Our mini-grant competition: The winners

Here are the winners of the 2010 mini-grant competition organised by the International Cognition and Culture Institute and funded by the Programme in Culture & Cognition at the LSE to encourage anthropologists to perform in the field an experimental study on children’s and adults’ reasoning about human social kinds:

  • Tamara Hale (LSE): "Essentialism without groups in an afro-descendent village in Peru."
  • Cristina Moya (UCLA): "The evolution of ethnic categorization: Cross-cultural and developmental tests of innate priors in urban US and the Peruvian altiplano."
  • Zohar Rotem (The New School for Social Research, New York): "The role of linguistic difference in bilingual children’s essentialist reasoning about social kinds in Israel"
  • Cătălina Tesar and Radu Umbreş (University College London): "Blood, beakers and dowries. An inquiry into essentialist thinking about kinship and ethnicity among Cortorari Roma in Romania"

We congratulate the winners and express our gratitude to all the participants in the competition!

for a brief description of the winning projets,

Read more: Our mini-grant competition: The winners

A deflationary approach to economic games

Forthcoming in PNAS, an important paper by Rolf Kümmerli, Maxwell Burton-Chellew, Adin Ross-Gillespie and Stuart West: “Resistance to extreme strategies, rather thanprosocial preferences, can explain human cooperation in public goods games” (available here) that illustrates "why caution must be exercised when interpreting the evolutionary implications of economic experiments."

 Abstract: The results of numerous economic games suggest that humans behave more cooperatively than would be expected if they were maximizing selfish interests. It has been argued that this is because individuals gain satisfaction from the success of others, and that such prosocial preferences require a novel evolutionary explanation. However, in previous games, imperfect behavior would automatically lead to an increase in cooperation, making it impossible to decouple any form of mistake or error from prosocial cooperative decisions.

Read more: A deflationary approach to economic games

TOC of the Journal of Cognition and Culture

For the Table of Contents of the latest issue of the Journal of Cognition and Culture (Volume 10, Numbers 1-2, 2010),

Read more: TOC of the Journal of Cognition and Culture

Overimitation in Kalahari Bushman: Children and the Origins of Human Cultural Cognition

An interesting paper by Mark Nielsen and Keyan Tomaselli “Overimitation in Kalahari Bushman Children and the Origins of Human Cultural Cognition” in Psychological Science,May 2010, 21: 729-736. You will find a freely available version here, and a short presentation of the research with a video at ScienceNow here


Abstract: Children are surrounded by objects that they must learn to use. One of the most efficient ways children do this is by imitation. Recent work has shown that, in contrast to nonhuman primates, human children focus more on reproducing the specific actions used than on achieving actual outcomes when learning by imitating. From 18 months of age, children will routinely copy even arbitrary and unnecessary actions. This puzzling behavior is called overimitation. By documenting similarities exhibited by children from a large, industrialized city and children from remote Bushman communities in southern Africa, we provide here the first indication that overimitation may be a universal human trait. We also show that overimitation is unaffected by the age of the child, differences in the testing environment, or familiarity with the demonstrating adult. Furthermore, we argue that, although seemingly maladaptive, overimitation reflects an evolutionary adaptation that is fundamental to the development and transmission of human culture.

Do not confound homophily and contagion!

At arXiv.org, a relevant paper by  Cosma Shalizi and Andrew C. Thomas “Homophily and Contagion Are Generically Confounded in Observational Social Network Studies”( available here).

Abstract: We consider processes on social networks that can potentially involve three phenomena: homophily, or the formation of social ties due to matching individual traits; social contagion, also known as social influence; and the causal effect of an individual's covariates on their behavior or other measurable responses. We show that, generically, all of these are confounded with each other. Distinguishing them from one another requires strong assumptions on the parametrization of the social process or on the adequacy of the covariates used (or both). In particular we demonstrate, with simple examples, that asymmetries in regression coefficients cannot identify causal effects, and that very simple models of imitation (a form of social contagion) can produce substantial correlations between an individual's enduring traits and their choices, even when there is no intrinsic affinity between them. We also suggest some possible constructive responses to these results.

