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…One of the most successful treatments in the addictions field is based on this simple principle of supporting people to hear themselves voicing their own concerns. Called Motivational Interviewing, it backed by an impressive evidence base. How can this approach be applied with issues like climate change?
About five years ago, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement, and I spent a day with Professor Stephen Rollnick, co-developer of the Motivational Interviewing (MI) approach, to explore this question. Professor Rollnick’s advice was ‘move from information giving to information exchange’. In medical consultations, MI involves a shift away from lecturing people about the risks of health-damaging habits, to instead being more interested in hearing how they see the risks and what concerns they might have about these. The stance is of being a ‘motivational listener’ who makes space for people to make their own argument for change.
from this blog post.
Here is the transcript of the original conversation.
Certain definitions of good and value. (i) What is good for the species is whatever promotes the survival of its members until offspring have been born and, possibly, cared for. Good features are said to have survival value. Among them are susceptibilities to reinforcement by many of the things we say taste good, feel good, and so on. (ii) The behavior of person is good if it is effective under prevailing contingencies of reinforcement. We value such behaviour and, indeed, reinforce it by saying “Good!” Behavior towards others is good if it is good for the others in these senses. (iii) What is good for the culture is whatever promotes its ultimate survival, such as holding a group together or transmitting its practices. These are not, of course, traditional definitions; they do not recognize a world of value distinct from a world of fact and, for other reasons to be noted shortly, they are challenged.
… Many issues which arise in morals and ethics can be resolved by specifiying the level of selection. What is good for the individual or culture may have bad consequences for the species, as when sexual reinforcement leads to overpopulation or the reinforcing amenities of civilization to the exhaustion of resources; what is good for the species or culture may be bad for the individual, as when practices designed to control procreation or preserve resources restrict individual freedom; and so on. There is nothing inconsistent or contradictory about these uses of “good” or “bad”, or about other value judgements, so long as the level of selection is specified.
… species, people and cultures all perish when they cannot cope with rapid change, and our species now appears to be threatened. Must we wait for selection to solve the problems of overpopulation, exhaustion of resources, pollution of the environment, and a nuclear holocaust, or can we take explicit steps to make our future more secure? In the latter case, must we not in some sense transcend selection?
We could be said to intervene in the process of selection when as geneticists we change the characteristics of a species or create new species, or when as governors, employers, or teachers we change the behavior of persons, or when we design new cultural practices; but in none of these ways do we escape from selection by consequences. In the first place, we can work only through variation and selection. At level i we can change genes and chromosomes or contingencies of survival, as in selected breeding. At level ii we can introduce new form of behavior — for example, by showing or telling people what to do with respect to relevant contingencies — or construct and maintain new selective contingencies. At level iii we can introduce new cultural practices or, rarely, arrange special contingencies of survival — for example, to preserve a traditional practice. But having done these things, we must wait for selection to occur… In the second place, we must consider the possibility that our behavior in intervening is itself a product of selection…
from this paper by Skinner.
Also his opinions on why we are not acting to save the world and what is wrong with daily life in the Western world. And also a commentary on the former paper after twenty years.
It is probably true that learning from others either by teaching or imitation is usually cheaper than learning on your own. It is like cheating on a test: you do as well as the person you copy from but avoid all that tedious studying. However, evolutionary models show that if this is the only benefit of social learning, there will be no increase in the ability of the population to adapt. This surprising result emerges from the coevolutionary processes that affect the kinds of behaviors that are available to imitate and the psychology that controls learning and imitation. These evolutionary models of social learning rest on two assumptions. First, the propensities to learn and to imitate are part of an evolved psychology shaped by natural selection. This means that the balance between learning and imitating will be governed by the relative fitness of the two modes of behavior-the average fitness of the population is irrelevant. When few individuals imitate, imitators will acquire the locally adaptive behavior with the same probability as individual learners. Because they do not pay the cost of learning, imitators have higher fitness, and the propensity to imitate spreads. As the number of imitators increases, some imitate individuals who imitated other individuals, who imitated other individuals, and so on until the chain is rooted in someone who extracted the information from the environment. As the fraction of imitators in the population increases, these chains extend further.
The second assumption is that the environment varies in time or space. This means that as chains of imitation get longer, there is a greater chance that the learner who roots the chain learned in a different environment than the current environment, either because the environment has changed since then or because someone along the chain migrated from a different environment. The upshot is that on average imitators will be less likely to acquire the locally adaptive behavior than learners. The propensity to imitate will continue to increase until this reduction in fitness exactly balances the benefit of avoiding the costs of learning. At evolutionary equilibrium, the population has the same average fitness as a population without any imitation. There will be no increase in the ability to adapt to varying environments, and cumulative cultural adaptation will not occur.
