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 you’re 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 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 2016

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 J. 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 Knowledge Illusion, by Steven Sloman & Philip Fernbach

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? Answering this question ultimately leads to evolution, as the human brain has been honed by the forces of natural selection.

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.

Why attractive people earn more money

A little discussed aspect of pay discrimination concerns physical attractiveness.

Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed and secure job offers, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers, and they earn higher wages than less attractive individuals.

Recently published in the journal Behavioral & Brain Sciences, behavioural biologist Dario Maestripieri and his colleagues Nora Nickels and Andrea Henry at the University of Chicago have written a paper explaining why the ‘beauty premium’ exists.

Previous explanations

The authors argue that these biases have “baffled economists for decades because they are not predicted by their rational models of human behavior.” According to the taste-based discrimination model developed by economists, attractiveness-related financial and prosocial biases are the product of individual preferences or prejudices.

This explanation is unsatisfactory for various reasons. Taste-based discrimination does not differentiate domains, and it does not explain why people have these preferences in the first place. Because empirical support for economists’ explanations is weak, the authors contend economists have frequently avoided explanations for this phenomenon altogether.

Social psychologists have also tried to explain these biases. According the authors, social psychologists  have maintained that attractiveness is seen as a marker of positive traits, such as a favourable personality, trustworthiness, and professional competence.

Maestripieri and his colleagues review studies looking into the favourable treatment of attractive individuals, and find no evidence for this explanation.

Firstly, it is ruled out that physical attractiveness accompanies these qualities. For example, studies on the jobs market which included information about people’s personality traits found that attractive employees earned higher wages, even after controlling for personality.

Although the jury is still out, laboratory based experiments suggest that attractive people may actually be less cooperative and less trustworthy than others. The authors argue that this is most likely due to attractive individuals expecting favourable treatment, and are therefore less inclined to cooperate.

Cited in the paper is a meta-analysis on the effects of attractiveness on hiring decisions, which concluded biases in favour of attractive people are independent of the amount of job-relevant information employers have about potential employees. If positive stereotypes were the cause, then the effect should be stronger when less information is available about potential employees.

Similarly, another meta-analysis cited found that preferential treatment is independent of familiarity: the effects of physical attractiveness are just as strong when people know each other as when they do not. If positive stereotypes were the cause, then one would expect favourable biases to recede once employers know their employees better.

Another dynamic which negates the positive stereotypes explanation is that when those doing the recruiting are women, attractive female job candidates are less likely to be hired than unattractive ones. Although less pronounced, there is some evidence that this also happens with men. If positive stereotypes were the cause, then attractive individuals would receive favourable treatment regardless of the recruiter’s sex.

Mating Motives

So what does explain these biases in favour of attractive employees?

According to Maestripieri and his colleagues, the best explanation is that attractive people are favoured because they are considered potential romantic partners. “Evolutionary psychologists… recognize that physical attractiveness has intrinsic value and it is not simply a marker of behavior. Therefore, there is an incentive to invest in attractive people because of their high mate value, regardless of their psychological or behavioral characteristics.”

An important caveat added by the authors is that these motivations can be activated without one’s conscious awareness, regardless of one’s moral principles, and irrespective whether such motivations would ever be acted upon. “[…] [T]he human mind is probably predisposed to respond to cues of mating and activate courtship behaviors regardless of any conscious awareness of goals, incentives, or probabilities of future gains.”

The evolutionary explanation also answers why attractive individuals receive less favourable treatment from members of the same sex during the hiring process. The authors argue this is the result of same-sex competition, manifesting in emotions such as jealousy and envy.

Likewise, evolutionary psychology can also explain why attractive women receive less favourable treatment from other women during the hiring process, whilst men are less susceptible to this. A robust sex difference concerning romantic interest is that men place more importance on physical beauty, whereas woman place greater emphasis on social status. Comparatively, attractive women are considered greater rivals than attractive men are.

The greatest evidence in favour of the evolutionary explanation comes from experiments involving attractive individuals as bystanders. If stereotype based theories were correct, then third-party observers are irrelevant and would therefore not impact subsequent behaviour. However, experiments have found that in the presence of attractive women, men behave more pro-socially in economic games; that men more frequently help strangers in need, and are more willing to make physical sacrifices for their group.

The evolutionary explanations of these favourable biases assume that multiple motivations may simultaneously be at play; some of these are related to obtaining resources (e.g. money), whereas others may be social (e.g. gaining status) or purely sexual. “Just as financial considerations can drive decisions about partner selection for romantic and mating purposes, it should not be surprising that mating motives can influence economic decision making”. The authors emphasise that sexual and financial motives are closely intertwined in human affairs.

A large body of research demonstrates that women are more selective than men in their choice of sexual partners, and of the circumstances in which sexual interactions can take place. Therefore, Maestripieri and his colleagues argue the effects of attractiveness on decision making may be more consistent, and perhaps stronger, in men than in women.

Homosexuality is not addressed within the paper. However, research suggests that gay men similarly place greater importance on physical appearance than women do (heterosexual or otherwise).

Implications

Unfortunately, the authors do not comment on how such biases could be addressed in practice.

Such biases may seem insurmountable. The authors note that men more frequently hold positions of power, including responsibility surrounding hiring decisions. Therefore, these biases may be amplified by the amount of men at the top of the hierarchy.

However, organisations could provide some safeguards throughout the hiring process. For a start, recruiters could require applicants’ names and gender to be removed from job applications, which would help remove such biases from the initial stages of the recruitment process.

