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 Animal, Family 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.
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?
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.
Michele Gelfand is an American cultural psychologist, and author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers. Michele 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 new cases, we face a bleak future of continuously stalling and restarting our economy.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 Advances, exploring 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:
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.
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.
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.
It’s not clear what, if anything, this paper has to do with ‘cultural group selection’. Virtually all theories of cooperation predict that people will cooperate (trust) more when the returns to cooperation are greater. 1/n https://t.co/9zsIX9Kg7g
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.
The point is that humans can undergo group selection on behavior rapidly because *that behavior is culturally mediated.* So, yes, this *does* give us evidence for cultural group selection, or more transparently: “group-level cultural selection.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In psychology, intelligence has largely been confined to ranking individuals according to cognitive ability. The authors argue psychologists like general intelligence as it’s readily quantifiable, and has some power to predict important life outcomes. For example, people with higher IQ scores do better academically and perform better at their jobs.
Whilst there’s a wealth of evidence in favour of general intelligence, Sloman and Fernbach argue that we may be thinking about intelligence in the wrong way. “Awareness that knowledge lives in a community gives us a different way to conceive of intelligence. Instead of regarding intelligence as a personal attribute, it can be understood as how much an individual contributes to the community.”
A key argument is that groups don’t need a lot of intelligent people to succeed, but rather a balance of complimentary attributes and skill-sets. For example to run a company, you need some people who are cautious and others who are risk takers; some who are good with numbers and others who are good with people.
For this reason, Sloman and Fernbach stress the need to measure group performance, rather than individual intelligence. “Whether we’re talking about a team of doctors, mechanics, researchers, or designers, it is the group that makes the final product, not any one individual.”
A team led by Anita Woolley at the Tepper School of Business have begun devising ways of measuring collective intelligence, with some progress made. The idea of measuring collective intelligence is new, and many questions remain. However, the authors contend that the success of a group is not predominantly a function of the intelligence of individual members, but rather how well they work together.
Committing to the community
Despite all the benefits of our communal knowledge, it also has dangerous consequences. The authors argue believing we understand more than we do is the source of many of society’s most pressing problems.
Decades worth of research shows significant gap between what science knows, and what the public believes. Many scientists have tried addressing this deficit by providing people with more factual information. However, this approach has been less than successful.
For example, Brendan Nyhan’s experiments into vaccine opposition illustrated that factual information did not make people more likely to vaccinate their children. Some of the information even backfired– providing parents stories of children who contracted measles were more likely to believe that vaccines have serious side effects.
Similarly, the illusion of understanding helps explains the political polarisation we’ve witnessed in recent times.
In the hope of reducing political polarisation, Sloman and Fernbach conducted experiments to see whether asking people to explain their causal understanding of a given topic would make them less extreme. Although they found doing so for non-controversial matters did increase openness and intellectual humility, the technique did not work on highly charged political issues, such as abortion or assisted suicide.
Viewing knowledge as embedded in communities helps explain why these approaches don’t work. People tend to have a limited understanding of complex issues, and have trouble absorbing details. This means that people do not have a good understanding of what they know, and they rely heavily on their community for the basis of their beliefs. This produces passionate, polarised attitudes that are hard to change.
Despite having little to no understanding of complicated policy matters such as U.K. membership of the European Union or the American healthcare system, we feel sufficiently informed about such topics. More than this, we even feel righteous indignation when people disagree with us. Such issues become moralised, where we defend the position of our in-groups.
As stated by Sloman and Fernbach (emphasis added):
[O]ur beliefs are not isolated pieces of data that we can take and discard at will. Instead, beliefs are deeply intertwined with other beliefs, shared cultural values, and our identities. To discard a belief means discarding a whole host of other beliefs, forsaking our communities, going against those we trust and love, and in short, challenging our identities. According to this view, is it any wonder that providing people with a little information about GMOs, vaccines, or global warming have little impact on their beliefs and attitudes? The power that culture has over cognition just swamps these attempts at education.
This effect is compounded by the Dunning-Kruger effect: the unskilled just don’t know what they don’t know. This matters, because all of us are unskilled in most domains of our lives.
According to the authors, the knowledge illusion underscores the important role experts play in society. Similarly, Sloman and Fernbach emphasise the limitations of direct democracy– outsourcing decision making on complicated policy matters to the general public. “Individual citizens rarely know enough to make an informed decision about complex social policy even if they think they do. Giving a vote to every citizen can swamp the contribution of expertise to good judgement that the wisdom of crowds relies on.”
They defend charges that their stance is elitist, or anti-democratic. “We too believe in democracy. But we think that the facts about human ignorance provide an argument for representative democracy, not direct democracy. We elect representatives. Those representatives should have the time and skill to find the expertise to make good decisions. Often they don’t have the time because they’re too busy raising money, but that’s a different issue.”
Nudging for better decisions
By understanding the quirks of human cognition, we can design environments so that these psychological quirks help us rather than hurt us. In a nod to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s philosophy of libertarian paternalism, the authors provide some nudges to help people make better decisions:
1. Reduce complexity
Because much of our knowledge is possessed by the community and not by us individually, we need to radically scale back our expectations of how much complexity people can tolerate. This seems pertinent for what consumers are presented with during high-stakes financial decisions.
2. Simple decision rules
Provide people rules or shortcuts that perform well and simplify the decision making process.
For example, the financial world is just too complicated and people’s abilities too limited to fully understand it.
Rather than try to educate people, we should give them simple rules that can be applied with little knowledge or effort– such as ‘save 15% of your income’, or ‘get a fifteen-year mortgage if you’re over fifty’.
3. Just-in-time education
The idea is to give people information just before they need to use it. For example, a class in secondary school that reaches the basics of managing debt and savings is not that helpful.
Giving people information just before they use it means they have the opportunity to practice what they have just learnt, increasing the change that it is retained.
4. Check your understanding
What can individuals do to help themselves? A starting point is to be aware of our tendency to be explanation foes.
It’s not practical to master all details of every decision, but it can be helpful to appreciate the gaps in our understanding.
If the decision is important enough, we may want to gather more information before making a decision we may later regret.
Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business
Click here to buy a copy of The Knowledge Illusion
Fernbach, P. M., Rogers, T., Fox, C. R., & Sloman, S. A. (2013). Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science, 24(6), 939-946.
Kuncel, N. R., Hezlett, S. A., & Ones, D. S. (2004). Academic performance, career potential, creativity, and job performance: Can one construct predict them all? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(1), 148-161.
Lawson, R. (2006). The science of cycology: Failures to understand how everyday objects work. Memory & Cognition, 34(8), 1667-1675.
Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., Richey, S., & Freed, G. L. (2014). Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics, 133(4), e835-e842.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 evolution, as 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).
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.
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.
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:
Humans areadaptive cultural learners who acquire ideas, beliefs, values, norms, motivations, and worldviews from others in their communities. To focus our learning, we use cues ofprestige, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 createmismatches. The result is that such imposed formal institutions will work rather differently, and perhaps not at all.
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
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
A blog exploring business from an evolutionary perspective, by Max Beilby