This View of Life magazine helps to demonstrate the value of an evolutionary perspective for many areas of society, including healthcare, sustainability, and education. Surprisingly, a domain that has yet to embrace evolutionary thinking is that of business and management.
True, metaphors and phrases such as “survival of the fittest”, “creative destruction”, and “firm selection” have been tossed around for decades, suggesting that evolutionary forces are at work in the business world. However, these analogies don’t even begin to appreciate the complexity of business social environments or the forces of genetic and cultural evolution that shape the behaviors of all people, in and out of the workplace. Rethinking business and management from an evolutionary perspective can have profound implications at all scales, from the wellbeing of individual employees, to the performance of firms, to the creation of a sustainable global economy.
To catalyze this process, we’ve initiated a series of articles and interviews titled: “This View of Business: How Evolutionary Thinking Can Transform the Workplace”. To inaugurate the series, we posed the following question to a number of evolutionary thought leaders: “What is the single greatest insight that an evolutionary perspective offers to business?” Their answers give a taste of what will be explored in greater detail in the rest of the series.
We hope that this effort will go a long way toward catalyzing reforms in business education and management development. We believe that evolutionary approaches should have a prominent role in the curriculum of Business Schools as well as in allied fields such as in Management and Organizational Sciences. Likewise, we think evolutionary insights will be valuable to business leaders and other professionals, providing a toolkit for navigating the world of business.
In our introduction, we ended with a note on the status of women in the business and management professions. We made a strong effort to include female commentators in our inaugural article but failed: First, because women are sadly in the minority among those who are thinking about business from an evolutionary perspective; and second, because those we asked were too busy—perhaps fulfilling other requests similar to ours! Luckily, in our case we will be able to correct the imbalance in future articles and interviews in the series and to address gender issues in the workplace from an evolutionary perspective.
In the aftermath of the notorious Google Memo, gender in the workplace has become engulfed in the culture wars. However, what does the scientific research actually say about sex and gender differences, and does evolutionary psychology challenge our notions of gender equality and fairness?
Diversity and inclusion
Diversity and inclusion has become a top priority for business leaders. However, what exactly do we mean by these terms, and how effective and reliable are initiatives such as unconscious bias training and the measurement of implicit bias?
Non-hierarchical organisational structures
With the growing prominence of the tech industry and the rise of start-ups, fundamental questions of how to manage groups are raised. Is the appeal of non-hierarchical organisation and dispersed leadership just a fad, or does this reflect something deeper about human nature and social organisation that is neglected in the traditional corporation?
How can evolutionary theory be applied to and influence the ways in which we research and practice human resource management (HRM)?
In No Best Way, Professor Stephen Colarelli notes that the theory of evolution has been the theoretical bedrock of the life sciences for well over a century, yet it is has only just begun making inroads into the fields of psychology and organizational theory. No Best Way is Colarelli’s attempt to improve Human Resource Management, through an appreciation of evolutionary science.
Colarelli penned No Best Way back in 2003, and from my limited research Colarelli was one of the first social scientists to apply evolutionary theory to management. I picked up No Best Way expecting the book to be somewhat dated and limited in its application. However I was pleasantly surprised by how advanced Colarelli’s thinking was, and the philosophical depth to which Colarelli delved to. The book also provides an excellent overview of the history of organisational psychology.
An oversimplification of Colarelli’s thesis is this: despite organisational psychologists’ best efforts, modern ‘mechanistic’ hiring methods are no better at predicting employee performance than traditional hiring methods. Additionally, Colarelli argues that modern hiring methods frequently go against the grain of human nature, which helps explain their low adoption rates in industry. That is, they go against our preference for face-to-face interactions and to form intuitive judgements of people’s character; our aversion to statistics and abstract information; and our propensity to learn behaviours with higher survival and reproductive value. To improve hiring and training, organisational psychologists must take into consideration our evolved psychological dispositions, embrace variation and complexity, and abandon Utopian visions of organisations and society.
