“How Did Belief Evolve?” – Agustín Fuentes [Sapiens]

“How Did Belief Evolve?

An anthropologist traces the development of Homo sapiens’ most creative and destructive force, from the making of stone tools to the rise of religions.

Agustín Fuentes
is the chair of the anthropology department at the University of Notre Dame.


About 20 years ago, the residents of Padangtegal village in Bali, Indonesia, had a problem. The famous, monkey-filled forest surrounding the local Hindu temple complex had become stunted, and saplings failed to sprout and thrive. Since I was conducting fieldwork in the area, the head of the village council, Pak Acin, asked me and my team to investigate.

We discovered that locals and tourists visiting the temples had previously brought food wrapped in banana leaves, then tossed the used leaves on the ground. But when plastic-wrapped meals became popular, visitors threw the plastic onto the forest floor, where it choked the young trees.

I told Acin we would clean up the soil and suggested he enact a law prohibiting plastic around the temples. He laughed and told us a ban would be useless. The only thing that would change people’s behavior was belief. What we needed, he said, was a goddess of plastic.

Over the next year, our research team and Balinese collaborators didn’t exactly invent a Hindu deity. But we did harness Balinese beliefs and traditions about harmony between people and environments. We created new narratives about plastic, forests, monkeys, and temples. We developed ritualistic caretaking behaviors that forged new relationships between humans, monkeys, and forests.

As a result, the soils and undergrowth were rejuvenated, the trees grew stronger and taller, and the monkeys thrived. Most importantly, the local community reaped the economic and social benefits of a healthy, vigorous forest and temple complex.

Acin taught me that science and rules cannot ensure lasting change without belief—the most creative and destructive ability humans have ever evolved.


In my recent book, Why We Believe,* I explore how we evolved this universally and uniquely human capacity, drawing on my 26 years of research into human and other primates’ evolution, biology, and daily lives. Our 2-million-year journey to complex religions, political philosophies, and technologies essentially follows a three-step path: from imagination to meaning-making to belief systems. To trace that path, we must go back to where it started: rocks.


By 500,000 years ago, Homo had mastered the skill of shaping stone, bone, hides, horns, and wood into dozens of tool types. Some of these tools were so symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing that some scientists speculate toolmaking took on a ritual aspect that connected Homo artisans with their traditions and community. These ritualistic behaviors may have evolved, hundreds of thousands of years later, into the rituals we see in religions.

With their new gadgets, Homo chopped wood, dug deeper for tubers, collected new fruits and leaves, and put a wider variety of animals on the menu. These activities—expanding their diets, constructing new ecologies, and altering the implements in their environment—literally reshaped their bodies and minds.

In response to these diverse experiences, Homo grew increasingly dynamic neural pathways that allowed them to become even more responsive to their environment. During this time period, Homo’s brains reached their modern size.


The advent of cooking opened up a new landscape of foods and nutrient profiles. By boiling, barbecuing, grinding, or mashing meat and plants, Homo maximized access to proteins, fats, and minerals.

This gave them the nutrition and energy necessary for extended childhood brain development and increased neural connectivity. It allowed them to travel greater distances. It enabled them to evolve neurobiologies and social capacities that made it possible to move from imagining and making new tools to imagining and making new ways of being human.


Once groups are attributing shared meaning to objects they can manipulate, it is an easy jump to give shared meaning to larger elements they cannot change: storms, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, eclipses, and even death. We have evidence that by at least a few hundred thousand years ago, early humans were placing their dead in caves. Within the past 50,000 years, distinct examples of burial practices became more and more common.”

“The Emotional Mind – The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition” by Stephen T. Asma & Rami Gabriel [The Brains Blog]

“The Emotional Mind: The affective roots of culture and cognition


FEBRUARY 16, 2020



In our new book The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition (Harvard University Press, 2019), we argue that emotional systems are central to understanding the evolution of the human mind (as well as those of our primate cousins). Following the pioneering affective science of researchers like Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio, and Fran de Waal, we bring together insights and data from philosophy, biology and psychology to shape a new research program –an alternative approach to the algorithmic assumptions of cognitive science and the post hoc stories of some evolutionary psychology.

A sufficient account of the evolution of mind needs to go deeper than our power of propositional thinking –our rarefied ability to manipulate linguistic representations in a lingua mentis. We will have to understand a much older capacity – the power to feel and respond appropriately. We need to think about consciousness itself as an archaeologist thinks about layers of sedimentary strata.

Affective science can demonstrate the surprising relevance of feelings to perception, movement, decision-making, and social behavior. The mind is saturated with feelings. Almost every perception and thought is valenced, or emotionally weighted with some attraction or repulsion quality.[3] Moreover, those feelings, sculpted in the encounter between neuroplasticity and ecological setting, provide the true semantic contours of mind. Meaning is foundationally a product of embodiment, our relation to the immediate environment, and the emotional cues of social interaction, not abstract correspondence between sign and referent. The challenge then is to unpack this embodiment. How do emotions like care, rage, lust, and even playfulness enable the social world of mammals, an information-rich niche for human learning, and a motivational system for higher-level ideational salience?


The biological and psychological sciences have historically isolated or focused on one layer of mind to the exclusion of others, and thereby presented partial and sometimes conflicting pictures of mind and behavior. Many computationally oriented cognitive scientists tend to focus on tertiary-level processing, while behaviorists focus on secondary-level processing.

We think the lowest layers of mind permeate, infiltrate, and animate the higher layers. The evolution of mind is the developmental story of how these layers emerged and acted as feedback loops on each other. Such feedback, however, is not strictly a brain process, but an embodied, enactive, embedded, and socio-cultural process.”


The Emotional Mind – The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition

Stephen T. Asma, Rami Gabriel


Tracing the leading role of emotions in the evolution of the mind, a philosopher and a psychologist pair up to reveal how thought and culture owe less to our faculty for reason than to our capacity to feel.

Many accounts of the human mind concentrate on the brain’s computational power. Yet, in evolutionary terms, rational cognition emerged only the day before yesterday. For nearly 200 million years before humans developed a capacity to reason, the emotional centers of the brain were hard at work. If we want to properly understand the evolution of the mind, we must explore this more primal capability that we share with other animals: the power to feel.

Emotions saturate every thought and perception with the weight of feelings. The Emotional Mind reveals that many of the distinctive behaviors and social structures of our species are best discerned through the lens of emotions. Even the roots of so much that makes us uniquely human―art, mythology, religion―can be traced to feelings of caring, longing, fear, loneliness, awe, rage, lust, playfulness, and more.

