Tag: Evolutionary psychology

Not Born Yesterday, by Hugo Mercier

In 2017, Collins Dictionary crowned ‘fake news’ its word of the year.

Collins’ entry can be credited to two unforgettable events that defined 2016: the decision taken by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Dismayed and disoriented by the outcome of these votes, elites on both sides of the Atlantic were quick to say misleading statistics and outright lies precipitated these political earthquakes.

Like the coronavirus itself, misinformation has also exploded during the pandemic. When COVID began permeating our borders, the head of the World Health Organisation warned that “we’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”.

This raises the question: how impactful is misinformation generally, and are we really as vulnerable to propaganda as pundits make us out to be?  Not quite, argues French cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier in his new book, Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust And What We Believe. Rather than being easily duped, Mercier argues that, ironically, we are not as gullible as we’ve been led to believe.

The case against gullibility

For many, Mercier’s argument will seem rather odd. Following the atrocities committed during World War Two, social psychologists have spent the past 70 years detailing the various ways we frail humans are vulnerable to social influence and persuasion. Some of social psychology’s most infamous experiments suggest that we are all natural conformists, forming our beliefs and altering our behaviour in order to fit in with the group and be in our bosses’ good books.

Despite the case for gullibility seeming an easy verdict, Mercier objects, stating that the case is far from settled. Rather than being gullible, Mercier argues, each of us come fully equipped with mental hardware, an ‘open vigilance’ system, that, most of the time, can correctly determine who we can trust, and what is ultimately true.

Viewed through the lens of evolutionary biology, Mercier argues that pure gullibility would be too easily taken advantage of by unscrupulous actors, and thus isn’t an evolutionarily stable strategy. “What should be clear in any cases is that we cannot afford to be gullible”, Mercier writes. “If we were, nothing would stop people from abusing their influence, to the point where we would be better off not paying any attention at all to what others say, leading to the prompt collapse of human communication and cooperation.”

Despite our bullshit detectors working well most of the time, Mercier argues that we’re prone to making mistakes when we’re navigating new environments that evolution hasn’t fully equipped us to deal with. What does this mean? Mercier argues that the prevalence of conspiracy theories and antiscientific beliefs can be explained, at least in part, by how intuitive these ideas are.

Take vaccines for example. Most of us have no clue how vaccines work, and the idea of injecting your healthy child with an alien substance can ring alarm bells. “All our intuitions about pathogens and contagion scream folly.” Despite the remarkable successes of vaccination programmes over the past century, communicating the effectiveness and safety of vaccines clearly remains one of the scientific communities’ thorniest issues. “In the absence of strong countervailing forces”, Mercier writes, “it doesn’t take much persuasion to turn someone into a creationist anti-vax conspiracy theorist.”

Mass un-persuasion

Mercier documents the astronomical funds paid for Western political campaigns, with the US presidential election taking centre stage. Given the mountains of money ploughed into these political campaigns, you would expect a commensurable return on investment. However, you may be short changed. Mercier argues that the scientific research on whether political campaigns can sway public opinion and win elections has produced surprisingly ambiguous results.

Rather than being able to socially engineer the masses’ political preferences, Mercier argues propagandists can only craft messages that already resonate with the public. “With a bit of work, they will be able to affect the audience at the margin, on issues for which the audience is ambivalent or had weak opinions to start with. Yet many have granted prophets the power to convert whole crowds, propagandists the ability to subvert entire nations, campaigners the skill to direct electoral outcomes, and advertisers the capacity to turn us all into mindless consumerists.”

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, is hailed as one of history’s master manipulators. Generally speaking, historians hold mixed views on the potency of Nazi propaganda. Provocatively, Mercier proclaims that essentially no persuasion took place in Nazi Germany. Rather, Mercier suggests that Hitler and his henchmen road on a ticket to heal the humiliations that Germany endured in the aftermath of World War One.

As stated by Mercier:

The power of demagogues to influence the masses has been widely exaggerated. . . If one steps back for a moment it soon becomes clear that what matters is the audience’s state of mind and material conditions, not the prophets’ power of persuasion. Once people are ready for extreme actions, some prophet will rise and provide the spark that lights the fire.

