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APS Rising Star Award

I am honored to be among this year’s Association for Psychological Science (APS) Rising Stars. Many thanks to my amazing mentors who have supported me over the years and continue to inspire me!

~$4.8 million John Templeton Foundation (JTF) grant for The Database of Religious History (DRH): Exploring the Cultural Evolution of Religion Employing a Large-Scale, Quantitative-Qualitative Historical Database

Ted Slingerland, M. Willis Monroe, and I were awarded a John Templeton Foundation grant for The Database of Religious History: “Exploring the Cultural Evolution of Religion Employing a Large-Scale, Quantitative-Qualitative Historical Database” ($4,792,151). The grant will take us through to 2023.

We will be hiring several new postdocs to expand the time depth, geographic range, and domains of data collection efforts. If you notice your area of expertise missing from our dataset, please reach out. Otherwise, stay tuned for job ads.

Check out the DRH here: religiondatabase.org

Interview with Kensy Cooperrider on Many Minds

I had a fun, far-reaching, free-ranging conversation about my research and research motivations with Kensy Cooperrider on Many Minds.

Listening options:

Description

Today’s episode is a conversation with Dr. Michael Muthukrishna, an Associate Professor of Economic Psychology at the London School of Economics.

Michael’s research takes on a suite of topics that all start from a single big question: Why are we so different from other animals? Part of the answer has to do with our neural hardware. There’s no question we’ve got big brains—and Michael has some cool things to say about why they may have gotten so big. But Michael is just as focused on our cultural software—the tools and ideas we develop, tweak, share, and accumulate over time. You might say he’s more impressed by our collective brains than by our individual brains. To study all this, Michael builds formal theories and computational models; he runs experiments; and he constructs and analyzes huge databases.

We cover a lot of ground in this episode. We talk about the finding that the size and interconnectedness of a social group affects the cultural skills that group can develop and maintain. We consider what actually powers innovation (hint: it’s not lone geniuses). We discuss how diversity is a bit double-edged and why psychology needs to become a historical science. And that, my friends, is hardly all—we also touch on cetaceans, religious history, and spinning plates.

I’ve been hoping to have Michael on the show for months now. His work is deeply theoretical, advancing the basic science of what it means to be human. But it’s also engaged with important practical issues—issues like corruption and cultural diversity. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Michael Muthukrishna. Enjoy!

A transcript of this show will be available soon.

Notes and links

4:30 – An introduction to “dual inheritance theory.”

11:00 – A 2013 paper by Dr. Muthukrishna and colleagues about the relationship between sociality and cultural complexity.

12:15 – A paper on the loss of cultural tools and traditions in the Tasmanian case.

21:20 – A 2016 paper by Dr. Muthukrishna and Joseph Henrich on innovation and the collective brain.

28:30 – The original paper on the notion of cultural “tightness” and “looseness.”

30:20 – A recent short piece by Dr. Muthukrishna on the paradox of diversity.

34:50 – A 2019 popular piece of mine on the phenomenon of “global WEIRDing.”

40:27 – The so-called Flynn Effect refers to the puzzling rise of IQ scores over time. It is named after James Flynn, who died only weeks ago.

42:30 – A paper about the significance of Luria’s work on abstract reasoning in Uzbekistan.

50:26 – A paper on the “cultural brain hypothesis,” the subject of Dr. Muthukrishna’s dissertation.

51:00 – A paper on brains as fundamentally “expensive.”

58:00 – Boyd & Richardson, mentioned here, have authored a number of highly influential books. The first of these was Culture and the Evolutionary Process.

59:35 – A 2015 paper on head size and emergency birth interventions.

1:01:20 – The stylized model we mention here is discussed and illustrated in this lecture from the 2020 Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute.

1:03:15 – The paper by Dr. Muthukrishna and colleagues on cetacean brains and culture.

1:11:38 – The paper by Dr. Muthukrishna and colleagues on ‘Psychology as a Historical Science.’

1:14:00 – The 2020 paper by Dr. Muthukrishna and colleagues introducing a tool for the measurement of cultural distance.

1:20:20 – Dr. Muthukrishna is part of the team behind the Database of Religious History.

1:24:25 – The paper by Dr. Muthukrishna and Joe Henrich on ‘The Origins and Psychology of Human Cooperation.’

Dr. Muthukrishna’s end-of-show reading recommendations:

Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success & The WEIRDest People in the World

Matt Ridley, How Innovation Works

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas

You can keep up with Dr. Muthukrishna’s work at his personal website and on Twitter (@mmuthukrishna).