Colarelli argues that the discrepancy between the conditions of our distant ancestral past and that of modern organisations have resulted in a evolutionarymismatch (p. 122, emphasis added):
“The industrial revolution and the cultural, social and technological changes that accompanied it occurred at astonishing speed. Many of the newly developed selection methods were attempts to adapt to those changes. Yet human nature changes considerably more slowly than culture and technology. Hence, it is not surprising that people still prefer hiring methods- face-to-face interaction, observation, and narrative- that rely on our primary psychological mechanisms. Similarly, the inevitable politics and conflicts of interest endemic in organizations worked against the ideal that tests and test scores would be used impartially and by the book. The introduction of mechanistic hiring methods resulted in a mismatch between these new methods and human nature. Humans had evolved to survive in hunter-gather groups during the Pleistocene, and their fundamental psychological makeup had not changed with the advent of modernity, which sprang in the evolutionary blink of an eye.”
Through the lens of cultural evolution, Colarelli suggests that many unscientific management practices which don’t achieve what they’re intended to may have been retained due to some higher adaptive function. For example, training days may not actually teach employees anything new. However, training days help employees bond and boosts morale, thus increasing team performance.
The ‘Marital Compatibility Test’
One of my favourite parts of No Best Way is Colarelli’s thought exercise for his organisational psychology students, who Colarelli claims were unanimously contemptuous of traditional hiring methods (p. xviii).
To counter this attitude, I began posing the following question to my graduate seminars when we studied employment tests:
Assume that a test has been developed to match couples’ interests, backgrounds, and marital compatibility. Studies have shown that couples who score high on Marital Compatibility Test also score, on average, higher on a measure of marital satisfaction. Would you be willing to forego traditional dating and courtship, and choose your spouse through the use of this standardized test?
Uniformly, their answer was “no”. They preferred to stick to traditional methods, but they were at loss to explain why.
Colarelli’s graduates students were apparently equally averse to the hypothetical ‘Baby-Sitting Aptitude Test’.
Would you marry someone using a Marital Compatibilty Test, or do you find this dehumanising?
Of course on a personal level, choosing a future spouse and people who will care for your children are higher stakes than hiring an employee. However, Colarelli argues these experiments illustrate our evolved psychological dispositions to evaluate people through face-to-face interaction (Buss, 1999). Colarelli implies our preference for face-to-face interactions helps explain the low adoption rates of various mechanistic hiring practices in industry.
Modern Methods No Better Than Traditional Methods
Colarelli cites a meta-analysis conducted by Schmidt and Hunter (1998) covering 19 hiring methods, which analysed 85 years of quantitative research on the validity of hiring methods for predicting job performance.
The result? The average validity of traditional hiring methods was marginally higher than that of mechanistic methods. Work sample tests, a traditional hiring method, had the highest validity of all methods, whereas general tests of mental ability and structured interviews had the highest validities of mechanistic methods. Hiring methods that involve face-to-face interaction have on average higher validity than those that do not.
I was genuinely surprised by these findings. Think of the amount of resources the public and private sectors spends on modern recruitment methods, such as the assessment centre, when they are apparently only as good as cheaper, simpler traditional methods. As stated by Hinrich; “It makes little sense to use a sledgehammer to swat a fly!” (1978, p. 600, quoted p. 145).
So, how do these validity estimates hold after 13 years of research?
Subsequent meta-analyses suggest higher validity estimates for general mental ability tests (Bertua, 2005; Schmitt & Hunter, 2005), and lower estimates for work sample tests (Roth, 2005). However, there has also been a reported decline in validity estimates for assessment centres over the past 40 years (Thornhill & Gibbons, 2009). Subsequent analysis also suggests lower validity estimates for structured interviews, with unstructured interviews actually performing better (Oh et al, 2013).
Notwithstanding these revised estimates, one would expect modern hiring methods to have higher validity.
Colarelli also emphasises the perverse effects of cognitive and personality tests, and highlights that differences in cognitive test scores do not correspond well with differences in job or academic performance (p. 220).
As stated by Colarelli; “[e]xceptional performance requires more than innate intelligence or talent. It is common knowledge, as well as firmly established in the research literature, that practice, training, motivation, exposure to role models, and focused goals have a substantial effect on a person’s abilities and demonstrated performance.” (p. 283).