If propaganda is so staggeringly ineffective, why do millions of people living under authoritarian regimes act like they’ve been brainwashed? The answer, according to Mercier, is simple. Authoritarian regimes that plaster billboards with propaganda also closely surveil their citizens, and crush any whiff of dissent. Given their plight, it is entirely understandable why people living under repressive regimes would want to keep their mouths shut, out of fear for their personal and family’s safety.

Mercier hammers the point home:

Failure to perform the Nazi salute was perceived as a symbol of ‘political nonconformism’, a potential death sentence. In North Korea, any sign of discontent can send one’s entire family to prison camps. Under such threats, we cannot expect people to express their true feelings. Describing his life during the Cultural Revolution, a Chinese doctor remembers how “to survive in China you must reveal nothing to others”. Similarly, a North Korean coal miner acknowledged, “I know that this regime is to blame for our situation. My neighbour knows our regime is to blame. But we’re not stupid enough to talk about it.”

If repression explains acquiescence in authoritarian regimes, why do seas of people in freer societies also act like they’ve been indoctrinated? According to Mercier, professing bizarre beliefs isn’t necessarily a symptom of gullibility. Rather, jarring public declarations can serve as an oath of loyalty.

Take overinflated compliments. Mercier argues that domineering leaders don’t fish for compliments because they actually believe the lavish praise heaped onto them. Rather, excessive flattery can serve as a reliable signal of commitment to his or her reign. Counterintuitively, the more over the top and outrageous the flattery is, the more effective it can be. Why? Because the orator is demonstrating a willingness not only to burn serious social capital, but also to burn bridges with other groups they may be members of— thereby credibly signalling their allegiance to the cause.

It’s hard to believe that people would boldly pronounce absurd or repugnant views for these reasons, but loudly broadcasting outlandish views is precisely what is required to pledge one’s loyalty (say, that Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring out of a local pizzeria). With this, Mercier argues we shouldn’t always assume that people actually hold the batshit beliefs they regurgitate.

“People aren’t stupid”, Mercier writes. “As a rule, they avoid making self-incriminating statements for no reason. These statements serve a purpose, be it to redeem oneself or, on the contrary, to antagonise as many people as possible. By considering the functions of self-incriminating statements, we can react to them more appropriately.”

Psychological Operations

With growing alarmism over the proliferation of misinformation, Mercier’s sceptical inquiry into credulity is both refreshing and somewhat reassuring. Rather than misinformation causing people to believe absurd things, Mercier argues that this account gets causality backwards. Internet trolls are not so much persuaded by misinformation, but rather, they consume and share it to attack and infuriate their political foes.

Although Mercier makes a strong case for the limited role gullibility plays in our digestion of information, I still have my doubts. Take disinformation pumped out by the Kremlin. Written before Putin launched his ‘special military operation’, Mercier claims that Russian propaganda in Ukraine succeeds modestly when preaching to the choir, and backfires when targeting Russia’s opponents. However, I suspect the Kremlin’s firehose of falsehoods has been more impactful than this.

Whilst it’s unlikely that the majority of Russians buy Putin’s torrent of lies, the core narrative that Western nations are the real aggressors in this war clearly holds sway in Russia. Mercier stresses that public opinion research conducted in autocratic regimes cannot be trusted (if you might be thrown in jail or murdered for criticising your government, I’m sure you’d also keep schtum). However, clever experiments allow people to indirectly express their true preferences. A month after Russian tanks began rolling into Ukraine, researchers using these innovative methods found widespread support for the invasion amongst Russians.

Perhaps there’s another layer of this onion that we need to peel. In his new book The Story Paradox, Jonathan Gottschall argues that it is stories that hold the main sway over our hearts and minds, rather than postulates of factual information. Whilst stories help bind groups of people together, Gottschall reveals the dark side of storytelling, warning that stories can fuel hostilities and tear societies apart. In contrast to factual claims, stories are a potent form of persuasion that pack lots of baggage into little packages, and therefore cannot be easily evaluated through fact checking.

As Daniel Williams states in a recent blog post on the ‘misinformation panic’:

To the extent that pundits or media organisations exist not to inform, but to rationalise, their insidious impact often lies not in the strict falsity of their content but in the way in which it is integrated and packaged to support appealing but misguided narratives.