Then, if the environment is not too variable, an adaptive psychology will evolve in which most people ignore environmental cues and adopt behaviors that are common in the sample of the population they observe. They modify these behaviors rarely, or only at the margin, and as a result local adaptations evolve gradually often over many generations.
Many examples indicate that people often do not understand how adaptive practices work or why they are effective. For example, in the New World, the traditional use of chili peppers in meat recipes likely protected people from food-borne pathogens. This use of chili peppers is particularly interesting because they are inherently unpalatable. Peppers contain capsaicin, a chemical defense evolved in the genus Capsicum to prevent mammals (especially rodents) from eating their fruits. Nonhuman primates and human infants find peppers aversive because capsaicin stimulates pain receptors in the mouth. Efforts to inculcate a taste for chilies in rats using reinforcement procedures have failed. However, human food preferences are heavily infuenced by the preferences of those around us, so we overcome our innate aversion and actually learn to enjoy chilies. Psychological research indicates that people do not get accustomed to the chemical burning sensation. Instead, observational learning leads people to reinterpret their pain as pleasure or excitement. So, New World peoples learned to appropriately use and enjoy chili peppers without understanding their antimicrobial properties, and to do this they had to overcome an instinctive aversion that we share with other mammals.
Fijian food taboos provide another example of this process. Many marine species in the Fijian diet contain toxins, which are particularly dangerous for pregnant women and perhaps nursing infants. Food taboos targeting these species during pregnancy and lactation prohibit women from eating these species and reduce the incidence of fish poisoning during this period. Although women in these communities all share the same food taboos, they offer quite different causal explanations for them, and little information is exchanged among women save for the taboos themselves. The taboos are learned and are not related to pregnancy sickness aversions. Analyses of the transmission pathways for these taboos indicate the adaptive pattern is sustained by selective learning from prestigious women.
Culture and Maladaptation
…this same propensity will cause individuals to acquire any common behavior as long as it is not clearly contradicted by their own inferences. This means that if there are cognitive or social processes that make maladaptive ideas common, and these ideas are not patently false or harmful, people will adopt these ideas as well. Moreover, it is clear that several such processes exist. Here are a couple of examples…
Weak Cognitive Biases Can Favor the Spread of Maladaptive Beliefs or Practices over Generations. Laboratory diffusion chain studies clearly document that biases that have undetectable effects on individual decisions can have very strong effects when iterated over “generations” in the laboratory. The same effect may lead to the spread of false beliefs in natural populations. For example, Boyer argues that a number of cognitive biases explain the spread of supernatural beliefs and account for the widespread occurrence of folktales about ghosts and zombies.
Adaptive Social Learning Biases Can Lead to Maladaptive Outcomes. A model’s attributes provide indirect evidence about whether it is useful to imitate her. If she is successful, then by imitating her you can increase your chances of acquiring traits that gave rise to her success. If she is more similar to you than alternative models, her behavior may work better in your situation. If her behavior is more common than alternatives, then it is likely to be adaptive because learning increases the frequency of adaptive behaviors. An evolved cultural learning psychology that incorporates such biases increases the chance of acquiring beneficial beliefs and behaviors. However, these same biases can sometimes lead to the spread of maladaptive beliefs and practices. For example, the tendency to imitate the prestigious, or those making credibilityenhancing displays of commitment, can lead to a “runaway” process analogous to sexual selection, and this may explain the cultural evolution of maladaptive cultural systems in which people risk life and limb to summit icy peaks or achieve spiritual perfection in celibate seclusion.
from this paper.
This may explain why globalization is still dominated by American culture currently, although US is declining and clearly unsustainable. And many cultures just imitate the superficial culture traits of US (e.g. cars, technology), not really learn the institutions design that are keys to US success (and failure).
