“Evolutionary Psychology: Predictively Powerful or Riddled with Just-So Stories?” By Laith Al-Shawaf [Areo Magazine]

“Evolutionary Psychology: Predictively Powerful or Riddled with Just-So Stories?


Laith Al-Shawaf
Laith Al-Shawaf, Ph.D. is a researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado. He has taught and conducted research internationally, been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, and is an academic adviser at Ideas Beyond Borders. His research (with collaborators) has been featured in outlets such as the BBC, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, Slate, World Economic Forum, and Time, and his essays for general audiences have appeared in Areo and PopMatters.  In 2019, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) named him a Rising Star.


This essay is part of a series on the value of evolutionary approaches to psychology.

Part 1 clears away seven key misconceptions.

Part 2 shows why evolution is necessary for a complete science of the mind.

Part 3 (this essay) illustrates how evolutionary thinking leads to new discoveries.

They do not need to be read in order.

Acommon refrain in the social sciences is that evolutionary psychological hypotheses are “just-so stories.” Amazingly, no evidence is typically adduced for the claim—the assertion is usually just made tout court. The crux of the just-so charge is that evolutionary hypotheses are convenient narratives that researchers spin after the fact to accord with existing observations. Is this true?

Do Evolutionary Approaches Lead to New Predictions? What About New Discoveries?

In reality, the evidence suggests that evolutionary approaches generate large numbers of new predictions and new discoveries about the human mind. To substantiate this claim, the findings in this essay were predicted a priori by evolutionary reasoning—in other words, the predictions were made before the studies took place. They therefore cannot be post-hoc stories concocted to fit already-existing data.


Consider the following evolutionary predictions about disgust, all of which were made a priori: 1) people’s disgust will be more strongly triggered by objects that pose a greater risk of infection, 2) women will be more disgusted during the first trimester of pregnancy compared to the second and third trimesters, 3) people who grow up in regions of the world with higher levels of infectious disease will be less extraverted, less open to new experiences, and less interested in short-term mating than their counterparts who grow up relatively pathogen-free, 4) cross-cultural differences in pathogen prevalence will predict cross-cultural differences in individualism-collectivism, 5) those with a stronger proclivity for short-term mating will be less easily disgusted, 6) experimentally triggering disgust will reduce interest in short-term mating, 7) people will feel less disgust toward their own offspring and their offspring’s bodily waste compared to the offspring of others, and 8) presenting people with the threat of disease will cause a host of psychological and physiological changes that reduce the likelihood of infection, including a) releasing pro-inflammatory cytokines, b) behaviorally withdrawing, c) temporarily becoming less open to new experiences, and d) reducing one’s desire to affiliate with people. All of these predictions were generated before the fact on the basis of evolutionary reasoning, and all were subsequently supported by the data.

Note that some of these findings could probably have been predicted without evolutionary reasoning. For others, it would have been harder. And for others still, it would have been nearly impossible.


A final example of the predictive power of evolutionary thinking comes from Error Management Theory, a theory about the evolution of cognitive biases. Error Management Theory suggests that in decision-making scenarios, you can make two possible kinds of error: a Type I error (a false positive) or a Type II error (a false negative). If one error is more costly than the other, and this cost asymmetry recurs over evolutionary time, then the species in question will evolve neurocognitive mechanisms that are adaptively biased toward the safer error. In other words, animal brains operate according to a similar logic as humanly engineered smoke alarms: they are built to be biased toward the less costly error because this minimizes the likelihood of the more catastrophic error.

This simple evolutionary theory leads to new discoveries in areas such as social cognition, visual and auditory perception, and immune function. For example, the theory predicts that when people look down at the ground from a high vantage point such as a steep hill, they will systematically overperceive their distance to the ground, because this is safer than underperceiving the distance to the ground, which could lead to a lack of caution and a lethal fall. This prediction is verified by the data—as is the supplementary prediction that this height estimation bias will be attenuated when people are looking up to a precipice from below (because it is not as dangerous when you are at the bottom), as well as the remarkably precise a priori prediction that the height overestimation bias will apply to environmental verticality, but not retinal verticality (because only environmental verticality is related to falling risk). We owe our knowledge of these fascinating discoveries to the evolutionary reasoning that led to these predictions—predictions that didn’t exist before researchers thought to approach the problem from an explicitly evolutionary perspective.

The logic of Error Management Theory also predicts that heterosexual women will exhibit an on-average “commitment skepticism bias.” The idea is that, on average, overestimating a suitor’s commitment intent was more costly for our hominin female ancestors than underestimating it—so the theory predicts that modern women will exhibit an on-average bias toward erring on the side of underestimating potential mates’ commitment intent. This a priori prediction is confirmed by the data—as is the supplementary prediction that postmenopausal women will not exhibit the bias. More data are needed to test this prediction in different cultures and to figure out which contexts upregulate and downregulate the bias (or annul or reverse it), but initial findings seem promising so far.

Next, Error Management logic predicts that we will exhibit an auditory looming bias. Specifically, the theory suggests that we will perceive approaching sounds to be closer than they actually are, and to be arriving more quickly than they actually are. This is because the safer error is to be prepared for an oncoming danger too early rather than too late. Indeed, studies show that humans do exhibit this auditory looming bias—as do monkeys.

Studies also confirm that, as predicted, we perceive approaching sounds as both starting and stopping closer than equidistant receding sounds.


Finally, less physically fit individuals need longer to escape an oncoming threat, so they have a more pronounced auditory looming bias than fitter individuals—exactly as predicted by the theory.

By now the reader has doubtless noticed that many of these findings are counterintuitive, and not the kind of result you could predict using common sense. Some, maybe even most, would have remained undiscovered were it not for the evolutionary reasoning that generated the hypotheses in the first place. And even if somehow that statement is incorrect, what is completely unambiguous is this: these hypotheses were generated a priori and then led to new discoveries about how the mind works. They decidedly did not involve working backward from existing data to convenient stories.


For example, we could have discussed how evolutionary thinking leads to new predictions about pride, shame, hunger, gratitude, jealousy, political preferences in leaders, universality in mate preferences, cultural differences in mating strategies, reputation, punitive sentiment toward criminals, volunteering for charity, support for economic redistribution, moralizing people who opt out of public goods, the “erasure” of race, our ability to solve mathematical problems that are framed in terms of frequency versus probability, what kinds of conditions improve our statistical inferences, our ability to detect violators of social contracts, whom newborn babies are said to resemble, what psychological features might accompany illness, and theoretically predicted cultural variation in the extent to which people value physical attractiveness—to name a few.


