One of the things that comes through loud and clear in the many modern neuroscience and psychology books I've read is that we humans are lousy at knowing why we act a certain way.
Experiments on split-brain patients, for example, where the connection between the two brain hemispheres has been severed, shows that even when the left side of the brain (which controls language) is unaware of the reason the right side did something, the patient will make up a "why" story that has no basis in fact.
We don't like to admit that we don't know. So the brain makes up reasons in an effort to make sense of the world, even when those reasons lack a connection to reality.
The legal system is behind the times in this regard, as evidenced by the talk after every mass shooting in the United States about it being important to learn the killer's motive.
This assumes a direct link between (1) what we do, and (2) a preceding conscious thought or emotion that impels us to engage in that action. This assumption is highly suspect, since there's a lot of evidence that conscious awareness is a caboose at the end of an Action Train, not the locomotive that leads the way.
After Robert Aaron Long killed eight people in Atlanta, six of them Asian women who worked at massage parlors, many commentators saw the murders as racially motivated. But police reported that after they talked with Long, he said that his killings stemmed from a sex addiction, not racial hatred.
Well, the plain scientific fact seems to be that Long can't accurately say why he killed those people, just as nobody else can accurately say why they did this or that -- except, perhaps, for the simplest of actions.
Here's an excerpt from the book I've been writing about recently, Robert Wright's "Why Buddhism is True."
The split-brain experiments powerfully demonstrated the capacity of the conscious self to convince itself that it's calling the shots when it's not. However, this demonstration was done with people who don't have normal brains. How about the rest of us, whose two hemispheres aren't separated? Do our brains actually make use of this capacity for self-deception?
There is good reason to believe the answer is yes.
In one much-cited experiment, the psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson asked shoppers to appraise four pairs of pantyhose and choose the best pair. It turned out people had a strong tendency to choose the pair on the far right.
But when asked why they had chosen the pair, they didn't say, "Because it's on the far right." They tended to explain their choices in terms of the quality of the pantyhose, sometimes going into detail about the fabric, the feel, and so on.
Unfortunately for these explanations, the four pairs of pantyhose were identical.
...At a minimum, it seems fair to say that the role of our conscious selves in guiding behavior is not nearly as big as was long thought. And the reason this role was exaggerated is that the conscious mind feels so powerful; in other words, the conscious mind is naturally deluded about its own nature.
...From natural selection's point of view, it's good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational self-aware actor. So whenever your actual motivations aren't accessible to the part of your brain that communicates with the world, it would make sense for that part of your brain to generate stories about your motivation.
There's good reason why the terms "implicit bias" and "systemic racism" are used so often in discussions of racial discrimination. People may consciously believe that they aren't racially biased, while actually they are.
Sometimes racism is subtle. Sometimes racism is so much a part of society that it goes unnoticed, being so familiar.
And sometimes, maybe most of the time, a mass shooter who kills a number of people of some race is unaware of why he did this. So I don't think investigators of the Atlanta shootings should put much credence in how Robert Aaron Long explains his murders.
Perhaps the law requires that a conscious motive be present for there to be a hate crime. But neuroscience and psychology don't require this -- quite the opposite, in fact.