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Open for Debate

Thoughts for Sale

5 September 2022

My father spent his career working in production for large bakeries, supervising and troubleshooting the mass production of bread and buns. He would get up at 5:00 in the morning, put on his “whites,” and head to work with his blue helmet in tow. Workers at his plant fell into one of two major categories: production or sales. Production was all about making a quality product – hot dog buns for the 4th of July. Sales was about convincing people to buy it. The plant managers who ran the entire operation invariably were drawn from sales. I resented this – for my father’s sake – as I thought that actually making a product is more important than selling it.

Nowadays, your average pharmaceutical rep makes twice as much as the chemist who produces the medicine. There is more money to be made by being skilled at taking doctors out for golf and drinks than there is in mastering chemistry. Once again, sales over production.

This emphasis on sales is not only an economic reality. Rather, it is a deep fact of life that pervades nature itself. We see this with the distinction, central to biological theory, between natural selection and sexual selection. Natural selection is the mechanism by which traits that are conducive to survival are shaped and differentially replicate. Birds that are swift at flight and which have excellent eyesight are at a competitive advantage. This is production, the making of a quality biological product. Sexual selection is about the selection of traits that are conducive to success on the mating market. Even if an overly large and ornate tail feather impedes a peacock’s chances of surviving, it increases its chances on the dating scene. It is all about sales – convincing peahens to “buy” the product. And so much is invested into such salesmanship! (Technically, sexual selection is a form of natural selection. But its role is so important and distinctive that it deserves its own category, mirroring the sales divisions that we find in the business world.)

These observations should be old hat. What I do not think is old hat, however, is the observation that our minds are also designed with both production and sales in mind. A growing group of philosophers and cognitive scientists have started to argue that the mind – like a business that needs sales – is shaped to perform social functions. For my own part, I have focused on belief – how we represent the world in thought. It has long been assumed that we have beliefs to help us better navigate the world and achieve our goals by aiding means-end reasoning. This is why we value the truth so much: true beliefs make us more successful at getting what we want. You will make better dietary decisions if you have true beliefs about the nutritional value of foods, better financial decisions if the earnings reports you receive are true, and so on. Like swiftness and keen eyesight for birds, true beliefs make us more fit for our environments. When Mother Nature produces minds, she should favor brains that accurately track the truth just like my father favored loaves of bread that weren’t defective.

But beliefs are not only private and personal states that guide our actions. Other people detect our beliefs and care about them. Beliefs are detected through a process that psychologists and philosophers call mindreading. While this might sound like a superpower, it is a completely natural and common ability for human beings. We read people’s minds – that is, figure out what they believe, want, and feel – by listening to their words, considering their behavior, scrutinizing their facial expressions, and so on. And we care about what other people think. We treat people differently based on the beliefs that we attribute to them. “I don’t want to be friends with someone who believes that a woman’s place is in the kitchen!” “I want to hire him, because he believes in himself!” “That person is like me – she knows that Covid is a hoax.”

In all these ways, the beliefs that are attributed to someone change how they are treated. This introduces selection pressure on the beliefs. Certain beliefs can be favored not because they are accurate (even if they are accurate!) but because they are popular, convey confidence, indicate a tribal identity, and so on. This is where salesmanship becomes important to shaping the mind. A certain brand of bread might sell well because the bakery has built strong relationships with the local grocery stores, not because the bread itself is especially good. Similarly, certain thoughts will be selected (hardwired, imitated, or learned) because they are socially desirable whether or not they are true.

These social functions for belief introduce distortions, just like sexual selection distorts the size and color of tail feathers. Beliefs might move away from the truth just like the feather moves away from the ideal form for flight. But there are some differences. First, beliefs are not distorted merely to better secure mates. They are also distorted to land jobs, make friends, or show loyalty. Second, beliefs are not only distorted through biological evolution, but also by cultural evolution and individual learning. We are shaped and rewarded to have beliefs that garner social benefits.

The pressure of salesmanship introduces liabilities as well as benefits. Your Covid skepticism might benefit you in social settings in which that belief is dominant. But it also harms you when it causes you to say no to the vaccine. Your unwarranted confidence might impress others and land you a job. But it also can lead you to take on tasks that are beyond your true abilities. In reckoning these tradeoffs, the costs incurred by deviating from the truth should not exceed the social benefits.

Elsewhere, I have argued that we should think of many beliefs with social functions as literally being signals. The purpose of a red traffic light is purely communicative: it exists to let drivers know that they need to stop. Likewise, we believe some things only to communicate facts about ourselves to others. Someone might believe in the Trinity only because it communicates their Christian identity. Someone might deny anthropogenic climate change because it communicates that they are a committed Republican. Someone might believe that the vaccine is ineffective because it shows their loyalty to President Trump.

I do not think that people are consciously aware of their motives for believing in these ways. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of self-deception at work. There are real incentives to have these beliefs and process information to support pre-established conclusions. We surrender truth for the sake of the social benefits that our beliefs communicate. We are willing to put our thoughts up for sale. This is not always dangerous. But when it is, the remedy is not merely to provide better information, since people have incentives to dismiss or rationalize away whatever evidence we might provide them. Instead, we need to change the incentives so that the social benefits of distorted belief fade or accurate belief is recognized as being more valuable. Just as we should engineer our economic world so that well-made products prevail, we must engineer our information and social networks so as to disincentivize reckless belief signaling.

Picture: Navy baker and assistant removing loaves of bread from oven at the Naval Training Center, San Diego, California from Wikimedia Commons


  1. Richard Miller

    I love this essay. Could I share a link to it with my students?

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