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Douglass North has passed away

The Nobel Prize winner and economic historian Douglass North, has passed away this Monday (November 23rd, 2015) at age 95. In addition to being a founding father of institutional economics, North was always (especially in his later work) looking out for ways to integrate economics with cognitive science.
Washington University's notice can be found here.

Joint PhD in the Cognitive Science of Religion (2016-17 Studentship)

The Institute of Cognition and Culture (ICC) is offering a DEL Studentship for the Doctoral programme in the Cognitive the Science of Religion that has been established by Aarhus University (Graduate School of Arts/Religion, Cognition and Culture Research Unit—see http://www.rcc.au.dk) and Queen’s University, Belfast (School of History and Anthropology/Institute of Cognition and Culture—see http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/InstituteofCognitionCulture/)

Eligibility. UK and EU residents. Non-EU residents are not eligible for this scheme.

Fees and maintenance. UK-resident applicants are eligible for full fees and maintenance. Other EU-resident (including Republic of Ireland) applicants are eligible for a fees-only award.

Further detail and application procedure. Applications are invited from strong candidates interested in the area of the cognitive science of religion. Candidates should have an MA in anthropology, psychology or a related discipline. A 750-word research proposal in the area of the cognitive science of religion is also required. For additional details on application procedure, applicants should contact Dr Paulo Sousa This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Closing date. Friday 29 April 2016.

PhD studentships in Cognitive Science at Central European University, Budapest

The Department of Cognitive Science at CEU invites applications for doctoral student positions starting in September 2016. This is a research-based training program in human cognition with social cognition, learning and perception as core themes. Research topics include communication, cooperation, computational neuroscience,  cultural transmission, developmental social cognition, embodied cognition, joint action, problem solving, sensory and statistical learning, social cognitive neuroscience, social learning, strategic decision making, visual cognition and visual psychophysics.

Students will follow courses in cognitive anthropology, cognitive psychology, computational cognition, linguistics, philosophy of mind, traditional and Bayesian statistics and visual perception and learning. In addition, they will receive practical research training in the laboratories of the members of this new department.

Generous scholarships are available. The CEU committed to attracting talented students from around the world and provide a variety of scholarships and research grants for which applicants from any country are eligible to apply. Learn more about available scholarship options at www.ceu.edu/financialaid.

Read more: PhD studentships in Cognitive Science at Central European University, Budapest

Cambridge Moral Psychology Interdisciplinary Conference

The one-day Cambridge Moral Psychology Interdisciplinary Conference will take place on Friday 9 October 2015.
Programme and registration: http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/26237.

The Moral Psychology Interdisciplinary Conference aims to identify the most recent theoretical and methodological research challenges in morality research from various disciplines. This full-day conference will include a variety of short invited lectures, panel discussions, and working groups. The working groups will be assigned based on research area and will provide an opportunity to engage in a structured discussion on issues related to your current research and within an interdisciplinary team. Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

Speakers and Discussion Group Leaders
Prof. Benoit Monin, Psychology, Stanford University
Prof. Joshua Greene, Psychology/Neuroscience, Harvard University
Prof Molly Crockett, Neuroscience, University of Oxford
Prof. Lisa Bortolotti, Philosophy, University of Birmingham
Prof. Emma Cohen, Anthropology, University of Oxford
Prof. Daniel Effron, Organizational Behaviour, London Business School
Dr Marion Godman, Philosophy, University of Helsinki
Dr Marta Halina, History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge
Dr Jillian Craigie, Law, King's College London
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/868069106620799/

Pulotu – database of Pacific Religions

If good ethnographic databases works as a guilty pleasure for you, you may want to have a look at Pulotu, and thank Prof. Russell Gray and his team. Pulotu is a remarkable database of supernatural beliefs and practices across Austronesian cultures, and covers 116 cultures, with 62 variables, ranging from religious beliefs and practices to physical and social environment. Worth noting, Pulotu enables the use of phylogenetic comparative methods, thanks to robust language phylogenies being available for Austronesian cultures. In addition, the database design is highly aesthetic and easy to navigate. Link here.