Another important point of this paper:
…loss of beneficial technologies in small, isolated populations. For instance, the Tasmanian tool kit gradually lost complexity after isolation from mainland Australia at the end of the Holocene. Other Pacific island groups have apparently lost useful technologies, such as canoes, pottery, and the bow and arrow. The best documented example comes from the isolated Polar Inuit of northwest Greenland. Explorers Elisha Kane and Isaac Hayes wintered with the Polar Inuit in 1853 and 1861, respectively, and reported that the Polar Inuit lacked kayaks, leisters, and bows and arrows and that their snow houses did not have the long heat-saving entryways that were seen among other Inuit populations. They could not hunt caribou, could only hunt seals during part of the year, and were unable to harvest arctic char efficiently, although char were plentiful in local streams. Apparently the population was struck by an epidemic in the 1820s that carried away the older, knowledgeable members of the group, and according to custom, their possessions had to be buried with them. The Polar Inuit lived without these tools until about 1862, when they were visited by a group of Inuit who migrated to Greenland from Baffin Island. There is every reason to believe that these tools would have been useful between 1820 and 1862. The Polar Inuit population declined during this period, and the tools were immediately adopted once they were reintroduced. After their introduction, population size increased. It is also telling that the kayaks used by the Polar Inuit around the turn of the century closely resemble the large, beamy kayaks used by Baffin Island Inuit and not the small sleek kayaks of the West Greenland Inuit. Over the next half century the Polar Inuit kayak design converged back to the West Greenland design. If this inference is correct it means that for 40 years (nearly two generations) the Polar Inuit could have benefitted from the lost knowledge. Moreover, they collectively remembered kayaks, leisters, and bows and arrows, but did not know how to make them and could not recreate that knowledge.
Lost knowledge can be hard to re-created again, especially when the knowledge is imitated superficially but not really learned its essence.
Population thinking is the key to building a causal account of cultural evolution. We are largely what our genes and our culture make us. In the same way that evolutionary theory explains why some genes persist and spread, a sensible theory of cultural evolution will have to explain why some beliefs and attitudes spread and persist while others disappear. The processes that cause such cultural change arise in the everyday lives of individuals as people acquire and use cultural information. Some moral values are more appealing and thus more likely to spread from one individual to another. These will tend to persist, while less attractive alternatives tend to disappear. Some skills are easy to learn accurately, while others are more difficult and are likely to be altered as we learn them. Some beliefs make people more likely to be imitated, because the people who hold those beliefs are more likely to survive or more likely to achieve social prominence. Such beliefs will tend to spread, while beliefs that lead to early death or social stigma will disappear. In the short run, a population-level theory of culture has to explain the net effect of such processes on the distribution of beliefs and values in a population during the previous generation. Over the longer run, the theory explains how these processes, repeated generation after generation, account for observed patterns of cultural variation. The heart of this book is an account of how the population-level consequences of imitation and teaching work.
Taking a population approach does not imply that cultural evolution is closely analogous to genetic evolution. For example, population thinking that does not require cultural information takes the form of memes, discrete, faithfully replicating, genelike bits of information. A range of models are consistent with the facts of cultural variation as they are presently understood, including models in which cultural information is not discrete and is never replicated. The same goes for the processes that give rise to cultural change. Natural selection–like processes are sometimes important, but processes that have no analog in genetic evolution also play important roles. Culture is interesting and important because its evolutionary behavior is distinctly different from that of genes. For example, we will argue that the human cultural system arose as an adaptation, because it can evolve fancy adaptations to changing environments rather more swiftly than is possible by genes alone. Culture would never have evolved unless it could do things that genes can’t!
…To ask whether behavior is determined by genes or environment does not make sense. Every bit of the behavior (or physiology or morphology, for that matter) of every single organism living on the face of the earth results from the interaction of genetic information stored in the developing organism and the properties of its environment… genes are like a recipe, but one in which the ingredients, cooking temperature, and so on are set by the environment. Different traits do vary in how sensitive they are to environmental differences. Some traits aren’t much affected by the normal range of environments—humans develop five fingers on each hand in almost all environments—while others are highly sensitive—genetically similar people may end up with very different body sizes depending on nutrition and health during their childhood.
…lumping culture with other environmental influences leads people to ignore the novel evolutionary processes that are created by culture. Selection shapes individual learning mechanisms so that interaction with the environment produces adaptive behavior. For example, many plants contain toxic substances. Selection makes these chemicals taste bitter to herbivores so that they learn not to consume the toxic plant species. Culture adds something quite new and different to this scenario. Like other animals, humans normally use bitter taste as a signal that a plant is inedible. However, some bitter plant compounds (like salicylic acid in willow bark) have medicinal value, so we also learn from others that we can override the aversive bitter taste of certain plants when we have the need to cure an ailment. The genes making the plant taste bitter don’t change at all, but the behavior of a whole population can change anyway as the belief in the bitter plant’s medicinal value spreads. We take our medicine in spite of its bitter taste, not because our sensory physiology has evolved to make it less bitter, but because the idea that it has therapeutic value has spread through the population. In the distant past, some inquisitive and observant healer discovered the curative properties of a bitter plant. Then a number of processes that we describe in this book might cause this belief to increase in frequency, despite its horrible taste. You can’t understand this process by asking how individuals interact with their environment. Instead, you have to understand how a population of individuals interact with their environments and each other over time.
