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 E.O Wilson’s maxim:

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

David provides laboratory experiments with water striders as an illustration.

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, David argues 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

 

Charismatic Leadership Through the Lens of Evolution

One of the defining features of human psychology is our extraordinary prosociality. How can cooperation and prosocial behaviour be maintained, despite the immediate temptations to free-ride and deflect?

In a paper published in the September edition of the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, organisational psychologists Allen Grabo and Mark van Vugt explore the origins and functions of charismatic leadership.

Charismatic leaders have played a prominent role throughout history, and yet a definition of what charismatic leadership actually is remains elusive.

The authors argue that the ultimate function of charismatic leadership is to effectively promote and sustain prosocial behaviour within groups. Using the terminology of evolutionary psychology, the authors contend charismatic leadership is “[…] a signalling process in which a leader conveys their ability to solve urgent coordination and cooperation challenges in groups”.

They continue:

This process is context-dependent, but fundamentally consists of (1) attracting attention to recruit followers, (2) making use of extraordinary rhetorical abilities and knowledge of cultural symbols and rituals to inspire and offer a vision, (3) minimizing the perceived risks of cooperation, and (4) aligning these followers toward shared goals.

Grabo and van Vugt suggest charismatic leadership helps foster group cohesion, even as populations grow larger and less kin-based than those of our hunter-gather ancestors.

The Charismatic Prosociality Hypothesis

Three studies were conducted to test the ‘charismatic prosociality hypothesis’. The authors recruited participants online, and used charismatic stimuli and experimental economic games to test it.

For the first two studies, the researchers capitalised on the wealth of TED talks available, and identified videos which viewers found similarly interesting but were presented by speakers scoring high or low in charisma. Participants watched either a high or  low charisma scoring TED talk, before participating in experimental economic games: the ‘Dictator‘ and ‘Trust‘ Games.

Participants who had watched the more charismatic TED talk gave more in the Dictator Game than the participants in the non-charismatic condition. For those playing the Trust Game, the Trustees behaved more pro-socially  (returned more of an initial amount sent by the first player) in the charismatic condition, versus the non-charismatic condition.

To test the generalizability of the effects observed in the initial studies, the authors made use of an entirely different ‘charismatic manipulation’. The authors instead primed participants by asking them to imagine a charismatic (or non-charismatic) individual, and to write a short description about this person. Afterwards, the primed respondents participated in the experimental economic games. The authors added ‘The Stag Hunt‘ Game, which measures cooperation in a more abstract way than the strict allocation of money.

The increased prosocial behaviour observed  in the high charisma condition within the Dictator and Trust games was replicated with the prime. In the Stag Game, participants in the charismatic condition were more likely to cooperate than those in the non-charismatic condition.

Overall, the findings provide initial evidence for the theory of charismatic leadership being an instrument to galvanise cooperation and prosociality among strangers.

A limitation of the research methodology arguably further supports the hypothesis: that the studies were confined to online experiments. One would expect significantly stronger prosocial effects when people are exposed to charismatic leaders in naturalistic settings.

The Dark Side of Charismatic Leadership

Of course, the authors focused on the positive aspects of charismatic leadership. Charisma has a dark side, which Grabo and van Vugt acknowledge.

The present article focuses exclusively on the positive effects of charismatic leadership, but this is by no means the entire story. In fact, there is much more to be said about the “dark side” of charismatic leadership, the dangers which can result when a leader takes advantage of the extreme devotion and commitment of followers for selfish or immoral reasons by signaling dishonestly their intentions to benefit the group. History is full of examples of individuals, such as cult members or suicide bombers, who were unable to abandon their commitment to a charismatic leader even in the face of conflicting information, with disastrous outcomes. One way of understanding such actions is to view them as the results of an evolved “psychological immune system” which functions to defend firmly held convictions against change by novel information. While such a system might have been beneficial for group cohesion in the past – when contact with outgroup members was rare and perhaps more dangerous – it is perhaps best considered an evolutionary mismatch in the modern world.

Click here to read the full paper

Post written  by  Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

You can read Max’s review of Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja’s book  Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters here 

 

Employee Health from an Evolutionary Perspective

An evolutionary perspective provides a powerful way of thinking about employees’ health.

What I’ve outlined below is Zhen Zhang and Michael Zyphur’s chapter on employee health and physiological functioning, in Stephen Colarelli and Richard Arvey’s volume The Biological Foundations of Organizational BehaviorThe chapter provides a wealth of information regarding employee health and physiology, and I’ll focus mainly on the practical applications rather than its theoretical contributions.

Zhang and Zyphur’s thesis is essentially this: modern working environments presents novel stressors and social difficulties for which humans have not yet adapted to. The authors propose that these challenges present an evolutionary mismatch, and suggest ways of aligning modern working conditions with that of our ancestral past.

