Big Gods Book Club #6: Concluding Thoughts

(This post concludes our "book club" webinar discussing Ara Norenzayan's latest book with its author. This précis introduced the discussion.)

In what follows I’ll make some general concluding comments, and also address four remaining posts by Nicolas, Olivier and Martin, who raise similar points, and Claire, who is offering ideas about how karmic religions work.

I want to say again that I wrote this book as the most up-to-date synthesis that made sense to me. Theories are always work in progress, particularly theories that are about something we know so little about. As David Wilson once wrote, we know more about the evolution of one species of fish – the guppy, then the evolution of religion. Scientifically speaking, we know pathetically little about the karmic religions in particular. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism combined, that’s way over a billion non-WEIRD human beings! So I am glad that Claire is starting much needed research in this area.

I started working on this topic with Scott Atran looking at religion as a cognitive byproduct. Over the years, I came to the conclusion that the byproduct account, as foundational as it is, takes us only so far. I began to change my mind. I became convinced that to explain a wider range of facts about what we think of as “religion,” we need to build on and broaden the cognitive byproduct account. We need to combine insights from this perspective with another dynamically growing field  -- cultural evolution. This book is the product of this ongoing intellectual journey. I wouldn’t be surprised if I change my mind again as more facts and insights pour in.

'Big Gods' book club #5: Remarks on the two puzzles

I like Ara’s way of studying scientific problems very much, weaving together various disciplines from evolutionary modelling to experimental psychology or social anthropology, and I also like the way he tries to solve the questions he raises. However, I am less enthusiastic about the puzzles he chooses to focus on, i.e.:

1. ‘How did human societies scale up from comparatively small, mobile groups of foragers to massively large societies, even though anonymity is the enemy of cooperation?’

2. ‘And how did organized religions with Big Gods – the great polytheistic and monotheistic faiths – culturally spread to colonize most minds in the world?’

Regarding question 1, people working in social sciences, in economics, in anthropology or in sociology, might not feel that this is a puzzle and, on the contrary, might contend that they have already put forward a bunch of answers, most of them along the lines of building efficient institutions, relying on efficient monitoring, reputation management, or low-cost punishment (North, 1990, Ostrom, 1990, Hechter 1992, Acemoglu, Johnson, & Robinson, 2002; Greif, 1998). These solutions show that you can achieve cooperation without trust and altruism as long as you find the correct way to incentivize and monitor cooperative behaviors. In this perspective, social scientists don’t feel they need religion to explain cooperation, neither in contemporary Sweden, nor in medieval China, nor in ancient Rome.

As for question 2, Ara emphasizes that we need to explain why there are so few religions today, in contrast to the great number of primitive religions. But is it really a puzzle?

'Big Gods' book club #4: Alternative explanations?

Unfortunately, I had to read this book more quickly than it would deserve; still, it is an engaging, up-to-date and pleasant synthesis of works from different disciplinary fields. There are, however, several alternative hypotheses that the book does not confront. Some seem plausible to me, some less so. I am curious to know how they could be addressed in the framework of the book. I briefly present three of them; each one was inspired by one of the 'Eight Principles of Big Gods' presented in the book.

Principle 3: Hell is stronger than heaven (when it comes to predicting others' behavior)

Preference for interactions with believers may not be caused by atheists being considered as free-riders. Atheism in others may give rise to other kinds of predictions and prejudices, beyond the assumption that atheists are free-riders. Not submitting to religious beliefs could authorize some of the following inferences:

'Big Gods' book club #3 : Testing more specific hypotheses and going beyond correlations in the origins and evolution of religious beliefs

(This week, is hosting a "book club" webinar discussing Ara Norenzayan's latest book with its author. This précis introduced the discussion.)

