Evolutionary psychology

Thank Grandma



We're all the men and women our grandmothers wanted. More than they (or we) ever expected.

Three recent books spell it out.

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind reveals the inherited gut feelings that undergird our moral systems. And he shows how difficult it is to bridge the differences that result, especially in religion or politics. 

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow distills 50 years of psychological research into a lucid explanation of how our decision-making is shaped, and sometimes dominated, by "cognitive illusions" passed down from generation to generation.

E. O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth refashions the story of evolution to show how group selection is the driving force of human development.

Taken together, all three authors credit our common Grandma 8,000 or so generations removed for making us who we are. Grandpa played a role too, of course, but even he had a grandmother who anthropologists are pretty sure got the evolutionary cart rolling.

When she and her sisters dropped from the trees and began walking across the savannah, survival favored those who were disgusted by rotting meat and excrement. Those who weren't gorged themselves, got sick, and died.

Similarly, those who ran from snakes in the underbrush lived longer than those who decided to hang around to get a closer look.

Those who had a natural ability to work in groups brought down bigger game than the loners who set off on their own. Freeloaders and bullies were tossed out to fend for themselves.

A natural sense of fairness and an aversion to causing harm to group members contributed to the group's survival. As did an instinctual hostility towards strangers who could threaten the group or steal resources.

Offspring born with such instincts survived and passed them on to later generations, all the way down to us. 

Some scientists believe that much of our behavior and most of our beliefs are the product of unconscious biases, inclinations, and instincts inherited from our evolutionary Grandma.

They are the fabric of our moral beliefs, the engine of our thinking, and the framework of our relationships. They were adaptations to the environment in Africa 140,000 to 200,000 years ago, even before the development of language.

And they did such a good job for Grandma and her offspring that they endure to this day.

Better smart than right

Tesla-model-s-front-three-quarter-11Elon Musk is a smart guy.

He can do math. And by his count, despite the current brouhaha, his electric car is safer than the typical gasoline-engine car.

His math: a gasoline car goes up in flames for every 20 million miles driven.  But so far his Tesla Model S cars have had only one fire per 100 million miles. And one of those fires happened after a drunk driver jumped the curb, took out several feet of concrete wall, and then hit a tree. Any car would have burst into flame after that. (No one has been hurt in any of the fires.)

Nevertheless, after initially trying to defend his electric cars with data, Musk is taking a smarter approach:

  • He expanded the car's warranty to cover all fires (even those caused by drivers).
  • He rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension to give the car greater ground clearance at highway speeds, reducing the chances of underbody impact damage. A January update will give drivers even greater control over ground clearance.
  • And he's invited the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct a full investigation into the fires, pledging to make any changes they recommend to improve fire safety both in new cars and as a free retrofit to all existing cars.

As I said, he's a smart guy. He understands that his customers' trust is a product of both logic and emotion. He can address people's logical cognitive processes with data, but as Daniel Kahneman and others have noted, that part of our brain is slow, costly, and lazy. 

The faster, cheaper, and far more compelling part of our brain doesn't respond to facts and figures. It runs on memories, associations, and feelings. It's subject to all kinds of illusions and faulty rules of thumb. But it usually gets the job done while the more logical part of our brain is still trying to get in gear, espcially if there's any risk involved.

So Musk is almost certainly right -- based solely on their power source, electric cars are inherently safer than gasoline cars. But he'd be wrong to depend only on that fact to win his case.

It's always better to be smart than right.

Columbo on the case

ColumnoInteresting stuff I picked up in my morning reading. Though it might take Columbo to figure out the significance of some of it.

Men with small testicles are more likely to be caring fathers. It seems that testicle size is a function of sperm production, which requires a lot of energy. So men face a trade-off between investing energy in parenting and investing energy in mating effort, according to the Emory University anthropologist who co-authored the article in the journal Neuropsychologia.