We might reasonably want to ask why evolutionary approaches to psychology are so successful with respect to predictive power. A brief and incomplete accounting suggests that it is partly because evolutionary thinking reduces the search space by insisting on consilience with biology, thereby ruling out hypotheses that violate the basic principles of evolutionary theory; partly because evolutionary theory has been worked out in sufficient detail that deriving predictions from the theory is easier than it is from less well-specified theories; and partly because evolutionary approaches offer researchers useful conceptual-methodological tools such as “task analysis”, which is well suited for generating novel predictions about human psychology and behavior.

“Mad behaviour: the psychologist Joseph Henrich on what makes us weird” By Sophie McBain [New Statesman]

“Mad behaviour: the psychologist Joseph Henrich on what makes us weird

The Harvard professor on how most claims about human nature are based on people from “Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies”.

Sophie McBain

New Statesman



In 2010 Henrich co-authored a landmark paper titled, “The weirdest people in the world?” It observed that almost every claim made about human psychology or behaviour is based on studying people who are “Weird”; that is, from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. These people are also weird – statistical outliers.  

Henrich’s research suggests our cultural environment, the norms and institutions we inherit, alters our psychology – and even our biology – in profound ways. Take learning to read. Becoming literate thickens your corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s right and left hemispheres and alters the parts of the brain responsible for processing speech and thinking about other minds. Literate people tend to be worse than others at recognising faces and are more likely to think analytically – breaking problems or scenes into component parts – rather than holistically.

Henrich contends that, compared with much of the world’s populations, “Weird” people are more individualistic and self-obsessed, and more likely to defer gratification, to stick to impartial rules and to trust strangers. They are less likely to extend special favours to friends or family. They’re more likely to feel guilt (a sense of having failed to meet one’s own self-imposed standards) than shame (a sense of having let down one’s community).


Henrich’s book poses a challenge to psychology, a field grappling with the so-called “replication crisis” – the realisation that when psychologists repeat an experiment, they often get different results. Henrich believes the discipline suffers from a “theoretical crisis”. “There’s no overarching theory that tells you what kind of effects you should expect. And that causes psychologists to try a bunch of stuff, which breeds a lot of false positives.”

The Weirdest People in the World is a provocative book. Human rights activists, for example, might bristle at its suggestion that in certain countries, individual rights aren’t a good psychological “fit”. But Henrich wants to avoid normative conclusions. “Like any science, [the book] can be useful to achieve your goals, but people might have different goals. I can see it being used by people who want to figure out how to spread human rights. I could see it being used by those who don’t.”

“The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives” By Laura Akers [Scientific American]

“The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives

Elections aren’t won on the basis of policies; they’re won on the basis of the stories each side tells about itself and its values

By Laura Akers
Laura Akers, Ph.D. is a research psychologist at the Oregon Research Institute. Follow her work at http://meta-narrator.com or on Twitter @meta_narrator.



The science of metanarratives and how we respond to them is still in its infancy. Our research team, headed by psychologist Gerard Saucier, has uncovered the metanarratives typical of terrorists and genocidal leaders worldwide. More broadly, my own work seeks to understand how the structure and features of metanarratives can elicit emotional responses, and how social factors influence public reactions.

Emotions arise when we make comparisons relevant to our own needs and desires. We contrast our present circumstances with the future, the past and alternative versions of today. Improvements make us happy and inspire us; losses sadden or frustrate us. If we can blame someone else for our loss, we may become angry with them. And if we’re faced with threats, our fear can motivate action. As with fiction, we can categorize metanarratives by their emotional “genres,” such as progress (pride, optimism) or looming catastrophe (fear).


As cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Drew Westen remind us, it’s emotion that wins elections.


The public doesn’t accept every metanarrative it’s offered. We tend to be loyal to the cultural beliefs favored by our social circles and encouraged by our leaders. Even then, some voters stay open to alternatives, if there’s enough dissonance between the party line and their own experiences.”

“What is Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) Doing About the WEIRD Problem?” By Chris von Rueden & Coren Apicella

What is HBES Doing About the WEIRD Problem?

October 3, 2020/in Newsletter

By HBES Executive Council Members, Chris von Rueden & Coren Apicella

What is HBES Doing About the WEIRD Problem?

Evolution and Human Behavior (EHB) just released its September issue, which is devoted to highlighting ongoing research in the evolutionary social sciences that expands beyond WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) populations. This special issue, titled “Beyond WEIRD, a decade later: Population diversity in the evolutionary study of human behavior,” was edited by Coren Apicella, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich and features articles on topics including evolutionary medicine, cooperation, leadership, morality, and developmental psychology.


Now, authors who submit to the journal are required to fully describe their samples. For instance, authors are now asked to specify the geographic location from which their sample was drawn, how their data was collected (online or in-person), and any theoretically-relevant characteristics pertinent to the research study, such as religion affiliation, race/ethnicity, and gender identity (inclusive of non-binary options). And importantly, authors must also specify the source of the sample in their Abstract. Manuscripts that do not adequately describe samples will be returned to authors for revision prior to consideration.


The September EHB issue, “Beyond WEIRD, A Decade Later: Population Diversity in the Evolutionary Study of Human Behavior,” offers some criticisms, but its contributors are also optimistic about the future of evolutionary social science. We agree that the methods and theory will only get better, and that is in part because of the disciplinary diversity of our community. In particular, the dialogue between anthropologists and psychologists has been, and we hope will continue to be, an engine at the heart of the creativity and productivity of HBES.

“You’re most likely WEIRD … and don’t even know it” By Douglas Todd

“You’re most likely WEIRD … and don’t even know it

Opinion: WEIRD is a high-impact acronym invented by psychology professors at UBC, referring to people who are ‘Western,’ ‘Educated,’ ‘Industrialized,’ ‘Rich’ and ‘Democratic’

Douglas Todd



Everybody talks about diversity now. But when these profs examined contemporary social-science research they uncovered a huge blind spot to cultural differences, which has led to misleading conclusions about human psychology and, for that matter, human nature.

