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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Enter our super-competition and win a mega-prize!)
Some time ago, a lady in France had the pleasure of seeing her lottery ticket win the jackpot (several million euros), only to have her dream blown to smithereens by an untoward incident. To establish that a claim is valid, the lottery is legally bound to bring together [a] the computer printout of the draw, [b] the winning ticket and [c] the computer readout from the place where the ticket was purchased. Unfortunately, that establishment (a bureau de tabac for you connoisseurs of things French) had burned down to a pile of ashes, cash registers and computers included, the day after the poor woman bought the ticket. The claim was denied.
A blow indeed, as her life so far had not quite been a rose petal path. She was unemployed, her husband an invalid with no pension, her equally unemployed son and daughter had both turned into alcoholic vagrants. We can certainly imagine her crying, Why?, Why me?
[Note that I am not sure this story is altogether accurate - I recount from memory]
Why think about misfortune?
Why do people the world over think about misfortune, and construct elaborate theories to explain it? Here surely is one of your massive, elephant-in-the-room quasi-universals of culture, crying out for explanation, and (as usual) thoroughly neglected by standard social sciences. In all human groups, it seems, people notice and remember cases of misfortune, tally them, detect regularities – and most important, try to explain misfortune.
Also, in most human groups, explanations of misfortune center on agents, imagined (gods, spirits) or real (relatives, enemies), that brought about the untoward events.
Again, why? Why do people do that?
To us evolutionarily minded folks, these universally available accounts of misfortune are puzzling, mostly because they are false. Nor are they just slightly off target – they are downright misguided. Bad things in the world happen for a variety of reasons, but superhuman agents are not among them. There are no witches making you sick, no bad spirits that make you trip up. Why would our evolved design for a mind include the propensity to focus on and ponder at length totally useless explanations? In evolutionary terms, this is all the more puzzling as such thoughts are not just futile but also potentially harmful. The time and energy spent thinking about mystical causes are wasted for a more productive use of one’s reason.
You may tell me that this is just as true of myriad other cultural phenomena, as people fill their heads with nonsense of no possible evolutionary value – and insert your favourite example here, religious beliefs, ethnic hatred, alternative medicine, etc. Well, you may be right – the culture-as-widespread-nonsense phenomenon is much larger than the present question. But saying that there are other problems of a similar nature does not solve this one – unless you assume there should be a unique solution for all domains of culture-as-nonsense, which I do not believe for a minute.
So let me proceed to the four questions we should address if we want to have a decent model of misfortune expanations.
Question 1. Why agents?
Why are agents so frequently recruited in the explanation of misfortune? There are several ways to account for untoward occurrences. One type of explanation is your common covering-law kind of generic causal statement, whereby ordinary impersonal causal processes are involved in producing a specific outcome. The bureau de tabac burned down betcause it was full of flammable stuff, and a small flame (perhaps a cigarette butt) started a fire. Another type is a kind of karmic accounting, where bad things are the outcome of some kind of fault. The place burned down because the lady (or her ancestors) had committed some moral violations in the past. The third model is that an agent was involved. Somehow a spirit or god decided to burn down that place. This latter, agency-based account is by far the most frequent. Why is that the case?
Question 2. Why “why me?” ?
This is another universal feature of misfortune models - they explain, not a generic set of causal processes that would account for the type of event that occurred, but the particular token that is being considered. Or, if you prefer less jargon, consider the most familiar example from classical anthropology. Among the Zande, when the roof of a mud granary collapses, everyone considers this must be a case of witchcraft – bad people are involved. In case you feel superior and smugly inform those benighted Zande that roofs collapse when their pillars are thoroughly gnawed by termites – well, they know that perfectly well, only that is irrelevant – witchcraft is mentioned not to explain why roofs collapse, but why that particular one collapsed at that particular time. I know viruses cause diseases, but wy did it have to happen to me? Why me? Why now?
Why do people ask such questions? I hear you say, of course people want to know why it happened to them, of course that is universal – what could be more natural? Who cares what makes other rooftops collapse? Who cares what triggers diseases in other people? What people want to find out, of course, is the why of this particular roof collapse or disease, the one that affects them.
