The Social Instinct, by Nichola Raihani

The pandemic has been a stark reminder of just how much we rely on one another. Like plagues of the past, the novel coronavirus has exploited our social nature. But our sociality is also our Get Out of Jail Free card.

Billions of people complying with strict lockdowns and the race to roll-out COVID-19 vaccines in record time are examples of our extraordinary ability to cooperate. This begs the question: why do we cooperate with each other in the first place?

In her new book The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World, Nichola Raihani claims that this may be the most pressing scientific question of our time. To get to the bottom of this, Raihani takes us on an intellectual journey, chronicling some of planet Earth’s most successful social species.

The ‘we’ in ‘me’

Nichola Raihani is a professor of psychology at University College London, who actually trained as a zoologist (making her a rare breed of psychologist). Unearthing exactly what humans do and do not have in common with other animals has been the mainstay of Raihani’s scientific career.

Whether it’s the Taj Mahal or the International Space Station, staggering feats of human cooperation are clear for all of us to see. “Every human achievement we can think of, from the trifling to the truly magnificent, relies on cooperation”, Raihani writes. “From the most mundane of activities, like a morning commute, to our most tremendous achievements, such as sending rockets into space. Cooperation is our species’ superpower.”

Invisible to the naked eye is the vast array of cooperation that takes place at microscopic levels, even under our own skin. In The Social Instinct, Raihani reminds us that we are multicellular organisms, composed of trillions of cells working around the clock to keep us alive and kicking.

To let this sink in, Raihani invites us to look in the mirror and see ourselves as a Russian doll.

You are you on the outside, but this external appearance isn’t all there is. If you prise the outer shell open, you’ll find another version of you looking inside, which itself contains another version and another within. You are simultaneously an individual and a collective. Your body is made up of trillions of cells- around 37.2 trillion to be precise. For perspective that’s more than 5,000 times the number of people on earth. Most cell types contain forty-six chromosomes and each of these accommodates genes, ranging in number from a few hundred to many thousands.

From this perspective, Raihani argues that the most pivotal moments in human history were not the dawn of agriculture or the invention of the wheel. Rather, they were a coalescing of chance events millions of years ago that led to our multicellular existence.

This expansionist view of cooperation explains many wonders of the natural world, including how social insects appear to morph into superorganisms. Like separate parts of a car, the vast array of roles social insects play only really makes sense when we understand the overarching ‘vehicle’, which in this case is the insect’s colony. According to Raihani, social insects’ colonies mirror our multicellular bodies, where the Queen is akin to egg-producing ovaries, and the sterile workers resemble cells in our bodies responsible for general maintenance and repair.

Worker bees working hard. On hot days, some workers are tasked with collecting water and spraying it over combs to cool the hive down. Photo credit: London Economic Times.

Some public intellectuals also describe human societies as a form of superorganism, arguing that our ‘hive-like’ civilisations are the products of evolutionary forces clashing at higher levels of organisation. Despite the parallels, Raihani pours cold water on the idea that human groups resemble insect colonies. To make her case, Raihani draws lessons from everyone’s favourite business TV show: The Apprentice.

There is a fundamental difference between groups that are formed on the basis of high relatedness, and those whose members interests only align because of happenstance… On The Apprentice, goodwill rapidly evaporates when contestants find themselves in the losing team. When there is no rival team to unite against, a contestant’s tenure in the competition depends on their ability to outmanoeuvre their teammates. A familiar pattern usually results: people swiftly turn on one another, erstwhile allies become vicious rivals. Insults fly around the room, as contestants tried to absolve themselves of blame while incriminating their useless colleagues. When between-group competition is no longer relevant, then competition within the group becomes much more apparent. 

Although Raihani casts doubt on natural selection acting on human groups, she seems to tacitly endorse a new variant of the theory called ‘cultural group selection’. After all, how did a hominid species that evolved for life in small groups go on to build chiefdoms, nation states and corporations?

Social living

Others see our humanity reflected in the faces of our primate cousins. Chimpanzees and bonobos are our closet living relatives on the evolutionary tree of life, where we share over 98% of our DNA with them. The similarities between us and these great apes are striking. That said, Raihani convincingly argues that comparing ourselves to these primates can only reveal so much about us. How come?

Most of the food early humans ate had to be hunted or gathered, which is essentially impossible to do alone. Therefore, our distant ancestors had to band together if they wanted to avoid starvation. Other primate species didn’t face this pressure. Gorillas essentially live in ‘giant salad bowls’, and chimpanzees mainly snack on fruits. Their ‘fast food’ meant these primates didn’t need to collaborate to survive, which narrowed their evolutionary strategy. In contrast, we humans had no choice but to cooperate not only to eat, but to teach each other critical life skills and to raise our helpless infants.

In The Social Instinct, Raihani details the rich social lives of animals she’s studied intimately, such as the cleaner fish that roam the Great Barrier Reef. Although the similarities between us and these exotic creatures may not appear obvious, we apparently have a surprising amount in common: world-class cooperation. These cleaner fish essentially operate underwater ‘hairdressers’, where male and female cleaners frequently do business together. Raihani and her colleagues have shown that if a female cleaner mistreats a client by biting them in no-go areas, their male partners will punish them. Despite male cleaners acting like domineering arseholes (they also cheat), Raihani argues this sort of behaviour resembles ‘third party punishment’ in humans, which is one of the building blocks of large-scale societies.

A bluestreak cleaner wrasse giving an oriental sweetlip the spar treatment. Photo Credit: Boris Pamikov / Shutterstock.

Although The Social Instinct is in many respects a celebration of cooperation, it’s evident that competition can also lead to good in the world. For example, Raihani and her colleague Sarah Smith trawled through Just Giving’s fundraising pages of people running the London Marathon, with the hunch that Charles Darwin’s grand theory of sexual selection may help explain why people bother donating to charity in the first place. They found that if an attractive woman had previously received a generous donation from a man, other men would subsequently try to outcompete one other by posting larger donations on her fundraising page (I know, shocking).

This is what evolutionary psychologists call ‘competitive altruism’, where people behave altruistically because of the benefits that come with flaunting one’s virtue. Raihani suggests these tournaments are the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail. But instead of showing off their physical prowess, these men are signalling their generosity (or rather, they’re flashing their stacks of cash).

The renegades within

Just as competition can be a force for good, cooperation also has a dark side. Where there is cooperation, cheaters and shirkers lurk in the shadows. At the microscopic level, this truism can help us understand the scourge of cancer. Cancers are essentially renegades within our multicellular bodies. They are cheating cells that ignore instructions, refuse to cooperate, and proliferate to the detriment of our health.

Seen from another angle however, cancerous cells are actually cooperating with one another. Although cancers disrupt their cellular societies, they band together to further their own selfish interests, however suicidal their mission may be. This reveals the paradox of cooperation etched in The Social Instinct. “Cooperation and competition are simply two sides of the same coin”, Raihani writes. “What looks like cooperation through one lens will often be felt as competition through another.”

Scientists are converging on this understanding of cooperation as a way to outcompete rival groups. Although this theoretical breakthrough enriches our understanding of cooperation, it also reveals an uncomfortable truth: if cooperation is a way to get ahead, then a corollary of this is that cooperation usually has victims. “In fact, cooperation without victims is the most difficult kind to achieve”.

