The evolutionary logic of overconfidence

People in general are overconfident, excessively optimistic and think of themselves as superior to others.

How can I say such a thing?

Ask anyone with a license to rate their driving abilities, and most people will tell you that they are above average. However, this is not just an isolated case of cocky drivers. The same effect is found when asking people to assess their own intelligence, evaluate their attractiveness, or reflect on how kind they are.

survey of American school students, which received over 1 million responses, found that no less than 70% rated themselves as above average leaders. Conversely, only 2% of these students stated they are actually below average.

This all begs the question; why do we think more highly of ourselves than who we really are?

To explain the prevalence of overconfidence, psychologists have historically pointed to the mental health benefits of positive illusions— such as maintaining self-esteem, or helping reduce anxiety about an uncertain future. In other words, that these biases protect us from threatening information.

However, a more intriguing explanation has been proposed by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers.

Robert Trivers is widely known as the ‘bad ass’ of evolutionary biology, for his antics both in and outside of academia. However, this reputation has not diminished his scientific contributions. Steven Pinker has described Trivers as “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought”, and Time magazine has named him one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century.

In his book The Folly of Fools, Trivers argues that a glowing view of  the self makes others see us in the same light— leading to more cooperative and romantic opportunities in life. This is because self-deception requires no conscious input, which therefore eliminates any tell tale signs of lying– ultimately making one more convincing when trying to persuade others. In other words, these positive illusions evolved not to protect us from threatening information per se, but rather to help us persuade others of our superiority.

The logic of the theory is as follows: deception is a fundamental aspect of communication. Those of our ancestors who were better at detecting deception were at an advantage, causing an evolutionary arms race in deception and detection. As a result, self-deception evolved to better mask deception, “hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others”.

Trivers argues that we fool ourselves in all realms of life— when overestimating our looks or abilities, when justifying our beliefs, or when convincing ourselves that a lie we’ve told is actually true. Apparently, it’s all part of advancing our own agendas.

Although Trivers formulated his theory back in 1970s, only recently has it begun receiving empirical support. Fundamentally, as we don’t have access to people’s private beliefs, we can’t say with certainty whether someone is actually lying or deceiving themselves (from the best of my knowledge, we’re yet to develop a mind-reading machine). This makes testing such a hypothesis particularly tricky.

But it isn’t impossible. Answering a call to arms, economists Peter Schwardmann and Joël van der Weele have recently published a paper in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, which successfully tackled this challenge.

Put your money where your mouth is

So, how do you measure people’s beliefs about their own abilities if you’re unable to read their minds? Peter and Joël’s simple yet ingenious idea was this: get people to bet on their own performance.

To elaborate, Peter and Joël conducted experiments where contestants essentially bet on their performance on an intelligence test. This meant that people had money at stake for accurate assessments of their intellectual performance.

However, there was a twist.

To see if introducing opportunities for social gain induced self-deception, some of the participants were invited to a speed-dating style interview with a panel of ’employers’. Here, the contestants were awarded more money if they could convince the employers that they were actually a top performer (whilst still not knowing their results on the intelligence test, which were provided to them at the end of the experiment).

Of course, there’s two sides of the coin— are people actually fooled by overconfidence?

As with the contestants completing their initial assessments, the employers were asked to essentially bet on who the top performers on the intelligence test were. This meant that the employers also had money at stake when deciding who actually performed well (in other words, their bullshit detectors were well calibrated).

The research team had another trick up their sleeves.

Before the interviews, each contestant received cryptic feedback on their performance on the intelligence test, and were then asked to reevaluate their performance in light of this feedback. This allowed the researchers to see if contestant’s overconfidence influenced the employer’s judgements of them— as their feedback had a direct and measurable impact on the contestant’s confidence levels.

Once the interviews came to a close, employers were given a few seconds where they could scrutinise contestants’ body language and facial expressions. Employers were asked to write down what each contestant said, and how well they think each performed on the intelligence test. The employers were also asked to evaluate how honest, likeable, attractive and confident they thought each contestant was.

In total, 688 German students participated in these series of experiments (410 women and 278 men).

Fooling yourself the better to fool others 

So, what did they find?

Peter and Joël found that overconfident contestants received higher evaluations from the employers. In other words, those who privately bet that their performance was relatively high were seen as higher performers on the intelligence test.

The researchers were able to isolate the impact of contestants receiving a noisy yet positive signal before their interviews (that is, cryptic feedback suggesting superior performance). Contestants who received a positive signal subsequently received higher evaluations from employers– even when controlling for their actual test scores. What this means is that overconfidence caused contestants to receive higher ratings from the employers— independent of their actual performance on the intelligence test.

Finally, the contestants invited to the speed-dating style interviews were noticeably more confident than those who didn’t participate. That is, people became overconfident when they were given the opportunity to profit from persuading others.

In summary, Peter and Joël found that overconfidence pays. The contestants who were more confident received higher rating from the employers, and therefore won more money. Likewise, they showed that opportunities to profit from persuasion induced overconfidence—  and they were also able to tease cause from effect (that it was overconfidence that led contestants to receive higher ratings, independent of their actual performance).

Overall, these results provide compelling evidence in favour of Robert Triver’s theory of self-deception.

Implications

As is always the case, there are aspects of this paper that can be critiqued.

Although overconfidence is a well established finding from the field of psychology, there is evidence suggesting some cultural differences in how overconfidence manifests.

These experiments were conducted with German university students. However, we know that these people are really WEIRD. That is, they are Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic, and therefore may not paint a complete picture of humanity overall… Although we can have confidence in these research findings, we don’t want to become overconfident. 

To add more weight to the study, other recently published papers and preprints point in the same direction. However, it remains the case that these experiments would benefit from more diverse samples.

These points aside, this paper arguably has far reaching implications for business.

What this strand of research suggests is that positive illusions are far more pervasive than is usually portrayed by psychologists.

Evidently, positive illusions offer individuals a wealth of benefits. Those of us who are the most optimistic and overconfident reap many benefits in life, including more career success. As noted by Daniel Kahnmenan in Thinking Fast and Slow, entrepreneurs and business leaders are the most optimistic and overconfident among us.

Positive illusions encourage us to take gambles— gambles which can come with big pay offs. But of course, risky bets can also end in bankruptcy. Overconfidence and excessive optimism can lead financial traders to lose money, CEOs to initiate value-destroying mergers, and lenders to invest in businesses that are built on sand.

The key takeaway for me is this: if positive illusions are not so much a means of protecting us from threatening information, but rather a form of self-deception to help us persuade others, then the problem has been misdiagnosed by psychologists and practitioners alike. Initiatives such as teaching people debiasing techniques as a means of overcoming overconfidence is simply not going to work.

These findings also have obvious implications for recruitment and selection. Indeed, the experiment is inadvertently a parody of the interview process itself.

In light of these findings, it’s not too surprising that interviews are a weak predictor of job performance. These series of experiments mark yet another red cross against job interviews as a recruitment method, and lend credence to the practice of blind assessments.

By coincidence, Peter and Joël concluded their paper by discussing the business implications of their research (emphasis added):

One implication of our findings is that overconfidence is likely to be more prevalent in settings in which its strategic value is highest, that is, in cases in which measures of true ability are noisy, competition is fierce and persuasion is an important part of success. It may arise in employer–employee relationships because of its strategic benefits in job interviews and wage negotiations. Arguably, confidence may be even more valuable among the self-employed, whose economic survival often depends more immediately on persuading investors and customers. We would also expect overconfidence to be rife amongst high-level professionals in finance, law and politics.

Peter and Joël’s reflections are likely to resonate with people working in politics or finance. For those of us working in such fields, vigilance is required. For example, when evaluating candidates for leadership positions, it’s important to gauge whether candidates are overconfident. If they appear to be raising the stakes by promising the world, you have to ask yourself: are you really going to win this bet?


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

The rise and fall of the dominant leader

Ranking people by their social status seems to come naturally to us humans. Indeed, social hierarchies are ubiquitous across cultures and throughout human history.

Social hierarchies have allowed humans to coordinate effectively, and enabled large groups to make decisions and address collective action problems.

Whether small-scale societies or industrialised nations, one can think of various hierarchical structures that have been the result of conflict and brute force. However, many forms of hierarchy are also the product of leaders being freely chosen. What isn’t well understood by social scientists is how people climb these more productive forms of hierarchy.

To put it another way, what strategies actually make a leader successful in modern organisations, and which of these is more successful over time?

Keeping in sync with the latest research, Daniel Redhead and his colleagues Joey Cheng, Charles Driver, Tom Foulsham and Rick O’Gorman have just published a study the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, that helps answer this question.

Two ways to the top

Before delving into the particulars of the study, we need to establish what scientists already know. What strategies are known by evolutionary psychologists to increase one’s rank in the social pecking order?

Firstly, there’s dominance– increasing one’s social status through intimidation, manipulation, and coercion. This type of leadership is ancient, and traces back millions of years to our primate heritage.

Throughout the natural world, animals which are the most powerful and menacing fighters are generally granted high status (if you’re not convinced, watch one of David Attenborough’s latest documentaries).

In the tree of life, human and chimpanzee lineages split off from their common ancestor approximately 5 to 7 million years ago. With this, both primate species took with them a proclivity for dominance hierarchies, and a psychology sensitive to dominance.

However, the story of leadership gets a bit more complicated when we home in on homo-sapiens. Unlike other animals, we are a cultural species. We need to be socialised, and depend on collective wisdom for our survival (how long would you be able to live on your own in the wilderness?). As a result, we seek leaders with the knowledge and skills that our group needs to succeed.

This path to leadership is very different than what you usually see in a wildlife documentary, and is aptly called prestige.

Intriguingly, research shows that both paths are equally effective ways of gaining status. That is, one can get to the top either through dominance, or by leading through prestige. What wasn’t known by social scientists is how these different strategies play out over time. In other words, which leadership style is more effective in newly formed groups, and which is more successful in the long-run.

Cue Daniel and his research team.

Brains over brawn

For a couple of reasons, Daniel and his colleagues suspected dominance wouldn’t be an effective leadership strategy over time.

They state:

We proposed that the context of time and place is fundamental to the nature of human dominance… Unlike non-human primates, physical strength and size are not necessarily the most essential determinants of victory during antagonistic contests between humans. The presence of allies and coalitions shrinks the perceived size and muscularity of a foe and the widespread development of lethal weaponry potentially neutralizes human physiological dominance.

Translation: we humans take out overbearing arseholes (tarnishing their reputation through gossip and ostracism. Or if stigma doesn’t do the trick, pelting rocks at them will).

The authors stress that there needs to be certain social and environmental conditions for dominance to be a viable way of gaining status. For example, if bullying and violence are prevalent in the social context one faces, then dominance may prove to be an effective strategy (indeed, it may also be an essential survival strategy).