Of course, the forces of technology have been unleashed and there’s no going back to the stone age, and nor would we want to. However, aspects of our humanity are arguably being ignored in modern organisations, and the authors propose some reasonable actions which can help improve employees’ health and physiological functioning.

Evolutionary Psychology and Employees in Modern Organisations

The authors argue that the majority of human psychological mechanisms are adaptations to Pleistocene environments. A classic example of our ancient psychological quirks outlined is that most people are more fearful of seeing snakes and spiders than having a loaded gun pointed at them, despite the fact that guns kill significantly more humans annually than snakes and spiders combined. This is because snakes and spiders were a constant threat to our ancestors during the Pleistocene, whereas guns are a recent invention and thus a novel threat.

Zhang and Zyphur argue that the mismatch between the environments in which we evolved and those in which we find ourselves in create ‘substantial difficulties’ at work. Specified are many aspects of the modern working environment that were absent in our ancestral past, including: a stricter organisational hierarchy, larger workloads, relative lack of social support, reduced physical activity, lack of sunshine in office and factory settings, sleep deprivation due to shift work, and work-to-family conflicts.

Evolutionary psychological research suggests that we humans evolved in the context of small tightly knit groups, with strong ties and support mechanisms- as do indigenous cultures across the world. The authors note that employees often work in small groups like our ancestors did. However, large modern organisations are populated by people who do not know each other personally, which presents challenges for cooperation and collaboration in light of our evolutionary drives to wrangle over status.

Social Status

Although rising income inequality makes pronounced status differentials appear largely inevitable, one must appreciate that we humans are primarily an egalitarian primate. The authors cite anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s book The Hierarchy in the Forest, which documents hunter-gathers having largely flat structures in their social lives, and that their levels of egalitarianism are far greater than that of modern organisations. I would throw in  here that it is the process of cultural group selection which has enabled greater status differentials within and between groups.

The authors argue that the mismatch between small egalitarian groups and that of large hierarchical organisations creates status hierarchies that are difficult to comprehend, and are a source of chronic stress. Further, Zhang and Zyphur argue that these large differences in status induce desires for success that lead people to “place unreasonable demands on their time and mental energy in order to ‘get ahead’, sacrificing their mental and physiological health in the name of social status and material wealth.” (p. 141).

Surprisingly, the authors did not cite the ‘Whitehall studies’. The Whitehall studies was a series of longitudinal research which commenced in the 1960s, that investigated the health of over 17,530 male UK civil servants. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the studies demonstrated that the civil servants with the highest status jobs actually were the least stressed, and subsequently the healthiest employees.

Men in the lowest  grade were 3.6 times more likely to die from heart disease than the highest grade. However, the lower grades were associated with various risk factors, such as obesity, smoking, and decreased leisure time. Statistically holding these risk factors constant, the lowest grade were still twice as likely to die from heart disease than the highest grade.

20 years later, the ‘Whitehall studies II’ corroborated these findings. The researchers concluded the Whitehall Studies II stating; “Healthy behaviours should be encouraged across the whole of society; more attention should be paid to the social environments, job design, and the consequences of income inequality.”

Workload

Another big development is the sheer volume of work that is characteristic of modern working life.

Anthropologists estimate that in earlier periods of human evolution, people most likely worked up to 8 hours per week. However we now work between 40-80 per week, which is an order of magnitude greater. In order to survive in industrial society, we have to work much harder than our great ancestors did.

The authors state that this rapid shift in workload has resulted in our physiological systems failing to adapt to the new environment, resulting in chronic stress, and a deterioration of social relationships (which buffer the adverse impacts of stress). Zhang and Zyphur state that the increased workload can help explain the prevalence of stress-related physiological maladies we are experiencing today, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

From an evolutionary perspective, the authors suggest that milder forms of physiological responses can be considered as evolved defence mechanisms that alert people and help them cope with threats and adversities. These responses prompt adaptive behaviours when they are within normal ranges. However, sharp changes in the work environment can lead to excessive stress and malfunctioning in employee physiology. Thus, physiological systems which evolved for life in hunter-gather times can be maladaptive in modern contexts.

An Organising Framework

Zhang and Zyphur provide a theoretical framework based on their review of occupational health psychology:

IMG_0544
An organising framework for examining employee functioning at work (p. 144)

Notice how the authors reconcile traditional constructs within the field organisational psychology, such as organisational support and job stress, with that of physiology. Zhang and Zyphur note that traditional organisational behaviour research focuses mainly on cognitive, affective and behavioural approaches to examine employees’ health and the associated organisational outcomes, and that physiological measures  (e.g. elevated blood pressure as an indicator of job strain) have played only a peripheral role.

A key point raised is that measuring physiological functioning is not only important for employees’ well-being, but also for the bottom line. For example, the authors cite a study which found that higher levels of salivary cortisol can explain 25% of the variance in subsequent healthcare costs for organisations. Of course for practising organisational psychologists, one can argue that physiological measures are problematic in regards to cost, time, and data disclosure.