This truth bomb helps us make sense of the corruption that plagues societies across the world. We can view corruption as a form of cooperation where the goodies go to our nearest and dearest, which subsequently undermines the integrity of our formal institutions. Preferentially hiring a member of your family for a job or greasing the palm of an executive to secure a lucrative contract are both cooperative acts, Raihani argues, as they both involve helping and trust. But of course, it is society at large that ends up footing the bill.   

As stated by Raihani:

If someone were to ask you whether it would be acceptable to lie in court to exonerate a family member, what would you say? What about if you were asked whether you had a moral duty to hire the best candidate for a job rather than a less qualified friend? Answers to these sorts of questions are neither straight forward nor universally endorsed, because cooperating at one scale is often traded off against cooperation at another. Our sense of what is moral or immoral depends on how we feel these competing interests ought to be balanced. To put it put this another way, one might mistrust someone who ‘always helps his friends’. But a similarly damning accusation can be levelled at someone who ‘doesn’t help their friends’.

Eric and Donald Trump campaigning in Ashburn, Virginia, August 2, 2016. “Nepotism is kind of a factor of life,” Eric Trump said during an interview with Forbes. Photo credit: Evan Vucci/ Shutterstock.

These different scales of cooperation also help explain the setbacks of the global vaccination programme. Few politicians would disagree with COVAX’s maxim that ‘no one is safe unless everyone is safe’. Yet rich countries have essentially gobbled up the globe’s supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, and are prioritising booster shots for their citizens over immunising the rest of the world. To put it another way, intense cooperation within their borders has come at the expense of poorer nations– which inadvertently prolongs the pandemic and makes all of us less safe.

This double-edged nature of cooperation, Raihani argues, is the essential ingredient and also the biggest threat to humanity’s success. “Our supreme commitment to cooperation is the key to solving the massive global problems we now face”, Raihani writes. “But it is our ability to cooperate that might also be our eventual downfall.”

Think global, act local

The human population will soon pass the 8 billion mark. This is an extraordinary achievement for a primate that is physically weak and not exceptionally bright either. Cooperation is undoubtedly a key element of our success, and Raihani credits our social instincts for our very existence. That said, our domination of planet Earth forces us to transcend our social instincts.

The problems humanity faces in the 21st century are daunting, and require greater global cooperation than has ever been mustered. Despite the chaos created by the novel coronavirus, Raihani states that pandemics are far from our only challenge. For example, global warming and the mass die-off of species are two devastating own goals that humanity has scored. And although the world’s nuclear stockpile has decreased dramatically since the peak of the Cold War, there are still enough nuclear weapons to blow ourselves to smithereens.

We have right to be concerned about the world our children will inherit. However, Raihani argues that we must not lose hope. Unlike any other creature on Earth, human ingenuity and adaptability allows us to work around the laws of nature and to crawl our way out of sticky social dilemmas. “We are not simply stuck with the games that nature gives us: we can change the rules.”

To overcome these seemingly insurmountable challenges, Raihani says we need to ‘think global and act local’. This catchphrase was coined by the late Elinor Ostrom, who challenged conventional economic thinking and proved that the ‘tragedy of the commons’ can be overcome with hybrid forms of governance. Acknowledging the magnitude of her contributions, Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

There is almost a fairy-tale to be told about cooperation, Raihani concludes. “If used well it will deliver riches, but in the wrong hands or used in the wrong ways, it will bring ruin”. The decisions our leaders make over the coming decades will determine if this story has a happy-ending, or serves as a cautionary tale for future civilisations.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World is published by Penguin. Click here to buy a copy.

No Best Way, with Stephen Colarelli

Here’s an episode I recorded with Stephen Colarelli for This View of Life podcast.

Stephen Colarelli is professor of psychology at Central Michigan University. His research explores how evolutionary theory can influence how we think about, conduct research on, and manage behaviour in organisations.

Steve and I discuss the application of evolutionary psychology to Human Resource Management. We cover Steve’s academic career, and his books No Best Way: An Evolutionary Perspective on Human Resource Management, and The Biological Foundations of Organizational Behavior (which Steve co-edited with his colleague Richard Arvey). We also explore the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the world of work.

Strategic Instincts, by Dominic Johnson

Among political scientists and policy wonks, it’s widely believed that cognitive biases are not only detrimental, but responsible for some of history’s worst policy blunders.

Whether it’s the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Chernobyl, or the Global Financial Crisis, it’s easy to think of colossal disasters that back this up. But is this really the whole story?

In his new book Strategic Instincts, Dominic Johnson challenges this worldview, arguing that seemingly irrational behaviour can, with the right dosage and in the right context, actually enhance performance in the arena of international politics.

Drawing on insights from the field of evolutionary psychology, Johnson makes the case that cognitive biases act as ‘strategic instincts’, which can provide politicians with a competitive edge in policy making— particularly in high stakes, and highly uncertain, military confrontations.

To test his theory, Johnson takes his readers on a tour of recent history, and places a trio of influential cognitive biases under the microscope.

Fortune favours the bold

Dominic Johnson is a Professor of International Relations at Oxford University. Holding not one but two PhDs (what have you achieved in life?), Johnson has dedicated his academic career to exploring how the latest scientific findings from evolutionary biology are challenging our understanding of global conflict and cooperation.

To start off our intellectual journey, Johnson turns the clock back to the 18th century and places us on the battlefield of the American War of Independence.

By combing the historical and biographical accounts of the Revolutionary War, Johnson argues that the United States benefited in no small measure from a remarkable confidence— arguably overconfidence—that emanated from its charismatic founder, George Washington.

Before delving further, what does Johnson mean when he says George Washington was ‘overconfident’?

A well-established finding from modern psychology is that mentally healthy people are generally overconfident (with men being particularly cocky). What this body of research suggests is that we individually tend to overestimate our abilities, as well as our control over life events, and we also underestimate our vulnerability to risk (although these are technically termed ‘positive illusions’, Johnson uses the catch-phrase ‘overconfidence’ for simplicity’s sake). In sum, we tend to think more highly of ourselves than who we really are (‘we’ largely being ‘Westerners’. More on this point later).

Despite the substantial personal and social costs of pervasive positive illusions, Johnson argues overconfidence, in moderate amounts and in right context, can present a wealth of benefits. For example, those of us who are the most optimistically overconfident reap many benefits in life, including greater health and career success. Similarly, Johnson’s research outlines how overconfidence can give armies an upper hand on the battlefield.

According to Johnson, George Washington’s remarkable overconfidence encouraged him to fight and sustain the revolution against the British— despite the formidable odds stacked against his rebels. In the long and gruelling war in which Americans lost most of the military battles against the Red Coats (and struggled to even keep an army in the field), Johnson argues ambition and boldness paid off handsomely for Washington and his comrades.

As stated by Johnson:

Britain was the world’s leading military and economic power before and after the war. It was by no means yet in decline and was the odds-on favourite to win the war, or at least to end it on favourable terms. I suggest that Washington, in no small part by virtue of his great confidence, was able to turn the tables and seize victory from the jaws of defeat, an achievement epitomised by his daring raid across the Delaware. Joseph Ellis wrote that “the British commander, William How, could probably have won the war and ended the American Revolution in November of 1776 with more aggressive tactics. The Delaware crossing thus becomes a sudden reversal of fortune, as if an American mouse, chased hither and yon by a British cat, brazenly turned turns about and declares itself a lion”. And lions, not mice, win wars.