From prehistoric cave art to the songs of Hank Williams, Stephen T. Asma and Rami Gabriel explore how the evolution of the emotional mind stimulated our species’ cultural expression in all its rich variety. Bringing together insights and data from philosophy, biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology, The Emotional Mind offers a new paradigm for understanding what it is that makes us so unique.”

“The dark side of social movements: Social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories” – Anni Sternisko, Aleksandra Cichocka & Jay J. Van Bavel [Current Opinion in Psychology]

“The dark side of social movements: Social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories

Anni Sternisko
Aleksandra Cichocka
Jay J. Van Bavel

Current Opinion in Psychology

Available online 21 February 2020



• Conspiracy theories claim that a powerful group is secretly pursuing an evil goal.

• Conspiracy theories can foster anti-democratic social movements.

• Conspiracy theories attract people with both their content and qualities.

• Content and qualities appeal to people differently based on their motivations.

Social change does not always equal social progress–there is a dark side of social movements. We discuss conspiracy theory beliefs –beliefs that a powerful group of people are secretly working towards a malicious goal–as one contributor to destructive social movements. Research has linked conspiracy theory beliefs to anti-democratic attitudes, prejudice and non-normative political behavior. We propose a framework to understand the motivational processes behind conspiracy theories and associated social identities and collective action. We argue that conspiracy theories comprise at least two components – content and qualities— that appeal to people differently based on their motivations. Social identity motives draw people foremost to contents of conspiracy theories while uniqueness motives draw people to qualities of conspiracy theories.


What motivates social movements that threaten social health, economic prosperity, and democratic principles? We argue that conspiracy theories — theories that a powerful group of people are secretly working towards a malevolent or unlawful goal [8**] can be one reason. Though not all conspiracy theories are wrong, irrational, or harmful for society, many of them are in fact closely intertwined with some of today’s most powerful, destructive social movements.


Recent reviews [30,8**] distilled three main motivators behind conspiracy theory beliefs: conspiracy beliefs are higher when people want to (1) feel good about themselves and the groups they belong to [31,32, 21], (2) make sense of their environment [33–35], or (3) feel safe and in control [36–38].


Conspiracy theories can be understood as a genre of belief systems that is defined by certain qualities. Each individual conspiracy theory is a film with a unique content. Content refers to the unique narrative elements of each conspiracy theory. While conspiracy theories all share the premise that a nefarious group is secretly working towards a malicious or unlawful goal, individual conspiracy theories vary in the specific group (e.g., Illuminati; government), which goal is pursued (e.g., New World Order, war) and which events can be explained (e.g., 2008 financial crisis, 9/11 terrorist attacks). This is similar to the contents of specific movies that people find appealing, like your favorite actor.


… the belief in a flat earth might primarily emerge from the psychological benefits of holding contrarian beliefs rather than compelling physical arguments. This is consistent with findings that participants who believed in one conspiracy theory were also more likely to believe in others, even when they were contradictory [42, 43]. We illustrate our argument by the means of discussing two motives behind conspiracy theory beliefs in more detail: social identity motives and uniqueness motives.

2.1. Content drawn motives: Social identity motives

People are prone to form social identities in which group membership becomes part of the self. Social identities are connected with different motives including the need to hold positive beliefs about ingroups and negative beliefs about outgroups [44]. We argue that these motives draw people primarily to certain contents of conspiracy theories.


In these cases, conspiracy theory beliefs psychologically greatly overlap with other kinds of false beliefs and can be explained by affiliated psychological models. For instance, in line with the identity-based model of political beliefs [46**], social identity motives increased participants ’likelihood to believe in fake news that represented their own political party as moral [47]. Likewise, participants were more likely to believe conspiracy theories that aligned with their party’s political stances and vilified the opposite party [39–41,48,49,50]. Sometimes people may be predominantly drawn to conspiracy theories because their content allows them to legitimize and enforce pre-existing beliefs and attitudes.


”Indeed, research suggests that people who believe in their group’s superiority but are anxious about its recognition are drawn to conspiracy theories about outgroup members [21, see also 22,23*].


For instance, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to endorse Qanon – the far-right theory that a Deep State is conspiring against President Trump [53]. In contrast, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job [54]. These differences might emerge from motivations to defend one’s ingroup from external threats and represent outgroups as morally inferior. Together with evidence that conspiracy theories that implicate outgroups can further prejudices, discrimination, and inter-group hostility [23,25–29] social identity motives might foster a vicious cycle where conspiracy theories intensify inter-group conflict and inter-group conflict fosters conspiracy theories.”

“An Evolutionary Perspective on the Real Problem with Increased Screen Time” by Glenn Geher [The Evolution Institute]

“An Evolutionary Perspective on the Real Problem with Increased Screen Time

By Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is Professor of Psychology as well as Founding Director of Evolutionary Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz.



For years, social psychologists such as Zimbardo (2007) and Diener (1976) have documented the fact that people are not exactly at their best when they are in a state of deindividuation. People are less likely to be kind, more likely to be aggressive, and more likely to engage in a broad array of anti-social actions under deindividuated conditions. For this reason, evolutionary psychologist A. J. Figueredo (2006) referred to large cities, in which people are often engaging with strangers under deindividuated conditions, as breeding grounds for psychopathic behavior.

Want people to be on their worst behavior? Then put them in a deindividuated state and have all of their communications with others be fully anonymous.

Bottom Line

From the perspective of evolutionary mismatch, modern forms of social communication are more than a little problematic. Under ancestral conditions, nearly all communication was of the face-to-face variety. And it almost always included communication among individuals who have long-term bonds with one another. These days, a huge proportion of communication is of the hidden-behind-a-screen variety. And it often takes place between people who will only communicate with each other once in a lifetime. Any student of evolutionary social psychology will tell you that this is a recipe for trouble.”

“In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism” By Zoey Reeve [The Evolution Institute]

“In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism

By Zoey Reeve

Zoey Reeve has a background in Psychology, Terrorism Studies and Political Science, and is a VOX-Pol Fellow.  Her research focuses on the social-evolutionary psychology of radicalization and terrorism in both online and offline spheres.

In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism


However, this stance inhibits our capacity to understand the radicalization process because it exceptionalizes people on the basis of what can be, admittedly, a set of rather exceptional behaviors (i.e. suicide terrorism), though often also increasingly includes unexceptional behaviors (i.e. providing funding, logistics, or even just online support for certain groups). Radicalization and extremism are thus little more than labels. The ‘in the eye of the beholder’ philosophy is a luxury that some cannot afford, and perhaps many are unable to stomach. But it leaves us better equipped to understand why (some) people may engage in what we currently think of as extremism and violent extremism because it looks to normal psychological processes and mechanisms that are involved in the radicalization process, rather focusing on the qualities that we have labeled as exceptional.