A case in point: Martin Luther King Jr.
Colarelli notes that Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is widely deemed one of the most influential pieces of writing on civil rights ever written, and that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is regarded as one of the most brilliant speeches of the 20th century. Yet Martin Luther King scored in the bottom half of test-takers on the verbal portion of the Graduate Record Examination (p. 293).
As a dyslexic, I’ve witnessed the downsides of standardised cognitive tests first-hand.
I have taken numerous standardised cognitive tests for recruitment purposes, and I’ve only progressed to the next hiring phase for a grand total of one. (It is well known that having dyslexia skews cognitive test scores, which I largely attribute my poor performance on general mental ability tests to).
I initially took it personally, however I’ve now realised that organisations which rigidly implement cognitive tests in their selection process are making a mistake. Not only are general cognitive ability tests weak predictors of future performance, they also screen out talent from groups which historically haven’t tested well (such as various ethnic minority groups and the neurologically atypical).
Colarelli goes as far as to accuse organisational psychologists of hubris.
“The hubris of I/O psychologists about the merits of HRM interventions is unjustified for a specific reason: they have no historical record of tangible accomplishment. The historical record is not flattering to HRM, particularly in comparison with the historical record of other technologies developed recently. HRM achievements pale in comparison to technological achievements in transportation, communications, and medicine…” (p. xviii).
Arguably Colarelli is rather harsh in his critiques of organisational psychologists. Additionally, Colarelli notes that conventional organisational psychology is not necessarily in tension with evolutionary theory. Nonetheless Colarelli’s evolutionary perspective on hiring and training is a valuable contribution to the field.
Lessons from an Evolutionary Perspective
What should organisational psychologists and human resource managers take away from No Best Way?
Piecemeal social engineering: Embrace what Karl Popper termed ‘piecemeal social engineering’ (1996, quoted p. 73). That is, HRM interventions should be disengaged from grandiose ideals- from utopian visions of organisational, economic, and social progress. An argument against the pursuit of grandiose ideals does not mean that an evolutionary perspective is insensitive to human suffering. Alleviating particular problems is a workable alternative (p. 72).
Increase variation: A Key argument in No Best Way is that one of the most important priorities from an evolutionary perspective is the cultivation of variation. Variation has a positive influence on the viability of a system. In contrast to the mechanistic perspective which seeks to reduce variation so that an organisation can be moved to an envisioned ideal, the evolutionary perspective suggests the importance of enhancing variation. “We cannot predict the future, but variation buys us insurance. Variation improves the probability that within its broad repertoire, an organization will have the resources to cope with uncertain futures” (pp. 70-71).
Random selection above a threshold: For organisations where standardised recruitment processes are necessary, Colarelli suggests randomly selecting individuals from a pool of qualified applicants (p. 225). It deals effectively with enhancing diversity and acquiring talent. Beyond this, Colarelli argues it avoids inherent complications in making racial and ethnic categorisations; it is easy to understand and likely to be perceived as fair; and it is compatible with the organizational realities of complexity, self-interest and politics.
Drill and deliberate practice: Colarelli argues that much emphasis on technology which has dominated educational and industrial training has been misplaced. More important is something rather basic: practice (p. 290). Computers are not good at motivating people to practice, unfortunately. The critical components of effective practice are identifying skills and practising them in sustained, deliberative ways. But of course, practice isn’t sexy.
Train in groups: Frequently, psychologists and managers focus too much on the content of training, and neglect the importance of the means of training. For most of human history, people developed skills and abilities in small groups. One of the most important things one can do to promote learning is to create or join groups where people are engaged in the activity that interests them (p. 294).
Professor Stephen Colarelli is currently based at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Central St Michigan University.
Bertua, C., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2005). The predictive validity of cognitive ability tests: A UK meta‐analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(3), 387-409.
Buss, D. (1999) Evolutionary Psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon
Hinrichs, J. R. (1978). An eight-year follow-up of a management assessment center. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63(5), 596.
