Human Nature in groups





Why humans are both crueller and kinder and any other species. Different environments seem to encourage these different behaviours in us. Self-sacrifice in the wild is linked to kin, and with insects such as bees that are genetically identical it is no different genetically speaking, than selfishness.

Since the 1980s behavioural economists have used the ‘ultimate game’ to test altruism and found that people were nice to each other and did not play the game logically. Though they act differently in the messy world where we do not think we are not being observed. For example dealers ripped off their customers when they were not on their home turf, and when they thought they were not being observed. (Journal of Political Economy, vol 114, p1). [This sort of behaviour maybe the source of distrust between travelling and settled peoples.] However, a driver for altruism maybe reciprocity as we are a species that is so dependant on others for our daily lives, and thus encourage better behaviour at home than when away.

“Christopher Beohm from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, argues that over the course of evolution rumour and hearsay may have forced us to become more altruistic – albeit in a biological self-serving way.”

“Those that would have pulled together would have beaten other groups whose individuals were more selfish, ensuring their survival. This “group selection” has been a controversial idea, but it is increasingly being accepted…” “….by becoming more altruistic, we created an environment where the selfish can enjoy the benefits of cooperative living…” However to keep our selfish natures in check we have evolved a high motivation to punish anyone we see as taking advantage of the system, even to the point of doing ourselves down in the process. This ranges from gossip, social isolation, right up to legal punishments. “Boehm believes they used capital punishment as the ultimate sanction against free riders, based on his discovery that many hunter-gather societies have the death penalty. If he is correct, punishment has made our species a little bit less evil by removing the most antisocial genes from the human gene pool.

Conscience is also a part of this process, but here it is described thus, “We learn the complex social rules of our particular culture and they become linked in our brains with emotions such as pride and honour, shame and guilt, giving them moral significance. These are the scales upon which moral judgements are weighed, and they tip the balance in favour of virtue; vice may be in your better interests, but it is associated with negative emotions, whereas virtue prompts positive ones.”

However, this conscience is dependant on the particular culture in which it is formed. This can lead to differences between groups about what is ‘good’ or ‘evil’. It helps us work for the good of the group but it can turn in to the ‘mama-bear effect’ of defending your group as if they were your own offspring. (The brain chemical oxytocin is associated with this.) Our moral compass can pushed by a culture of corruption, but the opposite is also true. David Sloan Wilson, Binghamton University in New York state has applied this thinking and the principles of group cooperation of Nobel-prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom to his home town and made real changes.

Wilson says “People may want to be prosocial but in an environment where others are not you lose out,” His conclusion is radical “There’s no point trying to make individuals more prosocial, you need to increase the prosociality of the entire neighbourhood.” Research has shown that economic development helps in promoting prosocial behaviour by increasing social networks across group boundaries.

(Kate Douglas ‘Homo virtuous?’ p42-45 New Sci 10 Nov 2012)


Haidt explains in his book that judgementalism “the ability to create moral matrices and punish, shame and ostracise those who don’t behave rightly – was in fact the great breakthrough. …. We’d be like chimps, brilliant individuals who are poor at cooperating and collaborating.”

Haidt also says “Dividing into teams doesn’t necessarily mean denigrating others. Studies of groupishness have generally found that groups increase in-group love far more than they increase out-group hostility. Dividing into groups increases social capital and trust, it’s generally a good thing. But when it crosses the line from “we disagree with you” to “you are evil”, then people begin to believe the ends justify the means and all hell breaks loose.”

When Haidt has worked with political students on these issues he does not find that they all move from their political positions to somewhere in the middle, but they do stop “demonising” and begin to listen to what the other is saying. Because no one side has a monopoly on the right perspective. “So if you just let one team – liberals, conservatives or libertarians – run everything, they’re going to screw up because they don’t have a full toolkit. My highest hope for my book is that it will help people get some perspective on moral disagreements. We’re all morally motivated (apart from the 1 per cent who are psychopaths). Each side sees the truths about how to run a good society which the other side can’t see, so we need everyone’s insights.

(Alison George ‘Why we need to be righteous’ p30-31 New Sci 3 Mar 2012 interview with Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion”.)


Economists (Game theory) view that we are only motivated by self-interest is “undermined by modern experiments showing that most of us also care about fairness and justice for others.” And to complicate matters further we are also willing to knock down others at expense to ourselves.

“In 2001 anthropologist Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and colleagues published data from 12 countries around the world showing similar behaviour among individuals from hunter-gatherer and foraging societies. It remains the most diverse data set available, and run counter to the prevailing view that people will only pay to help total strangers if they have a chance of getting something back, such as a future payback or an enhanced reputation.”

New research shows that we are altruistic and spiteful. (European Economic Review, economists Simon Gaechter and Benedikt Herrmann of the University of Nottingham, UK.) We want to punish cheaters, and also those who give to showily, but it varies culturally. Economists assume falsely that all cultures behave the same way. “It seems that we’re neither intrinsically greedy nor wholly selfless. We care about others, but not always in a positive way.”

(Mark Buchanan ‘On the origins of human spite’ p8-9 New Sci 16 February 2008)


WE ARE IN TENSION BETWEEN INDIVIDUAL AND GROUP – eusociality and group selection

Eusociality describes when individuals within a group forgo having their own children to raise those of others. It leads to advanced social organisation and the success of humans and insects who use it.


Research carried out on community insects  has implications for humans.

“Alongside that collective behaviour, each individual also strives to cash in as best as they can on their own personal investment.”

“The process behind eusocial incest castes is one of the most amazing examples of how a single genome can give rise to individuals that differ dramatically in behaviour, morphology, and/or physiology.”

“This society-level functioning is not unique to social insects: it pervades all levels of biological organisation – from cells to organisms to societies, including human ones. For example, your body is your own personal society made up of cells committed to performing specialized functions essential for the “society” called “you”.”

