The cognitive basis of good and evil

Michael Shermer, who writes the Skeptic column for Scientific American, and who is normally right on the mark has this to say about the concepts of Good and Evil:

‘The myth of good and evil is grounded in Christian theology and the belief that such forces exist independently of their carriers,’

You can read the full article – byline ‘It is too simple to blame evil people for horrifying acts of terror’ – <a href="
“>here. I don’t want to disagree with Shermer’s conclusions, but just nit-pick on this specific point. In effect, I think i totally disagree with the above statement – let’s call it the ‘Cultural Invention of Evil Theory’. Rather, and readers of Mind Hacks might have guessed, I believe seeing Good and Evil in the world is the result of a basis cognitive process which we we all share.

The myth of good and evil arises from a psychological bias we all have, and which in the social psychology biz is called the ‘the fundamental attribution error’. This is simply that when looking at other people’s behaviour we tend to over-emphasise inherent characteristics (eg “he didn’t do the washing up because he’s lazy”), while when looking at our own we tend to over-emphasise situational variables (“i didn’t do the washing up because i had to go to work and do lots of marking”). Why this exists is probably because although it is often wrong, it is an adaptive way to think about the causal world. When trying to understand your own behaviour it is easiest to look at the things that vary (ie the situation) and try and control that, but when looking at other people’s behaviour the major variable is which other person you are looking at. It doesn’t make it right, but it is just easier to see other people as Good, or Evil, or Lazy, or Clever than it is to take full account of the complexity of both their situation and their personality.

Surely that is sufficient reason to explain the persistence of notions of good and evil, and also helps avoid the problem of how non-Christian cultures come also to use the concepts. The cultural background just flavours a universal, a universal which arises from the information-mechanics of our cognitive apparatus.

BBC Frontiers on the psychology of risk

climber_face.jpgBBC Radio 4’s science show Frontiers goes for a cognitive science two-in-a-row as it follows-up last week’s programme on neuroprosethics with an analysis of the psychology of risk-taking, sensation seeking and risk-based reasoning.

Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman tackles evolutionary explanations for individual differences in risk-taking, and discusses the personality attributes and biological influences of sensation seeking people.

The programme also interviews people who are typically defined as high sensation seekers about their motivations and experiences, such as author and adventure climber Mick Fowler.

Link to Frontiers web page on ‘Risk and Risk Taking’.
Link to realaudio archive of programme.

‘A Genius Explains’

There was an interesting piece in last weekend’s Guardian (A Genius Explains) about a high-functioning autistic who is also a savant (i.e. he’s got amazingly intellectual abilities – he can recall pi to 22,514 decimal places for example). Autistic savants are more common than non-autistic savants, but usually they aren’t able to quite so lucidly explain how they manage to do the things they do.

The article left me curious, and a little jealous (“It’s mental imagery”, he said “It’s like maths without having to think.”) and makes me feel like we’re in for some interesting times ahead as research into savantism, synthesia, developmental cognitive neuroscience and mental imagery converges.

Abstract structure need not be based on language

Grammar-impaired patients with problems in parsing sentences can parse sums. This weighs against the argument that language underpins our capacity for abstract thought: these individuals have problems with telling “dog bites man” from “man bites dog” but no similar problems with 112-45 vs 45-112.

Aphasia and other language problems stemming from brain damage can indeed lead to calculation problems, but this study suggests that they are not necessarily intertwined. As the authors put it, the performance of their subjects is “incompatible with a claim that mathematical expressions are translated into a language format to gain access to syntactic mechanisms specialized for language.”

Continue reading “Abstract structure need not be based on language”

Chimps fair or foul

I went to a conference a few years ago at the LSE; if you look at the speakers you’ll see why. Although it proved to be patchier than I’d hoped, I was captivated by Frans de Waal’s contribution, outlining some wonderful research on the social behaviour of apes. One highlight, which is now finally coming to publication, was the finding that chimpanzees judge reward not just on its instrumental value, but whether it is even-handed or otherwise. They reject a moderate reward if they see an unfamiliar ape get a better one. Good to know that apes throw their toys out of the pram as well.

The explanatory gloss on this is that apes have a ‘sense of fair play’. Another angle that comes to mind is that preferential reward may be seen as the forming of a dominance hierarchy, and the smart ape should make it clear that it’s not going to acquiesce -a nuclear threat to dissuade a minor loss.

Possibly this is merely talking at different levels of causation – the monkeys may have such a sense due to the need to hold their own in a fluctuating dominance hierarchy. It’s also very possible that my thought doesn’t fit with chimpanzee social structure at all. Regardless, it keeps the mind sharp to explore the gloss at least as much as the nuts and bolts of a study. Simian Cold War, or chimp village cricket: can you find a better tack?

The High Street persuaders

The online version of the Telegraph has an article on how psychology is used in shops to persuade us to part with our hard earned cash and lists some common tricks and techniques.

“The most important rule as a shopper is to keep your wits about you,” Karl says. “If you enter a retailer’s property, in one sense, you lay yourself open to any tricks or techniques that they might want to spring on you. The best armoury you can have is to keep your eyes open and your ear to the ground and see what’s going on.”

Link to article (via

Don’t think, sleep!

Sometimes it isn’t how much sleep you got that’s important, but how much sleep you think you got.

Our own perception of how much we slept during a night can be startlingly inaccurate. Dr Allison Harvey (now of UC Berkley) took insomniacs and measured how much they actually slept during the night. Despite the insomniacs reporting that they had only slept for two or three hours, they had in fact been asleep for an average of 7 hours – only 35 minutes less than a control group who didn’t have any problems sleeping.

Continue reading “Don’t think, sleep!”