The Moral Life of Babies

In Today's New York Times Magazine, Paul Bloom has a long interesting and easy-read piece (freely available here) on "The Moral Life of Babies" that concludes:

"Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations - the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn't start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to."

Implied motion in Hokusai Manga

In NeuroReport, 21(4), pp 264-267, an interesting article by N. Osaka, D. Matsuyoshi, T. Ikeda, and M. Osaka of Kyoto and Osaka Universities, entitled "Implied motion because of instability in Hokusai Manga activates the human motion-sensitive extrastriate visual cortex: an fMRI study of the impact of visual art"

The authors write: "Visual artists developed various visual cues for representing implied motion in two-dimensional art. Photographic blur, action lines, affine shear, instability, superimposition, and stroboscopic images are possible technical solutions for representing implied movement. In a realistic painting, artists have tried to represent motion using superimposed or blurred images, while in abstract painting, like Marcel Duchamp artists have tried to portray a moving object on a static canvas by superimposing successive portrayals of the object in action...As one of a leading artist of the ‘Ukiyo-e' school in the 18th century, Hokusai made great progress in representing implied movement using unstable bodily action without introducing action lines or even blur." They go on to investigate how our visual brain creates the impression of motion using such implied movement clues.

The article is available (with subscription) here, and there is a good presentation here at the excellent blog Neurophilosophy.

Workshop: Language as an Evolutionary System

Poster-Conf-LECThese two days of talks and discussion will bring together scholars from a range of disciplines to discuss the value of applying evolutionary thinking to the cultural evolution of language as well as the commonalities and differences between various existing applications.

Linguistics has traditionally been cautious of analogies between evolution in language an in biology. Common ancestry and descent were proposed earlier for languages than for biological species, but while biological evolution has flourished into a science with solid theories that generate testable hypothesis, the study of the cultural evolution of language -- evolution that is independent of changes in the human genome -- is only beginning to test its innumerable, often speculative and unrigorous, theories. McMahon (1994) concluded that the way forward is Darwinian thinking. Since then, a number of independent proposals have convergently applied explicit analogies with the elements and processes of the evolutionary synthesis (Mayr & Provine, 1998) to cultural language dynamics. They all assume that language evolution and change are caused by cultural mechanisms such as social transmission and language usage in context.

Read more: Workshop: Language as an Evolutionary System

Postdoctoral Research Position in Behavioral Economics

Central European University announces an opening for a postdoctoral fellow for two years, starting from September 2010 or later, to work on a project in behavioral economics regarding how people take into account their reputation --what others might think of them-- when making decisions. Specific research questions about the role of reputation in decision-making and the cognitive bases of reputation management include: do people use routines or heuristics whose function is to manage their reputation? Is there cross-cultural variations in the ways people manage their reputation and, if there is, why? What, of altruistic behavior, can be accounted for in terms of reputation management? To what extent, and in which sense, are people rational when they manage their reputation?

Read more: Postdoctoral Research Position in Behavioral Economics

From cognitive science to an empirically-informed philosophy of logic

A workshop in Amsterdam (December 7-8 2010) entitled "From cognitive science and psychology to an empirically-informed philosophy of logic" will bring together logicians, philosophers, psychologists and cognitive scientists to discuss the interface between cognitive science and psychology, on the one hand, and the philosophy of logic on the other hand. More specifically, we wish to investigate the extent to which (if at all), and in what ways, experimental results from these fields may contribute to the formulation of an empirically-informed philosophy of logic, taking into account how human agents, logicians and non-logicians alike, in fact reason.

Read more: From cognitive science to an empirically-informed philosophy of logic

Lévi-Strauss in comic form

Thanks to Culture Matters for drawing our attention to this tribute to Claude Lévi-Strauss in comic form published by The Financial Times. It has a clever twist and it might help you procrastinate after missing an hour of sleep on this first Sunday of daylight saving time (in Europe anyhow).


