Explaining some of the key points about innovation in the collective brain based on Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2016). Innovation in the Collective Brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1690). [Read More] [Download]
Talk describing the Database of Religious History (DRH) at the 2014 SSHRC Impact Awards in Ottawa, Ontario. [Read More]
Animation describing the vision of the Database of Religious History (DRH). Winner of the 2014 SSHRC Storytellers Competition. [Read More]
Explaining research on how “Sociality influences cultural complexity” to Philip Till at CKNW based on from Muthukrishna, M., Shulman, B. W., Vasilescu, V., & Henrich, J. (2013). Sociality influences cultural complexity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1774). [Read More] [Download]
Graphic produced by LILA, Harvard based on my talk “Sources of Innovation: The Secret of Human Success”. [Read More]
Graphic produced by LILA, Harvard based on my talk “Sources of Innovation: The Secret of Human Success”. [Read More]
Relationship between sociality (number of speakers) and language efficiency from Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2016). Innovation in the Collective Brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1690). [Read More] [Download]
Experiment 2 showing difference between access to models on cultural loss and cultural complexity equlibrium from Muthukrishna, M., Shulman, B. W., Vasilescu, V., & Henrich, J. (2013). Sociality influences cultural complexity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1774). [Read More] [Download]
When less is best
“Corruption is actually a form of cooperation rooted in our history, and easier to explain than a functioning, modern state. Modern states represent an unprecedented scale of cooperation that is always under threat by smaller scales of cooperation. What we call ‘corruption’ is a smaller scale of cooperation undermining a larger-scale,” Dr Muthukrishna says.EXPAND
One of the smallest scales of cooperation is the family. “It’s perfectly natural to want to help and protect your family members—it’s something we share with other animals.”
“Evolutionary biological theories of kin selection or inclusive fitness do a good job explaining why we love our families and why every animal tends to favour other animals who share more of their genes,” Dr Muthukrishna says.
“This means it’s easy for family bonds to be prioritised over the needs of the state. It is no coincidence that places that have a family-oriented culture also have high levels of nepotism,” he adds.
A slightly larger scale of cooperation is cooperation between friends. “Theories of direct reciprocity—you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours—can explain friendship. But when a manager gives a job to his buddy rather than to someone who could do the job better, this is corruption. It happens a lot, and it undermines the more efficient meritocracy,” Dr Muthukrishna explains.
To deter cooperation at the levels of friends and family from undermining large-scale, diverse and anonymous societies, the resources and economic opportunities of the state are helpful. But governments often lack the resources to police an entire population, so norms that make corruption socially unacceptable can also support cooperation at the level of the state.
“Alongside strong institutions like the judiciary and the police, there also needs to be a social stigma associated with corruption. The shame of being exposed for receiving bribes or evading tax scares people into not doing it,” Dr Muthukrishna says.
“The evolution of this cultural norm depends on economic opportunities that exist for cooperating at a state-level, or whether citizens have to rely on friends and family to get by,” he adds.
Corruption is present in both rich and poor countries and may even be larger, in an absolute sense, in richer countries. But its costs are felt more in poor countries, where governments do not have the capacity to sustain large-scale cooperation. In poor countries, corruption can mean the difference between one hospital or no hospitals, rather than 33 instead of 30 hospitals.
“The question in poor countries is not whether you should take a bribe, but how much money you should take. This is because there are many fewer ways of legitimately making money in these places,” Dr Muthukrishna says.
A common remedy proposed to tackle corruption in poor countries is transparency. In theory, shining a light into the corners of government and society makes the public aware of what is going on and should decrease the type of cooperation that undermines the state.
Dr Muthukrishna conducted experiments to replicate the effects of bribery and test the impact of transparency. He asked 194 participants to play an economic game that simulated the trade-off between cooperation and corruption.
The experiment tested how different levels of transparency affected behaviour in different situations, varying economic opportunities and state resources to tackle corruption.
Dr Muthukrishna’s findings showed that transparency only reduces corruption if economic opportunities exist or the state is strong and wealthy enough to punish individuals who break the law. If neither of these criteria is met, transparency is ineffective—or can make things worse.