Washington’s bold crossing the icy Delaware river on Christmas night, 1776, in what many deem as the turning point of the war. Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868). Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Know your enemy

Next, Johnson revisits the lead up to World War II, where he probes Britain’s perceptions of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. Here, Johnson draws on the fundamental attribution error— a psychological quirk that journalist Robert Wright describes as ‘the most underappreciated cognitive bias’— to illustrate the logic of strategic instincts.

For those of us less familiar with the theory, what is the error exactly? The late Lee Ross coined the term ‘the fundamental attribution error’ back in the 1970s, in a scientific paper that has had an enduring impact on social psychology. When explaining the behaviour of other people, Ross and his intellectual descendants found that people generally place too much emphasis on other’s disposition (that is, on their innate personality and essential ‘nature’). Conversely, people tend to put too little emphasis on the situation in explaining other’s behaviour (that is, on the circumstances that people find themselves in, and how this influences what they do).

What does this mean for international politics? Johnson clarifies that the fundamental attribution error doesn’t necessarily make us see other people’s behaviour as threatening, but it can make us see threatening behaviour as intentional. Similarly, Johnson claims that the fundamental attribution error can lead governments to be hyper vigilant and assume the worst from other states.

Intriguingly, Johnson makes the case for the fundamental attribution error’s absence in the lead up to World War II— and points to this as evidence for the cognitive bias’s effectiveness.

To elaborate, Britain’s appeasement of Hitler offers a reverse case where those in power behaved in contrast to what the fundamental attribution error would predict. At the time, the UK’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain strongly resisted attributing dispositional causes to Hitler’s behaviour, and instead emphasised situational causes (where Chamberlain stressed the German desire to redress the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, and to retain security over their remaining territory). Despite mounting evidence of Hitler’s real intentions, Chamberlain continued to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt— which Johnson claimed led to the disastrous policy of appeasement and the Munich crisis of 1938.

Neville Chamberlain at Heston Airport on his return from Munich after meeting with Hitler, September 1938. Chamberlain read out to the crowd the famous agreement, signed by Hitler, stating “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again”. Later that day, during a speech outside 10 Downing Street, he declared “peace for our time”. Image credit: Central Press/Getty Images.

Johnson therefore raises an unusual, counterfactual question: where was the fundamental attribution error when the world needed it most? After all, there were actors waiting in the wings whose thinking did in fact align with the fundamental attribution error (not least Winston Churchill, who insisted that Hitler was acting out of intentions to aggressively expand German territory and redouble their military power). Had the fundamental attribution error been stronger and more widespread among Western leaders at the time, Johnson argues that Britain could have stood up to Hitler earlier and more effectively, which as a result, would have avoided the atrocities of World War II.

United we stand

Johnson also argues that ‘ingroup favouritism’ (also known as the ‘ingroup-outgroup bias’) serves as a strategic instinct.

What is ingroup favouritism, and why does Johnson consider it to be so influential in the world of international politics? As part and parcel of our coalitional psychology, we humans have a powerful tendency to favour our own groups and its members, and disparage the ‘outgroup’. This bias is so strong and ubiquitous that ingroup favouritism is essentially the bread and butter of social psychology.

Needless to say, such prejudices can have horrific consequences. Johnson argues that throughout human history, the ingroup bias has contributed to the oppression of minority groups, inflamed ethnic conflict, and has been implicated in genocide.

However, Johnson claims that in smaller doses and in appropriate settings, ingroup favouritism can be relatively benign and ‘highly adaptive’. To elaborate, Johnson argues that ingroup favouritism increases cohesion as well as coordinated action against rival groups, which together can increase group’s survival and overall effectiveness.

To evaluate these claims, Johnson parachutes us back to the Pacific War between the United States and Japan. Through his combing of the historical artifacts, Johnson argues that the United States was able to persist and ultimately prevail in the long and brutal Pacific campaign against the Japanese partially due to ingroup favouritism helping bolster the war effort (that is, by increasing cohesion among military personnel, boosting support for the war among Americans at home, and by sealing the commitment of America’s political leaders).

Conversely, Johnson argues that the Japanese took outgroup animosity to extreme levels, which sowed the seeds of their downfall. (The Japanese certainly did not have a monopoly on dehumanisation. However, Johnson argues that Japan’s demonisation of Americans severely distorted their thinking, compromising their estimations of risk and ultimately their military strategy).

American infantrymen secure an area on Bougainville, Solomon Islands, in March 1944, after Japanese forces infiltrated their lines during the night. Image credit: AP Photo.

Overkill: The limits of strategic instincts

In Strategic Instincts, Johnson clearly acknowledges the dark side of these cognitive biases, especially when taken to excesses. That is, when overconfidence becomes hubris, when attribution errors manifests into paranoia, and when ingroup favouritism fuels discrimination and racism. As stated by Johnson; “the in-group/ out-group bias can obviously be a serious impediment to cooperation, peace, and equality between different groups, and we must strive to reduce or manage it wherever it has malicious effects.”

Johnson also points out the pitfalls of only psychologising instances where things go wrong. If we want a complete understanding of how cognitive biases impact our decision making, we must count both sides of the ledger. To this end, Johnson argues that an evolutionary perspective offers the crucial next step in incorporating psychological insights into the field of international politics.

One may question Johnson’s emphasis on competition and military conflict, rather than on international cooperation. Notwithstanding the oversight of international institutions including the United Nations, Johnson asserts that the world lacks a global ‘Leviathan’, and is therefore engulfed in competitive anarchy. Despite his Hobbesian worldview, Johnson stresses that global cooperation is possible, and he’s hopeful of humanity’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Johnson writes:

We need inspiration for solving the collective action problems at the global level more than ever. Here, the current challenges to the planet are especially daunting and difficult, ranging from expanding populations and dwindling resources to species extinction and climate change. Some inspirational confidence in the face of such challenges could make all the difference.

I think Johnson makes several compelling arguments in Strategic Instincts. That said, there are elements of the book that one could critique. What stood out the most for me is that the latest findings from the field of cultural evolution appear to be missing.

Exhibit A: Although overconfidence is a well-established finding from the field of psychology, cultural evolutionary theorist Michael Muthukrishna and his colleagues have detailed significant cultural differences in how overconfidence manifests.

Much of the literature cited by Johnson has been conducted with North Americans and Western Europeans. However, we now know that these people are really WEIRD. That is, they are Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic, which makes them psychological outliers among the world’s diverse inhabitants of humans. In other words, cognitive biases are not intrinsic human universals, but are prevalent to varying degrees, and manifest in different ways, across human populations.

These points aside, Johnson arguably makes a key contribution not only to the field of international relations, but to psychology itself. For various reasons, seeing cognitive biases as inherently detrimental has become the default assumption of many behavioural scientists. To challenge this prevailing view, Johnson eloquently illustrates how cognitive biases can confer advantages in politics— and what the implications of this are for everyday life.

Clash of the titans

What light can Strategic Instincts shed on global politics today? Johnson argues that the biggest question facing international relations may be rising tensions between the United States and China.