ICCI Mini-Grant Competition

We are pleased to announce a grant competition organised by the International Cognition and Culture Institute and funded by the Programme in Culture & Cognition at the LSE. Up to five grants, each of the value of £1000, will be awarded to encourage anthropologists with good ethnographic knowledge of their field sites to perform an experimental study that will help provide comparative cross-cultural data on children's and adults' reasoning about human social kinds (deadline April 30, 2010).

Learn about Social Neuroscience

In the last issue of Neuron (65, 6), a "Special Feature: Reviews on Social Neuroscience," of unique interest to cognitive and social scientists, "a series of reviews [most of them freely available online] highlighting exciting research in the field of Social Neuroscience, which seeks to understand how the brain mediates social behaviors, and conversely, how social behaviors influence brain function. The reviews in this issue reflect the diverse and interdisciplinary nature of the field, ranging from the analysis of social interactions in "simple" model systems to the study of complex human behaviors."

From Chris and Uta Frith introductory "Overview":

"We have two suggestions as to what the special feature of human social cognition might be. One idea is that humans have an automatic (unconscious) drive to constantly update the difference between their own knowledge and the knowledge of specific others. Such a tendency is critical to the human drive to share novel information with others (Fitch et al., 2010). Such sharing, and indeed any useful communication, depends on knowing what other people don't know.

The other idea is that much human knowledge is represented in the explicit (conscious) form that is needed for sharing experiences. In other words, there is a special form of human communication where we are aware that we are sending and receiving signals (Sperber and Wilson, 1995). This means that, when we receive a signal we make a distinction (among other distinctions) between unintentional and deliberate signaling. We know that unintentional signals may have more veracity than deliberate signals because deliberate signals can be manipulated by the sender for the purposes of deception. On the other hand, we can use deliberate signals of communication to teach others. Both informal and formal teaching are the building materials of culture and serve to multiply learning from others (Gergely et al., 2007). This multiplication of experience over many generations may be the secret to the success of Homo sapiens."

Here are the abstracts (and an illustration):

Read more: Learn about Social Neuroscience

LSE symposium on Personhood in a Neurobiological Age

An open and free Symposium on Personhood in a Neurobiological Age - Brain, Self and Society, at the LSE, 13 September 2010.

"It seems that we have learned more about the brain in the last decade than over the previous millennia of human history. But to what extent are developments in the 'new brain sciences' leading to a mutation in our understanding of selfhood? Are we in the midst of a move from ‘soul to brain', a radical restructuring of our understanding of human ‘psychology' and the rise of a ‘neuronal self'? If so, in what ways, and with what consequences, for individuals and for society, and for our ways of governing ourselves and others?"

Read more: LSE symposium on Personhood in a Neurobiological Age

Jerry Fodor vs. Elliott Sober on Who Got What Wrong

For those who want more on the topic, here is, at  Blogginghead.tv, a very earnest discussion between Jerry Fodor and Elliott Sober on Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini's What Darwin Got Wrong.

Babies got rhythm!


A participant  listening to Mozart while her mother listens to speech. Watch the video here

Forthcoming in PNAS and freely available here, an article by Marcel Zentner and Tuomas Eerola: "Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy"

Abstract: Humans have a unique ability to coordinate their motor movements to an external auditory stimulus, as in music-induced foot tapping or dancing. This behavior currently engages the attention of scholars across a number of disciplines. However, very little is known about its earliest manifestations. The aim of the current research was to examine whether preverbal infants engage in rhythmic behavior to music. To this end, we carried out two experiments in which we tested 120 infants (aged 5-24 months). Infants were exposed to various excerpts of musical and rhythmic stimuli.... Infants' rhythmic movements were assessed by multiple methods involving manual coding from video excerpts and innovative 3D motion-capture technology. The results show that (i) infants engage in significantly more rhythmic movement to music and other rhythmically regular sounds than to speech; (ii) infants exhibit tempo flexibility to some extent ...; and (iii) the degree of rhythmic coordination with music is positively related to displays of positive affect. The findings are suggestive of a predisposition for rhythmic movement in response to music and other metrically regular sounds.

Do only humans share with non-kin?