Oh, I. S., Postlethwaite, B. E., & Schmidt, F. L. (2013). Rethinking the Validity of Interviews for Employment Decision Making: Implications of Recent Developments in Meta-Analysis. Analysis, 297-329.
Popper, K. S. (1996). The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge.
Roth, P. L., Bobko, P., & McFARLAND, L. Y. N. N. (2005). A meta‐analysis of work sample test validity: updating and integrating some classic literature.Personnel Psychology, 58(4), 1009-1037.
Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J.E. (2004). General mental ability in the world of work: occupational attainment and job performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 86(1), 162.
Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological bulletin, 124(2), 262. Available here.
Thornton, G. C., & Gibbons, A. M. (2009). Validity of assessment centers for personnel selection. Human Resource Management Review, 19(3), 169-187.
What follows is an overview of Michael Price (Brunel University, London) and Dominic Johnson’s (Edinburgh University) ‘Adaptionist Theory of Cooperation in Groups’, as outlined in Gad Saad’s (2011) Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences.
To help explain organizational cooperation from an evolutionary perspective, Price and Johnson developed the ‘Adaptionist Theory of Cooperation in Groups’- abbreviated to ATCG.
The acronym has double meaning- any hardcore science nerds will note that ATCG is also the acronym of the four bases of DNA (adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine). The authors note this conveniently highlights the theory’s biological foundations.
The reasoning behind an evolutionary perspective of group cooperation is this; “Managers could more efficiently promote cooperation within their organizations if they had greater understanding of how evolution designed people to cooperate.” (p. 95)
The authors synthesised evolutionary research from an individual-level adaptationist perspective into a coherent theory of group cooperation. The basic premise is that people cooperate in groups to maximize their individual fitness (their ability to survive and reproduce).
ATCG takes into account ethnographic and archaeological evidence which suggests that in environments where humans evolved, cooperating in groups (whether for hunting, warfare, shelter construction, predator defence, etc) provided individuals benefits they could not have obtained by themselves. For example, group cooperation not only ensured more meat produce for less effort exerted compared to hunting alone, but also reduced the risk of starvation (as catches were pooled and distributed evenly among hunters).
The benefits of group cooperation transcend reciprocation from fellow cooperators (‘reciprocal altruism’). ATCG also implies the benefits of cooperation can involve much more than just a share of the first-order benefits, such as more meat. Price and Johnson note that cooperation also enhances individuals’ social status (‘competitive altruism’). For example, a skilled hunter would be highly valued by the group, which would attract many kinds of resources, which would thus make the hunter more attractive to females.
This is not just theoretical: field studies demonstrate that hunting skills is associated with social status and reproductive success in hunter gather societies (see Smith, 2004).
Group Cooperation in Organizations
Price and Johnson argue that modern organizations use these benefits to increase group cooperation:
“The method of motivating employees that is used in most organizations is to offer them social status in exchange for their help in producing the first-order resource. And just as in the ancestral past, higher status contributors – those on whom production most depends – attract greater economic compensation, in order to convince them to remain in the organization and to continue to contribute.” (p. 100)
Interestingly, the authors question whether cooperation is always a good thing. For example, the authors cite classic group decision making research which demonstrate that ‘nominal’ groups (aggregated ideas of individuals working alone) generate superior ideas than groups of interacting individuals.
A key issue regarding group cooperation is an ancient human dilemma: the free rider problem. Especially with larger groups, there is always the temptation of minimizing outputs whilst letting other group members do the hard work (also known as ‘slacking’).
In order to motivate employers to behave in group beneficial ways, Price and Johnson suggest allocating rewards fairly, and to allow employees to compete for these rewards by contributing in ways that most benefit the organization:
“If an employee makes a contribution that benefits the organization, for example by introducing a product improvement or new marketing strategy, a manager should never assume that the employee was selflessly motivated or is indifferent about being recognized and rewarded for this contribution, even if that employee modestly plays down the extent of his or her own contribution. If an employee does not receive some individual-level benefit that is commensurate with the value of his or her contribution, the employee will probably feel angry and exploited and lose motivation to cooperate…” (p. 105).