There are four ways one spouse can embarrass another, but only one requires marriage counseling.  The most simple is "empathetic" when one spouse feels the other's embarrassment at doing something like knocking over a glass of wine. The second is "relective" when one spouse does something the other finds humiliating, like speaking loudly during a theater performance. "One-sided" is when your spouse does something like break-dancing at a wedding but isn't the least bit embarrassed. And finally "targeted" embarrassment is when your spouse directly embarrasses you, whether intentionally or not, by revealing something intimate or private about you. Sometimes the embarrassment caused by these actions is all in your head, according to the Wall Street Journal. But guess which one could require marriage counseling. (You don't have to be Columbo to figure this one out.)

Also in the Journal, the worse time to brush your teeth is immediately after eating. Apparently, eating increases the acidity of your mouth demineralizes your teeth making them more susceptible to abrasion and decay. Chewing cheese, on the other hand, will make you salivate lowering the acidity in your mouth. So I guess you should end every meal with a foot or two of string cheese.

Finally, eating fruit can improve your health, but some fruit is better than others. Topping the list: blueberries. According to a study reported in the New York Times, eating one to three servings of blueberries a month decreases the risk of diabetes by about 11%, and having five servings a week reduces it by 26%. My wife says she's known about this for years. She may even have told me about it.

I'll stop now so you can all head to the supermarket.





Little bigots

BabyTonight, "60 Minutes" explored the minds of babies as young as three months old.

In a series of ingenious experiments at Yale's "Baby Lab," researchers have uncovered instinctual behavior that ranges from the admirable (a basic sense of fairness) to the deplorable (prejudice).  You can see the segment here.  

What was especially interesting from the perspective of OtherWise, is compelling evidence that being wary of people who are different seems to be hardwired into us. Even babies categorize people into camps of "us" and "them." And they do it based on the most arbitrary characteristics.  (For example, whether someone likes the same treats we like.)  

Not only are we predisposed to break the world up into groups, we also like people who are different to be punished for their differences.

The good news is that these nasty tendencies can be tempered by society and education. And, in fact, the researchers have demonstrated that many of these biases lessen or even disappear by the time most kids are 8 or 8.

The bad news is that we often regress to our natural self when we're under pressure.



Smartphone addiction

Smarphone-addictionMy wife and I were in a hotel bar recently, enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail and having a conversation driven largely by people-watching.

A well-dressed couple came in. They sat at the adjacent table and, after ordering drinks, whipped out their respective smartphones. Then they spent the rest of the time we were there clicking away.

Now, it could be that they were texting each other. But I suspect what we were witnessing was an example of information addiction.

Scientists have discovered that dopamine -- the chemical released when we have sex or eat -- is also excreted when we are stimulated in other ways. Like hearing the ping of an incoming text message or finding email in our inbox.  

Frank Partnoy, writing in the New York Times, puts it all in context. "E-mail, social media and the 24-hour news cycle are informational amphetamines," he writes, "a cocktail of pills that we pop at an increasingly fast pace — and that lead us to make mistaken split-second decisions."  

Despite Malcolm Gladwell's panegyric for thinking by blinking, economists label the problem “present bias.” Fast, salient stimulation has an out-sized -- and sometimes deleterious -- effect on our judgment. 

The release of dopamine in sex and eating was an evolutionary adaptation that ensured our survival as a species. Unfortunately, many other kinds of addictive behavior can also stimulate its release. Video games, for example, or checking email.

So think about that the next time your smartphone pings.


The Fairness Trap

Slice-of-pieI've been out of the country and am just now catching up on my reading.

One of the pieces I missed is James 's New Yorker column, "The Fairness Trap."  In less than 1,000 words, he explains how our instinctual need for "fairness" is so strong we'll actually sacrifice our well-being to achieve it. 

Dozens of experiments have demonstrated that people will walk away from an offer of free money if they think the offer is unfair even though they would be better off if they simply accepted it.

I put "fairness" in quotation marks because other experiments have shown that our concept of what is fair and unfair is often self-serving, especially when it involves people we don't consider part of our immediate community, i.e., the "other." 

