Tag: Cultural Evolution

Drunk, by Edward Slingerland

As workers across the corporate world have begun scuttering back into their offices, many of us are sneaking away with our comrades for a drink. Given the substantial hazards alcohol presents, what should our stance on drinking with our colleagues be?

In his new book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilisation, Edward Slingerland, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, leaps to the defence of alcohol, arguing that the benefits of drinking have essentially been disregarded by public health experts and policy wonks.

Alcohol is evidently a lethal drug. The World Health Organisation blames alcohol for 3 million deaths every year. Not only does alcohol trash our health and strain our healthcare systems, alcohol-fuelled crime wreaks havoc in our communities and drains public finances. And behind the cold statistics of deaths and government spending, alcohol addiction has ruined many people’s lives and caused immense suffering within families. 

Defending drinking may appear crass to people concerned about harms inflicted by alcohol, including those of us who have suffered first-hand from the ills of alcoholism. However, Slingerland argues that only by stepping back and seeing drinking through the lens of evolution can we have a proper debate about the costs and benefits of drinking.

To date, scientists’ main explanation for our thirst for firewater has been either ‘hijack’ or ‘hangover’. The white jackets in the hijack camp claim alcohol parasitises our brains’ reward systems, whereas those endorsing the hangover theory see drinking as an ‘evolutionary mismatch’. That is, getting a little tipsy may have been beneficial for our distant ancestors. But in the modern world awash with cheap booze and happy hours, drinking has become deleterious.

Although plausible, Slingerland pours cold water (or rather, warm beer) on these explanations. “Evolution isn’t stupid”, Slingerland quips, where he argues that evolution can happen much faster than most people think. “If ethanol happens to pick our neurological pleasure lock, evolution should call in the locksmith. If our taste for drink is an evolutionary hangover, evolution should have long ago stocked up on the aspirin. It hasn’t”.

Like an expert mixologist, Slingerland melds evidence from disparate fields including archaeology, history, neuroscience and social psychology. Far from being an evolutionary mistake, Slingerland argues that chemical intoxication has helped humans overcome an array of social challenges. For example, drinking helps alleviate stress and anxiety, especially in awkward social situations. Similarly, Slingerland claims hitting the bottle helps build trust and cohesion amongst strangers, providing a quick and easy way to get ‘fiercely tribal primates’ to cooperate.

“Humans have been getting drunk for a really long time”, Slingerland writes. He points to this, along with the ubiquity of drinking across cultures, as the primary evidence for alcohol’s adaptiveness. “Images of imbibing and partying dominate the early archaeological record as much as they do twenty-first-century Instagram.”

Of course, religions such as Islam have come down hard on alcohol like a ton of bricks. Although Slingerland concedes that “in the cultural evolution game, Islam has been extremely successful”, he questions how strictly curbs on alcohol have actually been enforced in the Muslim world. Slingerland also emphasises the efforts to outright ban alcohol, whether in ancient China or more recently in the United States, have all essentially failed. “If a ban on alcohol were a cultural evolutionary killer app, you’d expect it to be more consistently enforced”.

Incredibly, Slingerland goes as far to argue that alcohol consumption played a starring role in the rise of large-scale human civilisations (known as the ‘beer before bread’ hypothesis). In support of this theory, archaeologists working in the Fertile Crescent have been surprised by their findings: the tools and grains they’ve unearthed seem more suited to brewing beer than for making bread. Slingerland argues the best explanation is that these hunter-gatherers were stocking up on the magic sauce for an epic religious experience. Although the jury is still out, this proposition challenges existing narratives about how agriculture got the ball of human civilisation rolling.

Our (at least) 9,000-year love affair with booze. Image credit: National Geographic.

Although other drugs also play a role in this story, Slingerland crowns alcohol as the ‘unchallenged king of intoxicants’. Whatever the benefits of other recreational drugs are, Slingerland claims none of these potions offer alcohol’s full suite of features.

As stated by Slingerland:

It’s challenging to negotiate a treaty whilst high on mushrooms; the cognitive effects of cannabis show a high degree of variability between people; And dancing all night without food or sleep makes it really hard to show up for work in the morning. A two-cocktail hangover is, in contrast, a relatively minor burden to bear. This is why alcohol tends to displace other intoxicants when introduced into a new cultural environment, and has gradually become ‘the world’s most popular drug’.

That alcohol serves as a social lubricant may not be an earth-shattering revelation. Another less obvious benefit of drinking is that it gets our creative juices flowing. Slingerland endorses the ancient trope that poetic inspiration can be found at the bottom of a bottle. Indeed, Slingerland’s idea to write Drunk was seeded whilst boozing with Google employees.

When it comes to communal bonding and creativity, Slingerland singles out the prefrontal cortex as the enemy. The prefrontal cortex is the most evolutionary novel part of the human brain, and is the motherboard of rational thinking. Slingerland says the prefrontal cortex is arguably what makes us human, but that it also trips us up.

To embody the tension between self-control and creativity, Slingerland draws on Greek mythology. Apollo, the son of God, symbolises rationality, order, and self-control. Conversely, Dionysus is the God of wine, drunkenness, chaos, and fertility. So, what’s the moral of the story? If we want to be more creative, we need to quieten our overly controlling prefrontal cortices. Slingerland argues that alcohol is perfectly adapted to mute the prefrontal cortex, giving us permission to be more open and present in the moment. In other words, allowing our inner child to reemerge.

