Book Review

Darwin goes to Wall Street

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

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

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

What can we make of this apparent contradiction?

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

It Takes a Theory to Beat a Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by Lo:

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

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

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

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

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

The Financial Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finance Behaving Badly

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lo Dyck, Morse and Zingale's (2013, figure 1) estimates of the percentage of large corporations starting and engaging in fraud

Estimates of the percentage of large corporations starting or engaging in fraud, from 1996-2004 (Dyck, Mores & Zingales, 2013)

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

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

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

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

Fixing Finance 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of Adaptive Markets

The irresistible sway of first impressions

We make our mind up about people after seeing their faces for barely a fraction of a second. Far from being trivial, these impressions impact our decision making and have real world implications.

For example, politicians that simply appear more competent are more likely to win elections. Can we reliably discern character from people’s faces, or are we being misled?

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

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

Physiognomist’s promises

The story starts with the history of physiognomy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As outlined by the Economist:

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

Todorov summarises his argument as follows:

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

Predicting elections? Child’s play

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

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


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.


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

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


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.

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.



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”.


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


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.


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


No Best Way: Colarelli’s Evolutionary Perspective on Human Resource Management

Colarelli, S. M. (2003) No Best Way: An Evolutionary Perspective on Human Resource Management. Greenwood Publishing Group

How can evolutionary theory be applied to and influence the ways in which we research and practice human resource management (HRM)?

In No Best Way, Professor Stephen Colarelli notes that the theory of evolution has been the theoretical bedrock of the life sciences for well over a century, yet it is has only just begun making inroads into the fields of psychology and organizational theory. No Best Way is Colarelli’s attempt to improve Human Resource Management, through an appreciation of evolutionary science.

Colarelli penned No Best Way  back in 2003, and from my limited research Colarelli was one of the first social scientists to apply evolutionary theory to management. I picked up No Best Way expecting the book to be somewhat dated and limited in its application. However I was pleasantly surprised by how advanced Colarelli’s thinking was, and the philosophical depth to which Colarelli delved to. The book also provides an excellent overview of the history of organisational psychology.

An oversimplification of Colarelli’s thesis is this: despite organisational psychologists’ best efforts, modern ‘mechanistic’ hiring methods are no better at predicting employee performance than traditional hiring methods. Additionally, Colarelli argues that modern hiring methods frequently go against the grain of human nature, which helps explain their low adoption rates in industry. That is, they go against our preference for face-to-face interactions and to form intuitive judgements of people’s character; our aversion to statistics and abstract information; and our propensity to learn behaviours with higher survival and reproductive value. To improve hiring and training, organisational psychologists must take into consideration our evolved psychological dispositions, embrace variation and complexity, and abandon Utopian visions of organisations and society.

Colarelli argues that the discrepancy between the conditions of our distant ancestral past and that of modern organisations have resulted in a evolutionary mismatch (p. 122, emphasis added):

“The industrial revolution and the cultural, social and technological changes that accompanied it occurred at astonishing speed. Many of the newly developed selection methods were attempts to adapt to those changes. Yet human nature changes considerably more slowly than culture and technology. Hence, it is not surprising that people still prefer hiring methods- face-to-face interaction, observation, and narrative- that rely on our primary psychological mechanisms. Similarly, the inevitable politics and conflicts of interest endemic in organizations worked against the ideal that tests and test scores would be used impartially and by the book. The introduction of mechanistic hiring methods resulted in a mismatch between these new methods and human nature. Humans had evolved to survive in hunter-gather groups during the Pleistocene, and their fundamental psychological makeup had not changed with the advent of modernity, which sprang in the evolutionary blink of an eye.” 

Through the lens of cultural evolution, Colarelli suggests that many unscientific management practices which don’t achieve what they’re intended to may have been retained due to some higher adaptive function. For example, training days may not actually teach employees anything new. However, training days help employees bond and boosts morale, thus increasing team performance.

The ‘Marital Compatibility Test’

One of my favourite parts of No Best Way is Colarelli’s thought exercise for his organisational psychology students, who Colarelli claims were unanimously contemptuous of traditional hiring methods (p. xviii).

To counter this attitude, I began posing the following question to my graduate seminars when we studied employment tests:

Assume that a test has been developed to match couples’ interests, backgrounds, and marital compatibility. Studies have shown that couples who score high on Marital Compatibility Test also score, on average, higher on a measure of marital satisfaction. Would you be willing to forego traditional dating and courtship, and choose your spouse through the use of this standardized test? 

Uniformly, their answer was “no”. They preferred to stick to traditional methods, but they were at loss to explain why. 