Now, where does all this of course stuff come from? What is so natural here? All this may seem natural to us… simply because we are human too, but that is all the more reason to try and explain it.
Question 3. Why this asymmetry between good and bad fortune?
This may be simpler to solve (indeed the solution may well be obvious) - still, this is one of the questions a good cognition and culture account should address. Most people in the world construct elaborate explanations for bad things while in many cases they are happy that good things just happen.
Question 4. Why are only some occurrences explained in agentive ways?
In the bad good old days of classical anthropology, people with a magical, primitive or prelogical mentality did everything the prelogical or magical way. They were peasants, barbarians, savages – in other words the unclubbable. But as Evans-Pritchard and many others pointed out, all these people also have causal explanations of the more sober, covering-law kind. True, witches will destroy your granary, but granaries cave in also because of termites. Indeed, in most human groups there is an explicit distinction between “simple” or “straightforward” misfortune, which requires not much explanation beyond a recognition of the generic causal processes involved, and those “special” occurrences that seem to cry out for an agentive, karmic or other explanation. During my fieldwork, I learned that Fang people in Cameroon considered some illnesses and assorted misfortune as “simple misfortune”, to be explained for instance in terms of (local models of) physiology, while others were “special”, recruiting the whole panoply of spirits and ancestors.
Why do people maintain both kinds of models? And more important, are there any recurrent differences in the kinds of events covered by these types of explanations?
My solution and our competition for a MEGA-PRIZE
I have found a marvellous solution to all these questions. Unfortunately, the space of this blog is too small to contain it. So I reserve its full publication for another occasion.
In the meantime, why not let a hundred flowers bloom and a thousand schools compete? This is why ICCI proudly opens a competition for the best evolution-compatible, human-cognition-driven, empirically testable explanatory model of these four features of human reflections on misfortune.
Competition regulations: 1. Only send contributions that would address and answer all four questions above. 2. The winner will receive a prize of US$42, offered by Pascal Boyer, in the form of a voucher for use in their favourite online bookshop. (I offer this precise sum because that’s the amount of a reviewer’s fee that I got and absolutely did not deserve). 3. Pascal Boyer is sole judge of all entries. His judgment is thoroughly subjective and may be swayed by friendship, reputation, good looks, bribes and neural misfirings. The judgment is final and unmotivated.
We have all enjoyed, if that is the right word, conversations with people who seem to have no great regard for the niceties of argument and evidence - people who tell you that homeopathy does work because it cured them of a common cold, in a few days… Or that the FBI (or other such agencies) deliberately created the AIDS virus (or crack cocaine) to destroy Africans (or black Americans)… In many cases, such epistemic lapses are context-specific - the same person who claims that homeopathy does work will insist on proper evidence when buying a dishwasher or deciding on a school for their children.
A recent book called Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin details the extraordinary story of the “vaccinations cause autism” meme. This started with some inconclusive but over-reported studies by a few marginal scientists, and soon ballooned up into a huge social movement, where thousands of distressed parents could exchange information, share their traumatic experience, and read or listen to many (some naive, some downright mendacious) “scientists” promoting wild theories (autism from vaccines, from the preservatives used in the vaccines, from radiation, from lack of vitamins, etc.) and often peddling expensive, untested and dangerous treatments (like painful testosterone injections).
As Mnookin relates, the movement soon acquired many characteristics of a cult...
Would you enjoy your cocktail less, if it came in a glass labelled “vomit”?
One solid result of cognitive psychology, or so it would seem, is that most people, regardless of education, opinion or personality, can be induced to think in magical terms given the appropriate stimuli and conditions. People will be reluctant to don a sweater if told that it used to belong to Adolf Hitler. They resist drinking from a glass of water in which an experimenter has briefly dunked a plastic cockroach. There is a great variety of such effects, initially demonstrated by Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroff and replicated by many others, including Paul Harris in developmental studies.
This was salutary news for cultural anthropologists, who suspected that there was something deeply wrong with the notion that magical thinking was a prerogative of the Other, either quasi-naked people with bones through their noses, or less exotic peasants and barbarians with “pre-logical” mentality. So – we now know that we all are that Other, so to speak.