P.S : We decline any responsibility in case of addiction or excessive amount of time spent on their website.

Call for two post-doctoral researchers in cultural evolution

The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena (Germany) are seeking to employ two full-time postdoctoral researchers in the field of cultural evolution. The positions are tied to the Minds and Traditions research group (“the Mint”), an Independent Max Planck Research Group that will open in 2016. They are for 2 years, renewable for a total of 5 years maximum, starting in the first half of 2016. Candidates need to have completed a PhD, and to be familiar with the field of cultural evolution. They will be expected to take part in a research project devoted to the cognitive science and cultural evolution of graphic codes. If interested, please send a motivation letter (maximum two pages) to the group’s principal investigator, Olivier Morin ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) by October the 1st, 2015. 

The complete call can be accessed here.

State of the art research on social behavior

In Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 2015, 3, a really useful open access collection of review papers on state of the art research on social behavior edited by Molly Crockett and Amy Cuddy. From their introduction:

“Social interactions shape and reflect who we are, influence what we do, and profoundly affect our wellbeing. The past decade has seen dramatic advances in our understanding of the neural underpinnings and real-world outcomes of social behavior. Here, we bring together a stellar collection of papers addressing current and pressing issues in the study of social behavior. We invited contributions from outstanding scholars investigating social behavior through the lenses of psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, anthropology, animal behavior, and evolutionary biology (and often many of these simultaneously!).

By gathering the perspectives of a diverse range of experts, we achieve several distinct goals. First, we provide concise background reading on a wide array of timely topics in social behavior, from low-level perceptual processes such as imitation and nonverbal communication to more complex group processes such as social influence and intergroup conflict. Second, we identify the latest questions occupying the minds of experts at the forefront of research on social behavior. Finally, by inviting contributions from scientists who examine the same topic from very different methodological and theoretical perspectives, we highlight both commonalities and contrasts in how various disciplines approach the study of social life.”

Read more: State of the art research on social behavior

An evolutionary framework for the study of teaching

A new article or obvious cognition-and-culture relevance by Michelle Ann Kline on  "How to learn about teaching: An evolutionary framework for the study of teaching behavior in humans and other animals" in BBS (2015) 38, with commentaries by, among others, Mikołaj Hernik and György Gergely,Laurie R. Santos, Melissa Koenig, Richard Moore and Claudio Tennie, Paul Harris, Thomas C. Scott-Phillips and Dan Sperber, Michael G. Shafto and Colleen M. Seifert, Sidney Strauss, Denis Tatone and Gergely Csibra, and a response by the author (freely available here)

Abstract: The human species is more reliant on cultural adaptation than any other species, but it is unclear how observational learning can give rise to the faithful transmission of cultural adaptations. One possibility is that teaching facilitates accurate social transmission by narrowing the range of inferences that learners make. However, there is wide disagreement about how to define teaching, and how to interpret the empirical evidence for teaching across cultures and species. In this article I argue that disputes about the nature and prevalence of teaching across human societies and nonhuman animals are based on a number of deep-rooted theoretical differences between fields, as well as on important differences in how teaching is defined. To reconcile these disparate bodies of research, I review the three major approaches to the study of teaching – mentalistic, culture-based, and functionalist – and outline the research questions about teaching that each addresses. I then argue for a new, integrated framework that differentiates between teaching types according to the specific adaptive problems that each type solves, and apply this framework to restructure current empirical evidence on teaching in humans and nonhuman animals. This integrative framework generates novel insights, with broad implications for the study of the evolution of teaching, including the roles of cognitive constraints and cooperative dilemmas in how and when teaching evolves. Finally, I propose an explanation for why some types of teaching are uniquely human, and discuss new directions for research motivated by this framework. Keywords: Cooperation; cultural transmission

Social Norms and Cultural Dynamics

Special Issue on "Social Norms and Cultural Dynamics" of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (Volume 129, July 2015) Edited by Michael Morris, Ying-yi Hong and Chi-Yue Chiu. 
For the Table of content,

Read more: Social Norms and Cultural Dynamics

Social Anthropology meets "the cognitive challenge"

Social Anthropology devotes an exciting special issue to "taking up the cognitive challenge", edited by Rita Astuti and Denis Regnier, with contributions by (among others) Tamara Hale, Charles Stépanoff, Laurence Kaufmann, and Fabrice Clément, along with a debate on Maurice Bloch's (no less exciting) Anthropology and the Cognitive Challenge. ToC here (sadly, the content is behind a paywall).

