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For the record: A commentary by Csibra, Senju, et al. on gaze following

In 2008, Atsushi Senju and Gergely Csibra published in Current Biology (18, 668–671) an often quoted and important contribution to natural pedagogy theory: “Gaze following in human infants depends on communicative signals.” In 2014, J. Szufnarowska, Rohlfing, K.J., Fawcett, C., & Gredebäck, G. published in Scientific Reports (4, 5304) a discussion of Senju and Csibra’s article, under the title “Is ostension any more than attention?" Senju, Csibra and collaborators replied to Szufnarowska et al's in an online commentary in Scientific Reports. However, Scientific Reports recently removed their comments without notifying them. Gergo Csibra has asked us to re-publish their commentary here, at cognitionandculture.net, for the record, and for those who are interested. We do so very willingly. The issue is relevant to our interests. Moreover, it is a good thing that a blog like ours can to some modest extent counterbalance the arbitrary decision of a journal of the Nature Group. Here below are the abstract of the two articles and the commentary Gergely Csibra, Mikołaj Hernik, Rubeena Shamsudheen, Denis Tatone, and Atsushi Senju.

Read more: For the record: A commentary by Csibra, Senju, et al. on gaze following

Mind-Body Dualism as Applied to Supernatural Agents: The (Dead) Emperor’s New Mind or Chicken Little?

I recently had an animated discussion with one of my colleagues about the wide spread application of mind-body dualism and its many variants in the cognitive science and psychology of religion. My interlocutor asked me why, if I was so right that psychologists who claim the folk intuitively represent supernatural agents in accord with mind-body dualism are wrong, then why are we still discussing it (as in “why is it still being discussed/supported in the literature”)? To be honest, I don’t have a good answer for this. I have always taken myself to be pointing out something so very simple and obvious that no one could miss it—that is the emperor is not wearing any clothes! On the contrary however, many of my colleagues who are still committed to some form of folk, intuitive mind-body dualism as explaining the psychology of supernatural agent representations act as though I am Chicken Little, proclaiming that the sky is falling after being hit on the head by a falling acorn. And, just to throw in another strained analogy, when enough people tell you that you are crazy, you start to believe it.
To me, it is an issue of credibility for the cognitive science and psychology of religion. If the theories we propose fail to explain how our chosen topic—religion, specifically supernatural agents—appears in its natural and cultural settings, then whatever they might be theories of, they ain't theories related to our topic (and you can always tell when a philosopher is serious: he uses the word “ain’t”).

Read more: Mind-Body Dualism as Applied to Supernatural Agents: The (Dead) Emperor’s New Mind or Chicken...

Why reading minds is not like reading words

Written by Brent Strickland and Pierre Jacob

GirlWithABookIn a recent review paper in Science (2014. 344-6190) entitled “The cultural evolution of mind reading,” Cecilia Heyes and Chris Frith argue that human children learn to read minds much like they learn to read words, via explicit verbal instruction from knowledgeable adults. On their view, both abilities are inherited culturally as opposed to genetically. Their argument for this thought-provoking analogy rests on three basic claims:

(1)  Mindreading exhibits as much cultural diversity as reading words.

(2)  The case of word reading shows that dedicated neural structure is not ipso facto evidence for genetic inheritance.

(3)  The putative evidence for mindreading in preverbal infants shows the presence of something they call implicit mindreading, which is not genuine mindreading.

Cross-cultural variation

Isn’t there a clear asymmetry between reading words and mindreading? While writing systems were invented some 5,000 years ago, there is no evidence in any culture of a population of healthy adults lacking the basic mindreading ability to ascribe beliefs, intentions and desires to others.

Read more: Why reading minds is not like reading words

Culture: A scientific idea "ready for retirement"?

Every year the website edge.org asks their panel a general question on science and/or society. The 2014 question was: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? I did not read (yet) all the answers, but I was surprised to see that two of them, from Pascal Boyer and John Tooby, were one and the same: culture. One could take the answers as a provocation of two evolutionary psychology-minded scholars against mainstream cultural anthropology (which I’d subscribe to). However, knowing Boyer and Tooby's work, and since, when people ask me what my research is about, I tend to answer “human culture” or “cultural evolution”, I think I have to take this challenge quite seriously.

On one level, I agree completely with the answer: “culture” cannot be considered as an unproblematic explanation of any phenomenon. I was recently reflecting on the fact that, while I consider myself an atheist, I find it often unpleasant to hear – let alone pronounce – profanities. Rationally, I know that they are simply a series of sounds, but still I cannot avoid being annoyed.  The imaginary naive anthropologist would say: of course, it is your culture! (I am Italian, and I received a then standard Catholic education). But this is exactly what we want to explain: why is this specific “cultural stuff” (being bothered by profanities) and not others (say going to church or pray) still present?

