Blind imitation or a matter of taste?

For some varieties of cassava, complete detoxification is an effortful, complex, unintuitive process. Joe Henrich famously argued that the practice could only spread through blind, conformist imitation. But what if cassava just tastes better that way?


[This post was co-written by Hugo Mercier and Olivier Morin]

Cassava processing in Vietnam (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


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The space of reasons and the generation of knowledge

In 1644, in disturbing times of civil war and religious fanaticism, the English poet John Milton held a passionate plea for the freedom of the press. He wrote: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” With these words, Milton touches upon an idea that other thinkers too have recognized, namely, that if you let people argue freely, each from one’s own perspective, they will tend to come up with pretty good solutions. ...

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A Color Game week

Nothing, the saying goes, ruins your Friday like realising it's a Tuesday. Fortunately there's procrastination. Our data show Color-Gamers are most likely to open the app on Tuesdays, following an ...

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The Color-Game-o-Scope

It’s been six months since we launched the Color Game App. The project will last for another half year before we make all our hypotheses public. For us, the Color Game is an experiment in cultural evolution: we want to see how communication practices change over the long run. That makes it important to know how our players themselves evolve: are we dealing with a rapidly changing population of fickle players, or do the same happy few come back every day? The answer is to be found in… the Color-Game-O-Scope!...

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Cultures of academic (dis)agreement

There is more to being an anthropologist with a strong interest in psychology and natural and cultural evolution than experiencing the imposter syndrome in several disciplines. One of the perks of transdisciplinarity is attending conferences in different fields. While I have very little expertise in the social studies of sciences, I like to observe people, and conferences are great places to see science at work by watching its practitioners interact with each other. ...

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Governments should more frequently publish CO2 emissions data: Leveraging human psychology to fight climate change

The most recent report by the International Panel on Climate Change (2018) states the danger very clearly: urgent action is required to avoid possible climate disaster. The primary cause of global climate change is greenhouse gas emissions, primarily CO2 emitted into the atmosphere in the burning of fossil fuels. We must drastically cut emissions at national and planet-wide scales in order to reduce the risk of worst-case scenarios to acceptable amounts. The major problem in bringing about the required large-scale change is not technical or economic, but social. We know roughly what to do, and we can afford to do it. Where we urgently need progress however is in motivating human decisions (at scale) that are effective in decreasing CO2 emissions. ...

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Scientific aesthetics, sacred values, and interdisciplinary collaborations

Ever since I started working in research, I was lucky enough to work in interdisciplinary settings - starting with small research groups, up to an ERC-funded multi-teams collaboration. I have thus interacted with researchers from a variety of backgrounds and thought I would make public my two cents of wisdom on the topic. I would like to suggest a few things that can make scientific collaborations across disciplines or fields of expertise go slightly more smoothly, and at least feel more mutualistic. ...

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Are routine actions rational?

In “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” (1963) Donald Davidson famously argued that actions are both ‘rationalized’ and caused by the agent’s reasons. Here is the tritest illustration of this “standard account” of actions: When Brett wants a beer and believes there is beer in the fridge, this gives him a reason to open the fridge and causes him to do so....

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It’s Color Game o’clock!

Most of us prefer to play live, with players who happen to be present on line at the same moment. But not every hour is a green-dots hour. What's a Color-Gamer to do?...

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Reasoning against Faith: When Clerics Intervene in Popular Religion

  In their recent book The Enigma of Reason (2017), Mercier and Sperber debunk the popular view of reason as a source of disinterested, accurate knowledge about the world. The function of reason, they argue, is polemical rather than hermeneutic, as we mostly produce reasons to justify our actions to others and to evaluate the arguments other people use to convince us. This provocative argument opens up interesting avenues for further ethnographic investigations that would flesh out how argumentative reasoning functions across different cultural and socio-historical settings. As an anthropologist of religion, I find the question of how reasoning interacts with belief in the religious context particularly intriguing. ...

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How Color Game pseudonyms work

The posts on this blog explore the digital life of the Color Game, a gaming app launched by our lab. Our goal: inventing a universal language without words, and recording its birth in data. To find out more, visit Several players told us they were puzzled at the way the Color Game names them — or their friends. They should be! The naming scheme that we set up for the game is quite intricate. It helps us to make the game as anonymous as possible. Here's how it works....

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Beheadings as honest communication devices

People kill others in different ways, but executions are special in that the killer can choose the method. Practices officially used today are hanging, shooting or stoning, lethal injection, electrocution, gas inhalation, and decapitation. The last method is currently confined to Saudi Arabia, but has a bloody and prestigious history. Many cultures and societies have used it across time, with different social interpretations. In Japan, the honorary suicide was followed by beheading by an assistant, but mere beheading carried shame. Before 1789, only French nobles could be beheaded, and the revolution democratised and extended the practice by guillotining. Today, terrorists use it to great shock value. But what explains the historical popularity of beheading?...

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