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://www.diverseintelligencessummer.com/), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Hilda Loury. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).

You can subscribe to Many Minds on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Google Play, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.

We welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. Feel free to email us at: manymindspodcast@gmail.com.

For updates about the show, follow us on Twitter: @ManyMindsPod.

The Origins and Psychology of Human Cooperation

Summary from Twitter thread:

New paper on “The Origins and Psychology of Human Cooperation” in Annual Review of Psychology. Many mechanisms have been proposed to explain human cooperation. How well do they explain the breadth, intensity, & variation across societies, history, & domain?

We review interdisciplinary evolutionary psychology that takes seriously both our primate heritage and our uniquely cultural nature – a “cultural evolutionary psychology”. Why, how, when, and on which things do different humans work together?

Humans in all societies cooperate far more than other mammals. We’re more prosocial than nonhuman primates who often look like rational choice models (these models are like Hardy-Weinberg models – null models without the effect of evolving norms & other culture).

A more complete explanation needs to explain scale, intensity, and domain differences between societies-people cooperate on different things to different degrees. Need to explain the scaling up in the last 12k years. And that many mechanisms can support maladaptive behav.

Explanations like language, intelligence, & institutions are insufficient. We can use language to lie, our cognitive abilities to cheat, & institutions can be undermined by lower scales of cooperation. Where did these come from anyway? See the cultural brain hypothesis & the collective brain. Also summarized in this lecture:

We use cultural evolution, dual inheritance theory, and the extended evolutionary synthesis as our theoretical framework & evaluate connected theories and evidence. For approach, see: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0522-1 … (summarized).

Social norms and institutions – their origins and evolution is key to explaining the 4 features / puzzles of human cooperation mentioned before.

Some key concepts and behavioral experiments in cooperation.

Social norms shape cooperation, differ b/w societies, kids copy adults. Fairness is not the same everywhere – e.g. inequity aversion is not universally symmetric. We don’t like when things are unequal and we have less, but folks differ on unequal where they have more.

We review key mechanisms in broad strokes: kin-based, direct reciprocity, reputation, punishment, signaling. Origins of institutions. WEIRD intuitions are not a good guide – take partner choice for example.

So you have societies with different norms & sustained by different mechanisms of cooperation. Which ones spread? Competiton w/ sufficient resources can favor higher scales, but lower scales can undermine higher scales – corruption or autocracy or insurrection etc. Need alignment between levels.

The mechanisms of cooperation discussed are not alternatives to this competition. They are solutions to the free-rider problem with limits on scale and that can undermine one another. You also need to solve the equilibrium selection problem.

Social norms can create selection pressure on genes, they can self-domesticate. Institutions as connected and sometimes formalized social norms can create interdependence and fusion. They can align interests.

We end by revisiting the opening challenges. Check out the paper here:

https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-psych-081920-042106

http://muth.io/cooperation-review21

Norms vary by geography and over time. Also check out the related historical psychology paper.

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Psychology as a Historical Science

Summary from Twitter thread:

New paper on “Psychology as a historical science” in Annual Review of Psychology. Catalyzing the field of “historical psychology” by reviewing work on: origins of psychology and institutions today, psychology of the past (data from dead minds).

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Our psychology is shaped by our societies, and our societies are shaped by their histories. We can do better than butterfly collecting–just measuring cross-cultural diffs. For psychology to develop a full theory of human behavior, we need historical psychology.

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Psychology is shaped by millions of years of genetic evolution, thousands of years of cultural evolution, & a short lifetime of experience; yet, much of the field has focused on that short lifetime of experience. The WEIRD People Problem is not only about geography but history.

Past societies can be as culturally distant as distant societies. Cohort effects are a sliver of the cross-temporal variation we would expect in a culturally evolving species. History serves as a kind of psychological fossil record, a source of “data from dead minds”.

We (1) review work in historical psychology; (2) introduce methods including causal inference & how to extract data from dead minds; (3) explore the role of theory in mapping history to psychology; and (4) provide some conclusions concerning the future of this field.

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E.g.s: Religious evolution & social psych. Some gods gained the ability to see into hearts & control an afterlife contingent on compliance. In many large-scale societies, these gods became omniscient, omnipotent, & omnibenevolent, coevolving with the scale of their societies.