A wealth of research demonstrates that cognitive debiasing techniques don’t work. However, this doesn’t mean bias cannot be addressed more successfully within groups. We may not be able to see the flaws in own thinking, however we can spot it more readily in others.

One approach organisations may want to explore are protocols for job interviews. For example, ensuring interview panels comprise a combination of men and women. Such a dynamic may help counter such biases when it comes to making hiring decisions.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Clive here to read the full paper

*Post updated 16th May 2017

Maestripieri, D., Henry, A., & Nickels, N. (2017). Explaining financial and prosocial biases in favor of attractive people: Interdisciplinary perspectives from economics, social psychology, and evolutionary psychology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40.

Image credit: Selina Voilé

References & recommended reading

Buss, D. (2016) Evolution of Desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised Edition). Basic Books

Hamermesh, D. S. (2013) Beauty Pays: Why attractive people are more successful. Princeton University Press

Hosoda, M., Stone-Romero, E. F. & Coats, G. (2003) The effects of physical attractiveness on job-related outcomes: A meta-analysis of experimental studies. Personnel Psychology 

Langlois, J. H., Kalakanis, L., Rubenstein, A. J., Larson, A., Hallam, M. & Smoot, M. (2000) Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 126(3):390–423.

Overview: The Talent Delusion, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

All organisations have problems, and nearly all of them concern people. These include how to manage employees and motivate them; who to promote, and who to fire.

To address these issues, billions have been spent on interventions to attract and retain the right people. Yet despite these efforts, the majority of employees remain disenchanted with their careers.

How is this so?

In The Talent Delusion, Professor of Business Psychology and CEO of Hogan Assessments Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic places the blame firmly on existing management practices. More specifically, Chamorro-Premuzic argues that this state of affairs is due to the science-practitioner gap: the gap between what psychological science knows, and what managers practice. “Psychology, the science of understanding people, should be a pivotal tool for solving these problems, yet most organisations play it by ear.” (p. xiii).

The ‘war on talent’

What indications are there that organisations are failing to attract and retain talented people? There are four global macro-economic trends which Chamorro-Premuzic highlights (p. 10):

  • The ‘disengagement epidemic’: that the majority of employees are disenchanted with their jobs.
  • Passive job seekers: that most people are open to new job opportunities, despite being employed.
  • The growing appeal of self-employment: The level of people who quit their jobs to work for themselves, independent of economic cycles.
  • The rise of entrepreneurship: That entrepreneurship has become one of the most desirable career paths, despite the marginal odds of success.

One can debate whether the reported levels of employee disengagement are accurate. Similarly, one can  question whether employee engagement is actually a real thing. That said, Chamorro-Premuzic argues there are good reasons to believe that most people are not satisfied with their jobs– advising readers to merely type ‘my job is’ into Google to get a sense of this.

Here’s what I got:

My job is...

Rather dramatically, Tomas refers these trends more broadly as ‘the war on talent’—  arguing the push to recognise people as a central asset of organisations has failed to materially impact management practice.

To address these issues, Chamorro-Premuzic argues that a fundamental question must be answered: what exactly is talent?

Defining talent

Several definitions of talent are provided in The Talent Delusion. For example, one perspective is that talent can be defined as the minority of people who disproportionately contribute to the organisation’s success.

One of the definitions congruent with an evolutionary perspective is personality being in the right place. By personality, Tomas means one’s dispositional traits, their values, interests and skills, along with their behaviour patterns– the various facets we talk about when referring to someone’s personality.

When attributes are well-matched to the environment, Chamorro-Premuzic argues they will serve as important ‘career weapons’, complimenting both the individual and the organisation. Conversely if there is a poor match, the individual will be at best irrelevant, or at worst counterproductive. Essentially, “[s]uccessful individuals are deemed talented because of their relative ability to adapt to their environment, but only because they have ended up in environments that make their personalities assets rather than hindrances.” (p. 50).

A wealth of psychological research demonstrates that employees perform better when their personalities are well aligned with the tasks required from their jobs. For example, emotionally stable people perform well in high-stress environments (think neurosurgeons). Conversely, anxious individuals do better in environments where pessimistic thinking and hyper-alertness are assets (think air traffic controllers).

Chamorro-Premuzic argues that unless organisations can effectively identify what specific talents people have, it is hard to find suitable roles for them.

Measuring talent

Two critical questions are raised regarding to the identification of talent: what should be measured, and how so?

Chamarro-Premuzic argues the ‘what’ of talent concerns three basic elements: how rewarding are people are  to deal with, how able they are, and how willing they are to work hard.  “In other words, in any job, role and organisation, more talented individuals are generally more endowed with these three advantageous qualities – likeability, ability and drive – than their less talented colleagues.” (p. 54).

As for the ‘how’ question, Chamorro-Premuzic reviews several well-established methodologies for quantifying talent, including structured job interviews, IQ tests, and personality assessments. Argued is that “[…] the science of talent is reliable and predictive; the problem is how infrequently it is applied in real-world work settings.” (p. 55).

Confidently, Chamorro-Premuzic claims that “[…] talent identification tools are stronger than Viagra” (p. 67). Jokes aside, are standardised recruitment methods that powerful?

In No Best Way,  Stephen Colarelli argues the capabilities of structured recruitment methods have been overstated, and that organisational psychologists have conveniently ignored the validity of traditional recruitment practices. According to Colarelli, modern ‘mechanistic’ hiring methods are no better at predicting job performance than traditional hiring methods. (note that this work was published in 2003, and that subsequent met-analyses have been published since).

Just like Viagra, cognitive ability tests also have perverse side-effects.