Colarelli’s graduates students were apparently equally averse to the hypothetical ‘Baby-Sitting Aptitude Test’.

Would you marry someone using a Marital Compatibilty Test, or do you find this dehumanising?

Of course on a personal level, choosing a future spouse and people who will care for your children are higher stakes than hiring an employee. However, Colarelli argues these experiments illustrate our evolved psychological dispositions to evaluate people through face-to-face interaction (Buss, 1999). Colarelli implies our preference for face-to-face interactions helps explain the low adoption rates of various mechanistic hiring practices in industry.

Modern Methods No Better Than Traditional Methods

Colarelli cites a meta-analysis conducted by Schmidt and Hunter (1998) covering 19 hiring methods, which analysed 85 years of quantitative research on the validity of hiring methods for predicting job performance.

The result? The average validity of traditional hiring methods was marginally higher than that of mechanistic methods. Work sample tests, a traditional hiring method, had the highest validity of all methods, whereas general tests of mental ability and structured interviews had the highest validities of mechanistic methods. Hiring methods that involve face-to-face interaction have on average higher validity than those that do not.

Colarelli (2003) No Best Way_ Hiring Validity

Predictive Validity of Traditional and Mechanistic Hiring Methods (p. 146)

I was genuinely surprised by these findings. Think of the amount of resources the public and private sectors spends on modern recruitment methods, such as the assessment centre, when they are apparently only as good as cheaper, simpler traditional methods. As stated by Hinrich; “It makes little sense to use a sledgehammer to swat a fly!” (1978, p. 600, quoted p. 145).

So, how do these validity estimates hold after 13 years of research?

Subsequent meta-analyses suggest higher validity estimates for general mental ability tests (Bertua, 2005; Schmitt & Hunter, 2005), and lower estimates for work sample tests (Roth, 2005). However, there has also been a reported decline in validity estimates for assessment centres over the past 40 years (Thornhill & Gibbons, 2009). Subsequent analysis also suggests lower validity estimates for structured interviews, with unstructured interviews actually performing better (Oh et al, 2013).

Notwithstanding these revised estimates, one would expect modern hiring methods to have higher validity.

Structured vs Unstructured Interviews (2)

The interaction between interview structure and rating type on interview validity for job performance (Oh et al, 2013)

Perverse Effects

Colarelli also emphasises the perverse effects of cognitive and personality tests, and highlights that differences in cognitive test scores do not correspond well with differences in job or academic performance (p. 220).

As stated by Colarelli; “[e]xceptional performance requires more than innate intelligence or talent. It is common knowledge, as well as firmly established in the research literature, that practice, training, motivation, exposure to role models, and focused goals have a substantial effect on a person’s abilities and demonstrated performance.” (p. 283).

A case in point: Martin Luther King Jr.

Colarelli notes that Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is widely deemed one of the most influential pieces of writing on civil rights ever written, and that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is regarded as one of the most brilliant speeches of the 20th century. Yet Martin Luther King scored in the bottom half of test-takers on the verbal portion of the Graduate Record Examination (p. 293).

As a dyslexic, I’ve witnessed the downsides of standardised cognitive tests first-hand.

I have taken numerous standardised cognitive tests for recruitment purposes, and I’ve only progressed to the next hiring phase for a grand total of one. (It is well known that having dyslexia skews cognitive test scores, which I largely attribute my poor performance on general mental ability tests to).

I initially took it personally, however I’ve now realised that organisations which rigidly implement cognitive tests in their selection process are making a mistake. Not only are general cognitive ability tests weak predictors of future performance, they also screen out talent from groups which historically haven’t tested well (such as various ethnic minority groups and the neurologically atypical).


Colarelli goes as far as to accuse organisational psychologists of hubris.

“The hubris of I/O psychologists about the merits of HRM interventions is unjustified for a specific reason: they have no historical record of tangible accomplishment. The historical record is not flattering to HRM, particularly in comparison with the historical record of other technologies developed recently. HRM achievements pale in comparison to technological achievements in transportation, communications, and medicine…” (p. xviii).

Arguably Colarelli is rather harsh in his critiques of organisational psychologists. Additionally, Colarelli notes that conventional organisational psychology is not necessarily in tension with evolutionary theory. Nonetheless Colarelli’s evolutionary perspective on hiring and training is a valuable contribution to the field.

Lessons from an Evolutionary Perspective

What should organisational psychologists and human resource managers take away from No Best Way?