In his insightful précis, Ara Norenzayan proposes a model of how religions with “Big Gods” have become almost universal. According to this model, the human cognitive architecture coupled with fitness enhancing cultural practices and beliefs allowed human societies to increase in size and become more cooperative than they would have been without them. Religions with big gods, according to this view, are the products of this interplay between our cognitive architecture and cultural innovations. One problem faced by big societies is that the bigger they are the more anonymous interactions between individuals are. And the more anonymous these societies are, the more prone they are to carrying unpunished selfish individuals which in turn increase the probability of these societies to collapse. One solution to this problem is the existence of policing mechanisms.

'Big Gods' book club #2: Analytic atheism and the puzzle of apologetic

(This week, is hosting a "book club" webinar discussing Ara Norenzayan's latest book with its author. This précis introduced the discussion.)

Norenzayan’s Big Gods presents an elegant account of how belief in super-knowing, powerful and morally concerned gods emerged as a result of normal individual cognitive processes and cultural selection. Any comprehensive account for the success of religion should be able to explain the wide distribution of atheism, which is currently the fourth most popular ‘religious’ outlook. Norenzayan proposes four roads to atheism: atheism caused by deficits in desire-belief reasoning, indifference towards religion, lack of exposure to public displays of religious acts, and analytic atheism.

Here, I will focus on analytic atheism and present Norenzayan with a challenge for his suggestion that analytic thinking counters religious belief. If analytic thinking decreases religious belief, how can we explain the persistence and cultural success of philosophical theology, which consists of analytic reasoning about God/the gods?

'Big Gods' book club #1 — Skeptical thoughts

(This week, is hosting a "book club" webinar discussing Ara Norenzayan's latest book with its author. This précis introduced the discussion.)

I have to confess that I may be misunderstanding the point that Ara Norenzyan's makes in this thought-provoking précis. When Ara talks about 'Big Gods' watching us from the sky, I immediately think of the moralizing religions that emerged around the time that people since Karl Jaspers have called the 'Axial Age', in the first millennium BCE. Whether the concept of an axial age makes sense at all is debated, but the basic idea — that moralizing religions with a supreme Being embodying moral values are a modern phenomenon — is sensible to me.

Ara is probably thinking about something slightly different. His 'Big Gods', he suggests, had something to do with the rise of civilization in the Neolithic period, several millennia before anything like the 'Axial Age' (however we define it) occurred.

Whatever the Neolithic equivalent of Big Gods could have been, I am not sure they did their job as well as Ara implies. My (admittedly unschooled) view of the first great civilizations is of a world built by raids, wars, and the all-important institution of slavery. This is certainly not the whole story — raiding, warring and slaving are cooperative ventures, after all, and might require a modicum of coordination between distant acquaintances, if not strangers. Yet, rightly or wrongly, this makes me suspicious of a rosy-colored picture of the early ages of civilization.

A précis of 'Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict'

(This week, is hosting a "book club" webinar discussing Ara Norenzayan's latest book with its author. This précis introduces the discussion.) big gods

On a hilltop in what is now Southeastern Turkey rests the world’s oldest temple of worship. With its massive, T-shaped stone pillars carved with images of animals and arranged in a set of rings, Göbekli Tepe is challenging long-held conceptions about the origins of civilization. While archeologists are unearthing clues and debating their meaning, there remain many unanswered questions. Yet, the significance if this site continues to grow.

No evidence of agriculture has been found, which may be explained by the fact that the site dates back about 11,500 years. The monumental architecture of Göbekli is old enough to have been built by hunting and foraging people, but massive enough to require the participation of many hundreds, possibly thousands of them, without the technological advantages of settled agriculture. True, foraging groups, despite their relatively small sizes, are known to vary in scope, densities, and degree of mobility. But what sets Göbekli apart is its scale and religious grandeur, despite its ancient origins. It gives us tantalizing clues that worshippers from the wider region periodically congregated there to worship and perform rituals. It may therefore hold clues to two of the deepest puzzles of human civilization. How did human societies scale up from comparatively small, mobile groups of foragers to massively large societies, even though anonymity is the enemy of cooperation? And how did organized religions with Big Gods – the great polytheistic and monotheistic faiths – culturally spread to colonize most minds in the world?