Being human requires a careful balancing act between Apollo and Dionysus. We need to be able to tie our shoes, but also be occasionally distracted by the beautiful or interesting or new in our lives. Apollo, the sober grown up, can’t be in charge all of the time. Dionysus, like a hapless toddler, may have trouble getting his shoes on, but he sometimes manages to stumble on novel solutions that Apollo would never see. Intoxication technologies, alcohol paramount among them, have historically been one way we have managed to leave the door open for Dionysus.

Apollo and Dionysus’, by Leonid Ilyukhin. Image credit: Leonid Ilyukhin.

In summary, Drunk is both fascinating and hilariously fun. Exploring alcohol consumption through the lens of cultural evolution provides nuance and perspective on drinking that has so far been lacking. Combined with Slingerland’s sharp wit and exquisite writing, Drunk packs a punch.

As is always the case, there are quibbles one could raise. I’m sure sceptics will contest the adaptationist programme that Slingerland subscribes to. To elaborate, Slingerland points to the prevalence of drinking across cultures and throughout history as the primary evidence for alcohol being a cultural adaptation. However, could this reasoning not also be used to argue that trephining and bloodletting were ‘adaptive’ too? Understandably, scientific studies that directly measure the effects of alcohol on groups’ performance are sparse. More research in this space would presumably bolster Slingerland’s claims of alcohol’s benefits.

Slingerland mentions ‘Asian flushing’, where some people with Asian ancestry experience unpleasant side-effects when drinking. Possessing the gene responsible for alcohol flushing, ‘ADH1B’, dramatically lowers your odds of abusing alcohol. ADH1B has been kicking around the gene pool for at least 7,000 years, where Slingerland argues it should spread like wildfire if drinking was merely an evolutionary mistake. However, what’s interesting is that this gene is most common in areas of Asia where some of the earliest cases of drinking have been documented. So if Asia got the party started, perhaps evolution’s locksmiths are already on their way?

Ironically, Slingerland comes full circle and presents a revised version of the ‘hangover’ theory. The arrival of spirits dramatically raised the stakes of drinking, allowing anyone to consume a lethal amount of ethanol in just a few gulps. As stated by Slingerland; “It is very difficult to pass out from drinking beer or wine; it is nearly impossible to kill oneself. Once distilled liquors are in the mix, however, all bets are off.” Infused with the modern epidemic of loneliness and binge drinking cultures in the Northern hemisphere, Slingerland argues that spirits may fundamentally change alcohol’s balance sheet, moving alcohol from being a net-benefit to a net-harm.

Drunk is filled to the brim with references to the workplace. According to Slingerland, appreciating alcohol’s ancient roots can help us think more clearly about what role drinking should play in our professional lives.

Slingerland penned Drunk during the coronavirus pandemic, where he says it will take us years to fully understand how lockdowns and home working have impacted innovation. Slingerland observes that the length and scope of our conversations through Zoom have narrowed, where our discussions have become more regimented. “Video meetings are probably more efficient; But efficiency, the central value of Apollo, is the enemy of disruptive innovation.”

Parallel to the challenge of hybrid working is prioritising business travel in a post-pandemic world. According to Slingerland, the ultimate function of business travel mirrors our thirst for firewater. “Neither makes sense unless we discern the cooperation problems to which they are a response.” Whilst most of us are happy buying goods online from a faceless website, Slingerland says he’d hesitate to enter into a foreign business venture if he didn’t know who he was getting into bed with. “If I am entering into a long-term, complex venture with a company in Shanghai, where the impact of screwups or corner-cutting or backstabbing or simple fraud is multiplied a thousandfold, I need to know that the people I’m dealing with are fundamentally trustworthy.”

By coincidence, a key requisite for doing business in various countries is the drunken banquet. “In the modern world, with all of the remote communication technologies at our disposal, it should genuinely surprise us how often we need a good, old-fashioned, in-person drinking session before we feel comfortable about signing our name on the dotted line.” For Slingerland, folk wisdom that we’re more honest whilst drunk rings true. With our prefrontal cortex compromised, aspects of our personalities that we successfully suppress will inevitably burst to the fore. “You may seem like a nice person on the phone, but before I really trust that judgement I would be well advised to reevaluate you, in person, after a second glass of Chablis.”

President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai toast the opening of US – China relations in Beijing, February 1972 . Image credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Whilst toasting to rituals like the drunken banquet, Slingerland doesn’t gloss over the worse aspects of drinking. For example, Slingerland warns of drinking cliques reinforcing the ‘old boy’s club’. Here, he reflects on his own university department’s pub sessions, where those who attended were virtually all men. “Female colleagues were welcome, indeed encouraged, to join, and occasionally did. But it was usually about as male-dominated as the Japanese water trade.” Although problematic, Slingerland argues the solution is not immediately obvious. “Given the demonstrable payoffs of this sort of alcohol-lubricated brainstorming, it seems counterproductive to declare that it should never happen. And yet there are obvious dangers of exclusion and inequity”.

Ultimately, Drunk is a love letter to the Greek god Dionysus. However, your Apollonian inner parent may ask if Dionysus is a lover you should really be courting.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilisation is published by Little Brown Spark. Click here to buy a copy.

No Best Way, with Stephen Colarelli

Here’s an episode I recorded with Stephen Colarelli for This View of Life podcast.

Stephen Colarelli is professor of psychology at Central Michigan University. His research explores how evolutionary theory can influence how we think about, conduct research on, and manage behaviour in organisations.

Steve and I discuss the application of evolutionary psychology to Human Resource Management. We cover Steve’s academic career, and his books No Best Way: An Evolutionary Perspective on Human Resource Management, and The Biological Foundations of Organizational Behavior (which Steve co-edited with his colleague Richard Arvey). We also explore the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the world of work.