Piecemeal social engineering: Embrace what Karl Popper termed ‘piecemeal social engineering’ (1996, quoted p. 73). That is, HRM interventions should be disengaged from grandiose ideals- from utopian visions of organisational, economic, and social progress. An argument against the pursuit of grandiose ideals does not mean that an evolutionary perspective is insensitive to human suffering. Alleviating particular problems is a workable alternative (p. 72).

Increase variation: A Key argument in No Best Way is that one of the most important priorities from an evolutionary perspective is the cultivation of variation. Variation has a positive influence on the viability of a system. In contrast to the mechanistic perspective which seeks to reduce variation so that an organisation can be moved to an envisioned ideal, the evolutionary perspective suggests the importance of enhancing variation. “We cannot predict the future, but variation buys us insurance. Variation improves the probability that within its broad repertoire, an organization will have the resources to cope with uncertain futures” (pp. 70-71).

Random selection above a threshold: For organisations where standardised recruitment processes are necessary, Colarelli suggests randomly selecting individuals from a pool of qualified applicants (p. 225). It deals effectively with enhancing diversity and acquiring talent. Beyond this, Colarelli argues it avoids inherent complications in making racial and ethnic categorisations; it is easy to understand and likely to be perceived as fair; and it is compatible with the organizational realities of complexity, self-interest and politics.

Drill and deliberate practice: Colarelli argues that much emphasis on technology which has dominated educational and industrial training has been misplaced. More important is something rather basic: practice (p. 290). Computers are not good at motivating people to practice, unfortunately. The critical components of effective practice are identifying skills and practising them in sustained, deliberative ways. But of course, practice isn’t sexy.

Train in groups: Frequently, psychologists and managers focus too much on the content of training, and neglect the importance of the means of training. For most of human history, people developed skills and abilities in small groups. One of the most important things one can do to promote learning is to create or join groups where people are engaged in the activity that interests them (p. 294).

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

*Updated 8th August 2016

Click here to buy a copy of No Best Way

Professor Stephen Colarelli is currently based at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Central St Michigan University. 


Bertua, C., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2005). The predictive validity of cognitive ability tests: A UK meta‐analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(3), 387-409.

Buss, D. (1999) Evolutionary Psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Hinrichs, J. R. (1978). An eight-year follow-up of a management assessment center. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63(5), 596.

Oh, I. S., Postlethwaite, B. E., & Schmidt, F. L. (2013). Rethinking the Validity of Interviews for Employment Decision Making: Implications of Recent Developments in Meta-Analysis. Analysis, 297-329.

Popper, K. S. (1996). The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge.

Roth, P. L., Bobko, P., & McFARLAND, L. Y. N. N. (2005). A meta‐analysis of work sample test validity: updating and integrating some classic literature.Personnel Psychology, 58(4), 1009-1037.

Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J.E. (2004). General mental ability in the world of work: occupational attainment and job performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 86(1), 162.

Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological bulletin, 124(2), 262. Available here.

Thornton, G. C., & Gibbons, A. M. (2009). Validity of assessment centers for personnel selection. Human Resource Management Review, 19(3), 169-187.


The Savannah Hypothesis: An overview of ‘Selected’, by Mark van Vugt & Anjana Ahuja

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


Malcom Gladwell polled Fortune’s top 500 companies for his 2005 book Blink, and found the average height of male CEOs was just under 6 ft, but the average American male is 5 ft 9 inches. Around 58% of these CEOs were 6 ft or taller, whereas 14.5% of men in the US population are this tall. Approximately 30% of these CEOs were 6 ft 2 inches or taller, compared with just 3.9% of American adult men.

Fully 94.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are male (Fairchild, 2015).

This is not just an American phenomenon, similar stats are revealed elsewhere. For example, 94.5% of the FTSE’s top 100 company CEOs are men (UK Government, 2011).

The same preferences are revealed in political leadership.

For example, height is a partial predictor of victory in US presidential campaigns. Since the beginning of the 20th century, nearly 70% of the presidential campaigns between the two major parties have been won by the taller candidate (Sun, 2016). Despite Hilary Clinton’s prospects, we are yet to see a female US president.

Also, overweight presidential candidates are extremely unlikely to be victorious. The last overweight US president was William Howard Taft, back in 1909.

Why do we overwhelming choose tall men as our leaders?

Traditional leadership theory cannot explain these seemingly irrelevant correlations with gender, height, weight and health. They are deemed spurious correlations, or social constructs.

Popular science books such as Gladwell’s Blink scratch the surface- it is our unconscious biases that explain our fondness of tall masculine leaders. However, these popular writings don’t identify the roots of our prejudice. One has to ask, why do we have these unconscious biases in the first place?