The colleagues published a ground-breaking paper in 2010 that showed more than 96 per cent of experiments in social psychology were based on subjects who are WEIRD. Compared to the vast majority of people on the planet, WEIRD people tend to be highly individualistic, control-oriented, nonconformist, analytical and trusting of strangers.

We are not the global norm. As Henrich says, “Textbooks that purport to be about ‘Psychology’ or “Social Psychology’ need to be retitled something like ‘The Cultural Psychology of Late 20th-Century Americans.’ ”


Henrich explains all this and much more in his new magnum opus, titled The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Despite its 680 pages, it’s quite readable.

Henrich’s book takes the UBC crew’s understanding of WEIRD traits to new levels of significance. Gleaning from history, philosophy, religion and anthropology it attempts to explain why there are differences between cultures, including why some are more prosperous. It’s reminiscent of the trans-disciplinary project Jared Diamond took on with Guns, Germs and Steel, which maintained geography shaped Eurasian power.


“WEIRD people are bad friends,” Henrich writes in one catchy subtitle.

WEIRD people aren’t really willing to lie for a friend, he explains. In a cross-cultural experiment in disparate nations, participants were asked to imagine what they would do if they were a passenger in a car with a close friend who, while driving above the speed limit, hit a pedestrian.

More than 90 per cent of people in WEIRD countries such as Canada, Switzerland the U.S. would not testify their friend was driving slower than he was. “By contrast, in Nepal, Venezuela, and South Korea most people said they’d willingly lie under oath to help a close friend.” Communal bonds matter more in places that are not WEIRD.


While clearly disposed to “celebrate diversity” he avoids the cliché that, because of our common humanity, “deep down everyone’s the same.” It’s only true to a small extent: If we’re cut with a sharp object, for instance, we all bleed.

But because of our collective histories and cultures humans can actually turn out starkly different. So much so that Henrich makes it clear that ethnic and religious conventions can rewire the structure of our brains, even our genes.

It’s a real-world position: Humans become the peculiar and often amazingly different people they are due to myriad unrecognized cultural forces.”

“The Dark Side of Smart” By Diana Fleischman [Nautilus]

“The Dark Side of Smart

Diana Fleischman
Diana Fleischman is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, writing and living while on sabbatical in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @sentientist.


Manipulative communication surrounds us. With misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic, “cheap” and “deep” fakes of elected officials, and targeted ads and emotionally exploitative social media algorithms, it can begin to feel like all communication is manipulation.

Well, as it turns out, this is the thesis of an influential paper by evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins and John Krebs. The cynicism behind this statement can make many people uncomfortable. When we think about communicating, we tend to think about our own thoughts and feelings rather than how we might be influencing others. One major reason an evolutionary perspective on our own behavior can be so confronting is that it doesn’t take our word for why we do things. It looks at how what we do influences the two core currencies of life on earth, survival and reproduction.


When minds start to figure out other minds, a lot of cognitive power gets built up that can be used for other things. Consider one of the groundbreaking insights in evolution in the last few decades, the idea of the “extended phenotype.” Evolution isn’t just acting on an individual’s characteristics but the way it interacts with the environment—including other minds. Evolution is selecting not just on the teeth and tail and claws of a beaver, but also on how well its dam keeps out water. Not just the bees’ wings and bodies but also the structure of their hive.


Hold on a minute you might be saying to yourself—you evolutionary people are so cynical—didn’t we also get smart to cooperate? Perhaps, to some degree. But research suggests intelligence has been a lot more important, especially for theory of mind for competition, than for cooperation. Evolutionary models, for example, have shown that competition promotes the ability to think about other minds more strongly than cooperation. And studies have shown that areas of the brain related to thinking about other minds are activated more by competition than cooperation.


Human intelligence is incredibly useful but it doesn’t safeguard you against having false beliefs, because that’s not what intelligence is for. Intelligence is associated with coming up with more convincing bullshit and with being a better liar, but not associated with a better ability to recognize one’s own bias. Unfortunately, intelligence has very little influence on your ability to rationally evaluate your own beliefs, or undermine what’s called “myside bias.”

The dark side of smart is that whenever we do good works, and cooperate, we draw from our manipulative past. The even darker side of smart is that competition doesn’t just select an ability to manipulate but also an adaptive ability to be unpredictable. And one of the best ways to be unpredictable is to not know yourself. So we have evolution to thank for shielding us from complete self-knowledge. As a result, most of our own minds are shrouded in darkness. Perhaps that’s for the best. We might not like what we’d see.”

Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory By Daniel C. Dennett [On The WEIRDest People in the World By Joseph Henrich (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)]

“Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory

According to Joseph Henrich’s book, it was the advent of Protestantism, aided by the invention of the printing press, that brought along the spread of literacy and altered the workings of our brains.

By Daniel C. Dennett

Sept. 12, 2020

How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
By Joseph Henrich


The world today has billions of inhabitants who have minds strikingly different from ours. Roughly, we weirdos are individualistic, think analytically, believe in free will, take personal responsibility, feel guilt when we misbehave and think nepotism is to be vigorously discouraged, if not outlawed. Right? They (the non-WEIRD majority) identify more strongly with family, tribe, clan and ethnic group, think more “holistically,” take responsibility for what their group does (and publicly punish those who besmirch the group’s honor), feel shame — not guilt — when they misbehave and think nepotism is a natural duty.


WEIRD folk are the more recent development, growing out of the innovation of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the birth of states and organized religions about 3,000 years ago, then becoming “proto-WEIRD” over the last 1,500 years (thanks to the prohibition on marrying one’s cousin), culminating in the biologically sudden arrival of science, industry and the “modern” world during the last 500 years or so. WEIRD minds evolved by natural selection, but not by genetic selection; they evolved by the natural selection of cultural practices and other culturally transmitted items.

Henrich is an anthropologist at Harvard. He and his colleagues first described the WEIRD mind in a critique of all the work in human psychology (and the social sciences more generally) built on experimental subjects almost exclusively composed of undergraduates — or the children of academics and others who live near universities. The results obtained drawing on this conveniently available set of “normal” people were assumed by almost all researchers to be universal features of human nature, the human brain, the human emotional system. But when attempts were made to replicate the experiments with people in other countries, not just illiterate hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but the elites in Asian countries, for instance, it was shown in many cases that the subject pool of the original work had been hugely biased from the outset.