The Weirdest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Weirdest People in the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Holy Scriptures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by Henrich:

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

Henrich continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rewriting history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Globalisation and its discontents

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

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

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

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

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

The following passage hammers the point home:

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

Henrich continues:

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

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

Managing the Human Animal, with Nigel Nicholson

Here’s a podcast episode I recorded with Nigel Nicholson, for the Evolution Institute.

Nigel Nicholson and I discuss the application of evolutionary psychology to business and management. We cover Nigel Nicholson’s academic career, and his books Managing the Human AnimalFamily Wars and The “I” of Leadership. We also explore the impacts of the pandemic on the world of work. 

We recorded this episode on the 1st September, 2020.

How culture explains our weak response to the coronavirus

The sneakiness of the novel coronavirus virus has wreaked havoc worldwide.

Although the coronavirus is a global pandemic, what’s striking is how the pathogen’s destruction has varied across regions.

Whilst East Asia has largely got a grip on the virus, Europe is still reeling. The United Kingdom recently pipped Italy to claim Europe’s highest death toll, with a tally that dwarfs all but a handful of nations. The United States has established itself as the world’s coronavirus leader— although not in the way President Trump would want us to believe. And Brazil appears to be the new epicentre of the pandemic, with growing fears that their healthcare system will not survive the oncoming onslaught.

This all begs the question: why has Europe and the Americas been hit so much harder by the pandemic?

If your eyes are glued to the news, you’ll be able to point your finger at the guilty culprits. For example, we can blame our politicians— who were quick to dismiss scientists’ warnings and too slow to act.

Whilst there’s truth to this claim, it isn’t a sufficient explanation. After all, it doesn’t explain why our politicians didn’t take the threat seriously in the first place, nor why whole continents struggled to contain the coronavirus.

To help make sense of this, Michele Gelfand and her colleagues have recently released a preprint which explores the role of culture in our response to the outbreak.

Rule makers, rule breakers

Michele Gelfand is an American cultural psychologist, and author of Rule Makers, Rule BreakersMichele has dedicated her life’s work to solving what has long been considered an enigma: why do cultures differ?

Having conducted painstaking research across the world’s diverse societies, Michele discovered that cultural differences essentially boil down to two dimensions: how ‘tight’ or ‘loose’ cultures are. That is, whether groups prioritise order and strictly abide by rules, or if they are more permissive and disorganised.

Tight countries have many rules in places, where punishments are strictly enforced (think of Singapore, where chewing gum is illegal). Citizens in tight countries are used to a high degree of monitoring aimed at curtailing bad behaviour. In contrast, loose societies have laxer rules— and are more tolerant and accepting of transgressions (think of Italy and Spain).

Crucially, Michele found that these cultural differences are not random. Rather, countries with the most draconian laws and harshest punishments are those that have historically faced a barrage of existential threats.

Throughout our evolutionary history, we humans have faced hostile forces of nature. These persistent foes include famine, natural disasters, invasions from rival tribes— and you guessed it— outbreaks of infectious disease.

Because these threats are present to varying degrees, our cultural practices and social norms have evolved accordingly— tightening up in the presence of existential threats, which provides protection against danger. In contrast, societies that have faced fewer threats have experienced the luxury of loosening— cultivating social norms that favour freedom and self-expression.

As with all things in life, there’s a clear trade-off. Tight cultures instil order and stability, at the cost of being less tolerant and creative. On the other hand, loose cultures are open and dynamic— with the drawback of being more chaotic and disorderly.

Despite overlap, Michele makes clear that tight and loose transcends political ideology and does not correspond with the ‘left-right’ political spectrum.

A failed response

This trade-off between tightness and looseness was clear for all to see during the coronavirus’ initial exponential explosion. Famously tight countries such as Singapore mobilised an effective response early on. Meanwhile, looser countries like Italy did not initially take the threat as seriously— and as a consequence are still suffering.

Armed with their knowledge of cultural evolution, Michele and her colleagues wondered how much tightness and looseness explained countries’ initial responses to the outbreak.

Specifically, the team predicted countries that are tight culturally and have highly efficient governments would respond most effectively to the pandemic. That is, they’d have less people infected and subsequently less people dying.

Why would the efficiency of governments matter? They suspected tightness may only provide protection when governments also have the expertise and resources necessary to respond in a timely manner.

Michele’s team used a couple of tools to test this.

First, they crunched government statistics on the coronavirus worldwide, and cross referenced this with their data on cultural differences. They also fed in key economic and demographic information, which give them the ability to predict both the amount of infections and deaths from the coronavirus disease.

Like forensic accountants, they also unearthed countries underreporting coronavirus cases— and corrected for this in their analysis.

To complement their slicing and dicing, they also created a computer simulation to model how people respond to infectious outbreaks (think of The Sims computer game. But instead of Sims spreading ‘poopy pants’, they’re catching coronavirus).

Tightness saves lives

So, what did Michele and her team find?

The team found that tightness and government efficiency interacted to predict infection rates— and that this relationship strengthened with more information fed into their equations.

For the countries with inefficient governments, tightness was actually associated with slightly more infection rates. However, countries with tight cultures and highly efficient governments had significantly less infections and overall deaths.

Their algorithms revealed several other important factors that predict infections. Specifically, they discovered that developed countries with high levels of wealth inequality and older populations had the highest number of infections and subsequent deaths (which in not surprising, as we know COVID-19 is a disease that mainly kills the elderly).

To model an infectious outbreak, the team tailored the Prisoner’s Dilemma (no, this isn’t the dilemma governments faced when releasing prisoners early to prevent the pathogen’s spread. Rather, Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of game theory’s iconic strategic games).