One could argue that Mercier underestimates the dangers of modern information warfare. But of course, any attempt at questioning the veracity of open vigilance would make Mercier proud. If you try to argue against open vigilance, you lose the battle the moment you show up.

Rebuilding trust

Stepping back, what should we do with this knowledge? Before gossiping with a friend or hitting retweet, Mercier encourages us to ask ourselves what the practical consequences of sharing these rumours are, and whether the actions that follow would land us in hot water. By anticipating the consequences of our actions, we are less likely to be part of the problem. To be part of the solution, Mercier says we should penalise those who spread false rumours, or at the very least, deny them kudos for doing so.

Whilst social media giants have been getting a good bashing from politicians on both sides of the aisle, Mercier and his colleagues’ research suggests that, when it comes to the dissemination of misinformation, social media is not the problem per se. False rumours have been told since the dawn of human language, and there are arguably greater societal forces crashing over us that are powering political polarisation within Western democracies.

The take-home message of Not Born Yesterday is that, contrary to what many TED Talk gurus will tell you, influencing people is incredibly difficult. Far from being too trusting, Mercier argues that, generally speaking, we don’t trust enough. In other words, we tend to hold our guards up, where we’d benefit from lowering our defences more often than not. With this, Mercier encourages us to give the man in the street the benefit of a doubt, and to be more trusting of experts.

Of course, it takes two to tango. For experts’ opinions to carry weight, trust needs to be nurtured and sustained. To curb the spread of conspiracy theories, Mercier suggests the best strategy isn’t employing an army of fact-checkers, but rather, rebuilding trust in our key institutions (say, by passing strong laws against corruption). Trust is the glue that binds society together, and as the cliche goes, building a solid house starts with a strong foundation.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust And What We Believe is published by Princeton University Press. Click here to buy a copy.

The Status Game, by Will Storr

Do you ever get a niggling feeling that other people are doing better than you? Don’t worry, we all do.

In his new book The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It, Will Storr reveals the hidden force that triggers much of our anxiety: social status. From our hunter-gatherer ancestors who roamed the African Savannah, to the office workers and internet communities of the 21st century, Storr argues that the human need for status is ancient, universal, and remains deeply ingrained in all of us.

Will Storr is an award-winning journalist and author, who also runs a successful writing course based on his last book, The Science of Storytelling. That Storr has now turned his attention to the psychology of status may initially raise some eyebrows. Storr clarifies that while The Science of Storytelling thrusts our ‘self-serving inner-hero’ into the spotlight, The Status Game reveals the status seeking ‘mechanism’ that lurks behind the scenes. “If the conscious experience is organised as a story, this book concerns the subconscious truth that lies beneath it”

In The Status Game, Storr clarifies that status seeking isn’t a frivolous activity: it’s intricately intertwined with our ultimate evolutionary goals. For all social creatures on planet Earth, high status brings abundance: finer food, more land, and more romantic opportunities (for men at least). “The higher we rise, the more likely we are to live, love and procreate. It’s the essence of human thriving. It’s the status game.”

The psychological toll of being at the bottom may be obvious. Less intuitive is how our rung on the social ladder affects our bodies. Like monkeys sitting atop their troop’s dominance hierarchy, high status men and women are generally healthier and live longer than their underlyings (although male baboons show that life at the top can be tough too). Painstaking studies conducted with British civil servants suggest this has less to do with the privileges that comes with affluence, but rather our relative rank. “To our brains, status is a resource as real as oxygen or water”, Storr writes. “When we lost it, we break.”

Success, virtue and dominance

In The Status Game, Storr reveals the doubled-edged nature of human status seeking, documenting how striving fuels the best and worst aspects of humanity. Whilst scientists and inventors wanting to make a name for themselves drives human progress, people’s desire to get ahead of the competition also results in murder, war, and even genocide. How do we make sense of status seeking’s mixed scorecard?

Unlike any other animal, we are fully fledged cultural species. We need to be socialised from the moment that we’re born, and we rely on collective wisdom for our survival (how long could you survive on your own in the wilderness?). As a result, we grant people with the expertise our group needs to succeed with high status—a path to success aptly called prestige.

