Tag Archives: cultural evolution

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.

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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.

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

Behavioral Science for Global Good at Behavioral Insights Group (BIG) conference hosted by Harvard Business School / Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

I was a panelist at the  Behavioral Science for Global Good at Behavioral Insights Group  (BIG) conference hosted by Harvard Business School (add link) / Harvard Kennedy School (add link). The goal of the panel was to offer insight into the ways in which behavioral science may need to change in the future in order to fulfill its stated mission to make a positive difference in the world—particularly on how to expand our focus beyond predominantly WEIRD researchers, WEIRD research topics, and WEIRD populations.

My fellow panelists included:

  • Dolly Chugh, Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at NYU
  • Chaning Jang, CSO / VP of Research at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics
  • Shinobu Kitayama, Robert B. Zajonc Collegiate Professor of Psychology at University of Michigan
  • Steven Roberts, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University
  • Neela Saldanha, Senior Advisor at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics – who did a wonderful job chairing the discussion.

“What affects our level of intelligence?” at the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute hosted by the Templeton World Charity Foundation at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK.

This year’s Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute was held online due to the pandemic. I delivered a lecture over Zoom on “What affects our level of intelligence?” followed by a lively discussion with the students. The lecture discussed brain evolution, the Cultural Brain Hypothesis, collective brain, and a cultural evolutionary account of intelligence. You can watch it below:

Communication and Competition at the Learning Innovations LaBarge tree “LILA” at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA

 I ran a workshop on communication competition at the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), part of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The LILA group include people from industry and the military. We discussed various aspects of the science of cooperation, including how and when it fails.I also introduced some new work on the paradox of diversity and on measuring cultural distance.

One of the participants, Sue Borchardt is now making an animated series based on the talk.

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

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

I was delighted to discuss my recent paper on measuring cultural distance “Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance” at the Center for Culture and Evolution (add link to center) of Brunel University (add link to university). The center is emerging as an exciting and quickly growing hub for cultural evolutionary research.

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

“Culture Evolving and Scales of Cooperation Competing” at the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) conference at the University of Warwick, UK

I was invited to present my work on cultural evolution and how scales of cooperation compete at the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) conference at the University of Warwick, UK. You can read more about cultural evolution in this chapter , more about scales of cooperating competing in this Evonomics / Promarket piece and some experimental evidence in this Nature Human Behavior paper.

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):

A theory of human behaviour at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

I gave a general talk on “A theory of human behavior? What would it look like and what would it offer?” at he University of Queensland, Brisbane. I discussed various bits of research including:

Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2019). A Problem in Theory. Nature Human Behaviour. [Download]
Muthukrishna, M., Bell, A. V., Henrich, J., Curtin, C., Gedranovich, A., McInerney, J., & Thue, B. (under review). Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance. [Download]
Chudek, M., Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2015) Cultural Evolution. In Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd Edition. Edited by D. M. Buss. [Download]
Muthukrishna, M., Doebeli, M., Chudek, M., & Henrich, J. (2018). The Cultural Brain Hypothesis: How culture drives brain expansion, sociality, and life history. PLOS Computational Biology, 14(11): e1006504. [Download] [Supplementary]
Stimmler, D. & Muthukrishna, M. (In prep). When Cooperation Promotes Corruption and Undermines Democracy.

As well as the Database of Religious History.

Cultural Evolution and the Measurement of Culture at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

I gave a general talk on “Cultural Evolution and the Measurement of Culture” at Monash University, Melbourne. I discussed various bits of research including:

Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2019). A Problem in Theory. Nature Human Behaviour. [Download]
Muthukrishna, M., Bell, A. V., Henrich, J., Curtin, C., Gedranovich, A., McInerney, J., & Thue, B. (under review). Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance. [Download]
Chudek, M., Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2015) Cultural Evolution. In Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd Edition. Edited by D. M. Buss. [Download]
Muthukrishna, M., Doebeli, M., Chudek, M., & Henrich, J. (2018). The Cultural Brain Hypothesis: How culture drives brain expansion, sociality, and life history. PLOS Computational Biology, 14(11): e1006504. [Download] [Supplementary]
Stimmler, D. & Muthukrishna, M. (In prep). When Cooperation Promotes Corruption and Undermines Democracy.

As well as the Database of Religious History. Many thanks to Nao Tsuchiya for inviting me.

Corruption, Cooperation, & the Evolution of Prosocial Institutions at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), Institutions, Organizations and Growth Program Meeting in London, UK

I presented work on “Corruption, Cooperation, & the Evolution of Prosocial Institutions”, including some new work on the evolution of evil eye belief and related behaviors at the CIFAR Institutions, Organizations, and Growth program’s annual meeting.

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). The other part was work in progress on understanding the evolution of evil eye.

 

The Cultural Evolutionary Basis of Social Psychology at The Origins of Our Moral and Political Ideologies and Preferences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France

I was invited to present work on “The Cultural Evolutionary Basis of Social Psychology” at The Origins of Our Moral and Political Ideologies and Preferences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse (IAST) in Toulouse, France. An excellent workshop organized by

Moshe Hoffman, Bethany Burum, Erez Yoeli. Other speakers included:

Alain Cohn (University of Michigan)
Alex Prescott-Couch (Oxford)
Aurelie Ouss (U Penn)
Bethany Burum (Harvard)
Bill Von Hippel (University of Queensland)
Cristina Moya (UC Davis)
Daniel Chen (Toulouse)
Deb Small (Wharton)
Elissa Philip (IAST)
Emir Kamenica (Chicago)
Fanny Camara (USC)
Helena Miton (Central European University)
Jason Abaluck (Yale)
Kofi Asante (IAST)
Nicolas Treich (TSE)
Peter Blake (Boston University)
Ricardo Perez-Truglia (UCLA Anderson)
Seth Stevens-Davidowitz