Practical Implications 

Within the chapter, Zhang and Zyphur provide some recommendations for promoting a healthy work environment, including job redesign, increasing fairness, and providing adequate support.

The authors believe that job redesign, which addresses the root cause of job stress, can help alleviate the negative impact of high job demands. To ‘increase justice’, Zhang and Zyphur suggest that interpersonal skills should be incorporated into management training. Also, Zhang and Zyphur argue that organisational support and resources should be readily available for employees, including employee assistance programmes and counselling services in the workplace.

One way to contract the adverse impacts of larger status differentials and the impersonal nature of modern organisations on health is to increase the social support employees receive. For example, a study cited found that employees who recieved high social support from  their coworkers had lower resting heart rates during and after work. The authors argue that these findings confirm that social support can reduce the mismatch between the modern work environment and that of our ancestors.

For stakeholders in a position to evaluate executive remuneration, appreciate the detrimental impact high income inequality can have on employee health and group functioning.

As stated by Zhang and Zyphur; “More practically, by understanding human evolution and the environments for which we have evolved,  it is possible to design interventions to reduce stress by creating a better match between old and modern environments. For example, this could be done at work by creating socially supportive cultures, reducing social and other uncertainties, increasing natural lighting, and minimizing physical space constraints, as well as reducing workloads in employees.” (p. 142).

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business 

Click here to by a copy of The Biological Foundations of Organizational Behavior

References & Recommended Reading

Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.

The Economist (2008) Social Status and Health: Misery Index. Available here

Evans, O., & Steptoe, A. (2001). Social support at work, heart rate, and cortisol: a self-monitoring study. Journal of occupational health psychology,6(4), 361.

Ganster, D. C., Fox, M. L., & Dwyer, D. J. (2001). Explaining employees’ health care costs: a prospective examination of stressful job demands, personal control, and physiological reactivity. Journal of Applied Psychology,86(5), 954.

Marmot, M. G., Stansfeld, S., Patel, C., North, F., Head, J., White, I., … & Smith, G. D. (1991). Health inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study. The Lancet, 337(8754), 1387-1393.

Marmot, M. G., Rose, G., Shipley, M., & Hamilton, P. J. (1978). Employment grade and coronary heart disease in British civil servants. Journal of epidemiology and community health, 32(4), 244-249.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the Mind Works. NY: Norton.

Suttie, J. (2016) Why Your Office Needs More Nature, The Greater Good Science Center. Available here

Zhang, Z. & Zyphur, M.J. (2015) Physiological Functioning and Employee Health in Organizations; In Colarelli , S. & Arvery, D. (Eds) The Biological Foundations of Organizational Behavior. Chicago University Press.

 

 

 

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.

 

ATCG: Evolutionary Predictions for Organizational Cooperation

What follows is an overview of Michael Price (Brunel University, London) and Dominic Johnson’s (Edinburgh University) ‘Adaptionist Theory of Cooperation in Groups’, as outlined in Gad Saad’s (2011) Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences

To help explain organizational cooperation from an evolutionary perspective, Price and Johnson developed the ‘Adaptionist Theory of Cooperation in Groups’- abbreviated to ATCG.

The acronym has double meaning- any hardcore science nerds will note that ATCG is also the acronym of the four bases of DNA (adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine). The authors note this conveniently highlights the theory’s biological foundations.

The reasoning behind an evolutionary perspective of group cooperation is this; “Managers could  more efficiently promote cooperation within their organizations if they had greater understanding of how evolution designed people to cooperate.” (p. 95)

The authors synthesised evolutionary research from an individual-level adaptationist perspective into a coherent theory of group cooperation. The basic premise is that people cooperate in groups to maximize their individual fitness (their ability to survive and reproduce).

ATCG takes into account ethnographic and archaeological evidence which suggests that in environments where humans evolved, cooperating in groups (whether for hunting, warfare, shelter construction, predator defence, etc) provided individuals benefits they could not have obtained by themselves. For example, group cooperation not only ensured more meat produce for less effort exerted compared to hunting alone, but also reduced the risk of starvation (as catches were pooled and distributed evenly among hunters).

The benefits of group cooperation transcend reciprocation from fellow cooperators (‘reciprocal altruism’). ATCG also implies the benefits of cooperation can involve much more than just a share of the first-order benefits, such as more meat. Price and Johnson note that cooperation also enhances individuals’ social status (‘competitive altruism’). For example, a skilled hunter would be highly valued by the group, which would attract many kinds of resources, which would thus make the hunter more attractive to females.

This is not just theoretical: field studies demonstrate that hunting skills is associated with social status and reproductive success in hunter gather societies (see Smith, 2004).