Whilst the United States retains its hegemony in many spheres, Johnson implies that America’s dominance is quickly diminishing. If this trajectory continues, the implications are enormous.

As stated by Johnson:

History tells a gloomy story about rising states. They have rarely risen peacefully, either because they begin a quest for expansion or because other states act to prevent from them doing so [sic], or from acquiring the ability to try. Normally, in such a context of rising tensions, overconfidence would be cited as an outright danger. The United States (or China) is likely to overestimate its own capabilities, exaggerate its own level of control over events, and maintain overoptimistic predictions about the future, all of which would seem to increase the probability of deterrence failure, crisis, and war.

Several intellectuals take comfort in the fact that war has been in steady decline since World War II (what Steven Pinker refers to as the ‘Long Peace’ in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature). However, Johnson clarifies that “while war may be in decline among states, competition is not”.

As the human population bulges and temperatures continue to rise worldwide, Johnson suggests environmental stressors may load the dice and increase the odds of territorial disputes.  

The modern world is infinitely complex, and experts are generally pretty terrible at predicting the future. That said, pundits point to an uncomfortably high chance of a confrontation between the United States and China over Taiwan in the medium-term.  

Beyond territorial expansion, Johnson clarifies that states are vying for strategic advantages in a myriad of ways. A good illustration of this is the new arms race sparked between the United States and China over artificial intelligence (AI).

Whilst evolutionary psychology excavates the remnants of our evolutionary past, AI researchers are taking insights from evolution to build the digital minds of tomorrow. Both countries are now ploughing large sums into artificial intelligence for military purposes, including the development and deployment of autonomous weapons. Whilst AI may prove to be a boon for humanity, experts warn that without proper oversight and regulation, humanity risks ‘losing control’ of AI.

Similarly, Johnson appears to be concerned about increasing technological and social complexity. As the scale and complexity of political interactions continues to increase, Johnson warns that mistakes and misunderstandings may become more difficult to avoid. In a bipolar world where two military superpowers are continuously on red alert, the risks of accidental escalation looms large (with the mass deployment of automated weaponry, one may worry not so much about ‘artificial intelligence’, but of ‘artificial stupidity’).

Despite his sobering analysis, Johnson seems confident (perhaps overconfident?) that the United State’s strategic instincts will save the day:

Even if the disadvantages are genuine and likely to cause mistakes, the advantages could outweigh them, avoiding mistakes in the other direction that would be even more costly. It would be easy for a state to shrink back in the face of a rising power, anxious to avoid conflict and hesitant or unwilling to commit to the bold actions necessary to assert and preserve its position. This was certainly Chamberlain’s problem in the 1930s, and Britain paid the price— losing its empire, bankrupting the nation, and nearly suffering an invasion of his homeland as well. As we have seen, overconfidence can serve to increase ambition, resolve, and perseverance, helping to exploit opportunities, deter enemies, attract allies, and provide a competitive edge in strategic interactions. While drawbacks of overconfidence certainly remain in the mix, all of these advantages could conceivably help the United States consolidate and preserve its position vis-a-vis China in the coming years.

Here’s the 30 trillion-dollar question: will overconfidence help avert a large-scale military conflict between the United States and China, or will it inevitably lead to disaster?

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Strategic Instincts: The Adaptive Advantages of Cognitive Biases in International Politics is published by Princeton University Press. Click here to buy a copy.

Article updated on the 27th July 2021.

The Weirdest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich

Here’s an ethical dilemma for you to mull over:

You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was driving only 20 miles per hour, it may save him from serious consequences.

If you found yourself boxed into this awkward situation, what right would you say your friend has in expecting you to protect him?

If you would refuse to testify and protect your friend, you are probably pretty WEIRD. That is, you most likely grew up in a country which is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (lucky you).

If you’re WEIRD like me, you may be surprised to learn that of the corporate managers across the world who were presented with this ethical dilemma, a sizable proportion outside of Western countries said that they would lie under oath to protect their friend.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, being WEIRD makes you an outlier psychologically among the world’s diverse inhabitants of humans.

Compared to the rest of humanity, we Westerners are highly individualistic, self-centred, control oriented, and analytical. We tend to focus on ourselves— our unique characteristics, our achievements and our ambitions— rather than on our relationships with our family and friends.

Despite our rugged individualism and benign levels of narcissism, we WEIRDos tend to treat people fairly, and are unusually trusting of strangers. Similarly, we think nepotism and cronyism is wrong, and we forgo numerous opportunities to further our friend’s and family’s interests.

This raises the million-dollar question: how did we Westerners become so psychologically unique?

The Weirdest People in the World

In his new book The Weirdest People in the World, American anthropologist Joseph Henrich not only explores the psychology of ‘WEIRD’ people, but also excavates the origins of the modern world (a tall order, I know).

Joseph Henrich is Professor and Chair of Harvard University’s department of Evolutionary Biology, and is a champion of interdisciplinary science (Henrich initially trained as an aerospace engineer, and has held professorships in psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology). Henrich’s first popular science book, The Secret of Our Success, was an instant classic in the social sciences, where he convincingly made the case that culture is now the dominant force driving human evolution.

Ten years ago, Joe and his colleagues Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan penned a scientific paper with the same title of his new book. Their paper served as reality check for psychologists (ironic indeed), where Henrich and his colleagues lamented the lack of diversity among psychological studies. To elaborate, they criticised psychologists for making sweeping generalisations about human psychology, when their research actually narrowly focused on a thin slice of humanity— WEIRD people (more specifically, WEIRD university students). Having trawled through the literature, they discovered that over 96% of participants in psychological experiments were WEIRD.

Although this publication made waves across the world of behavioural science, Henrich admits that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with their paper. “I’ve always found it unsatisfying, because it doesn’t explain anything. How can we account for all this psychological variation?”. In the aftermath of their publication, explaining the existence of these broad psychological differences monopolised Henrich’s thinking.

Joseph Henrich demonstrates proper posture at Harvard Museum’s Evolution gallery (Image credit: Kris Snibbe)

So, what does explain Westerners’ unique psychological profile? The surprising conclusion that Henrich and his collaborators have reached is that these psychological differences can be traced back to the Catholic Church.

The Holy Scriptures

In The Weirdest People in the World, Henrich argues that around 1,500 years ago, the medieval Catholic Church (the branch of Christianity that would become the Western Church) began promoting a particular set of prohibitions and prescriptions about marriage and the family, which inadvertently altered people’s psychology.

It’s well known that outlawing polygyny— a form of polygamy where a man has multiple wives— helps keep the worst aspects of our nature at bay (monogamy insures against armies of incels inciting violent uprisings). However, counterintuitively, Henrich argues one of the most impactful of the Church’s prohibitions was the banning of cousin marriage. Why was this practice so impactful? Because the banning of cousin marriage (along with the Church’s overzealous imposition of incest-taboos more generally) effectively dissolved the densely interconnected clans and kindreds that roamed Western Europe. Consequently, these clans were shredded into small and independent nuclear families.