“By the same theoretical framework: group living, whether as a multicellular organism or insect colony, evolves if the benefits and degree of relatedness of group members outweigh the costs of living as a group.”

“Different species represent different stages in eusocial evolution, with different degrees of caste differentiation and commitment. Take the polistine paper wasps. This subfamily includes species that range from the small colonies of primitively eusocial Polistes paper wasps, which represent an early stage of social evolution where individuals seem able to reprogram through adulthood, [like humans] to the large socially complex colonies of highly eusocial and swarm-forming paper wasps, which have roles fixed during development.”

(Seirian Sumner and Solenn Patalano ‘Is the natural world one big soap?’ p28-29 New Sci 26 May 2012)


“We should consider ourselves as a product of these two interacting and often competing levels of evolutionary selection. Individual versus group selection results in a mix of altruism and selfishness, of virtue and sin, among the members of a society. If we look at it that way, then we have what appears to be a pretty straightforward answer as to why we never seem to be able to work things out satisfactorily, particularly internationally”

The emergence of religious belief systems was a natural part of the process of the social organisation.

“I think we are ready to create a more human centred belief system…I see no way out of the problems that organised religion and tribalism create other than humans just becoming more honest and aware of themselves. Right now we’re living in what Carl Sagan correctly termed a demon-haunted world. We have created a Star Wars civilisation but we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. That’s dangerous.”

“Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have.”

“I think we ought to have another go at the Enlightenment and use that as a common goal to explain and understand ourselves, to take that self-understanding which we so sorely lack as a foundation for what we do in the moral and political realm. This is a wonderful exercise.”

[When it comes to ‘survival of the fittest’ for us to survive we need to understand that the situation we are now fitting in to is different to that in which we spent most of our evolution.]

(Liz Else “The full-blown American optimist” p34-35 New Sci 21 Apr 2012. Interview with E O Wilson sociobiologist at Harvard University, author of ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’)


We can have two parallel conflicting moral systems, which becomes clear in variations on the classic thought experiment ‘the runaway trolley’. It has been suggested that moral rules came out of kin selection and were extended to the group, but this root can lead to conflict. Most people have a strict internal rule against killing, but this is most likely to be overridden when it comes to protecting your kin. (Evolution and Human Behaviour,  DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.11.002).

Peter DeScioli of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, says “social cohesion demands we have rules regardless of what they are, to help resolve disputes quickly and peacefully.” We can change these rules but some will be more difficult to change because of our evolutionary legacy.

(Michael Marshall ‘Moral choices show we are deeply split’ p10 New Sci 18 Feb 2012)


The market has changed the way we respond to the world “we’ve grown accustomed to opting for self-defence over concerted collective action to achieve change.” Rather than put pressure on governments to disarm, they build personal fallout shelters.

“It’s Dungeons and Dragons environmentalism: by acquiring special items – “natural” make-up, expensive sunscreen, organic food – we think we’ll be magically protected from danger.” [Feel like your doing something rather than actually doing something.]

(Chris Mooney ‘Out on the limits of individualism’ p53 New Sci 8 December 2007)



“What was the basis for the earliest friendships? If wild chimps are any guide: support in a fight, borrowing a valued tool, and a bite to eat now and then. Quite similar to our friendships to day.” Also like humans they do not keep an exact tally on who owes who what for these exchanges. Chimps have also been seen in the wild in Ivory Coast exchanging “commodities in the shape of both social behaviours including grooming and sex, and resources such as meat.” Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University in Ames said “It seems like the ulterior motive is social group harmony on some level.” (Behavioural Ecology and Sociolobiology, DOI:10.1007/s00265-011-1227-x). Groups are effective at hunting and a kill cannot be eaten by just one individual, so this creates the right environment for collective behaviour.

(Rowan Hooper ‘They have friends with benefits…’ p6 New Sci 10 Dec 2011)


Boehms “argues that our ancestors were “pre-adapted” for morality. Like today’s chimps and bonobos, they had a sense of self and of fairness, a tendency for young to learn appropriate behaviour from their mothers, and the potential for collective action, giving subordinates some power over dominant individuals.”

This was the first step towards developing a conscience. ‘At first this controlled selfish urges through fear of punishment, but morality began to merge when our ancestors learned to internalise their society’s social rules, connecting them with emotions such as shame and honour. Finally, he says, altruistic genes got a boost as societies came to value generosity and punish selfishness. Our egotistic and nepotistic tendencies far outweigh the altruistic ones, but by social selection we have unwittingly made our own gene pool more virtuous.” Boehm made a study of 150 hunter-gather societies and they all shared their big game, suggesting our ancestors were also egalitarian, and shaped by this sharing. Boehm also found that bullies were by far the perceived internal threat to these people, not the cheats. It is the main theme of gossip, and if that isn’t enough capital punishment is the ultimate sanction.

(Kate Douglas ‘Evolving our sense of what is right’ p42 5May2012 New Scientist. A review of Moral Origins: The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame by Christopher Boehm.)



If we do not understand how humans really behave we are heading for trouble. Dan Ariely says, “The rational view of dishonesty is that people cheat because it is worth their while. This simple model of rational crime (SMORC) says that people look at how much they stand to gain, at the probability of being caught, and at the size of the punishment. Which is bigger? But if you count the chances you had to steal today without being caught, there’s lots of opportunity. I doubt it crossed your mind, but if you did it, you would feel bad about yourself. We’re much more honest than if we were perfectly rational. So SMORC is basically how we view psychopaths. And if you think about the economic model, it’s also a model for psychopaths.”

However, we are happy to ‘rationalise’ our choices. Experiments by Dan Ariely have shown that we can still see ourselves as rational and honesty even when we cheat a little. We want to benefit from cheating, but we also want to feel that we’re honest and caring.” So we find justifications for our cheating that makes us feel that it’s not really cheating at all.