One such psychological mechanism is Parochial Altruism. Parochial altruism is the propensity for humans to engage in costly-to-self behavior to protect group members from non-group members.2 One (of many) causes of death in ancestral times was outgroups. Whether due to resource encroachment, the spread of disease and parasites, or overt aggression, the mere presence of outgroups would have been enough to trigger parochial altruism. Parochial altruistic responses include fear, withdrawal or fleeing, withholding benefits/resources, and overt hostility and aggression. Presuming that an individual belongs to a sufficiently important group, perceptions of threat to that group will stir parochial altruism in modern humans, despite these conditions being unlikely to manifest in the potential existential threat that may have occurred during ancestral times. This is known as mismatch.3″

“The Evolutionary Psychology of Mass Mobilization: How Disinformation and Demagogues Coordinate Rather Than Manipulate by Michael Bang Petersen [Current Opinion in Psychology, 20 February 2020]

“The Evolutionary Psychology of Mass Mobilization: How Disinformation and Demagogues Coordinate Rather Than Manipulate

Michael Bang Petersen

Current Opinion in Psychology

Available online 20 February 2020



• Violent mobilization is often attributed to manipulation from, for example, demagogues.

• The human mind contains psychological defenses against manipulation, also in politics.

• Mass mobilization requires that the attention of group members is coordinated.

• Demagogues and disinformation can be explained as tools for achieving coordination.

• Mobilized individuals are predisposed for conflict rather than manipulated into conflict.

Large-scale mobilization is often accompanied by the emergence of demagogic leaders and the circulation of unverified rumors, especially if the mobilization happens in support of violent or disruptive projects. In those circumstances, researchers and commentators frequently explain the mobilization as a result of mass manipulation. Against this view, evolutionary psychologists have provided evidence that human psychology contains mechanisms for avoiding manipulation and new studies suggest that political manipulation attempts are, in general, ineffective. Instead, we can understand decisions to follow demagogic leaders and circulate fringe rumors as attempts to solve a social problem inherent to mobilization processes: The coordination problem. Essentially, these decisions reflect attempts to align the attention of individuals already disposed for conflict.


In this review, I ask: What are the psychological processes underlying large-scale mobilization of individuals for conflict-oriented projects? The focus is on the specific psychological role fulfilled by (a) strong leaders, (b) propaganda and (c) fringe beliefs in the context of successful mobilization processes. Understanding this role is of essential importance in current political climates where we witness a combination of political conflict, the emergence of populist leaders and concerns about the circulation of “fake news” on social media platforms.

A frequently-cited perspective is that large-scale mobilization for conflict-oriented projects reflects the use of propaganda by demagogues to manipulate the opinions of lay individuals by exploiting their reasoning deficiencies. Here, I review the emerging evidence for an alternative perspective, promoted especially within evolutionary psychology, which suggests that the primary function of leaders and information-circulation is to coordinate individuals already predisposed for conflict (1, 2**, 3). As reviewed below, human psychology contains sophisticated defenses against manipulation (4**) and, hence, it is extremely difficult to attain large-scale mobilization without the widespread existence of prior beliefs that such mobilization is beneficially. Furthermore, a range of counter-intuitive features about demagogues, disinformation and distorted beliefs is readily explained by a coordination perspective.


In general, leadership and followership evolved to solve coordination problems (21, 27) and there are reasons to expect that authoritarian leaders will solve these coordination problems to the benefit of those who seek aggression (19). Authoritarian leaders often have aggressive personalities themselves and, hence, are more likely to choose this focal point rather than others. Also, authoritarian leaders are more likely to aggressively enforce collection action, thereby also providing a solution to the free-rider problem. Consistent with this coordination-for-aggression perspective on preferences for dominant leaders, such leader preferences are specifically predicted by feelings of anger rather than, for example, fear (28, 29, 30), suggesting that people decide to follow dominant leaders to commit to an offensive strategy against the target group (28).

This perspective also explains highly counter-intuitive features of the appeal of demagogues. If followers search for the optimal leader to solve conflict-related problems of coordination, they will seek out candidates who are willing to violate normative expectations by engaging in obvious lying (31**) and who displays a personality oriented towards conflict, even if such personalities under other circumstances would be considered unappealing (2**).


Another propaganda tactic is moralistic in nature. Thus, in less violent forms of groupbased conflict, including in the context of modern social media discussions, an often-used tactic is to direct attention towards a group’s or person’s violation of moral principles. Moral principles are effective tools for large-scale coordination because they suggest that the target behavior is universally relevant (1, 34*, 35). Consistent with the coordination perspective, however, recent research suggests that the motivations to broadcast such violations can reflect attempts to mobilize others for self-interested causes. Thus, the airing of such moral principles, referred to as moralgrandstanding, is strongly motivated by status-seeking (36*) and there is increasing evidence that the acceptance of moral principles shifts flexibly with changes in self-interest (37).


Consistent with this, recent evidence shows that political affiliation is a strong predictor of statements of belief in fringe stories such as conspiracy theories and “fake news” (3, 42**).


Overall, the effects of the coordination problem on mobilization processes are dual. On the one hand, the existence of the coordination problem means that groups and societies can be stable even if they contain large minority segments of individuals who share disruptive, violent or prejudiced view. On the other hand, the existence of the coordination problem also implies that this stability can be quickly undermined if suddenly coordination is achieved. Not because people are manipulated; but because a sufficient number of them direct attention to a particular set of preferences simultaneously.”

“Find something morally sickening? Take a ginger pill” – Jessica Tracy [aeon]

“Find something morally sickening? Take a ginger pill

Jessica Tracy

is a professor of psychology and a Sauder Distinguished Scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She is the director of the Self and Emotion Lab at UBC, and an associate editor at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. She is also the author of Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success (2016).



“This gap in scientific knowledge led my former graduate student Conor Steckler to come up with a brilliant idea. As those prone to motion sickness might know, ginger root can reduce nausea. Steckler suggested we feed people ginger pills, then ask them to weigh in on morally questionable scenarios – behaviours such as peeing in a public pool, or buying a sex doll that looks like one’s receptionist. If people’s moral beliefs are wrapped up in their bodily sensations, then giving them a pill that reduces some of those sensations might reduce how wrong those behaviours seem.