"Comparisons between chimpanzees and humans have led to the hypothesis that only humans voluntarily share their own food with others. However, it is hard to draw conclusions because the food-sharing preferences of our more tolerant relative, the bonobo (Pan paniscus), have never been studied experimentally." write Brian Hare and Suzy Kwetuenda in their article "Bonobos voluntarily share their own food with others" (Current Biology, Vol. 20, Issue 5, R230-R231, 9 March 2010 - available here). They explain: "We gave unrelated bonobos the choice of either monopolizing food or actively sharing: we found that bonobos preferred to release a recipient from an adjacent room and feed together instead of eating all the food alone. Thus, food sharing in bonobos does not depend on kinship or harassment and suggests our own species' propensity for voluntary food sharing is not unique among the apes." And best of all, here is the video:

Is hearing God like being a skilled athlete?

Not often do we find in the American Anthropologist material of clear Cognition and Culture relevance. Here is a noteworthy exception: "The Absorption Hypothesis: Learning to Hear God in Evangelical Christianity" (vol. 112,March 2010 issue, available here) by Tanya. M. Luhrmann (whose LSE-ICCI lecture on the same topic is now online), Howard Nusbaum, and Ronald Thisted. They say that their approach "builds on but differs from the approach to religion within the culture-and-cognition school."

The article begins: "How does God become real to people when God is understood to be invisible and immaterial, as God is within the Christian tradition? This is not the question of whether God is real but, rather, how people learn to make the judgment that God is present. ... it may be the case that hearing God speak and having other vivid, unusual spiritual experiences that seem like unambiguous evidence of divine presence might be, in some respects, like becoming a skilled athlete. In this article, we argue that something like talent and training are involved in the emergence of certain kinds of religious experiences."

The conclusion: "Religion and spirituality are enormously complex human phenomena. Here we suggest that we may be able to identify one kind of skill that can be cultivated, for which some may have more of a proclivity or talent than others. Absorption does not explain religion and far less does it explain it away. But to understand that some people may have developed their talent more than others may help us to understand why some people become gifted practitioners of their faith and others with the intention and desire to do so struggle and do not. And it reminds us, as Maurice Bloch (2008) remarks, that at the heart of the religious impulse lies the capacity to imagine a world beyond the one we have before us."

Workshop: Culture and Cognition in Asia

March 11th – 12th, 2010, National University of Singapore, Asia Research Institute.

Research in both the social and cognitive sciences has increasingly focused on the complex dynamic between cultural meaning and practices with cognitive processes. From the sociology of science to the anthropology of religion, cultural studies have taken a cognitive turn to explore a wide range of topics including distributed cognition in technological systems, memory and religious rituals, and the neuroeconomics of decisions about risk. Cognitive neuroscientists have likewise begun to more closely examine how culture influences cognition in areas such as perception and attention, healing and placebo effects, language processing and speech disorders, and even the psychosomatics of meditation. Emerging out of this multidisciplinary interest in culture and cognition is a new understanding of the plasticity of embodiment that emphasizes change in how cultural practices, human cognition and behavior, and even the natural environment influence each other. Cultural change and neurocognitive plasticity are the result of active human agency rather than purely passive inscription by social, technological, or biological systems.



Read more: Workshop: Culture and Cognition in Asia

New: Our Cognition and Culture Reader and our Bookstore

We are today putting online the beta version of a Cognition and Culture Reader with links to relevant papers, books and blog posts. All the papers are freely available on the Internet. All the books listed (and other books mentioned in our blog or news) can be purchased at our new online Bookstore (and we get a modest percentage on the sale of these and any other Amazon book purchased through our bookstore, which we hope will help us cover our costs).

The reader has been prepared by Nicolas Baumard. Of course, it should be more comprehensive and it will need regular updating. We would be grateful to members of the Institute for comments and suggestions (keeping in mind that we are aiming at a useful short selection, not at exhaustivity). Still, as it is, we hope you will find it of use.

How many minutes does it take for social norms to inhibit survival instinct?