Deterrence doesn’t really work as it is not thought about when the crime is being committed. “The moment society gets to a situation in which something is just about cost and benefit, [for example the recent risky behaviour of those in the financial markets] its devastating. We need to start dealing with our morals way before we get there, so I would spend much more time on things that try to establish the appropriate social norms rather than think that catching people later is going to have any effect.

(Graham Lawton ‘The cheating game’ p30-31 New Sci 16 Jun 2012. Interview with Dan Ariely, Duke University in Durham, North Carolina)



“Scientists have found that the sting of rejection fires up the same neural pathways as the pain from a burn or bruise.” “Social pain has co-opted the brain’s “pain network” .” Two studies ((Science, vol 302, p290) and (PNAS, vol 108, p6270)) have shown that feelings of exclusion increase sensitivity to pain whereas taking a painkiller can reduce feelings of rejection. (Psychological Science, vol 21, p931).

In the ancient past social rejection by the tribal group would have lead to death so we have evolved to feel it keenly to keep us with the group. Emotional life experience is closely linked with pain responses, such as those with chronic pain are more likely to have had emotional trauma in the earlier lives. Their systems have become primed by their experience. (American Journal of Psychiatry, vol 162, p899)

But this effect goes further. The immune system, Steve Cole, University of California, Los Angeles, suggests changes response to our social status, and switches from acting against social contact problems such as viruses to isolation related problems such as bacterial infection from physical injury by inflammation starting to rev up.

“One piece of evidence for the idea come from George Slavich, also at UCLA. He has found that socially stressful tasks, such as delivering an impromptu speech, trigger heightened activity in the dACC, prompting an inflammatory response – as if the brain were pre-empting the threat of isolation and injury (PNAS, vol 107, p14817).”

“That response would have saved our ancestors from infection in the tooth and claw struggles of evolution, but it could backfire in the modern world.”

“A meta-analysis in 2012 of 148 studies determined that people with adequate social connections were 1.5 times as likely to live to the end of the study period as lonely people – an effect on par with abstaining from smoking or excessive drinking (PLoS Medicine, vol 7, p e1000316).”

Eisenberger’s research has shown that caring for others reduces the pain of rejection. “Words may be as painful as sticks and stones, but by caring for others as well as ourselves, we can at least make sure that they hurt us only briefly.”

(Lisa Raffensperger ‘Words can never hurt me?’ p37-39 New Sci 1 Dec 2012)



“Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, has spent years amassing evidence for his “parasite stress” model of human society, which considers all disease to be a parasite on human society. He has already used it to predict that people in disease-ridden regions will be more xenophobic, and prefer to associate with relatives and close neighbours. These “collectivist societies opt for strongly conservative values and autocratic governments, which Thornhill says minimises the risk of contracting diseases. By contrast, people in countries with low disease rates tend to be more individualistic and democratic, he says.”

(Michael Marshall “Disease and violence an unholy alliance” p9 New Sci 12 Nov 2011)



Research has shown that across cultures religious people give more, but this is driven by the fact that your generosity is visible to others on a regular basis. To remain in the group one feels obliged to follow the expectations of the group.

As people get older they give more, until they reach the age at which opportunities to give decline.

Poorer people give away a higher proportion of their income than richer people….Most people give similar amounts in similar situations. If you’re asked in a door-to-door collection you might give £2, if you’re asked by direct mail perhaps £10, and that is equal across all incomes. It is not because rich people are inherently less generous.”

“Interestingly, we found that most people do not lie about their giving. However, some people underestimate their donations.”

(Michael Bond ‘What compels people to give their money away?’ p27 New Sci 7 July 2012 interview with Pamela Wiepking, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands)



“Edmund Burke, 18th century philosopher and founder of modern conservatism, recognised society is not a contract among the living but a trusteeship that binds the living to the unborn and the dead.”

“We’re often used to the accusation that conservatism is about business and markets, and unfortunately it often looks like that. But people vote conservative because they want to conserve their values, their home, their family. There’s a hidden motive I call oikophilia, Greek for love of home. We know oikos through the words “economy” and “ecology”; a conservative emphasis on economics makes more sense if we put oikos back into oikonomia. I see the environmental problem arising when people cease to see their surroundings as a home.”

“We have seen the emergence of a political class which is unsettled, individualistic and locked into big business and interest groups. But human life is about settling down, not about getting and spending. There was a time politicians knew this.”

[Ecology and economy are both our home. There is no ‘other’.]

(Liz Else ‘One Minute with… Roger Scruton’ p25 New Sci 7 Jan 2012. A Conservative Philosopher)



“Anybody can become angry, that is easy, but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.” – Aristotle.

“Mahatma Gandhi, and his passive resistance, is a beautiful example of controlled anger,” says Mike Fisher, Director of the British Association of Anger Management. “You’ve seen it with Nelson Mandela, with Malcolm X – these are huge figures in our history who stand out as incredible leaders, who have taken anger and transformed nations. But  they have channelled and directed their anger to heal as opposed to hurt.”

“There is also evidence that political and business leaders who get angry rather than sad in response to a scandal are granted higher status (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 80, p86) – as long as they are male, that is. Both men and women confer lower status on angry female professionals than on angry female professionals, whether the female is a CEO or a trainee. A woman’s emotional reactions are generally attributed to her character (‘she is an angry person’) whereas men are perceived as merely reacting to external circumstances.”

Hajo Adam University of California, Berekley has shown that “Americans of European descent made larger concessions to an angry opponent than to a non-emotional one, but Asians and Asian Americans made smaller concessions (Psychological Science, vol 21, p822). Adam thinks this reflects cultural norms about whether or not it is appropriate to get mad.”

People vary in anger. “Men are angrier than women. Within each sex, physically strong men are angrier than weaker men, and beautiful women are angrier than less attractive women.” (Aaron Sell of Griffiths University, Queensland, Australia (Human Nature, vol 23, p30.) “The theory is that strength and attractiveness lead individual men and women to feel more entitled.” [They are used to getting their way.] “If the world doesn’t deliver these benefits, they are more likely to turn angry as a result.”