For example, IQ tests adversely impact various demographic groups such as the poor and less educated, and various ethnic groups– a limitation which is acknowledged by the Chamorro-Premuzic (p. 72):

“[…][R]ecent research shows that children from less privileged backgrounds already perform worse on IQ tests at the age of two, and that these small initial differences are accentuated dramatically by the time they are sixteen. This is ironic given that intelligence tests were invented to increase meritocracy, rather than augment inequality.”

Ironic indeed.

This is not to say that standardised recruitment methods are neither valid nor valuable. However, one could argue that Chamorro-Premuzic maybe overstating their capabilities, and marginalising their limitations.

Developing talent

Like other psychological attributes, Chamorro-Premuzic argues that talent results from an interaction between developmental life experiences and biological predispositions. Accordingly, some individuals more likely to acquire talent than others, even when exposed to the same life events and opportunities. “What this implies is that, when it comes to talent, the issue is not an either/or choice between nature and nurture, but a combination of both.” (pp. 112-113).

A consistent finding from psychology is that personality is largely heritable and stable throughout one’s lifetime. Although people can change, they largely don’t. Chamorro-Premuzic claims that in the absence of extreme life events, people tend to change by becoming more amplified versions of their earlier selves. This is because change requires self-awareness, effort and persistence.

Although Chamorro-Premuzic argues that proper selection would render training and development less necessary, development practices such as coaching can help foster positive change.

Noted is that the most well-validated interventions usually follow a cognitive behavioural framework, which involves challenging and reframing one’s irrational or counterproductive beliefs. However, Chamorro-Premuzic also highlights the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy— a technique which encourages one to accept and deal with unpleasant situations, rather than avoid them.

Contrary to popular belief, Chamorro-Premuzic states that interventions designed to increase one’s confidence or self-esteem “[…] are rarely effective, and often counterproductive.” (p. 124).

A central point made in The Talent Delusion  is that the most generalisable feature of good coaching is that these practices increase self-awareness. Although definitions of self-awareness vary, Tomas states self-awareness involves acknowledging one’s strengths and limitations.

The dark side of talent

Although few qualities are more desirable than talent, Chamorro-Premuzic acknowledges that talent has a dark side too. Many undesirable and counterproductive tendencies coexist with positive qualities, which helps explain “[…] why so many capable and technically impressive people often go off the rails.” (p. 143).

Psychologists have found that counterproductive work behaviours, such as bullying, theft and dishonesty, are frequently predicted by the dark triad– narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Chamorro-Premuzic notes that the dark triad have been extensively researched, and found to be fairly common in normal work settings. Worst still, these personality traits often help individuals climb up the organisational hierarchy.

Here Chamorro-Premuzic draws on evolutionary theory, and argues that these dark side qualities are adaptive and can help make people successful– although their success comes at the expense of others (p. 166).

[…] [T]heir is a clear Darwinian element to the dark triad, as narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism evolved to facilitate self-serving strategies and manipulation tactics that enhance competition at the expense of collaboration. Although in the long-term altruism, compassion and cooperation favour group survival, in the short-term there are advantages for individuals who can deceive and influence others, and focus more on their own than other people’s well-being.” .

For example, deception may help dishonest employees advance their careers, and greed may help propel selfish individuals to positions of power. However, Tomas states that such personal gain comes at great cost to the collective, which would benefit from the advancement of those who are honest, talented and altruistic.

Likewise, Tomas emphasises that it is competence that allows people to excel at their jobs, but it is confidence that helps them get promoted.

In an ideal world, people could readily distinguish confidence from competence, and that those in need of development would seek assistance. However from an evolutionary perspective, deceit and self-deception can pay handsomely.

As stated by Chamorro-Premuzic (pp. 224-5):

“One of the problems with talent is that in order to persuade others that you have it, it is often enough just to persuade yourself. From an evolutionary perspective, this is one of the few apparent benefits of overconfidence… [I]f you are unaware of of your weaknesses you will probably not convey many insecurities to others, and others may be misled into thinking that you are competent – for you seem confident in your abilities… [B]ut make no mistake; although this can help individuals to fake competence in the short-term, it comes at the long-term detriment to the group or collective.”

The clear distinction made between self-serving behaviour and group welfare means that the Chamorro-Premuzic’s analysis is reconcilable with a multilevel selection perspective.

Practical reasons provided for evaluating the dark side of talent include the pervasiveness of counterproductive work behaviours in organisations. To elaborate, unethical and antisocial behaviours such as rule-bending, bullying and theft, cost the global economy billions. For example, the Enron and WorldCom accounting scandals amounted to losses of $40 billion in their first year alone.

While the bright side of talent predicts career success and organisational effectiveness, the dark side predicts failure and derailment. If the dark side of talent is ignored, Chamorro-Premuzic argues organisations will pay the consequences.

The future of talent

A significant proportion of The Talent Delusion is dedicated to speculating how management practices may evolve in the years ahead.

Argued is that the growing complexity of workplace experiences has been grossly exaggerated, and that generational changes in personality and the pervasiveness of technology are likely to reshape the whole recruitment experience.

Great emphasis is placed on the opportunities presented by artificial intelligence to remove bias from the recruitment process. However, recent research suggests this optimism may be misplaced.

Contrary to popular opinion, Chamorro-Premuzic states that generational differences are smaller than people think (pp.178-9):

“If you think that human evolution has taken place over 2 million years, you will realise that a 100-year timeframe is pretty insignificant. This is also consistent with the idea that, from a broad psychological perspective, our needs and behaviours have always been and meant the same, even if they are now expressed through Snapshot or Linkedin rather than primitive hunter-gather rituals. Our desire to get along, get ahead and find meaning has always dictated the grammar of social interaction, no matter how those particular interactions are manifested.”

