BP Oil Spill – why we care

A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

Behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely’s interesting website has a question about why we seem to care so much about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when we don’t seem to care as much about other big environmental disasters such as the ongoing destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Some good points are raised, including some fairly obvious ones

  • the Gulf is nearer to the US,
  • there was a definite starting point for the oil spill,
  • there are clearly defined bad guys,
  • etc.

All of these kinds of explanation lend themselves very well to analysis on the basis of bounded rationality – we make use of cognitive biases to organise ourselves and these biases aren’t very rational, or are rational only in a limited way. For example, it is somewhat rational to be concerned about environmental problems close to home, but it would be more rational (if that’s possible) to be concerned also about distant problems since they may still have a local impact. Indeed, even for a resident of Louisiana it’s possible that the destruction of the Amazon could be more significant than the oil spill – not in terms of column inches perhaps but in many other ways.

But here I want to put concern about the oil spill in anthropological context and suggest it’s about pollution. Continue reading “BP Oil Spill – why we care”


It’s OK if you don’t know everything

“We rarely know an explicit formula that tells us what to do in a complex situation. We have to work out what to do by thinking through the possibilities in ways that are simultaneously imaginative and realistic, and not less imaginative when more realistic. Knowledge, far from limiting imagination, enables it to serve its central function.”

“Sometimes the only honest response to a question is “I don’t know.” In recognizing that, one may rely just as much on imagination, because one needs it to determine that several competing hypotheses are equally compatible with one’s evidence.”
– Timothy Williamson, Reclaiming the Imagination

It’s OK if you don’t know everything…

Now read: how do we know what we think we know?

Is God a blank slate?

chicken egg and hand
Image via Wikipedia

Dan Ariely, behavioural psychologist, reports on research that concludes that we select our view of God’s opinions to fit with our own. It seems that as our own opinions change so does our description of God’s opinions. The conclusion then is that God is a blank slate, onto which we project our opinions.

“Overall these results suggest that God is a blank slate onto which we project whatever we choose to. We join religious communities that argue for our viewpoint and we interpret religious readings to support our personal positions.”

You can read more at Creating God in our own image.

It’s a great research project, but the trouble with such conclusions is that personal opinions tend to suffer from chicken and egg syndrome. Which came first, the opinion or the opinion-holder?

Methodological individualism tends to isolate the individual from outside influences. On this model the opinion-holder is prior and somehow selects their opinions from some kind of smorgasbord of opinions. The opposite view seems more explanatory of people’s religious views: we are born into communities of opinion and our communities shape us in their image. We can, for sure, dissent, but then we are dissenters.

Americans tend to see religion as a choice, but this is unsurprising since that country has more religions than any other. American culture almost forbids a view of  religious affiliation as determined – and this is one of its determining features.  I don’t just have opinions: I was given them by my environment.The environment given – mandated –  by America is one of religious choice.

But I didn’t just come up with my views on xyz out of thin air. Rather I was educated, raised, trained, tutored. Heck, I even learnt a few things for myself by means of life experience. In other words there’s no such thing as me independently of my God-concept. There is only a me-God nexus and we mutually reinforce one another’s understanding of the world.

The locus of concepts such as God isn’t entirely within the individual but is supra-individual or trans-individual. I don’t deny the import of the research referred to. I recently re-read Anne Lamott’s great line in Bird by Bird:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

However, it’s reasonable to be sceptical of the  assumption that whereas God is supposedly a blank slate, we ourselves are not and never have been. There’s a clue in the title of Prof Ariely’s blog post, creating God in our own image: we collectively (somehow) create God in our own image.

We’re in it together, or as Hilary Clinton never said, it takes a village to raise a deity.

The original research, by Nicholas Epley, Benjamin Converse, Alexa Delbosc, George Monteleone and John Cacioppo, is here. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/51/21533.full.pdf+html?sid=c9b4ab06-bf09-439e-b53a-e409619de735

Which of my identities takes precedence?

Mort recently asked the following:

Where does cultural cognition reside?Is it within the individual or their cultural environ – the social assumptions and influences that we are surrounded by?
Which of my identities takes precedence, me the autonomous decision maker, or me the social role?