Thus, culture is neither nature nor nurture, but some of both. It combines inheritance and learning in a way that cannot be parsed into genes or environment.
…Under the right conditions, selection can favor a psychology that causes most people most of the time to adopt behaviors “just” because the people around them are using those behaviors. The last 800,000 years or so have seen especially large, rapid fluctuations in world climate; the world average temperature sometimes changed more than 10 degrees Celsius in a century, leading to massive shifts in ecosystem structure. A group of hominids living in a habitat something like contemporary Madrid could find themselves in a habitat like Scandinavia one hundred years later. You might think that such rapid and extreme environmental changes would put a premium on individual learning over imitation. Odd as it may seem, in many kinds of variable environments, the best strategy is to rely mostly on imitation, not your own individual learning. Some individuals may discover ways to cope with the new situation, and if the not-so-smart and not-so-lucky can imitate them, then the lucky or clever of the next generation can add other tricks. In this way the ability to imitate can generate the cumulative cultural evolution of new adaptations at blinding speed compared with organic evolution. A population of purely individual learners would be stuck with what little they can learn by themselves; they can’t bootstrap[highlight by me] a whole new adaptation based on cumulatively improving cultural traditions. This design for human behavior depends on people adopting beliefs and technologies largely because other people in their group share those beliefs or use these technologies. When lots of imitation is mixed with a little bit of individual learning, populations can adapt in ways that outreach the abilities of any individual genius.
Thinking about the population properties of culture helps us understand the psychology of social learning. For example, we will see that selection can favor a psychology that causes people to conform to the majority behavior even though this mechanism sometimes prevents populations from adapting to a change in the environment. Evolution also favors a psychology that makes people more prone to imitate prestigious individuals and individuals who are like themselves even though this habit can easily result in maladaptive fads. These psychological mechanisms in turn give rise to important patterns of behavior, like the symbolic marking of social groups that would not evolve unless their culture had certain population-level consequences.
However, not all of the processes shaping culture do arise from our innate psychology—culture itself is subject to natural selection. Much as a child resembles her parents, people resemble those from whom they have acquired ideas, values, and skills. Culturally acquired ideas, values, and skills affect what happens to people during their lives—whether they are successful, how many children they have, and how long they live. These events in turn affect whether their behavior will be culturally transmitted to the next generation. If successful people are more likely to be imitated, then those traits that lead to becoming successful will be favored. Even more obviously, if living people are more likely to be imitated than the dead, then ideas, values, and skills that promote survival will tend to spread. Consequently, a culture of honor arises, at least in part, because in lawless societies, men who are not aggressive in protecting their herds and their families tend to fall victim to tough, ruthless predators. If these advantages to a culture of honor have disappeared in the modern South, the higher death rate of those who cling to the custom will eventually extinguish it.
Such selective processes can often favor quite different behaviors from those favored by selection on genes. For example, beliefs and values that lead to prestige and economic success in modern societies may also reduce fertility. Such beliefs spread because the prestigious are more likely to be imitated, even though this lowers genetic fitness…
Natural selection acting on culture is an ultimate cause of human behavior, just like natural selection acting on genes. Consider an example we will return to repeatedly. Much cultural variation exists at the group level. Different human groups have different norms and values, and the cultural transmission of these traits can cause such differences to persist for long periods of time. Now, the norms and values that predominate in a group plausibly affect the probability that the group is successful, whether it survives, and whether it expands. For the purposes of illustration, suppose that groups having norms that promote group solidarity are more likely to survive than groups lacking this sentiment. This creates a selective process that leads to the spread of solidarity. Of course, this process may be opposed by an evolved innate psychology that biases what we learn from others, making us more prone to imitate and invent selfish or nepotistic beliefs rather than ones favoring group solidarity, like patriotism. The long-run evolutionary outcome would then depend on the balance of the processes favoring and disfavoring patriotism. Again for the sake of illustration, let us suppose that net effect of these opposing processes causes patriotic beliefs to predominate. In this case, the population behaves patriotically because such behavior promotes group survival, in exactly the same way that the sickle-cell gene is common in malarial areas because it promotes individual survival. Human culture participates in ultimate causation.