But does magical thinking actually exist? Do the experiments actually show it in action?
Those of you who deal with psychiatry know of the rare and tragic condition called Capgras delusion. In this condition, the patient ceases to recognize his or her spouse, father, mother, another familiar person or even a pet. The patient is quite certain that this person they interact with, although he or she looks, talks, feels and smells like the original, is not the genuine thing - and many patients actually believe that the original was replaced with a replica, substituted by aliens, etc. In psychiatry there is a standard and plausible interpretation of these delusions in terms of rationalization.
This is called the “two-stage” model, following which [a] the patient’s experience is extraordinary and [b] the delusion is an attempt to make sense of it. In this particular case, the model suggests that [a] the patient’s face-systems, upon seeing the person, deliver the appropriate interpretation (“this is my husband”) and activate the relevant person-file in memory, but fail to create the specific emotional signature previously associated with seeing that person; as a result, seeing the person creates an extremely unusual experience, which [b] the beliefs about aliens contribute to explain in a way that is almost rational. (Note that this interpretation is disputed however).
Now, what about Kenyans in the White House?
Among the many crazy social movements that make up the rich tapestry of fringe politics in America, the Birthers’ movement is probably the craziest...
- Category: Pascal's blog
- Published on Tuesday, 22 February 2011 00:00
- Written by Pascal Boyer
I do not know if many scholars of religion still believe in gods or spirits, but I know that a great many of them believe in the existence of religion itself - that is, believe that the term "religion" is a useful category, that there is such a thing as religion out there in the world, that the project of "explaining religion" is a valid scientific project. Naturally, many of the scholars in question will also say that religion is a many splendored thing, that there are vast differences among the varieties of religious belief and behavior. Yet they assume that, underlying the diversity, there is enough of a common set of phenomena that a "theory of religion" is needed if not already available.
One might think this unfortunate and obdurate tendency to believe in the scholarly equivalent of unicorns is chiefly confined to theologians or other marginal scholars. That is not the case. Indeed, quite a lot of people these days argue for a "scientific explanation of religion". In preparation for this they gather the best and most up-to-date scientific gear, from genetics and evolutionary biology to, inevitably, neuro-imaging.
I applaud the use of such tools in general and deplore it all the more in this particularly futile pursuit.
Fang epic recitation - a matter of "religion"?
There really is no such thing as "religion". Most people who live in modern societies think that there is such a thing out there as "religion", meaning a kind of social and cognitive package that includes views about supernatural agency (gods and suchlike), notions of morality, particular rituals and sometimes particular experiences, as well as membership in a particular community of believers and the constitution of specific organizations (castes of prests, churches, etc.). All this, as I said, is thought to be a "package", where each element makes sense in relation to the others, given a coherent and explicit doctrine. Indeed, this is the way most major "religions" – Islam, Hinduism for instance – are presented to us, the way their institutional personnel, many scholars and most believers think about them.
- Category: Pascal's blog
- Published on Wednesday, 02 February 2011 08:52
- Written by Pascal Boyer
Everyone likes to bash Homo œconomicus - not one stone was left uncast at the poor chap. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good stoning just as much as the next religious fanatic, but this may be a case in which we executed the right fellow for the wrong reasons.
Most people argued that Homo oeconomicus (henceforth HE), as described in economics textbooks, was way too smart for his own good. He had complete information and all the computing power required to hold that information; he also had the cognitive capacities to derive valid inferences from all that information, to ignore all trivial or irrelevant inferences, and was able to do all that instantaneously; he was dealing with scarcity but these tremendous computational feats were essentially free.
This was clearly pushing it. To peg him down a notch, many people pointed out that actual economic agents are rather more limited. They do not have full rationality but some form of "bounded rationality". They are swayed by biases and heuristics in situations of uncertainty. Behavioral economics suggested that in many cases they simply ignore their own interest and are motivated by norms of fairness and moral sentiments (although this last point may be misleading, see comments by Nicolas Baumard).
