From the Department of Being Very Complete In Listing Possible Explanations:
It turns out that witchcraft beliefs arise in surprisingly similar forms in many parts of the world, which suggests either that there really are witches or (more likely) that there’s something about human minds that often generates this cultural institution. The Azande believed that witches were just as likely to be men as women, and the fear of being called a witch made the Azande careful not to make their neighbors angry or envious. That was my first hint that groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.
Seems related to some of my recent thoughts on unschooling:
[Piaget] also found that it’s pointless for adults to explain the conservation of volume to kids. The kids won’t get it until they reach an age (and cognitive stage) when their minds are ready for it. And when they are ready, they’ll figure it out for themselves just by playing with cups of water.
If this is true, it seems very very important and people should be trying harder to exploit it:
[Todorov] collected photographs of the winners and runners-up in hundreds of elections for the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. He showed people the pairs of photographs from each contest with no information about political party, and he asked them to pick which person seemed more competent. He found that the candidate that people judged more competent was the one who actually won the race about two-thirds of the time.
On what separates us from the apes:
Michael Tomasello, one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzee cognition, [said] “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.”
On what doesn’t separate us from the apes:
Acheulean tools [a style used by hominids 1.8 million years ago] are nearly identical everywhere, from Africa to Europe to Asia, for more than a million years. There’s hardly any variation, which suggests that the knowledge of how to make these tools may not have been passed on culturally. Rather, the knowledge of how to make these tools may have become innate, just as the “knowledge” of how to build a dam is innate in beavers.
One of those “Huh, I guess thousands of very intelligent people throughout all human history haven’t been doing something useless for no reason” moments:
In September 1941, William McNeill was drafted in the US Army. He spent several months in basic training, which consisted mostly of marching around the drill field in close formation with a few dozen other men. At first McNeill thought the marching was just a way to pass the time, because his base had no weapons with which to train. But after a few weeks, when his unit began to synchronize well, he began to experience an altered state of consciousness. “Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.” McNeill fought in World War II and later became a distinguished historian. His research led him to the conclusion that the key innovation of Greek, Roman, and later European armies was the sort of synchronous drilling and marching the army had forced him to do years before.
Would-be commune founders, take note:
The anthropologist Richard Sosis examined the history of two hundred communes founded in the United States in the nineteenth century. Which kind of commune survived longest? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6% of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39% of religious communes. He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. It was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders. For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrificce a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.
This is a very interesting application of the trust game, but I feel like I’ve seen some experiments that show the opposite as well:
A team of German economists asked subjects to play a game in which one person is the “truster”, who is given some money on each round of the game. The truster is then asked to decide how much money, if any, to pass on to an anonymous “trustee”. Any money passed gets tripled by the experimenter, at which point the “trustee” can choose how much, if any, to return to the truster. Behavioral economists use this game often, but the novel twist in this study was to reveal one piece of real, true personal information about the trustees to the trusters. In some cases, the truster learned the trustee’s level of religiosity, on a scale of 1 to 5. When trusters learned that their trustee was religious, they transferred more money. More important, the religious trustees really did transfer back more money than did the nonreligious trustees, even though they never knew anything about their trusters. The highest levels of wealth, therefore, would be created when religious people get to play a trust game with other religious people.
Another “Oh, that explains it” moment:
Even today, markets that require a very high trust to function efficiently are often dominated by religiously bound ethnic groups (such as ultra-Orthodox Jews in the diamond market) who have lower transaction and monitoring costs than their secular competitors.
Very curious if same effect in “Sunday Assembly” style groups:
Why are religious people better neighbors and citizens? To find out, Putnam and Campbell included on one of their surveys a long list of questions about religious beliefs and practices. These beliefs and practices turned out to matter very little. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully correlated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists…Putnam and Campbell’s work shows that religion in the United States nowadays generates such vast surpluses of social capital that much of it spills over and benefits outsiders.
We keep losing these intellectual Turing tests, and I’m pretty sure I can’t blame this one on Gilbert being an outlier who should not be counted:
We tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand Americans to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were. Who was best able to pretend to be the other? The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal”.
Where do libertarians fall on personality measures? No surprises here:
We found that libertarians tend to look more like liberals than like conservaatives on most measures of personality. For example, both groups score higher than conservatives on openness to experience, and lower on disgust sensitivity and conscientiousness. Where libertarians diverge from liberals most sharply is on … the Care foundation, where they score very low (even lower than conservatives).
Another one from the Department of Insight Porn:
We learned that much of the increase in political polarization was unavoidable. It was the natural result of the political realignment that took place after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The conservative southern states, which had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War (since Lincoln was a Republican) then began to leave the Democratic Party, and by the 1990s the South was solidly Republican. Before this realignment there had been liberals and conservatives in both parties, which made it easy to form bipartisan teams who could work together.
From the Department of Unexpected Consequences:
But we also learned about factors that might possibly be reversed. The most poignant moment of the conference came when Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa, described the changes that began in 1995. Newt Gingrich, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, encouraged the large group of incoming Republicans to leave their families in their home districts rather than moving their spouse and children to Washington. Before 1995, Congressmen from both parties attended many of the same social events on weekends; their spouses became friends; their children played on the same sports teams. But nowadays most Congressmen fly to Washington on Monday night, huddle with their teammates and do battle for three days, and then fly home on Thursday night. Cross-party friendships are disappearing; Manichaeism and scorched Earth politics are increasing.
From the Archipelago Establishment Working Group:
Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves”, in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned.