Publications

Working Paper
Bendixen, Theiss, Coren Lee Apicella, Quentin Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Joseph Henrich, Rita Anne McNamara, Ara Norenzayan, Aiyana Koka Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, and Benjamin Grant Purzycki. “Appealing to the minds of gods: A novel cultural evolutionary account of religious appeals and an empirical assessment using ethnographic data from eight diverse societies.” PsyArXiv (Working Paper). Publisher's VersionAbstract
While appeals to gods and spirits are ubiquitous throughout human societies past and present, deities' postulated concerns vary across populations. How does the content of beliefs about and appeals to gods vary across groups, and what accounts for this variation? With particular emphasis on locally important deities, we develop a novel cultural evolutionary account that includes a set of predictive criteria for what deities will be associated with in various socioecological contexts. We then apply these criteria in an analysis of individual-level ethnographic free-list data on what pleases and angers locally relevant deities from eight diverse societies. We conclude with a discussion of how alternative approaches to cross-cultural variation in god beliefs and appeals fare against our findings and close by considering some key implications of our methods and findings for the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion.
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Park, Peter S.The Evolution of Cognitive Biases in Human Learning.” SSRN Electronic Journal (Working Paper). Publisher's VersionAbstract
e propose that humans may not meaningfully retain high-variance environmental feedback, a behavior that likely evolved in a past environment with unfavorable fitness tradeoffs from overcommitting attention. We argue that in such settings, humans instead rely on an innate estimate of future payoffs optimized for their evolutionary past of cultural learning: learning from knowledge taught by fellow group members, rather than from the environmental feedback itself. A veridical decision-theoretic model of this evolutionary past can help explain several puzzles of human behavior: (a) the hard-easy effect, the overconfidence (respectively, underconfidence) of one’s estimate of her ability in a difficult task (respectively, easy task); (b) underinference, the persistence of the aforementioned flawed belief in the face of evidence to the contrary; (c) the non-monotonicity of confidence with respect to the level of experience; (d) persistent vulnerability to charlatans; and (e) the situational effectiveness of marginal educational interventions. This finding corroborates the thesis [1, 2] that dual inheritance theory is an ideal candidate to be a cumulative theoretical framework for the psychological sciences. Our evolutionary theory and its predictions also have foundational policy implications, particularly for education.
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Blasi, Damián E., Vishala Mishra, Adolfo M. García, and Joseph P. Dexter. “Linguistic fairness in the U.S.: The case of multilingual public health information about COVID-19.” Public and Global Health, Working Paper. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Lack of high-quality multilingual resources can contribute to disparities in the availability of medical and public health information. The COVID-19 pandemic has required rapid dissemination of essential guidance to diverse audiences and therefore provides an ideal context in which to study linguistic fairness in the U.S. Here we report a cross-sectional study of official non-English information about COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the health departments of all 50 U.S. states. We find that multilingual information is limited in many states, such that almost half of all individuals not proficient in English or Spanish lack access to state-specific COVID-19 guidance in their primary language. Although Spanish-language information is widely available, we show using automated readability formulas that most materials do not follow standard recommendations for clear communication in medicine and public health. In combination, our results provide a snapshot of linguistic unfairness across the U.S. and highlight an urgent need for the creation of plain language, multilingual resources about COVID-19.
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Forthcoming
Hong, Ze. “Cognitive Account of Manipulative Sympathetic Magic.” Religion, Brain & Behavior (Forthcoming).Abstract

Frazer’s theory of sympathetic magic has been extremely influential in both anthropology and comparative religion, yet the manipulative aspect has not been adequately theorized. In this paper I formalize sympathetic magical action and offer a naturalistic explanation of manipulative sympathetic magic by attributing it to a combination of environmental regularities (i.e., things that are similar and/or physically proximate tend to co-vary) and human causal cognition (i.e., the tendency to mistake correlation as causation), and supply ample ethnographic and historical evidence for my arguments. In doing so I also specify the variables involved and re-classify sympathetic magic into four distinct types for analytic convenience.  

