The design of institutions & the design of the mind

What is the public sphere and how should it be organised? The question is ancient but it has been given new life and urgency by the internet and, in particular, the rise of social media, which (supposedly) provides everybody with a potential public platform unhindered by traditional, ‘elite’ gatekeepers. Yet, according to a recent paper by Kai Speikermann, Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, the opposite may be true. That is, social media in its present form might actually undermine the functions of the public sphere. “A well-working public sphere allows citizens to learn that there are genuine disagreements among citizens that are held in good faith. Social media makes it harder to gain this insight, opening the door for populist ideology” (2020, p.50, italics added). If Speikermann is right about this, it might help to explain the widespread feeling that polarisation is growing despite the supposed openness and freedom of expression provided by digital technology.

Speikermann presents six ‘principles’ for a well-functioning public sphere. Each is elaborated in the paper, but in brief:

  • The Principle of Open Access. Each individual can enter and leave the public sphere as they choose.
  • The Principle of Free Participation. Each individual can, at suitable times, start to speak to any person present in the public sphere. At the same time, no one is forced to speak.
  • The Principle of Listener Choice. Each person can choose to listen to any speaker and, at suitable times, change the person they listen to (and cannot normally listen to several speakers at the same time).
  • The Principle of Exposure. Each person present in the public sphere may have to hear the messages of any others until, at a suitable time, they can choose to speak themselves or listen to someone else.
  • The Principle of Transparency. Everybody is permitted to observe who talks to whom and can easily establish the relevant speaker-listener relations.
  • The Principle of Public Sphere Scrutiny. Policies, laws, executive acts, the conduct of officials, and other matters of public interest must be available for scrutiny in the public sphere.

Speikermann intends these principles to, in turn, serve four core functions: they expose citizens to diverse information; they promote equality of deliberative opportunity; they create deliberative transparency; and they produce common knowledge. The idea, then, is that these four functions can collectively defend against closed and populist thinking. “Perhaps the most dangerous political situation for the populist occurs when voters come together, realise that they have genuinely different views, in good faith, without being misled, and without being able to plausibly dismiss dissenters as being captured by elites” (p.54). Speikermann believes that social media as currently instantiated does not fulfil these goals; or at least, not nearly as well as it could.

What I could not help but notice is that Speikermann’s six principles, which he presents as desiderata for the public sphere and which some might view as utopian, are actually plain empirical facts about interaction in small and ordinary human groups. In the social context of recurrent meetings with the same individuals, people can come and go, they can talk and they can listen, they can see who is talking to who, and, thanks to reputations and gossip, the social consequences of misbehaviour are potentially serious.

And what I could not further avoid noticing — and the reason I wanted to mention this on the ICCI blog — is that these social conditions are those in which our species’ distinctive cognitive capacities actually evolved. Arguably the most distinctive feature of the human cognitive niche is it comprises social groups that are loosely-defined but long-lasting, with regular, repeated interaction with both kin and non-kin. As such, human social ecologies involve an especially delicate balance of cooperation and competition, with substantial evolutionary pressure for behaviours that make the most of this mix. Moreover, contemporary evolutionary approaches to cognition have shown how many of the most distinctive aspects of human cognition and behaviour appear to be adaptations to this ecology. These include, for instance, moral dispositions; a social vigilance that identifies potential partners and opportunities for mutually beneficial interaction; an awareness of potential opportunities to exploit others; a strong sensitivity to changes in one’s reputation; emotions that help defend against social exploitation and otherwise regulate our interactions; distinctive forms of communication, argumentation and deliberation; and many others.

The findings of field anthropology are also relevant. One of most intriguing things anthropologists have learned is that small and isolated communities tend to have levels and forms of egalitarianism that surprise modern eyes. There is, commonly, collective decision-making; a relative absence of resource inequality; little coercive political authority; widespread intolerance of unkindness; an absence of dominance based on strength and other physical characteristics; and other such qualities. Moreover, we formally accord greater influence to some over others only when technology advances, resources become surplus, groups become larger and cohesion becomes more difficult (the story is of course not quite as simple as that, but this is true to a first approximation; see e.g. von Rueden, 2020 for a short summary).

These findings lead some to conclude that humans are somehow ‘naturally’ or ‘innately’ egalitarian, and that modern society has corrupted us (one recent example of this trend is Bregman, 2020): but that is too quick, too easy. The more astute deduction is that fairness and egalitarianism can be stable, to some positive extent, when they overlap with self-interest. In particular, when groups are small and everybody knows your name, then the greatest individual rewards tend to come from attending to local norms of how to behave, maintaining your reputation, and valuing group harmony above all. Good behaviour becomes wise. Reflecting on this, I am reminded of, for instance, Elenor Ostrom’s Nobel prize-winning work on the principles that best guide governance of the commons: practices such as open discussion and deliberation, defined space for reflection, collective choice, graduated sanctions, and so on, all of which can inform institutional design even at large scales (e.g. Ostrom, 1990).

I wonder, then, about the extent to which institutional design in the modern world might operate especially well when it recapitulates the ‘natural’, evolutionary conditions of human social interaction. Speikermann is, in effect, suggesting that this is true in the case of social media discourse and the public sphere. Might it be true more generally? Is it true that the basic conditions of ordinary human social interaction, in small-ish groups characterised by repeated interactions and the value of a good reputation, are especially well-suited to harnessing human cognitive dispositions for the benefit of all? If so, should modern institutional design aim to recapitulate this, to some extent at least?