“In poorer countries, transparency can reinforce the norm that most people are engaging in corrupt behaviours. These range from little behaviours like using your connections to get your visa more quickly, to large behaviours like giving government contracts to your friends and relatives,” Dr Muthukrishna says.
“In these cases, transparency not only reveals that corruption is the normal behaviour, but solves a different problem. It’s not a question of ‘should I bribe’—transparency reveals the price of the bribe,” he adds. This insight may help explain why transparency seems to work well in wealthy western nations, but has failed in many developing nations.
The debate over how to eradicate corruption tends to focus on a familiar set of remedies. Dr Muthukrishna’s research suggests that what is effective in the West may not be the silver bullet that works elsewhere and may, in fact, backfire.
Behind the article
Winners of 2016 CGS/ProQuest® Distinguished Dissertation Awards Announced
WASHINGTON, DC, December 8, 2016 – The Council of Graduate Schools / ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Awards, the nation’s most prestigious honors for doctoral dissertations, were presented to Scott Cushing and Michael Muthukrishna at an awards ceremony during the Council’s 56th Annual Meeting. Dr. Cushing completed his PhD in 2015 at West Virginia University in Physics, and Dr. Muthukrishna received his PhD in 2015 from the University of British Columbia in Psychology.EXPAND
Bestowed annually since 1982, the awards recognize recent doctoral recipients who have already made unusually significant and original contributions to their fields. ProQuest, an international leader in dissertation archiving, discovery, and access, sponsors the awards and an independent committee from the Council of Graduate Schools selects the winners. Two awards are given each year, rotating among four general areas of scholarship. The winners receive a certificate, a $2,000 honorarium, and funds for travel to the awards ceremony.
“The Distinguished Dissertation Awards demonstrate the dramatic impact young scholars have on their fields,” said CGS President Suzanne T. Ortega. “It’s a testament to the vitality and value of graduate education when recently minted PhDs contribute and expand upon knowledge to raise the level of understanding in their fields.”
Austin McLean, Director, ProQuest Scholarly Communication and Dissertations Publishing said, “ProQuest is passionate about the impact dissertations make in advancing both research and learning through their fresh insights and innovative thinking. Dr. Cushing and Dr. Muthukrishna have produced works that will be of tremendous value for generations to come. We’re very proud to partner with CGS in honoring them.”
The 2016 Award in Mathematics, Physical Sciences, and Engineering was presented to Dr. Cushing for his dissertation, Plasmonic Enhancement Mechanisms in Solar Energy Harvesting. Plasmonics, the study of the interaction between electromagnetic field and free electrons in a metal, appear to offer advancement in the efficiencies of solar energy conversion. Cushing’s thesis investigates why plasmonics rarely appear in top performing solar architectures given their potential. Using his findings, Cushing developed a theoretical framework to optimize the application of plasmonics in solar energy conversion. Cushing notes that, “Based on this framework, several top performing solar-to-fuel devices were created which use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Additionally, the developed plasmonics technology is being incorporated into a commercial photovoltaic panel for turning sunlight into electricity.” Dr. Cushing is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Leone Group at the University of California, Berkeley.
Dr. Muthukrishna received the 2016 Award in Social Sciences for his dissertation, The Cultural Brain Hypothesis and the Transmission and Evolution of Culture. His project introduced two theories: the Cultural Brain Hypothesis and the Cumulative Cultural Brain Hypothesis. The first theory “explains the increase in brain size across taxonomic groups. In doing so, the theory makes predications about the relationships between brain size, knowledge, group size, social learning, and the length of the juvenile period, which are consistent with existing empirical literature.” The second theory, Cumulative Cultural Brain Hypothesis, makes predications about the conditions under which these evolutionary processes lead to a positive feedback loop between brain size and knowledge. Muthukrishna argues that these conditions are the key to what makes the human pathway unique and explains various aspects of our psychology and our large brains. Dr. Muthukrishna is currently an assistant professor of economic psychology at the London School of Economics.
Our collective genius and why we are all getting smarter
New ideas and technologies are not the product of a few far-sighted geniuses but arise through societies and social networks acting as ‘collective brains’, says new research from LSE and Harvard University.