That said, a clear trend identified by psychologists over the past century is significant increases in narcissism. Chamorro-Premuzic describes these increases in egocentric attitudes and behaviours as ‘astonishing’, noting that millennials are the most narcissistic generation to date.

With millennials due to become the majority of the workforce, Tomas foresees great challenges for organisations ahead. “[…] [G]enerational increases in narcissism will harm our ability to work in teams, and since every significant accomplishment of civilisation is the result of coordinated team effort, the prospect of a more narcissistic and individualistic society is indeed rather bleak.” (p. 181).

With this in mind, Chamorro-Premuzic states that three critical competencies may mitigate the adverse effects that narcissism may have in the workplace: self-awareness, curiosity, and entrepreneurship.

Tomas refers to a principle of evolutionary psychology known as ‘negative-frequency dependent selection‘: that the fitness advantages of traits will tend to increase when those traits are less common in a given population. “Greedy bastards, for instance, will do much better when they are surrounded by honest altruists rather  than other greedy bastards.” (p. 167).

With the documented rise in narcissism, perhaps employers will place a premium on honesty and humility? As stated by Chamorro-Premuzic; “[…] [I]n a world where self-delusion and overconfidence are the norm, those capable of understanding their limitations will have a particular advantage.” (p. 182).


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of The Talent Delusion.

*Post updated 15th April 2017

References & recommended reading

Briner, R. B. (2014). What is employee engagement and does it matter? An evidence-based approach. The Future of Engagement Thought Piece Collection, 51.

Colarelli, S. M. (2003). No Best Way: An evolutionary perspective on human resource management. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Foster, J. D., Campbell, W. K., & Twenge, J. M. (2003). Individual differences in narcissism: Inflated self-views across the lifespan and around the world. Journal of Research in Personality, 37(6), 469-486. Available here.

Hogan, R., Kaiser, R. B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2014) An Evolutionary View of Organizational Culture. In The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate.

Hogan, J., & Holland, B. (2003). Using theory to evaluate personality and job-performance relations: a socioanalytic perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (1), 100-112.

Hutson, M. (2017) Even artificial intelligence can acquire biases against race and gender. Science Magazine. Available here.

Kuncel, N. R., Ones, D. S., & Sackett, P. R. (2010). Individual differences as predictors of work, educational, and broad life outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(4), 331-336.

Trivers, R. (2011). Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling yourself the better to fool others. Allen Lane.

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2010). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. Free Press.

Von Stumm, S., & Plomin, R. (2015). Socioeconomic status and the growth of intelligence from infancy through adolescence. Intelligence, 48, 30-36.

 

 

Watch now: A conversation with Mark van Vugt on leadership

I recently moderated a discussion on Mark van Vugt’s book Naturally Selected for TVOL1000’s Book of the Month Club.

My review of Naturally Selected was published in This View of Life Magazine, and I had the privilege of joining Mark van Vugt and David Sloan Wilson  as a panellist for a webinar on leadership.

You can watch the recording below.

Mark’s presentation on Evolutionary Leadership Theory is excellent, and provides a good introduction to his research. We also received some great questions during the Q&A session. In hindsight, I wish I asked some better ones myself– evidently I was a bit nervous.

For anyone with an interest in this area, I would strongly recommend joining TVOL 1000. TVOL 1000 is a group of people who appreciate the importance of evolution, and are interested in applying evolutionary science to solve real-world problems.

Members come from all walks of life. Not only do members receive access to exclusive content, joining TVOL1000 is a fantastic networking opportunity.

If you’re interested in joining TVOL1000, click here.

This View of Leadership- A Conversation With Mark van Vugt from Evolution Institute on Vimeo.

 

The HEXACO Model of Personality from an Evolutionary Perspective

From an evolutionary perspective, the existence of personality differences presents a puzzle. Natural selection tends to weed out variation that deviates from optimal adaptations. Therefore, how are personality differences maintained in local environments?

In September’s edition of Evolution & Human Behavior, psychologist Reinout E. de Vries and his colleagues present a general framework which addresses this puzzle. In the process, the authors review the latest scientific developments in personality psychology, and attempt to explain the origins of personality differences.

The authors contend that individual differences likely arose because different situations favour different personality traits. From an evolutionary perspective, the fitness pay-offs of phenotypes vary across time and place.

However, what exactly are these traits that vary across individuals?

Although the authors provide an extensive review of competing models of personality, I will limit the overview to the most robust models in personality psychology.

The Big Five

Psychology has moved on from the days of psychoanalytic personality topographies. Rather depressingly however, there remains plenty of demand for such personality tests in the business world.

Rather than there being fixed categories of personalities, a convergence of evidence from various sources supports the existence of at least five independent dimensions of personality. This research accumulated into the Big Five model of personality, with the five factors being: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (inversely, emotional stability).

Each factor is composed of traits with characteristics indicating high and low levels of the personality dimension. Studies suggest that these five factors are normally distributed, and are largely stable throughout a person’s lifetime.

Due to it’s high validity and reliability, the Big Five has long been considered the gold standard of personality testing.

Despite the model’s credentials, researchers have since identified some limitations of the Big Five. Most importantly, the authors argue that the Big Five has limited ability to identify dark triad personalities. That is, crucial aspects of personality such as psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism,  are not well detected by the Big Five model.

This shortcoming led to the development of a new model of personality: the ‘HEXACO model’.

The HEXACO Model

De Vries and his colleagues state that although the HEXACO model is broadly aligned with the Big Five, there are also noticeable differences. The most significant difference is that the HEXACO model includes honesty/ humility added as sixth independent factor of personality.