One of the first lessons that must be learned from this important book is that the WEIRD mind is real; all future investigation of “human nature” must be complicated by casting a wider net for subjects, and we must stop assuming that our ways are “universal.” Offhand, I cannot think of many researchers who haven’t tacitly adopted some dubious universalist assumptions. I certainly have. We will all have to change our perspective.


This is an extraordinarily ambitious book, along the lines of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which gets a brief and respectful mention, but going much farther, and bolstering the argument at every point with evidence gathered by Henrich’s “lab,” with dozens of collaborators, and wielding data points from world history, anthropology, economics, game theory, psychology and biology, all knit together with “statistical razzle-dazzle” when everyday statistics is unable to distinguish signal from noise. The endnotes and bibliography take up over 150 pages and include a fascinating range of discussions.


This book calls out for respectful but ruthless vetting on all counts, and what it doesn’t need, and shouldn’t provoke, is ideological condemnations or quotations of brilliant passages by revered authorities. Are historians, economists and anthropologists up to the task? It will be fascinating to see.”

“Social status helped and hindered by the same behaviors and traits worldwide” [University of Texas at Austin/Medical Xpress]

“Social status helped and hindered by the same behaviors and traits worldwide

by University of Texas at Austin



“Humans live in a social world in which relative rank matters for nearly everything—your access to resources, your ability to attract mates, and even how long you live,” said UT Austin evolutionary psychologist David Buss, one of the study’s lead authors. “From an evolutionary perspective, reproductively relevant resources flow to those high in status and trickle slowly, if at all, to those lower on the social totem pole.”

The researchers compared people’s impressions of 240 factors—including acts, characteristics and events—to determine what increased and impaired a person’s esteem in the eyes of others. They found that certain qualities such as being honest, hard-working, kind, intelligent, having a wide range of knowledge, making sacrifices for others, and having a good sense of humor increased a person’s social value.

“From the Gypsies in Romania to the native islanders of Guam, people displaying intelligence, bravery and leadership rise in rank in the eyes of their peers,” said UT Austin psychology graduate student Patrick Durkee, who led the study with Buss. “But possessing qualities that inflict costs on others will cause your status to plummet, whether you live in Russia or Eritrea.”

Being known as a thief, as dirty or unclean, as mean or nasty, acquiring a sexually transmitted disease, and bringing shame on one’s family decreased a person’s social status or value. These status-harming actions can also lead to a person being ostracized from the group—”an action that would have meant near-certain death in ancestral environments,” the researchers said.

“Although this study was conducted prior to the current pandemic, it’s interesting that being a disease vector is universally detrimental to a person’s status,” Buss said. “Socially transmitted diseases are evolutionarily ancient challenges to human survival, so humans have psychological adaptations to avoid them. Lowering a person’s social status is an evolutionarily ancient method of social distancing from disease vectors.”


David M. Buss et al, Human status criteria: Sex differences and similarities across 14 nations., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2020).  

DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000206

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


“Pandemics and the great evolutionary mismatch” by Guillaume Dezecache, Chris D. Frith and Ophelia Deroy [Current Biology]

“Pandemics and the great evolutionary mismatch

Guillaume Dezecache, Chris D. Frith and Ophelia Deroy

Current Biology Magazine 30, R1–R3, May 18, 2020



What increases in times of anxiety and threat is not a drive to help the self at all costs, but an intuitive drive to help others. The unfortunate consequence is that, in response to the current threat of infection, we desire social contact, particularly with the loved and the vulnerable.

Pandemics and the ‘breakdown of social order’ narrative

When describing the behaviour of people living in countries affected by the spread of covid-19, the media has rapidly adopted a ‘Hobbesian’ view of human nature [4]. This is the expectation that exposure to threat makes people abandon social niceties and, being naturally rivals, fall back into ‘brutishness and misery’. Major newspapers report panic, with people running to shops to collect masks, hand sanitizers and food. Those behaviours are routinely qualified as irrational: why rush to buy food when we are told that there will be no shortages? We do not doubt that humans can be irrational (we misevaluate large magnitudes; underestimate risks and value shortterm gain [7]). At the individual level, however, it is rational to hoard food and toilet paper when we are told that we will have to stay at home for an indefinite amount of time. It’s not that we do not trust politicians, but we are right to be uncertain about the resilience of institutions, and the social contract in general, in the face of an unprecedented, unknown, and growing threat. Similarly, it is perfectly rational, at the individual level, to run for the exits when the building is on fire. However, these self-oriented rational decisions are the ones on which we have to consciously reflect [8]. Our initial, intuitive responses are, on the contrary, to be cooperative [9].


The coming of covid-19 is being met with inertia and placidity, rather than mass panic. The French population was (and is still being) criticized by their own authorities for their laxity and nonchalance. Some weeks ago, the French continued to gather in bar terraces and break the obvious rules of social distancing. The German state of Bavaria took stricter confinement measures on March 21st, after finding that many individuals, despite the explicit instruction to stay away from others, were still gathering in groups as if nothing had changed. Similar violations of official advice are occurring everywhere.

An alternative to the accusation that people are irrational and irresponsible is the suggestion that people are ignorant of the threat. We are not suggesting that these effects are not in play (more below), but we want to suggest that knowing the threat is perfectly compatible with seeking company of friends and loved ones. Being with others and getting but also providing social support is how we cope with stress [10]. Increasing threat is only likely to reinforce this social inclination.


Contactseeking may be a ‘natural’ drive which is embedded in our physiology. Social touch contributes to the physiological regulation of the body’s responses to acute stressors and other short-term challenges. Close social support is not an extra for getting additional rewards. It constitutes our baseline [15]. Our brains do not respond positively to its presence, but negatively to its loss. People can crave for social cues just like they crave for food [16]. The policy implications of decades of research in social neuroscience are clear, but widely ignored: asking people to renounce social contact is not just asking them to abstain from pleasurable activities; it is asking them to diverge from a point of equilibrium, toward which they normally all gravitate.