“Physiology could sometimes be to blame: there is a link between poor blood-sugar control and disturbed mood, including feeling angry (Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics, vol 14, p303.)”

The good news is generally we get less angry as we get older.

(Emma Young ‘Do get mad’ p48-51 New Sci 9 Feb 2013)




“Bonded groups are found among all primates and a few other mammals including cetaceans. Here, as with humans, social relationships give rise to a nested hierarchical structure based on each relationship’s intimacy. Such networks have benefits, but they are also costly to maintain and are only an option for the smartest of species.” For herd animals the social hierarchy is much simpler, the roles between individuals shift less frequently.

“One thing that seems to be important is being able to appreciate another individual’s perspective. In humans that has developed into theory of mind or mentalising – the understanding that another individual can hold ideas and beliefs that differ from your own.” [So understanding difference is the core to being a social human.]

In large humans physical grooming is replaced by gossip, laughter and communal activities such as music.

In the modern world we have two network, a shifting friends network and a more stable family network. They differ. The family network is more stable, and less inclined to decay if untended. It is fairly constant through life, whereas with friends there is up to a 20% turn over in a few years. On average we have 150 friends, with some less than 100 and some over 250.  This is influenced by gender, social skills and personality. As women are better at mentalising than men so tend to have more friends. Also digital technology favours women’s style of social networking which revolves around talking , whereas for men it revolves around shared activities. Though facebook does slow the rate of decay of relationships. Most of our attention is devoted to our five closest contacts at around 60% but we often underestimate the amount of time we spend with casual contacts.

150 is ‘Dunbar’s number’, it is a recurring size for human groups (parishes, medieval villages, military units) and may indicate humans social capacity.

“Despite being more social, however, extroverts are not emotionally closer to members of their network than introverts. It seems we have a limited amount of social capital and can either spread it thickly along a few friends or thinly among many. Extroverts opt for the second because they are willing to put in the time and effort required to look after many relationships.”

(Robin Dunbar ‘Social Networks’ p ii-viii Instant Expert 21 New Sci 2 Mar 2013)



“The idea of language as a cultural tool makes it easier to see why after 100 years of research we still lack a noncontroversial set of structures found in all languages, a set that is predicted by a universal grammar. The idea of culture adapting language to its own needs helps us get beyond politically correct notions, for example, that all languages are “equally complex”.”

Language is a set of solutions to the problem forced on us by the social instinct, each solution shaped by a local culture. Not so much a language instinct, then, as a social and communications instinct.”

(Daniel Everett “The social instinct” p32-35 New Sci 10 Mar 2012)



When we consider a society’s robustness in the face of stresses such as natural disasters infrastructure comes fore most to our minds, but the ‘social infrastructure’ has been shown to be just as important. For example, during the brutal heatwave of 1995 in Chicago “the risk of dying varied greatly between two adjacent neighbourhoods with similar economic and demographic profiles, according to research by sociologist Eric Klinenberg….In one community, residents checked in on each other during the heatwave, while in the other they were isolated and afraid to leave their homes largely because of crime. Social ties became a matter of life or death.”

Research by Robert Sampson has shown practically how social ties make a difference to everyday matters.  The “enduring neighbourhoods effect” has an impact on many things including, IQ, social disorder, teenage pregnancy, levels of education and health. This is even true when other factors such as poverty and family ties are taken into account. He has used his local neighbourhood as an urban lab for two decades.

“The more community groups in an area, the greater the collective efficacy, social altruism and collective civic engagement.” “Organisations generate a web of routine activities and associations that lubricate collective action, although they are seldom planned as such.”

(Robert Sampson ‘Survival of the sociable’ p28-29 New Sci 11 May 2013)


David Sloan Wilson of the Binghamton University in New York, author of ‘The Neighbourhood Project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at a time’ (2011 Little, Brown) has done extensive research into prosociality. His team found that the factors that encourage it in some areas and not in others. Firstly, those genetically predisposed to be altruistic tend to gather together. Secondly, people become more altruistic when they interact with others displaying altruism. And thirdly, a major influence is the external environment.” Our prosociality changes to fit the environment in which we find ourselves.

Elinor Ostrom won the economic Nobel prize for demonstrating that, contrary to prevailing wisdom “groups of people are capable of managing common resources when certain conditions are met. The conditions, in a nutshell, are that a group and its purpose must be clearly defined; costs and benefits must be equally shared; decision-making must be by consensus; misconduct should be monitored; sanctions should start out mild and escalate only as needed; conflict resolution should be fast and fair; the group must have the authority to manage its affairs and the relationship of the group with others must be appropriately structured.”

(David Sloan Wilson ‘From ivory tower to city streets’ p28-29 27 New Sci Aug 2011)



NO LONE GENIUS – small world and familiarity index

There is an sweetspot between having too many different perspectives and too many old faces. “In 2004, Ronald Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, showed that if you belong to several unrelated social groups you are in a good position to uproot ideas from one and use them in another (American Journal of Sociology, vol 110, p349). Where many unrelated groups are connected by a few people, a network can begin to develop “small world” properties. This structure is repeated across a surprising range of systems – including scientific collaboration, film-making itself (Nature, vol 393, p 440). A small-world network allows information to travel quickly between any two unconnected people by way of a very short chain of intermediaries.”

“In work published in 1992, Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, sifted through the correspondence of more than 2000 eminent scientists and inventors and mapped the links between their relationships. He found that Newton was stimulated and provoked by 25 scientists and inventors of his time, including Gottfried Leibniz, Edmond Halley and Jacob Bernoulli. Interactions with these rivals, confidants and correspondents was crucial for shaping the consequent passage of Newton’s ideas into history (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,I vol 18, p452).”