Read more: Culture: A scientific idea "ready for retirement"?

Another look at the two-systems model of mindreading

Apperly and Butterfill (2009) and Butterfill and Apperly (2013) have proposed a two-systems model of mindreading. According to this model, humans make use of two distinct psychological systems in mindreading tasks. The model rests on three related claims. First of all, the early-developing system, which is taken to be efficient, fast and inflexible, is supposed to explain the positive findings based on spontaneous-response tasks showing that infants can track the contents of others’ false beliefs. The later-developing system, which is taken to be slower, inefficient and flexible, is supposed to be necessary for success at elicited-response false-belief tasks, which most children pass only when they are at least 4,5 years of age. Secondly, the two separate systems are supposed to co-exist in human adults. Finally, there are signature limits of the early-developing system: in particular, only the later-developing system is taken to enable someone to represent the content of another’s false belief about object identity. 

Low and Watts, in a 2013 paper, took seriously the prediction of the two-systems model that representing the content of an agent’s false belief about object identity falls beyond the scope of the early-developing mindreading system and can only be executed by the later-developing system. They designed a task whose purpose was to probe participants’ understanding of the content of a male agent’s false belief about the identity of a two-colored puppet, using two different measures. I previously argued that the findings reported by Low and Watts (2013) fail to support the two-systems model of mindreading because it does not merely test participants’ ability to track the content of an agent’s false belief about an object’s identity but also their ability to revise or update their own belief about the puppet’s colors. Gergo Csibra has further suggested a follow-up experiment.So far as I know, Csibra’s suggestion has yet to be tested. On the other hand, Low, Drummond, Walmsley and Wang (2014) have designed a new quite interesting visual perspective-taking task, whose complexity matches that of Low and Watts’s (2013) earlier Identity task. Here I want to discuss this work and its implications.

Read more: Another look at the two-systems model of mindreading

Alberto Acerbi on cultural evolution

Alberto Acerbi's excellent blog hosts a noteworthy discussion of Claidière, Scott-Phillips and Sperber's recent PTRS paper on cultural attraction. Alex Mesoudi, Thom Scott-Phillips and Dan Speber joined the discussion; Alberto concluded it.

Kinship, theology and deep grammar

One of the most salient paradoxes in the study of kinship systems is their sheer analytical complexity, from the point of view of an external observer, and simultaneously the ease by which those very same systems are assimilated by the natives themselves. Whereas no special training, costly rituals, harsh indoctrination seems to be needed to master the intricacies of kinship terminologies and marriage rules for those who are born into them, the situation for the anthropologist seems to be the very opposite. What could be the reason for this apparent inconsistency, simplicity for the native and complexity for the stranger? My hunch is that the paradoxes of kinship run very deeply into the nature of what human kinship is all about. Far from solving (or dissolving) this paradoxical nature, the purpose of this text is to contribute to its clarification by means of a comparison between kinship, language and religion.

Read more: Kinship, theology and deep grammar

Relationship Thinking

Nick Enfield -- ethnolinguist at the Max Planck institute for psycholinguistics (and contributor to ICCI) -- has published a new book, Relationship Thinking.

Here's the blurb from Oxford University Press:

In Relationship Thinking, N. J. Enfield outlines a framework for analyzing social interaction and its linguistic, cultural, and cognitive underpinnings by focusing on human relationships. This is a naturalistic approach to human sociality, grounded in the systematic study of real-time data from social interaction in everyday life. Many of the illustrative examples and analyses in the book are a result of the author's long-term field work in Laos. 

Enfield promotes an interdisciplinary approach to studying language, culture, and mind, building on simple but powerful semiotic principles and concentrating on three points of conceptual focus. The first is human agency: the combination of flexibility and accountability, which defines our possibilities for social action and relationships, and which makes the fission and fusion of social units possible. The second is enchrony: the timescale of conversation in which our social relationships are primarily enacted. The third is human sociality: a range of human propensities for social interaction and enduring social relations, grounded in collective commitment to shared norms. Enfield's approach cuts through common dichotomies such as 'cognitive' versus 'behaviorist', or 'public' versus 'private', arguing instead that these are indispensable sides of single phenomena. The result is a set of conceptual tools for analyzing real-time social interaction and linking it with enduring relationships and their social contexts. The book shows that even - or perhaps especially - the most mundane social interactions yield rich insights into language, culture, and mind.