Group Cooperation in Organizations

Price and Johnson argue that modern organizations use these benefits to increase group cooperation:

“The method of motivating employees that is used in most organizations is to offer them social status in exchange for their help in producing the first-order resource. And just as in the ancestral past, higher status contributors – those on whom production most depends – attract greater economic compensation, in order to convince them to remain in the organization and to continue to contribute.” (p. 100)

Interestingly, the authors question whether cooperation is always a good thing. For example, the authors cite classic group decision making research which demonstrate that ‘nominal’ groups (aggregated ideas of individuals working alone) generate superior ideas than groups of interacting individuals.

A key issue regarding group cooperation is an ancient human dilemma: the free rider problem. Especially with larger groups, there is always the temptation of minimizing outputs whilst letting other group members do the hard work (also known as ‘slacking’).

In order to motivate employers to behave in group beneficial ways, Price and Johnson suggest allocating rewards fairly, and to allow employees to compete for these rewards by contributing in ways that most benefit the organization:

“If an employee makes a contribution that benefits the organization, for example by introducing a product improvement or new marketing strategy, a manager should never assume that the employee was selflessly motivated or is indifferent about being recognized and rewarded for this contribution, even if that employee modestly plays down the extent of his or her own contribution. If an employee does not receive some individual-level benefit that is commensurate with the value of his or her contribution, the employee will probably feel angry and exploited and lose motivation to cooperate…” (p. 105).

A key assumption of ATCG is that in order to cooperate adaptively, group members must ensure that their ‘benefit-to-contribution ratios’ are no smaller than those of co-members. In other words, that their efforts do not exceed that of fellow group members. If they do, these need to be compensated accordingly.

Frequency Dependence

And here we get to the heart of the issue: the ‘frequency dependence’ of cooperation.

What is the best strategy for an individual is dependent on that of other group members: whether they are free-riding, reciprocating, or unconditionally cooperating.

In a population made up predominantly of free-riders, the superior strategy from an individual perspective is to avoid all free-riders and to identify and collaborate with fellow cooperators. If the population is dominated by reciprocators, it makes the most sense to unconditionally cooperate- as you get all the benefits of cooperation and also minimize the costs of verification and checking. However if the population is dominated by unconditional cooperators, the population is inevitably invaded by free-riders- because cheaters can exploit their over-trusting cooperativeness.

According to ATCG, there is such a thing as being too trusting.

You can also think of frequency-dependence as a game of paper, rock scissors. The successful strategy depends on the strategy pursued by others.

ATCG proposes many novel predictions, over and above traditional organizational psychology theories such as equity theory. For example, ATCG predicts is that individuals who have more to gain from engaging in competition will be relatively pro-equity, rather than pro-equality. Similarly, sex differences regarding cooperation are highlighted. As men usually gain more reproductive benefits from social status than women, ATCG acknowledges that males tend to have a greater desire to compete.

Male competitiveness is also a key driver of group cooperation. Mark Van Vugt and his colleagues’ experimental research demonstrated that males increased their in-group cooperation significantly in response to competition from rival groups, whereas females were relatively unaffected by this competition.

Group Cooperation ≠ Group Selection

What is noticeable is how dismissive the authors are about group selection. Price and Johnson argue that group selection theory adds no advantages or predictive power above individual-level selection. But is this true?

Biologist David Sloan Wilson and his colleagues managed to challenge several decades worth of research on group decision making by applying a group selection perspective to the subject matter.  Contrary to conventional group decision making research suggesting that groups reach sub-optimal decisions as compared to that of individuals, DS Wilson’s innovative research illustrated that groups out-compete individuals when the complexity of the task increases- as would be expected from group selection (and common sense).

Noticeably, Price and Johnson didn’t cite this research.

More fundamentally, can the rise of empires, nation states and multinational corporations over the last 10,000 years be explained as by-products of reciprocal altruism?  Probably not.

Rather, ‘Cultural Multilevel Selection’ provides greater explanatory power regarding the rise of human civilisations.

Think of the hundreds of millions of servicemen that died defending their country throughout history. Staring death in the face, did these soldiers really calculate their ‘benefit-to-contribution ratios’ of engaging in lethal combat?

Arguably ‘pure altruism’ does exist, although it is probably a slither of humanity. As  Jonathan Haidt states in The Righteous Mind, we humans are ‘90% chimp and 10% bee’.

There are infrequent but highly impactful situations where individuals will sacrifice their  welfare for the benefit of the group, and new research suggests when and why this happens: when a society faces an existential threat from a rival group.

Of course, this is in the context of group survival and military combat. Organizations such as corporations are unlikely to elicit such altruistic behaviour.

One can envision a ‘Multilevel  Adaptionist Theory of Cooperation in Groups’, which incorporates these diverse findings into a coherent theory.

Written by Max Beilby

Click here to buy a copy of Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences.

 

References

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

Smith, E. A. (2004). Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success?. Human Nature, 15(4), 343-364.

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

Van Vugt, M., & Ahuja, A. (2011). Naturally selected: The evolutionary science of leadership. HarperBusiness.