Success and virtue games help explain the psychology of prestige. In success games, status is awarded for exceptional achievements that demonstrate skill and talent in established contests (think of professional sports and tech start-ups). In virtue games, status is awarded to people who are conspicuously moralistic, obedient, and dutiful (think of religious or royal institutions).  

Although prototypical forms of prestige have been identified in wildlife, such as elder elephants leading their herds to water, no other species has stretched the psychology of prestige as far as we humans have. As stated by Storr; “prestige is our most marvellous craving.”

Despite our species’ championing of prestige, we’ve never fully stamped out our primitive urge for dominance. That is, gaining status through intimidation, manipulation, and coercion. This type of leadership is ancient, and traces back millions of years to our primate heritage. 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 hypersensitive to dominance.

As stated by Storr:

Whilst the prestige games of virtue and success have made us gentler and wiser animals, the superior modes of playing haven’t completely overwritten our bestial capacities. As psychologist professor Dan McAdams writes, ‘the human expectation that social status can be seized through brute force and intimidation, that the strongest and the biggest and boldest will lord it over the rank and file, is very old, awesomely intuitive and deeply ingrained. Its younger rival – prestige- was never able to dislodge dominance from the human mind.’

Intriguingly, prestige and dominance both appear to be equally effective ways of gaining status. That is, one can rise to the top either by being virtuous and attaining mastery, or by throwing one’s weight around. The crucial difference is that prestigious leaders have been freely chosen by their followers, whereas domineering players typically force people to respect them.

Playing with fire

Across cultures, manhood is widely seen as something that has to be earned, but can also easily be lost (when was the last time you heard someone be told to ‘woman up’?). Because of the precarious nature of manhood, Storr underscores how young men are particularly prone to violent status contests.

Men have a propensity for physical status contests built into their minds, muscles and bones. They’re overwhelmingly the perpetrators of murder, and comprise most of their victims, with around 90% of global homicides being committed by males, and 70% being their targets. In the majority of cases, killers are unemployed, unmarried, poorly educated and under 30. Their sense of status is fragile. In most places, the leading reasons given for killing are ‘status driven’, writes conflict researcher doctor Mike Martin, ‘the result of altercations over trivial disputes’.

Needless to say, not all young men are violent criminals, and culture plays a big role in regulating aggression. However, Storr zeros in on combination he believes blows the powder keg: having a grandiose personality and experiencing intense feelings of humiliation. What’s the connection? Being humiliated is to have your reputation shattered, where your status plummets publicly and in dramatic fashion. “Humiliation can be seen as the opposite of status, the hell to its heaven.”

In the most serious cases, Storr says we sink so far down the rankings that we’re no longer considered useful players. The only way to recover is to start afresh and rebuild from the ground up. However, there’s another option available for those who are slipping and can’t get themselves up: annihilation.

As the African proverb says, ‘the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth’. If the game rejects you, you can return in dominance as a vengeful God, using deadly violence to force the game to attend to you in humility.

Talk of burning villages down may evoke images of The Joker, but young male ‘incels’ are no laughing matter. Storr provides a harrowing account of three mass murderers: the ‘co-ed’ serial killer Edmund Kemper, who remains one of America’s most notorious murderers; Elliot Rogers, who was responsible for the misogynistic terror attacks in Vista California; and ‘the Unabomber’, Ted Kaczynski. Through his combing of the forensic evidence, Storr reveals how each of these men were not only delusionally narcissistic (Storr avoids making armchair diagnoses and sticks to the term ‘grandiose’ instead), but were also subject to a crushing weight of humiliation.

From left to right: Elliot Rodger, Ed Kemper, and Ted Kaczynski. Image credit: Quillette (2021).

Of course, several other factors contributed to these men committing such heinous crimes, including the dire state of their mental health. However, Storr argues that mental illness is not a sufficient explanation, as almost everyone who suffers from such conditions are not hellbent on destroying their communities. As stated by Storr:

All three had a need for status that was unusually, perhaps pathologically fierce, and so the humiliations they suffered would’ve been all the more agonising . . . Feeling entitled to a place at the top of the game, they were driven to depravity by life at the bottom.

