Category: Book Review

The Social Instinct, by Nichola Raihani

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

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

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

The ‘we’ in ‘me’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social living

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

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

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

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

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

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

The renegades within

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

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

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

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

As stated by Raihani:

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

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

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

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

Think global, act local

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

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

Strategic Instincts, by Dominic Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

Fortune favours the bold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by Johnson:

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

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

Know your enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

United we stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overkill: The limits of strategic instincts

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

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

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

Johnson writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Clash of the titans

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

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

As stated by Johnson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

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

Article updated on the 27th July 2021.

The Weirdest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Weirdest People in the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Holy Scriptures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by Henrich:

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

Henrich continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rewriting history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Globalisation and its discontents

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

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

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

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

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

The following passage hammers the point home:

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

Henrich continues:

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

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

Darwin goes to Wall Street

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

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

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

What can we make of this apparent contradiction?

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

It Takes a Theory to Beat a Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by Lo:

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

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

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

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

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

The Financial Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finance Behaving Badly

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Fixing Finance 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of Adaptive Markets

The irresistible sway of first impressions

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

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

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

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

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

Physiognomist’s promises

The story starts with the history of physiognomy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As outlined by the Economist:

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

Todorov summarises his argument as follows:

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

Predicting elections? Child’s play

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

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

Extraversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

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

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

 

 

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

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

Trust and dominance

What exactly do these judgements correspond to then?

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

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

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

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

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

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

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

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

Now, look at the faces below.

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

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

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

Check out their face manipulations below.

Image result for alexander todorov face value photos

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

Todorov states;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolutionary stories

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

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

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

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

Image result for fWHR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Todorov concludes the book with the following passage:

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

Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of Face Value.

 

*Article updated 4th December 2017

The Illusion of Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds easy, right? Apparently not.

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

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

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

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

Thinking is for action

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

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

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

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

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

Community of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

Collective intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

Committing to the community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by Sloman and Fernbach (emphasis added):

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

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

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

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

Nudging for better decisions

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

1. Reduce complexity

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

2. Simple decision rules

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

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

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

3. Just-in-time education

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

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

4. Check your understanding 

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

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

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


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of The Knowledge Illusion

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

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

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

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

But something happened when Dean turned 30 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

Pride: A fundamental aspect of human nature

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

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

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

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

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

tracy-and-matsumoto-the-spontaneous-expression-of-pride-and-shame
Pride expression in response to victory shown by a sighted (left) and congenitally blind (right) judo athlete (image credit: Bob Willingham)

A virtuous sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two paths to leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Pride

What should we take from Tracy’s work?

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of Take Pride.

*Post updated 12th December 16

 

References and recommended reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No Best Way: An Evolutionary Perspective on Human Resource Management

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).

Hubris?

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. 

References

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.

 

A Wild Life: An overview of Robert Trivers’ autobiography

Whilst on holiday I decided to read a book telling the life story of one of the world’s most influential evolutionary theorists. Despite it not being about the application of evolutionary psychology to the workplace, I thought this post would be of value regardless.

The scientist in question is Robert Trivers.

Robert Trivers is an American evolutionary biologist, who has managed to revolutionise both the natural and social sciences.

Steven Pinker described Trivers as “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought”, and Time magazine has named him one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. In 2007, Trivers was awarded the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for “his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation”, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for evolutionary theory.

Robert Trivers’ key contributions to science are papers he published in the 1970s whilst at Harvard, formulating theories such as Reciprocal Altruism, Parental Investment Theory, and Parent-Offspring Conflict.

Reciprocal Altruism helped explain how cooperation can evolve outside of kinship through mutually beneficial exchanges, whilst Parental Investment Theory predicted that the sex which makes the largest investment in reproduction will be more discriminating in mating, with the sex investing less being forced to compete for mating opportunities. Parental-Offspring Conflict illustrated that families are not harmonious entities, and that offspring compete for greater investment from their parents.

One cannot overstate the influence Trivers’ theories have had on the direction of scientific inquiry. Popular science books such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene drew heavily on Robert Trivers’ papers. Arguably, Trivers’ theories are the pillars of evolutionary psychology.

Most recently, Trivers has created a theory self-deception as an adaptive evolutionary strategy. Trivers argues that deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin- we fool ourselves the better to fool others. I will be reviewing his book The Folly of Fools, exploring its application to business in due course.

Of course, scientific accomplishments do not necessarily make for a riveting autobiography. Academia frequently entails a sedentary, solitary and intensely internal life, one that Trivers states “never appealed to me”. What is so remarkable about Robert Trivers is the rollercoaster life he’s lived instead.

A Wild life is a mixture of recollections of Trivers’ interactions and collaborations with great minds, near-death experiences, and the minds and behaviours of animals.

Welcome to Jamrock

A Wild Life is largely dedicated to Trivers’ time in Jamaica. As a Harvard graduate student Trivers moved to Jamaica to study lizards, becoming known locally as the ‘Lizard Man’. Trivers has spent over 18 years of his life living in the Caribbean.

Unbeknownst to me, lizards are detested by Jamaicans- the equivalent of rats in the West, but also surrounded with superstition. Trivers tells hilarious stories of how he used his lizard powers to scare locals to his advantage.

Trivers documents a cocktail of near-death experiences. As a taster, Trivers has fallen from great heights, has been held at gunpoint during a Kingston nightclub robbery, and has had to defend himself from machete and knife yielding burglars.

Running themes of A Wild Life are Trivers penchant for smoking marijuana, and his fondness of Jamaican women. Infused with Trivers’ use of Jamaican slang, one at times may think they’re not actually reading a scientist’s autobiography, but that of dancehall star. 

Under Arrest

Trivers is not foreign to fighting either.