What I liked the most about the book is how clearly it reveals the depth and richness of the interactions that take place in a completely routine fashion, in any discussion. The examples are very well chosen and the analysis carefully uncovers the many ways in which relationships and interactions influence and, to some extent, make possible mutual understanding and coordination.

This year's Edge question

The new The Edge annual question, and the answers, are now online.

The question was: "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?"

Here are some answers that could be relevant to the ICCI crowd:

Oliver Scott Curry Associationism

N.J. Enfield A Science of Language Should Be Concerned Only With 'Competence'

Tom Griffiths Bias is Always Bad

Laura Betzig Culture

Scott Atran IQ

Rob Kurzban Cartesian Hydrolicism

Pascal Boyer Culture

Dan Sperber The Standard Approach To Meaning

Jon Haidt The Pursuit of Parsimony

John Tooby Learning And Culture

Steve Pinker Behavior = Genes + Environment

Dan Dennett The Hard Problem

Nick Humphreys The Bigger An Animal's Brain, The Greater Its Intelligence

Laurie Santos & Tamar Gendler Knowing is Half the Battle

David Berreby People Are Sheep

Benjamin K. Bergen Universal Grammar

Kiley Hamlin Moral Blank State-ism

And here's my take.

Some thoughts on supernatural agency beliefs

I am pleased to have been given by the ICCI the opportunity to advertise two notes here, each about four pages long, that I have recently written and put on SSRN. Both try to shed light on supernatural agency beliefs. The abstract to the first one reads:

Should we account for belief in supernatural agents in terms of benefits it might provide to the human believers? Or is it just a by-product of the human cognitive architecture? Perhaps neither. A different perspective, no longer human-centric, shines through in an observation like “admittedly, the Argument from Design must have been quite convincing before Darwin”. We can go farther in this direction.

Full text can be found here. This is the abstract to the second piece:`

Can the root of animism be illustrated as follows? The sun, cliffs, fountains, trees, etc; and in our time the planet Earth as seen in the darkness of space: they have all lasted a long time despite perceived threats to their existence, and are thus attributed a will to survive.

Full text here. What follows now is a shortened and adapted version of the first note.

Read more: Some thoughts on supernatural agency beliefs

The spread of medical innovations

Atul Gawande has an interesting article in the New Yorker about the spread of medical innovations. He points out some striking disparities in the speed at which medical innovations spread -- mere months for anesthetics, decades for aseptic surgery. He offers some interesting pointers to understand these disparities. This is a fascinating topic for an epidemiology of representations to tackle (possibly with life-saving practical consequences).

Simultaneously, an article coming out in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings might help explain and justify the slow spread of (some) medical practices. Reviewing 10 years of the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors find that a substantial number of the articles suggest that the current practice is in fact ineffective or even deleterious. In the case of standards of care, more articles reversed the current practices than reafirmed them! Given that the practices reviewed were modern ones, supposedly introduced based on scientific evidence, this might explain some doctors' reluctance to accept new practices sold to them as evidence based.

The 'gratitude trap' where Hungarian patients keep falling

As Rothstein argued at length in his book about the problem of social trust, institutions come in many different flavors: explicitly codified law systems, implicitly taken-for-granted exchange arrangements, and so on. Broadly speaking, they all constitute arrangements of some sort for aggregating individuals and regulating their behaviors through the use of (collectively shared) rules. Moreover, they are all necessary to enable a market system: in their absence, as Douglass North (the 1992 winner of the Nobel prize in economics) showed, entering into and upholding the kind of agreements that constitute the foundation of transactions in a market economy would be too costly for any potential party to take the risk.

Under this respect, all institutions do (at least) two things: present incentives, and induce strategies (by making it plausible to calculate what the other agents are likely to do). The problem, which Rothstein’s broad approach certainly did not overlook, is that different institutions may fulfill these two tasks in dramatically different ways. This became immediately clear to me when I realized (by accident, literally speaking) how widespread and yet ill-defined is the rule system governing the invisible market economy flourishing at the margins of the Hungarian state health system.

But first let me quickly introduce the accident that set everything in motion.

Read more: The 'gratitude trap' where Hungarian patients keep falling

Why do scammers persist in saying they are from Nigeria?