Conversely, Daniel and his colleagues argue that prestige should be a universally effective way of gaining social status over time. Why? Because prestige is marked by the respect earned by others, which requires a leader to build and maintain a good reputation.

So how did they go about testing their hypotheses?

The researchers used newly formed groups of American students to see how effective dominance and prestige were over time. Specifically, these student groups were formed for an assignment, which counted towards their end of year grades.

In total, 263 students were randomly assigned to a mixed-sex group, and were followed over 16 weeks.

The researchers got these students to rate each other on their leadership styles, and what they thought their peers’ positions were in the social pecking order. They also completed surveys about themselves throughout the semester.

Nice guys finish first

So what did they find?

Replicating previous studies, the researchers found that both dominance and prestige were a successful way for students to acquire status in these newly formed groups.

The authors write:

These results align with previous work that suggests that humans have a disposition to defer to those that they perceive as able and willing to confer benefits or harm, even among groups of undergraduate students, whereby fear and threat may not be particularly potent. 

Critically however, dominance lost its sticking power in the weeks after the groups were formed. Conversely, prestige strongly increased students’ social status over the period of the semester.

With this experiment, the researchers were able to rule out an alternative explanation for dominance’s effectiveness: that dominant individuals are simply mistaken for being prestigious. Rather, the experiment clearly showed that individuals in unacquainted groups can gain status either through aggression and coercion, or by building respect through their skill and competence. These are distinct leadership strategies, which also had different trajectories.

Another insight gleamed from the study is that prestige and social status are a two-way street. That is, being a student high in prestige increased one’s rank in the social pecking order. However, promotions in social rank also bumped up one’s prestige a couple of notches. This was not the case for dominance, where ratings of dominance remained largely unchanged for those who gained higher social status.

Finally, the researchers found that although prestige and dominance have a negative relationship with each other, they are not entirely separate either. In other words, a leader can be both dominant and prestigious at the same time.

The prestige premium

As is always the case, there are limitations to this study.

Like the majority of psychological studies, these experiments were conducted with American university students. However, we know that these people are really WEIRD. That is, they represent a slice of humanity who are Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic, who do not necessarily reflect humanity overall. Further experiments would need to be conducted cross-culturally to confirm whether or not these findings are universal.

The authors argue that as the students had a vested interest in making sure their groups performed well, these project teams paralleled work in the outside world of business and government. However I’m not so sure. For various reasons, I suspect students generally are not that invested in the outcomes of group assignments.

As Daniel and his colleagues note themselves, there may be contexts where dominant leaders are able to sustain their advantage over an extended period of time (for example, when working in large and fragmented organisations). Likewise, dominant leaders may deploy tactics to maintain their social rank, such as ostracising their competitors or modifying group structures, to prevent challenges to their power base.

These points aside, this study sheds light on aspects of leadership which had previously been left in the dark. What the study answered is not whether dominance is a successful leadership strategy, but when it is. 

Contrary to what is taught in many business schools and psychology departments, dominance is an effective way of gaining status. Indeed, it is likely those who rise to the top of corporate and political hierarchies have a combination of dominance and prestige in their repertoire, and deploy both strategies when needed (think of Jeff Bezos for example, and imagine what it must be like working in his executive team… Did you experience a pang of fear?).

However, a domineering leadership style also comes with a hefty price tag; less satisfied employees, reduced creativity, and people rushing for the next exit. On top of this, we now have evidence suggesting that leaders high in dominance are less successful in the long-run. To put it bluntly, being a leader who’s an arsehole is unsustainable.

Or to frame it in the positive, we modern humans place a premium on prestige. Whether it’s your organisation’s leadership capabilities or your own development, make sure you invest your capital wisely.


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Competition can encourage prosocial behaviour to spread

A defining aspect of our species’ success is our unusually high levels of cooperation. In particular, our ability to cooperate with others who are not related to us.

The scale of cooperation among humans is rare in the animal kingdom, and is strongly at odds with our closest primate relatives. However, evolutionary explanations for our level of prosociality is an ongoing scientific debate.

Traditionally, evolutionary scientists have explained prosocial behaviour by modelling the evolutionary benefits to the individual (or more specifically, the individual’s genes). For example, prosociality can evolve among non-relatives based on reciprocation (‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’), or if altruists are deemed more attractive romantic partners (and therefore have more babies).

However, an emerging class of inter-disciplinary scientists are viewing our large-scale cooperation as a product of cultural group selection’. That is, traits favouring prosocial behaviour can evolve via culture, due to the competitive advantage they bestow to a group. This is a type of cultural evolution, and does not involve natural selection working on genes. 

Although the theory is well developed, empirical evidence documenting cultural group selection is still accumulating

To shed some light on the matter, economists Patrick Francois and his colleagues Thomas Fujiwara and Tanguy van Ypersele recently published a paper in Science Advancesexploring cultural group selection in the workplace and the laboratory. 

Banking on trust

What is particularly interesting about this paper is that the researchers analysed industry data to test their hypotheses. As stated by the authors; “Perhaps the most ubiquitous avenue of group-level competition occurring in contemporary settings is likely to be competition across firms.”

Patrick and his colleagues hypothesised that companies subject to more intense external competition would be more likely to foster cooperation among their employees. In other words, increased external competition would encourage employees to suppress selfishness and increase cooperative behaviour, in the interest of the firm’s survival. 

The authors used ‘generalised trust’ as their measure of prosocial behaviour (that is, answers to the question; “Do you think that, on the whole, people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”). Their reasoning was that survey-based questions of trust reflect the level of pro-social behaviour individuals perceive of others around them.

The authors used a range of data sources to test their hypothesis. 

Firstly, Patrick and his colleagues explored the relationship between the competitiveness of industries, and the level of trust employees report.

To do this, the authors used data from the United States’ General Social Survey, which includes measures of trust among employees. The competitiveness of an industry was calculated by the percentage of total sales in an industry not covered by the largest 50 firms. 

You can see the relationship below:   

Americans who work in more competitive industries are more likely to trust.

Although a strong relationship between competitiveness and trust was identified, the authors note that this is weak evidence of competition increasing trust. As this data is correlational, it cannot explain causality. Likewise, it may be others factors which are driving this relationship, which haven’t been acknowledged. 

To get round this conundrum, you’d need a naturalistic experiment where competition is increased within an industry, with levels of trust measured before and after this introduction. 

 It turns out such a natural experiment was provided by an episode of American banking deregulation.

Starting in the early 1980’s, several US states lifted restrictions which prohibited banks from operating in other states across the country. This deregulation increased the availability of credit, which in turn facilitated the creation of new firms- and therefore raised the amount of competition within these local markets. 

Of particular interest to the researchers was that different states undertook the deregulation at different times.

What they found is that in the years after the deregulation was introduced, there were significant increases in levels of reported trust. As expected by the authors, firm competition increased with the banking reforms (with more firms created and subsequent business closures).

These broader impacts apparently continued for 10 years after the deregulation was initially introduced. 

Banking deregulation in U.S. states raised firm competition and trust.

Survey data from German employees was also analysed as part of the study, as this allowed the researchers to observe how trust is impacted when workers move to more competitive industries. Similar to the data from the US, Francois and his colleagues found that German workers who moved to more competitive industries reported higher levels of trust.

Although these observational findings provide considerable insight, there are also limitations to this approach.

Fundamentally, using observational data means you can’t be sure of the effect you’ve found, or that you can confidently rule out alternative explanations. To get around this, the researchers also conducted laboratory experiments.

Back to the lab

These experiments were conducted in France, and tested whether changes in levels of competition across groups would impact trust and cooperation. 

A strategic economic game called the Public Goods Game was employed for the experiments.

Participants were placed into pairs, and were allocated to one of two versions of the game. The first was a standard version of the game, with no group competition. 

For each version of the experiment, 20 people were placed into groups of 2. Each player was given €10 per round. Participants were given the choice on how much they wanted to contribute to the ‘collective pot’, which would benefit both group members equally.

The game presents a dilemma. By the end of each round, the collective pool is increased by 1.5 times. Although good for the group overall, this means each individual’s contributions is actually a net cost (providing €0.75 for every €1 they contribute to the pot). 

If your objective is to maximise your own earnings, then the best strategy is therefore to contribute nothing. However, this undermines the greater success your group would have if both of you cooperated and contributed more money. 

Individuals were paired anonymously, and were told the outcome at the end of each round. They were then paired with a new partner, and played a total of 19 rounds. Participants were asked some questions after the experiment, with the main one being generalised trust.

The second condition of the experiment was the same, but with a twist.

The amount they received from the collective pool depended not only on their group’s contributions, but also on the size of their collective pot relative to other groups. Only if their collective pot matched or surpassed another equivalent group, did the group members receive their slice of the pie. 

So what happened?

As what almost always happens when playing the standard version of the Public Goods Game, the researchers observed declining contributions as the game progressed. Initial contributions were also low, with participants chipping in just over €2 for the first round on average.

However, there was a big difference in the second ‘competitive’ condition. As the graph below illustrates, group competition induced significantly higher contributions to the collective pot, which was sustained across all of the rounds. 

Contributions in the first round were also twice as high with group competition, and stayed higher throughout the game. 

Introducing competition in public good laboratory game increases contributions and propensity to trust.

The players may have increased their contributions for various reasons, such as feeling inclined to reciprocate. However, the authors point out that players also increased their contributions when they saw their competitors performing well. They also don’t see this as evidence of reciprocation, as each partner was drawn afresh for each round. 

Instead, Patrick and his colleagues argue these findings show cultural group selection at work; “mimicry of the actions or norms in successful groups leading to diffusion of those norms into the broader population.”

Cooperation from competition

The theory that evolution works at the level of the group, rather than the conventional level of the individual, is controversial. Likewise, there is no clear consensus among scientists regarding the importance of group selection (also known as multilevel selection) to evolution.

Although less contested than its genetic grandfather, cultural group selection also remains controversial, and not everyone is convinced. 

Exhibit A:

 

Oliver Curry made some valid points on Twitter, outlining potential limitations of the study’s design and the inferences made by the authors. 

Can the data presented be best explained by cultural group selection, over and above other well established theories of cooperation (such as mutualism)? As the connection to theory within the paper isn’t made clear, it’s difficult to answer this question.

What isn’t obvious to me is why external competition would increase trust per se, rather than cooperative behaviour by itself. Oliver Curry argues that cooperation and trust are not separate, and that trust is simply the expectation of cooperation. However, there is experimental evidence suggesting that they are indeed distinct concepts, and that is it useful to separate them.

In a subsequent Twitter exchange, Tim Waring also acknowledges the studies limitations, but argues the study does ultimately support the authors’ conclusions. 

 

Future research will hopefully address these points raised. 

Despite the critiques of this particular study, cultural group selection arguably offers a powerful explanation for the evolution of large-scale human cooperation. Although traditional evolutionary theories explain much of human cooperation, they don’t seem able to explain how a hominid species that evolved for life in small groups came to develop chiefdoms, nation states, and the modern corporation.