For example, Trivers documents getting in a fight with a local Jamaican bully called Jasper, upon witnessing Jasper verbally abuse his (yet to be) mother in law. Unfortunately for Jasper, Trivers taught himself boxing at a young age, and ended up giving him quite a beating.

“As it turned out, though, the boxing match was only the beginning of my fight with Jasper.” Trivers ended up getting arrested for the incident, accompanied by a prolonged court case, where Trivers was found not guilty of the assailant’s counter-charges.

How many times has Trivers been arrested? For strictly criminal offenses, 5 times if I can count correctly.

One of the most comical accounts is Trivers being held in jail for 10 days over a trivial matter of refusing to pay an increased hotel fee for foreigners (with Trivers insisting that he was a Jamaican citizen). Trivers was subsequently charged with credit card fraud. “Jamaica is probably the only country in which you using debit cards permits you to be convicted of ‘credit card’ fraud.”

Civil Rights Activism

As a white American Harvard academic, you may be surprised to learn that Robert Trivers was a member of the Black Panther Party. Trivers worked closely with the controversial figure Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panthers. More recently, Trivers has become a gay rights activist. Appalled by the treatment of gays in Jamaica, Trivers joined the Homosexual Defense League, with the initiative being based on Black Panther credos.

Trivers states:

I’m willing to put my life on the line when those calls come. We will roll in to protect life and if we are late we will gather evidence. We will not just “stand around and look.”

Trivers notes that despite common misconceptions, homosexuality is rife in the natural world and not confined to humans. For example, homosexual behaviour is prevalent in mammals spanning lions, dolphins and various primates. Arguments that homosexuality is unnatural are unfounded.

Regrettably, some perceive evolutionary psychology as justifying racism, misogyny, homophobia and the status quo. As both the grandfather of evolutionary psychology and a civil rights activist, Robert Trivers eloquently demonstrates why this is nonsense.

Many scientists shy away from politics, believing that it compromises their objectivity or that it is not their duty to address social issues directly. Trivers is a glaring exception.

The Way Forward

An implied argument in A Wild Life is that Trivers would have been a more successful scientist had he not lived the way he has. However, I’m not so sure. He may have been a more prolific scientist in terms of output. But it seems that the richness of Trivers’ life experiences arguably increased  the scope of his scientific endeavours and the depth of his theorising, rather than serving as a distraction. Not many scientists have been exposed to the various facets of the natural world and of human nature as Trivers has. For example, how many Western scientists have been able (and had the desire) to integrate and defend themselves in a society with one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world?

A major life lesson from A Wild Life is that one must not just study life but also live it. Scientists and academics can spend their whole adult lives studying and thinking, forgoing personal enjoyment and exciting experiences. One shouldn’t let the pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement sacrifice their personal lives.

Conversely, an internal activity which Trivers promotes is self-reflection; a means of overcoming self-deception. Trivers lists a lack of self-reflection as his biggest regret.

“You self-deceptionist,” my first wife would sneer. “You talk a lot about parent-offspring conflict, yet you neglect your own son.” Guilty as charged. Too much ambition and too little thought about my family: wife, children, and myself.

Trivers concludes A Wild Life by discussing his efforts to reflect when making big life decisions. ‘Autopilot’ used to be viewed by Trivers as a successful strategy for major decisions. “Autopilot? As a means of choosing which of three universities and cities you should live in for the next fifteen years? By definition autopilot is the opposite of careful conscious introspection and evaluation- it is what you do when the path forward is obvious and no rational reflection is needed.”

Trivers discusses how his (lack of) decisions impacted him and his family, resulting in inadequate pay and productivity. “Served me right: if you don’t think through a problem, you shouldn’t be surprised when later it looks as if no one has thought it through.”

Openly revealed in A Wild Life is Trivers’ mental health issues, specifically his suffering from bipolar disorder. As one accused of being self-deceived, Trivers demonstrates moments of piercing introspection.

Act A Fool

There was one passage in A Wild Life with greater relevance to Darwinian Business.

It was on the topic of ‘dummying up’. In contrast to self-deception and the inflation of the self, Trivers mentions a second kind of deception- deceiving down- in which the organism is selected to appear less large and less threatening, thereby gaining an advantage.

Trivers recalls a conversation with the black panther Huey Newton of all people, discussing employees dummying up to avoid being required to do more difficult tasks.

I only wish that one of Richard Nixon’s aides had been on hand to silently activate a tape recorder so that none of this was lost to posterity. Unfortunately, I can only give a rough sketch of Huey’s answer.

If I remember correctly, he imagined a situation in which a waiter is always managing to position himself so as to avoid seeing his boss calling him and to otherwise appear to be working while not actually doing any work. His own monologue in response ran roughly as follows: “Oh, so you’re so dumb that you happen to be looking the other way when I’m trying to get your attention. And you’re so dumb that when you know I am  watching you, you decide to polish silverware that needs no polishing. And you’re so dumb that you are always walking toward the pantry without ever reaching it. Well, you’re not that dumb!”- followed perhaps by slapping the organism to the ground, verbally or otherwise. In short, Huey revealed to the actor the hidden logic of his actions, and the final ironic punch line was that, “You’re not that damned dumb” since you’ve managed to arrange all this dumb-acting behavior in such a coherent pattern, designed to deceive your employer.

You can buy a copy of A Wild Life here

References

Trivers, R. (2011). The Folly of Fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. Basic Books

Trivers, R.L. (1974). “Parent-offspring conflict”. Am. Zool. 14: 249–264

Trivers, R.L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.),Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp. 136–179). Chicago, IL: Aldine

Trivers, R.L. (1971). “The evolution of reciprocal altruism”. Quarterly Review of Biology 46: 35–57