Van Vugt, M., De Cremer, D., & Janssen, D. P. (2007). Gender differences in cooperation and competition: the Male-Warrior hypothesis. Psychological science, 18(1), 19-23.

Wilson, D. S., Timmel, J. J., & Miller, R. R. (2004). Cognitive cooperation. Human Nature, 15(3), 225-250.

Wilson, D. S., Van Vugt, M., & O’Gorman, R. (2008). Multilevel selection theory and major evolutionary transitions: implications for psychological science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(1), 6-9.

 

 

 

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 (1971), Parental Investment Theory (1972), and Parent-Offspring Conflict (1974).

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 understate 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 I 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

Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership

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 Naturally Selected  here.

*Post updated 18th April 2016

 

References:

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

 

Cooperate To Compete: An Overview of ‘Ultrasociety’, by Peter Turchin

How did we evolve from small-scale societies of foragers and hunter-gathers into large-scale industrial societies, in an evolutionary blip of 10,000 years?

In Ultrasociety, historian Peter Turchin advances a scientific approach to history to identify the causal mechanisms that enabled large-scale society- a strand of research Turchin calls Cliodynamics. Through quantitative analysis and modelling, Turchin is able to verify and discard various theories of how large-scale societies evolved.

The standard explanation of how large-scale societies evolved from small-scale egalitarian tribes is the advent of agriculture- as proposed by Jared Diamond (1998) in Guns, Germs and Steel. The premise is that agriculture created high population densities as well as production surpluses that enabled hierarchy. “On this premise, agriculture got the ball rolling and the entire history of civilisation followed from that.” (p. 20).

However, Turchin argues that this theory is incomplete. Although agriculture was a prerequisite for large-scale society, it is not a sufficient explanation. For example, why would agriculture necessarily lead to the rise of states and costly institutions being implemented, such as bureaucracy, the rule of law, and organized religion? Additionally, agriculture had a markedly negative impact on human health due to agricultural produce providing poorer nutritional value, resulting in smaller stature, more illness and the spread of pathogens through high density settlements… How did agricultural societies  succeed against small-scale hunter-gatherers despite these costs?

Turchin argues that, paradoxically, the main driver of large-scale society has been war. “It is competition and conflict between human groups that drove the transformation of small bands of hunter-gatherers into huge nation-states. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was war that first created despotic, archaic states and then destroyed them, replacing them with better, more equal societies… War is a force of destructive creation, a terrible means to a remarkable end.” (p. 22).

The following passage explains the evolutionary logic (pp. 38-39, emphasis added):

“When people first started cultivating plants and settled in permanent villages, war between tribes became more intense. Defeat now could easily result in a loss of land for growing crops, which meant starvation… Because of the consequences of losing were so grave, societies came under great evolutionary pressure to get better at surviving at war. This meant inventing better weapons and armor, building up social cohesion, and adopting better battlefield tactic. But the best thing you could do was simply become a larger group, so that you could bring more battalions to the fight.

This inexorable evolutionary logic forced villages to combine into larger-scale societies. These combinations could take the form of loose alliances, more cohesive federations, or centralized, hierarchical chiefdoms… The same evolutionary logic induced chiefdoms to combine in yet larger-scale societies- complex “chiefdoms of chiefdoms”. Those, in turn, scaled up into early states and empires, and eventually into modern nation-states. At every step, greater size was an advantage in the military competition against other societies.”

One must appreciate that although wars between empires and nation states dwarfs inter-tribal conflicts in scale, the proportion of people engaged and directly affected by warfare has declined remarkably. “There is no contradiction between larger armies and larger butcher’s bills from warfare, on the one hand, and on the other, a greater part of the population enjoying peace.” (p. 41, cf. Pinker, 2011).

Cultural Multilevel Selection

The evolutionary theory advanced by Turchin to explain why we humans are the world’s champion cooperators is cultural multilevel selection

Multilevel selection (also known as group selection) is a theory in evolutionary biology proposing that natural selection acts at the level of the group, instead of at the more conventional level of the individual. There is some controversy over group selection. However, the ‘game-changer’ is applying multilevel selection to cultural evolutionas opposed to genetic evolution. As stated by Turchin; “[…][T]he most important point is that the evolution of cooperation is driven by competition between groups.  These groups can be teams, coalitions, even aggregations without any clear boundaries, or whole societies. No matter what form groups take, it is competition on the collective scale that is necessary for cooperation to evolve. We cooperate to compete.” (p. 93).

A troubling implication of cultural group selection is that in the absence of an external threat, the level of selection moves to within the group, causing cooperation to erode and inequality to rise. The spirit of ‘we are all in the same boat’ disappears and is replaced by a ‘winner takes all’ mentality, resulting in growing social dysfunction and in extreme cases, societal collapse. As stated by the historian Arnold Toynbee, ‘great civilisations are not murdered- they die by suicide’ (quoted pp. 42-43).