For the purpose of this blog, I assume the majority of business practitioners aren’t particularly bothered about the underlying evolutionary theory. Regardless of the best scientific explanations available, it’s evident that greater external competition increases prosocial behaviour within groups.

This knowledge could be used to increase trust among employees and to make groups more productive. This may be achieved by changing group structures, and rewarding teams as opposed to individual outputs. Similarly, businesses may want to foster an organisational culture where considerable attention is focused on the threats posed by external competition.

However, it’s easy to see how such knowledge can also be abused. Many leaders seem to intuitively grasp how external threats influence behaviour, with the potential for manipulation. As an extreme example, one can be cynical and think of dark triad world leaders who may be tempted to wage war as a means of boosting their political support (no need to mention names here). 


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

We don’t need to understand how technology works for it to evolve

We modern humans live in a world surrounded by ever evolving technology. Whether it’s the combustion engine or the modern computer, these technologies are ubiquitous and have radically altered the world we live in.

What’s no so obvious is how complex the technologies of traditional societies are too. Bow and arrows and clothing are just a couple of sophisticated technologies that pre-industrial humans created, and used to venture into new, challenging environments.

How is it that we humans have managed to produce such impressive technology, when our closest living primate relatives have produced nothing of the sort?

Many believe this comes down to our superior cognitive abilities.  That is, our intelligence and our ability to reason.

However, some scientists argue that the inherent complexity of certain technologies make them very hard to understand. Instead, they argue that complex technologies result from many small improvements made over generations which are culturally transmitted– without people understanding how these technologies actually work.

To help settle the debate, Maxime Derex and his colleagues Jean-François Bonnefon, Robert Boyd and Alex Mesoudi conducted a rather ingenious experiment, involving a technology which changed the face of our planet: the wheel.

Note that at the time of writing this post, the paper is a preprint and yet to be peer-reviewed, and is therefore subject to further to scrutiny. Despite the amendments that may be made to the paper, the significance of this study should become apparent.

Spinning wheels

The experiment boiled down to getting participants to increase the speed of a wheel down a meter long, inclined track. The wheel had 4 radial spokes, and a single weight could be moved along each spoke.

Participants were organised into ‘chains’ of 5 individuals. Each participant had 5 trials  to minimize the time it took for the wheel to reach the end of the track. All participants  were provided with the last two choices and  scores of the previous participant in their chain (except those who went first). 14 chains were run, with each containing different people.

In total, 140 people took part in the study (with two versions of the experiment conducted). Each person received money for participating in the experiments. The money they received ranged from €3 to €29, depending on their performance and that of their peers.

Derex and his colleagues provide sound reasons for choosing a wheel for their experiment on causal understanding.  First, existing studies suggest Westerners generally have poor understanding of how wheels work, which means most participants didn’t know what was required of them (this is not meant to be insulting). Secondly, the speed of the wheel depends solely on the laws of physics, and not on irrelevant factors which could compromise the validity of their findings. And thirdly, the wheel systems doesn’t involve many dimensions, which made it well suited for hypothesis testing.

So what were the researchers actually evaluating? They were essentially testing whether wheel speeds would increase after several generations of trails, and if people’s understanding of the underlying physics would do too.

The wheel’s speed depends on just two variables: its moment of inertia (how mass is distributed around the axis), and its initial potential energy (the distance between the wheel centre of mass and the ground).

If the weights are located closer to the centre of the wheel, and if one of the weights at the top or to the right of wheel are further away from the axis before its descent, then the wheel will cover the track faster. Note that there’s a trade-off here between the two forces, and some experimentation is required to work out the optimal configuration.

The simplicity of the system meant the researchers could measure participants’ understanding of the wheel after they completed their trials. The research team evaluated their understanding by presenting them with a few options, and asking them to predict which wheels would cover the track faster.

Causal understanding_image 2
Illustration of the experimental set up (Derex et al, preprint)

So what did Derex and his team find having conducted the experiment?

After the 5 generations, the average wheel speed increased significantly. However, participants’ actual understanding of the physics did not.

The average wheel speed produced by the first participants on their last trial was 123.6 meters per hour, and their average understanding score was 4.60. After 5 generations, the average wheel speed increased to 145.7 meters per hour, while participants’ understanding didn’t significantly change.

With a maximum possible speed of 154 m/h, the team found remarkable improvements in just a few generations.

Stifling exploration

The authors were particularly interested in whether or not the sharing of lay theories to one and another would increase people’s understanding.

To further explore how individuals gain their understanding, Derex and his colleagues ran another version of the experiment.

The set up was largely the same, with 5 trials per participant and 14 chains. However, the difference was that participants could now also write their own theory about the wheel, and share this with the next participant in their chain.

All participants were provided with the previous participant’s theory, except those who were starting.

What did they find? The average wheel speed increased at a similar rate to the first experiment, and the participants’ understanding also barely changed across the generations (see the graph below).

Counter-intuitively, the authors also found that the sharing of theories had a negative  effect on participant’s actual understanding of the underlying physics.

Causal understanding_Graph
Participants produced faster wheels across generations, but their understanding of the system did not (Derex et al, preprint)

Although little differences were observed between the experimental conditions overall,  further digging found “striking” differences in participant’s exploration and independent learning.

The researchers found that if a participant had received a theory about either inertia or potential energy, then their configurations would be constrained to one of these forces. In other words, inheriting an inertia theory increased their understanding of this dynamic, but reduced participant’s understanding of energy (and vice versa).

The main explanation presented is that receiving a theory mostly constrained participants’ focus, and blinded them to the dynamics beyond the theory they received.

Derex and his colleagues argue that these results support the theory that small improvements occur over generations via cultural transmission, in the absence of people’s actual understanding of the technology.

As stated by the authors:

These results indicate that highly optimized technologies do not necessarily result from evolved reasoning abilities but instead can emerge from the blind accumulation of many small improvements made across generations linked by cultural transmission, and demand a focus on the cultural dynamics underlying technological change as well as individual cognition.

Implications

With  the paper yet to be peer reviewed, it does seem a bit premature drawing lessons from the study at this stage. However, a wealth of research demonstrates the role of cultural evolution in driving technological advancement, which means we can have some confidence in the research findings.

The authors also note that these experiment were conducted on ‘WEIRD’ people. That is,  those who are Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. Further experiments would need to be conducted cross-culturally to confirm whether or not this finding is universal.

These points aside, one key take away I took from these experiments are the roles groups and demographics play in fostering technological advancements, rather than the contributions of individuals.

In business and society more broadly, a widespread belief is that the most significant innovations come from geniuses and their novel ideas. However, such experimental findings from the field of cultural evolution reveal how overly simplistic these beliefs are; these beliefs ignore the wider environmental factors and culturally acquired knowledge that facilitate novel insights in the first place.

Another potential lesson concerns exploration and independent learning. If it is the case that receiving incomplete theories can compromise people’s understanding of technology, then this has implications for research and development professionals (or anyone fostering innovation for that matter). Working around this effect and encouraging independent learning may lead to insights which may have otherwise been missed.

Ultimately, such findings illustrate the importance of experimentation in driving technological advancements. Whether one is trying to improve a process or create new products, continuous small-scale experimentation may lead to new technologies being developed- although you may not understand how they actually work.

 

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Monkeying around with market research

Despite increasing public debate over the appropriateness of sex in advertising, sexual imagery and high status individuals continue to be used by marketers to sell products.

However, answering why sexual imagery has proven so influential in advertising receives conflicting answers. Social constructionists argue that these consumer preferences are primarily shaped by people’s experiences within particular social, economic and historic contexts. Conversely, evolutionary psychologists argue that such stimuli satisfies ancient biological drives that evolved to prioritise useful social information.

In the online journal PLOS One, Mehmet Yavuz Acikalin and his colleagues have recently published a unique experiment which helps provide an answer. To explore the origins of our consumer preferences, the researchers conducted a pseudo-advertising campaign on non-human primates.

Monkey Ads

Acikalin and his colleagues tested whether pairing common brand logos with either sexually provocative images or alpha males would lead monkeys to prefer these brand logos.

Rhesus macaque monkeys were used for the experiment, which are old world monkeys native to Central and South Asia. Rhesus macaques form into large mix-sex groups and strict dominance hierarchies. The researchers argue their highly complex social interactions make them ideal for understanding social cognition and behaviour in primates.

We humans diverged from old world monkeys on the evolutionary tree of life around 25 million years ago. If these monkeys show a preference for brand logos that have been paired with sex and social status cues, the authors claim this would support such consumer preferences being evolutionary ancient (rather than a mere social construction).

Using non-human primates allowed for a controlled experiment, where the researchers could rule out the effect of culture and previous engagements with such brands. Additionally, the experimental design allowed the researchers to conduct extensive testing that wouldn’t be feasible in laboratory experiments with humans.

Ten adult rhesus macaques were used for the study, five of each sex. The monkeys participated in the experiment by interacting with a touch-screen interface within their enclosures. The monkeys were shown an image of a real-world brand logo, alongside an image of a monkey which formed the monkey adverts.

Three types of images were used for the adverts: a dominant or subordinate male’s face, or a female monkey’s ‘hindquarters’. Other logos were paired with a scrambled image containing no social information as a control. The monkeys were trained to use the equipment beforehand, and were rewarded with fruit juice whenever the monkey chose a logo on the screen, regardless of their preference.

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Stimuli used within the pseudo-advertising campaign on non-human primates (Acikalin et al, 2018)

Sex sells

The researchers found that following the pseudo-advertising campaign, the monkeys developed preferences for brand logos that had been paired with images of male faces and females’ behinds.

As predicted, the females showed no preference for the brands paired with the faces of low status males (to reference TLC, female macaques don’t want no scrubs).

Contrary to their expectations however, the male monkeys also formed a preference for brand logos paired with low dominance males. The researchers speculate that this may be due to males being attentive to low status males who may try to use aggression to climb the monkey hierarchy.

Yavuz Acikalin and his colleagues state the study shows preferences for brands advertised with sex and status cues can emerge independent of cultural learning and imitation found only in humans.

The authors note that although their results support an evolutionary perspective on why we sex is used in advertising, this does not mean that socialisation and culturally-defined gender roles do not influence our consumer behaviour. Rather, they argue that there’s likely strong evolutionary drives behind our consumer preferences, which can either be amplified or suppressed through socialisation.

Although several hundred trails were conducted, a key limitation of the study is that only 10 monkeys were involved in the experiments. I wouldn’t usually comment on a study with such a small sample size. However, there are other reasons why monkeys may also respond to the social drives which advertisers tap into.

Fundamentally, rhesus macaques and other monkey species share with humans similar neural mechanisms that have been linked to social decision making and evaluation. Also, a previous study of a similar nature found that rhesus macaques are willing to sacrifice rewards to see naughty monkey photos.