Budapest Conference on Cognitive Development

The Cognitive Development Center at the Central European University is pleased to announce the fifth annual Budapest CEU Conference on Cognitive Development in Budapest, Hungary (January 7-9, 2016). BCCCD is the only annual conference entirely focused on cognitive development in Europe. Submissions from all areas within this field of research are welcome. Past BCCCD conferences included presentations on topics such as comparative cognition, cognitive bases of culture, conceptual learning, early social cognition, language, methodological issues, numeracy, or object cognition.
 Denis Tatone, Nazli Altinok (Conference chairs)

»  Renée Baillargeon , Department of Psychology, Illinois University (Urbana-Champaign) 
»  Nathan J. Emery, Department of Biological and Experimental Psychology, Queen Mary University

Heuristics and biases in children's explanations 
Organizer: Andrei Cimpian, Department of Psychology, Illinois University (Urbana-Champaign)

Read more: Budapest Conference on Cognitive Development

Sign language as a window into universally accessible linguistic biases

A very interesting new article: "Event representations constrain the structure of language: Sign language as a window into universally accessible linguistic biases" by Brent Strickland, Carlo Geraci, Emmanuel Chemla, Philippe Schlenker, Meltem Kelepir, and Roland Pfau to appear in PNAS(10.1073/pnas.1423080112)

"Significance: One key issue in the study of human language is understanding what, if any, features of individual languages may be universally accessible. Sign languages offer a privileged perspective on this issue because the visual modality can help implement and detect certain properties that may be present but unmarked in spoken languages. The current work finds that fine-grained aspects of verb meanings visibly emerge across unrelated sign languages using identical mappings between meaning and visual form. Moreover, nonsigners lacking prior exposure to sign languages can intuit these meanings from entirely unfamiliar signs. This is highly suggestive that signers and nonsigners share universally accessible notions of telicity as well as universally accessible “mapping biases” between telicity and visual form."

Read more: Sign language as a window into universally accessible linguistic biases

Scott Atran's address to the UN security council

It is not everyday that an anthropologist is asked to speak before the security council: Scott Atran did, on the 23d of April. See video here.

Astuti and Bloch on "Incest, intentionality, and morality"

A thought-provoking article by Rita Astuti and Maurice Bloch, "The causal cognition of wrong doing: incest, intentionality and morality," in Frontiers in Psychology, 18 February 2015.

From the Abstract: Anthropologists have claimed that, in certain non-Western societies, people ignore whether an act of wrong doing is committed intentionally or accidentally. To examine this proposition, we look at the case of Madagascar. We start by analyzing how Malagasy people respond to incest, and we find that in this case they do not seem to take intentionality into account: catastrophic consequences follow even if those who commit incest are not aware that they are related as kin; punishment befalls on innocent people; and the whole community is responsible for repairing the damage. However, by looking at how people reason about other types of wrong doing, we show that the role of intentionality is well understood, and that in fact this is so even in the case of incest. We therefore argue that, when people contemplate incest and its consequences, they simultaneously consider two quite different issues: the issue of intentionality and blame, and the much more troubling and dumbfounding issue of what society would be like if incest were to be permitted. This entails such a fundamental attack on kinship and on the very basis of society that issues of intentionality and blame become irrelevant. Using the insights we derive from this Malagasy case study, we re-examine the results of Haidt’s psychological experiment on moral dumbfoundedness, which uses a story about incest between siblings as one of its test scenarios. We suggest that the dumbfoundedness that was documented among North American students may be explained by the same kind of complexity that we found in Madagascar.

Should preferences based on authoritarianism and social dominance be treated as moral?