During the early stages of the simulation, tight and loose cultures exhibited similar levels of cooperation. However, as time passed and The Sims zombie apocalypse was in full swing, big differences emerged. Automatons in tight cultures found it easier to copy each other’s cooperative behaviour— and therefore had higher rates of survival. In contrast, those in loose cultures didn’t fair so well.

Their simulation suggests that tight cultures may mount a more effective response to epidemics because people in tight cultures are more likely to conform and copy people’s survival strategies. If this is correct, tightness may only be effective when social norms championing cooperation are established early on in a pandemic. If they aren’t, tightness may not provide any additional protection.

Surviving the pandemic

As this paper yet to be published, one needs to be careful commenting on it. However, appreciating both the rigour of the research and the extraordinary circumstances we now face, drawing practical implications from their paper seems justified.

Reflecting on Michele’s grand theory, what screams out is the need for Western democracies to tighten up accordingly.

Several European countries have experienced intolerable suffering from the avalanche of coronavirus cases, and had no choice other than imposing draconian measures. Conversely, countries such as the United Kingdom have adopted a more hands-off approach— where the rules that have been put in place are more lax and less strictly enforced. Coincidently, the United Kingdom is now one of the world’s worst affected countries.

Bar a miracle, we’ll be living with the coronavirus for some time to come. For nations such as the UK to overcome the pandemic, we’ll need to tighten up our cultural practices to minimize disruption and protect vulnerable people from future outbreaks.

To dispel any misconceptions, I am not advocating for our governments to become more autocratic— far from it. Authoritarianism was controlled for in their study, which didn’t actually slow the rate of infections. While it’s important for governments to promote practices that stop the virus spreading, Michele’s team argue that heavy handed responses to the pandemic may cause irreparable harm. Also, the excessive use of force can hamper innovation— which becomes increasingly important when devising long-term solutions.

Rather, we should aspire to what Michele has coined ‘cultural ambidexterity’. That is, we should retain the positive aspects of our loose cultures— such as tolerance for diversity and greater creativity— whilst also having the flexibility to tighten up when necessary.

Think this can’t be done? Look south to Australasia.

New Zealand is one of the loosest countries in the world. Yet under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership, Middle Earth mobilised an effective response to the coronavirus early on. New Zealand now has one of the lowest death rates among Western nations, and Kiwis are even bracing themselves for coronavirus ‘elimination day’.

The tight-loose seesaw

Whether it’s business partners or family members squabbling, Michele has found clashes between people leaning tight or loose is a major source of conflict. Noticeably, ‘tight-loose’ clashes have become defining stories of the coronavirus in the UK.

Days after Boris Johnson ordered Britain to “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”, Derbyshire Police received a stiff telling off for using drones to shame people for visiting the Peak District (you could call this ‘meta-shaming’). On the other hand, a steady stream of social media posts complained about people flouting the rules— and the reticence of the police to enforce them.

More recently, the justifications provided for Dominic Cummings’ coronavirus road trips were frankly absurd— and have scorched political capital and damaged the public’s trust in the UK Government. Although Boris Johnson is betting this saga will blow over, this breach may undermine the restrictions in place and the next phase of the government’s strategy.

To successfully navigate the pandemic, we must ensure that the rules in place are properly and consistently enforced. However, we also need to calibrate our tightness to reflect the actual level of risk— tightening the rules when cases flare up, and relaxing them once the threat from the virus wanes.

Reopening for business

As Europe and the United States begin easing restrictions and reopening for business, risks abound.

Management gurus are purporting that the work office ‘is now dead’. Although there’ll certainly be long lasting changes to the way we work, declaring the end of the office is not clear-cut. Although the pandemic has demonstrated that whole companies can successfully work from home, there are several reasons why people will want to meet their colleagues and clients in person (at the end of the day, we are social primates).

By understanding the hidden forces of social norms, business leaders can tilt their companies towards the ideal tight-loose balance in the age of the coronavirus.

I’ll provide a couple of examples.

Before the pandemic, people who came into work sick were frequently deemed more loyal and dedicated employees (particularly in tight corporate cultures, where taking time off was seen as slacking). However, this is nonsensical. Not only does coming into work sick jeopardise your recovery and therefore productivity, it also risks spreading the illness to other employees. In the wake of the coronavirus, this social norm needs to be flipped: no more brownie points for coming into work sick, but rather ostracism for putting other people’s lives at risk.

Whilst we need to tighten up our hygiene standards, we also need looseness to foster innovative working practices. If we cannot resume business without causing a resurgence of infections, we face a bleak future of continuously stalling and restarting our economy.

A team of Israeli scientists have proposed a rather ingenious solution to this dilemma, by exploiting a key property of the coronavirus: its ‘latent period’. On average, there is a three-day window between someone being infected with the virus and actually being able to spread it to others.

The scientists’ solution is to work in two-week cycles, in a system dubbed ‘10:4’. In this arrangement, people work on the job as normal for four days straight. Once they’ve passed this latency period and are therefore possibly infectious, they then work from home in isolation for ten days. The scientists’ models suggest that this two-week working cycle can drastically reduce infection rates, causing cases to drop off a cliff.

Time will tell whether this working arrangement is actually effective. But it precisely this kind of innovative thinking that’ll help us overcome the coronavirus.

So far, the coronavirus’ sneaky strategy has paid off handsomely. However, if we can adapt our social norms and become culturally ambidextrous— tightening up our hygiene standards whilst retaining our creativity and innovativeness— we can play the virus against itself and resume some normality.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Article updated on the 4th June 2020.