A mistake to avoid is extrapolating findings from other species to humans which do not apply. However, the rationale for the experiments and the inferences the authors make appear well justified.

A potential limitation of the study is that it assumes sex is an effective way to sell products to us homosapiens. However, I understand there’s considerable debate here, and that the reality may be more nuanced (especially in an age of shifting social norms and consumer preferences).

These points aside, we may be able to draw a lesson from this study.

Although our evolved psychological dispositions helped our great ancestors survive and thrive by attending to opportunities for sex and status enhancement, Yavuz Acikalin and his colleagues suggest that such motivations left unchecked can be detrimental to our mental health (and our bank balance). Being aware of this means we can step back and evaluate what we really want to achieve through our consumer purchases.

In summary, we’d all surely benefit from knowing how deep-seated evolutionary motives shape our consumer behaviour.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Darwin goes to Wall Street

Since the financial crash of 2008 the field of economics has been in a state crisis, where a paradox lies at the heart of the issue.

On the one hand markets are remarkably rational and efficient, displaying allocation and foresight that prediction scientists are only beginning to fully grasp. Efficient markets are powerful, practical tools for aggregating information, and they do it more quickly and cheaply than any known alternative.

However markets also prone to wild swings of irrationality, and can fail spectacularly. Indeed, soul searching in the wake of the financial crisis has led to calls for the field of economics to be revolutionised. Behavioural economics has since risen in prominence, challenging the orthodoxy of neoclassical economic theory by outlining how predictably irrational people can be.

What can we make of this apparent contradiction?

In Adaptive Markets, MIT finance professor Andrew Lo ambitiously calls for a paradigm shift in financial economics, and urges us to reconsider financial markets from an evolutionary perspective. Lo argues by understanding the evolutionary forces that have shaped human behaviour and spurred financial innovation we can reconcile these paradoxical findings, and successfully address the problems facing the financial world.

It Takes a Theory to Beat a Theory

One passage from the book that stuck with me is where Andrew tells the story of taking his son to the National Zoo in Washington DC, who was then a toddler. “As expected, my son was delighted with the Great Ape House, but for me, this visit was nothing less than transformational.”

Lo describes his family standing in front of a group of orangutans, where the alpha male of the group came surprisingly close to the iron-bar fencing separating the great apes from the visitors. In response, Andrew pulled his son away from the fence to keep him out of danger. This startled the alpha male’s companion, who instantly moved in front of the younger orangutan to repel Andrew’s advance- in essence mirroring each other’s behaviour.

The human brain works in mysterious ways. At that precise moment, I saw clearly how the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and its behavioural critique could be reconciled. In fact I understood two things that should have been obvious to me all along, but which I had never thought about until then.

The first insight Andrew had was just how instinctive our primate behaviour is and the the legacy of our shared ancestry, where 97% of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees. However Andrew notes the large gulf between our species, where one of these primates carried on their life as usual held in captivity, where the other would go on to write a book detailing the experience and resolving a longstanding academic controversy. Lo argues it is this 3% of the human genome that separates us from other primates, which enables cultural innovation and human ingenuity, and permits advanced economic activity and efficient trading.

The core argument presented in Adaptive Markets is that financial markets do not follow the laws of economic theory. Rather, financial markets are the product of human evolution, and follow the laws of biology instead.

Undoubtedly, behavioural economists have helped improve our understanding of economic decision-making. However, what behavioural economists neglected to answer is the ultimate question: why do people possess these psychological dispositions? Answering ultimate questions leads one to evolution, as the human brain has been honed by the forces of natural selection.

As stated by Lo:

Economic behavior is one aspect of human behavior, and human behavior is the product of biological evolution across eons of different environments. Competition, mutation, innovation, and especially natural selection are the building blocks of evolution. All individuals are vying for survival- even if the laws of the jungle are less vicious on the African Savannah than on Wall Street. It’s no surprise, then, that economic behavior is often best viewed through the lens of biology.

A key concept Lo uses to explain economic behaviour is an evolutionary mismatch:  traits selected for in our ancestral past which were once advantageous, which become maladaptive when the environment changes. For example, Lo argues evolution can help explain loss aversion and people’s inclination to ‘probability match’ in financial settings, which can result in sub-optimal investing.

Financial behavior that may seem irrational now is really behavior that hasn’t had sufficient time to adapt to modern contexts. An obvious example from nature is the great white shark, a near- perfect predator that moves through the water with fearsome grace and efficiency, thanks to 400 million years of adaptation. But take that shark out of the water and drop it onto a sandy beach, and its flailing undulations will look silly and irrational. It’s perfectly adapted to the depths of the ocean, not to dry land.

For the past 50 years, academic finance has been dominated by highly mathematical models and methods that derived from physics. These sophisticated quantitative techniques spawned a wave of financial innovation, and triggered an evolutionary change within the world of finance. However, Lo argues that despite the advantages these advanced quantitative techniques provided, this mass ‘mathematization’ of finance has significant flaws.

Finance isn’t physics, despite the similarities between the physics of heat conduction and the mathematics of derivative securities, for example. The difference is human behavior and the role of evolution in its development… The financial crisis showed us that investors, portfolio managers, and regulators do have feelings, even if those feelings were mostly disappointment and regret during the last few years. Financial economics is much harder than physics.

The Financial Crisis

Much of Adaptive Markets is dedicated to the 2008 financial crisis. Although there are numerous causes of the crisis, Lo argues that at the most fundamental level the primary cause of the crash was greed overpowering fear.

The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis tells us that, at the most basic level of the financial crisis, greed overwhelmed fear. Ignoring the changing environment, people at all levels of the system created a narrative that greed was good. The pushback against the warnings about the oncoming crisis was stronger than the warnings themselves- until it was too late. 

Rather soberingly, Lo details how economists such and Robert Shiller and Raghuram Rajan raised the alarm of the American housing market showing signs of a bubble, which could potentially lead to a catastrophic meltdown of the financial system. However, these concerns were largely ignored by the wider financial community. With the benefit of hindsight, such warnings were remarkably prescient.

Lo’s own research on the hedge fund industry also showed early warning signs of the financial crisis. Back in 2005, journalist Mark Gimein published an overview of Lo’s research in the New York Times. The last paragraph reads; “The nightmare script for Mr. Lo wold be a series of collapses of highly leveraged hedge funds that bring down major banks or brokerage firms that lend to them”.

Apparently Lo’s warning seemed ridiculous at the time, yet in hindsight various hedge funds collapsed at the start of the crisis “and the fact that Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers both experienced their first wave of losses through their hedge funds, it wasn’t too far off the mark.”

Hedge funds are described by Lo as the ‘Galapagos Islands of finance’, being a novel species of finance that exploit market anomolies which are highly vulnerable to changing environments. According to Lo, increased complexity combined with tighter coupling and a new spawn of financial gigantism increased the odds of a catastrophic meltdown.

Lo also takes the opportunity to challenge the narratives we share to explain the financial crisis. For example, one common theme is that the financial crisis was the result of the unscrupulous practices of financial elites. Although there is much truth to this story, Lo argues many determinants of the crisis were systemic and were not caused by ethical lapses. However, this claim is contested by leaders in the field.

Finance Behaving Badly

Not only does Adaptive Markets cover the basics of evolutionary psychology, it also makes reference to the cultural evolution. Lo makes clear that culture, a domain which is frequently deemed beyond the realm of biology, is itself the product of evolution. That is, subject to the processes of variation, selection and replication. A core argument in Adaptive Markets is that an evolutionary perspective of culture can help us identity and prevent financial scandals.

Long before the days Gordon Gekko became a cultural icon, social psychologists have studied what leads ordinary people to behave like monsters. The infamous Milgram and Zimbardo Stanford prison experiments were conducted during the 1960s and 1970s respectively, and demonstrated in shocking and graphic detail how blind obedience to authority can lead ordinary people to commit atrocities.

Lo notes how little people were paid to participate in these experiments, and yet still were complicit in such unthinkable acts. Milgram paid his participants roughly today’s equivalent of $36, where Zimbardo paid his subjects roughly $90 in today’s money.

Imagine a situation in which you were instructed to engage in questionable financial practices- actions that aren’t nearly as gut-wrenching as delivering electrical shocks- by a managing director or vice president in a suit and tie, and you’re given tremendous financial incentives, like a multi-million dollar year-end bonus, to do so. In light of the Lucifer Effect, it’s not hard to understand how context and culture can lead to even caring and ethical individuals to do reprehensible things to unsuspecting clients. This is the Gekko Effect. 

One possible critique of Adaptive Markets is that it emphases the importance of the environment, yet it does not adequately address the environmental forces shaping financial institutions. However, Lo’s reflections on regulation and corporate fraud is a clear exception.

Although the data is confined to the United States and the time series is rather small (especially when considering evolutionary time-scales), Lo provides evidence that financial scandals and scams are cyclical. That is, historically financial scandals have increased as stock markets rose, and declined once market conditions deteriorated.

 

Lo Dyck, Morse and Zingale's (2013, figure 1) estimates of the percentage of large corporations starting and engaging in fraud
Estimates of the percentage of large corporations starting or engaging in fraud, from 1996-2004 (Dyck, Mores & Zingales, 2013)

Deason et al (2015) Frequency of SEC- prosecuted Ponzi schemes by calendar quarter from 1988 to 2012
Frequency of SEC prosecuted Ponzi schemes by calendar quarter from 1988 to 2012 (Deason, Rajgopal & Waymire, 2015)

These findings may seem counter-intuitive. However, the researchers investigating ponzi schemes make it clear that such large-scale fraud is harder to sustain during deteriorating market conditions, as was the case with Madoff. Lo also notes that regulatory budgets increase after financial bubbles burst.

Lo states the unravelling of Madoff also revealed the biases and blind spots of financial regulators. Although social scientists have much to learn about the behaviour of auditors and financial regulators in the lead up to such scandals, Lo argues loss aversion may help explain why regulators don’t react quicker to signs of disturbance. That is, being more concerned about being wrong and causing a public scandal than investigating cases of potential large-scale fraud.

Fixing Finance 

Lo argues that if we wish to change financial culture and tackle corporate malfeasance, we first have to understand the broader contextual and environmental forces that have shaped such cultures over time and across circumstances.

As a professional working in the field, I’ve observed increasing activity to monitor aspects of organisational culture within the banking industry. However, I believe we’re only beginning to grapple with this challenge, and that various issues need to be addressed. To elaborate, what do we mean exactly when we refer to ‘culture’, how do we measure it, and which aspects of culture can actually be changed and should be prioritised?

Lo provides some excellent advise here, and demonstrates the importance of framing.

The first step requires a subtle but important shift in our language. Instead of seeking to “change culture”, which seems naive and hopelessly ambitious, suppose our objective is to engage in “behavioural risk management” instead… Despite the fact we’re referring to essentially the same goal, the latter phrase is more concrete, feasible, and- this is important- unassailable from a corporate board’s perspective.