Robin Dunbar vs. Pop Dunbar

This post is part of a Webinar, Debating Dunbar's Number.

Part 1Part 2Part 3

While reading the stimulating critique of Robin Dunbar's social brain hypothesis recently published by Jan de Ruiter and his colleagues, my first reaction was: "Straw man!". On second thoughts, it wasn't fair. The author that Jan de Ruiter and his colleagues criticize is sometimes a caricature of Robin Dunbar. Yet he resembles another important author — let us call him Pop Dunbar. Pop Dunbar stands for many things that have been said in Dunbar's name by the popular press. Robin Dunbar has often distanced himself from Pop Dunbar's ideas, but many of us got interested in his ideas through the Pop version. Pop Dunbar’s ideas are not trivially wrong, and, as Jan de Ruiter and colleagues note, his influence is enormous. For some people, Pop Dunbar holds the truth on what friendship should be.

So, in this post, I thought I would follow in the wake of Jan de Ruiter and colleagues, and explain what I find wrong with some ideas that I attribute to Pop Dunbar. While writing this text I realized that I often (though not always) seemed to find the real Dunbar on my side.

Pop Dunbar's theory says that, in primates, brain size forbids any individual from having more than a certain amount of friends. Because of this limit, primate societies, including ours, cannot go beyond a certain size. This pop theory is simple, powerful, fascinating — and probably inaccurate.

Are we sure we can groom beyond Dunbar's number?

This post is part of a Webinar, Debating Dunbar's Number.

Part 1Part 2Part 3

When I heard about Kanai et al.'s paper [1] announcing a correlation between grey matter density in several brain areas and online social network size, I immediately updated my Facebook status, and touted the size of my brain in the eyes of my 500 friends. Well, Kanai et al.’s findings were not at all about its size; they were limited to very specific parts of it. Yet I must admit that I maliciously took advantage of the ignorance of some of my mates. Their reactions to my childish post were various: some of them made fun of me, some pretended to be impressed. There was inevitably a bunch of them to criticize the findings as well as my own 'interpretation' of the results. Eventually, there were also a significant number of people who threatened my concept of 'friendship'. After all, how could I have 500 real friends when, as everybody knows, one can only maintain about 150 social bonds? Even Britney Spears knows that. Rumor has it that she chose to join the social network Path where the number of interactants is limited to 150. Why 150? Path’s cofounder Dave Morin justifies this limit by quoting Robin Dunbar's work on the social brain hypothesis: this is our 'social ceiling'. One cannot maintain approximatively more than 150 trusted relationships.

Here is the rationale behind this claim.

A debate on Robin Dunbar's social brain hypothesis


This post is part of a Webinar, Debating Dunbar's Number.

Part 1Part 2Part 3


Some months ago, an article by Jan de Ruiter, Gavin Weston and Stephen Lyon appeared in American Anthropologist. The paper's target is Robin Dunbar's Social brain hypothesis. The hypothesis comes in many varieties; one might sum it up as the view that our cognitive capacities keep the amount of friends we can have under a fixed threshold, and constrain the size of primate societies. (This summary is inadequate in many ways, as I hope this debate will show.)

Dunbar's hypothesis is one of the most popular piece of cognitive anthropology out there. It is also one of the most criticized in anthropological circles. Our site wouldn't be true to its vocation if it did not invite all the protagonists to an open debate. 

This week, Jan de Ruiter and his coauthors, as well as Robin Dunbar, will react on two posts, one defending the social brain hypothesis (posted today), the other defending the critics (to appear wednesday). Everyone from the ICCI community is welcomed to chime in.

Link to Jan de Ruiter et al.'s article.

Link to Robin Dunbar, 'The social brain hypothesis' (1998).