In Selected, Oxford University psychologist Mark van Vugt and Financial Times science writer Anjana Ahuja note that despite the trillions of words written on leadership, few have addressed the ‘why’ of leadership. “This gaping hole must be plugged if we are to truly understand the human instinct to lead and the accompanying instinct to follow.” (p. 17). To understand our leadership and followship psychology, van Vugt and Ahuja urge us to revisit our ancestral past- to head back to the African Savannah.

The Savannah Hypothesis

A convergence of evidence from fields such as anthropology and paleobiology has painted a picture of what life was like for our distant ancestors.

Before the advent of agriculture, food was scarce. The food that was obtained was either foraged or hunted- our ancestors were physically active. We were also prey- predators roamed the Savannah and posed a serious threat to life. Violence and warfare was unfathomably high compared to rates in modern society (see Pinker, 2011). People lived not in towns or in mega-cities, but in tight bands maxing 150, and rarely encountering outsiders (see Dunbar, 2011). The technologies and organisations of modern society did not exist- no hierarchy or formal recruitment processes to select the most competent leaders.

In the light of the environment our distant ancestors faced for 2 million years before the advent of agriculture, our preferences for tall, physically fit males as leaders makes a lot of sense. As stated by van Vugt and Ahuja (p. 164):

“For leadership activities requiring physical strength and stamina, such as group hunting and warfare, our ancestors would have wanted the physically fittest man for the job (in retrospect, a wise judgement, because you are a testament to their success). Height, weight and health would have pointed to fitness.”

Essentially, we’re continuing to select warriors as our leaders.

A running theme in Selected is that our leadership preferences are an example of a mismatch: traits selected for in our ancestral past that have shaped our psychology, which are misaligned with the demands of the modern world. A core argument is that these mismatches are implicated in leadership failure.

“Today, though, leadership is very rarely about foraging and fighting in 100- strong tribes of blood relatives; it’s about ruling nations of millions (a billion, in the case of China), running multinational corporations with thousands of employees, and rubbing along in a global village where people don’t look and behave the same way as you do. Is it any wonder that the leaders we choose today so often disappoint?” (p. 183).

What is so powerful about evolution is it’s theoretical parsimony. Evolutionary Leadership Theory reconciles a vast array of previously contradictory theories. As stated by van Vugt and Ahuja (p. 18):

From the simplicity of this evolutionary perspective, an astonishing array of disparate, bewildering findings on leadership fall into place. We crave in our leaders maturity in a time of uncertainty, and youth and vibrancy when we ourselves yearn for social change. We want leaders who conform to a certain physical stereotype- because they flick a subconcious switch in our brains that most of us probably don’t even know we have… We might be sophisticated animals in a primate hierarchy, but we, like every other animal we share this planet with, have taken a long, grinding evolutionary path to get here, and our minds are littered with psychological souvenirs of the journey.”

What motivates leaders?

Why would anyone want to become a leader, with all the responsibility and scrutiny entailed?

Van Vugt and Ahuja are blunt and argue it’s for the ‘three S’s’- salary, status and sex.

To elaborate, leaders accrue greater financial benefits, elevated social status from their position, and greater sexual opportunities (primarily for men- more on this later). The authors note the circular nature of the three S’s. “[T]he ultimate evolutionary aim is reproductive success, which must be achieved through sex, which means catching the eye of sexual partners, which means being a man of status. And how is this status signified today? Through salary. And so, thanks to evolutionary leadership theory, we have a thread linking money to power to sex.” (p. 16).

Power corrupts

Van Vugt and Ahuja note the sordid relationship between leadership and corruption.

Research demonstrates that not only does power induce people to have greater confidence in their abilities and their judgement, powerful people also find it difficult to empathise with others (see Robertson, 2012). The authors cite an innovative experiment: people primed to recall moments of power were asked to write the letter ‘E’ on their foreheads, for others to read it (Galinsky et al, 2006). The power-primed were three times more likely to write the E from their own perspectives (i.e. a reflected E to others… I assume the power-primed participants were not fellow dyslexics).  Beyond this, “[w]ith power comes the potential for abuse, a truism stamped all over human history.” (p. 137).

The circularity of the three S’s also helps explain the prevalence of ‘Dark Triad’ personalities holding societies’ top leadership positions: narcissism, psychopathy and machiavellianism (cf. Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014). Power is probably irresistible to those with pro-self personalities, because it provides opportunities for personal gain. “Let’s not beat around the bush- these guys are bastards. Worst of all, there is plenty of evidence that, in evolutionary terms, it sometimes pays to be a bastard.” (p. 138).