Evolutionary psychologists speculate that this lop-sided sense of fairness was critical to keeping pre-historic clans together and punishing freeloaders. Ironically, as Surweiki suggests, these days it may be making it more difficult to solve political and economic problems that have no perfectly good solutions, only "less bad" ones.



OtherWise Home Page

Everybody and everything has a home page these days.

Otherwise Home Page.001

My new book, due out in June but available now for preorder on Amazon and Barnes & Noble is no exception.

Thanks to my friend Michael Kwan, OtherWise has a home page. You can reach it at www.Othrws.com.

Once there, you'll find an overview of the book, some excerpts, a discussion guide, and a couple of surprises.

Many thanks to Michael and to another friend, Jonathan Struthers, who introduced me to him. Comments and suggestions, as always, are welcome.Signature

Let's be less crazy

UncrazySustaining an optimistic note for the new year, let's consider some remedies for my oft'-cited finding that people are crazy.

We are, but we don't have to wallow in the craziness of the cognitive errors that are the legacy of our stone-aged brains.

If someone disagrees with us, instead of looking for evidence that our view is correct, why not look for evidence contrary to what we believe? It might be a bit uncomfortable, but it could lead to more accurate information.

When someone sends us email that is too good to be true in terms of proving a long-held belief, why not check it out on Snopes.com or FactCheck.org before forwarding it to someone else? It could kill a delicious bit of gossip, but YouTube videos of some kid trying to skate board on a two-story railing can be entertaining too.

If someone pontificates on an issue we know little about (except what our political leanings would suggest is the correct position), why not ask questions instead of taking sides? A couple of good questions to ask: what do people on the other side of the issue say? Why do they say that?

If we have a favorite right- or left-wing columnist, why not try reading someone on the other side of the political fence once in a while?  NPR often teams David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, and they almost always manage to be informative and entertaining without resorting to name-calling, insults, or sarcasm.   

Finally, why not adopt as a motto the sign posted in many of those Republican caucus rooms last night?  "Good manners are practiced here."



Cognitive illusions

Daniel Kahneman dedicated his career to understanding how we make decisions.

The theme of his new book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is that many of our judgments and decisions are less the result of careful thought as the product of unconscious bias and intuitive feeling.

We all suffer "cognitive illusions," the rational equivalent of optical illusions. Thinking-fast-and-slow-9780374275631-daniel-kahneman-books-clip

Kahneman unearthed so many insights on the source and consequences of those illusions that he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002. 

 He believes that people's brains have two separate systems for organizing knowledge.

System One is blazingly fast and probably evolved so our prehistoric ancestors could survive in a world of hungry predators. It allowed them to react to shadows in the bush quickly enough to stay one step ahead of venemous snakes and saber-tooth tigers.

We call those quick judgments based on limited and fragmentary information "intuition." They allow us to act without waiting for our conscious awareness to catch up.

System One works because it has immediate access to a vast store of memories and impressions, especially those tied to emotions like fear, pain, and hatred. It's often wrong, but in the jungle it's safer to be wrong and quick than right and slow.

System Two is the slow process of forming judgments based on conscious tought and the critical examination of evidence. Kahneman believes System Two was probably a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation, arising from the need for prehistoric tribes to make plans and coordinate activities.

In theory, System Two allows us to evaluate System One's conclusions, correcting and revising them.  Unfortunately, it uses more calories and is more time-consuming. It's hard work. So we're less likely to use it. And even when we do, it's not immune to illusions.

A long litany of cognitive illusions afflict it, from “availability bias” (judgment based on memories that just happen to be quickly available or have strong emotional content) to "zero risk bias" (a preference to reduce a small risk to zero rather than attempting a smaller reduction in a bigger risk).

The problem is that System Two seldom operates independently of System One, which is faster and has greater emotional content. And as Kahneman ruefully points out, simply knowing of the existence of cognitive illusions doesn't free us from their effects.  

For example, if you got this far, you've now read 391 words on the subject. What is pictured in the following photo?


