Tag: trust

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 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.

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.

Drunk, by Edward Slingerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by Slingerland:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

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

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