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Waring, Timothy M., Zachary T. Wood, and Mona J. Xue. “Culture is Reducing Genetic Heritability and Superseding Genetic Adaptation.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Forthcoming). PDF
Zeng, Tian Chen, Joey T. Cheng, and Joseph Henrich. “Dominance in Humans.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Forthcoming).Abstract
Dominance is the aspect of social hierarchy that arises from agonistic interactions involving actual aggression or threats and intimidation. Accumulating evidence points to its importance in humans and its separation from prestige--an alternate mechanism in which status arises from competence or benefit-generation ability. In this review, we first provide an overview of the theoretical underpinnings of dominance as a concept, as well as some complications regarding the application of this concept to humans, which often shade into arguments that minimise its importance as a determinant of social influence in our species. We then review empirical evidence for its continued importance in human groups, including the effects of dominance rank on measurable outcomes such as social influence and reproductive fitness (independently of prestige), evidence for a specialized dominance psychology, and evidence for gender-specific effects. Finally, because human-specific factors such as norms and coalitions may place bounds on purely coercive status-attainment strategies, we end by considering key situations and contexts that increase the likelihood for dominance status to coexist alongside prestige status within the same individual, including how: 1) institutional power and authority tend to elicit dominance; 2) dominance-enhancing traits can at times generate benefits for others (prestige), and 3) certain dominance cues and ethology may lead to mis-attributions of prestige.
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Baimel, A., C. L. Apicella, Q. Atkinson, A. Bolyanatz, E. Cohen, C. Handley, J. Henrich, et al.Material insecurity predicts greater commitment to moralistic and less commitment to local deities: A cross-cultural investigation.” Religion, Brain & Behavior (Forthcoming).Abstract
The existential security hypothesis predicts that in the absence of more successful secular institutions, people will be attracted to religion when they are materially insecure. Most assessments, however, employ data sampled at a state-level with a focus on world religions. Using individual-level data collected in societies of varied community sizes with diverse religious traditions including animism, shamanism, polytheism, and monotheism, we conducted a systematic cross-cultural test (N = 1820; 14 societies) of the relationship between material insecurity (indexed by food insecurity) and religious commitment (indexed by both beliefs and practices). Moreover, we examined the relationship between material security and individuals' commitment to two types of deities (moralistic and local), thus providing the first simultaneous test of the existential security hypothesis across co-existing traditions. Our results indicate that while material insecurity is associated with greater commitment to moralistic deities, it predicts less commitment to local deity traditions.
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Hong, Ze, Edward Slingerland, and Joseph Henrich. “Magic and empiricism in early Chinese rainmaking.” Current Anthropology (Forthcoming). PDF
Purzycki, Benjamin Grant, Aiyana K. Willard, Eva Kundtová Klocová, Coren Apicella, Quentin Atkinson, Alexander Bolyanatz, Emma Cohen, et al.The Moralization Bias of Gods' Minds: A Cross-Cultural Test.” Religion, Brain & Behavior (Forthcoming).Abstract

There are compelling reasons to expect that cognitively representing any active, powerful deity motivates cooperative behavior. One mechanism underlying this association could be a cognitive bias toward generally attributing moral concern to anthropomorphic agents. If humans cognitively represent the minds of deities and humans in the same way, and if human agents are generally conceptualized as having moral concern, a broad tendency to attribute moral concern—a “moralization bias”—to supernatural deities follows. Using data from 2,228 individuals in 15 different field sites, we test for the existence of such a bias. We find that people are indeed more likely than chance to indicate that local deities are concerned with punishing theft, murder, and deceit. This effect is stable even after holding constant the effects of beliefs about explicitly moralistic deities. Additionally, we take a close look at data collected among Hadza foragers and find two of their deities to be morally interested. There is no evidence to suggest that this effect is due to direct missionary contact. We posit that the “moralization bias of gods’ minds” is part of a widespread but variable religious phenotype, and a candidate mechanism that contributes to the well-recognized association between religion and cooperation.