A research report by Cormac Herley, a Microsoft security analyst, proposes a clever response to an apparent paradox. Nearly everyone minimally competent in Internet use knows about the Nigerian 419 scam. For the few others, this is the con: an unsolicited email arrives in your inbox, purporting to be a letter from an attorney who informs the receiver that a large fortune can be made. The attorney needs the help of a person outside Nigeria to transfer large amounts of money abroad, and offers generously to share the boon with this co-operator. The scam works when a victim contacts the conmen and is persuaded to send advance payments to facilitate the alleged financial transactions. Many have fallen for this trick, losing thousands of dollars (and sometimes more) in the process. Smart email security filters most of these emails and most of us delete those that appear in our Inbox even without opening them or reading more than a few lines because we are “in the know”.

If the scam is so well-known, why don’t perpetrators change their routine?

Read more: Why do scammers persist in saying they are from Nigeria?

We are not intuitive monists — but then, what are we?

I have recently been watching the fascinating iTunes lectures by Tamar Gendler on the philosophy of human nature. Two of the lectures discuss what she terms "parts of the soul", but what I will here rather cumbersomely refer to as "parts of human personhood". Reviewing the western tradition, Gendler traces our tendency to subdivide the human person into parts to a continuous tradition in western philosophy and psychology. She discusses, amongst others, Plato's distinction between appetite, ratio and spirit, Freud's division between id, ego and superego, and more recently, the immensely popular division in cognitive psychology between system 1 (phylogenetically old, unconscious, and fast) and system 2 (more philogenetically novel, under conscious control and slow).

Such divisions of human personhood are cross-culturally ubiquitous...

Read more: We are not intuitive monists — but then, what are we?

Why do mathematicians always agree?

Science is a lively social activity, with many claims being lively debated. What about mathematics? The cliché about mathematicians being poor at managing social relations is quite strong and widespread. One of the most famous joke on the topic goes like this:

Question: How can you spot an extrovert mathematician?
Answer: He looks at YOUR shoes when he talks to you.

Is mathematics "less social" than other academic disciplines? Some support for a 'yes' answer can be found in a recent piece of news. A famous mathematician, Nelson, had claimed to give a proof of a rather surprising proposition: “Peano Arithmetic is inconsistent.” Two other famous mathematicians, Tao and Tausk, said the proof included one specific mistake, which they spelled out. Nelson's reaction was: "Ah, you're right. So I have not proven that Peano Arithmetics is inconsistent". End of the story. No fight, no disagreement, no formation of alternative schools of thoughts, no playing with how to interpret this or that claim. Just plain boring consensus.
Peano Axioms

(These are the axioms that Nelson claimed were inconsistent. They are supposed to express central propositions true of our system of natural numbers with addition. They are used to prove things about an object that is central in many cultures.)

Mathematics is full of that: easily achieved consensus. Everybody agrees. No debate, and yet, the consensus is not socially induced in any standard way.

In a recent blog post, The (in)consistency of PA and consensus in mathematics, Catarina Novaes takes this as a nice illustration of some points made by philosopher Jody Azzouni, who argues that mathematics is unique as a social practice.

Read more: Why do mathematicians always agree?

Is the moral-economic fallacy universal?

If anyone remembers anything from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (apart from the number of distinct operations required to make a pin, which greatly impressed me at the time), it is that famous sentence that describes human motives for trade:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

scrooge Until recently, I thought this very simple point had become commonsense, at least in educated circles. But then, at a recent dinner in pleasant and civilized company, as I was reflecting how it is such a Good Thing that we have the likes of Samsung, Google and Apple battling it out and giving us ever better products, several people turned to me and said something like: “Poor lamb, are you really that naive? Do you really think they’re trying to make stuff for your benefit? Don’t you know all these people ever want is to make more profit?”

Let us call this the moral-economic fallacy, the notion that the moral tenor of motives for economic action (people want to have more for themselves, which seems both “natural” and not very virtuous) contaminates, so to speak, the effects of such economic action, which cannot really be positive if their are rooted in base motives.

The moral-economic fallacy seems widespread. In a recent draft paper, Amit Bhattacharjee and colleagues report that people intuitively associate profit and social harm. As they say, “otherwise identically-described organizations are seen as providing less value and doing more harm when described as “for-profit” rather than non- profit […] Study 4 demonstrates that people hold a zero-sum conception of profit”. The ever prolific Bryan Caplan posted an economist’s comment on these striking results.

Here I am more interested in the psychological makeup involved: What triggers this kind of belief? From an evolutionary cognitive standpoint, I can see two conflicting perspectives on the question.

Read more: Is the moral-economic fallacy universal?

Why is misinformation so sticky?