An interesting critical discussion of Jonathan Haidt's apprach to morality from a social psychology and political science point of view: "Another Look at Moral Foundations Theory: Do Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation Explain Liberal-Conservative Differences in ‘‘Moral’’ Intuitions?" by Matthew Kugler, John T. Jost, and Sharareh Noorbaloochi (in Social Justice Research27.4 (2014): 413-431).

Abstract: Moral foundations theorists propose that the moral domain should include not only ‘‘liberal’’ ethics of justice and care but also ostensibly ‘‘conservative’’ concerns about the virtues of ingroup loyalty, obedience to authority, and enforcement of purity standards. This proposal clashes with decades of research in political psychology connecting the latter set of characteristics to ‘‘the authoritarian personality.’’ We demonstrate that liberal-conservative differences in moral intuitions are statistically mediated by authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, so that conservatives’ greater valuation of ingroup, authority, and purity concerns is attributable to higher levels of authoritarianism, whereas liberals’ greater valuation of fairness and harm avoidance is attributable to lower levels of social dominance. We also find that ingroup, authority, and purity concerns are positively associated with intergroup hostility and support for discrimination, whereas concerns about fairness and harm avoidance are negatively associated with these variables. These findings might lead some to question the wisdom and appropriateness of efforts to ‘‘broaden’’ scientific conceptions of morality in such a way that preferences based on authoritarianism and social dominance are treated as moral—rather than amoral or even immoral—and suggest that the explicit goal of incorporating conservative ideology into the study of moral psychology (in order to increase ideological diversity) may lead researchers astray.

What Explains the Emergence of Moralizing Religions?

An ambitious article: "Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions", by Nicolas Baumard, Alexandre Hyafil, Ian Morris, and Pascal Boyer in Current Biology, 25, 1 (2015) (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.10.063)
Background: Between roughly 500 BCE and 300 BCE, three distinct regions, the Yangtze and Yellow River Valleys, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Ganges Valley, saw the emergence of highly similar religious traditions with an unprecedented emphasis on self-discipline and asceticism and with ‘‘otherworldly,’’ often moralizing, doctrines, including Buddhism, Jainism, Brahmanism, Daoism, Second Temple Judaism, and Stoicism, with later offshoots, such as Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam. This cultural convergence, often called the ‘‘Axial Age,’’ presents a puzzle: why did this emerge at the same time as distinct moralizing religions, with highly similar features in different civilizations? The puzzle may be solved by quantitative historical evidence that demonstrates an exceptional uptake in energy capture (a proxy for general prosperity) just before the Axial Age in these three regions.
Results: Statistical modeling confirms that economic development, not political complexity or population size, accounts for the timing of the Axial Age.
Conclusions: We discussed several possible causal pathways, including the development of literacy and urban life, and put forward the idea, inspired by life history theory, that absolute affluence would have impacted human motivation and reward systems, nudging people away from short-term strategies (resource acquisition and coercive interactions) and promoting long-term strategies (self-control techniques and cooperative interactions).

A Cognitive Science of Theology?

A new, interesting, and original book by Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt: A Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion. MIT Press 2014.
Overview: "Questions about the existence and attributes of God form the subject matter of natural theology, which seeks to gain knowledge of the divine by relying on reason and experience of the world. Arguments in natural theology rely largely on intuitions and inferences that seem natural to us, occurring spontaneously—at the sight of a beautiful landscape, perhaps, or in wonderment at the complexity of the cosmos—even to a nonphilosopher. In this book, Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt examine the cognitive origins of arguments in natural theology. They find that although natural theological arguments can be very sophisticated, they are rooted in everyday intuitions about purpose, causation, agency, and morality. Using evidence and theories from disciplines including the cognitive science of religion, evolutionary ethics, evolutionary aesthetics, and the cognitive science of testimony, they show that these intuitions emerge early in development and are a stable part of human cognition.
De Cruz and De Smedt analyze the cognitive underpinnings of five well-known arguments for the existence of God: the argument from design, the cosmological argument, the moral argument, the argument from beauty, and the argument from miracles. Finally, they consider whether the cognitive origins of these natural theological arguments should affect their rationality."