This is all wrong, wrong, wrong. The problem with HE is not that he is too smart - but that he lacks smart instincts. It is not that he is super-human, but that he is infra-cognitive. To explain economic behaviour, we need a model of human beings that is more sophisticated than HE, not less.
It would take a whole book or series of books and articles to justify this - and I expect that these books are being written as we speak, as these are fairly simple points - but here are two illustrations, admittedly far from standard market processes, but clearly relevant to economic theory.
I happen to know the secret of academic success. So far I have never divulged it because, well, charity begins at home. But it looks like the field of cognition and culture might be in need of a shot in the arm, so to speak. So I agreed to part with the secret, against a small compensation negotiated with the ICCI.
There is some truth in the old adage that it takes an enormous amount of education to be truly credulous. Indeed, years of familiarity with several academic fields have convinced me that the proposition is quite literally true. Being an academic means (at least in some disciplines I am familiar with) believing a great number of impossible things before breakfast, and, it would seem, the more preposterous the better.
Consider for instance the academic fondness for the idea that madness is “defined by culture”, as discussed here by Ophelia Deroy. One could discuss the serious claims made by Deroy and the various issues they raise (which I did elsewhere). For the time being, note just this. The notion that there is nothing to madness, except what “culture” decrees, is counter-intuitive to most people in most societies in the world - except to Western academics. Most people in most places who had any contact with insanity inferred that something was really non-standard in some other people’s mental functioning. Hence, probably, the frisson of the notion that it is all arbitrary and changing.
To turn to more telling examples, consider relativism, which tells us that people literally live in incommensurable worlds. Or the common anthropological idea that kinship has nothing to do with reproduction and genetics. Or the literary critics who say that writing is primary and orality is a derived form of communication. Or the notion that gender is completely unrelated to sex.
The mechanism that made these strange notions popular is actually not so mysterious.
- Category: Pascal's blog
- Published on Thursday, 14 January 2010 10:02
- Written by Pascal Boyer
High Culture: Da Vinci's Last Supper (as seen in The Da Vinci Code).
We cognitive anthropologists deal with “culture” in the broad sense of distributed mental representations widespread in a social group (and many of us don’t really believe that the terms “culture” or “cultural” pick up a natural kind of representations - but that will be the topic of another post). We do not usually have much time for “culture” in the elevated sense of high culture - the sense usually associated with the names of Matthew Arnold or TS Eliot, among others.
But we should pay some attention, perhaps. True, high culture does not occur in all human societies, it is a minority pursuit wherever it does, and there may be more important problems for cognitive anthropology to solve. But it is interesting nonetheless. Wherein lies the difference between the high and low registers? Is there any cultural variation in that difference? How does it translate in terms of cognitive processes?
We academics and other literate types are often misguided in our approach to this, as we compare the best examples of high culture with the worst of the low. This was recently and vividly brought to my attention by the request of a friend and colleague, that we both read something called The Da Vinci Code, which we would then discuss in various undergraduate classes on literature, myth and history. This turned out to be a Serious Mistake.
- Category: Pascal's blog
- Published on Tuesday, 01 December 2009 00:00
- Written by Pascal Boyer
I don’t believe any one of you would like to live in a room with a murdered man in the cupboard, however well preserved chemically – even with a sunflower growing out of the top of his head. - John Ruskin
Recently, Dan Sperber alerted us to ancedotal observations of grieving in non-human animals (see blog here - by the way, “anecdotal” is not derogatory here - our observations of grieving in humans are anecdotal too). Are the dead chimp’s compagnons as baffled and shaken by their friend and relative’s death as we would be?
We do not know.
In any case, bereavement in humans is difficult enough to describe and explain. This is an important topic for cognition and culture for many reasons - because it is of obvious interest to all human beings, because it is universal, because it is seemingly framed in such different ways in different places, and because the psychology is not well understood so far.
This used to be a topos for cultural anthropologists, who charted the many similarities in beliefs about death, and even more strikingly, the similarities in people’s ritualization of behaviour around death.