To conclude, a core theme of Adaptive Markets is that the financial system is more similar to an ecosystem of living organisms than a machine, and that we must manage the system accordingly. This is a very different perspective compared to traditional approaches of financial regulation, however Lo notes the list of prominent economists who have reached similar conclusions.

Despite certain reviews of the book arguing that the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis offers little practical value, this theoretical insight arguably has many practical implications.

For one, it shows investors how markets are not wholly efficient and can be beaten, and makes clear that specific investment strategies can either succeed or fail depending on the broader financial environment.

Lo shares some big ideas on how large-scale investment funds can be designed to address pressing social problems, such as the high cost of developing new cancer drugs.

For regulators, the adaptive toolkit provides ways of addressing the cultural roots of corporate maleficence, which could help prevent the next Bernie Madoff from succeeding.


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of Adaptive Markets

The irresistible sway of first impressions

We make our mind up about people after seeing their faces for barely a fraction of a second.

Far from being trivial, these impressions impact our decision making and have real world implications. For example, politicians that simply appear more competent are more likely to win elections.

Can we reliably discern character from people’s faces, or are we being misled?

In Face ValuePrinceton psychologist Alexander Todorov tells the scientific story of first impressions and argues the snap judgements we make of people’s faces are predictable, yet usually inaccurate.

Alexander Todorov manages to weave the psychological science of first impressions into a grand story, accompanied with slick photography and illustrations on virtually every other page which makes reading the book an engaging aesthetic experience. Face Value would make a great gift for anyone interested in the human mind, laymen and psychology nerds alike.

Physiognomist’s promises

The story starts with the history of physiognomy.

Johann Kasper Lavater was the father of physionomy, which was conceived as the ‘art’ of reading people’s character from their faces. Although it was sold as a science of the time, it was anything but. Lavater’s ‘universal axioms and incontestable principles’ were:

[T]he forehead to the eyebrows, the mirror of intelligence; the cheeks and the nose form the seat of moral life; and the mouth and chin aptly represent the animal life.

Todorov states Lavater’s ‘evidence’ came from  analysing sketches, and counterfactual statements “peppered with what would now be widely regarded as blatantly racist beliefs”.

The extent of Lavater’s influence on 19th century Europe cannot be overstated. For example, Lavater’s theories almost caused Charles Darwin to miss the Beagle voyage- the exploration that led to Darwin’s revolutionary observations and subsequently the theory of evolution. Why? The captain of the Beagle thought Darwin’s nose was too big, and doubted Darwin possessed ‘sufficient energy and determination for the voyage’. “But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely”, Darwin is quoted saying in his autobiography.

Such questionable hiring practices were apparently widespread, and persisted for some time after Lavater’s influence waned. For example in the early 20th century, Katherine Blackford and Arthur Newcomb created a ‘scientific plan of employment’, a method they claimed selected the most competent employees. More than 200 companies used the services of Harrington Emerson, a firm which Blackford worked for. Although this was referred to as the science of ‘character analysis’, Todorov makes clear this was really pseudo-scientific physiognomy.

What sort of things did these assessments entail? Whilst trying not to raise any suspicions, the interviewers would make observations about candidate’s appearance such as their hair and eye colour, and gauge the shape of their head. For many jobs, an interview was not even needed. Increasingly, companies simply requested photographs as part of the recruitment process.

Despite the efforts from psychologists to discredit physionomy, the business world and the world at large remained receptive to such physiognomic ideas.

More sophisticated strands of physionogmy subsequently emerged. For example, Francis Galton introduced empirical methods to the field with the invention of composite photography at the end of the 19th century. In contrast to Lavater, Francis Galton was an established and respected scientist. Galton was a polymath, a cousin of Charles Darwin, and a hero to many scientists. Todorov argues Galton would be widely celebrated today as one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century were it not for his preoccupation with eugenics during the latter part of his life.

Galton’s interest in physionomy stemmed from his interest in heritability. It has since been well established that personality and physical appearance are partly heritable. However, Todorov argues it does not follow that there’s a correspondence between personality and physical appearance.

Composite photography was an empirical method for creating ‘pictorial averages’- a way of establishing the shared facial features of a group by identifying commonalities across individuals. Galton produced composite images of various groups, including families, prisoners, and people in asylum.

Galton’s composite photography started with prisoners, where he was ultimately left disappointed. Galton is quoted saying;

I have made numerous composites of various groups of convicts, which are interesting negatively rather than positively. They produce faces of a mean description, with no villainy written on them. The individual faces are villainous enough, but they are villainous in different ways, and when they are combined, the individual peculiarities disappear, and the common humanity of the low type is all that is left.

Despite Galton’s dissapointing results, the methods he invented continue to thrive. As stated by Todorov:

Today, anyone with a computer can obtain decent morphing software and manipulate facial images. Morphs of faces are regularly used in the media to illustrate concepts like the new face of America: a morph of faces representing the ethnicities living in the United States. And Galton’s project is alive and well. In the past decade, a few psychologists have been working on creating composites of different character types. Galton would have been pleased.

Numerous studies have recently been published purporting to show people’s ability infer personality, political orientation and sexuality from faces. However, Todorov stresses that the criteria used for the vast majority of these studies is better than chance, and that this threshold is not good enough. “The criterion for accuracy should be whether impressions from faces make us do better than relying on general knowledge and ignoring faces.”

Let’s use sexuality as an example. One study found that people who were asked to guess the sexual orientation of men’s after brief exposure to their Facebook photos (using photos posted by their friends) did better than chance. How much better? Not by much: they guessed accurately 52 percent of the time (marginally better than chance, which is 50 percent).

Technological advancements have also helped revive physiognomist’s ambitions. A paper was recently published that claimed artificial intelligence can deduce the sexuality of people on a dating site ‘with up to 91% accuracy’. The Guardian raised the alarm about this research, and the publication sparked a backlash from LGBT rights activists who fear this kind of technology could be used to identify gay people and put them at risk of harm.

However, how concerned should we be? Although the hit rate sounds impressive, the reality is that this technology is rather inaccurate. When shown one photo each of a gay and straight man both chosen at random, the model distinguished between them correctly 81% of the time. However, these hit rates don’t factor in base rates- the proportion of people who are actually gay in the overall population.

Roughly, 1 in 16 people identify as gay. Using the simple rule that assumes everyone is straight, you would be approximately 94% accurate. Conversely, the AI algorithm wouldn’t perform so well, as it would produce some false negatives (identifying gay people as straight) and a lot of false positives (mistaking straight men for being gay). When selecting the top 100 men most likely to be gay, the algorithm was only 47% accurate.

As outlined by the Economist:

The 91% accuracy rate only applies when one of the two men whose images are shown is known to be gay. Outside the lab the accuracy rate would be much lower. To demonstrate this weakness, the researchers selected 1,000 men at random with at least five photographs, but in a ratio of gay to straight that more accurately reflects the real world; approximately seven in every 100. When asked to select the 100 males most likely to be gay, only 47 of those chosen by the system actually were, meaning that the system ranked some straight men as more likely to be gay than men who actually are.

Todorov summarises his argument as follows:

Psychologists in the early twentieth century found little evidence for the accuracy of first impressions, but the past decade has seen a resurgence of physiognomic claims in scientific journals. We are told that it is possible to discern a person’s political leanings, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and even criminal inclinations from images of their face… A closer look at the modern studies shows that the claims of the new physiognomy are almost as exaggerated as those in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Predicting elections? Child’s play

Todorov claims it is easy to discard the physiognonomists, but that they were clearly onto something. “Deep down, their intuition align with ours. We have immediate gut reactions to the appearance of others.”

Take a look at the two computer generated illustrations below. hypothetically, who would you rather talk to at a party?

Extraversion

If you’re like most people, you’ll want to chat to the person on the left. The individual on the left appears extroverted and therefore more fun than our introverted looking friend on the right.

Unlike the intuitions of physiognomists, these graphics have been produced by what Todorov terms ‘brute empirical force’. Todorov along with Nick Oosterhoof created a computer model which produced these faces by randomly generating a combination of facial compositions and asking participants to rate them on a range of dimensions. “As long as there is agreement on impressions, we can build precise models of these impressions and visualise them.”

Todorov says he became interested in studying first impressions after he and his students discovered that such judgements predict the outcomes of important political elections.

His research team administered questionnaires at Princeton, which contained images of the winners and the runners-up from all Senate races in the United States between 2000 and 2002- excluding highly recognisable politicians such as Hilary Clinton and John Kerry.  Different students were given different questions, such as “who looks more competent?” and “who looks more honest?”.

Remarkably, judgements of who appeared more competent predicted approximately 70% of the elections.

Social scientists have since ruled out alternative explanations, such as whether the results were a product of poor image quality or the outcome of campaign spending. Such differences cannot explain the results.

Todorov states that a “general rule of science is that results should be replicable, especially if these results are surprising”. Accordingly, the appearance effect on election outcomes has since been replicated several times by researchers internationally.

One of the most famous replications was produced by John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas, where they found swiss children’s judgements predicted the outcomes of French parliamentary elections. Antonakis and Dalgas used children as they would be less knowledgeable about politics than adults, and they could therefore rule out preferences based on additional information.

Antonakis and Dalgas had 5- 13 year old children initially play a computer game reenacting Odysseus’s trip from Troy to Ithaca. Then, the children were asked to imagine that they were about to undertake the voyage, and were shown pairs of pictures of French politicians who ran for the French parliment, and were asked to choose one of them as the captain of their boat. Just like adults’ competence judgements, children’s captain choices predicted approximately 70% of the elections.

Have a go for yourself. Out of the two below, which person looks more competent?

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

If you chose the guy on the left, congratulations! These two politicians ran for the Wisconsin senate seat in 2004, and Democrat Russ Feingold (left) was victorious over Republican Timothy Michels (right).

More recently, Mark van Vugt and Allen Grabo in the Netherlands reviewed this body of research in a paper titled The Many Faces of Leadership: An Evolutionary-Psychology Approach. Their lab used these methods for the then upcoming 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and made a contingency based prediction that Trump would win the election. Note that this was back in November 2015 before even the primaries had concluded, and when Trump winning the election was unthinkable for most people.

 

 

Evidently, we form judgements of people’s faces automatically and consistently. Todorov argues the mistake physionomists made was conflating predictable judgements with the accuracy of character assessments.

The agreement on our first impressions make physiognomy possible. The ease with which we dispatch impressions makes the physiognomists’ promise appealing. Physiognomists used the wrong methods and reached the wrong conclusions, but they were right that we can’t help but form impressions. 

Trust and dominance

What exactly do these judgements correspond to then?

We’ve already established competence is perceived as the most important characteristic for politicians.

However, a key point emphasised in Face Value is that what people perceive as important can change in different contexts.