Why would the nuclear family structure fundamentally alter our psychology? Henrich’s central claim is that the Catholic Church’s ‘Marriage and Family Plan’ effectively dismantled tribes and clans in Western Europe, which relied heavily on arranged marriages to cement political ties (think of the prolonged political wrangling that takes place in the make-believe world of Game of Thrones— let alone all the incest). These social arrangements forced people to venture outside of their closed-knit communities to find their lovers to be, rather than fulfilling their obligations and duties to their extended families (which were largely assigned at birth). This incentivised people to build their own social circles and to cultivate traits that other people would find valuable and attractive (as they had to compete in the market of affection).

The impact of these practices on Westerners’ lives cannot be overstated. Henrich spells out what this meant for day-to-day living:

In most WEIRD societies, you can’t marry your stepson, take multiple spouses, or arrange the marriage of your teenage daughter to your business partner. Similarly, you could tell your son that he must move into your house after he gets married, but he and his wife may have other ideas when you have little leverage. You are compelled by custom in law to build relationships by other means and to depend on impersonal markets, governments, and other formal institutions (e.g. to provide safety nets for injuries, disasters, and unemployment).

Henrich argues that these curbs enforced by the Catholic Church got the ball of individualism rolling, which subsequently sparked a chain of large-scale societal changes— sprouting the seeds of impartial institutions such as guilds, universities and businesses. By the high Middle Ages, catalysed by the Catholic Church’s social cauldron, Henrich argues that these newly formed WEIRD ways of thinking and feeling propelled novel forms of government, whilst also accelerating innovation and the emergence of science. These self-reinforcing forces thus fuelled the rise of capitalism and liberal democracy.

If Henrich’s thesis is correct, then the Catholic Church ironically created the fertile conditions necessary for the scientific Enlightenment. However, Henrich stresses that the rise of Western societies over the last 500 years was not inevitable, nor that anyone would necessarily have predicted it beforehand. To put it bluntly, the idea that a bunch of barbarians in Europe would later amass great wealth and expand across all corners of the globe would have been inconceivable.  

As stated by Henrich:

If a team of alien anthropologists had surveyed humanity from orbit in 1000 CE, or even 1200 CE, they would never have guessed that European populations would dominate the globe during the second half of the Millennium. Instead, they would probably have bet on China or the Islamic world.

Henrich continues:

What these aliens would have missed from their orbital perch was the quiet fermentation of a new psychology during the Middle Ages in some European communities. This evolving proto-WEIRD psychology gradually laid the groundwork for the rise of impersonal markets, urbanisation, constitutional governments, democratic politics, individualistic religions, scientific societies, and relentless innovation. In short, these psychological shifts fertilise the soil for the seeds of the modern world.

The Weirdest People in the World is peppered with evidence of the lingering effects of Catholicism and Protestantism on Western minds. For example, Henrich shows that when a country received their first ‘dose’ of the Catholic Church’s family plan predicts how much their inhabitants currently respect tradition, trust strangers, and how ‘tight’ they are culturally. Remarkably, when countries were first exposed to the Western Church also predicts their rates of voluntary blood donations, and also the amount of unpaid parking tickets that UN Diplomats clock up during their time in New York City.

A busy map, detailing Church exposure and ‘kinship intensity’ across the world (Schulz et al, 2019)

One knee jerk criticism of Henrich’s theory is that the prevalence of Catholicism varies across the Western world, and also within Western countries. However, this is actually one of the most convincing pieces of evidence in favour of his thesis. For example, Henrich points out that provinces in Italy which have the lowest rates of cousin marriage (which serves as a proxy for Catholicism) donate much more blood on a voluntary basis.

The prevalence of first cousin marriage across 93 Italian provinces, and the frequency of blood donations (Henrich, 2020)

Henrich stacks several layers of evidence to make his arguments watertight, ruling out alternative explanations for the impact of the Western Church on people’s sense of trust, fairness and ‘impersonal prosociality’ (Henrich controls for factors including wealth, ecology, climate, and geography). Evidently, Henrich knows he’s going to be dragged into a fight— and he has covered all bases accordingly.

Rewriting history

With the passing of time, it’s inevitable that scholars will poke holes in Henrich’s writings (appreciating the inter-disciplinary nature of Henrich’s research). For example, evolutionary anthropologist William Buckner has questioned Henrich’s portrayal of polygyny in traditional societies, raising doubts regarding how much ‘choice’ women really have in such arrangements.

One scathing review of The Weirdest People in the World implied that Henrich has trivialised the scale of suffering inflicted by colonialism. However, this criticism doesn’t seem fair. Henrich clearly acknowledges the “very real and pervasive horrors of slavery, racism, plunder and genocide”. Rather, henrich explores the trajectories cultural evolution has taken and its enduring impact on our psychology, long after such horrors took place.

Personally, I’m still trying to wrap my head around how Stoicism fits into Henrich’s grand narrative. What do I mean? Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics which flourished in Ancient Greece and Rome, and the Stoics’ meditations on impartial justice and rational thinking strikes me as pretty WEIRD (from a modern interpretation of the philosophy at least). Yet, Stoicism actually predates Christianity by at least 300 years.

These points aside, I’m confident the critiques that’ll continue to come Henrich’s way will resemble minor quibbles, rather than challenges that threaten to tear down the walls of the theoretical edifice.

In summary, The Weirdest People in the World is dazzling in its breadth, along with its broad sweeping implications. When I reviewed Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success, I described it as a “a tour-de-force and a significant advancement of social science”. I’d confidently state that Henrich has once again raised the bar; this book is a landmark in social thought.

By chasing the ghosts of the medieval Catholic Church, Henrich has essentially rewritten the story of modern history. Indeed, Henrich illuminates the value of approaching history from a cultural-evolutionary perspective, and builds on recent efforts to make history a more quantitative and scientific discipline. To quote Henrich; “The cultural evolution of psychology is the dark matter that flows behind the scenes throughout history.”

Similarly, The Weirdest People in the World may well transform the field of psychology. Henrich and his colleagues began their intellectual journey by raising concerns about the overreliance on Western university students in psychology studies, and their efforts continue to influence the field. However, another lasting impact of Henrich’s contributions may be for psychology to be transformed into a historical science.  

Henrich’s research reveals the counterintuitive impacts of cultural practices enacted hundreds of years ago on our psychology (and even on our physiology). These are timeframes which psychologists rarely consider, and the field will probably be forced to dig a little deeper into history in light of these findings.

Globalisation and its discontents

Henrich’s theorising has clear implications for organisations whose ambitions span continents, including the inherent challenges of managing cultural differences. However, Henrich’s historical insights seem most relevant to aiding international development and efforts to curb corruption.

Henrich’s cultural-evolutionary perspective on modern history helps us understand how countries like Japan and China have managed to adapt rather quickly to a globalised world, whilst others including Iran and Iraq have struggled greatly (as large parts of the Islamic world still have intensive forms of kinship).

Evolutionary psychologists are fond of describing modern ailments as evolutionary mismatches (that is, heritable traits that were selected for in our ancestral past, which are now misaligned with the demands of the modern world). However, Henrich has identified a new strain of evolutionary mismatches: mismatched in our cultural-evolutionary psychology. In other words, a mismatch between societies’ culturally acquired customs and know-how, and the here-and-now.

What does this mean? To be frank, we can’t assume institutions that work in the Western world can just be lifted and dropped elsewhere— especially in regions where kinship ties remain strong. As stated by Henrich; “Modern formal institutions are now to a degree available “off the shelf”, though their performance depends on the cultural psychology of the populace.”