When my mother was warning me against talking to strangers in the street, she might have had not only security concerns, but also epistemological ones. Misinformation, whichis so widespread in contemporary societies, is sticky! According to Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook, the authors of an excellent survey article on the topic, “Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing”, just published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, once you start believing bogus information it becomes very difficult to correct, even when you are told that it was bogus.


The article discusses the main sources of misinformation in our societies and the cognitive mechanisms that may be responsible for its resilience in our minds, even when we are exposed to retractions. The authors also offer solutions to the problem that may help researchers, journalists and practitioners of various kinds to find the right packaging of counter-messages that challenge previously acquired beliefs.

Read more: Why is misinformation so sticky?

Meat-eating in the eyes of young vegetarians

Not all transgressions are equal in the eyes of a child. Asked to evaluate the permissibility of certain actions (hitting another child, or stealing a toy from her) young children are quick to judge these actions wrong. Their judgment does not change when it is made explicit that in these hypothetical scenarios there are no rules or authority figures condemning these particular actions. Even more tellingly, when asked about conventional transgressions, such as wearing pajamas in the classroom, they suddenly ground their judgment in the presence (or absence) of an explicit rule condemning that specific practice. Children (it seems) insist that harming another child is bad, no matter the circumstances, and the reason why they do so is not simply because they do not pay attention to contextual changes. In fact, by acknowledging that wearing a weird uniform in class would be acceptable in a world without rules against odd classroom uniforms, they give us reasons to think that they have different normative expectations for different moral domains.
Turiel and Smetana have been the main proponents of this idea. They argue that, when faced with examples of interpersonal harm, young children behave as moral autodidacts (Turiel, 2006) In other words, children's judgment about the wrongness of a harmful action does not depend upon the existence of a governing rule or a social norm. Moreover, as Nucci (2001) emphasizes, moral reasoning in this domain exhibit a cluster of other specific features, such as rule and act generalizability (it is considered wrong for members of other societies not to have a given rule condemning moral transgression as well as to engage in a harmful action, even if their society does not have a rule about it). While there is a general agreement with the contention that the prescriptive force of moral standards is perceived as objective and universal, Turiel's idea that such type of moral reasoning is exclusively deployed in the harm domain has spurred an ongoing controversy in moral psychology (see, for instance, two recent criticism of Turiel's distinction between moral and conventional transgressions by Haidt, 2012, and Rai & Fiske, 2011). 

Taking Turiel's idea at face value, his theory naturally raises a question: How do children differentiate between the moral and the conventional domains? To find out, says Paul Harris, we should ask vegetarian children.

Read more: Meat-eating in the eyes of young vegetarians

Religious beliefs: Matter of fact or of preference?

In the public sphere, religious beliefs are often considered to be a matter of private sentiment or preference, not as matters of fact. While this may be helpful for the maintenance of a pluralistic society, religious individuals often regard their beliefs as true in an objective sense. Attempts to incorporate fictionalism into religious practice, such as the Anglican Sea of Faith, have met only with limited success.

There is thus a tension between the large diversity of religious beliefs, which prompt a more subjectivist understanding, and the appraisal by individual religious believers, who seem to have a more fact-like understanding.
How do we intuitively conceptualize religious beliefs? In an article entitled "The Development of Reasoning about Beliefs:  Fact, Preference, and Ideology" (forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Larisa Heiphetz, Elizabeth Spelke, Paul Harris, & Mahzarin R. Banaji investigated how children and adults view religious doctrinal and faith statements. They made a psychological distinction between three kinds of beliefs: factual beliefs (beliefs concerning states of affairs, of things that are believed to be true in some objective sense); preference-based beliefs (incorporating cognitive appraisals, and varying across individuals and contexts), and ideology-based beliefs (such as religious beliefs) which contain elements of both fact and preference.

Read more: Religious beliefs: Matter of fact or of preference?

Do we use different tools to mindread a defendant and a goalkeeper?

Previously on cognitionandculture — Last year, Pierre Jacob posted a critical review of the so-called two-systems model of mindreading, according to which humans use two distinct mental tools to understand the thoughts of others: one is fast and automatic, the other is slower, more reflective, and based on less immediate cues. This is a follow-up on his earlier post.

In a pair of experiments reported in a paper to appear shortly in Psychological Science, Jason Low and Joseph Watts used two distinct paradigms to investigate the human ability of 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds and adults to ascribe false beliefs to an agent. They take their findings to support the two-systems model of mindreading. On this model, while an efficient and inflexible system (system 1) enables a soccer player to score a goal by deceiving the goalkeeper in a split-second, a flexible but inefficient system (system 2) underlies a judge’s reflection over a defendant’s motivations and epistemic states over several days.
fig LowWatts

Low and Watts' identity task: Only the participant, not the agent, knows that the puppet that first moves into the right box and then into the left box is blue on one side and red on the other side. Which of the two boxes will the agent, who prefers blue over red things, look into?