Uncovering and Punishing Unconscious Bias

Uncovering and Punishing Unconscious Bias (paper here)

Philip E. TetlockGregory Mitchell and L. Jason Anastasopoulos

Recent technological advances in psychology hold out the promise of detecting unconscious biases before they cause harm.  Advocates of the technology may fail to appreciate its many potential uses and costs.  We present experimental results demonstrating the ideological filters through which this new technology and its potential uses are evaluated:  (1) liberals supported use of the technology to detect unconscious racism among company managers but not to detect unconscious anti-Americanism among applicants to security jobs; conservatives showed the reverse pattern; (2) few participants of any ideology supported punishing individuals for unconscious bias, but liberals and conservatives supported punishing organizations that failed to use the technology to root out each group’s prioritized societal harm; (3) concerns about scientific bias and Type I and II errors mediated perceptions of misuse potential and willingness to punish organizations; (4) political “extremists” were more likely than “moderates” to reconsider support for the technology when confronted with a less palatable alternative use they had not considered.

Social influences on self-control

Social influences on "self"-control (paper here)

Joe Kable, University of Pennsylvania

As Duckworth and Kern (2011) note, currently over 1% of the abstracts in PsycInfo are indexed by “self-control” or one its synonyms. As part of this widespread interest, cognitive and neural scientists are debating the psychological mechanisms of self-control (Ainslie, 1975; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), and the implementation of these mechanisms in the brain (Figner, et al., 2010; Hare, Camerer, & Rangel, 2009; Hare, Malmaud, & Rangel, 2011; Kable & Glimcher, 2007, 2010; McClure, Ericson, Laibson, Loewenstein, & Cohen, 2007; McClure, Laibson, Loewenstein, & Cohen, 2004). These efforts, however, currently proceed without much agreement on a theoretical or operational definition regarding what constitutes “self-control” (Duckworth & Kern, 2011). Definitions have been offered, of course, but one gets the sense that many investigators are content defining self-control in much the same manner that American courts define pornography – “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis vs Ohio, 1964). Just as our intuitions regarding physics can be mistaken, so too can our intuitions regarding psychology (Stanovich, 1985). This essay argues that an over-reliance on “intuitive psychics” is hindering efforts to identify the cognitive and neural processes involved in self-control. Specifically, current theories tend to underemphasize or ignore completely a factor of critical importance – the social world. Yet, “self-control” is a concept that only emerges at the level of the person in society: it is the social world that defines what is and is not a self-control problem. This realization has important implications for people interested in cognitive and neural mechanisms: it suggests that self-control is unlikely to be a single process; that the computation of social norms is an understudied process that is likely critical for self-controlled behavior; and that interventions that target the social context to increase the influence of norms may prove the strongest way to increase self-controlled behavior.

Framing, defaults, trust

Framing Effects, Default Effects, and Trust (paper here)

Craig R. M. McKenzie (UC San Diego), Michael J. Liersch (New York University), Shlomi Sher (UC San Diego)

Framing effects and default effects are often seen as examples of inconsistent preferences and are usually explained in purely intrapersonal cognitive terms.  We argue that these effects can be explained in rational, social terms, at least in part.  First, frames and defaults are usually generated by another social entity (e.g., a speaker, a policymaker).  Second, speakers and policymakers tend to select frames and defaults in ways that convey choice-relevant information to decision makers (e.g., listeners).  As a result, when listeners respond "inconsistently" to different frames and defaults, it need not indicate inconsistent preferences.  In line with this social approach, we show that framing and default effects are decreased (and default effects might even reverse) when the source of a frame or default is distrusted.  Viewing framing and default effects from a social, rational perspective leads to a deeper understanding of these phenomena and suggests novel predictions about when they will and will not occur outside the laboratory.

Modularity and decision making

Modularity & Decision Making (paper here)

Robert Kurzban University of Pennsylvania & Chapman University

Mechanisms that are useful are often specialized because of the efficiency gains that derive from specialization. This principle is in evidence in the domain of tools, artificial computational devices, and across the natural biological world. Some have argued that human decision making is similarly the result of a substantial number of functionally specialized, or “modular” systems, brought to bear on particular decision making tasks. Which system is recruited for a given decision making task depends on the cues available to the decision maker. A number of research programs have advanced using these ideas, but the approach remains controversial.