A thought provoking analysis of American politics is provided in Ultrasociety, arguing that rising income inequality and political polarisation since the 1970s indicates that the US has become a dysfunctional state (bear in mind Ulitrasociety was written before the rise of Donald Trump). Similarly, Turchin also links the rise of extreme individualism in the US and elsewhere to the increase in corporate scandals during the early 2000s, and to “the greatest case of corporate hubris and fraud- the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08.” (p. 51).

Let’s explore a case study provided in Ultrasociety to further our understanding: the Enron scandal.

The Enron Scandal

Jeff Skilling was widely regarded as a business genius. An executive at Enron who worked closely with Skilling called him “the smartest son of bitch I’ve ever met.” (Bryce, 2002, p. 47, cited p. 45). Skilling obtained an MBA from Harvard, graduating in the top five percent of his class. He went on to become a management consultant at McKinsey, becoming one of the youngest partners in the firm’s history. He joined Enron in 1990 and was promoted to president and Chief Financial Officer in 1997, becoming CEO in 2001.

Smart Skilling may be. However, Skilling held a warped view of evolutionary theory, which Turchin suggests sowed the seeds of disaster.

The story of the Enron scandal is well known. Enron went under in 2001, with its shareholders losing tens of billions of dollars and 20,000 employees not only losing their jobs but their entire life savings. Its top executives ended up in prison, where Skilling is still serving his sentence.

 

 

Although other Enron executives bear responsibility for Enron’s failure, Skilling was widely seen as the company’s visionary. Turchin argues that the managerial system Skilling created turned Enron into an “an epic of corporate greed, fraud, and corruption.” (p. 46).

Jeff Skilling famously claimed that Richard Dawkins’ (1976) The Selfish Gene was his favourite book (see Conniff, 2006). Although Turchin argues that The Selfish Gene was flawed and caused significant harm, Dawkins’ classic work has arguably been widely misinterpreted (for example, selfish genes don’t necessarily make selfish people).

Skilling took his variant of Social Darwinism and applied it to increase competition within Enron, enacting systems such as the Performance Review Committee- colloquially known  as ‘Rank-and-Yank’. Skilling recruited hundreds of newly minted MBAs from the leading business schools every year, and fired the bottom fifteen percent of performers whilst lavishly rewarding the top five percent of performers.

Skilling told reporters that the PRC was ‘the glue that holds the company together’. “Skilling couldn’t have been more wrong. The PRC wasn’t glue. It was poison.” (p. 46).

As one former employee said; “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stamp on the guy’s throat.” (Johnson, 2009, quoted p. 46).

Turchin summarises the Enron scandal eloquently (p. 47):

“It is cooperation that underlies the ability of human groups and whole societies to achieve their shared goals. This is true for all kinds of groups, for economic organizations, firms and corporations, as well as for political organisations, such as states. But what Skilling did at Enron was to foster within-group competition, which bred mutual distrust and back-stabbing (if not throat-stomping). In other words, Skilling completely destroyed any willingness among his employees to cooperate- not with each other, not with their bosses, not with the company itself. And after that, collapse was inevitable.”

What is the relevance to your business?

With the benefit of hindsight, corporate scandals at notorious firms may seem obvious. However, the Enron scandal took the world by surprise. Fortune Magazine named Enron ‘America’s Most Innovative Company’ for six years in a row. Enron is not an isolated case. For example, Lehman Brothers was ranked #1 ‘Most Inspired Securities Firm’ in 2007–less than a year before its collapse. With the prevalence of corporate management systems encouraging intra-organizational competition, one must ask where the next corporate scandal will arise. As stated by Turchin; “It looks like Fortune doesn’t learn from its mistakes” (p. 51).

The business implications of all this should be clear: enact business policies that reduce inequality, foster an organizational culture that promotes cooperation, and suppress internal competition. As stated by Turchin (p. 93):

“As a corollary, while competition between teams create cooperation, competition among players within a team destroys it. In other words, to succeed, cooperative groups must suppress internal competition. Equality of group members is, therefore, a very important factor in promoting group cohesion and cooperation, which translates into the capacity of the group to win against other groups. This insight… should be intuitively obvious. Yet it is not. At least, it is not obvious to the majority of corporate managers, nor the owners of professional sports teams.”

I’ll wrap up this post with a couple of my own suggestions which are worth exploring–with varying degrees of appropriateness depending on the nature of your business:

1. Reduce the discrepancy in employees’ basic pay, and increase compensation from bonuses linked to company (or team) performance.

2. During difficult times, it’s wise to appreciate the adverse impact of mass redundancies have on group cohesion and consider alternative paths of action, such as organization-wide pay-cuts. Employees may be prepared to accept change if the alternative is job losses.

2. Democratise team meetings so that all members are able to have their voices heard, and enable bottom-up communication processes that feed directly to senior leaders.