Learning from history

These powerful undercurrents of grandiosity and humiliation are not confined to dangerous criminals. Storr also spots this sense of entitlement and gnawing resentment in notorious acts of espionage, sabotage, and amongst extreme political movements. Most poignantly, Storr draws parallels with the rise of Nazi Germany.

In attempting to understand the successes of the Nazi Party, Storr implores us to be brave. “The Nazi catastrophe can’t be understood without acknowledgement of why the Germans came to worship their leader as a god”.

Before the outbreak of World War One, Storr claims Germany was the most prosperous nation in Europe (edging ahead of Britain), where Germans’ living standards had been soaring since the turn of the 20th century. When war was declared, the Germans were confident (perhaps overconfident) that this would be a quick victory for the home team.

In the aftermath of Germany’s shocking defeat, Germans expected that the terms of peace would be just. However, the strict provisions that were enforced through The Treaty of Versaille included: 1) accepting blame for starting the war; 2) agreeing to disarm, whilst handing over enormous amounts of military equipment; 3) surrendering vast tracts of land and German territories; and 4) paying today’s equivalent of almost three hundred billion pounds in damages. These terms were almost unanimously felt as a national humiliation.

That Germany had to foot the bill for everyone’s war helped trigger a wave of hyperinflation that was so disastrous, workers had to collect their wages with wheelbarrows. These humiliations multiplied themselves. When Germany inevitably fell behind on its reparation payments, France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr Valley, one of Germany’s major industrial engines. Once hyperinflation had finally been tamed, the Great Depression hit. Germany was plunged into a deeper state of desperation and despair.

According to Storr, Adolf Hitler road on a ticket of healing the humiliations that Germany had endured through the asture terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Although antisemitism was rife at the time, Storr argues Germans’ main priority was restoring what they deemed was Germany’s rightful place at the top.

Partly through effective propaganda, Hitler himself became highly symbolic of the resurgent Germany; By the logic of the status game, he became sacred, the literal equivalent of a God, a figure that symbolised all that his players valued and who, in effect, was their status.

A parade of Nazi flags at the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg, as exhibited in the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of Will. Image credit: The Unaffiliated Critic (2017).

Genocide, Storr argues, is not just about the killing or ‘cleansing’ enemies. “They’re about healing the perpetrators’ wounded grandiosity with grotesque, therapeutic performances of dominance and humiliation.” The Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic slaughtering of six million Jews across Europe, was scaled up when Germany’s war effort started going south, and continued right up until the end of the Second World War— just as Hitler’s house of cards was crumbling.

The Nazis, Storr proclaims, were just like Edmund Kemper, Elliot Rodger and Ted Kaczynski. “They told a self-serving story that explained their catastrophic lack of status justified its restoration in murderous attack”, Storr writes. “But it’s not just Germany that’s been possessed in this way. Nations the world over become dangerous when humiliated.”

Stepping back, what lessons should we take from The Status Game? By peering into the mind of murderers and murderous regimes, Storr reminds us of the ever present threat posed by tyranny. To make sure we’re not swept away by a visceral rush of dominance, Storr instructs us to continuously question if the groups we belong to are becoming too tight, too dogmatic, and too extreme. For example, Storr states if we’re ever made to feel that acts of violence are virtuous, that’s a red flag. “If we’re serious about ‘never again’ we must accept that tyranny isn’t a ‘left’ or a ‘right’ thing, it’s a human thing. It doesn’t arrive goose-stepping down streets in terrifying ranks, it seduces us with stories.”

Given our peers’ ability to warp our sense of reality, how do we actually know when our groups have become unhinged? The antidote, Storr argues, is to play several status games. In other words, to diversify risk and not put all your eggs in one basket. “People who appear brainwashed have invested too much of their identity in a single game”, Storr states. “If the game fails, or they become expelled, their identify– their very self– can disintegrate. No such risk can befall the player with a diversity of identities who plays diverse games.” Of course, being a member of many groups opens one’s eyes to different views, too.