Applications for PhD studentships in Cognitive Science at CEU, Budapest

PhD studentships are available for the doctoral program in Cognitive Science at Central European University (CEU), Budapest, Hungary. Application deadline: February 1, 2015.

The Department of Cognitive Science at CEU invites applications for doctoral student positions starting in September 2015. This is a research-based training program in human cognition with social cognition and learning as core themes. Research topics include cooperation, communication, social learning, cultural transmission, embodied cognition, joint action, cognitive development, strategic decision-making, problem solving, visual cognition, sensory and statistical learning, visual psychophysics, computational neuroscience, and social cognitive neuroscience. Students will follow courses in cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, cognitive anthropology, computational cognition and linguistics, and will receive practical research training in the laboratories of the members of this new department. 

Read more: Applications for PhD studentships in Cognitive Science at CEU, Budapest

Is probabilistic cognition universal?

An interesting paper by Laura Fontanari, Michel Gonzalez, Giorgio Vallortigara, and Vittorio Girotto: "Probabilistic cognition in two indigenous Mayan groups", forthcoming in PNAS. Preprint available here.

Abstract: "
Is there a sense of chance shared by all individuals, regardless of their schooling or culture? To test whether the ability to make correct probabilistic evaluations depends on educational and cultural guidance, we investigated probabilistic cognition in preliterate and prenumerate Kaqchikel and K’iche’, two indigenous Mayan groups, living in remote areas of Guatemala. Although the tested individuals had no formal education, they performed correctly in tasks in which they had to consider prior and posterior information, proportions and combinations of possibilities. Their performance was indistinguishable from that of Mayan school children and Western controls. Our results provide evidence for the universal nature of probabilistic cognition."

[extended deadline] Berlin Symposium on Reciprocity and Social Cognition

The deadline for submissions to this symposium has been extended to November the 1st.

A symposium on 'Reciprocity and social cognition' organized by Anna Strasser, Stephen Butterfill, Richard Moore, Olle Blomberg will take place at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, 23–25 March 2015. The call for poster deadline is extended to November 1, 2014.

Reciprocity is a common feature of much social cognition. For example, when two people attend to the same object simultaneously they can do so merely in parallel or jointly; only the latter of which involves reciprocity. However, traditional accounts of the foundations of social cognition have largely ignored the existence of reciprocity and treated social cognition as a process that rests on observation rather than genuine interaction (e.g., Dennett, 1982; Davidson, 1994; Stich & Nicholls, 2003; Goldman 2006; Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2008). Notable exceptions highlight reciprocity as a key feature of social cognition and joint action (Tomasello et al., 2005; Bratman, 2014). However, the precise nature of this concept has not always been clear, and debates across adjacent fields have remained somewhat disconnected.

In this three-day workshop we will try to clarify the concept of reciprocity and to explore for the first time how the notion of reciprocity can be used to illuminate debates in adjacent fields of cognitive science.

Read more: [extended deadline] Berlin Symposium on Reciprocity and Social Cognition

Call for posters: Reciprocity and Social Cognition

The Berlin School of Mind and Brain organizes a symposium on "Reciprocity and Social Cognition", from the 23rd to the 25th of March, 2015. Keynote speakers will be Richard Moran, Julia Fischer and Natalie Sebanz (Cognitive Science, CEU Budapest). The deadline to submit a poster is the first of October. Complete call below the fold.

Read more: Call for posters: Reciprocity and Social Cognition

Has a decimal point error misled millions into believing that spinach is a good source of iron?

A great cultural epidemiology story by Ole Bjørn Rekdal, "Academic urban legends,"  in  Social Studies of Science (2014, 44(4)) freely available here

popeyeAbstract: Many of the messages presented in respectable scientific publications are, in fact, based on various forms of rumors. Some of these rumors appear so frequently, and in such complex, colorful, and entertaining ways that we can think of them as academic urban legends. The explanation for this phenomenon is usually that authors have lazily, sloppily, or fraudulently employed sources, and peer reviewers and editors have not discovered these weaknesses in the manuscripts during evaluation. To illustrate this phenomenon, I draw upon a remarkable case in which a decimal point error appears to have misled millions into believing that spinach is a good nutritional source of iron. Through this example, I demonstrate how an academic urban legend can be conceived and born, and can continue to grow and reproduce within academia and beyond."