Bregman, R. (2020) Human Kind: A hopeful history. Bloomsbury

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing The Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. CUP.

Spiekermann, K. (2020). Why populists do well on social media. Global Justice: Theory Practice Rhetoric, 12(2), 50-71.

von Rueden, C. (2020). Making and unmaking egalitarianism in small-scale human societies. Current Opinion in Psychology, 33, 167-171.


  • comment-avatar
    Burt 19 June 2021 (20:41)

    Ideas and Institutions
    Perhaps the question goes to the cultural ideas that institutions are established to manifest in a society. How does the connection between the ideas and the institutions occur in small groups (mostly automatically?) as compared to how it occurs in large populations (intentional balancing of interests among stakeholders).

  • comment-avatar
    Hugo Mercier 20 June 2021 (08:01)

    When things go wrong in small-scale societies
    Thank you for your post Thom. That reminded me of some of William Buckner’s posts about the prevalence of secret societies in small-scale societies (e.g. Studying such instances in which the public sphere breaks down even in such societies might give us insights into how it also breaks down in larger ones.

  • comment-avatar
    Tiffany Morisseau 23 June 2021 (10:40)

    Commonality of interests vs. climate of trust
    Thank you Thom for this post.
    On the one hand indeed, in very small groups interests are close, ties are strong, and the costs of betrayal are greater, so there is no (or less) reason a priori for people to be uncooperative. On the other hand, another parameter is the confidence that our interlocutors/collaborators will not take advantage of us if we are cooperative and willing to help, and this climate of trust can perhaps be cultivated somehow, regardless of the size of the community / institutions ?

  • comment-avatar
    Thom Scott-Phillips 26 June 2021 (11:36)

    Replies to comments
    Thanks Burt, Hugo & Tiffany for the comments!

    @Burt: Yes, institutions can emerge in many ways, sometimes by design and sometimes by accident (and often by a haphazard mix of the two). I suppose I’m most intrigued by the (somewhat utopian) question of what institutions might look like if we did design them from the perspective I outlined in the blogpost.

    @Hugo: Thanks for the link. I was struck by this line at the end: “Men’s cults are not universal, but they are recurrent throughout history and across cultures. Such institutions are antithetical to the kind of free and open society that many in the West prefer today, yet the historical pervasiveness of the men’s cult tells us something important about evolution and human behavior.” I agree, and I think modern institutional design should defend against these tendencies. Many aspects of liberal democracies help to defend against secret societies and other such phenomena, but can we do even better? I don’t know.

    @Tiffany: Yes, that is a very good question. Many modern societies have climates of trust to some significant extent, despite the fact that the odds of meeting a random stranger twice are low. How & why this climate is sustained isn’t completely clear to me.

  • comment-avatar
    Burt 27 June 2021 (05:19)

    Individual and Group
    Thom, there are several things that seem to me to be involved in “designing” institutions. I make a distinction between the ideas underlying the goal of an institution and the social expression of the institution, the former existing (a) in the minds of individuals and (b) in the expression of these ideas in the social group. There is also the degree of social commitment to actually acting in accord with these ideas, which brings in things like moral and ethical education which would be important aspects if one is trying to design a socially beneficial institution. The six principles you give, I think, are a recipe for a productive democratic society, but also for fragmentation during times of change, unless there is some other factor involved. An external threat is one, but not a great idea because it gives an us vs them split and demonizes the Other. Back in the late 70s a friend was writing his dissertation on intentional communities in the US. I don’t recall much about this, but one thing that stuck was that in general these communities did not last very long unless they had some sort of religious foundation.

  • comment-avatar
    Hal Morris 9 August 2022 (19:03)

    Religion and communes
    Hugo: “In general these communities did not last very long unless they had some sort of religious foundation.” As a historian of the (mostly) early 19c US, I know I’ve encountered that point being made strongly. Any idea if your friends thesis developed into a book, or do you mind dropping their name? I can’t recall the source.

  • comment-avatar
    Hal Morris 10 August 2022 (03:23)

    Agriculture as the first great de-skilling
    I haven’t heard this mentioned before, and wonder if anyone else has. In hunter-gatherer society, I believe knowledge is much more distributed and inseparable from individual bodies. Language results in the ability to build a communal mind; a model of the local terrain that is far more detailed than what any individual creature could get from its own experience. Anyone may contribute an observation. The things that it might be useful to know, as a group, are innumerable. It is a natural setup for the development of diverse non-interchangeable roles. On a smaller scale, the surrounding and capture of prey is facilitated by each individual thinking, able to see from different angles, and communicating what they notice, and maybe calling out a strategy that calls for people assuming roles based on where they are standing. In effect, the prey is up against a beast with half dozen heads and pairs of eyes, and a dozen arms (or more), On the other hand, in early agricultural society, the knowledge required to sustain society is much smaller yet susceptible to central ownership, mystification, doling out on a need-to-know basis., the terrain is legible, and governed by a small set of principals. The transformation resembles that of artisans into factory workers. The support of larger populations exacerbates the tendency for a multitude to be governed by one or a few. The accumulation of food or herds also furnishes motives for larger scale more purposeful warfare which does not encourage democracy.