Forthcoming in PNAS, an innovative study entitled "Interaction of natural survival instincts and internalized social norms exploring the Titanic and Lusitania disasters" by Bruno S. Frey, David A. Savage and Benno Torgler (and already available here alas with subscription; earlier version freely available here)

Abstract: "...This study explores the interaction of natural survival instincts and internalized social norms using data on the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania. We show that time pressure appears to be crucial when explaining behavior under extreme conditions of life and death. Even though the two vessels and the composition of their passengers were quite similar, the behavior of the individuals on board was dramatically different. On the Lusitania, selfish behavior dominated (which corresponds to the classical homo economicus); on the Titanic, social norms and social status (class) dominated, which contradicts standard economics. This difference could be attributed to the fact that the Lusitania sank in 18 min, creating a situation in which the short-run flight impulse dominated behavior. On the slowly sinking Titanic (2 h, 40 min), there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge. Maritime disasters are traditionally not analyzed in a comparative manner with advanced statistical (econometric) techniques using individual data of the passengers and crew. Knowing human behavior under extreme conditions provides insight into how widely human behavior can vary, depending on differing external conditions."

3 Quarks Daily's Arts and Literature Prize: Nicolas Baumard on the universality of music in the competition

The great 3 Quarks Daily blog is holding a competition for the best Arts and Literature blog post and one of Nicolas Baumard's posts on our blog, "The universality of music: Cross-cultural comparison, the recognition of emotions, and the influence of the the Backstreet Boys on a Cockatoo," has been nominated. You have only until Sunday, March 7, 2010 to look here at the various nominees (several of which are quite outstanding, including from a cognition and culture point of view) and to vote for the one you prefer. The three winners will be chosen from a shortlist by Robert Pinsky.

How cultural is sensitivity to shape properties?

In Psychological Science (Vol, 20 (12) pp.1437-1442), an interesting article by Irving Biederman, Xiaomin Yue, and Jules Davidoff entitled: "Representation of Shape in Individuals From a Culture With Minimal Exposure to Regular, Simple Artifacts: Sensitivity to Nonaccidental Versus Metric Properties" freely available here. Abstract below the fold.

Read more: How cultural is sensitivity to shape properties?

Video: A Debate on Group Selection

On July 7th 2009, the The London Evolutionary Research Network held a extremely interesting debate on group selection in which four eminent speakers in the field discussed the motion: "Is natural selection at the group level an important evolutionary force?"

Stuart West, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, University of Oxford
Herbert Gintis, Professor of Economics, Santa Fe Intitute, University of Siena, and CEU
Samir Okasha, Professor of Philosophy of Science, University of Bristol
Mark Pagel, Professor of Biology, University of Reading

After many months of waiting, the videos have finally been uploaded online. You can now watch the debate videos here.

The evolution of misbeliefs

An article entitled "The Evolution of  Misbeliefs" by Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett In Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2009) 32, 493-561, freely available here, with commentaries by (among many others) George Ainslie, Roberto Casati, Pascal Boyer, Max Coltheart, Owen Flanagan, Keith Frankish, Gary Marcus, Ruth Millikan, Ara Norenzayan, Dan Sperber, David Sloan Wilson, and a reply by the authors.

Abstract: From an evolutionary standpoint, a default presumption is that true beliefs are adaptive and misbeliefs maladaptive. But if humans are biologically engineered to appraise the world accurately and to form true beliefs, how are we to explain the routine exceptions to this rule? How can we account for mistaken beliefs, bizarre delusions, and instances of self-deception? We explore this question in some detail. We begin by articulating a distinction between two general types of misbelief: those resulting from a breakdown in the normal functioning of the belief formation system (e.g., delusions) and those arising in the normal course of that system's operations (e.g., beliefs based on incomplete or inaccurate information). The former are instances of biological dysfunction or pathology, reflecting "culpable" limitations of evolutionary design. Although the latter category includes undesirable (but tolerable) by-products of "forgivably" limited design, our quarry is a contentious subclass of this category: misbeliefs best conceived as design features. Such misbeliefs, unlike occasional lucky falsehoods, would have been systematically adaptive in the evolutionary past. Such misbeliefs, furthermore, would not be reducible to judicious - but doxastically noncommittal - action policies. Finally, such misbeliefs would have been adaptive in themselves, constituting more than mere by-products of adaptively biased misbeliefproducing systems. We explore a range of potential candidates for evolved misbelief, and conclude that, of those surveyed, only positive illusions meet our criteria.