…genetic elements of our evolved psychology shape culture—how could it be otherwise? But at the same time, natural selection acting on cultural variation shaped the environments in which our psychology evolved (and is evolving). The coevolutionary dynamic makes genes as susceptible to cultural influence as vice versa. We will argue that the phenomenon of group selection on cultural variation described above could have produced institutions encouraging more cooperation with distantly related people than would be favored by our original evolved psychology. These cooperators would have discriminated against individuals who carried genes that made them too belligerent to conform to the new cooperative norms. Then the cultural rules could expand cooperation a bit further, generating selection for still more-docile genes. Eventually, innate elements of human social psychology became tolerably well adapted to promote living in tribes, not just families.
from this excerpt.
The Sapience theory is to answer this research question:
Why Haven’t We Developed a More Perfect World?
If we are such a clever species, why is the world the way it is, and heading in a bad direction?
Other interesting quotes:
Every problem is composed of a network of sub-problems that all affect one another (see below on Systems Perspective). Yet the conscious mind must focus on one local problem at a time. If all that is brought to bear on decisions regarding that local problem is intelligence (and a smattering of creativity) there will be a tendency to try to find what we call a ‘local optimum’ solution. The reason is that we typically only have local explicit information to use in forming a decision about what to do. That local information will not include the fact that just around the next bend, out of our local (i.e., conscious) view, is an obstacle or a precipice – other related sub-problems that might be made worse by solving the current problem for its optimum… In fact there are many examples of how solving a local sub-problem for an optimum will make the global problem much worse. Tacit knowledge, if it is relatively complete and relatively valid (if our models of the whole is good) can then come into play subconsciously to alter or shape the intelligent decision making to override local optimization if there is a chance of lowering the global optimization of the larger problem.
The more comprehensive a model (tacit knowledge) we have the more likely our decisions will prove adequate. Comprehensive here means covering a larger scope of space and a longer time scale. The more and varied life experiences we have had and the more lessons we have learned about those experiences the more power we bring to bear on the present local situation.
We have the ability to inhibit our tendency to get even with someone who has hurt us. We have the ability to inhibit our tendency to want to bed the first beauty we could otherwise seduce. Higher sapience means that we will exercise this control over our primitive urges. [self-control]
Curiosity and a willingness to probe deeper or outward are necessary ingredients to support increasing one’s tacit knowledge.
The capacity to quickly organize new information on the basis of systemic principles is what allows some people to learn completely new cultures, jobs, or even careers. They can relate the specifics of a newly encountered system to the general principles of systemness and learn to manipulate the new system based on those principles applying.
and also in its Part 5:
… some psychologists have suggested that most people do not participate in self-reflection [characteristic of sapience] very often…
Thus sapience need not have been selected for within groups, but would have had a strong selection advantage between groups. Such selection skew would result in there being fewer individuals with the “right” genetic traits (see below) in larger merged populations…
With the growing of grains and storage in granaries for supplies during the non-growing seasons or in droughts, humans learned to hedge against uncertainty and improved their reproductive fitness tremendously. Under these conditions, the need for really long-term planning was, surprisingly, minimized.
… diminishment of selection for greater sapience in the whole population … has turned out to be a non-optimal situation.
Being the first species of animal to have understood evolution for what it is and how it works, we are in the unique position to engineer an intentional selection pressure that might just help bias future evolution in the direction of greater sapience [recall "rich pay poor for not to give birth" idea].
There is a general belief that humans as a species had reached a generally high level of general intelligence (say compared with chimpanzees, our nearest biological relatives) and most people could solve many kinds of problems. The difficulty I faced with this premise is that if it were true, why do most people, including some very bright ones, do really stupid things? The world is in a really sad state due to humans and their economic activities. Ironically, we actually know about these stupid things and know what we SHOULD do to avoid or correct the situation. Yet, we don’t do anything about them. Indeed we keep making matters worse. My big question became why, if we are so smart, are we being so stupid? But this was the wrong question to ask. The big mistakes we are making are not due to stupidity but to foolishness — the lack of wisdom.
… understanding the problem leads to understanding the bigger picture of evolution. And in that, understanding the potential for humanity.
Humanity isn’t about being just a single species … We are a genus, more than a species. A genus can give rise to many different species in the course of evolution … What is needed to advance the program for humanity is a change in environment. And that is about to happen. The world that we have affected is about to change in multiple ways.
Interesting idea: “culture as microevolution” from
This is the focus question I am researching. Unless we can find out the root cause and so solution, we can only rely on luck.
… being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about.
One interesting idea is the quadrants formed by self-regarding to other-regarding behaviours axis and novelty-seeking to tradition/conservation axis. He argued that our systems systematically encourage one narrow quadrant of self-regarding and novelty-seeking behaviour. Therefore the solution is not about changing human nature, but opening up the breadth of human possibilities.