3. Also, make sure your leaders are visible and approachable. Make a priority what Nigel Nicholson calls ‘Managing By Wandering Around’ (see Nicholson, 2014). If you’re a leader, take the time to walk around and speak with employees in various contexts, and make them feel “we’re all in this together”. Don’t segregate yourself.

4. Similarly, make sure the amount of physical space allocated to senior management within the company is equitable and doesn’t trigger indignation (in other words, that your offices don’t resemble Enron’s headquarters).

Written by Max Beilby

To buy a copy of Ultrasociety, click here

*This post was updated 3rd April 2016

References

Bryce, R. (2002) Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of EnronPublic Affairs, New York

Conniff, R. (2006) “Animal Instincts”, The Guardian. Available here

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press

Diamond, J. M. (1998). Guns, Germs, and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Random House

Johnson, E.M. (2009) “Survival of the Kindest”, Seed Magazine. Available here 

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

Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: A history of violence and humanity. Penguin

Nicholson, N. (2014) The ‘I’ of LeadershipJoey-Bass

 

Collective Brains: An Overview of Joseph Henrich’s ‘The Secret of Our Success’

How have we humans become the Earth’s dominant species- through our innate intelligence and our superior mental abilities?

Not so, says Harvard’s Joe Henrich in The Secret of Our Success.

Surprisingly, primates such as chimpanzees actually eclipse humans in many forms of fluid intelligence, including working memory and information processing speed. Primates also perform better in various behavioural game theory experiments (strategic economic games). Additionally, despite the complexities of modern society and the multitude of skills we are able to acquire, we  modern humans are  virtually helpless as lone individuals, and unable to master the most basic of survival skills in the wild.

Exhibit A:

 

So what is the source of our ecological dominance?

Henrich presents a convincing thesis that it is our hyper sociality – that is, our social learning capabilities and our ability to acquire culturally accumulated know-how. Through an examination of lost European explorers, hunter-gatherers and small scale societies, Henrich demonstrates that cumulative cultural evolution– the accumulating body of information and its cultural products (covering all domains of life, such as social norms, food processing and hunting, tool manufacture to mate choice), is the driver of our success.

A great illustration of how social learning is our species’ greatest strength is provided by Esther Herrmann et al (2009). The researchers compared performance on a range of cognitive tests on a sample of 106 chimpanzees, 105 two year old children, and 32 orangutans—using 15 cognitive tasks that posed problems about the physical or social world.

IMG_2187.JPG

The chart above (p. 15) makes clear the discrepancy in social learning abilities. Henrich explains that we humans are prolific, spontaneous and automatic imitators, where we use cues such as success and prestige to figure out whom to learn from. Conversely, we also copy wasteful or inefficient practices if these steps are performed by high status individuals.

Cumulative cultural evolution manifests into a ‘collective brain’- what Henrich argues is a type of super-organism. The power of these collective brains depends on in part on the size of the group of individuals engaged and on their social interconnectedness. “It’s our collective brains operating over generations, and not the innate inventive power or creative abilities of individual brains, that explain our species’ fancy technologies and massive ecological success.” (p. 212). Henrich clarifies that this process is not linear, and how cultural know-how can be lost if the size of the group and their interconnectedness declines. This phenomenon is dubbed the Tasmanian Effect (reflecting how the aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania lost their cultural know-how from isolation as the Bass Strait flooded and transformed Tasmania into an island 12,000 years ago).

A core argument in the Secret of Our Success is that cultural evolution is a type of biological evolution. As Henrich states: “[c]ultural differences are biological differences, but not genetic differences. Human biology, including our brains, involve much more than genes… Recent evidence clearly shows how culture can shape biology by altering our brain architecture, modelling our bodies, and shifting our hormones. Cultural evolution is a type of biological evolution; it’s just not a type of genetic evolution.” (p. 263).

A great example of cultural differences being biological is the ‘culture of honour’ that remains in southern states of America. Henrich cites the work of Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen (1996), showing that young American men from southern states react more aggressively when challenged (being bumped into and called an ‘asshole’ in a narrow hallway. How would you react?), with greater spikes in cortisol and testosterone as compared to their Northern counterparts. Nisbett and Cohen’s innovative research illustrates that their aggressive response is because these southerners have inherited a culture of honour from their Irish and Scottish ancestors, where one has to defend their manhood upon provocation. This package of social norms is adaptive and evolved in a world of weak formal institutions- it’s a biological difference, but not a genetic difference (their Irish and Scottish ancestors have since lost their culture of honour).

Henrich argues that cumulative cultural evolution is now the central force of human evolution, and has been for hundreds of thousands of years . One of the classic examples of culture-gene co-evolution provided includes the prevalence of lactose tolerance.With the advent of agriculture and domesticated cattle, genes which permitted the intake of cow’s milk proliferated in Europe, which in turn furthered the uptake of domesticated cattle and milk consumption, creating a feedback loop.