Random choice among the Kantu, swidden agriculturalists of Kalimantan

An excellent post by  at Aeon magazine entitled "How to choose? When your reasons are worse than useless, sometimes the most rational choice is a random stab in the dark," showing, among other things, how rationality and expectations of rationality can clash.

"In the 1970s, a young American anthropologist named Michael Dove set out for Indonesia, intending to solve an ethnographic mystery. Then a graduate student at Stanford, Dove had been reading about the Kantu’, a group of subsistence farmers who live in the tropical forests of Borneo. The Kantu’ practise the kind of shifting agriculture known to anthropologists as swidden farming, and to everyone else as slash-and-burn. Swidden farmers usually grow crops in nutrient-poor soil. They use fire to clear their fields, which they abandon at the end of each growing season.Like other swidden farmers, the Kantu’ would establish new farming sites ever year in which to grow rice and other crops. Unlike most other swidden farmers, the Kantu’ choose where to place these fields through a ritualised form of birdwatching. They believe that certain species of bird – the Scarlet-rumped Trogon, the Rufous Piculet, and five others – are the sons-in-law of God. The appearances of these birds guide the affairs of human beings. So, in order to select a site for cultivation, a Kantu’ farmer would walk through the forest until he spotted the right combination of omen birds. And there he would clear a field and plant his crops. Dove figured that the birds must be serving as some kind of ecological indicator...
More here

Babies' and birds' causal understanding

A very interesting comparison between crows and humans in a new (free access) paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B entitled "Of babies and birds: complex tool behaviours are not sufficient for the evolution of the ability to create a novel causal ntervention" by Alex H. Taylor, Lucy G. Cheke, Anna Waismeyer, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Rachael Miller, Alison Gopnik, Nicola S. Clayton, and Russell D. Gray.

Abstract: Humans are capable of simply observing a correlation between cause and effect, and then producing a novel behavioural pattern in order to recreate the same outcome. However, it is unclear how the ability to create such causal interventions evolved. Here, we show that while 24-month-old children can produce an effective, novel action after observing a correlation, tool-making New Caledonian crows cannot. These results suggest that complex tool behaviours are not sufficient for the evolution of this ability, and that causal interventions can be cognitively and evolutionarily disassociated from other types of causal understanding.
See also a video and Ed Yong's post

Deparmental Lectureship in Cognitive Anthropology, Oxford

Applications are invited for a Departmental Lectureship in Cognitive Anthropology, effective from 1 September 2014, tenable until 30 September 2015. The post is based at the School of Anthropology, Banbury Road, Oxford, UK. The primary function of this post is to engage in lecturing, tutoring and the supervision of graduates and undergraduate students in cognitive and evolutionary anthropology. 

Read more: Deparmental Lectureship in Cognitive Anthropology, Oxford

Combinatorial Communication in Bacteria?

Here is a challenge to standard views about the evolution of linguistic generativity: ""Combinatorial Communication in Bacteria: Implications for the Origins of Linguistic Generativity" by Thomas C. Scott-PhillipsJames Gurney, Alasdair Ivens, Stephen P. Diggle, and Roman Popat, in PLoS One (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0095929)

AbstractCombinatorial communication, in which two signals are used together to achieve an effect that is different to the sum of the effects of the component parts, is apparently rare in nature: it is ubiquitous in human language, appears to exist in a simple form in some non-human primates, but has not been demonstrated in other species. This observed distribution has led to the pair of related suggestions, that (i) these differences in the complexity of observed communication systems reflect cognitive differences between species; and (ii) that the combinations we see in non-human primates may be evolutionary pre-cursors of human language. Here we replicate the landmark experiments on combinatorial communication in non-human primates, but in an entirely different species, unrelated to humans, and with no higher cognition: the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Using the same general methods as the primate studies, we find the same general pattern of results: the effect of the combined signal differs from the composite effect of the two individual signals. This suggests that advanced cognitive abilities and large brains do not necessarily explain why some species have combinatorial communication systems and others do not. We thus argue that it is premature to conclude that the systems observed in non-human primates are evolutionarily related to language. Our results illustrate the value of an extremely broad approach to comparative research.