Close friends are at the core of our networks. They can help an idea become more coherent with encouragement or criticise, but they are not a strong source of new ideas.

Brian Uzzi, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and Jarrett Spiro at Stanford University in California. Looked at Broadway Musicals between 1877 and 1989, for the relationships of artists and box office sales for each show. “They uncovered an intriguing relationship: too many strangers dampened the free exchange of ideas. But too many close friends created an atmosphere in which ideas were born of inside references and so only appealed to a limited audience.” Somewhere in the middle predicted box office hits, the measure of this they called the ‘familiarity index’ Q. A high Q score reduced the number of fresh ideas. A low Q score the group was not connected enough for ideas to flow. [The outsider perspective is a valuable contribution.]

In situations with many of choices, such as the overload of the internet we opt for interacting with the familiar (Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, vol 15, p119). And Robin Dunbar has shown that the average number of our contacts is 150, but with realistically only 50 being ones you would exchange ideas with. So to avoid your world becoming too insular replace 25% of your web input to new sources periodically.

(Zella King “The goldilocks network” p37-39 New Sci 26 May 2012)


While in some respect the internet and other modern phenomena pushing our connections out, others such as network filters are homogenising content and contacts.

(Lee Raine and Barry Wellman “Future of the networked” p24-25 New Sci 28 July 2012)


“This idea of science as inaccessible to all but a few geniuses is tremendously harmful. It’s not that it’s not hard or that you don’t have to be extremely smart to pursue it as a career, but you can still be human. Science, Mialet insists, is not solely the product of individual, godlike minds.

“Misleading representations of Hawking are not simply a problem for him, then, but for science itself. Individual scientists may benefit from the idea that they possess an ineffable quality beyond the reach of most humans, but science as a whole suffers. Could this reputation have something to do with the difficulty in places like the US of creating and retaining science and engineering talent?”

(Sally Adee “The lone genius” p51 New Sci 11 Aug 2012. review of ‘Hawking Incorporated’ by Helene Mialet, University of Chicago Press, 2012)


THE ROOT OF INTELLIGENCE IS THE ABILITY TO RESIST INSTINCT AND BIAS – metacognition of individuals and functional stupidity of organisations

There is no way of measuring the intelligence of our ancestors and so know way of knowing if we are getting more or less intelligent overtime. And anyway a high intelligence is no guarantee that an individual will act rationally. This paradox was investigated by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman at Princeton University, with his colleague Amos Tversky. They found that we process information in the brain via two different systems. “IQ tests measure only one of these, the deliberate processing that plays a key role in conscious problem-solving. Yet our default position in everyday life is to use our intuition. Being with, these intuitive mechanisms gave us an evolutionary advantage offering cognitive shortcuts that help deal with information overload. They include cognitive biases such as stereotyping, confirmation bias, and resistance to ambiguity – the temptation to accept the first solution to a problem even if it is obviously not the best.

“While these evolved biases, called “heuristics”, may help our thinking in certain situations, they can derail our judgement if we rely on them uncritically. For this reason, the inability to recognise or resist them is as the root of stupidity.”

Metacognition “is the ability to assess the validity of your own knowledge.” If one acquires methods to become more self-aware this should increase ones metacognition. [Mindfulness meditation for example.] A very simple way is just to try and consider the merits of the opposite position to your gut reaction. [I have done this one myself.] Distractions, intense emotions or anything that fill up the working memory reduce your capacity for metacognition, and so increase the chances of you behaving stupidly.

Andre Spicer (Cass Business School, London) and Mats Alvesson (Lund University, Sweden) did research that stumbled upon how some business practices mismanage highly intelligent people, creating what they call “functional stupidity”.   Consultancies, PR agencies and investment banks were particularly adept at functional stupidity. For example, there is ambiguity bias, created by the pressure to avoid the inherent complexity of large organisations. “In a meta-analysis last year, Spicer and Alvesson reported that functional stupidity was a direct contributor to the financial crisis (Journal of Management Studies, vol 49, p1194).” Problems were regarded as someone else’s and those above disciplined those below for raising any concerns.

(Sally Adee ‘Stupid is as stupid does’ p30-33 New Sci 30 Mar 2013)


Evil occurs where there is no social accountability. When Skilling became the new president of Enron changed the culture, which lead to the collapse of the company. He misread “The Selfish Gene” to create a selfish competitive system motivated by greed and fear. Performance targets and 10-26% bonuses naturally lead to staff fiddling the figures and sabotaging the work of colleagues. Energy prices soared and their were rolling blackouts in California.

“A horizontal corporate structure generates an atmosphere of equalitarianism and non-elitism that taps into the environment of our Palaeolithic ancestors, who evolved in what are believed to have been largely egalitarian bands and tribes.”

Google says it is make the information of the world available to all, without anyone controlling it “Information transparency trumps political hegemony.” However their motto “‘Don’t be evil’ is a moral standard toward which to aim, not a sinless existence whose unattainability means no such norm should be invoked. The point of having moral codes – whether you are a hunter-gather or a consumer-trader – is to construct an environment of trust that encourages the expression of moral behavior.”

(Michael Shermer “Don’t be evil. Enron, Google  and the evolutionary psychology of corporate environments” p60-65 Scientific American Mind Feb/Mar 2008)



The half-joking Parkinson’s law from 1955 ‘where the work expands to fill the available to complete it’, has been tested and shown to have some validity. However, Parkinson’s less well known observation about committees has also been proved to be  true. This observation is that committees above 20 are unable to reach a concensus, and Parkinson noted that no nation had a cabinet of 8 and that England only had it once and that was under Charles the First before the Civil War. (Peter Klimek, Rudolf Hanel and Stefan Thurner of the Medical University of Vienna, Austria)

(Buchanan, Mark ‘The curse of the committee’ p 38 New Sci 10 Jan 2009)



“Our irrational nature is very difficult to explain if you maintain that human intelligence evolved to solve complex problems, where clear, logical thought should offer the advantage. As such, it has remained something of a puzzle. An elegant explanation may have arrived. Hugo Mercier at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, and Dan Sperber at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, believe that human reasoning evolved to help us to argue…Since the most persuasive lines of reasoning are not always the most logical, our brains apparent foibles may result from this need to justify our actions and convince others to see our point of view – whether it is right or wrong. “We end up making decisions that look rational, rather than making genuinely rational decisions,” says Mercier. The flipside, of course, is that we also face the risk of being duped by others, so we developed a healthy scepticism and an ability to see flaws in others’ reasoning.”