The authors define honesty/ humility as traits pertaining to sincerity, fairness, greed avoidance, modesty, and inversely deceitfulness– noting that these traits are largely absent from the Big Five.

Studies comparing the two models demonstrates that with the inclusion  of honesty/humility, the HEXACO model is able to explain more variance in antisocial personality traits– including psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Conversely, the honesty/ humility dimension also explains more variance in prosociality, such as cooperativeness.

The authors highlight other discrepancies from the Big Five. For example, the HEXACO model’s agreeableness and emotionality partially, but incompletely, overlap with the Big Five’s dimensions of agreeableness and emotional stability. These differences have implications for both the predictive validity of both models, and for theorising about the evolution of personality.

The authors summarise the advantages of HEXACO as follows (p. 411):

In sum, when compared to the Big Five model, the HEXACO model (1) has offered a better description of the largest set of replicable factors that have emerged in comparative cross-cultural lexical research, and (2) has been found to better predict a number of important criteria, including counterproductive, delinquent, and outright criminal behaviors, sexual exploitative behaviors, and prosocial behaviors such as cooperation.

Situational Affordances

What circumstances may have led to the emergence of these dimensions of personality? Historically, psychologists have failed to address this question.

De Vries and his colleagues argue that recurrent situational challenges may have promoted the emergence of these personality dimensions.

People experience a wide range of different situations throughout their lives. However the authors argue that if situations vary reliably across time and location, then different personality traits that fit well (or poorly) with these situations will emerge.

Following from a review of the literature on ‘situational affordances’, De Vries and his colleagues develop a framework for the evolution of personality.

The framework outlines the six domains of situational affordances, and maps the relevant personality dimension which addresses such challenges.

For example, some situations allow for personal gain at the expense of others, or allow for behaviours that are beneficial to others. In situations that that permit exploitation, the authors propose that low honesty/ humility behaviours are more likely to pay-off. However strategies employed by people low in honesty/ humility in stable or supervised environments are likely to be punished and suffer consequences.

De Vries et al (2016) The situational affordances framework of personality evolution

The situational affordances framework of personality evolution (De Vries et al, 2016, p. 414)

By testing the propositions laid out in their situational affordances framework, the authors contend that  “further progress can be made in unravelling the ‘enigma of personality’.” (p. 418).

What’s the relevance to business?

Intuitively, low levels of honesty/ humility is associated with work place delinquency (e.g. steeling from your employer).

Research suggests that people high in honesty/ humility have more negative views on theft, and report stealing less money than their less honest counterparts. Additionally, honesty/ humility predicts supervisor ratings of workplace performance, above and beyond ratings of the other five factors of personality.

Appreciating its predictive power in identifying dark triad personalities and workplace delinquency, organisational psychologists and recruitment specialists should make it a priority to measure candidates’ levels of honesty/ humility during the recruitment process. Even if HR professionals are adhering to best practice and using models based on the Big Five taxonomy, they may still be omitting one of the most important aspects of personality.

To put it another way, a combination of low honesty/ humility, low conscientiousness and low agreeableness is the nightmare of every employer. Scientific personality assessments can help prevent such nightmares becoming a reality

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to read the full paper. 

de Vries, R. E., Tybur, J. M., Pollet, T. V., & van Vugt, M. (2016). Evolution, situational affordances, and the HEXACO model of personality. Evolution and human behavior, 37(5), 407-421

 

References

Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., & de Vries, R. E. (2014). The HEXACO Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and Emotionality factors: A review of research and theory. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(2), 139-152

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2017) The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential. Piatkus

de Vries, R. E. (2016). The nightmare of every employer: The explosive mix of low Honesty Humility, low Conscientiousness, and low Agreeableness. GEDRAG & ORGANISATIE, 29(4), 316-346

Grant, A. (2013). Goodbye to MBTI: The fad that won’t die. Psychology Today. Available here

Johnson, M.K., Rowatt, W. C., & Petrini, L. (2011). A new trait on the market: Honesty-Humility as a unique predictor of job performance ratings. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, pp. 857-862

Miller, G. (2009). Spent: Sex, evolution, and consumer behavior. Penguin.

Pinker, S. (2003). The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature. Penguin.

 

PROSOCIAL: An Overview of David Sloan Wilson’s ‘Does Altruism Exist?’

Does altruism exist, or are humans entirely selfish?

In Does Altruism Exist?, famed biologist and president of the Evolution Institute David Sloan Wilson  answers this age old question with evolutionary theory.

Traditionally, evolutionary scientists have explained the existence of altruism by modelling the evolutionary benefits to the altruist (more specifically the altruist’s genes). Within these models, ‘pure altruism’ — altruism that actively disadvantages an organism — does not exist, as organisms with such propensities would be weeded out by natural selection.

However, David Sloan Wilson is a prominent proponent of multilevel selection (also known as group selection)— a theory that evolution operates at multiple levels, including the group level.

Multilevel selection can summarised by David Sloan Wilson and Edwin Osborne Wilson’s maxim:

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. 

Water striders are provided as an example of multilevel selection.

Male water striders vary in their aggressiveness, particularly towards females. Some act as gentlemen. However other water striders act as rapists, attempting to mate with any female without regard to their receptivity. How are these individual differences maintained in water strider populations?

Experiments conducted by David and his colleagues suggests that if within-group selection were the only evolutionary force, the gentlemen would have quickly gone extinct. However, the aggressive water striders prevented females from feeding, which caused them to lay fewer eggs. This effect was so large that the females in groups with only gentlemen laid over twice as many eggs, as compared to females in groups with all rapists. Therefore the groups of gentlemen were more reproductively successful than the groups comprised of aggressive males, despite their within-group disadvantage.