Negatively-Biased Credulity and the Cultural Evolution of Beliefs

A new article by Dan Fessler, Anne Pisor,& David Navarrete, highly relevant to cultural epidemiology in PLoS ONE 9(4): e95167. doi:10.1371

Abstract: The functions of cultural beliefs are often opaque to those who hold them. Accordingly, to benefit from cultural evolution’s ability to solve complex adaptive problems, learners must be credulous. However, credulity entails costs, including susceptibility to exploitation, and effort wasted due to false beliefs. One determinant of the optimal level of credulity is the ratio between the costs of two types of errors: erroneous incredulity (failing to believe information that is true) and erroneous credulity (believing information that is false). This ratio can be expected to be asymmetric when information concerns hazards, as the costs of erroneous incredulity will, on average, exceed the costs of erroneous credulity; no equivalent asymmetry characterizes information concerning benefits. Natural selection can therefore be expected to have crafted learners’ minds so as to be more credulous toward information concerning hazards. This negatively-biased credulity extends general negativity bias, the adaptive tendency for negative events to be more salient than positive events. Together, these biases constitute attractors that should shape cultural evolution via the aggregated effects of learners’ differential retention and transmission of information. In two studies in the U.S., we demonstrate the existence of negatively-biased credulity, and show that it is most pronounced in those who believe the world to be dangerous, individuals who may constitute important nodes in cultural transmission networks. We then document the predicted imbalance in cultural content using a sample of urban legends collected from the Internet and a sample of supernatural beliefs obtained from ethnographies of a representative collection of the world’s cultures, showing that beliefs about hazards predominate in both.

The Moral Domain: Conceptual Issues in Moral Psychology. Vilnius . 9-11 October 2014

The Vilnius Experimental Philosophy Lab,  the Departments of General Psychology and of Logic and History of Philosophy organize a conference on: The Moral Domain: Conceptual Issues in Moral Psychology, the 9-11 October 2014 at Vilnius University. Confirmed keynote speakers: Edouard Machery (Pittsburgh), Katinka Quintelier (Amsterdam), Paulo Sousa (Queen’s), Dan Sperber (CEU / Institut Nicod),  Stephen Stich (Rutgers).

What kind of norms and judgments count as moral? In other words, what constitutes the moral domain? This broad question is the main focus of the conference. We invite anthropologists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, psychologists, and other scholars to address these and related questions during the conference. Deadline for abstract: May 1, 2014.

Read more: The Moral Domain: Conceptual Issues in Moral Psychology. Vilnius . 9-11 October 2014

The Content of Our Cooperation, Not the Color of Our Skin

A new, important article by David Pietraszewski, Leda Cosmides, and John ToobyThe Content of Our Cooperation, Not the Color of Our Skin: An Alliance Detection System Regulates Categorization by Coalition and Race, but Not Sex. (PLoS ONE, 2012, 9(2): e88534. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088534)