That's right -- two eggs. But some people can be tricked into thinking the photo pictures something else as Systems One and Two battle furiously within their brains.

Keep that in mind the next time you're dealing with other people, especially if you're arguing over a contentious issue.

Neither of you is really listening and evaluating the available data. You're probably operating off a whole host of cognitive illusions.  


Play ball

Caveman Although I hail from a state of sports fanatics, I have never followed the local teams' exploits. 

Now I learn that I am apparently out of step from an evolutionary point of view.  (No comments necessary.) 

According to an article in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, following sports teams is the "by-product of an evolved coalitional psychology." 

In other words, rooting for the Red Sox and hating the Yankees is what's left of the set of skills required to get the Cro-Magnon in the next cave to help you steal a mate from the guys on the other side of the river. 

In fact, the psychology is so deeply set that sports fans behave as if they were actual members of the team they're following. So it isn't enough for them to love the Red Sox and hate the Yankees, they have to hate anyone whose affections go the other way. 

Sadly, these days, that evolved coalitional psychology applies to politics as much as to sports. So maybe I'm not missing too much after all.

Our thinking bodies

Popup Embodied cognition is a hot new field that considers how abstract concepts like "power," "time," and "goodness" are processed not just in our brains, but also by our bodies.

The findings have broad implications for all forms of communications and marketing. For example, a study at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, showed that whether someone's photo is positioned at the top of a screen or at the bottom affects how powerful and attractive he or she is perceived to be by the opposite sex.

When people think of power differences, they literally think of spatial differences too. Powerful people are thought to be those who stay "at the top," while the less powerful are "below."

In the Gettysburg study, men were 1.8 times more likely to find the same woman attractive if her photo appeared at the bottom of the screen rather than at the top. Women were 1.5 times more likely to find men attractive if their photo appeared at the top. This may help explain why CEOs ten to be tall and why wives are taller than their husbands in only one out of 750 married couples.

The New York Times reports on a study in the journal Psychological Science that shows that people actually lean forward when thinking of the future and lean back when pondering the past.

Others have discovered that the smell of Windex can prompt people to donate more to charity.  (No, Windex didn't sponsor the study.  You can read it here.)  Books we are told are "important" seem to weigh more than other books of the same size.

It seems that our figurative language (e.g., "the stain of sin") has roots in the way our body actually processes information.

Thinking about language

Chim 2 Language and human sexual practices are apparently related in ways we've never imagined. 

It seems that the way humans mate is fairly unusual among primates.  No, not the missionary position, but the fact that we don't couple randomly with each other, as bonobos do.  

Anthropologists call this "a system that minimizes competition between sperm." In other words, human females usually only mate with one male at a time so his sperm don't have to compete with someone else's on the way to her eggs.  

Anthropologists see evidence of this difference in the recent decoding of human and chimp genomes.  Many anthropologists believe that the development of language was a necessary component to the way we organize ourselves sexually. Grunts and body displays just couldn't cut it. 

Chris Knight has shown that language could never develop in the standard ape social structure where males contribute very little to survival, fight among themselves and take whatever females they want.  

Come to think of it, that may explain the current devolution of language in some quarters.  For more, go here.

Scott Brown's truck

Scott Brown Jonah Lehrer may have figured out why so many powerful people seem to act so hypocritically. 

In his excellent blog, "The Frontal Cortex," he suggests it may be because "power makes us less sensitive to the needs and feelings of others - it silences our empathy - and so we only think about our own motivations and needs." 

Social scientists have long suspected that our  our sense of fairness is rooted in feelings of empathy. (I personally think it's the other way around, but in any case, it seems logical that people who are isolated from others because of their "special status" would be less able to put themselves in their place.)  

Seen that way, Scott Brown's pickup is a graphic way to signal that he has the same tastes and interests as his constituents. And it may also explain why President Obama tends to drop his "g's" when speaking at large rallies, even if they're on his teleprompter. 