Imagine your country is currently at war and you have to cast your vote today. Who would you vote for, the face on the left or the right below?

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

If you’re like most people, you quickly opted for the face on the left.

However, what if you had to cast your vote during peacetime. Who would you vote for now?

Most people will reverse their choice and opt for the face on the right now. Todorov states; “This preference reversal is so easy to obtain that I often use it in classrooms.”

These images were produced by psychologist Antony Little and his colleagues here in the UK. The face produced on the left is more dominant and masculine, which is seen as a proxy for strong leadership. Conversely, the face on the right is perceived as more intelligent, forgiving and more likeable.

Now, look at the faces below.

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

You recognise these guys right? Back when the study was conducted, John Kerry was the Democratic candidate running against George W Bush for the U.S. Presidency.

The first pair of photos are actually morphs of 30 male faces. The faces were made by accentuating the differences between the shapes of Bush’s and Kerry’s faces from that of the average male face.

At the time of the U.S. election in 2004, the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I will leave the rest to your imagination.”

Todorov also makes clear that what we consider important also depends on our ideological inclinations and political leanings.

Out of the two faces below, who do you think would make a better leader?

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

The Danish researchers Lasse Lausten and Michael Petersen used faces generated by Todorov and Oosterhoof’s computer model and demonstrated that liberals tended to choose the face on the left, whereas conservatives tended to choose the more dominant face on the right.

Their research also illustrated that dominant-looking conservative candidates gained greater support, whereas dominant-looking liberal candidates were actually penalised- but only if they were men. Appearing dominant was bad news for female candidates, regardless of their political leanings.

Check out their face manipulations below.

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

The face has actually been manipulated to look less  or more dominant (photo on the left and right, respectively). When the politicians were not well known, this manipulation had an effect. Liberals were more open to this guy’s policy position if he was made to look less dominant. Likewise, conservatives were more receptive when he was made to look  more dominant.

Todorov states;

The political situation or our ideological inclinations can change what we consider important, but they don’t change our propensity to form impressions and act on those impressions. 

Although it is repetitive at times, the take home message from Face Value is that impressions of character attributes are highly similar, and boil down to two dimensions: dominance and trustworthiness.

Masculine appearance matters a great deal when it comes to impressions of dominance. Todorov states these impressions have a ‘kernel of truth’, as judgements of masculinity from faces tend to be associated with physical strength. “Physical strength is what primarily drives our attempt to read the ability of others to physically harm us.”

Todorov stresses that this is only a kernel, as most dominance hierarchies that matter in modern times are not based on physical strength. However this is reconcilable from an evolutionary perspective, and may serve as an example of a mismatch- psychological dispositions which served us well in our ancestral past, which are now misaligned with the demands of the modern world.

Also noted is that impressions of trustworthiness and dominance are not mutually exclusive: we tend to see untrustworthy faces as dominant, and dominant faces as untrustworthy.

Essentially what we’re evaluating when we see a new face is our gut reaction to how ‘good or bad’ we perceive the individual as being, and their level of power. As stated by Todorov;

Impressions of trustworthiness and dominance are the most important impressions, because they are our best effort, when only appearance information is available, to figure out the goodness or badness of the intentions of others and their ability to act on these actions.

Evolutionary stories

Evolutionary theory is weaved into the book’s overarching narrative, and Todorov evidently sees human psychology as a product of evolutionary processes. However, Todorov argues that although evolutionary psychology is much more sophisticated than Blackford and Newcomb’s character analyses which drew heavily on evolutionary thinking, making evolutionary inferences is just as hard today as it was 100 years ago.

However, is this the case? Testing evolutionary hypotheses is certainly challenging, and it remains that we are left inferring from observations today about what happened hundreds of thousands of years ago. However, we now have a wealth of accumulated scientific evidence, new technologies and research methods which allow scientists to better test evolutionary hypotheses which were not available then.

A whole chapter in Face Value is dedicated to evaluating the evolutionary hypothesis that the face provides an ‘honest signal’ of character. In particular, Todorov evaluates whether facial masculinity, specifically the ‘facial-width-to-height ratio’ is a predictor of aggression. “In a nutshell, the claim that men with masculine faces are not only perceived as dominant, aggressive and threatening, but also that they are dominant, aggressive, and threatening.”

The facial-width-to-height ratio measures the distance between the left and right cheek bones by the distance between the upper lip and brow, as illustrated below.

Image result for fWHR

Various studies show that we are sensitive to differences in this face ratio, as we perceive people with high ratios as being more aggressive and less trustworthy. However, what excited researchers was the possibility that this simple measure also predicts character traits.

In less than a 10 year period, over 60 scientific papers were published on the facial-width-to-height ratio. One of these papers was titled bad to the bone: facial structure predicts unethical behavior. The Canadian psychologists Justine Carré and Cheryl McCormick found that professional hockey players with a higher fWHRs were more likely to be in the penalty box, which was used as a straightforward measure of aggressive behaviour in an already aggressive sport.

The evolutionary logic behind such studies is that sexually dimorphic features in men are the result of male intrasexual competition. That is, bigger and stronger men were more reproductively successful, as they had a fighting advantage over smaller and weaker males.

However, Todorov states the paper ran into many methodological and theoretical issues. Evolutionary psychologist Bob Deaner and his colleagues doubted the results, and produced a large-scale replication of the hockey study using all NHL players except goalkeepers. They found no evidence that the fWHR predicts penalties directly linked to aggressive behaviour in the rink. However, Deaner and his colleagues did identify a key predictor of aggression: the size of the hockey players. The bigger players (those heavier and taller) tended to be more aggressive in the hockey rink.

The research on the facial width-to-height ratio indicates that rather than focusing solely on people’s faces, we rely on body size when judging physical formidability and by extension, aggressiveness and dominance.

Another leading evolutionary hypothesis for why fWHR could be an honest signal for character is sexual selection. It’s well established that heterosexual men find feminine faces more attractive, as a sign of fertility. The idea here is that because women are the choosier sex (as they invest more time and resources in raising children), they are attracted to masculine faces as masculinity signals good genetic quality.

However, Todorov argues the evidence is also stacked against this hypothesis. The strongest evidence against it comes from a meta-analytic review which found the correlation between gender and fWHR being .05, which is barely distinguishable from zero. A correlation this small means that gender can only explain up to 0.25% percent of the variation in fWHR across individuals. One would expect a much stronger correlation if fWHR was placed under sexual selection pressures.

Todorov notes that gender differences in fWHR are minuscule compared to gender differences we see in weight, height and muscle mass. Both weight and height have correlations with gender above .30, whereas the correlation between gender and muscle mass is above .80.

For fWHR to be sexually dimorphic, women would have to find men with masculine faces more attractive. However,  the evidence on the attractiveness of men with masculine faces is split. In some studies, women find men with masculine faces more attractive. In others, they find feminine faces more so. What complicates matters is a leading theory that women find dominant men more attractive during ovulation. However, a recently released large-scale study on women’s use of oral contraceptives failed to replicate this finding.

Rather, the research suggests what women find attractive are men’s faces that have colour hues associated with good health, rather than a masculine shaped face.

That the face does not provide honest signals of character does not mean all evolutionary hypotheses are false. Rather, it suggests that these specific evolutionary hypotheses are likely incorrect.

It also doesn’t mean that these first impressions are useless, irrational quirks.

Relying on the face alone, it makes sense to make inferences of one’s character and intent. That we consistently perceive dominant faces as untrustworthy and threatening may be baggage from our evolutionary past, and could serve as an example of error management theory. It may be safer to assume bad intent behind a dominant looking stranger and be wrong most of the time, than to make no attribution and learn otherwise.

Todorov argues that evidence of adaptations in the face facilitating social communication but not for inferences of character is not surprisingly appreciating the timeline of human evolution. We humans spent the majority of our evolutionary history in small groups, and have only recently begun living in large-scale industrialised society. Todorov states it is no coincidence that physiognomy was born at a time when chiefdoms emerged, and that it flourished in the 19th century- when large-scale industrialised migration commenced. The physiognomists promised an easy, intuitive way of dealing with the increased uncertainty of interacting with strangers on a daily basis.

Todorov concludes the book with the following passage:

If you imagine humankind evolving for 24 hours, the time we have been living in large societies populated with strangers amounts to less than 5 minutes– the last 5 minutes of the day. The rest of the time, we lived in in small groups in which people did not have to rely on appearance information to draw inferences about character. The reliance on appearance emerged only in the last 5 minutes of our evolutionary history. Substantive person knowledge that was easily accessible in small-scale societies replaced by appearance stereotypes in large societies. In our quest to know others in the absence of good information, we are forced to rely on appearance information. This information could be useful as a guide to the intentions and actions of the person in the immediate here and now, but it is misleading as a guide to the person’s character… As long as we remember that, we will be less likely to fall into the physiognomist’s trap of seeing the face as a source of information about character.

Implications

What should business professionals take from all this? Hopefully, recruitment specialists accept it’s a bad idea to measure the width of people’s heads for selection purposes.

Despite the field’s disappointments, the revival of physiognomy has entered the business world. For example, an Israeli start-up called Faceception claims it’s software can not only identify complex personality traits from people’s faces, but that it can also spot terrorists and paedophiles. Business professionals should maintain healthy scepticism of such technologies, and seek evidence for such bold claims. Likewise, they should evaluate the ethical and legal dimensions of such technologies carefully.

Appreciating how consistent yet inaccurate our first impressions can be, the psychology of first impressions has serious implications for the conventional interview, and lends credence to the practice of blind assessments.

It’s not surprising that interviews are a weak predictor of job performance, with the typical correlation below .15. The discrepancy between the reality and expectations of interviews is what Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross call the interview illusion. Todorov argues that letters of reference are much better predictors of performance than interviews, as they summarise a much larger sample of observations. “In the world of available evidence, first impressions are of little value.”

Anna Lelkes was the first women to become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the best in the world. It took Anna more than 20 years of playing as a ‘non-member’ to receive this status. Until recently, prestigious orchestras were comprised entirely by men. It was only until the introduction of blind auditions that the influx of women began. That is, prospective candidates being evaluated by a hiring committee behind closed curtains.

Todorov argues that had Anna Lelkes been screened in a blind audition at the very beginning, she would not have had to wait 20 years to become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

If we care about fairness and better outcomes, we should structure decisions to increase access to valid performance-based information and limit access to appearance based information.

 


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of Face Value.

 

*Article updated 4th December 2017

Why anti-corruption strategies may backfire

One of the defining attributes of humans is that we are champion cooperators, surpassing levels of cooperation far beyond what is observed in other species across the animal kingdom. Understanding how cooperation is sustained, particularly in anonymous large-scale societies, remains a central question for both evolutionary scientists and policy makers.