In my psychology lab at the University of British Columbia, we filled empty gel capsules with either ginger powder or sugar (for randomly assigned control participants); in a double-blind design, neither the participants nor the researchers running the study knew who received which pill. After swallowing their pills and waiting 40 minutes for them to metabolise, participants were asked to read scenarios describing a range of possible moral infractions, and tell us how morally wrong they believed each to be. Sure enough, as we reported in an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2019, we found the predicted difference. Those who ingested ginger decided that some of those violations, such as someone peeing in your swimming pool, were not so wrong after all. Blocking their nausea changed our participants’ moral beliefs.


The violations that were affected by ginger, in contrast, centred on maintaining the purity of one’s own body. These transgressions are ones that have, historically, carried a high likelihood of transmitting disease. As a result, it is evolutionarily adaptive for us to feel disgusted by, and consequently avoid, close contact with dead bodies, human faeces and certain unsafe sex practices. Throughout human evolutionary history, moralising these behaviours, along with others that protect the sanctity of the body, might have been a useful way for societies to shield their members from dangerous germs they had no cognitive awareness of. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, in many cultures this presumably adaptive tendency morphed into a broader ethic that uses concepts such as purity, sanctity and sin to discourage behaviours perceived to cause some manner of bodily degradation. In many cultures, these rules have stretched far beyond their original adaptive purposes; today, across the globe, societies regulate individuals’ purity-related behaviours by invoking morality in ways that sometimes do – but just as often do not – lead to actual health or social benefits.

We were able to shift people’s sanctity beliefs simply by giving them ginger. A moral view that changes on the basis of how nauseous we feel is probably not one that we want to put a lot of stake in.”


“The physiological basis of psychological disgust and moral judgments.

Tracy, Jessica L. Steckler, Conor M. Heltzel, Gordon

[Tracy, J. L., Steckler, C. M., & Heltzel, G. (2019). The physiological basis of psychological disgust and moral judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(1), 15–32. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000141


To address ongoing debates about whether feelings of disgust are causally related to moral judgments, we pharmacologically inhibited spontaneous disgust responses to moral infractions and examined effects on moral thinking. Findings demonstrated, first, that the antiemetic ginger (Zingiber officinale), known to inhibit nausea, reduces feelings of disgust toward nonmoral purity-offending stimuli (e.g., bodily fluids), providing the first experimental evidence that disgust is causally rooted in physiological nausea (Study 1). Second, this same physiological experience was causally related to moral thinking: ginger reduced the severity of judgments toward purity-based moral violations (Studies 2 and 4) or eliminated the tendency for people higher in bodily sensation awareness to make harsher moral judgments than those low in this dispositional tendency (Study 3). In all studies, effects were restricted to moderately severe purity-offending stimuli, consistent with preregistered predictions. Together, findings provide the first evidence that psychological disgust can be disrupted by an antiemetic and that doing so has consequences for moral judgments. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)”

Petersen, Michael Bang. “The evolutionary psychology of mass politics”. In Applied Evolutionary Psychology (Oxford, 2012)

Applied Evolutionary Psychology

S. Craig Roberts (ed.)

Print ISBN-13: 9780199586073

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

Chapter 8 – The evolutionary psychology of mass politics

Michael Bang Petersen


A number of modern political issues mimic ancestral problems of social living. By implication, our evolved social psychology is engaged by mass politics and helps facilitate the formation of public opinion and behaviour. Yet, the contextual differences between ancestral small-scale interaction and mass politics are many in terms of scale. On the one hand, the automatic operations of our evolved psychology prompt individuals to disregard these differences: individuals effectively think about mass political issues as small-scale social problems. On other hand, in the large-scale setting of mass politics, individuals cannot rely on directly available cues but are left with cues provided by media and political elites or, when these too are absent, on internally-generated cues. In these situations, our evolved social psychology will not so much facilitate a clear choice as produce ambivalence and attitudinal inconsistencies.

Keywords: evolutionary politics, leadership, voting, social behaviour


“Whenever an individualturns on the television, picks up a newspaper, or browses the Internet, it is likely that he or she willbe confronted with the developments in national or international politics. In this chapter, I will investigate how lay individuals process these developments and form opinions on them using evolved decision-making mechanisms. As will be seen, ancestral life in small hunter/gatherer groups has selected for a suite of mechanisms that are engaged by mass politics, but at the sametime these mechanisms evolved to function within a radically different context. By implication, whenever a mass political problem engages the evolved mind, it seems to be psychologically reduced to a problem of small-scale interaction.


The political animal

As group-living animals, a range of social problems such as sharing decisions, formation of collective action, punishment of free-riders, management of intergroup relations, and hierarchy formation would directly have impinged on the survival and reproduction of our ancestors (Buss 2005). The evidence supporting this assertion is overwhelming. Anthropologists have, for example, carefully compiled a list of human universals (i.e. traits that are present in all known human cultures). This list features inherently collective traits such collective identities, conflict, conflict mediation, cooperation, ethnocentrism, government, group living, law, leaders, property, sanctions for crime, and trade (Pinker 2002). Furthermore, the fossil record provides evidence that many of these activities are not only universal but have deep evolutionary roots. Hence, archaeological findings document that our ancestors have cared for the crippled and injured at least since 1.77 million years ago (Hublin 2009), have had elements of social organization at least since 750,000 years ago (Alperson-Afil et al. 2009), have hunted cooperatively and shared meat within groups at least since 400,000 years ago (Stiner et al . 2009), and have used weapons to engage inconspecific aggression since at least the Middle Palaeolithic (Walker 2001).


These insights from evolutionary psychology are important for our understanding of political behaviour because ancestral problems related to social living carry structural similarities to modern political problems such as welfare, tax payments, criminal sanctions, immigration, warfare, race relations, and redistribution (Alford and Hibbing 2004; Schreiber 2006; Petersen 2009). Both sets of problems are, essentially, about distributions of costs and benefits within and between groups. By implication it is plausible that, during normal development, the human mind builds a tool box of mental programs directly applicable to the issues of mass politics. This toolbox should facilitate the formation of political attitudes and the execution of political decisions.