A key assumption of ATCG is that in order to cooperate adaptively, group members must ensure that their ‘benefit-to-contribution ratios’ are no smaller than those of co-members. In other words, that their efforts do not exceed that of fellow group members. If they do, these need to be compensated accordingly.
And here we get to the heart of the issue: the ‘frequency dependence’ of cooperation.
What is the best strategy for an individual is dependent on that of other group members: whether they are free-riding, reciprocating, or unconditionally cooperating.
In a population made up predominantly of free-riders, the superior strategy from an individual perspective is to avoid all free-riders and to identify and collaborate with fellow cooperators. If the population is dominated by reciprocators, it makes the most sense to unconditionally cooperate- as you get all the benefits of cooperation and also minimize the costs of verification and checking. However if the population is dominated by unconditional cooperators, the population is inevitably invaded by free-riders- because cheaters can exploit their over-trusting cooperativeness.
According to ATCG, there is such a thing as being too trusting.
You can also think of frequency-dependence as a game of paper, rock scissors. The successful strategy depends on the strategy pursued by others.
ATCG proposes many novel predictions, over and above traditional organizational psychology theories such as equity theory. For example, ATCG predicts is that individuals who have more to gain from engaging in competition will be relatively pro-equity, rather than pro-equality. Similarly, sex differences regarding cooperation are highlighted. As men usually gain more reproductive benefits from social status than women, ATCG acknowledges that males tend to have a greater desire to compete.
Male competitiveness is also a key driver of group cooperation. Mark Van Vugt and his colleagues’ experimental research demonstrated that males increased their in-group cooperation significantly in response to competition from rival groups, whereas females were relatively unaffected by this competition.
Group Cooperation ≠ Group Selection
What is noticeable is how dismissive the authors are about group selection. Price and Johnson argue that group selection theory adds no advantages or predictive power above individual-level selection. But is this true?
Biologist David Sloan Wilson and his colleagues managed to challenge several decades worth of research on group decision making by applying a group selection perspective to the subject matter. Contrary to conventional group decision making research suggesting that groups reach sub-optimal decisions as compared to that of individuals, DS Wilson’s innovative research illustrated that groups out-compete individuals when the complexity of the task increases- as would be expected from group selection (and common sense).
Noticeably, Price and Johnson didn’t cite this research.
More fundamentally, can the rise of empires, nation states and multinational corporations over the last 10,000 years be explained as by-products of reciprocal altruism? Probably not.
Think of the hundreds of millions of servicemen that died defending their country throughout history. Staring death in the face, did these soldiers really calculate their ‘benefit-to-contribution ratios’ of engaging in lethal combat?
Arguably ‘pure altruism’ does exist, although it is probably a slither of humanity. As Jonathan Haidt states in The Righteous Mind, wehumans are ‘90% chimp and 10% bee’.
There are infrequent but highly impactful situations where individuals will sacrifice their welfare for the benefit of the group, and new research suggests when and why this happens: when a society faces an existential threat from a rival group.
Of course, this is in the context of group survival and military combat. Organizations such as corporations are unlikely to elicit such altruistic behaviour.
One can envision a ‘Multilevel Adaptionist Theory of Cooperation in Groups’, which incorporates these diverse findings into a coherent theory.
Written by Max Beilby
Click here to buy a copy of Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences.
Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.
Smith, E. A. (2004). Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success?. Human Nature, 15(4), 343-364.
Turchin, P. (2015). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books
Van Vugt, M., & Ahuja, A. (2011). Naturally selected: The evolutionary science of leadership. HarperBusiness.
Van Vugt, M., De Cremer, D., & Janssen, D. P. (2007). Gender differences in cooperation and competition: the Male-Warrior hypothesis. Psychological science, 18(1), 19-23.
Wilson, D. S., Timmel, J. J., & Miller, R. R. (2004). Cognitive cooperation. Human Nature, 15(3), 225-250.
Wilson, D. S., Van Vugt, M., & O’Gorman, R. (2008). Multilevel selection theory and major evolutionary transitions: implications for psychological science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(1), 6-9.
A blog exploring business from an evolutionary perspective, by Max Beilby