Book Review

The Knowledge Illusion, by Steven Sloman & Philip Fernbach

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

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

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

This not just a party trick. Psychologists have used several means to discover the extent of our ignorance. For example, Rebecca Lawson at the University of Liverpool presented people with a drawing of a bicycle which had several components missing. They were asked to fill in the drawing with the missing parts.

Sounds easy, right? Apparently not.

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

Four badly drawn bikes

Four badly drawn bikes (Lawson, 2006)

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

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

Thinking is for action

To appreciate our mental limitations, we first need to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of the human brain? Answering this question ultimately leads to evolution, as the human brain has been honed by the forces of natural selection.

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

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

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

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

Community of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

Collective intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

Committing to the community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by Sloman and Fernbach (emphasis added):

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

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

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

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

Nudging for better decisions

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

1. Reduce complexity

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

2. Simple decision rules

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

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

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

3. Just-in-time education

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

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

4. Check your understanding 

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

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

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


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of The Knowledge Illusion

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overview: The Talent Delusion, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

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

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

How is this so?

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

The ‘war on talent’

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

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

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

Here’s what I got:

My job is...

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

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

Defining talent

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring talent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ironic indeed.

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

Developing talent

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dark side of talent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future of talent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of The Talent Delusion.

*Post updated 15th April 2017

References & recommended reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Does altruism exist, or are humans entirely selfish?

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

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

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

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

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

Water striders are provided as an example of multilevel selection.

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

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

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

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

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

Psychological altruism

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

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

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

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

binghamton_map

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

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

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

Darwin’s Business

What does this all have to do with business?

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

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

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

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

 

The Core Design Principles

So how can we promote altruism within organisations?

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

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

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

Ostrom’s core design principles are:

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

 

Pathological altruism

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business 

Click here to buy a copy of Does Altruism Exist?

*Post updated 19th January 2017

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

But something happened when Dean turned 30 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

Pride: A fundamental aspect of human nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A virtuous sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two paths to leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Pride

What should we take from Tracy’s work?

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of Take Pride.

*Post updated 12th December 16

 

References and recommended reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Marital Compatibility Test’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Methods No Better Than Traditional Methods

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

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

Colarelli (2003) No Best Way_ Hiring Validity

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

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

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

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

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

Structured vs Unstructured Interviews (2)

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

Perverse Effects

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

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

A case in point: Martin Luther King Jr.

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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

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

—-

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

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

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

The same preferences are revealed in political leadership.

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

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

Why do we overwhelming choose tall men as our leaders?

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

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

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

The Savannah Hypothesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What motivates leaders?

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

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

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

Power corrupts

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

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

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

The male drive to compete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we do about this?

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

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

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

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

Difficult to implement? Perhaps.

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

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


Written by Max Beilby

You can buy a copy of Selected  here.

*Post updated 18th April 2016

 

References & Recommended Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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