Protesters burn property in front of the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, 2019)

The following passage hammers the point home:

Many policy analysts can’t recognise these misfits because they implicitly assume psychological unity, or they figure that people’s psychology will shift to accommodate the new formal institutions. But, unless people’s kin-based institutions and religions are rewired from the grassroots, populations get stuck between “lower level” institutions like clans or segmentary lineages, pushing them in one set of psychological directions, and “higher level” institutions like democratic governments or impersonal organizations, pulling them in others: Am I loyal to my kinfolk over everything, or do I follow impersonal rules about impartial justice? Do I hire my brother-in-law or the best person for the job?

Henrich continues:

This approach helps us understand why ‘development’ (i.e. the adoption of WEIRD institutions) has been slower and more agonising in some parts of the world than in others… Rising participation in these impersonal institutions often means that the webs of social relationships, which had once ensconced, bound, and protected people, gradually dissolve under the acid of urbanisation, global markets, secular safety nets, and individualistic notions of success and security. Besides economic dislocation, people face the loss of meaning they derive from being a nexus in a broad network of relational connections that stretch back in time to their ancestors and ahead to their descendants.

Instead of pretending these cultural differences don’t exist, Henrich implores policy wonks to cater their strategies depending on community’s norms and practices. If social engineers are serious about improving the human condition, they must work with, or work around, such cultural-evolutionary mismatches. Just as importantly, Henrich invites social planners to consider how their interventions might alter people’s psychology centuries down the road.

The fathers who banned cousin marriage could not have fathomed the reverberations their actions would have across space and time. With a dizzying array of social changes, technological breakthroughs and environmental problems engulfing humanity in the 21st century, there will inevitably be profound and enduring changes seared into our collective psyches over the coming decades and centuries.

On the one hand, trying to predict the psychological impacts of these awesome forces would be wise, however fallible our forecasting is. On the other hand, Henrich illustrates the inherently unpredictable nature of cultural evolution– and the weird places it can take us to.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous is published by Allen Lane (£30). Click here to buy a copy.

Managing the Human Animal, with Nigel Nicholson

Here’s a podcast episode I recorded with Nigel Nicholson, for the Evolution Institute.

Nigel Nicholson and I discuss the application of evolutionary psychology to business and management. We cover Nigel Nicholson’s academic career, and his books Managing the Human AnimalFamily Wars and The “I” of Leadership. We also explore the impacts of the pandemic on the world of work. 

We recorded this episode on the 1st September, 2020.

How culture explains our weak response to the coronavirus

The sneakiness of the novel coronavirus virus has wreaked havoc worldwide.

Although the coronavirus is a global pandemic, what’s striking is how the pathogen’s destruction has varied across regions.

Whilst East Asia has largely got a grip on the virus, Europe is still reeling. The United Kingdom recently pipped Italy to claim Europe’s highest death toll, with a tally that dwarfs all but a handful of nations. The United States has established itself as the world’s coronavirus leader— although not in the way President Trump would want us to believe. And Brazil appears to be the new epicentre of the pandemic, with growing fears that their healthcare system will not survive the oncoming onslaught.

This all begs the question: why has Europe and the Americas been hit so much harder by the pandemic?

If your eyes are glued to the news, you’ll be able to point your finger at the guilty culprits. For example, we can blame our politicians— who were quick to dismiss scientists’ warnings and too slow to act.

Whilst there’s truth to this claim, it isn’t a sufficient explanation. After all, it doesn’t explain why our politicians didn’t take the threat seriously in the first place, nor why whole continents struggled to contain the coronavirus.

To help make sense of this, Michele Gelfand and her colleagues have recently released a preprint which explores the role of culture in our response to the outbreak.

Rule makers, rule breakers

Michele Gelfand is an American cultural psychologist, and author of Rule Makers, Rule BreakersMichele has dedicated her life’s work to solving what has long been considered an enigma: why do cultures differ?

Having conducted painstaking research across the world’s diverse societies, Michele discovered that cultural differences essentially boil down to two dimensions: how ‘tight’ or ‘loose’ cultures are. That is, whether groups prioritise order and strictly abide by rules, or if they are more permissive and disorganised.

Tight countries have many rules in places, where punishments are strictly enforced (think of Singapore, where chewing gum is illegal). Citizens in tight countries are used to a high degree of monitoring aimed at curtailing bad behaviour. In contrast, loose societies have laxer rules— and are more tolerant and accepting of transgressions (think of Italy and Spain).

Crucially, Michele found that these cultural differences are not random. Rather, countries with the most draconian laws and harshest punishments are those that have historically faced a barrage of existential threats.

Throughout our evolutionary history, we humans have faced hostile forces of nature. These persistent foes include famine, natural disasters, invasions from rival tribes— and you guessed it— outbreaks of infectious disease.

Because these threats are present to varying degrees, our cultural practices and social norms have evolved accordingly— tightening up in the presence of existential threats, which provides protection against danger. In contrast, societies that have faced fewer threats have experienced the luxury of loosening— cultivating social norms that favour freedom and self-expression.

As with all things in life, there’s a clear trade-off. Tight cultures instil order and stability, at the cost of being less tolerant and creative. On the other hand, loose cultures are open and dynamic— with the drawback of being more chaotic and disorderly.

Despite overlap, Michele makes clear that tight and loose transcends political ideology and does not correspond with the ‘left-right’ political spectrum.

A failed response

This trade-off between tightness and looseness was clear for all to see during the coronavirus’ initial exponential explosion. Famously tight countries such as Singapore mobilised an effective response early on. Meanwhile, looser countries like Italy did not initially take the threat as seriously— and as a consequence are still suffering.

Armed with their knowledge of cultural evolution, Michele and her colleagues wondered how much tightness and looseness explained countries’ initial responses to the outbreak.

Specifically, the team predicted countries that are tight culturally and have highly efficient governments would respond most effectively to the pandemic. That is, they’d have less people infected and subsequently less people dying.

Why would the efficiency of governments matter? They suspected tightness may only provide protection when governments also have the expertise and resources necessary to respond in a timely manner.

Michele’s team used a couple of tools to test this.

First, they crunched government statistics on the coronavirus worldwide, and cross referenced this with their data on cultural differences. They also fed in key economic and demographic information, which give them the ability to predict both the amount of infections and deaths from the coronavirus disease.

Like forensic accountants, they also unearthed countries underreporting coronavirus cases— and corrected for this in their analysis.

To complement their slicing and dicing, they also created a computer simulation to model how people respond to infectious outbreaks (think of The Sims computer game. But instead of Sims spreading ‘poopy pants’, they’re catching coronavirus).

Tightness saves lives

So, what did Michele and her team find?

The team found that tightness and government efficiency interacted to predict infection rates— and that this relationship strengthened with more information fed into their equations.

For the countries with inefficient governments, tightness was actually associated with slightly more infection rates. However, countries with tight cultures and highly efficient governments had significantly less infections and overall deaths.

Their algorithms revealed several other important factors that predict infections. Specifically, they discovered that developed countries with high levels of wealth inequality and older populations had the highest number of infections and subsequent deaths (which in not surprising, as we know COVID-19 is a disease that mainly kills the elderly).