PDF Supplement
2021
Greenfield, Patricia M., Genavee Brown, and Han Du. “Shifts in ecology, behavior, values, and relationships during the coronavirus pandemic: Survival threat, subsistence activities, conservation of resources, and interdependent families.” Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology 2 (2021): 100017. Publisher's VersionAbstract

What are the psychological effects of the coronavirus pandemic? Greenfield’s Theory of Social Change, Cultural Evolution, and Human Development predicts that when survival concerns augment, and one’s social world nar- rows toward the family household. life shifts towards activities, values, relationships, and parenting expectations typical of small-scale rural subsistence environments with low life expectancy. Specific predictions were that, during the pandemic, respondents would report intensified survival concerns (e.g., thinking about one’s own mortality); increased subsistence activities (e.g., growing food); augmented subsistence values (e.g., conserving resources); more interdependent family relationships (e.g., members helping each other obtain food); and par- ents expecting children to contribute more to family maintenance (e.g., by cooking for the family). All hypotheses were confirmed with a large-scale survey in California (N = 1,137) administered after about a month of stay-at- home orders during the coronavirus pandemic; results replicated in Rhode Island (N = 955). We posited that an experience of increased survival concerns and number of days spent observing stay-at-home orders would predict these shifts. A structural equation model confirmed this hypothesis.

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Hong, Ze. “The Population Dynamics of Placebo Effect and Its Role in the Evolution of Medical Technology.” Human Ecology (2021). Publisher's VersionAbstract

The placebo effect, used today as the benchmark to evaluate treatment efficacy, plays a major functional role in traditional medical practices. To better understand its effect at the population level, I use a formal approach to examine the population dynamics of the placebo effect and show a reciprocal causal relationship between belief and efficacy: belief in the efficacy of treatments enhances their realized efficacy, which in turn increases people’s confidence in their therapeutic power. A unique equilibrium for subjective belief and realized efficacy always exists. Its magnitude depends on how beliefs are constructed (relative weight on observed action vs. observed outcome). I further investigate how the placebo effect affects the maintenance of existing medical technologies and the invasion of new technologies by explicitly modeling a belief construction process. Analytical and simulation results show that although the placebo effect primarily suppresses the spread of new technologies, it may occasionally enhance the adoption of superior technological variants under specific parameter combinations.