To the evolved mind, all politics is local

Our social decision-making apparatus was designed by natural selection to produce decisions that would constitute adaptive ‘best bets’ in the particular environment in which it evolved (Toobyand Cosmides 1992). In this respect, it is notable and important that modern politics is played out in large-scale nation states comprising millions of individuals, because large-scale societies are extremely recent evolutionary phenomena. States first emerged in the world around 5000 before present (BP) and, while state technology rapidly diffused to some parts of the world, states inother parts of the world were only formed within the last centuries (Petersen and Skaaning 2010).For millions of years prior to that, human evolved as hunters and gatherers in small-scale groups with between 25 and 200 individuals (Kelly 1995). Most parts of our species-typical social decision-making apparatus are, in other words, designed to be operative within the causal structure of a small-scale social environment rather than a large-scale mass society. This implies, first,that the input this apparatus is designed to extract and process from decision-making contexts would be cues causally relevant for adaptive choice in small-scale interaction and, second, that the cognitive and motivational output this apparatus produces is that which would solve a given problem in a small-scale context.

We have no reason to believe that modern individuals should be particularly aware of these built-in assumptions and, hence, they may not be able to correct for them. Rather, prior research in other fields suggests that evolved decision-rules operate in an automated fashion. This has important consequences (Price 2008), for example, argues that because of their automated nature, evolved decision-rules are switched on by any cues that mimic ancestrally recurrent cues even when these are present in a novel situation and, upon triggering, cause individuals to misapprehend the novel situation as a related evolutionarily recurrent one (see also Hagen andHammerstein 2006).


to the extent that individuals’ attitudes on modern political issues are formed using evolved decision making mechanisms, these attitudes will implicitly assume that mass politics are in fact played outin a local small-scale setting. In other words, to paraphrase an often heard expression about politics: to the evolved mind, all politics is local. The information that people find intuitively relevant when producing political choices will be information of relevance in small-scale social environments; and the political solutions that people will find intuitively correct will be solutions that work within such environments. This effect, it must be stressed, does not arise because modern individuals are not consciously aware that the problems of state-centred politics are different from the problems they encounter in local settings with, for example, their wife, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Rather, it is because the automatic operations of evolved decision-rulesswamp the opinion formation process of individuals and make the differences seem irrelevant and uninteresting.


individuals think about mass politics in terms of ancestral small-scale interaction–whether or not this is rational from a modern-day perspective. Hence, males react as if disputesover national policies were a matter of direct physical confrontation among small numbers of individuals, rather than abstract electoral dynamics among millions.


Ancestral coalitional conflict and political groups


Our evolved coalitional machinery should be activated in all contexts containing cues that ancestrally would have disclosed the existence of group-based cooperation and conflict. In modern politics, one such context is conflict between political parties. Political parties are characterized by high levels of within-party cooperation and between-party conflict. By implication then, some of the above mechanisms should also take effect in modern party politics. In one study, affiliations with a political party were found to be psychologically represented as coalitional affiliations — atleast for males. Stanton et al. (2009) followed party supporters on the night of the 2007 US presidential elections, measuring their testosterone levels. Studies of humans and other animals have demonstrated that male testosterone levels fall in response to losing status, presumably to motivatea de-escalation of conflict. The same hormonal pattern was observed among supporters of the Republican party immediately after Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, was announced as the winner. Having voted for the losing party felt just like losing a direct status competition.

Another study focused on the notion that, if political affiliation is conceptualized as a coalitional identity, political attitudes can come to serve as coalitional badges (Petersen et al. in prep.). That is, individuals can come to have certain attitudes to signal that they are loyal partisans. If parties change position on an issue, voters usually do not shift allegiance to another party but rather change their position too (e.g. Goren 2005; Zaller 1992). In support of an evolutionary interpretation of these effects, Petersen et al. (in prep.) identified sex differences in the way citizens’ attitudes are used as coalitional badges. Subjects were primed with demeaning statements about a party attributed to a spokesman from another party. After priming, they were asked about their opinion on a policy proposal that was either attributed to the attacked party or the attacking party (keeping the content of the proposal constant) and, hence, were provided withan opportunity for signalling coalitional loyalty. As expected, males reacted in a highly coalitional manner to the primes. When their preferred party was attacked in the statement, they became more willing to support policy when attributed to their party, and less willing to support it when it was attributed to the other party. Females, however, reacted in a conciliatory fashion. When their preferred party was attacked by another party, they become more willing to accept the policy proposal by this other party, as if to appease the attacker. Female appeasement strategies have been observed among females in small-scale conflict situations (Salter et al. 2005) and make evolutionary sense in this context given the lack of female physical strength. In modern party politics, however, there seems to be less, if any, rational reason to back off in this manner.

The anonymity of mass politics and processing implications

The above examples illustrate situations where modern humans misapprehend political issues as ancestral adaptive problems. From this, one obvious expectation would be that people intuitively find politics interesting and engaging. After all, the argument implies that politics is implicitly represented as about matters of survival and reproduction. While there is certainly truth to this, it is, however, not the whole truth. The human political animal is, in fact, one with a paradoxically low interest in day-to-day affairs of modern politics. Since the first studies of public opinion and voting behaviour, political scientists have repeatedly documented how little citizens know, think, and care about politics (e.g. Converse 1964; Zaller 1992). Specifically, researchers have demonstrated that citizens do not know basic facts concerning their political system, such as the numberof seats in the legislature or the identity of those holding specific office (Carpini and Keeter 1996).Furthermore, a number of studies have demonstrated that a large number of people find it difficult to decide on political issues. On issues such as abortion and criminal justice, the public are ambivalent and most see merits in the arguments of both sides (Craig and Martinez 2005). Finally, a large number of studies have revealed that citizens have difficulties in sticking to their principles. Even though individuals in general support freedom of speech for everybody, they are often quite willing to limit the freedoms of specific groups (McClosky and Brill 1983). Similarly, individuals who support harsh punishments for crimes can be quite lenient towards specific criminals (Roberts 1992).

Any attempt to apply evolutionary psychology to the study of modern political attitudes and behaviour needs to reconcile the conclusion from evolutionary biology that humans are political animals with these observations from political science. If humans were endowed with a natural sense of politics, would citizens not think of mass politics as an interesting and intuitive affair?

Processing without cues

One reason that this turns out not to be the case is that some modern issues bear little relation ship to recurrent adaptive problems and, hence, do not activate natural intuitions. Technological advances in modern society have spawned a range of new issues (e.g. regulation of the macroeconomy). From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, such novel issues that do not fit evolved decision-mechanisms should indeed appear uninteresting and difficult to grasp. Yet, the technological advances of modern societies are insufficient to explain the lack of political attention among modern citizens. In addition, one needs — again — to focus on the contextual differences between modern mass politics and ancestral social interaction. Hence, the key to understanding how a political animal can be quite politically inattentive lies in the fact that our social decision-making mechanisms evolved in information-dense situations characterized by repeated face-to-face interactions. By implication, to disclose and solve adaptive problems of social life, our decision-making mechanisms are designed to rely on intimate social cues such asfacial expressions, knowledge of past interactions, and so on.