Evolutionary Organisational Psychology, with The Dissenter

Here’s a podcast episode I recorded with Ricardo Lopes, for The Dissenter.

Ricardo and I explore the application of evolutionary psychology to the business world. We start by tackling the concept of evolutionary mismatch, and then go through some examples of how it applies to the modern workplace— such as Dunbar’s number, hierarchy and leadership, and work stress.

We recorded this episode on the January 29th, 2020.

The rise and fall of the dominant leader

Ranking people by their social status seems to come naturally to us humans. Indeed, social hierarchies are ubiquitous across cultures and throughout human history.

Social hierarchies have allowed humans to coordinate effectively, and enabled large groups to make decisions and address collective action problems.

Whether small-scale societies or industrialised nations, one can think of various hierarchical structures that have been the result of conflict and brute force. However, many forms of hierarchy are also the product of leaders being freely chosen. What isn’t well understood by social scientists is how people climb these more productive forms of hierarchy.

To put it another way, what strategies actually make a leader successful in modern organisations, and which of these is more successful over time?

Keeping in sync with the latest research, Daniel Redhead and his colleagues Joey Cheng, Charles Driver, Tom Foulsham and Rick O’Gorman have just published a study the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, that helps answer this question.

Two ways to the top

Before delving into the particulars of the study, we need to establish what scientists already know. What strategies are known by evolutionary psychologists to increase one’s rank in the social pecking order?

Firstly, there’s dominance– increasing one’s social status through intimidation, manipulation, and coercion. This type of leadership is ancient, and traces back millions of years to our primate heritage.

Throughout the natural world, animals which are the most powerful and menacing fighters are generally granted high status (if you’re not convinced, watch one of David Attenborough’s latest documentaries).

In the tree of life, human and chimpanzee lineages split off from their common ancestor approximately 5 to 7 million years ago. With this, both primate species took with them a proclivity for dominance hierarchies, and a psychology sensitive to dominance.

However, the story of leadership gets a bit more complicated when we home in on homo-sapiens. Unlike other animals, we are a cultural species. We need to be socialised, and depend on collective wisdom for our survival (how long would you be able to live on your own in the wilderness?). As a result, we seek leaders with the knowledge and skills that our group needs to succeed.

This path to leadership is very different than what you usually see in a wildlife documentary, and is aptly called prestige.

Intriguingly, research shows that both paths are equally effective ways of gaining status. That is, one can get to the top either through dominance, or by leading through prestige. What wasn’t known by social scientists is how these different strategies play out over time. In other words, which leadership style is more effective in newly formed groups, and which is more successful in the long-run.

Cue Daniel and his research team.

Brains over brawn

For a couple of reasons, Daniel and his colleagues suspected dominance wouldn’t be an effective leadership strategy over time.

They state:

We proposed that the context of time and place is fundamental to the nature of human dominance… Unlike non-human primates, physical strength and size are not necessarily the most essential determinants of victory during antagonistic contests between humans. The presence of allies and coalitions shrinks the perceived size and muscularity of a foe and the widespread development of lethal weaponry potentially neutralizes human physiological dominance.

Translation: we humans take out overbearing arseholes (tarnishing their reputation through gossip and ostracism. Or if stigma doesn’t do the trick, pelting rocks at them will).

The authors stress that there needs to be certain social and environmental conditions for dominance to be a viable way of gaining status. For example, if bullying and violence are prevalent in the social context one faces, then dominance may prove to be an effective strategy (indeed, it may also be an essential survival strategy).

Conversely, Daniel and his colleagues argue that prestige should be a universally effective way of gaining social status over time. Why? Because prestige is marked by the respect earned by others, which requires a leader to build and maintain a good reputation.

So how did they go about testing their hypotheses?

The researchers used newly formed groups of American students to see how effective dominance and prestige were over time. Specifically, these student groups were formed for an assignment, which counted towards their end of year grades.

In total, 263 students were randomly assigned to a mixed-sex group, and were followed over 16 weeks.

The researchers got these students to rate each other on their leadership styles, and what they thought their peers’ positions were in the social pecking order. They also completed surveys about themselves throughout the semester.

Nice guys finish first

So what did they find?

Replicating previous studies, the researchers found that both dominance and prestige were a successful way for students to acquire status in these newly formed groups.

The authors write:

These results align with previous work that suggests that humans have a disposition to defer to those that they perceive as able and willing to confer benefits or harm, even among groups of undergraduate students, whereby fear and threat may not be particularly potent. 

Critically however, dominance lost its sticking power in the weeks after the groups were formed. Conversely, prestige strongly increased students’ social status over the period of the semester.

With this experiment, the researchers were able to rule out an alternative explanation for dominance’s effectiveness: that dominant individuals are simply mistaken for being prestigious. Rather, the experiment clearly showed that individuals in unacquainted groups can gain status either through aggression and coercion, or by building respect through their skill and competence. These are distinct leadership strategies, which also had different trajectories.

Another insight gleamed from the study is that prestige and social status are a two-way street. That is, being a student high in prestige increased one’s rank in the social pecking order. However, promotions in social rank also bumped up one’s prestige a couple of notches. This was not the case for dominance, where ratings of dominance remained largely unchanged for those who gained higher social status.

Finally, the researchers found that although prestige and dominance have a negative relationship with each other, they are not entirely separate either. In other words, a leader can be both dominant and prestigious at the same time.

The prestige premium

As is always the case, there are limitations to this study.

Like the majority of psychological studies, these experiments were conducted with American university students. However, we know that these people are really WEIRD. That is, they represent a slice of humanity who are Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic, who do not necessarily reflect humanity overall. Further experiments would need to be conducted cross-culturally to confirm whether or not these findings are universal.