To model an infectious outbreak, the team tailored the Prisoner’s Dilemma (no, this isn’t the dilemma governments faced when releasing prisoners early to prevent the pathogen’s spread. Rather, Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of game theory’s iconic strategic games).

During the early stages of the simulation, tight and loose cultures exhibited similar levels of cooperation. However, as time passed and The Sims zombie apocalypse was in full swing, big differences emerged. Automatons in tight cultures found it easier to copy each other’s cooperative behaviour— and therefore had higher rates of survival. In contrast, those in loose cultures didn’t fair so well.

Their simulation suggests that tight cultures may mount a more effective response to epidemics because people in tight cultures are more likely to conform and copy people’s survival strategies. If this is correct, tightness may only be effective when social norms championing cooperation are established early on in a pandemic. If they aren’t, tightness may not provide any additional protection.

Surviving the pandemic

As this paper yet to be published, one needs to be careful commenting on it. However, appreciating both the rigour of the research and the extraordinary circumstances we now face, drawing practical implications from their paper seems justified.

Reflecting on Michele’s grand theory, what screams out is the need for Western democracies to tighten up accordingly.

Several European countries have experienced intolerable suffering from the avalanche of coronavirus cases, and had no choice other than imposing draconian measures. Conversely, countries such as the United Kingdom have adopted a more hands-off approach— where the rules that have been put in place are more lax and less strictly enforced. Coincidently, the United Kingdom is now one of the world’s worst affected countries.

Bar a miracle, we’ll be living with the coronavirus for some time to come. For nations such as the UK to overcome the pandemic, we’ll need to tighten up our cultural practices to minimize disruption and protect vulnerable people from future outbreaks.

To dispel any misconceptions, I am not advocating for our governments to become more autocratic— far from it. Authoritarianism was controlled for in their study, which didn’t actually slow the rate of infections. While it’s important for governments to promote practices that stop the virus spreading, Michele’s team argue that heavy handed responses to the pandemic may cause irreparable harm. Also, the excessive use of force can hamper innovation— which becomes increasingly important when devising long-term solutions.

Rather, we should aspire to what Michele has coined ‘cultural ambidexterity’. That is, we should retain the positive aspects of our loose cultures— such as tolerance for diversity and greater creativity— whilst also having the flexibility to tighten up when necessary.

Think this can’t be done? Look south to Australasia.

New Zealand is one of the loosest countries in the world. Yet under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership, Middle Earth mobilised an effective response to the coronavirus early on. New Zealand now has one of the lowest death rates among Western nations, and Kiwis are even bracing themselves for coronavirus ‘elimination day’.

The tight-loose seesaw

Whether it’s business partners or family members squabbling, Michele has found clashes between people leaning tight or loose is a major source of conflict. Noticeably, ‘tight-loose’ clashes have become defining stories of the coronavirus in the UK.

Days after Boris Johnson ordered Britain to “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”, Derbyshire Police received a stiff telling off for using drones to shame people for visiting the Peak District (you could call this ‘meta-shaming’). On the other hand, a steady stream of social media posts complained about people flouting the rules— and the reticence of the police to enforce them.

More recently, the justifications provided for Dominic Cummings’ coronavirus road trips were frankly absurd— and have scorched political capital and damaged the public’s trust in the UK Government. Although Boris Johnson is betting this saga will blow over, this breach may undermine the restrictions in place and the next phase of the government’s strategy.

To successfully navigate the pandemic, we must ensure that the rules in place are properly and consistently enforced. However, we also need to calibrate our tightness to reflect the actual level of risk— tightening the rules when cases flare up, and relaxing them once the threat from the virus wanes.

Reopening for business

As Europe and the United States begin easing restrictions and reopening for business, risks abound.

Management gurus are purporting that the work office ‘is now dead’. Although there’ll certainly be long lasting changes to the way we work, declaring the end of the office is not clear-cut. Although the pandemic has demonstrated that whole companies can successfully work from home, there are several reasons why people will want to meet their colleagues and clients in person (at the end of the day, we are social primates).

By understanding the hidden forces of social norms, business leaders can tilt their companies towards the ideal tight-loose balance in the age of the coronavirus.

I’ll provide a couple of examples.

Before the pandemic, people who came into work sick were frequently deemed more loyal and dedicated employees (particularly in tight corporate cultures, where taking time off was seen as slacking). However, this is nonsensical. Not only does coming into work sick jeopardise your recovery and therefore productivity, it also risks spreading the illness to other employees. In the wake of the coronavirus, this social norm needs to be flipped: no more brownie points for coming into work sick, but rather ostracism for putting other people’s lives at risk.

Whilst we need to tighten up our hygiene standards, we also need looseness to foster innovative working practices. If we cannot resume business without causing a resurgence of infections, we face a bleak future of continuously stalling and restarting our economy.

A team of Israeli scientists have proposed a rather ingenious solution to this dilemma, by exploiting a key property of the coronavirus: its ‘latent period’. On average, there is a three-day window between someone being infected with the virus and actually being able to spread it to others.

The scientists’ solution is to work in two-week cycles, in a system dubbed ‘10:4’. In this arrangement, people work on the job as normal for four days straight. Once they’ve passed this latency period and are therefore possibly infectious, they then work from home in isolation for ten days. The scientists’ models suggest that this two-week working cycle can drastically reduce infection rates, causing cases to drop off a cliff.

Time will tell whether this working arrangement is actually effective. But it precisely this kind of innovative thinking that’ll help us overcome the coronavirus.

So far, the coronavirus’ sneaky strategy has paid off handsomely. However, if we can adapt our social norms and become culturally ambidextrous— tightening up our hygiene standards whilst retaining our creativity and innovativeness— we can play the virus against itself and resume some normality.


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Article updated on the 4th June 2020.

Evolutionary Organisational Psychology, with The Dissenter

Here’s a podcast episode I recorded with Ricardo Lopes, for The Dissenter.

Ricardo and I explore the application of evolutionary psychology to the business world. We start by tackling the concept of evolutionary mismatch, and then go through some examples of how it applies to the modern workplace— such as Dunbar’s number, hierarchy and leadership, and work stress.

We recorded this episode on the January 29th, 2020.

‘Big Men’ in the office

It’s a well-established fact that size influences our choice of leaders.

For example, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are disproportionately over 6 feet tall. Similarly, the height of presidential candidates can partially predict the outcome of an election. Since the start of the 20th century, over 70% of US elections between the two parties have been won by the taller candidate.

Despite robust empirical evidence demonstrating our fondness of tall leaders, there isn’t as much known about the impact of leader’s weight on our leadership preferences.

To broaden this body of knowledge, Kevin Kniffin and his colleagues Vicki Bogan and David Just have recently published a paper in the journal PLOS One, that explores the impact of leader’s weight on their persuasiveness.

Big Man Ting

Anthropologists who have lived with hunter-gatherer tribes are very familiar with leaders being referred to as ‘Big Men’.

In addition to being influential and persuasive, leaders of pre-industrial societies also have to be physically formidable. Indeed, recent expeditions with hunter-gatherer tribes have found that physical size is associated with leadership— but primarily among men.

There are several reasons why this is the case, including the importance placed on fighting ability. Across the natural world, animals that are the most powerful and menacing fighters are generally granted high status (if you’re sceptical, watch one of David Attenborough’s latest documentaries). The same is partially true for humans too.