The Secret of Our Success is a tour-de-force and a significant advancement of social science, adding nuance to evolutionary theory whilst challenging both constructivism and traditional evolutionary approaches . Instead of culture being something which contradicts evolutionary science, culture itself can be analysed and modelled as an evolutionary process accordingly. Simultaneously, Henrich challenges the ‘old’ evolutionary approaches, such as Massive Modularity Theory, which only pay lip service to the importance of culture in explaining human behaviour. “My point is that trying to understand the evolution of human anatomy, physiology, and and psychology without considering culture-gene co-evolution would be like studying the evolution of fish while ignoring the fact that fish live, and evolved, underwater.” (p. 317).

The following passage hammers the point home:

We saw big brained explorers repeatedly flounder in environments ranging from the Arctic to the Australian outback. As our heroes sought to confront the recurrent challenges faced by our paleolithic ancestors, like finding food and water, they struggled. No foraging modules fired up and no fire-making instincts kicked in. Mostly, they just fell ill and died as a result of blunders that any local, indigenous adolescent equipped with cultural know-how inherited from earlier generations could easily have avoided. It’s not merely that people in modern society need culture to survive. Hunter-gatherers, as well as other small-scale societies studied by anthropologists, are massively dependent on large scale bodies of cultural know-how, relating to tracking, food processing, hunting and tool manufacture. This expertise is often complex, well-adapted to local challenges, and not casually well understood by most pratitioners… All human societies, whether they live as hunter-gatherers or not, are entirely dependent on culture.(p. 318, emphasis added).

One is left wishing that Henrich discussed further the implications of cumulative cultural evolution for our future. As Henrich states; “[h]aving crossed the Rubicon, we can’t go back” (p. 217).  Cumulative cultural evolution helps explain how our ancestors spread across the globe despite our physical and mental limitations, and how we have become an ecological force. However, what are the implications for the challenges and opportunities humanity faces, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, nuclear proliferation, advances in artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering of the human genome? Are we not at risk of ‘scoring a lethal own goal’, as Stephen Hawkings put it? It would be interesting to hear Henrich’s thoughts on these issues.

Can this help us build stuff?

Henrich concludes The Secret of Our Success by discussing the implications of cultural evolution for designing new organizations,  institutions and policies (pp. 330-331). I’ve listed these points verbatim below:

  1. Humans are adaptive cultural learners who acquire ideas, beliefs, values, norms, motivations, and worldviews from others in their communities. To focus our learning, we use cues of prestige, success, sex, dialect and ethnicity, among others, and especially attend to particular domains, such as those involving food, sex, danger, and norm violations. We do this especially under uncertainty, time pressure, and stress.
  2. However, we aren’t suckers. To adopt costly practices or nonintuitive beliefs, such as eating strange food or believing in life after death, we demand Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs). Our role models must endure costs, such as extreme pain or big financial hits, that demonstrate their deep commitment to their expressed beliefs or practices.
  3. Humans are status seekers and are strongly influenced by prestige. But what’s highly flexible is which behaviours or actions lead to high prestige. People will grant others great prestige for being fierce warriors or nuns.
  4. The social norms we acquire often come with internalized motivations and ways of seeing the world. People’s preferences and motivations are not fixed, and a well-designed programme or policy can change what people find desirable, automatic, and intuitive.
  5. Social norms are especially strong and enduring when they hook into our innate psychology. For example, social norms for fairness towards foreigners will be much harder to spread and sustain than those that demand mothers care for their children.
  6. Innovation depends on the expansion of our collective brains, which themselves depend on the ability of social norms, institutions, and the psychologies they create to encourage people to freely generate, share, and recombine novel ideas, beliefs, insights, and practices.
  7. Different societies possess quite different social norms, institutions, languages, and technologies, and consequently they possess different ways of reasoning, mental heuristics, motivations, and emotional reactions. The imposition of new formal institutions, imported from elsewhere, on populations often create mismatches. The result is that such imposed formal institutions will work rather differently, and perhaps not at all.
  8. Humans are bad at intentionally designing effective institutions and organizations. We should take a page from cultural evolution’s playbook and design “variation and selection systems” that allow alternative institutions or organizational forms to compete. We can dump the losers, keep the winners, and hopefully gain some general insights during the process.

Written by Max Beilby

To learn more about The Secret of Our Success or to buy a copy, click here.

*Post updated 1st April 2016

 

References:

Herrmann, E., Hernández‐Lloreda, M. V., Call, J., Hare, B., & Tomasello, M. (2009). The structure of individual differences in the cognitive abilities of children and chimpanzees. Psychological Science.

Inoue, S., & Matsuzawa, T. (2007). Working memory of numerals in chimpanzees. Current Biology, 17(23), R1004-R1005

Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of Honor: the psychology of violence in the south. Westview Press