The authors argue that as the students had a vested interest in making sure their groups performed well, these project teams paralleled work in the outside world of business and government. However I’m not so sure. For various reasons, I suspect students generally are not that invested in the outcomes of group assignments.

As Daniel and his colleagues note themselves, there may be contexts where dominant leaders are able to sustain their advantage over an extended period of time (for example, when working in large and fragmented organisations). Likewise, dominant leaders may deploy tactics to maintain their social rank, such as ostracising their competitors or modifying group structures, to prevent challenges to their power base.

These points aside, this study sheds light on aspects of leadership which had previously been left in the dark. What the study answered is not whether dominance is a successful leadership strategy, but when it is. 

Contrary to what is taught in many business schools and psychology departments, dominance is an effective way of gaining status. Indeed, it is likely those who rise to the top of corporate and political hierarchies have a combination of dominance and prestige in their repertoire, and deploy both strategies when needed (think of Jeff Bezos for example, and imagine what it must be like working in his executive team… Did you experience a pang of fear?).

However, a domineering leadership style also comes with a hefty price tag; less satisfied employees, reduced creativity, and people rushing for the next exit. On top of this, we now have evidence suggesting that leaders high in dominance are less successful in the long-run. To put it bluntly, being a leader who’s an arsehole is unsustainable.

Or to frame it in the positive, we modern humans place a premium on prestige. Whether it’s your organisation’s leadership capabilities or your own development, make sure you invest your capital wisely.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Competition can encourage prosocial behaviour to spread

A defining aspect of our species’ success is our unusually high levels of cooperation. In particular, our ability to cooperate with others who are not related to us.

The scale of cooperation among humans is rare in the animal kingdom, and is strongly at odds with our closest primate relatives. Presented with this puzzle, scientists are still debating the evolutionary origins of our extraordinary prosociality. 

Traditionally, evolutionary scientists have explained prosocial behaviour by modelling the evolutionary benefits to the individual (or more specifically, the individual’s genes). For example, prosociality can evolve among non-relatives based on reciprocation (‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’), or if altruists are deemed more attractive romantic partners (and therefore have more babies).

However, an emerging class of inter-disciplinary scientists are viewing our large-scale cooperation as a product of cultural group selection’. That is, traits favouring prosocial behaviour can evolve via culture, due to the competitive advantage they bestow to a group. This is a type of cultural evolution, and does not involve natural selection working on genes. 

Although the theory is well developed, empirical evidence documenting cultural group selection is only just accumulating

To shed some light on the matter, economists Patrick Francois and his colleagues Thomas Fujiwara and Tanguy van Ypersele recently published a paper in Science Advancesexploring cultural group selection in the workplace and the laboratory. 

Banking on trust

What is particularly interesting about this paper is that the researchers analysed industry data to test their hypotheses. As stated by the authors; “Perhaps the most ubiquitous avenue of group-level competition occurring in contemporary settings is likely to be competition across firms.”

Patrick and his colleagues hypothesised that companies subject to more intense external competition would be more likely to foster cooperation among their employees. In other words, increased external competition would encourage employees to suppress selfishness and increase cooperative behaviour, in the interest of the firm’s survival. 

The authors used ‘generalised trust’ as their measure of prosocial behaviour (that is, answers to the question; “Do you think that, on the whole, people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”). Their reasoning was that survey-based questions of trust reflect the level of pro-social behaviour individuals perceive of others around them.

The authors used a range of data sources to test their hypothesis. 

Firstly, Patrick and his colleagues explored the relationship between the competitiveness of industries, and the level of trust employees report.

To do this, the authors used data from the United States’ General Social Survey, which includes measures of trust among employees. The competitiveness of an industry was calculated by the percentage of total sales in an industry not covered by the largest 50 firms. 

You can see the relationship below:   

Americans who work in more competitive industries are more likely to trust.

Although a strong relationship between competitiveness and trust was identified, the authors note that this is weak evidence of competition increasing trust. As this data is correlational, it cannot explain causality. Likewise, it may be others factors which are driving this relationship, which haven’t been acknowledged. 

To get round this conundrum, you’d need a naturalistic experiment where competition is increased within an industry, with levels of trust measured before and after this introduction. 

 It turns out such a natural experiment was provided by an episode of American banking deregulation.

Starting in the early 1980’s, several US states lifted restrictions which prohibited banks from operating in other states across the country. This deregulation increased the availability of credit, which in turn facilitated the creation of new firms- and therefore raised the amount of competition within these local markets. 

Of particular interest to the researchers was that different states undertook the deregulation at different times.

What they found is that in the years after the deregulation was introduced, there were significant increases in levels of reported trust. As expected by the authors, firm competition increased with the banking reforms (with more firms created and subsequent business closures).

These broader impacts apparently continued for 10 years after the deregulation was initially introduced. 

Banking deregulation in U.S. states raised firm competition and trust.

Survey data from German employees was also analysed as part of the study, as this allowed the researchers to observe how trust is impacted when workers move to more competitive industries. Similar to the data from the US, Francois and his colleagues found that German workers who moved to more competitive industries reported higher levels of trust.

Although these observational findings provide considerable insight, there are also limitations to this approach.

Fundamentally, using observational data means you can’t be sure of the effect you’ve found, or that you can confidently rule out alternative explanations. To get around this, the researchers also conducted laboratory experiments.

Back to the lab

These experiments were conducted in France, and tested whether changes in levels of competition across groups would impact trust and cooperation. 

A strategic economic game called the Public Goods Game was employed for the experiments.