Read more: Do we use different tools to mindread a defendant and a goalkeeper?

Why don’t people like markets?

People do not love markets – there is a lot of evidence for that. Is it relevant that, well, to put it bluntly, people do not seem to understand much about market economics?

That is a common enough message from professional economists. It is put into sharper focus by Bryan Caplan in his book The myth of the rational voter. Caplan (among other important and interesting things) reports on systematic studies of voters’ knowledge of policies and their effects on economic processes. The take-home message is that people just don’t get it, and that their voting preferences are largely irrational.

Now, voter ignorance or irrationality would not be very bad, if it was completely random. If most voters chose policies randomly, the net result would be no strong aggregate preference for any policy. But Caplan shows that people’s irrationality about economic issues is not random at all. There is method in their madness. It consists in a series of “biases”, like the anti-foreign and anti-trade bias (i.e., “when foreign countries prosper we suffer”). If this is true, many “rational voter” models in political science are in serious trouble.

As usual when people describe folk-understandings as “irrational” or “biased”, we cognition and culture and evolution folks get a trifle impatient.

Read more: Why don’t people like markets?

Is kinship back?

In the last issue of Science (25 May, 2012), a plea by Stephen Levinson for the study of kinship terminology, and an article by Charles Kemp and Terry Regier making a novel contribution to that study.

Charles Kemp talks about his and Regier's research

Levinson writes: "In 1860, Lewis Henry Morgan heard an Iowa man on a Nebraska reservation describe a small boy as “uncle.” Fascinated, he embarked on lifelong research into the kinship systems of the world’s cultures, which culminated in a typology of kin categories. Work on kinship categories flourished for a hundred years, but then became unfashionable. Yet, kinship is crucial to the transmission of human genes, culture, mores, and assets.  Recent studies have begun to reinvigorate the study of kinship categories. … Kinship is a fertile domain in which to ask a question at the heart of the cognitive sciences: Why do humans have the conceptual categories they do? … There are more than 6000 languages, each with a different system of kin classification, at least in detail. … What constrains this exuberant diversity of systems?"

In their article entitled "Kinship categories across languages reflect general communicative principles" (available here), Kemp and Regier argue:

Read more: Is kinship back?

What explains foxhole theism?

The well-known dictum that there are no atheists in foxholes (the source of this phrase is uncertain) is false. After all, there is even a military organization for atheists, the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers. Having read several the testimonies from these military men and women, I was struck by the extent to which (Christian) religiosity (regular prayer, semi-compulsory meetings with chaplains) is an ingrained part of military practice, and how tough this must be for atheists. As one MAAF member put it: "I was there for most of these prayers thinking, 'Religion is why we are in this war [Iraq] in the first place, haven't you guys figured that out yet?"

Sergeant York

Cognitive scientists of religion do not deny that people can remain atheist in the face of mortal danger. But there is a steady stream of literature indicating that, although one can be an explicit atheist in such cases, priming people with mortality-salient stimuli seems to increase implicit religiosity. For instance, Tracy et al. (2011) found that reminding people of their mortality increases their propensity to accept creationist accounts and to reject evolutionary theory. This result was obtained regardless of the participants’ religion (or lack thereof), religiosity, educational background, or preexisting attitude toward evolution. Jong et al. (accepted manuscript) showed that although mortality primes do not increase people's explicit religious convictions, they do increase implicit measures of religiosity. I will refer to this phenomenon as Implicit Foxhole Theism (IFT).

The theoretical framework in the literature to explain IFT is terror management theory (TMT). Accordingly, people cope with their awareness of death by investing in some kind of immortality. Religious beliefs, which cross-culturally, but not universally, have a literal form of immortality in their package deals, play a salient role in this.

Admittedly, not all religions paint a rosy picture of the afterlife.

Read more: What explains foxhole theism?