The paper, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, argues that, over evolutionary time, individuals who mimicked other successful individuals – eating the foods they ate or hunting with the tools they used, for example – became successful themselves without necessarily understanding why. Over time, innovations emerged through the mixing of ideas, serendipity and incremental improvement. These accumulated over generations and were similarly passed on as ‘cultural knowledge’ leading to the complex world we live in today.EXPAND
Dr Michael Muthukrishna, assistant professor at LSE and lead author of the research, explains: “The processes of cumulative cultural evolution allow technologies and techniques to emerge, which no single individual could create on their own – because human brains, in isolation, aren’t actually all that smart.
“We can see this process at work when two people have the same apparently innovative idea at the same time – such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace with the theory of natural selection. Rather than being heroic geniuses, Darwin and Wallace were in the same ‘cultural milieu’, both reading the same books and both travelling to biologically diverse island environments.”
While individual abilities vary, collective brains make each brain within it cleverer. The theory helps explain why there have been dramatic increases in IQ test scores over time.
Dr Muthukrishna, and his co-author, Professor Joseph Henrich from Harvard University, argue that the rate of innovation in a society is heavily influenced by:
- Sociality Larger, more interconnected societies – where individuals are able to mix with people with diverse backgrounds – mean that more ideas are likely to emerge and interact with other ideas
- Transmission fidelity Mechanisms such as books, formal schooling and online courses, allow existing knowledge to be transmitted accurately so it can be ‘built upon’
- Tolerance for deviation Societies which lower the risk for people trying something new help promote innovation. This includes having bankruptcy laws and good social safety nets which allow people to recover in the event of failure. Most entrepreneurs fail, but the few that do succeed cover the costs of supporting the rest.
Dr Muthukrishna explains: “To be an innovator, it’s better to be social rather than smart. There’s no doubt that there are variations in people’s raw skills, but what predicts the difference between a Steve Jobs and a Joe Bloggs is actually their exposure to new ideas that are wonderful and different.
“If you want to be more creative the best thing you can do is to talk to people who disagree with you.”
The researchers present a new evolutionary model of cultural evolution and connect it to research on innovation and intelligence. They conducted an original statistical analysis showing that the processes underlying innovation have also shaped innovations within languages.
Majority rule: why conformity can actually be a good thing
Like to go your own way? Most of us actually prefer to follow the pack, according to UBC research.
That’s one of the outcomes from a study published in Evolution and Human Behavior that examines how mathematical models predict human behaviour.
The research tested theories about when people should rely on “social information” – information that we learn vicariously from others – and when we should choose to go it alone.
“People are conformist – and that’s a good thing for cultural evolution,” said Michael Muthukrishna, a Vanier and Liu Scholar and recent PhD recipient from UBC’s department of psychology. “By being conformist, we copy the things that are popular in the world. And those things are often good and useful.”EXPAND
For example, most people don’t understand how germs can cause disease – but they know they should wash their hands after using the bathroom. “Our whole world is made up of things that we do that are good for us, but we don’t know why,” said Muthukrishna. “And we don’t need to know why. We just need to know that most people do those things.”
The research also found that people with higher IQs don’t follow the pack as much as others – but when they do, they do so more strategically. In other words, smarter people tend to take their own path most of the time, because they think they have the correct answer. When they’re unsure, however, they are more willing than those with average IQs to follow the majority.
In addition, the more diversity there is in behaviour, the more likely people are to copy the majority. As the number of available options increases, this creates more uncertainty – and in such circumstances, a majority sends an even stronger signal.
“These mathematical theories and experiments contribute to a greater understanding of what it is that makes our species so unique – culture,” said Muthukrishna. “Our smarts are acquired, not hardwired.”
The study, “The when and who of social learning and conformist transmission,” is published in Evolution and Human Behavior. Muthukrishna’s co-authors are Thomas Morgan from the University of California, Berkeley and Joseph Henrich from UBC and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
The study involved 101 participants, recruited from the UBC student population and the general population. They took part in two experiments; both involved a perceptual task comparing differing amounts of lines, with the purpose of identifying the longest line. In both experiments, participants were made aware of others’ choices; the second experiment also featured random computer-generated answers. Both experiments included pay incentives, which were based on performance.