David states that the tug-of-war between levels of selection results in a mix of altruistic and selfish behavioural strategies.

Many interpret evolution as being synonymous with progress. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Left to it’s own devices, evolution can take us places where we wouldn’t want to go.

There remains some controversy over group selection. However, the game-changer is applying multilevel selection to cultural evolution, as opposed to genetic evolution.

Psychological altruism

When analysing human affairs, David Sloan Wilson defines altruism by prosocial behaviour, rather than peoples’ thoughts and feelings. The rationale is that thoughts and feelings are not only more difficult to measure, but that they have a weak relationship with behaviour. David argues that focusing on actions, rather than cognition and emotions, makes defining and measuring altruism more straightforward.

More fundamentally, David argues that if people act altruistically it doesn’t matter that much what their motivations are. Thoughts and feelings are important only if they actually lead to prosocial actions. “[…][W]e shouldn’t care much about distinguishing among motives, any more than we should care about being paid with cash or a check. It’s not right to privilege altruism as a psychological motive when other equivalent motives exist.” With this, David makes a break from how altruism is traditionally studied by social scientists.

However, David subsequently demonstrates the value of altruism as a psychological construct.

The Neighbourhood Project was an initiative set up by David to improve his town of Binghamton New York, through the application of evolutionary science. As part of The Neighbourhood Project, David and is his team were able to map clusters of prosocial and antisocial school children in Binghamton, using a self-reported survey. Prosociality was measured by the student’s level of agreement to statements such as “I think it is important to help other people”, and “I am trying to make my community a better place”.

binghamton_map

A map of prosociality for the City of Binghamton, New York

David and his colleagues were able to confirm that these maps represented actual differences in prosociality between neighbourhoods with follow-up experiments, such as dropping stamped and addressed envelops in the streets of Binghamton and seeing how many people were kind enough to post them.

The prosocial map suggests that people are behaviourally flexible, and calibrate their prosociality according to circumstances. As stated by David Sloan Wilson; “[…] those who reported giving also reported receiving, which is the basic requirement for altruism defined in terms of actions to succeed in a Darwinian world.”

Darwin’s Business

What does this all have to do with business?

Many companies think that hiring principled, conscientious employees will help prevent ethical lapses. Such a premise is intuitively appealing. However if the business environment promotes intra-group competition, altruists will simply lose the Darwinian contest to selfish individualists.

In Give and Take, organisational psychologist Adam Grant documents an impressive body of evidence showing that altruists (‘givers’) are highly successful in the business world, contrary to widespread misconceptions of businessmen being driven only by money. However, Grant’s research also demonstrates that altruists are both businesses’ top and worst performers— altruists are successful as long as they surround themselves with other givers, and avoid the depredations of selfish individualists (‘takers’).

To fully understand what leads to altruistic behaviour, David Sloan Wilson argues we need to study the construction of entire social environments, not just what motivates individual people.

David cites the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who is professor of business ethics at New York University. Jonathan argues that to promote ethical behaviour in business, one needs to understand the properties of a whole system–the individual, the group, and the broader environment– a concept that Haidt is promoting through an initiative called Ethical Systems.

 

The Core Design Principles

So how can we promote altruism within organisations?

What is essential is to provide a highly favourable social environment for the expression of prosocial behaviour. As stated by David Sloan Wilson; “Everyone thrives in a social environment that causes prosociality to win the Darwinian contest.”

The late Elinor Ostrom was the awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, for showing that groups of people are capable of managing their own resources and do not inevitably succumb to the tragedy of the commons— but only if they possess certain design features.

David Sloan Wilson emphasises the importance of Ostrom’s design principles in creating efficacious groups, and draws upon them heavily throughout the book.

Ostrom’s core design principles are:

  1. Strong group identity and and understanding of purpose The identity of the group and the need to manage the resources must be clearly specified.
  2. Proportional equivalence between  benefits and costsMembers of the group must negotiate a system that rewards members for their contributions. High status or other disproportionate benefits must be earned. Unfair inequality poisons collective efforts.
  3. Collective-choice arrangements. People don’t like being told what to do, but will work towards goals for which they have helped shape.
  4. Monitoring. A commons are inherently vulnerable to free-riding. Unless exploitation can be detected by norm-abiding members at little cost, the tragedy of the commons will occur.
  5. Graduated sanctions. Transgressions do not require heavy punishments, at least initially. Often gossip or a gentle nudge is sufficient. Escalation of punishments must be enacted if necessary.
  6. Conflict resolution mechanisms. Conflicts must be dealt with swiftly, and they must be perceived as fair.
  7. Minimal recognition for rights to organise. Groups must have the right to conduct their own affairs. Externally imposed rules are unlikely to be adapted to local conditions (and potentially violating principle 3)
  8. For groups that are part of larger social systems, appropriate coordination among relevant groups. Large-scale governance requires finding the optimal scale for each sphere of activity and appropriately coordinating the activities.

 

Pathological altruism

As with all traits, there is a darkside to altruism. Pathological altruism is altruism which attempts to promote the welfare of others, but instead results in unanticipated harm. The darkside of altruism needs to be acknowledged by all social engineers attempting to promote prosociality.

Pathological altruism includes those who can no longer look after themselves and function  properly because of their concern for others’ welfare. For example, healthcare professionals are at risk of burn-out if they become too distressed by the suffering of others.