One major issue is that diseases are largely invisible, particularly diseases (like covid-19) which remain asymptomatic in a large part of the population. This imperceptibility means that it is not even detected, let alone recognized as a collective threat. Hence, the defensive avoidance mechanisms associated with fear and disgust will not operate. Similarly, our social tendencies simply continue as, in the absence of symptoms, we don’t perceive that we may carry the infection. Even if we believe that the threat is widespread within our own group, the implications for oneself are challenging. Recognizing that one is likely to become a deadly threat to others is incongruent with our self-image, leading to dissonance and denial of the danger.

There is, however, a second issue: a threat stemming from infection, in societies with optimally functioning health systems, may be detected and yet recognized to be severe only for a small fraction of the population. Unless we feel we belong to that fraction, the threat may not be construed as collective: it is them, not us. A threat that remains invisible, and is thought to apply only to some individuals, is unlike other threats (such as predators, enemies or hurricanes) which are clearly menacing everyone in a given location. More than physical proximity and covulnerability is needed for a threat to be recognised as collective. Some actual or potential understanding of aspects of the threat as shared by us all, in a collective ‘we’ [2,19], is also required.


In all likelihood, the mismatch between our misperception of the severity of the threat and its consequences is likely to become even more destructive in dense urban areas in which social isolation is a costly good.


So why don’t we avoid each other in times of infections? It is because our infection-avoidance mechanisms are overwhelmed by a much stronger drive to affiliate and seek close contact.”

“Political attitudes vary with detection of androstenone” [Politics and the Life Sciences]

“Political attitudes vary with detection of androstenone

Amanda Friesen, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis
Mike Gruszczynski , Indiana University Bloomington
Kevin B. Smith, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
John R. Alford, Rice University

Politics and the Life Sciences


DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/pls.2019.18

Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 January 2020


Building on a growing body of research suggesting that political attitudes are part of broader individual and biological orientations, we test whether the detection of the hormone androstenone is predictive of political attitudes. The particular social chemical analyzed in this study is androstenone, a nonandrogenic steroid found in the sweat and saliva of many mammals, including humans. A primary reason for scholarly interest in odor detection is that it varies so dramatically from person to person. Using participants’self-reported perceptions of androstenone intensity, together with a battery of survey items testing social and political preferences and orientations, this research supports the idea that perceptions of androstenone intensity relate to political orientations—most notably, preferences for social order—lending further support to theories positing the influence of underlying biological traits on sociopolitical attitudes and behaviors.

Our understanding of the origins of public opinion has expanded from elite messaging, socialization, and group membership to include the possibility that attitudes toward group life may have some basis in our biology. That is, the social signals humans have generated and interpreted throughout the history of our species may continue to influence complex social behaviors like politics.


The odor of politics? Given the central role that olfaction plays in disgust detection and disgust’s link to politics (Aarøe, Petersen, & Arceneaux, 2017; Balzer & Jacobs, 2011; Inbar et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2011a), we have borrowed its theoretical organizational scheme to think about how olfaction may also connect to political opinions. Recent research has identified three primary functions of disgust: pathogen avoidance, mate choice, and social interaction— sometimes labeled microbes, mating, and morality (Neuberg et al., 2011; Tybur et al., 2009; Tybur et al., 2010). As mentioned, the precursor to olfaction originated as a mechanism for identifying substances that singlecelled organisms should approach or avoid.



We first investigate androstenone detection and political orientations using the aforementioned personality, psychological, and political batteries. In addition to the three measures of political ideology, the survey also tapped cognitive and personality patterns, including the Big Five personality inventory (conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, agreeableness, and extroversion), the BIS/BAS (behavioral inhibition and activation, respectively) scales, preference for literalism, and tendencies to be both disgust and threat sensitive. We have no strong expectations for the nature of the relationship between androstenone detection and these concepts, but we do expect positive relationships for all three of our political batteries and particularly for the “preferences for social order” battery, a finding that would indicate that those with politically conservative and “authority-attuned” positions tend to be more sensitive to androstenone.



In our sample, variations in androstenone detection appear to be relevant to variations in political orientations—specifically, preferences for order—but not psychological orientations. Economic and sexual morality issues appear to be unconnected to sensitivity to androstenone. As we noted earlier, the absence of a relationship with sex items is particularly interesting given that other research has demonstrated that sensitivity to pathogen-relevant disgust is indeed related to issue stances on sexual matters. Sensitivity to the human odorant androstenone appears to manifest itself politically in quite a different fashion than sensitivity to pathogen-indicating odors (e.g., human excrement, vomit, or spoiled food). Certain individuals are sensitive to the odor of androstenone, and they also tend to be the people who are attuuned to and eager to squelch threats to the social order


Psychologists, biologists, and geneticists have demonstrated human variation in every sensory system just as social scientists have been examining differences in social and political orientations and attitudes. Our work seeks to bridge these worlds in the hope of contributing to the understanding of the nature and origins of human political behavior and, broadly, public opinion. Few, if any, disciplines treat biological and behavioral variation as completely unrelated, yet much of the political science research does just that. This is a matter of empiricism. Just as parents, schools, peers, culture, and time periods may influence sociopolitical attitudes and behavior, we posit that the manner in which individuals process these environmental inputs may be just as important as the inputs themselves (Gonzalez et al., 2015). Combined with the growing body of work connecting politics to behavioral genetics and physiology, we demonstrate olfaction should not be ignored in the examination of political attitudes and orientations.”

“Explaining the Emergence of Coronavirus Rituals” By Dimitris Xygalatas [Sapiens]

“Explaining the Emergence of Coronavirus Rituals

An anthropologist illuminates how both old and new rituals can provide a sense of comfort during times of uncertainty.

Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut.


Responding to the coronavirus pandemic, most American universities have suspended all campus activities. Like millions of people all around the world, the lives of students all over the U.S. has changed overnight.

When I met my students for what was going to be our last in-class meeting of the academic year, I explained the situation and asked whether there were any questions. The first thing my students wanted to know was, “Will we be able to have a graduation ceremony?”

The fact that the answer was no was the most disappointing news for them.

As an anthropologist who studies ritual, hearing that question from so many students did not come as a surprise. The most important moments of our lives—from birthdays and weddings to college graduations and holiday traditions are marked by ceremony.

Rituals provide meaning and make those experiences memorable.


Anthropologists have long observed that people across cultures tend to perform more rituals in times of uncertainty. Stressful events such as warfare, environmental threat, and material insecurity are often linked with spikes in ritual activity.

