An Idle and Most False Imposition: Truth-Seeking vs. Status-Seeking and the Failure of Epistemic Vigilance

Philosophic Exchange 2023 (2023)
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The theory of epistemic vigilance posits that -- to quote the eponymous paper that introduced the theory -- “humans have a suite of cognitive mechanisms for epistemic vigilance, targeted at the risk of being misinformed by others." Despite the widespread acceptance of the theory of epistemic vigilance, however, I argue that the theory is a poor fit with the evidence: while there is good reason to accept that people ARE vigilant, there is also good reason to believe that their vigilance is NOT epistemic. Rather, the evidence actually supports an alternative theory, one that I dub the theory of "Machiavellian vigilance": humans have a suite of cognitive mechanisms for Machiavellian vigilance, targeted at tracking others' relative social status and maintaining or enhancing one's own status. The evidence against epistemic vigilance stems from three sources: (a) data demonstrating that people are terrible at detecting honesty or competence, (b) data demonstrating that our vigilance is phylogenetically prior to the development of homo sapiens, and therefore was not designed to be sensitive to linguistic communication, and (c) data demonstrating that people's sources of information are distributed, and not detectable through individual vigilance. The evidence in favor of Machiavellian vigilance is the mirror image of the evidence against epistemic vigilance: (a) data demonstrating that people are very accurate at detecting status, (b) data demonstrating that social species, including bonobos and chimps, track the social status of their conspecifics, and (c) data demonstrating that people can quickly track status even in new social groups.

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Joseph Shieber
Lafayette College


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