Participants were placed into pairs, and were allocated to one of two versions of the game. The first was a standard version of the game, with no group competition. 

For each version of the experiment, 20 people were placed into groups of 2. Each player was given €10 per round. Participants were given the choice on how much they wanted to contribute to the ‘collective pot’, which would benefit both group members equally.

The game presents a dilemma. By the end of each round, the collective pool is increased by 1.5 times. Although good for the group overall, this means each individual’s contributions is actually a net cost (providing €0.75 for every €1 they contribute to the pot). 

If your objective is to maximise your own earnings, then the best strategy is therefore to contribute nothing. However, this undermines the greater success your group would have if both of you cooperated and contributed more money. 

Individuals were paired anonymously, and were told the outcome at the end of each round. They were then paired with a new partner, and played a total of 19 rounds. Participants were asked some questions after the experiment, with the main one being generalised trust.

The second condition of the experiment was the same, but with a twist.

The amount they received from the collective pool depended not only on their group’s contributions, but also on the size of their collective pot relative to other groups. Only if their collective pot matched or surpassed another equivalent group, did the group members receive their slice of the pie. 

So what happened?

As what almost always happens when playing the standard version of the Public Goods Game, the researchers observed declining contributions as the game progressed. Initial contributions were also low, with participants chipping in just over €2 for the first round on average.

However, there was a big difference in the second ‘competitive’ condition. As the graph below illustrates, group competition induced significantly higher contributions to the collective pot, which was sustained across all of the rounds. 

Contributions in the first round were also twice as high with group competition, and stayed higher throughout the game. 

Introducing competition in public good laboratory game increases contributions and propensity to trust.

The players may have increased their contributions for various reasons, such as feeling inclined to reciprocate. However, the authors point out that players also increased their contributions when they saw their competitors performing well. They also don’t see this as evidence of reciprocation, as each partner was drawn afresh for each round. 

Instead, Patrick and his colleagues argue these findings show cultural group selection at work; “mimicry of the actions or norms in successful groups leading to diffusion of those norms into the broader population.”

Cooperation from competition

The theory that evolution works at the level of the group, rather than the conventional level of the individual, is controversial. Likewise, there is no clear consensus among scientists regarding the importance of group selection (also known as multilevel selection) to evolution.

Although less contested than its genetic grandfather, cultural group selection also remains controversial, and not everyone is convinced. 

Exhibit A:


Oliver Curry made some valid points on Twitter, outlining potential limitations of the study’s design and the inferences made by the authors. 

Can the data presented be best explained by cultural group selection, over and above other well established theories of cooperation (such as mutualism)? As the connection to theory within the paper isn’t made clear, it’s difficult to answer this question.

What isn’t obvious to me is why external competition would increase trust per se, rather than cooperative behaviour by itself. Oliver Curry argues that cooperation and trust are not separate, and that trust is simply the expectation of cooperation. However, there is experimental evidence suggesting that they are indeed distinct concepts, and that is it useful to separate them.

In a subsequent Twitter exchange, Tim Waring also acknowledges the studies limitations, but argues the study does ultimately support the authors’ conclusions. 


Future research will hopefully address these points raised. 

Despite the critiques of this particular study, cultural group selection arguably offers a powerful explanation for the evolution of large-scale human cooperation. Although traditional evolutionary theories explain much of human cooperation, they don’t seem able to explain how a hominid species that evolved for life in small groups came to develop chiefdoms, nation states, and the modern corporation.

For the purpose of this blog, I assume the majority of business practitioners aren’t particularly bothered about the underlying evolutionary theory. Regardless of the best scientific explanations available, it’s evident that greater external competition increases prosocial behaviour within groups.

This knowledge could be used to increase trust among employees and to make groups more productive. This may be achieved by changing group structures, and rewarding teams as opposed to individual outputs. Similarly, businesses may want to foster an organisational culture where considerable attention is focused on the threats posed by external competition.

However, it’s easy to see how such knowledge can also be abused. Many leaders seem to intuitively grasp how external threats influence behaviour, with the potential for manipulation. As an extreme example, one can be cynical and think of dark triad world leaders who may be tempted to wage war as a means of boosting their political support (no need to mention names here). 

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business


We don’t need to understand how technology works for it to evolve

We modern humans live in a world surrounded by ever evolving technology. Whether it’s the combustion engine or the modern computer, these technologies are ubiquitous and have radically altered the world we live in.

What’s no so obvious is how complex the technologies of traditional societies are too. Bow and arrows and clothing are just a couple of sophisticated technologies that pre-industrial humans created, and used to venture into new, challenging environments.

How is it that we humans have managed to produce such impressive technology, when our closest living primate relatives have produced nothing of the sort?

Many believe this comes down to our superior cognitive abilities.  That is, our intelligence and our ability to reason.

However, some scientists argue that the inherent complexity of certain technologies make them very hard to understand. Instead, they argue that complex technologies result from many small improvements made over generations which are culturally transmitted– without people understanding how these technologies actually work.

To help settle the debate, Maxime Derex and his colleagues Jean-François Bonnefon, Robert Boyd and Alex Mesoudi conducted a rather ingenious experiment, involving a technology which changed the face of our planet: the wheel.

Note that at the time of writing this post, the paper is a preprint and yet to be peer-reviewed, and is therefore subject to further to scrutiny. Despite the amendments that may be made to the paper, the significance of this study should become apparent.

Spinning wheels

The experiment boiled down to getting participants to increase the speed of a wheel down a meter long, inclined track. The wheel had 4 radial spokes, and a single weight could be moved along each spoke.