Judgments and decisions based on attempts to disambiguate the given information

Eric Igou 

Judgments and decisions based on attempts to disambiguate the given information: Effects of decision frames, non-diagnostic information, and information order (you can find the paper here)

The author presents evidence for the impact of conversational rules (Grice, 1975) on judgment and decision making. In accordance with social cognitive approaches that examine how conversational rules affect information processing (e.g., Higgins, 1981; Schwarz, 1994, 1996), it is argued that these inherently social rules guide important meta-cognitive inference on whether and how information should be used in forming judgments and making decisions. The author reviews the influence of conversational rules on framing effects, the dilution effect, and order effects in decision making and persuasion. Implications for cognitive 'biases' in and outside of the lab are discussed.

The cost of collaboration

The cost of collaboration: Why joint decision-making exacerbates rejection of outside information (article here)

Julia Minson and Jennifer Mueller

Existing research asserts that specific group characteristics cause members to disregard outside information which leads to diminished performance. In the present study we demonstrate that the very process of making a judgment collaboratively rather than individually contributes to such myopic disregard of external viewpoints. Dyad members exposed to the numerical judgments made by another dyad gave significantly less weight to those judgments than did individuals exposed to the judgments of another individual. The difference in the willingness to use peer input shown by individuals versus dyads was fully mediated by the greater confidence that the dyad members reported in the accuracy of their estimates. Consequently, although dyad members made more accurate initial estimates than individuals, they were less able to benefit from peer input.

Exploiting the wisdom of others

Exploiting the wisdom of others: A bumpy road to better decision making (article here).

Ilan Yaniv and Shoham Choshen-Hillel

While decision makers often consult other people’s opinions to improve their decisions, they fail to do so optimally. One main obstacle to incorporating others’ opinions efficiently is one’s own opinion. We theorize that decision makers could improve their performance by suspending their own judgment. In one study, participants used others’ opinions to estimate uncertain quantities (the caloric value of foods). In the full-view condition, participants could form independent estimates prior to receiving others’ opinions, while participants in the blindfold condition could not form prior opinions. We obtained an intriguing blindfold effect such that the blindfolded participants provided more accurate estimates than did the full-view participants. Several policy-capturing measures indicated that the advantage of the blindfolded participants was due to their unbiased weighting of others’ opinions. The full-view participants, in contrast, adhered to their prior opinion and thus failed to exploit the information contained in others’ opinions. The results from these two conditions document different modes of processing and consequences for accuracy.

Moral Compensation and the Environment

Moral Compensation and the Environment: Affecting individuals’ moral intentions through how they see themselves as moral (link to the article)

Ann TenbrunselJennifer JordanFrancesca GinoMarijke Leliveld

To maintain a positive moral self-image, individuals engage in compensation: current moral behavior licenses future immoral behavior and current immoral behavior stimulates future moral behavior. In this paper, we argue that moral compensatory effects are a function of changes to one’s moral self-image. In two studies, we examine the relationship between behaviors that stimulate changes to one’s moral self-image and to ethical actions. In Study 1, we have individuals recall either few or many (im)moral behaviors that they take in regards to the environment. In Study 2, we provide individuals with either minor or extreme feedback about the states of their moral selves. We then examine their intent to engage, as well as their actual engagement in, in various moral or immoral behaviors. We find that having people engage in extreme, but not moderate, moral recalls leads to compensatory environment-related moral behavior. We propose that this effect is due to the ability of extreme moral behavior to alter individuals’ moral self-images and hence their desires to alter these states via moral behavior.