The male drive to compete

Arguably it is not gender per se which leads to the glass ceiling for women, but the overwhelming male impetus to compete. “Status is a major factor in the gender debate: evolution has selected men to be more ambitious and status-obsessed than women because, for them, these behaviours translated into ancestral reproductive success.” (p. 206).

Throughout history and across cultures, women desire high status men with good financial prospects as long term partners (see Buss, 2008). Due to the higher costs of reproduction, women choose resourceful men who can provide for their babies.This ultimately explains why men are so hungry for success.

This is also why the perks of leadership- salary, status, and sex- militate against female leadership. Higher status and wealth doesn’t translate into reproductive success in quite the same way as it does for men. As stated by van Vugt and Ahuja; “These evolved differences in the way men and women view status- men care about it much more than women do- might be responsible for strengthening the already robust bias towards male leaders.” (p. 176).

Van Vugt and Ahuja note that business women are susceptible to fertility problems, presumably from career related stress. However, one can hypothesize that fertility problems are due to professional women delaying their first pregnancy. Additionally, pregnancy and child-rearing arguably place restraints on womens’ career aspirations. To what extent does this contribute to the glass ceiling? Unfortunately the authors don’t adequately address this.

Van Vugt and Ahuja note that women on average have superior verbal and interpersonal skills, and are more empathic than men: highly valuable abilities in international business and politics. However, subsequent research demonstrates that women succeed in other stereotypically masculine domains, such as investing. For example, a recent study illustrates that women make superior traders on average- women are less likely to over-trade, and they are less inclined to take big risks which can lead to catastrophic failures (Bose et al, 2016).

The authors cite a study by Leeds University Business School, showing that equal gender representation on company boards makes a healthier balance sheet. Just adding one female director on a company board appears to cut a company’s chances of going bust by 20%, and that having two or three female directors lowered the chances of bankruptcy even further (see Ahuja, 2010; UK Government, 2011).

Reviewing the literature of neuropsychology, one can conjecture that women are less susceptible to the corrosive effects of power (see Robertson, 2012).

What can we do about this?

Becoming aware of our cognitive biases throughout the hiring process is a start, but arguably not enough.

The research cited above is instructive: increase the representation of women on company boards, ideally to 50:50.

As opposed to the standard prescription of ensuring equal pay to women, van Vugt and Ahuja have a counter-intuitive suggestion: stop paying leaders so much money.

“It is also pertinent to rethink those astronomical pay packages; not only do sky-high salaries perpetuate gross inequality in companies and foster ill-will on the shop floor, they attract mainly men. Since rewards and privileges signal status, which increases a man’s sexual allure, men are drawn to well paid positions like bees to a honeypot. And many of these men, who regard the post as a way to further their own needs rather than those of the company or group, will be anything but a sweet deal for the company, especially if they turn out to be Dark Triad leaders.” (p. 207).

Difficult to implement? Perhaps.

Not only do firms have to compete with market rates, the authors note that followers also want their leaders to be compensated well- it’s a sign of their company’s strength. However, one must appreciate that despite growing income inequality, we are primarily an egalitarian primate. Van Vugt and Ahuja contend that CEO compensation packages are inherently unsustainable and require correction.

“Our take on over-inflated CEO rewards? Someone has to blink first.” (p. 208).

Written by Max Beilby

You can buy a copy of Selected  here.

*Post updated 18th April 2016


References & Recommended Reading:

Ahuja, A. (2010) Women in the boardroom help companies succeed, The Times. Available here

Bose, S., Ladley, D., & Li, X. (2016). The Role of Hormones in Financial Markets. Available at SSRN 2743087.

Buss, D. M. (2008). The Evolution of Desire-Revised Edition. Basic Books

Dunbar, R. (2010). How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s number and other evolutionary quirks. Faber & Faber.

The Economist (2014) The look of a leader: Getting to the top is as much to do with how you look as what you achieve. Available here

Fairchild, C. (2015) Why so few women are CEOs (in 5 charts), Fortune Magazine. Available here

Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1068-1074

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books

Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–not Just Your” good” Self–drives Success and Fulfillment. Penguin

Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes. Penguin UK

Robertson, I. (2012). The Winner Effect: How power affects your brain. A&C Black

Sun, L. (2016) When Democracy Meets the Ghost of Evolution: Why Short Presidents Have Vanished, This View of Life Magazine. Available here

UK Government (2011) Women on Boards: Lord Davies Report. Available here