In a laboratory study in 2015, my colleagues and I found that under conditions of stress people’s behavior tends to become more rigid and repetitive—in other words, more ritualized.

The reason behind this propensity lies in our cognitive makeup. Our brain is wired to make predictions about the state of the world. It uses past knowledge to make sense of current situations. But when everything around us is changing, the ability to make predictions is limited. This causes many of us to experience anxiety.

That is where ritual comes in.

Rituals are highly structured. They require rigidity and must always be performed the “right” way. And they involve repetitition: The same actions are done again and again. In other words, they are predictable.

So even if they have no direct influence over the physical world, rituals provide a sense of control by imposing order on the chaos of everyday life.

It is of little importance whether this sense of control is illusory. What matters is that it is an efficient way of relieving anxiety.


By aligning behavior and creating shared experiences, rituals forge a sense of belonging and common identity that transforms individuals into cohesive communities. As field experiments show, participating in collective rituals increases generosity and even makes people’s heart rates synchronize.


It is not surprising, then, that people around the world are responding to the novel coronavirus crisis by creating new rituals.

Some of those rituals are meant to provide a sense of structure and reclaim the sense of control. For example, comedian Jimmy Kimmel and his wife encouraged those in quarantine to hold formal Fridays, dressing up for dinner even if they were alone.


People are coming up with a host of rituals to maintain a broader sense of human connection. In various European cities, people have started to go to their balconies at the same time every day to applaud health care workers for their tireless service.”

“Why Social Distancing Feels So Strange” By George M. Leader [Sapiens]

“Why Social Distancing Feels So Strange

Humans are wired through millions of years of evolution to be social creatures. Faced with the COVID-19 virus, can we stay connected at a distance?

George M. Leader is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at The College of New Jersey.


Why does intentionally avoiding physical interaction with other humans during our daily routine feel so strange? The answer may lie in millions of years of behavioral and cultural evolution.

Since our evolutionary split from chimpanzees around 7 million years ago, humans have become increasingly dependent on complex social cooperation to survive and thrive. People sometimes think of humans as fundamentally selfish or violent, but anthropological research shows that we have evolved to work cooperatively and live in supportive communities.

Some of the earliest evidence for the importance of cooperative behavior in our species comes from a surprising event: the evolution of walking on two legs. Among the earliest evidence of bipedalism in the hominid linage is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, an upright ape-like primate from Chad dating to about 7 million years ago.

There are plenty of possible reasons for why our ancestors began to stand upright: It might have helped them regulate their body temperature, decrease their exposure to natural radiation from the sun, or increase their range of sight to watch for predators, among other reasons. But one hypothesis proposed by American biological anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy in 1981 suggests that our ancestors freed up their hands for food sharing, specifically so that a male could carry food back to a female raising their young. This type of social cooperation is much more difficult for quadruped knuckle-walkers like chimpanzees.


By about 1.9 million years ago, around the time of the appearance of Homo erectus, cooperative behavior may have greatly increased again. By this time, females were facing significant challenges giving birth: Their upright bodies had a hard time delivering big-brained babies. This physical burden might have prompted dramatic shifts in hominin social structures, with a bigger division of labor between males and females, and additional collaboration between childrearing females.

Along with this change in society seems to have come stronger social supports within these communities. Physical evidence for this can be found in the femur of an 800,000-year-old H. erectus from Java. The femur was badly broken—an injury that almost certainly means a quick death for someone trying to live alone. But, incredibly, this fracture healed. That means the injured hominin received an enormous amount of support from their social group. Our ancestors really took care of one another.


As a result of humanity’s evolution for social tendencies, we have a problem: loneliness. This feeling may act as a driver to pull people back together, much as thirst makes people drink and hunger makes people eat. But it has negative consequences too.

People who perceive themselves as being without social support, living in a world without beneficial social interaction, can become irritable and depressed. Lonely people—and animals—tend to adopt more selfish behaviors, putting their own needs first. The more a human thinks there is a lack of beneficial social interaction around them—in other words, the lonelier they feel—the more they adopt these behaviors.

The consequences of isolation and the ensuing selfish behaviors can be high. Persistent loneliness can reduce our capacity to look after ourselves and even harm our physical health. According to one 2018 study, loneliness in people is associated with a 26 percent increase in the chance of premature death.


But can we entirely override our long-programmed interactive cooperation and replace it with distant cooperation? Will virtual interaction be a suitable replacement in fulfilling the need for physical interaction? It remains to be seen.”

“Why Republicans Are Less Likely to View the Coronavirus as a Serious Threat” By Nigel Barber [The Human Beast/Psychology Today]

“Why Republicans Are Less Likely to View the Coronavirus as a Serious Threat

Survey results demonstrate that the two parties view the pandemic differently.

Nigel Barber Ph.D.
The Human Beast


Political conservatives fear disease as more of a threat and are more fearful of dirt and contamination in a variety of contexts from using public restrooms to eating unfamiliar foods (1). They have greater disgust sensitivity. This phenomenon is interestingly demonstrated by the fact that conservatives are four times more likely to have a mudroom in their homes compared to liberals (2).

Conservatives manifest a high degree of submission to authority figures such as the head of state. They are deferential towards authoritarian leaders who tell them what they want to hear (according to research on Right Wing Authoritarianism, a personality trait very correlated with political conservatism (1). Perhaps the tendency to credit the views of authority figures in this instance is stronger than fear of infection.

The fact that this is a new threat may also be significant because conservatives are more closed to new experiences as they adhere to long-established social conventions (1).

The coronavirus may be interpreted differently by Republicans and Democrats because they belong to different demographic groups. Republicans tend to be rural, older, groups that may be less receptive to information on novel threats. The coronavirus is also more likely to strike in cities because they are travel hubs and reservoirs of infection.

But it is hard to avoid two probable explanations. The first is that liberals and conservatives are exposed to differing information pools. This is often because their social media news feeds, particularly those on popular sites such as Facebook, or Twitter, feed them with the sort of news that they enjoy reading.”