This historical theory makes predictions not only about expected relationships in the historical record but also about expected contemporary cross-cultural diversity in religious beliefs and cognition. In doing so, the theory links historical psychology to cultural psychology.

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WEIRD Psychology may have its origins in suppressing kin networks, changing family structures, & related via one particular religion: The Catholic Church

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Institutions rest on invisible cultural and psychological pillars. E.g. a constitution’s proclamations are irrelevant without a belief in the rule of law, or norms of punishment for violations of this rule.

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We discuss the importance of causal inference techniques in historical psychology: instrumental variables, difference-in-differences, regression discontinuity. Some e.g. use for slavery & trust in strangers; agriculture & sex diff, gender inequality, collectivism; personality.

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Historical psychology includes the psychology of the past – data from dead minds, cognitive archeology. Historical databases are emerging. But sometimes the data is qualitative requiring tools like text analysis.

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We discuss some examples of the importance of theory. A society has codependent norms, values, beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. If one takes an exploratory approach and looks for correlations in history, there are many to be found. Theory helps clarify causality.

Collaboration between psychologists, historians, and other humanities scholars is important (see religiondatabase.org for an e.g.). We discuss challenges & strategies.

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Taking history seriously is a critical part of moving beyond the WEIRD people problem and making psychology a genuinely universal science of human cognition and behavior.

National Academy of Engineering

Cultural Evolution and the Paradox of Diversity

Summary from Twitter thread:

As an engineering grad, I’m delighted to contribute to the latest National Academy of Engineering Bridge issue on “The Paradox of Diversity” https://nae.edu/244742/Cultural-Evolution-and-the-Paradox-of-Diversity

It’s short, but here’s a quick trailer.

Cultural evolution and the paradox of diversity

Diversity is a double edged sword. Governments and organizations often push for greater diversity and tolerance for diversity, because the human tendency is toward squashing difference and selecting others like ourselves. But diversity can both help and harm innovation.

On the one hand, there’s intellectual arbitrage: discoveries and technologies situated in one discipline that draw on a key insight from another. Here diversity is a fuel for the engine of innovation.

On the other hand, diversity is, by definition, divisive. Without a common understanding, common goals, and common language, the flow of ideas in social networks is stymied, preventing recombination and reducing innovation. How do we reap the benefits without paying the costs?

Consider the challenge of collaborations between scientists and humanities scholars (or even between scientists in different disciplines). The key is to find common ground through strategies such as optimal assimilation, translators and bridges, or division into subgroups.

Resolving the tension between diversity and selection is at the core of a successful innovation strategy. And there are many possible solutions.

Some dimensions of diversity matter more than others—without a common language, communication is difficult. On the other hand, food preferences create little more than an easily solved coordination challenge for lunch.

But between these are many dimensions where optimal assimilation may be desirable and traits can be optimized, such as psychological safety so people feel free to share unorthodox ideas.

Other strategies include interdisciplinary translators. In my role at the Database of Religious History (DRH)—a large science and humanities collaboration—we have benefited from a few scholars trained in both to bridge the gap.

Innovation can also be divided into independent groups, coordinating within the group but competing against others trying different strategies (e.g. competition between firms).

Check out the full issue here: https://www.nae.edu/244665/Winter-Issue-of-The-Bridge-on-Complex-Unifiable-Systems

Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance

Summary from Twitter thread:

🚨Now out in Psychological Science! Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620916782

1/ The world is not WEIRD vs non-WEIRD.

How psychologically and culturally distant is the US from Canada? China from Japan?

2/ CFst is a lens for looking at differences between and within populations. It’s flexible, robust, and theoretically-meaningful.

Issue with existing approaches:
1. Societies are distributions of traits. Mean estimates are misleading. Brazil looks like Turkey on Hofstede:

2. Variance captures some of this (Turkey is culturally tighter than Brazil), but how do you capture nominal traits like political priorities: “give people more to say”, “maintain order in the nation”, “fight rising prices”, or “protect freedom of speech”?3. Genetic distance is a proxy, but can be misleading: Hong Kong is more than an order of magnitude more genetically similar to China than to Britain, but is culturally similar to both due to Britain’s century-long history in Hong Kong.4. Linguistic distance is better, but the resolution is low. Difficult to distinguish the cultures of Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, all of whom speak English.3/ Fst is theoretically meaningful within evolution: measures how genotype frequencies forsubpop differ from expectations if there were random mating over the entire population. i.e. it measures the degree to which the populations can be considered structured and separate.4/ For cultural inheritance, this is directly analogous to between-group differentiation caused by selection, migration, and social learning mechanisms.5/ Cultural FST (CFst) is calculated in the same manner as Genetic FST, but instead of a genome, we use World Values Survey as a “culturome”.
Questions as loci.
Answers as alleles.