Social scientists frequently use behavioural game theory to model cooperation in laboratory settings. These experiments suggest that ‘institutional punishment’ can be used to sustain cooperation in large groups- a set up analogous to the role governments play in wider society. In the real-world however, corruption can undermine the effectiveness of such institutions.

In July’s edition of the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Michael Muthukrishna and his colleagues Patrick Francois, Shayan Pourahmadi and Joe Henrich published an experimental study which rather cleverly incorporated corruption into a classic behavioural economic game.

Corruption worldwide remains widespread, unevenly distributed and costly. The authors cite estimates from the World Bank, stating US$1 trillion is paid in bribes alone each year. However, levels of corruption vary considerably across geographies. For example, estimates suggest that in Kenya 8 out of 10 interactions with public officials require a bribe. Conversely, indices suggest Denmark has the lowest level of corruption, and the average Dane may never pay a bribe in their lifetime.

Transparency International state that more than 6 billion people live in countries with a serious corruption problem. The costs of corruption range from reduced welfare programmes, to death from collapsed buildings. In other words, corruption can kill.

Michael Muthukrishna’s work suggests that corruption is largely inevitable due to our evolved psychological dispositions; the challenge is apparently to find the conditions where corruption and its detrimental impacts can be minimised. As Muthukrishna is quoted saying in an LSE press release for the paper:

Corruption is actually a form of cooperation rooted in our history, and easier to explain than a functioning, modern state. Modern states represent an unprecedented scale of cooperation that is always under threat by smaller scales of cooperation. What we call ‘corruption’ is a smaller scale of cooperation undermining a larger-scale.

Playing Bribes

What follows is an overview of the studies’ experimental design and results. If this is of little interest, I suggest skipping to the section titled ‘Backfire effect’.

To model corruption, the authors modified a behavioural economic game called the ‘institutional punishment game’. The participants were anonymous, and came from countries with varying levels of corruption. Overall, 274 participants took part in the study. The participants were provided with an endowment, which they could divide between themselves and a public pool. The public pool is multiplied by some amount and then divided equally among the players, regardless of their contributions.

The institutional punishment game is designed so that it is in every player’s self-interest to let others contribute to the public goods pool, whilst contributing nothing oneself. However, the gain for the group overall is highest if everybody contributes the maximum possible. Each round one group member is randomly assigned the leader, who can allocate punishments using taxes extracted from other players.

The ‘bribery game’ that Muthukrishna and his colleagues developed is the same as the basic game, except that each player had the ability to bribe the leader. Therefore, the leader could see both each players’ contributions to the public pool, and also the amount each player gave to them personally. The experimenters manipulated the ‘pool multiplier’ (a proxy for economic potential) and the ‘punishment multiplier’ (the power of the leader to punish).

For each player’s move, the leader could decide to do nothing, accept the bribe offered, or punish the player by taking away their points. Any points offered to the leader that he or she rejected were returned to the group member who made the offer. Group members could see only the leader’s actions towards them and their payoff, but not the leader’s actions towards other group members.

Compared to with the basic public goods game, the addition of bribes caused a large decrease in public good provisioning (a decline of 25%).

Leaders with a stronger punishment multiplier at their disposal (referred to as ‘strong leaders’) were approximately twice as likely to accept bribes and were three times less likely to do nothing (such as punish free-riders). As expected by the authors, more power led to more corrupt behaviour.

Having generated corruption, the authors introduced transparency to the bribery game. In the ‘partial transparency’ condition, group members could see not only the leader’s actions towards them, but also the leader’s own contributions to the public pool. However, they did not see the leader’s actions to other group members. In the ‘full transparency’ condition, information on each member and the leader’s subsequent actions was made fully available (that is, individual group members contributions to the pool, bribes offered to the leader, and the leader’s subsequent actions in each case).

Although the costs of bribery were seen in all contexts, the detrimental effects were most pronounced in the poor economic conditions.

The experiments demonstrated that corruption mitigation effectively increased contributions when leaders were strong or the economic potential was rich. When leaders were weak (that is, their punitive powers were low and economic potential was poor), the apparent corruption mitigation strategy of full transparency had no effect, and partial transparency actually further decreased contributions to levels lower than that of the standard bribery game.

Backfire effect

The study indicates that corruption mitigation strategies help in some contexts, but elsewhere may cause the situation to deteriorate and can therefore backfire. As stated by the authors; “[…] proposed panaceas, such as transparency, may actually be harmful in some contexts.”

The findings are not surprising from a social psychological perspective, and support a vast literature on the impacts of social norms on behaviour. Transparency and exposure to institutional corruption may enforce the norm that most people are engaging in corrupt behaviours, and that such behaviour is permissible (or that one needs to also engage in such dealings to succeed). Why partial transparency had a more detrimental impact than full transparency when leaders were weak is not made clear however.

Remarkably, the authors found that participants who had grown up in more corrupt countries were more willing to accept bribes. The most plausible explanation presented is that exposure to corruption whilst growing up led to these social norms being internalized, which manifested in these individuals’ behaviour during the experiments.

It’s important to note that this is only one experimental study looking into anti-corruption strategies, and that caution is required when extending these research findings to practice. As stated by the authors; “Laboratory work on the causes and cures of corruption must inform and be informed by real-world investigations of corruption from around the globe.”

This aside, the authors’ research challenges widely held assumptions about how best to reduce corruption, and may help explain why the ‘cures for corruption’ which may prove successful in rich nations may not work elsewhere. To paraphrase the late Louis Brandeis, ‘sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, yet this may depend on climatic conditions and the prevalence of pathogens’.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to read to full paper.

 

References

Muthukrishna, M., Francois, P., Pourahmadi, S., & Henrich, J. (2017). Corrupting cooperation and how anti-corruption strategies may backfire. Nature Human Behaviour.

Milinski, M. (2017). Economics: Corruption made visible. Nature Human Behaviour.

When Less is Best (LSE, 2017); Available here

Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 (Transparency International, 2015); Available here 

 

Image credit: George Marks/Getty Images.

 

The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald Trump

Almost 63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump’s victory defied experts’ predictions, and shocked the world.

How could a man widely dismissed as a joke, a conspiracy theorist and an impulsive narcissist with no political experience whatsoever, capture the world’s most powerful political position?

Not only did Trump perform dismally in the presidential debates and routinely spread blatant falsehoods throughout his campaign. He also branded Mexican immigrants as rapists, where footage of him boasting about sexually assaulting women subsequently emerged. Trump mocked war heroes and the disabled, dismissed climate change as a hoax created by the Chinese, and launched personal attacks on members of his own political party.

Many explanations have been presented since the election of President Trump. For example, many point out that Hilary Clinton in fact won the popular vote, and that procedural issues were a contributing factor. The FBI investigation into Clinton’s email usage is also listed as one of the main reasons. Others either highlight the inadequacies of Hilary Clinton’s campaign, or emphasise the sexism Clinton faced as a presidential candidate.

There is some validity to all these points, and they were likely contributing factors. However, these are proximate explanations for why Donald Trump won the election, rather than the ultimate explanation. After all, these factors can’t explain why Trump received the Republican nomination, and managed to secure millions of votes.

A new paper written by psychologist Dan P. McAdams sheds light on the matter.

Inside the Mind of Trump

Dan P. McAdams is a world leading figure on personality, who has helped reconcile various different strands of personality psychology. His three layered model of personality featured prominently in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis

Prior to the 2016 U.S. Election, McAdams wrote an in-depth article for the Atlantic Magazine titled The Mind of Donald Trump. In this piece, McAdams produced an impartial investigation of Donald Trump’s extraordinary personality, and outlined how his personality may shape his possible presidency. (I recall sharing this article on Facebook when it was still deemed unthinkable for Donald Trump to win the election).

McAdams is back, with a publication in the new journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.

Primal Dominance

As opposed to investigating Donald Trump’s personality, McAdams’ new essay provides an overview of leadership and followship psychology through the lens of evolution. Essentially, McAdams argues that Trump’s appeal to millions of voters was his uncanny ability to channel what is termed ‘primal dominance’. “Like the alpha male of a chimpanzee colony, Trump leads (and inspires) through intimidation, bluster, and threat, and through the establishment of short-term, opportunistic relationships with other high-status agents.”

In this light, Trump’s aggressive leadership style is nothing new. Rather, Trump channels the psychology of dominance that traces back millions of years in human evolution, to our primate heritage. The human and chimpanzee lineages split off from their common ancestor approximately 5 to 7 million years ago. According to McAdams, both primate species took with them a proclivity for social hierarchy, and the corresponding psychology of dominance.

To highlight the similarities between the species, McAdams cites the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, who illustrated the aggressive strategies chimpanzees use to secure leadership positions. As stated by McAdams; “The top chimp achieves his standing through aggression, intimidation, and threat. Prerequisites for the top post often include being large and being strong, though smaller dominant chimps can compensate through powerful vocal displays and other intimidating tactics.”

Frans de Waal wrote a book called Chimpanzee Politics back in 1982, which offered the first overview of the lives and social strategies of primates, and provided a mirror reflection of human nature. Apparently politicians such as Newt Gringrich flocked to the book upon its release. However, in many ways Chimpanzee Politics appears more relevant today. As stated by McAdams:

When the first edition of Chimpanzee Politics appeared in 1982, readers were struck by how much chimps turn out to be like humans. But the case of Donald Trump shows how much humans turn out to be like chimps.

However, the story of leadership strategies is a bit more complicated when it comes to us homo-sapiens. We humans are a cultural species, and rely heavily on cultural know-how for our survival and reproduction. We humans have crossed what has been called the ‘Rubicon of cumulative cultural evolution’ by evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich—kicking off an evolutionary process of innovation and knowledge transfer which has shaped our biology, and is now the driving force of human evolution itself.

The Psychology of Prestige

With the emergence of cultural evolution, a new way of attaining status emerged—a form of leadership referred to as prestige. This form of leadership does not rely on brute force and intimidation, but rather on the socially valued skills and expertise. As a cultural species, we grant high status to those who advance cultural learning within our communities—covering domains such a hunting, healthcare, cooking, caregiving, and the arts of defence.

At first glance, one could consider Trump as a prestigious leader. Not only is Trump a prominent businessman, Trump was originally considered a thought leader in business. McAdams highlights that Trump was made famous for his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, which burst in onto the world stage as an expert. If one new nothing else about the Donald, they may assume that Trump used the psychology of prestige to attain his position. However, McAdams states that a casual reading of The Art of the Deal reveals why this is evidently not the case.

But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as even Trump’s most ardent admirers would acknowledge. Even a casual reading of The Art of the Deal reveals that the cultural knowledge Donald Trump aims to transmit is not so much a specialized portfolio formulated to address a specific problem in culture but rather a more general set of strategies aimed at achieving social dominance—dominance in virtually any context in which “deals” are to be made, from real estate to politics to interpersonal relationships.