This may have arisen from how our brains evolved to deal with the complex social situations of our species. Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, says “Moral argumentation is not a search for moral truth, but a tool for moral persuasion.”

The balance between producing convincing arguments and finding their faults is ‘group thinking’. Experiments have shown that it can produce results far better than those of irrational individuals. It was not the smartest person giving the group the answer, nor did it matter if known of the group had managed to solve the problem before, collectively they achieved it. “The tasks ranged from solving visual puzzles and brainstorming ideas to negotiating how to distribute scarce resources.” Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “concluded that a group’s performance has little relation to the average or maximum intelligence of the individuals in the group. Instead, collective intelligence is determined by the way the group argues – those who scored best on her tests allowed each person to play a part in the conversations. The best groups also tended to include members who were more sensitive to the moods and feelings of other people. Groups with more women, in particular, outperformed the others – perhaps because women tend to be more sensitive to social cues (Science, col. 330, p686).”

According to Robert Sternberg, Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, group thinking goes wrong when emotion issues drive individuals to extreme positions and while moderates are ignored or silenced. A decade of research by Neil Mercer, University of Cambridge has shown that group thinking works best when there is a exploration to a clear goal, with ideas openly given and openly criticised.

“Sternberg believes educational systems are still too focused on developing individual knowledge and analytical reasoning – which, as the research shows, can encourage us to justify our biases and bolster our prejudices. “We believe that our intelligence makes us wise when it actually make us more susceptible to foolishness,” says Sternberg. Puncture this belief, and we may be able to cash in on our argumentative nature while escaping the pitfalls.”

(Dan Jones ‘The argumentative ape’ p33-36 New Sci 26 May 2012)


There is also some evidence to suggest that whose who complain and are dissatisfied and are more creative as they question the status quo. (Jing Zhou and Jennifer George at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Academy of Management Journal.  vol 44, p682.) (Alison Motluk ‘Creative solutions’ p32-33 New Sci 9 May 2009)


Crowdsourcing has been repeatedly shown to perform extremely well. Experiments showed that the collective IQ of the group was higher than that of any individual involved if there were enough people involved.

(Jacob Aron ‘Why using the hive mind is nearly always best’, p22 New Sci 9 Jun 2012)




“Power increases testosterone levels, which in turn increases the uptake of dopamine in the brain’s reward network. The results are an increase in egocentricity and a reduction in empathy (Psychological Science, vol 17, p1068).”

Through its cocaine-like disruption of the brain’s reward system, unfettered power leads to real problems of judgement, emotional functioning, self-awareness and inhibitions. Unfettered power can also trigger narcissism and a mentality along the lines of “hubris syndrome” that the former British cabinet minister David Owen identified, where power becomes an intoxicating drug for politicians.”

Even small amount of power can reduce empathy. Experiments by “Dacher Keltner and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, who showed that when a hierarchical group is presented with a plate of cookies, “the boss” is much more likely to take the last one, and eat it with an open mouth, scattering debris and leaving crumbs on the face. These behaviours are not features of a bad upbringing or sloppy personality; if the same person was part of the group, they would be more likely to eat demurely.”

Not all those who have power end up abusing it and becoming bullies. Research by Nathaniel Fast (and colleagues at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business) has discovered that those who bully “feel inadequate in their role as a boss”.

“This then is the conundrum: we need strong leaders with an appetite for power and who can benefit from its anti-depressant effects while being able to negotiate the stresses, decisions and loneliness of leadership. Power feels good because it uses the same reward networks as cocaine and sex. As we watch our leaders rapidly grey and lines with the stress of office, we recognise that they need to be rewarded and motivated by power to stay the course and handle the complex challenges of the 21st century. At the same time, they need protecting from the toxic effects of the world’s most seductive neurological drug.

“Yet the effects of power on the brains of leaders is one of the great under considered variables in life. In the very near future, the neurological and psychological effects of power must become part of the discourse about leaders, bosses, professors, doctors – and all the other roles in which individuals are given charge of resources which others want, need or fear. Of course power’s effects are not all negative. It makes people smarter and more inclined to think abstractly and strategically. Power emboldens by reducing anxiety and raising mood, and it gives people a greater appetite for risk. This makes sense evolutionarily: as a species that goes in for hierarchical organised groups, leadership or dominance should enhance strategic thinking, reduce anxiety and allow leaders room to inspire others to keep up to the mark. We cannot use leaders who are paralysed by a surfeit of empathy. Which general would make the right decision if he emotionally engaged with the suffering of every soldier or civilian?”

(Ian Robertson ‘The Ultimate High’ p28-29 New Sci 7 July 2012)



Dacher Keltner and Michael Kraus at the University of California have researched heavily in this area, and designed experiments looking at rich and poor.

“The poorer subjects were more likely to use warmer and more expressive language and gestures that signal engagement, while the richer participants were more stand-offish (Psychological Science, vol 20, p99).”

“To rate the emotions expressed in 20 photographs of human faces – a standard test of emotional intelligence. As predicted, those with the more prestigious jobs were consistently worse at the task.”

“Students from poorer backgrounds were better at guessing their partner’s feelings than those from wealthier backgrounds (Psychological Science, vol21, p1716).”