In the context of mass politics, these myriad subtle cues will often be lacking. Given that modern politics is played out in large-scale nation states comprising millions of individuals, the majority of citizens do not know and will never meet each other, and most often, citizens are required to form opinions and impressions of anonymous strangers. Modern politics, in other words, is characterized by information scarcity and our decision-making apparatus is unable to extract the detailed information necessary for its execution.”

“Partisanship predicts belief in fake news more strongly than conspiracy mentality, study finds” [PsyPost]

“Partisanship predicts belief in fake news more strongly than conspiracy mentality, study finds

By ERIC W. DOLAN February 6, 2020



Supporters of the current Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, were more likely to rate the pro-government fake news as coming from an independent source and were more likely to believe that the pro-government fake news was real. But Orbán supporters were less likely to view the anti-government fake news as real.

Opponents of Orbán’s government, on the other hand, were more likely to rate the anti-government fake news as coming from an independent source and were more likely to believe that the anti-government fake news was real, but were more skeptical of the pro-government fake news.

Conspiracy mentality, a measure of one’s propensity to endorse conspiracy theories, was only weakly linked to belief in anti-government fake news.

“Despite fake news and conspiracy theories often being mentioned interchangeably, our research revealed that they do not necessarily overlap. We focused on wish-fulfilling political fake news, which was unrelated to the general mentality to believe in conspiracy theories. Therefore, our research suggests that pipedream fake news is processed like any other information,” Faragó explained.


“The perception of the source is also important in the evaluation process: if the news is consistent with our beliefs, we more likely think that the news was written by an independent journalist, but if the news contradicts our viewpoint, we assume that it is biased and part of political propaganda,” Faragó added.

“When we read news, the satisfaction with the economic situation is also an important factor: if we are satisfied with the economy and the political management, we will trust pro-government news more, even if it is fake, and regard opposition news as political propaganda.”

“Therefore, we should read news that come from our own side even more critically,” Faragó said.”


We only believe in news that we doctored ourselves: The connection between partisanship and political fake news.

Faragó, Laura; Kende, Anna; Krekó, Péter



In this research we aimed to explore the importance of partisanship behind the belief in wish-fulfilling political fake news. We tested the role of political orientation, partisanship, and conspiracy mentality in the acceptance of pro- and anti-government pipedream fake news. Using a representative survey (N = 1,000) and a student sample (N = 382) in Hungary, we found that partisanship predicted belief in political fake news more strongly than conspiracy mentality, and these connections were mediated by the perceived credibility of source (independent journalism vs. political propaganda) and economic sentiment. Our findings suggest that political bias can be more important in predicting acceptance of pipedream political fake news than conspiracy mentality. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)

“Why Face Masks Are Going Viral” by Gideon Lasco [Sapiens]

“Why Face Masks Are Going Viral [Sapiens]

As the new coronavirus epidemic spreads, more and more people are wearing surgical masks—despite their questionable effectiveness. An anthropologist explores the reasons why.

Gideon Lasco is a senior lecturer of anthropology at the University of the Philippines.



People’s motivation for wearing these masks goes far beyond simple considerations of medical efficacy. Cultural values, perceptions of control, social pressure, civic duty, family concerns, self-expression, beliefs about public institutions, and even politics are all wrapped up in the “symbolic efficacy” of face masks.


Scholars have proposed various additional explanations for the popularity of face masks in Japan. Some say the practice conforms with the country’s notions of cleanliness and purity. One study suggested Japanese society has lost trust in public institutions in recent decades, prompting people to become more self-protective. In another survey, Japanese people said they primarily used masks to protect themselves but that the practice also demonstrates consideration for others and a respect for etiquette. For many, masks are a kind of “safety blanket,” and the simple act of putting them on is a “risk ritual” that provides comfort and quells anxiety.


Perhaps the perception of control also informs the narratives of Filipino people I have spoken with about their decision to wear masks. “I don’t want to infect my children,” Fely (a pseudonym), a mall worker in Quezon City, told me. “Even if doctors say it’s not necessary, I will wear it anyway because my family is at stake.”

“I feel uneasy when I see others wearing masks and I’m not,” said Justine (a pseudonym), a college student in Manila, adding that “there’s nothing to lose” by wearing them.


Disease epidemics set off an “epidemic of explanation,” in which societies search for a cause of the contagion, according to medical sociologist Philip Strong. At the same time, outbreaks heighten preexisting fears of societal dangers, which can cause flare ups of racial, social, and economic prejudices. The subsequent symptoms can include stigma, exclusion, and what cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas calls a politicized “blaming system.”


Anthropologists have explored these varying responses. In times of scarcity, some groups become more selfish. Others uphold reciprocity, a powerful and universal human value. And many communities practice “need-based transfer”—based on the idea that, in times of trouble, people help because they assume others would do the same for them.

Following the eruption of the Taal volcano in the Philippines, face masks became the currency not just of greed but also of goodwill. One of the most iconic images of the crisis is a photo of a man distributing free masks to help protect people from inhaling ashfall.

Face masks are likely to become increasingly common as the climate crisis exacerbates wildfires and other natural disasters, as air pollution worsens in many cities, and as global connectivity heightens the risk of pandemics. As masks become more integrated into everyday life, they will continue to reveal facets of human cultures as much as they conceal our faces.”

“Individuals are more optimistic about their own political parties or sports teams than others” [Medical Xpress]

“Individuals are more optimistic about their own political parties or sports teams than others

by Michelle Klampe, Oregon State University


People tend to be irrationally optimistic about the future success of their sports team or political party, while supporters of their rivals hold similar overly positive views about the performance of their own group, a new study from Oregon State University has found.

“People hold biases about their own groups that lead them to believe good things are more likely for their team or party,” said Colleen Bee, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Business and one of the paper’s authors. “But the rival group also believes this about their team or party. These distorted and diametrically opposed points of view can lead to tension among rival groups, as we see in today’s political and sports worlds.”

The research, published recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology, shows that these biases are based on close affiliations people have with certain groups and these groups are an important part of how they define themselves. Previously, these biases have only been observed at the individual level.

The findings have practical implications for intergroup relations such as conflict resolution and negotiation as well as for communications strategies for group-related entities such as workplace organizations, sports teams or rival brands, said Bee, whose research interests include sports marketing and consumer behavior.