Participants were organised into ‘chains’ of 5 individuals. Each participant had 5 trials  to minimize the time it took for the wheel to reach the end of the track. All participants  were provided with the last two choices and  scores of the previous participant in their chain (except those who went first). 14 chains were run, with each containing different people.

In total, 140 people took part in the study (with two versions of the experiment conducted). Each person received money for participating in the experiments. The money they received ranged from €3 to €29, depending on their performance and that of their peers.

Derex and his colleagues provide sound reasons for choosing a wheel for their experiment on causal understanding.  First, existing studies suggest Westerners generally have poor understanding of how wheels work, which means most participants didn’t know what was required of them (this is not meant to be insulting). Secondly, the speed of the wheel depends solely on the laws of physics, and not on irrelevant factors which could compromise the validity of their findings. And thirdly, the wheel systems doesn’t involve many dimensions, which made it well suited for hypothesis testing.

So what were the researchers actually evaluating? They were essentially testing whether wheel speeds would increase after several generations of trails, and if people’s understanding of the underlying physics would do too.

The wheel’s speed depends on just two variables: its moment of inertia (how mass is distributed around the axis), and its initial potential energy (the distance between the wheel centre of mass and the ground).

If the weights are located closer to the centre of the wheel, and if one of the weights at the top or to the right of wheel are further away from the axis before its descent, then the wheel will cover the track faster. Note that there’s a trade-off here between the two forces, and some experimentation is required to work out the optimal configuration.

The simplicity of the system meant the researchers could measure participants’ understanding of the wheel after they completed their trials. The research team evaluated their understanding by presenting them with a few options, and asking them to predict which wheels would cover the track faster.

Causal understanding_image 2
Illustration of the experimental set up (Derex et al, preprint)

So what did Derex and his team find having conducted the experiment?

After the 5 generations, the average wheel speed increased significantly. However, participants’ actual understanding of the physics did not.

The average wheel speed produced by the first participants on their last trial was 123.6 meters per hour, and their average understanding score was 4.60. After 5 generations, the average wheel speed increased to 145.7 meters per hour, while participants’ understanding didn’t significantly change.

With a maximum possible speed of 154 m/h, the team found remarkable improvements in just a few generations.

Stifling exploration

The authors were particularly interested in whether or not the sharing of lay theories to one and another would increase people’s understanding.

To further explore how individuals gain their understanding, Derex and his colleagues ran another version of the experiment.

The set up was largely the same, with 5 trials per participant and 14 chains. However, the difference was that participants could now also write their own theory about the wheel, and share this with the next participant in their chain.

All participants were provided with the previous participant’s theory, except those who were starting.

What did they find? The average wheel speed increased at a similar rate to the first experiment, and the participants’ understanding also barely changed across the generations (see the graph below).

Counter-intuitively, the authors also found that the sharing of theories had a negative  effect on participant’s actual understanding of the underlying physics.

Causal understanding_Graph
Participants produced faster wheels across generations, but their understanding of the system did not (Derex et al, preprint)

Although little differences were observed between the experimental conditions overall,  further digging found “striking” differences in participant’s exploration and independent learning.

The researchers found that if a participant had received a theory about either inertia or potential energy, then their configurations would be constrained to one of these forces. In other words, inheriting an inertia theory increased their understanding of this dynamic, but reduced participant’s understanding of energy (and vice versa).

The main explanation presented is that receiving a theory mostly constrained participants’ focus, and blinded them to the dynamics beyond the theory they received.

Derex and his colleagues argue that these results support the theory that small improvements occur over generations via cultural transmission, in the absence of people’s actual understanding of the technology.

As stated by the authors:

These results indicate that highly optimized technologies do not necessarily result from evolved reasoning abilities but instead can emerge from the blind accumulation of many small improvements made across generations linked by cultural transmission, and demand a focus on the cultural dynamics underlying technological change as well as individual cognition.


With  the paper yet to be peer reviewed, it does seem a bit premature drawing lessons from the study at this stage. However, a wealth of research demonstrates the role of cultural evolution in driving technological advancement, which means we can have some confidence in the research findings.

The authors also note that these experiment were conducted on ‘WEIRD’ people. That is,  those who are Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. Further experiments would need to be conducted cross-culturally to confirm whether or not this finding is universal.

These points aside, one key take away I took from these experiments are the roles groups and demographics play in fostering technological advancements, rather than the contributions of individuals.

In business and society more broadly, a widespread belief is that the most significant innovations come from geniuses and their novel ideas. However, such experimental findings from the field of cultural evolution reveal how overly simplistic these beliefs are; these beliefs ignore the wider environmental factors and culturally acquired knowledge that facilitate novel insights in the first place.

Another potential lesson concerns exploration and independent learning. If it is the case that receiving incomplete theories can compromise people’s understanding of technology, then this has implications for research and development professionals (or anyone fostering innovation for that matter). Working around this effect and encouraging independent learning may lead to insights which may have otherwise been missed.

Ultimately, such findings illustrate the importance of experimentation in driving technological advancements. Whether one is trying to improve a process or create new products, continuous small-scale experimentation may lead to new technologies being developed- although you may not understand how they actually work.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Note: Derex et al’s paper has since been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour (1st April 2019)

The Illusion of Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds easy, right? Apparently not.

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

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

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

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

Thinking is for action

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

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

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

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

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

Community of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

Collective intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

Committing to the community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by Sloman and Fernbach (emphasis added):

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

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

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

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

Nudging for better decisions

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

1. Reduce complexity

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

2. Simple decision rules

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

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

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

3. Just-in-time education

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

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

4. Check your understanding 

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to buy a copy of The Knowledge Illusion


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