Priced to sell

Priceless Priceless: The Myth Of Fair Value (And How To Take Advantage Of It) is William Poundstone's eleventh nonfiction book and a prime example of two trends we will hear and read a lot more about in business circles -- evolutionary psychology and neurobiology. 

We may all think that we're rational beings, but the truth is that we are the products of evolutionary forces that prepared us for a very different environment.  In fact, many of our daily decisions are made at levels below our conscious awareness but in full view of a functional magnetic resonance machine.  

I've been gathering material for a new book on these subjects and will report examples in this space over the coming months. Many of the latest findings have significant implications for (and applications in) marketing, finance, human resources and every other business function.  Not to mention day-to-day life, as Poundstone demonstrates even on his book jacket, which is cleverly designed to incorporate a price tag.  The book's original price is listed there as $599.99.  In fact, it really sells for about $27, which seems like a steal thanks to the "anchoring effect" Poundstone describes so effectively in the book itself.

Darwinian Branding

Chimp in pinstripes

There's an interesting discussion about
Maslow's Hierarchy going on at Nigel Hollis' blog.  Hollis is chief global analyst for the Millard Brown research firm, and he always has something interesting to say about brands and social trends. 

In his latest post, he kicked off a discussion about the branding implications of Maslow's insight.  In short (and this doesn't do his argument justice), Hollis thinks the future of brands may lie in moving up Maslow's Hierarchy from physiological needs (e.g., food and sleep) to the more transcendent (e.g., self-actualization).  

As my contribution to the discussion, I pointed out that Maslow, who posited his theory in 1943, might have taken a different approach had he had the benefit of recent discoveries in evolutionary psychology.  It seems that the so-called "hierarchy of needs" is not as linear as it first appears. For example, it may be that the need to create shared meaning (which branding trades on) lies not in the upper levels of the hierarchy, but at its base.  It could be as basic and necessary as food and shelter.  

I suggested that every brand would benefit by finding the Darwinian roots of its promise -- i.e., how it contributes to survival, reproduction and kinship. Nigel generously expanded on the point by suggesting that, whatever needs a brand addresses, the key is to differentiate itself. "Higher order needs are simply an additional means of differentiation," he observes.   

The Hardwired Life


Lisa Belkin explores our fascination with the sexual wanderings of public officials in this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine

My interest was piqued, not for the obvious voyeuristic reasons, but because she ties it all to evolution, with appropriate skepticism.   I’m studying the evolutionary basis of human behavior for a possible new book. Knowing what’s hard-wired might help people manage large organizations, get along with their bosses, figure out their customers, etc.

Belkin points out that scientific studies say women are more threatened by a man falling emotionally for another woman than if they simply bought sex from a prostitute.  Some scientists suggest that’s part of evolution. A man straying emotionally increases the likelihood that he will take his support and protection elsewhere.  

By the logic of evolution, Silda Spitzer should not have been as pissed off as Jenny Sanford.  All NY’s governor wanted was to pay for mindless sex with his socks on.  South Carolina’s governor wanted to dance under an Argentine moon with his new “soul mate.”

My tentative conclusion is that our hardwiring is constantly being reknit.  Evolution didn’t stop when we got off all fours.  For example, my wife asked her book club members what they would find more threatening – if their husband had sex with a prostitute or with a close friend.  

That particular question had something to do with the book they were discussing, but what’s really interesting to me were the responses.  They were nearly unanimous in saying sex with a prostitute would be more threatening.  That's not what the evolutionary scientists would have predicted.  It seems that concerns about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases trumped whatever primitive survival instincts were still knocking around in their unconscious. And hubby played a lesser role in their own concept of what it takes to survive.  

By the way, I posed the same question to my book club.  The men were almost unanimous in claiming they would be more threatened if their wife had sex with a close friend than with some nameless gigolo.  My guess is that modern contraceptives and DNA testing have diminished the evolutionary threat of investing in the care of a child who might be someone else’s.  The nature of the marriage relationship itself has evolved beyond a focus on popping out babies -- paradoxically, even more for men than women.