University of Pennsylvania Evolutionary Psychologist Visits UNL

Dr. Robert Kurzban, Professor of , at the University of Pennsylvania, a brilliant vertical and horizontal thinker whose work on evolutionary gaming has been noted in The Economist, speed dating by The Philadelphia Inquirer, stopped by ‘s Political Science Department today.

I was able to spend more than three hours with Dr. Kurzban. He talked informally in the morning with a small group of graduate students, and with a powerpoint in the afternoon with both graduate students and faculty.

Dr. Robert Kurzban, Evolutionary Psychologist, Genius

But first, quick notes of appreciation and warning. One of my TA responsibilities conflicted with the morning sessions. Fortunately, the professor I teach under and my fellow TA were able to arrange things so I was able to talk with Dr. Kurzban. Their professionalism, warmth, and kindness is typical of the vast majority of our department, and I am thankful for that. And last, I pre-emptively apologize if I recalled or reconstructed any of the details of Dr. Kurzban’s talks incorrectly.

He was an amazing speaker, and I was very happy that I had the opportunity to hear him. Listening and talking to Dr. Kurzban made three very, very short hours.

Like Dr. Hibbing at the last “brownbag,” Dr. Kurzban complained about academic silencing. While he did not explicitly name political correctness, he did say

  • Feminist scholars view evolutionary biological from a political perspective. Dr. Kurzban said “I don’t care if you say ‘This theory is stupid. It’s not worth my time.’ But saying ‘This theory is a plot by The Man to keep women down’ is not useful.'”
  • Graduate students at one university petitioned the academic Senate to prohibit evolutionary psychologocial texts from being assigned by any professor. This was instigated when one black collegian said the theory “challenged her identity.”
  • Scientific American was cited as an example of critics confusing Evolutionary Psychology with Social Darwinism. As Dr. Kurzban said, “Social Darwinism was a political philosophy. Evolutionary Psychology is a scientific approach.”

As far as substantive comments, Dr. Kurzban went over many areas

  • While sex recognition is hard-wired, race recognition probably isn’t. For example, there is an experiment where two people, a white man and a black man, are having a conversation while walking down the street. For part of the conversation, the black man is behind a visual obstruction, and when he emerges from the other side, the black man’s role is played by a white man. Many audience members do not realize that anything unusual happened.

    However, if the black man’s role is replaced by a black woman, people immediately pick up on this. Dr Kurzban explained, “While it is important to know if something is prey, a predator, a mate, or a competitor, it’s not important to know if something is “black” or “white.”

  • Men are more cooperative than women. Dr. Kurzban talked about “competitive cooperation” as the basis for social cohesion. If a group of people are playing a game against each other, they will be fractious regardless of their gender make-up. However, if the players learn there is another group, all-male groups quickly settle their internal differences and cooperate with each other, without being told that they will be competing against the other group.
  • Racism exists as long as it is cheap. People can fall into racial roles when a group is playing with itself. However, once the other group is learned about, racial roles go away. The drive to prepare for competition against the out-group with the in-group by cooperating within the group overwhelms pre-existing racial treatment.
  • Women scramble social hierarchies. As part of their rapid cooperation in the face of competition, all-male groups establish a clear and consensual social order. This does not happen in mixed-sex or all-female groups. The situation in integrated or all-female groups is closer to anarchy, with no clear order-of-dominance ever being established.
  • Dancing, like martyrdom, is fun. Dr. Kurzban mentioned one area of research is why people like to dance. It can’t merely because it is physical or a sexual metaphor, because many physical activities and sexual metaphors are not fun. Kurzban’s opinion is that dancing is an evolved trait that encourages sexually integrated socialization.

    On Mark’s behalf, I asked what is an evolutionary psychological reason for martyrdom. Dr. Kurzban first noted that nearly all martyrs are males, so the answer is probably some form of social cooperation. (As an aside, Kurzban didn’t think it was an accident that the Jordanian female terrorist’s belt “malfunctioned.”) He mentioned that there probably was a kinship advantage for recognized martyrs, evolving over time in a world of small tribes. “Religious entrepreneurs” use this drive to further their beliefs.

    Kurzban noted that one theory is that traditionally weapons weren’t violent enough to inflict death, so perhaps the evolutionary root of martyrdom is the same as the evolutionary root of bravery. However, given the wide variety of low-tech ways to kill people, he doubted this as an explanation.

  • People are sensitive to the worst free-riders. Dr. Kurzban described the “public goods” game, in which everyone was given some money, and they could pocket some of it or put it on the table. Money on the table was doubled after a round, but split evenly among all the players.

    In almost all situations, almost all of the money is pocketed.

    But, people become very cooperative when cooperation is nonrecoverable and they see how much the least-cooperative person has put in. So every player begins by putting $1 on the table, and wait until every other player has done the same. Then one brave player will put a second on the table, wait until his contribution is matched, and continue.

    On the second round of this, people could not contribute fast enough. Literally — every player raced against the clock to put as much money on the table as they could. The only hold-up was when a particular player fell behind in the cooperation race – he would then have to throw more money on the table, which could take a second or two.

    The next best approach was when players could take money in or out, but still saw what the lowest-contributing player put in. Unlike where they saw what only the most contributing player put in, where almost everyone was a free rider, where they saw how the worst behaved the group was very cooperative. And the more rounds played, the more cooperative they became.

    This study was replicated in Japan with almost identical results. The graphs of the American game and the Japanese game were almost indistinguishable. Dr. Kurzban said this was a surprise to psychologies focusing on comparative cultural, who thought Japanese players would start out more cooperative than Americans, and after than learn cooperation at a slower rate.

  • People love to punish wrongdoers, especially when others are watching. Dr. Kurzban described a trust game, where Player A could split $20 between himself and Player B, or give it to Player B and have it double. Player B could then keep almost all the $40 for himself, or split it evenly with Player A.

    After Player A and Player B left, Player C was brought in as a “judge.” In places were Player B kept most of the money for himself, ignoring the trusting Player A, Player C could use some of her money to punish Player C at a 3-to-1 ratio.

    This was done under three different conditions. In all three Player C would have to write down his judgement on a sheet of paper.

    1. Player C gave his answer through a complicated system that guaranteed no one would ever know if and how much he punished Player A. Player C’s decision was completely anonymous.
    2. Player C wrote down if and how much he would punish Player A, knowing a researcher would look over the answer “just to make sure the paper was filled out correctly.”
    3. Player C announced his decision in front of the other players

    In all three cases Player C tended to punish Player A. Player C punished the least when it was secret, a lot when just one researcher knew, and a little bit more than that when everyone knew.

    Interestingly, in several cases, when Player C had to publicly announce his decision, Player C lied. Out of thoughtlessness, Dr. Kurzban had left the paper as the “real” way to punish Player A, and the announcement was supposed to be merely reading from the paper. In the cases where Player C lied, Player C claimed to have spent more money punishing Player A than he actually did.

Dr. Kurzban addressed some other issues, as well. But those make a post for another time…