Learning from Animals by Antoine Doré & Jérôme Michalon | About: Dominique Guillo, Les Fondements oubliés de la culture. Une approche écologique, Seuil, 2019 [La Vie des Idées]

“Learning from Animals

About: Dominique Guillo, Les Fondements oubliés de la culture. Une approche écologique, Seuil


by Antoine Doré & Jérôme Michalon, 19 March

translated by Michael C. Behrent



Neither the social sciences nor the natural sciences are currently invested in studying the cultural relations between humans and animals. If we are to understand them, we must reconsider all our categories, and free ourselves once and for all from the nature-culture divide.

To use the relationship between humans and animals to rethink culture: this is the goal of Dominique Guillo’s book. A sociologist and research director at the CNRS, Guillo offers a structured and thorough synthesis of more than a decade of research. A specialist in the history and epistemology of social sciences as they relate to life sciences, Guillo maintains that the way in which these two disciplinary domains have approached culture suffers from an identity bias, which prevents them from conceiving of the existence of cultures constructed by and between different animal species.

The identity bias diagnosis

Guillo devotes the book’s first three chapters to establishing this epistemological diagnosis. He gets the ball rolling with the natural sciences (behavioral ecology, ethology, and neo-Darwinian biology), in a first chapter that proposes a highly pedagogical synthesis of research from the past forty years on animal sociability and culture. First, we encounter the neo-Darwinians’ unusual definition of the social (i.e., behavior that seeks to perpetuate the genes of individuals other than their producers); then, an ethological definition of culture understood as a set of traits transmitted by social learning, rather than by the genetic mechanisms of natural selection.


Guillo thus calls for a better connection between the social and the natural sciences, as they seem to suffer from the same problem: their inability of studying culture except in terms of animal groups belonging to the same species (whether human or non-human). They suffer from a tropism or identity bias, apparent both in their research’s focus (intraspecific and intragroup relationships) and results (culture takes place solely between similar entities and accentuates their similarities to one another). Thus, according to Guillo, these “classic” approaches to culture proceed from (i.e., postulate) and produce (i.e., accentuate) shared identity. In a world in which understanding the interdependence of creatures as different as earthworms, whales, and molecules is becoming more and more crucial, identity bias constitutes a major epistemological obstacle.


This diagnosis of a forgetting of culture’s foundations, which is itself based on several omissions, is accompanied by over-adherence to the epistemology of the behavioral sciences. The sole definition of culture used and discussed in this book is borrowed from this discipline, as is Guillo’s key concept (social learning) and the regular appeal to “parsimony.” Furthermore, it is the social sciences rather than the behavioral sciences that the author holds responsible for the impossibility of a synthesis in the study of interspecific cultures. In contrast to what they assert, the social sciences are most inclined to validate the nature-culture dualism and the boundaries between disciplines, whether because of ideology or disciplinary loyalty. Conversely, sociobiology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology, by considering humans as one living being among others, abolish the frontiers between these dualisms and appear, in Guillo’s account, as progressive theories, while the social sciences are noticeable only for their conservatism. He notes, for example, that by restricting cultural phenomena to identity, the social sciences risk fueling the rise of “’identitarian’ political discourses” (p. 302).”

“3 Reasons for the Rise of Fake News | Cailin O’Connor explains the shift in American politics By Walter Veit [Science and Philosophy, Psychology Today]

“3 Reasons for the Rise of Fake News

Cailin O’Connor explains the shift in American politics.

By Walter Veit


Walter Veit: You recently published The Misinformation Age together with your husband and fellow philosopher James Owen Weatherall. What motivated you to write this book?

Cailin O’Connor: Around the time of the Brexit vote and the 2016 election in the US, I was working on several projects in formal social epistemology — using models to represent scientific communities. Social epistemology puts a big emphasis on the importance of social connections to knowledge creation. At the same time, we were seeing some serious issues related to public misinformation through social media. Many responses to this misinformation seemed to focus on the role of individual psychology and reasoning in the spread of false belief. For instance, confirmation bias, where individuals trust evidence that supports an already-held belief, is obviously relevant. But we think that understanding social ties and behavior is even more important to understanding false belief. For that reason, we wanted to bring some of the most important lessons from social epistemology, and from models of scientific knowledge, to bear on these social problems.

Walter Veit: How do you explain that despite all the evidence, demonstrably false beliefs are able to spread and persist?

Cailin O’Connor: There are many reasons that false beliefs spread, often in spite of good evidence refuting them. One reason is that we all are used to trusting other humans as sources of information. This is, to some degree, a necessity. We certainly cannot go do the work ourselves to guarantee that all our beliefs are good ones. Even when we look to scientific journals for evidence supporting our beliefs, we are ultimately trusting others (the scientists who share their data). And sometimes even these good sources lead us astray. The social sharing of data is powerful, but always opens the possibility that falsity can spread. In addition, there are various social biases that can make us more or less likely to share false beliefs. For example, in our book, we talk about the role of conformity bias — when individuals want to conform their actions or beliefs to their peers — in sometimes preventing the spread of useful or accurate knowledge. Our heuristics for social trust, such as placing more trust in those who are more similar to ourselves, or who share our beliefs, can mislead.


This interview originally appeared in Psychology Today [Apr 17, 2019]”

“A Global Health Crisis and the Storytelling Brain; the brain may have evolved for entertainment” by Michael Karson [Feeling Our Way | Psychology Today]

“A Global Health Crisis and the Storytelling Brain

The brain may have evolved for entertainment.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.


The brain is thus like the peacock’s tail, which evolved for its appeal to peahens, who presumably evolved increasingly discriminatory preferences for tails. But with brains, both sexes put selection pressures on each other to tell better stories. The brain being built for storytelling and story-appreciating rather than for rational thought or for remembering solutions to geographical problems explains a lot of our difficulties with rational thought and memory and turns our cognitive biases on their heads from geographical pathologies to reproductive strategies. Our poor memories, in this view, are not deficits in brain functioning any more than creative license in rewriting history is a deficit of Shakespeare’s in his Richard III or Henry V. It’s not a problem reproductively that we sacrifice accuracy for the story we are telling ourselves; the story is all.


 We are not animals built for truth-seeking but for face-saving and entertaining. To deploy critical thinking during a story is like interrupting a comedian and asking whether she is really married when she is trying to tell a joke about husbands. Also, of course, we were built to live in small groups, and in a social sphere of 90 people, you can just all agree on whom to take with a grain of salt when they are making claims about reality. Learning to read strangers was largely irrelevant.

