Tag: Evolutionary psychology

Employee Health from an Evolutionary Perspective

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

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

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

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

Evolutionary Psychology and Employees in Modern Organisations

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

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

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

Social Status

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

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

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

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

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

Workload

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

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

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

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

An Organising Framework

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

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

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

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

Practical Implications 

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business 

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

References & Recommended Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Exhibit A:

 

So what is the source of our ecological dominance?

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

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

IMG_2187.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following passage hammers the point home:

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

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

Can this help us build stuff?

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

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

Written by Max Beilby

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

*Post updated 1st April 2016

 

References:

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

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

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