AbstractHumans in all societies form and participate in cooperative alliances. To successfully navigate an alliance-laced world, the human mind needs to detect new coalitions and alliances as they emerge, and predict which of many potential alliance categories are currently organizing an interaction. We propose that evolution has equipped the mind with cognitive machinery that is specialized for performing these functions: an alliance detection system. In this view, racial categories do not exist because skin color is perceptually salient; they are constructed and regulated by the alliance system in environments where race predicts social alliances and divisions. Early tests using adversarial alliances showed that the mind spontaneously detects which individuals are cooperating against a common enemy, implicitly assigning people to rival alliance categories based on patterns of cooperation and competition. But is social antagonism necessary to trigger the categorization of people by alliance—that is, do we cognitively link A and B into an alliance category only because they are jointly in conflict with C and D? We report new studies demonstrating that peaceful cooperation can trigger the detection of new coalitional alliances and make race fade in relevance. Alliances did not need to be marked by team colors or other perceptually salient cues. When race did not predict the ongoing alliance structure, behavioral cues about cooperative activities up-regulated categorization by coalition and down-regulated categorization by race, sometimes eliminating it. Alliance cues that sensitively regulated categorization by coalition and race had no effect on categorization by sex, eliminating many alternative explanations for the results. The results support the hypothesis that categorizing people by their race is a reversible product of a cognitive system specialized for detecting alliance categories and regulating their use. Common enemies are not necessary to erase important social boundaries; peaceful cooperation can have the same effect.

Joint PhD degree in the cognitive science of religion

A new Doctoral programme in the cognitive the science of religion has been established by Aarhus University (Graduate School of Arts/Religion, Cognition and Culture Research Unit--see http://www.rcc.au.dk/) and Queen’s University, Belfast (School of History and Anthropology/Institute of Cognition and Culture—seehttp://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/InstituteofCognitionCulture/).

Students should apply for admission via one of the two Universities, and will be considered in line with their normal Postgraduate Admission Procedures, which require, among other things, a research proposal on a topic relevant to the cognitive science of religion. The normal duration of the Doctoral programme is full time for three years. In general, admitted students will spend the first six months and the last six months of their doctoral studies at the University where they are admitted. The intervening 24 months are spent according to a PhD plan established for each individual student. In completion, the student receives a single degree certificate issued by Aarhus University and Queen’s University.

Each University agreed to provide two fellowships to support the programme. One fellowship shall be available each year—Queen’s University will allocate funding in the academic years 2014-15 and 2016-17, while Aarhus University will allocate funding in academic years 2015-16 and 2017-18. Students who wish to compete for a fellowship will be required to apply to the University responsible for offering the support in the related year. For more information about the programme, please contact Armin W. Geertz ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) or Paulo Sousa ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

Summer course on Morality: Evolutionary Origins and Cognitive Mechanisms, Budapest, June 2014.

The CEU Summer University announces the course: “Morality: Evolutionary Origins and Cognitive Mechanisms”, June 23-30, 2014, Budapest, Hungary . Application deadline: February 14, 2014.

What makes humans moral beings? This question can be understood either as a proximate “how” question or as an ultimate “why” question. The “how” question, which is about the mental and social mechanisms that produce moral judgments has been investigated by psychologists and social scientists. The “why” question, which is about the fitness consequences that explain why humans have morality, has been discussed by evolutionary biologists in the context of the evolution of cooperation. The goal of this summer school is to contribute to a fruitful articulation of such proximate and ultimate explanations of human morality.

 The school will be taught by internationally renowned experts interested in both ultimate and proximate questions, from evolutionary biology (Jean-Baptiste  André, Redouan Bshary), comparative psychology (Keith Jensen),  evolutionary psychology (Nicolas Baumard, Leda  Cosmides) to cognitive neuroscience (Molly Crockett), developmental psychology (Paul  Bloom, Gergely Csibra, Karen Wynn) and cognitive psychology (Fiery Cushman).  Alongside the regular program of the course there will be talks and discussions aimed at the general public held by invited speakers, including the cognitive anthropologist, Pascal Boyer.

The design of the course stresses highly interactive forms of teaching. The course will begin with introductory lectures to build common ground between the researchers from different disciplines. After the introductions, all segments will be held in a seminar format, with faculty members leading the seminar, and responses/commentaries delivered by teams of students. There will be specific time devoted to smaller group discussions, also led by a member of the faculty, and also opportunities for selected students to give talks and poster presentations. The summer course is aimed at providing a state-of-the-art cutting-edge scientific and research-oriented training for post-doctoral young researchers and highly promising pre-doctoral students from European and overseas universities and research institutes on the evolutionary and psychological bases of morality.

Read more: Summer course on Morality: Evolutionary Origins and Cognitive Mechanisms, Budapest, June 2014.

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