Given that group membership is an important part of how individuals define themselves, King and Bee wanted to better understand whether people’s individual biases extend to the groups they affiliate with, even though group members don’t have access to the internal thinking of a political party or a sports team.


The researchers surveyed Democrats and Republicans prior to the midterm election in 2018, asking them to evaluate one of the two political parties. Some evaluated the party they belonged to, while others evaluated their rival party. Again, the participants indicated they were more optimistic about their own party and its chances in the upcoming election than the other party’s chances.

“We tend to think our team or political party is more capable of change and improvement than the rival group,” Bee said, “and that our team or political party will be better in the future.”


“European Journal of Social Psychology

Better in the (near) future: Group‐based differences in forecasting biases

Jesse S. King, Colleen C. Bee

First published:30 September 2019



Social identities are an important component of an individual’s self‐concept. In the current research, we examine how identification with a group can lead to biased intergroup judgments similar to those made when evaluating the self, relative to others. We compared evaluations of in‐ and outgroups in order to examine differences in temporal perspective and optimistic evaluations. Our findings suggest that compared to an outgroup, ingroup members more strongly consider the future potential of their group, are more optimistic when considering future ingroup outcomes, and hold a more uniformly positive view of an ingroup’s future. Furthermore, we find that when evaluating ingroups, shifts in temporal perspectives are related to greater optimism. We conclude by discussing theoretical implications and future research related to temporal judgments and social groups.”

“George Lakoff: ‘Liberals do everything wrong’; ‘Oxford philosophy is killing the world'” [2014]

“George Lakoff: ‘Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them … Liberals do everything wrong’ [2014]


By Zoe Williams

First published on Sat 1 Feb 2014 08.45 GMT


“The progressive mindset is screwing up the world. The progressive mindset is guaranteeing no progress on global warming. The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, fracking is fine.’ The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, genetically modified organisms are OK’, when, in fact, they’re horrible, and the progressive mindset doesn’t know how to describe how horrible they are. There’s a difference between progressive morality, which is great, and the progressive mindset, which is half OK and half awful.”

George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, has been working on moral frames for 50 years. In Communicating Our American Values and Vision, he gives this precis: “Framing is not primarily about politics or political messaging or communication. It is far more fundamental than that: frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality – and sometimes to create what we take to be reality. But frames do have an enormous bearing on politics … they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason … For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic.”

Lakoff is affable and generous. In public meetings he greets every question with: “That is an extremely good question.” But he cannot keep the frustration out of his voice: the left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves. The reason is that conservatives speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters’ values. Liberals try to argue against them using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.


Lakoff predicted all this in Moral Politics, first published in 1996. In it, he warned that “if liberals do not concern themselves very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality and the family, they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America.”


Much of cognitive linguistics concerns itself with how we build the mental apparatus to understand everyday situations: a hospital, or a date, or a cash machine. Erving Goffman, commonly cited as the most influential sociologist of the 20th century, wrote Frame Analysis in 1974, defining and exploring exactly how this happens. Having built the frames to understand life, we no longer deliberately plug back into it. It is unconscious; what we think of as “common sense” is merely an act or notion that resonates with one of our deep frames.

Lakoff’s work on the conceptual systems around morals and politics (and how they show up in language) has yielded two-dozen metaphors for morality, most of them universal across cultures. Of those, the two key frames informing political judgment involve the idea of government as a family: the strict-father model (conservative) versus the nurturant-parent model (progressive).


“Progressives want to follow the polls … Conservatives don’t follow the polls; they want to change them. Political ground is gained not when you successfully inhabit the middle ground, but when you successfully impose your framing as the ‘common-sense’ position.”


A classic liberal pitfall is the idea that by repeating one of the opposition’s ridiculous lines, you make it look even more absurd. “There was an election in Wisconsin,” Lakoff says, “there was a horrible governor there, and the Democrats were so stupid that they put up billboards all over the state with a picture of him smiling. They had his name in large letters next to the picture, and it says, ‘Why is this man smiling?’ And then in smaller type, it has a list of his positions, all from his point of view? As if everybody will recognise that this is a horrible man. Instead, it is a billboard in his favour. It’s about time progressives got out there and said what’s true about themselves, as well as what’s true of the other side. If you have a strong position, let’s hear it.”


It is, plainly, the longstanding failure to protect nature that powers Lakoff’s exasperation with liberals. “They don’t understand their own moral system or the other guy’s, they don’t know what’s at stake, they don’t know about framing, they don’t know about metaphors, they don’t understand the extent to which emotion is rational, they don’t understand how vital emotion is, they try to hide their emotion. They do everything wrong because they’re miseducated. And they’re proud of that miseducation. Oxford philosophy reigns supreme, right? Oxford philosophy is killing the world.”

“‘Why We’re Polarized’ shows how media, emotion, politicians and more are dividing Americans” By Dan Hopkins [On Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized]

“‘Why We’re Polarized’ shows how media, emotion, politicians and more are dividing Americans

Ezra Klein explains the political science for you.

By Dan Hopkins

Jan. 29, 2020 at 9:45 a.m. GMT-3


Few books are as well-matched to the moment of their publication as Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized.” President Trump has just become the third president ever to be impeached — and the first one where the votes have fallen almost perfectly along party lines. Klein’s careful book explains how different groups of Americans can see politics through such different lenses, examining how various psychological mechanisms allow committed partisans to rationalize almost anything their party does.

Klein first came to my attention during the 2009-2010 health-care debate, when his Washington Post blog “Wonkblog” was the go-to site for understanding the political and policy dynamics surrounding that legislation. This book fully displays the attributes that have made Klein’s journalism so successful.

The book is undeniably wonky, in the best sense of the word. Klein is an astute reader of political science and social psychology, disciplines he takes seriously. I should disclose that I occasionally wrote for Wonkblog several years ago. But given how much Klein has done to elevate political and social science, it’s hard to find a political scientist not in his debt.

Klein’s book starts with the psychological underpinnings of polarization, and then looks at ways that today’s media landscape and political institutions generate feedback loops that amplify it. In this view, polarization is self-reinforcing. Political elites divide over a question, and then citizens, picking up on those divisions, follow the natural grooves of human psychology by dividing themselves into increasingly meaningful groups. Those emerging divisions, in turn, heighten politicians’ incentives to accentuate their divisions. Thick with insight, the book is especially compelling on how today’s media environment fosters identity-infused content.