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Garcia, Camilo, Patricia M Greenfield, Axel M Navarro-Hernández, Jannethe Colorado-García, and Tania María Vidaña-Rivera. “Cooperative play and globalized social change: Mexican children are less cooperative in 2017 than in 1967.” Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology 2 (2021).Abstract
•Mexican children's cooperative behavior was studied with Madsen's cooperation board.•Both urban and rural children were less cooperative in 2017 than in 1967.•The behavior change was an adaptation to ecological change in several areas:•Population, economic resources, technology, and schooling all increased.•In world crisis, cooperation is indispensable for human survival & must be promoted. Greenfield's theory of social change and human development is based on the distinction between Gemeinschaft (low-income agricultural communities with low levels of formal education and technology) and Gesellschaft (wealthier commerce-based societies with high levels of formal education and technology). Cooperation is more adaptive in a Gemeischaft environment; in contrast, competition is more adaptive in a Gesellschaft environment. As Mexican ecologies moved in the Gesellschaft direction over recent decades, children's cooperative behavior declined, as predicted by the theory. The current quasi-experiment extends this finding from a two-person game, the marble pull, to a new situation, Madsen's cooperation board, a game that requires cooperation among four children. Based on a sample of 57 groups of four children each tested in 2017 and 70 groups of four children each tested in 1967, the Wilcoxon Signed Ranks Test (p < 0.001) showed that the decline of cooperation and the rise of competition generalizes across middle-class urban, low-income urban, and rural children in Mexico and that it applies to male, female, and mixed groups. In conclusion, we provide continuing evidence that child behavior is responsive to ecological conditions and shifts over time in order to adapt to them. Given that cooperation is a fundamental human trait that binds social units together, our study also contributes to the conclusion that globalized social change in the Gesellschaft direction entails human loss as well as gain. [Display omitted]
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Evers, Noah F.G, Patricia M Greenfield, and Gabriel W Evers. “COVID‐19 shifts mortality salience, activities, and values in the United States: Big data analysis of online adaptation.” Human behavior and emerging technologies 3, no. 1 (2021): 107–126.Abstract
What is the effect of a life‐threatening pandemic at the societal level? An expanded Theory of Social Change, Cultural Evolution, and Human Development predicts that, during a period of increasing survival threat and decreasing prosperity, humans will shift toward the psychology and behavior typical of the small‐scale, collectivistic, and rural subsistence ecologies in which we evolved. In particular, subjective mortality salience, engagement in subsistence activities, and collectivism will all increase, while the aspiration to be wealthy will decrease. Because coronavirus has forced unprecedented proportions of human activity online, we tested hypotheses derived from the theory by analyzing big data samples for 70 days before and 70 days after the coronavirus pandemic stimulated President Trump to declare a national emergency. Google searches were used for an exploratory study; the exploratory study was followed by three independent replications on Twitter, internet forums, and blogs. Across all four internet platforms, terms related to subjective mortality salience, engagement in subsistence activities, and collectivism showed massive increases. These findings, coupled with prior research testing this theory, indicate that humans may have an evolutionarily conditioned response to the level of death and availability of material resources in society. More specifically, humans may shift their behavior and psychology toward that found in subsistence ecologies under conditions of high mortality and low prosperity or, conversely, toward behavior and psychology found in modern commercial ecologies under conditions of low mortality and high prosperity.
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Brown, Genavee, and Patricia M Greenfield. “Staying connected during stay‐at‐home: Communication with family and friends and its association with well‐being.” Human behavior and emerging technologies 3, no. 1 (2021): 147–156.Abstract
COVID‐19 and the resulting stay‐at‐home orders issued to reduce the spread of the virus created a novel social situation in which people could not spend in‐person time with their family and friends. Thus, emerging technologies like video calling and other forms of mediated communication like voice calling and text messaging became important resources for people to stay in touch. The purpose of this study was threefold. First, we wanted to test whether people would use more mediated communication (video calls, voice calls, text messaging) to stay in touch during the stay‐at‐home order. Second, we wanted to see if increased mediated communication would be positively associated with well‐being. Finally, we explored whether mediated communication was related to age. To answer these questions, we surveyed 2092 participants who answered questions online about how their use of video calls, voice calls, and text messaging and their well‐being had changed since the stay‐at‐home order. Our results show that people increased their use of mediated communication, particularly video calling; and increases in mediated communication with close others, particularly friends, was related to higher levels of well‐being. Finally, we found that age was related only to the use of video calling; younger people tended to use more video calling. These findings support the compensatory theory of technology use, that people use technologically mediated communication to maintain contact with their close friends and family when in‐person contact is not possible, and that this form of contact, when in‐person interaction is unavailable, is associated with positive outcomes.