This whole truth-seeking enterprise called science has been a remarkable success, responsible for living past forty in large measure, and for creating the kind of intellectual environment that gave rise to Netflix (which, I note, capitalizes on how our brains are built to appreciate stories). But science is an unexpected benefit of big brains, not their purpose. Brains were not built to do math any more than backs were built to sit all day at a computer or arms were built for throwing sliders. You can sit or throw baseballs until you injure yourself, but you can only forego storytelling for about a day before you fall asleep and start dreaming. Dreaming is the primary outlet of the storytelling brain, like having your own blog every night.”

“The Problem with the Way Scientists Study Reason” by Sacha Altay [Nautilus]

“The Problem with the Way Scientists Study Reason

Psychologists studying reasoning extensively rely on logic and philosophy, and neglect psychology’s more natural ally: biology.

Sacha Altay is a Ph.D. student in cognitive science at École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He works on argumentation, misinformation, and how we evaluate communicated information. Follow him on Twitter @Sacha_Altay.



Ethologists evaluate their experimental paradigm, or set-up, in light of its ecological validity, or how well it matches natural surroundings. An animal’s true habitat, and its evolutionary history, have always centered the discussion. In contrast, most experimental paradigms in human reasoning, such as the Cognitive Reflexion Test (CRT) or syllogisms, are based on logic or mathematics.


Psychologists studying reasoning extensively rely on logic and philosophy, and neglect psychology’s more natural ally: biology. The neglect stems in part from the ease with which humans can seem to understand one another. Our psychology is equipped with specialized cognitive systems, like theory of mind, that help us negotiate social life. We spontaneously attribute intentions, reasons, and beliefs to others. These heuristics help us to predict behavior, but they also parasitize our scientific understanding of the mind, blinding us to the necessity of using biology when studying ourselves.


Humans are, in other words, too familiar with one another. Fundamental laws of biology, like evolution by natural selection, are falsely believed to have weak constraints on human psychology—particularly for high-level cognitive functions, like reasoning. But the human brain, just like the turtle brain, has been shaped by millions of years of evolution. Reason is unlikely to have escaped its influence.


Our big brains likely evolved to solve tasks related to social interactions, not abstract logical problems. The Cosmides-Tooby selection task was ecologically valid; the first one wasn’t. Using the wrong experimental design, whether it’s the task itself or the stimuli, exposes researchers to many problems—the main one being that the results become hard to interpret. You don’t know if what you found reveals an interesting feature of the human mind—such as that human deductive reasoning is biased in the classical Wason selection task—or if it’s just a methodological artifact because the stimuli were not ecological.


But Hugo Mercier, who I work with at École Normale Supérieure, and Dan Sperber recently ventured there in their 2017 book, The Enigma of Reason. According to them, reasoning is not a capacity to correct false intuitions or solve problems. Nature is full of problems that organisms have to solve (like finding a mate, or food for dinner) and they constantly update their priors, or beliefs, about their environment in a broadly rational fashion.”

“Does Science Lead to Atheism? Alex Rosenberg discusses his views on atheism, science, and Bas van Fraassen By Walter Veit [Science and Philosophy | Psychology Today]

“Does Science Lead to Atheism?

Alex Rosenberg discusses his views on atheism, science, and Bas van Fraassen.

Walter Veit



Walter Veit: In your book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, you argue that there is not much reason to provide arguments against God’s existence. Nevertheless, you don’t shy away from debating creationists. Did you regret your discussion with William Lane Craig? I imagine that you might have received a lot of reactions from committed theists. Did you get any positive reactions or were you able to convince anyone of a naturalist worldview?

Alex Rosenberg: I said I didn’t need to provide arguments against god’s existence because there were already so many good ones, and lots of evidence against god’s existence too. The aim of the book was to sketch out what else we atheists should endorse, if we endorse atheism owing to scientific considerations. I debated Craig for the money and the chance to plug my book. I only wish I had taken a more mocking tone and had a lighter touch. There were some non-theists in the crowd, and I think I did move one or two people who reached me afterward by email.”

“The neural processes behind our desire for revenge” [Neuroscience News]

“The neural processes behind our desire for revenge

Neuroscience News


Summary: During a conflict between two groups, oxytocin levels increase, influencing the medial prefrontal cortex. This results in a greater feeling of empathy among the group and a desire to seek revenge on rivals. The findings shed light on how conflict contagion can occur in social groups.


The study suggests that the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin is increased during conflict between groups and influences the medial prefrontal cortex, the section of the brain associated with our decision-making activity. This leads to a greater feeling of love and empathy among a group and the desire to seek revenge when attacked by an outside group. The findings may help explain how a process called ‘conflict contagion’ can occur, where a conflict that starts between a few individuals ends up spreading among entire groups.


They found that the conflict encountered by the revenge group was associated with an increased level of oxytocin compared to the control group. Additionally, they saw that these increased levels of oxytocin predicted the medial prefrontal activity associated with ingroup pain. This activity in turn predicted the desire to seek revenge upon the outgroup, regardless of whether some of the individuals were directly involved in the conflict.


“A neurobiological association of revenge propensity during intergroup conflict”.

Xiaochun Han, Michele J Gelfand, Bing Wu, Ting Zhang, Wenxin Li, Tianyu Gao, Chenyu Pang, Taoyu Wu, Yuqing Zhou, Shuai Zhou, Xinhuai Wu Is a corresponding author, Shihui Han.

eLife doi:10.7554/eLife.52014.


A neurobiological association of revenge propensity during intergroup conflict

Revenge during intergroup conflict is a human universal, but its neurobiological underpinnings remain unclear. We address this by integrating functional MRI and measurements of endogenous oxytocin in participants who view an ingroup and an outgroup member’s suffering that is caused mutually (Revenge group) or respectively by a computer (Control group). We show that intergroup conflict encountered by the Revenge group is associated with an increased level of oxytocin in saliva compared to in the Control group. Furthermore, the medial prefrontal activity in response to ingroup pain in the Revenge but not Control group mediates the association between endogenous oxytocin and the propensity to give painful electric shocks to outgroup members regardless of whether they were directly involved in the conflict. Our findings highlight an important neurobiological correlate of revenge propensity which may be implicated in conflict contagion across individuals in the context of intergroup conflict.

“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.”