“When asked to imagine a conversation with someone they deemed to be higher up the social ladder, the wealthier participants became immediately better at reading emotions. The team concluded that the observed effects are probably automatic reactions that lead us to become more vigilant and mindful of others when we feel subordinate.”

“People from less-privileged backgrounds tended to give more than those higher on the social ladder.”

“This selfish tendency on the part of the better off seems to translate to all kinds of situations….wealthier people are more likely to behave unethically… For instance, Keltners’s latest study has found that richer people are more likely to commit an offence while driving, eat sweets that are intended for children, or cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, vol 109, p4086).”

“Hazel Rose Markus at Stanford University in California, who studies the effects of culture on behaviour, has also found that social and financial success can make people less caring.”

“The extensive Whitehall studies, which examined the health of British civil servants over decades, found a very clear link between illness and job grade. Those lower down the hierarchy were more likely to have cardiovascular and respiratory disease and to die younger than those in more senior positions, even after other social and economic factors had been taken into account.”

Markus “My hunch is that increased empathy of the working class does not buffer them from stress but rather adds to the stress.”

Research “suggesting they are more sensitive to perceived social slights (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 37, p1376) “this is one of the negative consequences of being empathic in a context that is profoundly unfair”, says Kraus.”

This awareness maybe what leads to anxiety, hopelessness and depression and then ill health.

“In other words, poorer people, who must rely much more on others to get by, are more aware of contextual or social factors that might contribute to someone’s circumstances, while those with the social and financial resources to go it alone consider that life is what you make of it.” [Both are partly right.]

“On one level, this seems predictable: wealthy people want to feel they deserve their high income, and no one who is hard up wants to hold themselves responsible. But….it’s plausible that the reduced empathy that comes with wealth and success may contribute to a more conservative, right-wing position aimed at preserving the interests of the rich.

This undermines trickle down economics. Keltner “Our results say you cannot rely on the wealthy to give back, to fix all the problems of society. It is improbable psychologically.” [It is not a moral judgement against the rich, it is just the manifestation of the psychological drive within us all.]

(Michael Bond ‘The price of wealth’ p52-53 New Sci 21 Apr 2012)



Research by David Hall, director of Public Services International Research Unit at the University of Greenwich in London. “As well as staving off poverty, benefit money gets recycled into the economy as poorer people spend all they have on essentials. In contrast, tax breaks can divert funds elsewhere. Hall points out that in 2008, less than a third of the money given away through tax breaks in the US was put back into the economy – the rest was saved or used to repay debts.”

In Argentina the economic crash of 2001, lead to government defaults on debts and a devalued currency. Public spending went up from 14% of GDP in 2003 to 25% of GDP in 2010. “Funds went to building new homes, modernising public transport and investing in minimum wage, pensions and child benefits. In that period the economy grew by 6% per year, and by 2011 it was up to 8%.” It was a similar story for Iceland.

“In times of crisis, loosening the purse strings to spend on welfare can be daunting – and politically unpopular. But as history shows, it may lay the surest foundations for economic growth.”

(Andy Coghlan ‘How should Greece prioritise spending?’ p7 New Sci 26 May 2012)



Charisma is difficult to psychologists to define, but it seems be a mixture of innate and learned behaviour. It also depends a lot on the context of the social situation. Cult leaders need it to start their movements, but not to develop them. They can even be recluses and their groups continue.

“The most common personality trait of cult leaders is not charisma but psychopathy.” “All of the things I did that I now think were horrible, I did because she demanded it, and I had a belief in her that she knew what was right.” says Janja Lalich (California State University in Chico).

Sandy Pentland, has identified aspects of non-verbal social signal that underpin charisma:- mimicry (such as back and forth smiles and nods), high activity (bubbly not listless signalling of interest), and also fluid and consistent speech and movement (causing others to unconsciously match) (American Scientist, vol 98, p 203).

“If charisma’s key components are pre-linguistic social signals, that suggests it is evolutionarily ancient, he [Pentland] says. In general, social signalling tends to encourage consensus between individuals, so it may have evolved to help create stable social groups. But human societies must not be too stable or they will never make the kinds of strides that have led to technological and social revolutions – and that’s where charismatic individuals come in, says Pentland. It takes someone charismatic to change a culture.”

“There is another reason [apart from revolutions being either good or bad] we should be wary of charisma: it may not be backed up with real ability. Rakesh Khurana of Harvard Business School has found that US companies looking for a new leader seek charisma above all else, but results can be disappointing, in certain market conditions, a charismatic CEO can boost a company’s stock price, but this can be short-lived because that individual may be better at conveying an image than running a business, says Khurana. Although more able executives can learn to be more charismatic, the fact that charisma is now being taught in business schools could actually compound the problem.”

(Emma Young ‘The X Factor’ p38-41 New Sci 23 June 2012)




From a vast meta analysis those traits common to all human societies were compiled alphabetically by Donald E. Brown (Brown, D.E. 1991. Human universals. New York: McGraw-Hill) and published in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, 2002, New York: Viking Press.

(Also see Brown, D.E., 2000. Human universals and their implications. In N. Roughley (Ed.) Being humans: Anthropological universality and particularity in transdisplinary perspectives. New York: Walter de Gruyter.)