However, Kevin and his colleagues argue that overindulgence is a marker of social status and wealth within traditional communities (if people are struggling to eat and you’re actually fat, you’ve got to be doing something right).

Melanesian Big Men
Melanesian men in traditional dress (image credit: ABC News)

The anthropological literature is replete with references to high status ‘Big Men’. However, you don’t need to unearth yellowing anthropology books to discover this association between size and status. A quick search of popular rap songs on YouTube provides you with lyrics like:

Yo, BMT, I’m on a big man ting
I ain’t going into clubs without my big hand ting
Got eleven on my finger, that’s a big man ring
Yeah I got a big bag, no bin man ting

In our post-industrial age of abundance, being overweight is increasingly linked with negative life outcomes— including diabetes and cancer. Indeed, obesity is now a bigger killer than hunger worldwide, and people who carry extra pounds find themselves subject to stigma.

Despite our newfound infatuation with thinness, Kevin and his colleagues wondered if this association between weight and social status still lingers in the modern world (beyond the UK rap community of course).

To explore this relationship, Kevin’s research team conducted a series of studies. Specifically, they wanted to see if overweight men are perceived as more persuasive than their scrawny counterparts.

As stated by the authors:

We focus specifically on persuasiveness since “big men” in pre-industrial societies did not have the power of an institution to enforce their standing in the group’s hierarchy; instead, “big men” needed to rely upon influence and persuasiveness to gain and maintain their status.

Heavyweight titans

As a preliminary step, Kevin’s team simply asked a small group of American university students to associate words with the phrases ‘heavyweight’ or ‘lightweight’.

Lo and behold, the students associated ‘heavyweight’ with strength, whereas ‘lightweight’ conjured negative connotations— such as being ‘weak’ or ‘unqualified’ (can you recall lightweight ever being intended as a compliment?).

The researchers commented that ‘heavyweight’ and ‘lightweight’ are terms commonly associated with boxing, and that heavyweight champions – the likes of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson—have garnered greater interest than lighter fighters (that is, boxers who are on their Big Man Ting).

Mike Tyson_ Trevor Berwick
‘Iron’ Mike Tyson becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in history (image credit: Sky Sports)

When officially starting their research, Kevin’s team returned to their respective universities and asked students to evaluate their own leadership capabilities—including their ability to persuade others—and to disclose their height and weight (I know, how rude).

The researchers found that the students who rated themselves as more persuasive actually weighed more. Having dug into the data however, this relationship was largely explained by their height—rather than their weight per se. Therefore, these results weren’t entirely in line with their predictions.

Next, Kevin’s team sent out a survey to American undergraduate students. Specifically, the students were asked how persuasive they find people of different weights generally.

The most favourable answer received was that heavy people are more likely to be perceived as persuasive. In other words, the students stated they didn’t find overweight people more persuasive themselves— but believed that other people do.

In the later rounds of the research, Kevin’s team used drawings of men and women of different physiques. They asked American undergraduates to rate each of these figures on how persuasive, extraverted, funny and attractive they thought each person would be if they actually existed in real life.

The researchers found that the overweight male figures were rated as more persuasive—whilst the same wasn’t true for the female figures. In other words, there was no linear relationship between female figures’ weight and how persuasive students thought they would be.

They then repeated this drawing exercise with a broader American sample and people from Kenya. This was to make sure that these findings actually replicate, and are not just quirks of WEIRD people (that is, people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised and Democratic).

In both replications, they found that the overweight male figures were rated as more persuasive than the normal or underweight companions.

Fish out of water

Before delving any further, we first need to acknowledge the limitations of this study.

You don’t need a degree in psychology to realise that the researchers didn’t directly measure how persuasive individuals are among groups, but rather inferred influence through people’s perceptions. To be sure that this effect is real though, experiments would need to be conducted that directly measure the impact of people’s height and weight on their ability to influence (a tall order, I know).

Other scientific papers have recently been published that point in the same direction however, which lend further weight to these findings (no pun intended).

Future research should explore whether these associations are universal across cultures or dependent on context, as there are likely to be several exceptions.

As stated by the authors:

With further research, we may find out that the influence of weight on status and persuasiveness is context specific and culturally defined. Indeed, criticisms that a President of the United States would substantially under-report his own weight while perhaps over-estimating his own height are interesting in light of the studies we present.

Likewise, I suspect differences in body composition dramatically change how leaders are perceived (as the Body Mass Index doesn’t distinguish fat from muscle).

These points aside, how can we ultimately make sense of their studies’ results? Kevin and his colleagues interpret this phenomenon as an evolutionary mismatch.

To elaborate, evolutionary mismatches are physical and psychological traits that were selected for in our ancestral past, that are now frequently misaligned with the demands of the modern world (think of newly hatched sea turtles who are perilously drawn to streetlights).

Kevin and his colleagues argue that a proclivity for ‘Big Men’ constitutes an evolutionary mismatch, as there is no longer good reason to associate size with status. As we don’t have to hunt or worry about being raided by rival tribes anymore, the size of a leader is essentially irrelevant in the modern world of work.

The authors write:

As with studies of height in relation to non-manual work environments (e.g., being President of the United States), there is no essential relationship that should exist for weight. With the exception of certain athletic occupations such as sumo wrestlers or linemen on professional football teams, there is no clear rationale or consensus for why weight should be relevant for many contemporary occupations.

Implications

Clearly, this paper has several practical implications for the business world. As Kevin and his colleagues suggest, employers should be particularly sensitive to the various ways in which weight can cloud our judgement when it comes to hiring and promotion decisions. Businesses need to make a concerted effort to eliminate such biases during the selection process, and to focus on core competencies that underpin the role in question.

Perhaps most importantly, these findings have significant implications for democracies.

Against the backdrop of increasing political polarisation, prominent politicians are now placing greater emphasis on their size and fighting prowess (or rather, telling tales of their fighting history). Indeed, combative behaviour and threat displays have become unusually coarse among Western politicians— particularly in the United States.

Whether it’s ‘little Marco’ or ‘mini Mike’, President Trump continues to mock his political rivals based on their stature— which so far has proven to be a winning strategy. Beyond basic health considerations however, candidate’s size should be irrelevant when it comes to electing the President of the United States (note the irony of Michael Bloomberg’s latest campaign ads appearing to mock Trump based on his weight).

Across several spheres of society, being aware of these remnants of our primate lineage would likely benefit us. Armed with this knowledge, we can ultimately discard candidates’ size when selecting our leaders.


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Evolutionary Mismatch in the Workplace, with Mark van Vugt

Here’s a podcast episode I recorded with Mark van Vugt, for the This View of Life podcast.

Mark van Vugt and I discuss his book Mismatchcoauthored with Ronald Giphart. We then delve into the science of evolutionary mismatches, and how this knowledge can help us understand human behaviour in modern settings, such as the workplace.

We recorded this episode on December 23rd, 2019.

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 humbly stated that 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 Trivers’ call to arms, economists Peter Schwardmann and Joël van der Weele have recently published a paper in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, that 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 ratings from the employers, and therefore won more money. Likewise, they showed that opportunities to profit from persuasion induced overconfidence, and that it was overconfidence which led contestants to receive higher ratings— above and beyond 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 are 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