Thanks for reading and for your encouragement Mort. I think your question is very important. Much of our discussion about human interaction assumes the basic unit is the individual, somehow isolated from their environment. Economics has been particularly successful at describing the world in terms of the utility-maximising rational individual. Psychology has progressed on the assumption that much of what matters about human behaviour is to be found inside individual brains. As a broadly sociological theory , though, Cultural Theory is compatible with the sociological idea that the basic unit of study is not the individual alone, but the person-in-relationship. In other words it is held that what is distinctive is our connections, that without taking account of my context I can hardly make sense of ‘me’. For a long time this was problematic – there were many debates about the relative significance of ‘structure’ (the context) and ‘agency’ (the actions of people in, and sometimes in spite of, that context). Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory was just one of many attempts to connect the vision of the individual with the vision of the social. Most were rather unsatisfactory. A few changes in the last decade or so have shifted these debates quite dramatically.
First there is the rise of social network theory. This studies the links between people and has lately grown in importance. You can see that if you study the links you no longer ask ‘is it the individual or the group that matters?’ Studying the ties, the relationships, tells us something about both the groups and the individuals that we wouldn’t have grasped otherwise.
Second, there is the rise of evolutionary psychology. This argues that some of what we previously took to be humans making choices about their circumstances can actually be explained in biological terms. But note that just as it takes some of the explanatory power away from ‘society’, it also offers new scope for social factors to be influencing biology, for if adaptation is a key mechanism, then the environment of evolutionary adaptedness is a central consideration.
Third, sitting within this biologocal turn, but worth noting in its own right is the advance of game theory. This has shown that mechanisms other than genetic heredity and mutation can impact on evolution. Games are entirely social/relational and not biological, and yet they have the capacity to influence biology through evolution.
Each of these frameworks of research is reconfiguring, sometimes quite radically, our ideas about what makes up the ‘individual’ and what makes up the ‘social’. Many of our ideas from the past are no longer viable and we are still coming to terms with this. But also, many of these new ideas are contested within their own fields and many issues are far from settled.
Grid-group cultural theory was developed before some of the importance of these big shifts became apparent and basically sits within what evolutionary psychologists like to to call the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), which they challenge. My own view is that it can make a distinctive contribution. I am exploring the idea that the four cultures described by Mary Douglas, her collaborators and followers can be reframed as examples of ‘ecologically adaptive heuristics’ as described by psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer.

Further, as I have previously written:

there surely is an important and little understood link between the human and the natural sciences to which Cultural Theory may contribute something. I’m pretty certain it has something reasonably substantial to contribute to what Paul E Griffiths and Karola Stotz call ‘biohumanities‘. My hunch, further, is that grid-group cultural theory might be open to game-theoretical modelling, and that this would then offer something to evolutionary theory, in the way that Axelrod’s evolution of cooperation did. Specifically it might further develop some of the ideas of Brian Skyrms on the Stag Hunt and the evolution of culture.

There is a good summary of Douglas and Ney’s Missing Persons (1998), which points to some of this.

And since you mentioned coutural cognition, you should go straight to the fount of wisdom on this: The Cultural Cognition Project.

Do genes drive culture? New developments in culture-gene coevolutionary theory

A recently published  research paper lends support to the idea that genes and culture influence one another mutually, effectively co-evolving. A link has been proposed between the collectivism-individualism scale of national cultures and a gene that affects the supply of seratonin to the body, the seratonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. A media-friendly summary of the research is available. On the background to biocultural anthropology see Bindon (2007).

The method used for measuring culture is interesting and fairly well documented (Hofstede 2001; Hofstede and McRae 2004). The individualism-collectivism scale is similar to the ‘group’ dimension in Grid-Group Cultural Theory.

This leads to a number of questions:

  1. If 5-HTTLPR can be seen as a ‘group’ gene (i.e. its prevalence is correlated with a communal rather than individual culture), does this mean we should now be looking for a ‘grid’ gene, to confirm or deny the typology of Cultural Theory? To be specific, the individualist-collectivist scale only allows for one type of collectivist culture (ie. collectivist) whereas from a Cultural Theory perspective there is clearly more than one basic type, namely Hierarchical collectivism (high grid) and Egalitarian collectivism (low grid). It is hard to say prima facie that these two types are so similar to one another that no further distinction needs to be made. The same goes for the two types of individualist cultural bias, Fatalist (high grid) and Individualist (low grid).
  2. Or, if the group dimension needs to be augmented with the grid dimension, what does this mean for the results of a study that claims to have described regional cultures in terms of only one dimension? It was anthropologist Mary Douglas’s claim that the group dimension, individualism-collectivism, was not on its own enough to describe cultural biases, and that a fourfold typology was necessary. If this is so, we could hypothesise that in the seratonin study, there will be interference caused by the unexamined ‘grid’ dimension, that needs to be controlled for, or otherwise accounted for.
  3. The argument of the paper is strongly functionalist. That is, culture is seen to have a clear function in relation to the mental health and genetic makeup of individuals, and reciprocally, genetic makeup is seen to have a function in relation to mental health within its cultural context.  This seems to have implications for the ways in which Grid-group cultural theory might develop in engagement with genetic and other biological studies of this kind.
  4. The paper also accepts fairly uncritically the claim of ‘cultural consonance’, that where individuals, in their own beliefs and behaviours, conform to widely shared cultural models, there is a lower incidence of psychological distress (Dressler et al. 2007). I’m concerned about the normative implications of such a claim, that cultural consonance (and possibly cultural conformity) might be seen as desirable because it reduces psychological distress. This contrasts with, for instance, Robert K Merton’s views of deviance, in which besides conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion are alternative was of engaging with cultural norms and goals.