Policing friendships. Lessons from the equine world

Imagine two young chimpanzees. One is swaggering, stood on two feet, his coat all puffed up, frantically waving his arms. The other, few meters away, is hooting loudly while beating his hands on the bark of a dead mango tree. They’re both ready to charge. Yet, their postures give away much of their fears for the imminent clash. Suddenly, the second chimp stops his dramatic display. Time for reluctance is over. They both rush against each other in a rather clumsy dogtrot. At first, it’s a dust-up, but soon it becomes a chase paced by high-pitched screams. The first chimp tries to flee away from his opponent, without success. There’s no way to slow down the chase. Every time the first chimp tries to whimper submissively toward the rival, the drummer knocks him down. Not even his desperate resort to biting seems to stop the second chimp. Sucked into the fight, neither of the two chimps notices the big female approaching. Only when her furious scream smothers the frightened chimp’s shrieks, they finally see her. The intervention is quick and resolute. She brings herself close to the aggressor, a bulging lip face greeting him. The drummer, still frenzied from the brawl, barely manages to restrain himself. She stomps the ground twice, glancing at her son, now back on his knuckles. The rival retreats. Fight’s over.


Despite my dramatic rendition of the events, the interpretation is definitely straightforward. Two chimps started a fight, the shrieks of the weaker animal alerted the mother, who was probably chewing on some fruits nearby, until she decided to intervene and bring the conflict to an abrupt halt. The reasons for her behavior are easy to guess.

Read more: Policing friendships. Lessons from the equine world

What it is about women?

A few weeks a go, a young girl was assaulted in the othodox Jewish community of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem. Being from an orthodox family, the girl was dressed in what most people in Israel and the rest of the world would judge an inordinately puritanical fashion. Apparently, that was not enough for a group of enraged young men, who ganged up on her and terrorized her, spat at her, shouted in her face and called her a “whore” and other assorted insults. The main source of their righteous anger was her bare arms. She is eight years old.

modesty police 

The incident did not pass unnoticed. Israel is probably one of the most secular places in the world.The extremism of the Haredis and other fanatics are a perennial concern and irritant to most Israelis. Thousands joined demonstrations in several towns to denounce this latest eruption of puritanical folly.

Obviously, this kind of incident is far from special to Israel. In most of the Muslim world, men routinely gang up on women who fail to dress according to their standard of Islamic modesty. Women are just as routinely beaten up or even sent to jail for real or imagined violations of some extravagant regulation on what they should wear, say or do. In the US, many of the religiously inspired “social conservatives” are also obsessed with women, forever trying to push back on the very limited legal acceptance of abortion, but also on the availability or funding of contraception and genetic counselling.

None of this is new to our readers. But it raises, again, the question, What is it about women? that is, what is it that triggers that kind of apparently irrational hatred? Obviously, the question really is about men and their ever so mysterious psychological makeup.

Read more: What it is about women?

What's the point of talking to your child?

I would like to recruit ICCI readers to help me solve a mystery that has long puzzled me. I have met many linguists who know (or think they know) that:
1) There are cultures where children are not spoken to until they already talk fluently (1 or 2 years of age).
2) In some cultures, infants are spoken to in exactly the same way as adults are; that is, infant-directed speech = adult-directed speech.
It follows from (1) and (2) that infant-directed speech is a superfluous occurrence, and children can develop language perfectly well even if they are never addressed, or if they are talked to in run-of-the-mill sentences.
What are the sources of these firm linguistic beliefs? I've been able to trace some statements that could be interpreted as evidence for (2), but in each case there is some counterevidence or counterarguments to be found...

Read more: What's the point of talking to your child?

Incredible! Listening to ‘When I’m 64’ makes you forget your age

As an illustration of the power of priming experiments to produce astonishing findings, a recent study shows that people tend to underestimate their age (but not their father’s) after listening to the Beatles’ song « When I’m 64 ». The study was published in Psychological Science.


 "We asked 20 University of Pennsylvania undergraduates to listen to either “When I’m Sixty-Four” by The Beatles or “Kalimba.” Then, in an ostensibly unrelated task, they indicated their birth date (mm/dd/ yyyy) and their father’s age. We used father’s age to control for variation in baseline age across participants. An ANCOVA revealed the predicted effect: According to their birth dates, people were nearly a year-and-a-half younger after listening to “When I’m Sixty-Four” (adjusted M = 20.1 years) rather than to “Kalimba” (adjusted M = 21.5 years), F(1, 17) = 4.92, p = .040."

 The effect is both statistically significant and fairly important: it really seems that the song induces a downward bias in a subject's estimation of his own age. Incredible? Maybe, but not more so than other priming studies. It has been shown, after all, that subjects primed with words related to old age walk more slowly than others (here); that infants are twice more likely to help an adult spontaneously after they have seen two puppets facing each other (rather than turning their back to each other) (here); that people are more generous when they are holding a cup of hot (versus iced) coffee (here). Strange as they are, those are widely cited results. Yet, the Beatles’ song experiment was not greeted with the same enthusiasm. Why was that?