Social organization and the cost of information
Small-scale human groups share some structural features that anyone who ever took an anthropology course will recognize - as these communities are the mainstay of the classical anthropological literature. Posner lists them as the following:
“Weak government, ascription of rights and duties on the basis of family membership, gift-giving as a fundamental mode of exchange, strict liability for injuries, emphasis on generosity and honor as high ethical norms”
What is the origin of this particular, highly recurrent bundle of features?
Call me radical, call me a maverick. Rather than slavishly swallowing the scientific orthodoxy from establishment textbooks, I decided to go back to the original papers. I have identified several embarassing errors of mathematics and physical reasoning in Einstein’s original 1905 paper on the “Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, the alleged beginning of “special relativity”, one of the main tenets of standard modern physics (despite its manifest absurdity). Once Einstein’s errors are corrected, we can establish a new foundation for physics that is consistent with commonsense experience, and does not require fancy mathematical tricks. Not surprisingly, I have been thwarted in all my attempts to publish these findings in scientific journals, which is why I have decided to post them on the Internet.
Or rather, I have not, but I know lots of people who have. For some time now, I have been an avid reader and collector of webpages created by crackpot physicists, those marginal self-styled scientists whose foundational, generally revolutionary work is sadly ignored by most established scientists. These are the great heroes, at least in their own eyes, of alternative science. In pre-Internet ages, these people routinely sent sheaves of notes and articles to established physicists and mathematicians, warning them that the papers contained proofs of Goldbach’s conjecture or Fermat’s theorem, or revolutionary models of gravitation and the atom. Scientists would just as routinely consign all this brilliant stuff to the wastepaper basket.
But then a miracle happened - CERN and DARPA created the Internet… and crackpots now all have their webpages! The whole world can benefit from exposure to alternative science.
Not all nuts are good crackpots
There is of course a practically infinite amount of drivel on the net. Only serious crackpots are interesting - and relevant to your common cognitive anthropologist. In my informal ethnography I have ignored many sources of Internet nonsense that are of no relevance to important epistemological questions. I have no time for religious fanatics, for people who find proof of the Bible/Qur’an in particle physics/Fermat’s theorem (or vice-versa), or for New Age crystals, waves, mental energy, spiritual forces, auras, quantum consicousness and hidden dimensions of being. No, the really interesting crackpots are the ones trying to really, seriously do science, because their productions and their failures tells us important things about science itself.
In a recent post, Christophe Heintz told us about “institutions that make us smart”. The posting was of great interest by itself, and got us thinking about institutions - our field still has its work cut out if we want to make sense of institutions.
We have all sorts of interesting tools and theories in cognitive anthropology (as that should be the name of our field - see discussion here), but precious little to say about institutions. That is, to put it mildly, rather unfortunate as many social phenomena seem to depend on the interaction between people and their institutions. Cognitive anthropology should be the place to understand why and how people are compelled by institutional arrangements such as money, marriage, law courts, schools and markets. So far, we cannot say we have made great progress in that direction.
- Category: Pascal's blog
- Published on Tuesday, 24 February 2009 00:00
- Written by Pascal Boyer
This would seem to be the conclusion from Dale Guthrie’s massive The Nature of Paleolithic Art, perhaps the most comprehensive and rigorous study to date of cave paintings and other Stone Age artefacts. Guthrie’s no-nonsense, scientifically rigorous study shatters our most cherished and deeply entrenched beliefs about rock art, demonstrating for instance that most of it was not terribly good, that it was probably not very important to Paleolithic people and to top it off that these awesomne paintings had less to do with metaphysics than with testosterone-fuelled young men’s feverish imaginations.
Gone are the “hunting magic”, “shamanistic revelations”, “fertility cults” and other flights of interpretive fancy that litter most classical discussions of rock art, not to mention more bizarre interpretations in terms of phallic magic or drug-induced ecstasy. Once discarded these fantasies, one can glimpse something much more interesting in cave paintings, to do with youth, sex, hunting and danger.
On the left: what we generally see of European Paleolithic art - the best samples, to be found in all coffee-table books. Average rock art (on the right)… is often rather average.
Guthrie, a paleozoologist specialized in Arctic mammals (see a National Geographic news item on his work here), also has two hobbies that happen to be crucial in the study of rock art: he is a skilled draughtsman and an experienced big-game hunter.