CFst can handle continuous, binary, or nominal traits.6/ Because traits tend to cluster within a society, it’s also robust to missing questions or data. You can drop even 50% of data or questions and get very little deviation.

Even if we don’t ask every conceivable question, if you ask a broad range, you’ll get a similar answer.

Note: Traits cluster within, but not necessarily between societies. 7/ We create an American scale (useful as a proxy WEIRD scale) and a Chinese scale as an example.

8/ American scale correlates with cultural dimensions, tightness, values, extraversion and personality variance, and many behavioral measures: blood donations, diplomat parking tickets, corruption perceptions, honesty in the wallet drop study:

Civic honesty around the globeRationalist approaches to economics assume that people value their own interests over the interests of strangers. Cohn et al. wanted to examine the trade-off between material self-interest and more a…https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/70

Distance…

9/ The Chinese scale is less predictive – why? Two possibilities:

1. WEIRD nations are truly psychological outliers in some objective sense. Plug for @JoHenrich ‘s brilliant new book: amazon.com/WEIRDest-Peopl…

2. Psychological measures have been studied because they are remarkable to WEIRD researchers.

If psychology was dominated by Chinese psychologists, we would see a different set of psychological outcomes covered in textbooks. 10/ Resolving which of these explanations is correct will require greater diversity in both researchers and samples.11/ Final caveats:
1. Similar distance from US / China does not mean cultural similarity. Japan & Norway are similarly distant from US, but are not necessarily similar to each other.

Like Colombia and the UK are similarly geo distant from US but nowhere near each other.

Culture is a large n-dimensional space. 2. The US is relatively homogeneous (note, it’s a loose country, but similarly loose in all regions relative to other large populations). Societies are not homogeneous. They have multivariate distributions of many traits along many dimensions with structure within structure.

There are likely to be cultural differences between not only regions within a country but also ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic class, and other groupings. These are all avenues for future research. 3. We need more data from the Middle East and Africa! We have every reason to suspect the American scale will continue to stretch as we map out these psychological terrae incognitae.These regions (and others like South Pacific) are a treasure trove for the next generation of cultural psychologists. Not just about psychological outcomes, but also questions we ask, and way we organize psychology. What we know is the tip of the iceberg of the human psyche. END I lied. There’s also a website: culturaldistance.com

Selected Media Coverage

Nautilus

Marginal Revolution

Upcoming

January 13, 2021: Keynote on “Culture and Psychology” at Monk Prayosgshala – SPSP Bridge-Building Session, Mumbai, India [online]

February 9, 2021: Talk on “Cooperation and the moral circle: When cooperation harms the collective good” at SPSP 2021 Justice and Morality Pre-Conference [online]

February 23, 2021: Talk on “The ties that bind us” at Beveridge 2.0. Symposium: Reciprocity across the life-cycle [online]

March 9, 2021: Talk on “Cultural Brain Hypothesis, Collective Brains, and the Evolution of Intelligence” Dysoc Webinar Series on Human origins and cultural evolution: Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Descent of Man [online]

Are Collectivistic Cultures More Prone to Rapid Transformation? Computational Models of Cross-Cultural Differences, Social Network Structure, Dynamic Social Influence, and Cultural Change

Summary from Twitter thread:

New paper in Personality and Social Psychology Review (PSPR): Societies more susceptible to social learning (e.g. China) more culturally stable, but also more susceptible to rapid transformation. Punctuated cultural equilibrium. Models differences in cross-cultural social networks and influence. Why? 1/3

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1088868319855783?journalCode=psra

Consider Majority illusion (Blue Fashionable will be perceived as majority view due to social network structure).

Some societies more likely to conform. Under most conditions, conforming to the majority leads to stability, but… 2/3

A well connected ideologue taking advantage of that conformity leads to rapid social change.