Read more: Incredible! Listening to ‘When I’m 64’ makes you forget your age

Are humans innately bad social scientists?

I know, this sounds a bit extreme. How can the ability to do (bad) social science be influenced by our genes? Well, quite easily if you carefully read Robert Trivers’ last book (see reviews in NYT Nature, Science). Indeed, his book is about our innate tendency for self-deception. Here is the blurb:

Whether it’s in a cockpit at takeoff or the planning of an offensive war, a romantic relationship or a dispute at the office, there are many opportunities to lie and self-deceive—but deceit and self-deception carry the costs of being alienated from reality and can lead 

In his bold new work, prominent biological theorist Robert Trivers unflinchingly argues that self-deception evolved in the service of deceit—the better to fool others. We do it for biological reasons—in order to help us survive and procreate. From viruses mimicking host behavior to humans misremembering (sometimes intentionally) the details of a quarrel, science has proven that the deceptive one can always outwit the masses.todisaster. So why does deception play such a prominent role in our everyday lives? In short, why do we deceive?

Among all the fascinating consequences of the evolution of self-deception – false memory, parents-offspring conflict, space disasters – one is of particular interest for us here at the ICCI. It is our innate propensity to do bad social science.

Read more: Are humans innately bad social scientists?

Twelve Lessons (Most of Which I Learned the Hard Way) for Evolutionary Psychologists


As an undergraduate, most of the professors in the Anthropology Department at my university practiced psychological anthropology, a subfield of sociocultural anthropology that combines theories from various branches of psychology with the study of culture. I decided that I was going to be a psychological anthropologist, and I continued on at the same university, with the same professors, for my graduate degrees. Although I was confident that, to understand human behavior, it was necessary to investigate the interaction of mind and culture, I nevertheless became increasingly dissatisfied with psychological anthropology, which lacks an overarching theory from which to derive hypotheses, and which often eschews hypothesis testing in favor of description and interpretation. Anthropologists usually emphasize the differences between people in different societies, yet, during my doctoral field research, I was impressed by the underlying universalities in human emotions. I began thinking more about human evolution, and, with guidance from several primatologists, I gradually began to invent my own version of evolutionary psychology. I was unaware that such a discipline was already emerging – indeed, many of my ‘new’ ideas had already been formulated more clearly by others. It was a revelation when I attended my first meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, and discovered a whole field devoted to my area of interest.

Read more: Twelve Lessons (Most of Which I Learned the Hard Way) for Evolutionary Psychologists

Blogs from ICCI contributors

ICCI contributors also blog elsewhere. I am happy to recommend two new blogs: Hugo Mercier's Social by Design on Psychology Today is devoted to popularizing his and Sperber's argumentative theory of reasoning. It will teach you the truth about gulliblity (trust me). Simon Barthelmé's Dahtah will enchant statisticians, pop-psychology debunkers, and anyone who is tired of the Mismeasure of Man. One excellent post laments the use that is being made of cognitive science to blame the problems of the poor on bad decision-making.

Why are some languages more regular than others?

Many years ago, I did anthropological fieldwork among the Dorze of Southern Ethiopia. Since no grammar of the Dorze language was available, I had to find out what were its basic morphological and syntactic rules. The good news was that once I had identified a rule, I could apply it across the board: there were hardly any exceptions. From this point of view, Dorze stood in sharp contrast with Amharic, the dominant language of then imperial Ethiopia. Amharic (like English) is a language with many irregularities. Dorze regularity was found not only at the morphological level, but also at the phonological level. The many words that had been borrowed from Amharic into Dorze had all, except for the most recent ones, acquired fully-regular dorze phonology.

Why are some languages quite regular and others not? I remember posing the question to the historical linguist Robert Hertzron, whom I met at the time in Addis Ababa. It is, he suggested, because, in the process of language acquisition, children tend spontaneously to over-regularize. They apply any rule they have acquired to all possible instances (in English, for instance, they may over-generalize the ordinary rule for past tense and say “he goed” instead of “he went”). In societies where adults correct children, these mistaken regularization are suppressed and irregularities are maintained; in societies where adults leave children alone in this respect, irregularities are less stable, and the language tends to be more regular. Gary Marcus et al. in their monograph on “Overregularization in language acquisition” (1992) quote Jill de Villiers half-joking: "Leave children alone and they'd tidy up the English language."

Read more: Why are some languages more regular than others?

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