Universal and culture-specific recognition of emotions


Participant watching the experimenter play a stimulus and indicating her response

There is an intersting forthcoming open access (available here) article of PNAS entitled "Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations," by Disa Sauter, Frank Eisner, Paul Ekman, and Sophie K. Scott.

Abstract: Emotional signals are crucial for sharing important information, with conspecifics, for example, to warn humans of danger. Humans use a range of different cues to communicate to others how they feel, including facial, vocal, and gestural signals. We examined the recognition of nonverbal emotional vocalizations, such as screams and laughs, across two dramatically different cultural groups. Western participants were compared to individuals from remote, culturally isolated Namibian villages. Vocalizations communicating the so-called "basic emotions" (anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise) were bidirectionally recognized. In contrast, a set of additional emotions was only recognized within, but not across, cultural boundaries. Our findings indicate that a number of primarily negative emotions have vocalizations that can be recognized across cultures, while most positive emotions are communicated with culture-specific signals.

Conference on Intercultural Pragmatics. Madrid 2010

The goal of this 4th International Conference on Intercultural Pragmatics and Communication (web site: http://conference.clancorpus.net/) is to promote both theoretical and applied research in pragmatics. Three parallel sessions will be held according to the following topics:

Pragmatics theories: meaning, role of context, semantics-pragmatics interface, explicature, implicature, speech act theory, etc.
Intercultural aspects of pragmatics
: research involving more than one language and culture or varieties of one language, lingua franca, intercultural misunderstandings, effect of dual language and multilingual systems on the development and use of pragmatic skills
: usage and corpus-based approaches, teachability and learnability of pragmatic skills, pragmatic variations within one language and across languages, developmental pragmatics, etc.


Read more: Conference on Intercultural Pragmatics. Madrid 2010

Moscow's stray dogs

From an article in the Financial Times, fascinating both from an anthropological and a biological point of view: 'According to Poyarkov [a biologist specialising in wolves who also studies these dogs, see picture], there are 30,000 to 35,000 stray dogs in Moscow, while the wolf population for the whole of Russia is about 50,000 to 60,000. Population density, he says, determines how frequently the animals come into contact with each other, which in turn affects their behaviour, psychology, stress levels, physiology and relationship to their environment.

"The second difference between stray dogs and wolves is that the dogs, on average, are much less aggressive and a good deal more tolerant of one another," says Poyarkov. Wolves stay strictly within their own pack, even if they share a territory with another. A pack of dogs, however, can hold a dominant position over other packs and their leader will often "patrol" the other packs by moving in and out of them. His observations have led Poyarkov to conclude that this leader is not necessarily the strongest or most dominant dog, but the most intelligent - and is acknowledged as such. The pack depends on him for its survival.'

You can read here the whole article here.

Language evolution and universals

Two ambitious papers just published offer broad contrasting views on the biological and cultural bases of human languages:

Nicholas Evans, N. , & Stephen Levinson (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,  32(5), 429-492. (With commentaries and response) available here,

and W. Tecumseh Fitch 2009) Prolegomena to a Future Science of Biolinguistics. Biolinguistics, Vol 3, No 4 (2009) available here

Read more for the the abstracts

Read more: Language evolution and universals

Body movement in language and cognition

A study by Daniel Haun, published in the December 15th 2009 edition of Current Biology, reports cross-cultural variability in how people memorize bodily movements in space, depending on how space is encoded in the local language. Here is the first paragraph;

Read more: Body movement in language and cognition

Predation enhances cooperation in wee little birds.

In a recent article entitled "The increased risk of predation enhances cooperation"published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Volume 277, Pages 513 - 518 and available hereIndrikis Krams and colleagues experimentally demonstrate an interaction between predation risk and cooperation in breeding songbirds. It is worth reading in the light of current discussions about the co-evolution of warfare and cooperation (for example: Bowles, 2008).

Read more: Predation enhances cooperation in wee little birds.

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