Author Archives: admin

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).

Image

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.

Image
Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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

Upcoming

April 20-21, 2020: Invited guest at the Global Solutions Summit 2020 in Berlin, Germany

April 22, 2020: Talk at Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University, UK.

June 2, 2020: Talk on “Communcation and Competition” at Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA) Summit at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

June 27, 2020: Invitee to Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture delivered by Michael Gove.

July 2-3, 2020: Keynote at the Culture Conference in Stirling, UK

July 2, 2020: Lecture on “What affects our level of collective intelligence?” at the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute hosted by the Templeton World Charity Foundation at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK.

July 8-10, 2020: Invited guest at the Diverse Intelligences grantee meeting hosted by the Templeton World Charity Foundation at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK.

July 12, 2020: Radio interview with Matthew Syed and Neil Lawrence hosted by Alexis Conran on Radio 4, UK.

July 22, 2020: Talk and discussion on “The Cultural Evolution of Intelligence” at Cross Roads on Youtube Live hosted by Cross Labs, Tokyo, Japan.

August 18, 2020: Panelist on “Behavioral Science for Global Good” at Behavioral Insights Group conference hosted by Harvard Business School / Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

November 24-25, 2020: Ditchley Foundation meeting on World Trade Organization (WTO) reform.

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

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

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.

The Cultural Brain Hypothesis: How culture drives brain expansion, sociality, and life history

Today, my paper on the Cultural Brain Hypothesis (CBH) and Cumulative Cultural Brain Hypothesis (CCBH) with Michael Doebeli, Maciej Chudek, and Joe Henrich was published in PLOS Computational Biology.

The Cultural Brain Hypothesis is a more general theory for brain evolution across species that unifies more specific explanations around environmental hypotheses and social brain hypotheses. The theory is formalized using an analytical and a computational model.

Figure 1 from paper

The CBH shows how the environment constrains evolution and how social factors are necessary infrastructure for more social learning species. It predicts different relationships between brain size, sociality, mating structure, the length of the juvenile period, innovation and knowledge, and social learning strategies.

Table 1 from paper.

According to the CBH, the environment constrains brain evolution rather than driving it – brain size is affected by the environment, because you need to have enough calories to feed your brain. But your ability to derive calories from what’s available (or potentially available) is driven by how smart you are – how much information you have. All else being equal, a lush rainforest will have larger brains than an arid desert.

The model specifies two pathways for acquiring this information, both of which can lead to bigger brains – asocial learning and social learning (or some combination of these). If you take the asocial path, you’re reliant on your own intelligence and you don’t have to worry about the social infrastructure. Asocial brains can be larger depending on how easy it is to learn things asocially, but they’ll tend to be smaller than social brains on average.

If you take the social path, it requires all kinds of social infrastructure – more tight-knit and perhaps larger group to learn from, a longer juvenile period, more care during that longer juvenile period, tolerance for other members of the group, an ability and proclivity to learn from other members of the group, and so on. Culture is socially transmitted information, which is a cheaper and more efficient way to get information than asocial learning, but does require all these social factors.

The theory links together ecology and social factors and shows how constraints for learning culture and information in general are what drive the expansion in brain evolution (rather than adaptations to the environment or social factors directly). The model allows us to make sense of a lot of puzzling relationships between brain size, sociality, mating structures, juvenile period, innovation, knowledge, and social learning strategies, and other social and environmental features. We’ve tested some of these relationships among cetaceans and in this paper, we compare it to tests in primates. Unfortunately, most of the focus has been on the more interesting more social learning species (you publish papers by showing how animals and babies are smart and human adults are dumb, not vice versa). The next step is to try to test the predictions for more asocial taxa.

The Cumulative Cultural Brain Hypothesis (CCBH)

The CCBH is a narrow set of parameters that can lead to a take off where information and technology start accumulating faster and faster forcing brains and social factors to evolve to keep up. In our species, our brains continue to grow to the point where we end having trouble giving birth to our babies (larger heads are more difficult to birth), we give birth to our babies prematurely relative to other animals (compare a human infant to a gazelle ready to run). This leads to strategies to take care of our now helpless infants, like forcing fathers to pay for childcare or stick around, and normatively controlling female sexuality so dad knows it’s his. We do other things to keep up. We divide up the information, leading to a division of information and a division of labor (specialization), which can lead to a collective brain. We expand our juvenile period, so we spend longer in childhood, and have an extraordinarily long period of adolescence (the time between when you can reproduce and when you actually do), just to keep learning the ever growing body of information needed to outcompete other members f our group. This last strategy is now at the point we’re hitting a new biological limit – not in the size of the brains we can birth, but in our ability to reproduce at a later age. (I wrote a bit about this for MoneySupermarket in reference to why it takes longer to buy a house).

According to the CCBH, this take off requires:

  1. High transmission fidelity. This could include more cognitive abilities like gaze tracking, shared intentionality, theory of mind, the ability to recognize, distinguish, and imitate potential models, but also more social factors like social tolerance, and ever more sophisticated methods of teaching (consider how long you’ve probably spent in formal education plus internships or low paid entry-level jobs).
  2. Low reproductive skew. Consistent with a “monogamish” or cooperative breeding structure that suppresses reproductive skew. A cooperative breeding environment would have also been ideal to allow for an easy transition to oblique learning. Chimps learn from their mom, but having multiple moms and dads means you can focus on who’s better rather than who you have access to.
  3. Smart ancestors. There is an interaction between transmission fidelity and efficient individual learning. Social learners benefit from smart asocial learners who’s knowledge they can exploit.
  4. Rich ecology. There have to be potential returns in the environment. That is, there are large game or good sources of calories, only requiring the knowledge to acquire them.

There’s more in the paper, which I encourage you to read.

Life History and Learning Workshop at UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA

I spent the weekend at a workshop on Life History and Learning at UC Berkeley, organized by Alison Gopnik. I presented the “Cultural Brain Hypothesis and Cumulative Cultural Brain Hypothesis”, which was recently published in PLOS Computational Biology (see here for discussion).

It was a small workshop, which made for some wonderful discussions with:
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (UC Davis)
Willem Frankenhuis (Radboud University)
Michael Gurven (UC Santa Barbara)
Kristen Hawkes (University of Utah)
Celeste Kidd (UC Berkeley)
Julie Morand-Ferron (University of Ottawa)
Thomas Morgan (Arizona State University)
Susan Perry (UCLA)
Pete Richerson (UC Davis)
Mike Tomasello (Duke)
Natalie Uomini (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History)