At a higher level of analysis, if altruism and other forms of prosocial behaviour proliferate and results in efficacious groups, these groups can do great harm to others. A wealth of psychological research indicates that peoples’ in-group loyalty trumps higher-level considerations.

Prosocial behaviour at one level of a hierarchy becoming a problem at higher levels “can be recited almost without end”. David cites sociologist Robert Jackall’s ethnographic work Moral Mazes, which details how competition between individuals, alliances and divisions in  a large corporation undermines the goals of the company as a whole.

Beyond this, even if a large corporation manages to function well as a collective unit, David argues there is no guarantee that it will contribute to the welfare of the larger economic system, or society more broadly.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business 

Click here to buy a copy of Does Altruism Exist?

*Post updated 19th January 2017

References

Eldakar, O. T., Dlugos, M. J., Pepper, J. W., & Wilson, D. S. (2009). Population structure mediates sexual conflict in water striders. Science, 326(5954), 816-816. Available here

Eldakar, O. T., Dlugos, M. J., Wilcox, R. S., & Wilson, D. S. (2009). Aggressive mating as a tragedy of the commons in the water strider Aquarius remigis. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 64(1), 25-33.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and take: Why helping others drives our success. Penguin

Jackall, R. (2009). Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate ManagersOxford University Press

Oakley, B., Knafo, A., Madhavan, G., & Wilson, D. S. (Eds.). (2011). Pathological Altruism. Oxford University Press

Pinker, S. (2012) The false allure of group selection, Edge Magazine. Available here

Thorpe, A. & O’Gorman, R. (2016) Memo To Jeff Bezos: The Most Productive Workers Are Team Players, Not Selfish Individualists, This View of Life Magazine. Available here

Turchin, P. (2015). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books

Wilson, D. S. (2011). The Neighborhood Project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at a time. Little, Brown

Wilson, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. (2007). Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. The Quarterly review of biology, 82(4), 327-348.

 

A Virtuous Sin: An Overview of ‘Take Pride’ by Jessica Tracy

Dean Karnazes started his professional running career relatively late in life.

As a teenager, Dean had been a top runner at his school’s cross-country team. However, the joys and demands of modern life later took hold. Karnazes went to university, got married, and pursued a business career—quickly rising ranks in his sales job.

But something happened when Dean turned 30 years old.

On the morning Karnazes turned 30, he woke up in a state of shock. In his memoir Ultramarathon Man, Karnazes wrote; “I realized that my life is being wasted.” He later told his wife; “My fear is that I’ll wake up thirty years from now and be in the same place, only wrinkled and bald… and really fat. And bitter.”

That night, Karnazes went drinking in San Francisco, and found himself within inches of cheating on his wife. Reflecting on what nearly happened, Karnazes had an epiphany. He realised that the proudest moments in his life were when he’d independently endured something physically demanding.

Dean escaped from the bar he was drinking at, and started running… All night. He ran from his home in San Francisco, to Half Moon Bay—thirty miles down the California coast.

Karnazes hadn’t ran in 15 years, and suffered for days afterwards. But Karnazes described feeling a profound sense of purpose, and decided he wasn’t going to let it go.

Since that eventful day, Karnazes has become the world’s most famous ultra-marathon runner.

Pride: A fundamental aspect of human nature

Why did Karnazes abandon a successful business career, to become an endurance athlete?

Evidently Karnazes was driven by emotion– and one emotion in particular. Like every other person who dedicates their time and effort to achieve something, Karnazes was driven by pride: the desire to feel proud of one’s self.

In Take Pride: Why the deadliest since holds the secret to human success, psychology professor Jessica Tracy argues that pride is a fundamental aspect of human nature, and an emotion which has been long neglected by social scientists.

Grounded in evolutionary science, Tracy argues that the ultimate function of pride is to increase one’s social status, and that this motivational emotion is the driving force of our species’ success. “One conclusion I’ve reached is that the desire to feel pride is of the most important motivational forces propelling human achievement… Yes, pride is at least partially responsible for many of our species’ greatest successes, including artistic masterpieces, groundbreaking scientific discoveries, and world-changing technological inventions.”

Tracy and her colleagues’ innovative research demonstrates that pride is not just confined to individualistic societies, but is a universal human emotion. For example, hunter-gatherers in Burkina Faso who have received little to no exposure to Western culture recognise pride displays on similar levels to that of other universal human emotions, such as fear. On top of this, Tracy’s research illustrates that congenitally blind Olympic athletes display recognisable pride displays—ruling out the possibility that these behaviours are learned from watching others.

tracy-and-matsumoto-the-spontaneous-expression-of-pride-and-shame

Pride expression in response to victory shown by a sighted (left) and congenitally blind (right) judo athlete (image credit: Bob Willingham)

A virtuous sin

Historically, pride has been described as both a virtue and as a sin. How have scholars and religious leaders come to radically different conclusions on this emotion?

The answer is because of pride’s two-sided nature.

One the one-hand, there’s authentic pride: a type of pride based on a reasonable perception of one’s self-worth, accompanied with a desire to achieve. It is based on one’s actions and their contributions to others. On the other hand, you have hubristic pride. Unlike authenticity, hubristic pride is based on one’s own perception of innate greatest and superiority. In other words, an inflated sense of self-worth and entitlement.

Tracy’s research illustrates that those prone to authentic pride are generally prosocial, outgoing and emotionally stable. In contrast, those prone to hubristic pride are more likely to be narcissistic, low in self-esteem, and vulnerable to bouts of shame.