Conversely, Storr advises us to practice warmth, competence and sincerity when navigating our status hierarchies. “When we’re warm, we imply we’re not going to use dominance; when sincere; we imply we’re going to play fairly; when competent, that we’re going to be valuable to the game itself”.

According to Storr, it’s all too easy to flash sparks of dominance in the heat of the moment, where we draw for force to influence others. However successful this may be initially, Storr stresses that overpowering people, through forms of intimidation or other means, isn’t a sustainable strategy. “The glowers, the sighs, the wails of complaint; such twitches of animalism might help us achieve some immediate goal, but they’ll also lead to our being de-ranked in the mind of others.”

Whilst reflecting on prestige’s sticking power, Storr points out that we all have status to give, and that the credit we can dole out is essentially limitless. “Creating small moments of prestige means always seeking opportunities to use it. Allowing others to feel statusful makes it more likely they’ll accept our influence.”

Like a herd of elephants being led to water, let us continue our miraculous journey and follow the winding path of prestige.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It is published by William Collins. Click here to buy a copy.

*Post updated 11th January 2022

The Social Instinct, by Nichola Raihani

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

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

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

The ‘we’ in ‘me’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social living

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

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

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

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

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

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

The renegades within

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

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

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

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

As stated by Raihani:

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

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

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

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

Think global, act local

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

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

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.

Strategic Instincts, by Dominic Johnson

Among political scientists, it’s widely believed that ‘cognitive biases’ (that is, quirks of the human mind) are not only detrimental, but responsible for some of history’s worst policy blunders. Whether it’s the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Chernobyl, or the Global Financial Crisis, it’s easy to think of colossal disasters that back this up. But is this really the whole story?

In his new book Strategic Instincts, Dominic Johnson, a Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, challenges this worldview, where he argues that seemingly irrational behaviour can, with the right dosage and in the right context, actually enhance performance in the arena of international politics.

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

To test his theory, Johnson takes his readers on a tour of recent history, and places a trio of influential cognitive biases— overconfidence, the ‘fundamental attribution error’, and ingroup favouritism— under the microscope.

Fortune favours the bold

To start off our intellectual journey, Johnson turns the clock back to the 18th century and places us on the battlefield of the American War of Independence. By combing the historical and biographical accounts of the Revolutionary War, Johnson argues that the United States benefited in no small measure from a remarkable confidence— arguably overconfidence—that emanated from its charismatic founder, George Washington.

Before delving further, what does Johnson mean when he says George Washington was ‘overconfident’?A well-established finding from modern psychology is that mentally healthy people are generally overconfident (with men being particularly cocky). What this body of research suggests is that we individually tend to overestimate our abilities, as well as our control over life events, and we also underestimate our vulnerability to risk (although these are technically termed ‘positive illusions’, Johnson uses the catch-phrase ‘overconfidence’ for simplicity’s sake). In sum, we tend to think more highly of ourselves than who we really are.

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

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

As stated by Johnson:

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

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

Know your enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

United we stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overkill: The limits of strategic instincts

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

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

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

Johnson writes:

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

I think Johnson makes several compelling arguments in Strategic Instincts. That said, there are elements of the book that one could critique. What stood out the most for me is that the latest findings from the field of cultural evolution appear to be missing. Exhibit A: Although overconfidence is a well-established finding from the field of psychology, cultural evolutionary theorist Michael Muthukrishna and his colleagues have detailed significant cultural differences in how overconfidence manifests.

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

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

Clash of the titans

What light can Strategic Instincts shed on global politics today? Johnson argues that the biggest question facing international relations may be rising tensions between the United States and China. Whilst the United States retains its hegemony in many spheres, Johnson implies that America’s dominance is quickly diminishing. If this trajectory continues, the implications are enormous. As stated by Johnson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

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

Article updated on the 27th July 2021.

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.

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.

Evolutionary Mismatch in the Workplace, with Mark van Vugt

Here’s a podcast episode I recorded with Mark van Vugt, for the This View of Life podcast.

Mark van Vugt and I discuss his book Mismatchcoauthored with Ronald Giphart. We then delve into the science of evolutionary mismatches, and how this knowledge can help us understand human behaviour in modern settings, such as the workplace.

We recorded this episode on December 23rd, 2019.

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.

Implications

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)