Bindon, James R. (2007). “Biocultural linkages — cultural consensus, cultural consonance, and human biological research”. Collegium Antropologicum 31: 3–10.

Joan Y. Chiao and Katherine D. Blizinsky
Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene Proc. R. Soc. B published online before print October 28, 2009, doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1650

Dressler, William W., Mauro C. Balieiro, Rosane P. Ribeiro and José Ernesto Dos Santos (2007) Cultural consonance and psychological distress: examining the associations in multiple cultural domains. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Volume 31, Issue 2, 195 – 224.

Hofstede, G (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hofstede, G. & McCrae, R. (2004) Personality and culture revisited: linking traits and dimensions of culture. Cross-Cult. Res. 38, 52–88.

The beetroot lesson – the politics of disgust


Martha Nussbaum has recently written a second book on the connections between visceral feelings of disgust and more abstract responses of indignation. As one commentator put it:

‘disgust can’t be reasoned with. Logical arguments do not make spoiled milk smell better.’

[Image: Darwin Bell]

I think this is precisely wrong. As a child I hated beetroot with a passion. But I convinced myself that if someone in the world liked it there must be something to like. After persisting, I found I not only liked beetroot – I loved it, and still do to this day. Happily the first time I tasted an olive I remembered the beetroot lesson and all was well. As it turns out, disgust can be reasoned with. And further, logical arguments do in fact make spoiled milk smell better. Here’s my logical argument: it’s sour cream. Continue reading “The beetroot lesson – the politics of disgust”

Two kinds of tales, one true and one false

More on truth and lies:

‘There are two kinds of tales, one true and one false,’ Socrates claims in Plato’s Republic (trans A.D. Lindsay, 1935, London: Dent, p. 376).

‘The depth of consciousness created by the exercise of the arts of deception is the first arena for the practice of that dissimulation proper to the life of human intelligence. The same spirit permeates other expositions, for instance that of Karl Popper, who equates the capacity to lie with the capacity to imagine: the power to imagine other things, to negate, and thereby to create fiction, even hypothesis – and thence to create science’. (John Forrester 1997 Truth Games: Lies, Money, and Psychoanalysis, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 9)

What, according to Nietszche, the Greeks admired in Odysseus;

‘his capacity for lying, and for cunning, his ability to be, when need be, whatever he chose’ (Frederich Nietzsche 1974 The Gay Science, trans Walter Kaufman, New York: Random House, p. 156).

These quotations are to be found in :

Linda Neil (2009) Beautiful lies my father told me. TEXT Special Issue No 5 The Art of the Real April

Now read: Truth and Lies

Truth and Lies

Research such as this, exposing just how much we lie, surely calls into question Jurgen Habermas’s idea that speech is fundamentally oriented towards truth- telling.

Habermas seems to claim that truth precedes falsehood in the sense that lying can only take place against a background assumption of truth. In other words, we only lie with the intention of persuading the hearer we are telling the truth.

But isn’t the inverse possible too, that truth-telling can only take place against a background assumption of fiction? Surely we are aware that of the many, many things that language enables us to say, only a small subset of them is actually true? For this reason I think the ideal speech act is not the truth but the story.

It seems much more likely that the truth is no more than a subset of all the things it is possible to say. Language is no more concerned with ethics than art is (that is, it can be, but doesn’t have to be). In my opinion the ideal speech act is fiction.


Robert Feldman 2009 The Liar In Your Life: How Lies Work And What They Tell Us About Ourselves, London: Virgin Books.

Read more: Australian bushfires as a ‘Truth event’

Chaos theory and fourcultures

More on Chaos theory, evolution and fourcultures.

Meika recently posted a piece about brain research, bias and chaos theory.

And DK asked:

How does chaos complicate or enrich evolutionary theory in biology? How does the nonlinearity that chaos features interact with mutation/drift/natural selection? Is there a canonical text (or at least something authoritative & comprehensive) on this?

I think one of the key texts on this subject is going to be Continue reading “Chaos theory and fourcultures”

East meets West: are there just two cultures?

New Scientist has an article by Ed Yong on the dichotomy between eastern and western thought.

But there are more than two alternatives (western/individualist/analytic vs eastern/collective/holistic)… Continue reading “East meets West: are there just two cultures?”