Essentially, the key determinant of either authentic or hubristic pride is where one attributes their success. As stated by Tracy;

No wonder authentic pride is associated with feelings of achievement and accomplishment while hubristic pride is linked to egotism and arrogance. If you think you succeeded because of your hard work, you should confident, productive and accomplished. And if you believe you succeeded because of who you are, well, then it makes sense that you’d feel pretty great about yourself in a manner that can described as conceited or smug.”

These two variants of pride are also associated with different ways of processing failure. Those who tend toward authentic pride can put their failures into perspective, and treat them as temporary setbacks and extract lessons from these experiences. Conversely, those susceptible to hubristic pride do not respond in kind. They are vulnerable to setting unrealistic goals, which typically fail. When the inevitable happens, they disregard or undermine these failures, as admitting failure would violate their identity.

This distinction is why pride can explain acts of genius, as well as acts of apparent insanity. For example, hubristic pride may best explain why Lance Armstrong not only enhanced his already remarkable cycling performance by doping with EPOs, but why he subsequently manipulated and intimidated his teammates to follow suit– which drastically increased the odds of getting caught. Tracy summarises this point eloquently. “The hubristic form of pride can explain these seemingly inexplicable acts, and it may be the only thing that can. Yes, pride is a source of human greatness, but it’s also a source of the greatest of human downfalls. For this reason, pride- perhaps more than any other emotion – lies at the heart of human nature.”

Two paths to leadership

Tracy argues pride is ‘adaptive’, in the sense that it grants one power and influence, which helps increase one’s social rank. We know that leaders are more likely to survive and reproduce than those at the bottom of the hierarchy.

With that in mind, why are there two very different forms of pride, and how can they both be adaptive? It’s because there are two divergent routes to leadership.

Firstly, there’s dominance– increasing one’s social status through intimidation, manipulation, and coercion. This type of leadership is ancient, and is rooted in primate social dominance. Within the animal kingdom, animals which are the most powerful and the superior fighters are generally granted high status.

However, we homo sapiens  are unique. Unlike other animals, we are a hyper-social cultural species. We rely on cultural knowledge and wisdom like no other animal– we literally depend on socialisation and cultural know-how for our survival. As a result, we seek leaders with the skills and knowledge our group needs to thrive. This path to leadership is called prestige.

Intriguingly, Tracy’s research shows that both paths are equally successful. That is, one can get to the top either through domination, or by developing prestige.

For example, Tracy and her colleagues conducted experimental research, providing groups of university students with problems solving tasks developed by NASA. However Tracy and her colleagues weren’t interested in the groups’ answers. Instead, they measured each participant’s dominance and prestige, along with four measures of social influence (including eye-tracking of reviewers watching the experimental footage, with the time spent focused on each participant as a measure of status).

The experiments demonstrated that both dominance and prestige were equally effective strategies. Despite acknowledging that they didn’t particularly like the dominant group members, participants nonetheless viewed these individuals as influential leaders.

This helps explain why Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Trump pursued the primate dominance path to success by bullying, manipulating and intimidating his political rivals, and ended up winning arguably the world’s most powerful position. In other words, Trump didn’t win despite of his arrogance and aggression; he won because of it.

Although the US election caught pollsters off guard and subsequently shocked the world, it appears that many evolutionary psychologists were not surprised by the result– including Tracy herself. Take Pride was penned before Trump was elected the Republican nominee. However, Trump’s leadership style is a focal point of the book. “…[A]s this book goes to press, in the spring of 2016, Trump is the leading Republican candidate for U.S. president. Overt or exaggerated displays of hubristic pride are obviously not a deal breaker.”

Take Pride

What should we take from Tracy’s work?

Tracy’s advice for your own life couldn’t be more clear: cultivate authentic pride.

One of my ultimate aims of this book is to demonstrate that you can choose to control the darker impulses and follow your more authentic prideful voice. I believe understanding the science of pride—both sides of pride—will allow you to fully appreciate and benefit from this natural capacity all members of our species share. It’s an ability not only to feel good about ourselves, but also to use those feelings towards our own ends, to change our lives.

Recruiters and HR professionals should take note. It’s vital that organisations explore the motivations of job candidates and promising leaders, not just their skills and experience. Businesses should seek leaders that display authentic pride, and cite intrinsic motivations for wanting the position.

Yes, dominance is a successful leadership strategy. However it comes with big costs, including lower employee satisfaction, higher staff turnover, and reduced creativity. Essentially domineering leadership causes unnecessary suffering, and is arguably unsustainable. In a world were culture is a key driver of human evolution, we need to select knowledgeable and competent leaders who can improve the human condition.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of Take Pride.

*Post updated 12th December 16

 

References and recommended reading

Boehm, C. (2016) Trump’s primate-like posturing got him to poll position in Iowa, New Scientist. Available here

Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., Foulsham, T., Kingstone, A., & Henrich, J. (2013). Two ways to the top: Evidence that dominance and prestige are distinct yet viable avenues to social rank and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(1), 103.

Henrich, J. (2015) The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press

Karnazes, D. (2007). Ultramarathon Man. Riva Verlag

Tracy, J.L. (2016) Evolutionary psychology shows that people get ahead in life by using one of these two strategies. Quartz Magazine. Available here

Tracy, J. L., & Matsumoto, D. (2008). The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(33), 11655-11660.

Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2008). The nonverbal expression of pride: evidence for cross-cultural recognition. Journal of personality and social psychology, 94(3), 516.

Van Vugt, M. (2015) Understanding Primates – and Donald Trump, Psychlogy Today. Available here

Van Vugt, M. & Ahuja, A. (2010) Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it mattersProfile Books

Von Rueden, C. (2016) The Conversation About Trump Should Consider the Evolution of Men’s Political Psychology, This View of Life. Available here