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Hong, Ze, and Joseph Henrich. “The Cultural Evolution of Epistemic Practices.” Human Nature 32 (2021): 622-651. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Although a substantial literature in anthropology and comparative religion explores divination across diverse societies and back into history, little research has integrated the older ethnographic and historical work with recent insights on human learning, cultural transmission, and cognitive science. Here we present evidence showing that divination practices are often best viewed as an epistemic technology, and we for- mally model the scenarios under which individuals may overestimate the efficacy of divination that contribute to its cultural omnipresence and historical persistence. We found that strong prior belief, underreporting of negative evidence, and misinferring belief from behavior can all contribute to biased and inaccurate beliefs about the effectiveness of epistemic technologies. We finally suggest how scientific epistemol- ogy, as it emerged in Western societies over the past few centuries, has influenced the importance and cultural centrality of divination practices.
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Davis, Helen E., Jonathan Stack, and Elizabeth Cashdan. “Cultural Change Reduces Gender Differences in Mobility and Spatial Ability among Seminomadic Pastoralist-Forager Children in Northern Namibia.” Human Nature 32, no. 1 (2021): 178–206. Publisher's VersionAbstract
A fundamental cognitive function found across a wide range of species and necessary for survival is the ability to navigate complex environments. It has been suggested that mobility may play an important role in the development of spatial skills. Despite evolutionary arguments offering logical explanations for why sex/gender differences in spatial abilities and mobility might exist, thus far there has been limited sampling from nonindustrialized and subsistence-based societies. This lack of sampling diversity has left many unanswered questions regarding the effects that environmental variation and cultural norms may have in shaping mobility patterns during childhood and the development of spatial competencies that may be associated with it. Here we examine variation in mobility (through GPS tracking and interviews), performance on large-scale spatial skills (i.e., navigational ability), and performance on small-scale spatial skills (e.g., mental rotation task, Corsi blocks task, and water-level task) among Twa forager/pastoralist children whose daily lives have been dramatically altered since settlement and the introduction of government-funded boarding schools. Unlike in previous findings among Twa adults, boys and girls (N = 88; aged 6–18) show similar patterns of travel on all measures of mobility. We also find no significant differences in spatial task performance by gender for large- or small-scale spatial skills. Further, children performed as well as adults did on mental rotation, and they outperformed adults on the water-level task. We discuss how children's early learning environments may influence the development of both large- and small-scale spatial skills.
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Davis, Helen Elizabeth, Alyssa N. Crittenden, and Michelle Scalise Sugiyama. “Ecological and Developmental Perspectives on Social Learning.” Human Nature 32, no. 1 (2021): 1–15. Publisher's VersionAbstract
In this special issue of Human Nature we explore the possible adaptive links between teaching and learning during childhood, and we aim to expand the dialogue on the ways in which the social sciences, and in particular current anthropological research, may better inform our shifting understanding of how these processes vary in different social and ecological environments. Despite the cross-disciplinary trend toward incorporating more behavioral and cognitive data outside of postindustrial state societies, much of the published cross-cultural data is presented as stand-alone population-level studies, making it challenging to extrapolate trends or incorporate both ecological and developmental perspectives. Here, contributors explore how human life history, ecological experience, cumulative culture, and ethnolinguistics impact social learning and child development in foraging and transitioning societies around the world. Using historical ethnographic data and qualitative and quantitative data from studies with contemporary populations, authors interrogate the array of factors that likely interact with cognitive development and learning. They provide contributions that explore the unique environmental, social, and cultural conditions that characterize such populations, offering key insights into processes of social learning, adaptive learning responses, and culture change. This series of articles demonstrates that children are taught culturally and environmentally salient skills in myriad ways, ranging from institutionalized instruction to brief, nuanced, and indirect instruction. Our hope is that this collection stimulates more research on the evolutionary and developmental implications associated with teaching and learning among humans.
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Beheim, Bret, Quentin D. Atkinson, Joseph Bulbulia, Will Gervais, Russell D. Gray, Joseph Henrich, Martin Lang, et al.Treatment of missing data determined conclusions regarding moralizing gods.” Nature 595, no. 7866 (2021): E29–E34. Publisher's Version
Bahrami-Rad, D, A Becker, and J Henrich. “Tabulated Nonsense? Testing the Validity of the Ethnographic Atlas.” Economic Letters 204 (2021): 109880. Publisher's VersionAbstract
The Ethnographic Atlas (Murdock, 1967), an anthropological database, is widely used across the social sciences. The Atlas is a quantified and discretely categorized collection of information gleaned from ethnographies covering more than 1200 pre-industrial societies. While being popular in many fields, it has been subject to skepticism within cultural anthropology. We assess the Atlas’s validity by comparing it with representative data from descendants of the portrayed societies. We document positive associations between the historical measures collected by ethnographers and self-reported data from 790,000 individuals across 43 countries.
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Henrich, J. “Cultural evolution: Is causal inference the secret of our success?Current Biology 31, no. 8 (2021): R381-R383. Publisher's Version

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