In a less well connected society with fewer conformists, too many leaders, not enough followers making it harder for one to dominate and kickstart a country-wide revolution. 3/3

Theory and WEIRD scale at LEVYNA, Brno, Czechia

I gave a public lecture on “A theory of human behavior? What would it look like and what would it offer?” and a workshop talk on “Beyond WEIRD Psychology and toward an understanding of evil eye and differences in economic productivity” at the LEVYNA Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion at the Masaryk University, Brno, Czechia

The public lecture was largely based on a recent Nature Human Behaviour piece “A Problem in Theory” on the role of theory in the psychological and behavioural sciences.

The workshop talk was a more indepth discussion of a recent working paper on measuring cultural distance “Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance” (pre-print) and some in-progress follow up work somewhat based on another recent paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, with some context published in Evonomics and ProMarket (pre-print).

Global Solutions Summit: The World Policy Forum in Berlin, Germany

I was invited by Dennis Snower to the Global Solutions Summit 2019 in Berlin. The summit proposes policy responses for the upcoming G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan by bringing together researchers, policymakers, business leaders and civil society representatives to discuss major global challenges.

It was great to hear Dennis’ opening address advocating a cultural evolutionary framework, particularly cultural-group selection and multilevel selection, as an approach to tackling major global challenges:

Other highlights included the various discussions on the future of the European Union, including Frans Timmermans vision for the future of the EU (Frans is one of the lead candidates for the upcoming election for the President of the European Commission):

Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance at University of Economics, Prague, Czechia

I presented some work on measuring cultural distance “Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance” (pre-print) and some in-progress follow ups using the technique at the University of Economics, Prague, Czechia.

I also presented some in progress theoretical and empirical work on “Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism and the evolution of evil eye beliefs”. Part of this work was based on a recent paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, with some context published in Evonomics and ProMarket (pre-print).

Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance at City University, London

I presented some work on measuring cultural distance “Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance” (pre-print) and some in-progress follow ups using the technique at City University in London, UK.

I also presented some in progress theoretical and empirical work on “Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism and the evolution of evil eye beliefs”. Part of this work was based on a recent paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, with some context published in Evonomics and ProMarket (pre-print).

UK Home Office Flag It Up Campaign

I recently helped the UK Home Office with their anti-corruption, #FlagItUp campaign to  encourage accounting and legal professionals to report more suspicious through a suspicious activity report.

Videos below. Read more here: https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/community/blogs/michael-muthukrishna/why-dont-we-report-our-suspicions

For Social Media


Longer videos


A Problem in Theory

Summary from Twitter thread:

New paper in Nature Human Behaviour: we argue that the replication crisis is rooted in more than methodological malpractice and statistical shenanigans. It’s also a result of a lack of a cumulative theoretical framework:

A_Problem_in_Theory.pdf

The present methodological and statistical solutions to the replication crisis will only help ensure solid stones; they don’t help us build the house. Preregistration and multiple replications(this time with larger samples!)are great, but a solution to decades of distrusted data?

Science is an abductive process with incomplete data and large to infinite space of hypotheses. Better theory can far reduce the possible or likely hypotheses and offer explanations we might not consider based on the data alone.We can’t build a cumulative science by narrowing it down with guesswork, folk intuitions, verbal logic, or our own limited (and largely WEIRD) life experience. Testing these WEIRD intuitions on WEIRD participants can be circular and misleading. Leads to general understanding?We present Dual Inheritance Theory as an example of a more systematic theoretical approach with more constrained predictions. Theory is another way to constrain researcher degrees of freedom.We deal with some common critiques and concerns at the end. Other sciences, the solid findings, applied sciences, and we’re not trained to think this way.

Here’s more critiques and concerns. Can we solve this with neuroscience, Bayesian stats, and Big Data?

Selected Media Coverage

Ars Technica

Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism and the evolution of evil eye beliefs at University College London (UCL), London, UK

I presented some in progress theoretical and empirical work on “Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism and the evolution of evil eye beliefs” at the Biological Anthropology seminar series at University College London (UCL) in London, UK.

Part of this work was based on a recent paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, with some context published in Evonomics and ProMarket (pre-print) as well as some work on measuring cultural distance (pre-print).

War at The Forum for Philosophy, London

I joined a panel for a discussion on War hosted by The Forum for Philosophy in association with the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, LSE and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. I was joined by:

Susanne Burri, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, LSE
Michael Robillard, Research Fellow, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics
Joseph Maiolo, Professor of International History, Department of War Studies, KCL

The event was chaired by Jonathan Birch, Fellow, Forum for Philosophy; Associate Professor of Philosophy, LSE.

You can listen to the recording here or on YouTube