Mind

May 3, 2012
This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons

The trial of former U. S. Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards began last week in federal court in North Carolina.  Edwards is accused of using campaign contributions to cover up an affair with Rielle Hunter during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. The prosecution contends that because the money was used to protect Edwards’ campaign against the damage that public knowledge of the affair would inflict, it was subject to federal campaign laws. Who would have guessed that financial support for one’s mistress is now regarded as a campaign expense?

Even in an era in which we are rarely shocked by scandal, Edwards’ tale is particularly sordid. Not only did he have an affair while running for President of the United States, but he fathered a child with Hunter that Edwards repeatedly denied was his. On top of that, Edwards asked his aide, Andrew Young, to claim paternity of the child and convinced Young and his wife to take Hunter in to keep her out of the public eye. And, all of this drama played out while his wife, Elizabeth, was battling breast cancer that would take her life less than two years later.

In his book, Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite, Robert Kurzban offers a new perspective on instances in which people behave in such unethical, hypocritical, and self-defeating ways. As an evolutionary social psychologist, Kurzban begins with evolutionary psychology’s assumption that the mind consists of many individual mental processes that can be compared to cell phone applications or software subroutines. Each of these modules handles a specific processing task and operates according to its own goals and logic. So, for example, we may have modules that calculate risks, react to toxic substances, manage our sexual urges, make ethical judgments, respond to instances in which we are treated unfairly, and so on.

People are not consciously aware of most of the processes that occur in these cognitive modules. Although we are attuned to some of what goes on in our brains, most of the brain’s activities influence our motives, emotions, thoughts, and behavior without us being conscious of them at all. As a result, we do many things without really knowing why (although we can usually generate a plausible story) and even while adamantly claiming that we are not being driven by motives that are obvious to everyone else. We simply do not have conscious access to the workings of most of our processing modules.

Although some of these processing modules are interconnected in ways that allow them to communicate with and influence one another, many of them operate independently.  According to Kurzban, the fact that the human mind is composed of many separate modules makes people naturally inconsistent. To give just one example, the module that maintains our ethical principles may assert moral judgments that other people have rewarded in the past, while the module that manages our reactions to sexual temptations may operate according to quite different principles with little or no input from the ethics module. Each module has a job to do, which it carries out without much regard for what other modules are doing.

And, although modules sometimes coordinate their activities, there is no master process that oversees all of them. Most of us feel that there is a central manager inside us somewhere – a little “me” who controls our behavior – but there’s not one “person” inside of us who is in charge of coordinating all of our actions. Instead, Kurzban argues that our thoughts, motives, emotions, and behaviors reflect the outputs of a loose confederacy of modules, and there’s no final arbiter when modules operate at cross purposes. Instead, which module dominates on a particular occasion is determined by a broad array of factors both inside and outside the individual. Today, our behavior may be controlled easily by our ethical beliefs, whereas tomorrow our sexual modules may hold sway. To an outsider, our behavior would appear inconsistent and perhaps hypocritical, but these responses simply reflect the influence of different modules.

So, let’s look inside John Edwards’ modular mind. To oversimplify greatly, the modules that manage his ethical beliefs are functionally distinct from those that control his sexual urges, and those are distinct from those that control his ambition, which are distinct from those that manage his feelings toward Elizabeth, his relationships with Rielle Hunter and Andrew Young, and his public impression management strategies. Each module operates according to principles that have been influenced by evolutionary processes, his unique genetic make-up, his personal experiences, and the situations in which he finds himself. And, clearly, the various modules are not working in concert, leading to a series of inconsistent, hypocritical, and self-defeating actions.

Popular explanations of unethical misbehaviors sometimes suggest that the person was fooling him- or  herself about the morality of the behavior, the likelihood of getting caught, or his or her ability to escape punishment.  The assumption is that no one would engage in such self-defeating actions without a good deal of self-deception.  Yet, self-deception has been very difficult to explain because it implies that one part of a person actively hides the truth from some other part.  But no one has been able to explain what these separate parts could possibly be, or how one part of someone’s mind can deceive another part.  Kurzban hypothesizes that what appears to be self-deception occurs because some modules conceal their activities from other modules.  If we assume that a module of which a person is consciously aware is itself not in communication with another module of which the person is not aware, two parts of a single brain could both know and not-know something at the same time without any deception at play.  Clearly, various parts of Edwards’ modular mind were not talking to each other.

John Edwards’ actions were particularly staggering in their level of irresponsibility, indulgence, callousness, duplicity, and downright stupidity. But, at their psychological core, they are not fundamentally different from what all of us do. We each occasionally behave in ways that violate our moral beliefs, say things that we know are not true, present images of ourselves that differ from how we really are, and behave in ways that we know are unwise. From an evolutionary standpoint, there’s no reason that the operation of a particular module should necessarily be consistent with other modules. We may try to impose consistency on ourselves or on other people, but consistency is not inherent in the mind’s design. Human beings are, in Kurzban’s words, “consistently inconsistent.”

Taking a modular view of the human mind does not explain why Edwards behaved precisely as he did, and offering a scientific explanation certainly doesn’t excuse his actions (Miller, Gordon, & Buddie, 1999).  But, it does help us understand that inconsistency – between ethical beliefs and behavior, between what one says and what one does, and between different actions at different times – is to be expected.

Smooth, effective, and satisfying social relationships may require people to insist that others act in accordance with their stated beliefs and intentions and to display a reasonable degree of consistency across situations and time. And, because we realize that being viewed as principled and consistent is important in social relations, each of us tries to avoid appearances of inconsistency. But these are social mandates, not biological ones. Because the modular mind is inherently inconsistent, managing the brain’s natural hypocrisy is an ongoing challenge for all of us.


Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Miller, A. G., Gordon, A. K., & Buddie, A. M. (1999). Accounting for evil and cruelty: Is to explain to condone?  Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 254-268.


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