Cognitive Migration

Cognitive Migration:The Role of Mental Simulation in the (Hot) Cultural Cognition of Migration Decisions (link to the article)
David Kyle & Saara Koikkalainen

This paper introduces the novel empirical concept of “cognitive migration” to better understand the role of the prospective imagination, or mental simulation, in the decision-making process before major mobility events to a new neighborhood, city, or country. First, relying on existing social science approaches, we describe the problem of how to understand the particularly risky decision to migrate abroad without authorization; Second, we review briefly some of the recent work in social cognitive and decision sciences that could potentially be brought to bear on our case, though undeveloped in the social science migration literature; Third, we describe cognitive migration, and, hence, cognitive migrants, as a concept that allows us to capture a significant, yet largely unidentified temporally-distinct part of migration decision-making amenable to a cultural or social cognitive approach (how our social world  affects cognition and vice versa); Lastly, we offer initial support for this empirical concept from recent cognitive and neuro-scientific research on emotions and develop some hypotheses regarding the determinants and effects of cognitive migration--as opposed to the physical migration event itself. We argue that family, friends, recruiters, and smugglers may provoke a less rational (cost-benefit) mode of reasoning and, instead, elicit cognitive migration as we negotiate an imagined social future that feels right.

Words or Deeds

Words or Deeds?  Choosing what to know about others (link to the article)
Erte XiaoCristina Bicchieri

Social cooperation often relies on individuals’ spontaneous norm obedience when there is no punishment for violation or reward for compliance.  However, people do not consistently follow pro-social norms.  Previous studies have suggested that an individual’s tendency toward norm conformity is affected by empirical information (i.e. what others did or would do in a similar situation) as well as by normative information (i.e. what others think one ought to do).  Yet little is known about whether people have an intrinsic desire to obtain norm-revealing information.  In this paper, we use a dictator game to investigate whether dictators actively seek norm-revealing information and, if so, whether they prefer to get empirical or normative information.  Our data show that although the majority of dictators choose to view free information before making decisions, they are equally likely to choose empirical or normative information.  However, a large majority (more than 80%) of dictators are not willing to incur even a very small cost for getting information. Our findings help to understand why norm compliance is context-dependent, and highlight the importance of making norm-revealing information salient in order to promote conformity.


  • PedagogyWeek

    In November 2010, an informal on-line workshop gathered psychologists and philosophers, to discuss the implications of a new theory of human communication and cultural transmission. Participants were György Gergely, Olivier Morin, Dan Sperber, Marion Vorms and Davie Yoon.

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  • Decision-making for a social world

    The International Cognition and Culture Institute (Institut Jean Nicod and LSE) and the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program at the University of Pennsylvania organize a virtual seminar Decision Making for a Social World. The aim of this seminar is to bring together threads of research in decision making and related areas of psychology that show how deeply our decisions are influenced by our social context. Some of this research even takes the stronger stance that some of the mechanisms that are typically thought of as being within the purview of individual cognition actually have a social function. It will begin in February 2011. Every two weeks a new paper will be posted and a moderated discussion will take place online among invited discussants and the public one the one hand, and the author on the other hand. Here are some of the themes that will be explored: Group decision making. This is the primary case of direct influence of the social context. Groups can allow people to solve more complex problems but they can also amplify their biases. Through which mechanisms is their influence exerted? Accountability. The social context often exerts an influence on our decisions because we have-or at least we think we will have-to publicly justify our decisions. Trust and advice taking. Many of our decisions have been influenced by the advice given by other people. Are we influenced by advice too much or too little? How do we calibrate the weight put on the advice as a function of who is offering it? Pragmatics. Most decision making tasks use verbal material, yet they frequently ignore that such material will often lead to pragmatic implications that can influence participants' answers. Evolution. Many scholars in the field of human evolution contend that social factors were the primary pressure in our evolution, yet the field of decision making has failed to draw all the implications from this suggestion. These are only examples as many areas in decision making show that the social context exerts a huge impact on our decisions, from the study of norms to that of self-control. We look forward to the opening of the conference and the discussions that will ensue! Hugo Mercier

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  • Dunbar's number
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  • 'Big Gods' book club
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