abstraction in speech & thought


actions under self-control distinguished from those not under control




affection expressed and felt


age grades


age statuses


age terms












baby talk


belief in supernatural/religion


beliefs, false


beliefs about death


beliefs about disease


beliefs about fortune and misfortune


binary cognitive distinctions


biological mother and social mother normally the same person


black (color term)


body adornment


childbirth customs




childhood fears


childhood fear of loud noises


childhood fear of strangers


choice making (choosing alternatives)




classification of age


classification of behavioral propensities


classification of body parts


classification of colors


classification of fauna


classification of flora


classification of inner states


classification of kin


classification of sex


classification of space


classification of tools


classification of weather conditions




collective identities




conflict, consultation to deal with


conflict, means of dealing with


conflict, mediation of


conjectural reasoning




continua (ordering as cognitive pattern)


contrasting marked and nonmarked sememes (meaningful elements in language)






cooperative labor


copulation normally conducted in privacy


corporate (perpetual) statuses


coyness display


critical learning periods




cultural variability




culture/nature distinction


customary greetings


daily routines




death rituals


decision making


decision making, collective


differential valuations


directions, giving of


discrepancies between speech, thought, and action


dispersed groups


distinguishing right and wrong






division of labor


division of labor by age


division of labor by sex






dream interpretation


economic inequalities


economic inequalities, consciousness of






entification (treating patterns and relations as things)


environment, adjustments to




envy, symbolic means of coping with








face (word for)


facial communication


facial expression of anger


facial expression of contempt


facial expression of disgust


facial expression of fear


facial expression of happiness


facial expression of surprise


facial expressions, masking/modifying of


fairness (equity), concept of


family (or household)


father and mother, separate kin terms for




fear of death


fears, ability to overcome some




females do more direct childcare


figurative speech






food preferences


food sharing


future, attempts to predict


generosity admired




gift giving


good and bad distinguished








group living


groups that are not based on family






hand (word for)


healing the sick (or attempting to)






husband older than wife on average


hygienic care


identity, collective




incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed


incest, prevention or avoidance


in-group distinguished from out-group(s)


in-group biases in favor of


inheritance rules


institutions (organized co-activities)






interest in bioforms (living things or things that resemble them)




interpreting behavior


intertwining (e.g., weaving)




judging others


kin, close distinguished from distant


kin groups


kin terms translatable by basic relations of procreation


kinship statuses




language employed to manipulate others


language employed to misinform or mislead


language is translatable


language not a simple reflection of reality


language, prestige from proficient use of


law (rights and obligations)


law (rules of membership)






likes and dislikes


linguistic redundancy


logical notions


logical notion of “and”


logical notion of “equivalent”


logical notion of “general/particular”


logical notion of “not”


logical notion of “opposite”


logical notion of “part/whole”


logical notion of “same”




magic to increase life


magic to sustain life


magic to win love


making comparisons


male and female and adult and child seen as having different natures


males dominate public/political realm


males engage in more coalitional violence


males more aggressive


males more prone to lethal violence


males more prone to theft


males, on average, travel greater distances over lifetime


manipulate social relations


marking at phonemic, syntactic, and lexical levels






meal times


mearning, most units of are non-universal










mental maps








mood- or consciousness-altering techniques and/or substances


moral sentiments


moral sentiments, limited effective range of




mother normally has consort during child-rearing years




murder proscribed




music, children’s


music related in part to dance


music related in part to religious activity


music seen as art (a creation)


music, vocal


music, vocal, includes speech forms


musical redundancy


musical reptition


musical variation






nomenclature (perhaps the same as classification)


nonbodily decorative art


normal distinguished from abnormal states




numerals (counting)


Oedipus complex


oligarchy (de facto)


one (numeral)




overestimating objectivity of thought






person, concept of


personal names




phonemes defined by set of minimally constrasting features


phonemes, merging of


phonemes, range from 10 to 70 in number


phonemic change, inevitability of


phonemic change, rules of


phonemic system




planning for future




play to perfect skills




poetic line, uniform length range


poetic lines characterized by repetition and variation


poetic lines demarcated by pauses


polysemy (one word has several meanings)


possessive, intimate


possessive, loose


practice to improve skills


precedence, concept of (that’s how the leopard got its spots)


preference for own children and close kin (nepotism)


prestige inequalities


pretend play




private inner life






pronouns, minimum two numbers


pronouns, minimum three persons


proper names




proverbs, sayings


proverbs, sayings – in mutually contradictory forms


psychological defense mechanisms




rape proscribed


reciprocal exchanges (0f labor, goods, or services)


reciprocity, negative (revenge, retaliation)


regocnition of individuals by face


redress of wrongs


resistance to abuse of poser, to dominance




right-handedness as population norm




rites of passage




role and personality seen in dynamic interrlationship (i.e., departures from role can be explained in terms of individual personality)




sanctions fro crimes against the collectivity


sanctions include removal from the social unit




self distinguished from other


self as neither wholly passive nor wholly autonomous


self as subject and object


self-image, awareness of (concern for what others think)


self-image, manipulation of


self-image, wanted to be positive


self is responsible




semantic category of affecting things and people


semantic category of dimension


semantic category of giving


semantic category of location


semantic category of motion


semantic category of other physical properties


semantic components


semantic components, generation


semantic components, sex


sememes, commonly used ones are short, infrequently used ones are longer


senses unified


sex differences in spatial cognition and behavior


sex (gender) terminology is fundamentally binary


sex statuses


sexual attraction


sexual attractiveness


sexual jealousy


sexual modesty


sexual regulation


sexual regulation includes incest prevention


sexuality as focus of interest






sickness and death seen as related


snakes, wariness around


social structure




socialization expected from senior kin


socialization includes toilet training




special speech for special occasions


statuses and roles


statuses, ascribed and achieved


statuses distinguished from individuals


statuses on other than sex, age, or kinship bases


stinginess, disapproval of


stop/nonstop contrasts (in speech sounds)




sucking wounds


sweets preferred




symbolic speech


synesthetic metaphors






tabooed foods


tabooed utterances






thumb sucking






time, cyclicity of




tool dependency


tool making


tools for cutting


tools to make tools


tools patterned culturally


tools, permament


tools for pounding


toys, playthings




triangular awareness (assessinjg relationships among the self and two other people)


true and false distinguished)




two (numeral)


tying material (i.e., something like string)


units of time




violence, some forms of proscribed




vocalic/nonvocalic contrasts in phonemes


vowel contrasts






weather control (attempts to)


white (color term)


world view