Which brings us to one of the main arguments presented by McAdams. Prestige psychology is a junior rival to primal dominance, and does not necessarily hold an advantage as a leadership strategy. Rather, dominance is in many ways a more successful  leadership strategy than prestige, but comes at great cost to the collective. What is novel is the remarkable extent to which Trump has used dominance as a leadership strategy to secure the presidency. As stated by McAdams:

If President Obama tried to steer the ship of state slightly toward prestige psychology, Donald Trump has swerved violently in the opposite direction, creating a political and psychological whiplash. No U.S. president in recent memory, and perhaps none ever, has tapped so effectively into the primal psychology of dominance.

What is largely omitted from McAdams’ essay is the environmental factors which may have facilitated the rise of Trump. For example, recent research from London Business School suggests a preference for dominant leaders increases during times of uncertainty (primarily economic insecurity, and threats of terrorism and war).

In this respect, one can speculate that the uncertainty caused by a chaotic presidency may actually increase desire for an authoritarian leader, rather than attenuate it. Perhaps this would be another type of ‘political and psychological whiplash’.


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

To download the full paper, click here.

References

McAdams, D.P (2017) The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald J. Trump, Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 1(2). Available here.

Henrich, J. (2016) The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press

Kakkar, H., & Sivanathan, N. (2017). When the appeal of a dominant leader is greater than a prestige leader. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201617711.

Tracy, J. (2016) Take Pride: Why the deadliest of sins holds the secret to successHoughton Mifflin Harcourt

Image credit: DonkeyHotey

The Illusion of Knowledge

Most things are complicated, even things that appear rather simple.

Take the toilet as an example. As a thought experiment, would you be able to explain to someone else how a toilet works?

If you’re fumbling for an answer, you’re not alone. Most people cannot either.

This not just a party trick. Psychologists have used several means to discover the extent of our ignorance.

For example, Rebecca Lawson at the University of Liverpool presented people with a drawing of a bicycle which had several components missing. They were asked to fill in the drawing with the missing parts.

Sounds easy, right? Apparently not.

Nearly half of the participants were unable to complete the drawings correctly. Also, people didn’t do much better when they were presented with completed drawings and asked to identify the correct one.

Four badly drawn bikes
Four badly drawn bikes (Lawson, 2006)

To a greater or lesser extent, we all suffer from an illusion of understanding. That is, we think we understand how the world works when our understanding is rudimentary.

In their new book The Knowledge Illusion, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explore how we humans know so much, despite our individual ignorance.

Thinking is for action

To appreciate our mental limitations, we first need to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of the human brain?

The authors note there is no shortage of of explanations of what the human mind evolved for. For example, there are those who argue the mind evolved to support language, or that it is adapted for social interactions, hunting, or acclimatising to changing climates. “[…] [T]hey are all probably right because the mind actually evolved to do something more general than any of them… Namely, the mind evolved to support our ability to act effectively.”

This more general explanation is important, as it helps establish why we don’t retain all the information we receive.

The reason we’re not all hyperthymesics is that it would make us less successful at what we’ve evolved to do. The mind is busy trying to choose actions by picking out the most useful stuff and leaving the rest behind. Remembering everything gets in the way of focusing on the deeper principles that allow us to recognize how a new situation resembles past situations and what kind of actions will be effective.

The authors argue the mind is not like a computer. Instead, the mind is a flexible problem solver that stores the most useful information to aid survival and reproduction. Storing superficial details is often unnecessary, and at times counterproductive.

Community of knowledge

Evidently, we would not do very well if we relied solely on our individual knowledge. We may consider ourselves highly intelligent, yet we wouldn’t survive very long if we found ourselves alone in the wilderness. So how do we survive and thrive, despite our mental limitations?

The authors argue the secret of our success is our ability to collaborate and share knowledge.

[W]e collaborate. That’s the major benefit of living in social groups, to make it easy to share our skills and knowledge. It’s not surprising that we fail to identify what’s in our heads versus what’s in others’, because we’re generally- perhaps always- doing things that involve both. Whether either of us washes dishes, we thank heaven that someone knows how to make dish soap and someone else knows how to provide warm water from a faucet. We wouldn’t have a clue.

One of the most important ingredients of humanity’s success is cumulative culture— our ability to store and transmit knowledge, enabled by our hyper-sociality and cooperative skills. This fundamental process is known as cultural evolution, and is outlined eloquently in Joe Henrich’s book The Secret of Our Success

Throughout The Knowledge Illusion, the metaphor of a beehive is used to describe our collective intelligence. “[…][P]eople are like bees and society a beehive: Our intelligence resides not in individual brains but in the collective mind.” However, the authors highlight that unlike beehives which have remained largely the same for millions of years, our shared intelligence is becoming more powerful and our collective pursuits are growing in complexity.

Collective intelligence

In psychology, intelligence has largely been confined to ranking individuals according to cognitive ability. The authors argue psychologists like general intelligence as it’s readily quantifiable, and has some power to predict important life outcomes. For example, people with higher IQ scores do better academically and perform better at their jobs.

Whilst there’s a wealth of evidence in favour of general intelligence, Sloman and Fernbach argue that we may be thinking about intelligence in the wrong way. “Awareness that knowledge lives in a community gives us a different way to conceive of intelligence. Instead of regarding intelligence as a personal attribute, it can be understood as how much an individual contributes to the community.”

A key argument is that groups don’t need a lot of intelligent people to succeed, but rather a balance of complimentary attributes and skill-sets. For example to run a company, you need some people who are cautious and others who are risk takers; some who are good with numbers and others who are good with people.

For this reason, Sloman and Fernbach stress the need to measure group performance, rather than individual intelligence. “Whether we’re talking about a team of doctors, mechanics, researchers, or designers, it is the group that makes the final product, not any one individual.”

A team led by Anita Woolley at the Tepper School of Business have begun devising ways of measuring collective intelligence, with some progress made. The idea of measuring collective intelligence is new, and many questions remain. However, the authors contend that the success of a group is not predominantly a function of the intelligence of individual members, but rather how well they work together.

Committing to the community

Despite all the benefits of our communal knowledge, it also has dangerous consequences. The authors argue believing we understand more than we do is the source of many of society’s most pressing problems.

Decades worth of research shows significant gap between what science knows, and what the public believes. Many scientists have tried addressing this deficit by providing people with more factual information. However, this approach has been less than successful.

For example, Brendan Nyhan’s experiments into vaccine opposition illustrated that factual information did not make people more likely to vaccinate their children. Some of the information even backfired– providing parents stories of children who contracted measles were more likely to believe that vaccines have serious side effects.

Similarly, the illusion of understanding helps explains the political polarisation we’ve witnessed in recent times.

In the hope of reducing political polarisation, Sloman and Fernbach conducted experiments to see whether asking people to explain their causal understanding of a given topic would make them less extreme. Although they found doing so for non-controversial matters did increase openness and intellectual humility, the technique did not work on highly charged political issues, such as abortion or assisted suicide.

Viewing knowledge as embedded in communities helps explain why these approaches don’t work. People tend to have a limited understanding of complex issues, and have trouble absorbing details. This means that people do not have a good understanding of what they know, and they rely heavily on their community for the basis of their beliefs. This produces passionate, polarised attitudes that are hard to change.

Despite having little to no understanding of complicated policy matters such as U.K. membership of the European Union or the American healthcare system, we feel sufficiently informed about such topics. More than this, we even feel righteous indignation when people disagree with us. Such issues become moralised, where we defend the position of our in-groups.

As stated by Sloman and Fernbach (emphasis added):

[O]ur beliefs are not isolated pieces of data that we can take and discard at will. Instead, beliefs are deeply intertwined with other beliefs, shared cultural values, and our identities. To discard a belief means discarding a whole host of other beliefs, forsaking our communities, going against those we trust and love, and in short, challenging our identities. According to this view, is it any wonder that providing people with a little information about GMOs, vaccines, or global warming have little impact on their beliefs and attitudes? The power that culture has over cognition just swamps these attempts at education.

This effect is compounded by the Dunning-Kruger effect: the unskilled just don’t know what they don’t know. This matters, because all of us are unskilled in most domains of our lives.

According to the authors, the knowledge illusion underscores the important role experts play in society. Similarly, Sloman and Fernbach emphasise the limitations of direct democracy– outsourcing decision making on complicated policy matters to the general public. “Individual citizens rarely know enough to make an informed decision about complex social policy even if they think they do. Giving a vote to every citizen can swamp the contribution of expertise to good judgement that the wisdom of crowds relies on.”

They defend charges that their stance is elitist, or anti-democratic. “We too believe in democracy. But we think that the facts about human ignorance provide an argument for representative democracy, not direct democracy. We elect representatives. Those representatives should have the time and skill to find the expertise to make good decisions. Often they don’t have the time because they’re too busy raising money, but that’s a different issue.”

Nudging for better decisions

By understanding the quirks of human cognition, we can design environments so that these psychological quirks help us rather than hurt us. In a nod to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s philosophy of libertarian paternalism, the authors provide some nudges to help people make better decisions:

1. Reduce complexity

Because much of our knowledge is possessed by the community and not by us individually, we need to radically scale back our expectations of how much complexity people can tolerate. This seems pertinent for what consumers are presented with during high-stakes financial decisions.

2. Simple decision rules

Provide people rules or shortcuts that perform well and simplify the decision making process.

For example, the financial world is just too complicated and people’s abilities too limited to fully understand it.

Rather than try to educate people, we should give them simple rules that can be applied with little knowledge or effort– such as ‘save 15% of your income’, or ‘get a fifteen-year mortgage if you’re over fifty’.

3. Just-in-time education

The idea is to give people information just before they need to use it. For example, a class in secondary school that reaches the basics of managing debt and savings is not that helpful.

Giving people information just before they use it means they have the opportunity to practice what they have just learnt, increasing the change that it is retained.

4. Check your understanding 

What can individuals do to help themselves? A starting point is to be aware of our tendency to be explanation foes.

It’s not practical to master all details of every decision, but it can be helpful to appreciate the gaps in our understanding.

If the decision is important enough, we may want to gather more information before making a decision we may later regret.


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of The Knowledge Illusion

References

Fernbach, P. M., Rogers, T., Fox, C. R., & Sloman, S. A. (2013). Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science, 24(6), 939-946.

Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Pantheon.

Henrich, J. (2016). The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press.

Kuncel, N. R., Hezlett, S. A., & Ones, D. S. (2004). Academic performance, career potential, creativity, and job performance: Can one construct predict them all? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(1), 148-161.

Lawson, R. (2006). The science of cycology: Failures to understand how everyday objects work. Memory & Cognition, 34(8), 1667-1675.

Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., Richey, S., & Freed, G. L. (2014). Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics, 133(4), e835-e842.

Sunstein, C., & Thaler, R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. New Haven.

Thaler, R. H. (2013). Financial literacy, beyond the classroom. The New York Times.

Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., & Malone, T. W. (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science, 330(6004), 686-688.