But Klein may have incorporated certain lessons from contemporary political science too well — picking up its blind spots and inheriting my discipline’s collective overemphasis on political psychology.”


“Why We’re Polarized

Simon & Schuster, 2020.

Ezra Klein


“America’s political system isn’t broken. The truth is scarier: it’s working exactly as designed. In this book, journalist Ezra Klein reveals how that system is polarizing us—and how we are polarizing it—with disastrous results.

“The American political system—which includes everyone from voters to journalists to the president—is full of rational actors making rational decisions given the incentives they face,” writes political analyst Ezra Klein. “We are a collection of functional parts whose efforts combine into a dysfunctional whole.”

In Why We’re Polarized, Klein reveals the structural and psychological forces behind America’s descent into division and dysfunction. Neither a polemic nor a lament, this book offers a clear framework for understanding everything from Trump’s rise to the Democratic Party’s leftward shift to the politicization of everyday culture.

America is polarized, first and foremost, by identity. Everyone engaged in American politics is engaged, at some level, in identity politics. Over the past fifty years in America, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. These merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking much in our politics and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together.

Klein shows how and why American politics polarized around identity in the twentieth century, and what that polarization did to the way we see the world and one another. And he traces the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that are driving our system toward crisis.

This is a revelatory book that will change how you look at politics, and perhaps at yourself.”

“Scientism Versus the Theory of Mind” by Alex Rosenberg [Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective]

Scientism Versus the Theory of Mind – Alex Rosenberg (Department of Philosophy, Duke University)


Rosenberg, Alex. 2020. “Scientism Versus the Theory of Mind.” Social Epistemology Review and
Reply Collective 9 (10): 48-57.


Those who, like me, accept scientism adopt this definition with two elisions easy to spot: we delete the word ‘unwarranted.’ Scientism has obvious and important implications for what an American humorist, Garrison Keeler, called “life’s persistent questions.” Here is a list of some of them, and the answers I believe scientism requires us to give them.

Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Is there free will? Not a chance!

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (from Rosenberg 2011, 2-3).


Until Darwin (1859) came along things looked pretty good for Kant’s (2007, XVII) pithy observation that there never would be a Newton for the blade of grass—that physics could not explain living things, human or otherwise, because it couldn’t invoke purpose.

But the process that Darwin discovered—random, or rather blind variation, and natural selection, or rather passive environmental filtration—does all the work of delivering the means/ends economy of biological nature that shouts out ‘purpose’ or ‘design’ at us.


Hardly anyone accepts scientism. Why not? Distaste? Implausibility? Too hard to understand?

All of the above, but all three of these factors are rooted in the same cause. The rejection of scientism is bred in the bone, as close to hard wired as it can be. It’s caused by our unswerving devotion to the theory of mind, a theory we carry with us and use everywhere and always.

The theory of mind (hereafter TOM) has other names—folk psychology, common sense psychology, the belief/desire model of human action. It has been formalized as the starting point of empirical cognitive social psychology.


Why does the TOM block acceptance of scientism? To begin with it does so, because it blocks the understanding and acceptance of science. The TOM makes us story-tellers and story-consumers. It’s what makes us love narratives with plots—human motivations fulfilled or thwarted. It’s what facilitates our remembering them, we even use them as devices to remember non-narrative information (cf. techniques for memorizing random lists). The TOM turned humans into hyperactive motivation detectors. Because we can’t escape relying on the TOM, we anthropomorphize everything. But of course, science doesn’t come packaged in stories about good guys, bad guys and their motives, narratives with plots.  Science is delivered in laws, equations, models, data-assembles, things we can’t keep in our heads because we can’t assemble them into stories. Our devotion to the TOM obstructs our uptake of science.


Our reliance on the TOM makes understanding science difficult just because science doesn’t come in stories with plots and motives and stories that we are hard wired to crave, to be satisfied with, to remember. Insofar as science banishes purpose, teleology, design and thus their well-understood causes—desire and belief—from nature, it makes itself hard to accept. More important, the TOM is among the presuppositions of most of our philosophically deep questions, and one of most indispensable building blocks of most of the alternative answers to these questions. Pull the TOM out from under the questions and the answers and they can’t even really be stated or answered in terms we can or will accept. But, as we will see, pulling the rug out from under the TOM is what science does. And that is what makes scientism so hard for people even to understand or contemplate.


It hardly needs saying that TOM underlies much that scientism rejects just because science makes scientism reject the TOM. Without the TOM, there is no space of reasons in our heads, no place were meanings can lodge and have a role in thought or action. That implies there’s no will, and so no free will, no agency or responsibility, no enduring self that can entertain or respond to reasons, not to mention the interpretations that we overlay on events to give them meaning. Neuroscience banished purpose from our heads as completely as Darwin banished from the rest of the biological domain. Without reasons in our heads, or anywhere else, there are no resources to scientifically construct what Sellars called “the manifest image” required by our culture, civilization, its legal, political, moral, creative, artistic subsystems. The costs of surrendering the TOM are huge, so huge we can’t do it for the practical purposes of everyday life, indeed for civilization as a whole. This fates us to the use of a highly imperfect (predictively unreliable, explanatorily baseless) instrument in the construction and operation of the institutions of our culture. The TOM’s baselessness explains many of their failures, defects and deficiencies.

But all this is too much for science to overthrow. And if creatures like us have a hard time understanding science in the first place, because the TOM that’s bred in our bones obstructs science, then we’ll have an even tougher time even understanding, let alone accepting scientism.”

“Conflict Changes How People View God” | Psychological Science

“Conflict Changes How People View God

Psychological Science

Nava Caluori, Joshua Conrad Jackson, Kurt Gray, and Michele Gelfand

First Published January 28, 2020




Religion shapes the nature of intergroup conflict, but conflict may also shape religion. Here, we report four multimethod studies that reveal the impact of conflict on religious belief: The threat of warfare and intergroup tensions increase the psychological need for order and obedience to rules, which leads people to view God as more punitive. Studies 1 (N = 372) and 2 (N = 911) showed that people’s concern about conflict correlates with belief in a punitive God. Study 3 (N = 1,065) found that experimentally increasing the salience of conflict increases people’s perceptions of the importance of a punitive God, and this effect is mediated by people’s support for a tightly regulated society. Study 4 showed that the severity of warfare predicted and preceded worldwide fluctuations in punitive-God belief between 1800 CE and 2000 CE. Our findings illustrate how conflict can change the nature of religious belief and add to a growing literature showing how cultural ecologies shape psychology.”