Category Archives: Cooperation

Cooperate To Compete: The Evolution Of “Ultrasociety”

This overview of Peter Turchin’s new book, Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, is followed by practical applications for your business. (There are also links below to books and articles referenced or mentioned within this post.) 

How did we evolve from small-scale societies of foragers and hunter-gathers into large-scale industrial societies in an evolutionary blip of 10,000 years?

In Ultrasociety, historian Peter Turchin advances a scientific approach to history to identify the causal mechanisms that enabled large-scale society–a strand of research Turchin calls Cliodynamics.

The standard explanation of how large-scale societies evolved from small-scale egalitarian tribes is the advent of agriculture- as proposed by Jared Diamond (1998) in Guns, Germs and Steel. The premise is that agriculture created high population densities as well as production surpluses that enabled hierarchy. “On this premise, agriculture got the ball rolling and the entire history of civilisation followed from that” (p. 20).

However, Turchin argues that this theory is incomplete. Although agriculture was a prerequisite for large-scale society, it is not a sufficient explanation. For example, why would agriculture necessarily lead to the rise of states and costly institutions being implemented, such as bureaucracy, the rule of law, and organized religion? Additionally, agriculture had a markedly negative impact on human health due to agricultural produce providing poorer nutritional value, resulting in smaller stature, more illness and the spread of pathogens through high density settlements.

How did agricultural societies succeed against small-scale hunter-gatherers despite these costs?

Turchin argues that, paradoxically, the main driver of large-scale society has been war. “It is competition and conflict between human groups that drove the transformation of small bands of hunter-gatherers into huge nation-states. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was war that first created despotic, archaic states and then destroyed them, replacing them with better, more equal societies… War is a force of destructive creation, a terrible means to a remarkable end” (p. 22).

The following passage explains the evolutionary logic (pp. 38-39, emphasis added):

“When people first started cultivating plants and settled in permanent villages, war between tribes became more intense. Defeat now could easily result in a loss of land for growing crops, which meant starvation… Because of the consequences of losing were so grave, societies came under great evolutionary pressure to get better at surviving at war. This meant inventing better weapons and armor, building up social cohesion, and adopting better battlefield tactic. But the best thing you could do was simply become a larger group, so that you could bring more battalions to the fight.

 

This inexorable evolutionary logic forced villages to combine into larger-scale societies. These combinations could take the form of loose alliances, more cohesive federations, or centralized, hierarchical chiefdoms… The same evolutionary logic induced chiefdoms to combine in yet larger-scale societies–complex “chiefdoms of chiefdoms.” Those, in turn, scaled up into early states and empires, and eventually into modern nation-states. At every step, greater size was an advantage in the military competition against other societies.”

One must appreciate that although wars between empires and nation states dwarf inter-tribal conflicts in scale, the proportion of people engaged and directly affected by warfare has declined remarkably. Turchin writes: “There is no contradiction between larger armies and larger butcher’s bills from warfare, on the one hand, and on the other, a greater part of the population enjoying peace.” (p. 41).

Cultural Multilevel Selection

The evolutionary theory advanced by Turchin to explain why we humans are the world’s champion cooperators is cultural multilevel selection

Multilevel selection (also known as group selection) is a theory in evolutionary biology proposing that natural selection acts at the level of the group, instead of at the more conventional level of the individual. There is some controversy about group selection. However, the ‘game-changer’ is applying multilevel selection to cultural evolutionas opposed to genetic evolution. As stated by Turchin; “[…][T]he most important point is that the evolution of cooperation is driven by competition between groups. These groups can be teams, coalitions, even aggregations without any clear boundaries, or whole societies. No matter what form groups take, it is competition on the collective scale that is necessary for cooperation to evolve. We cooperate to compete” (p. 93).

A troubling implication of cultural group selection is that in the absence of an external threat, the level of selection moves to within the group, causing cooperation to erode and inequality to rise. The spirit of ‘we are all in the same boat’ disappears and is replaced by a ‘winner takes all’ mentality, resulting in growing social dysfunction and in extreme cases, societal collapse. As stated by the historian Arnold Toynbee, “great civilisations are not murdered–they die by suicide” (quoted pp. 42-43).

A thought-provoking analysis of American politics is provided in Ultrasociety, arguing that rising income inequality and political polarisation since the 1970s indicates that the US has become a dysfunctional state (bear in mind Ulitrasociety was written before the rise of Donald Trump). Similarly, Turchin also links the rise of extreme individualism in the US and elsewhere to the increase in corporate scandals during the early 2000s, and to “the greatest case of corporate hubris and fraud–the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08” (p. 51).

Let’s explore a case study from Ultrasociety–the Enron scandal.

The Enron Scandal

Jeff Skilling was widely regarded as a business genius. An executive at Enron who worked closely with Skilling called him “the smartest son of bitch I’ve ever met.” (Bryce, 2002, p. 47, cited p. 45). Skilling obtained an MBA from Harvard, graduating in the top five percent of his class. He went on to become a management consultant at McKinsey, becoming one of the youngest partners in the firm’s history. He joined Enron in 1990 and was promoted to president and Chief Financial Officer in 1997, becoming CEO in 2001.

Smart Skilling may be. However, Skilling held a warped view of evolutionary theory, which Turchin suggests sowed the seeds of disaster.

The story of the Enron scandal is well known. Enron went under in 2001, with its shareholders losing tens of billions of dollars and 20,000 employees not only losing their jobs but their entire life savings. Its top executives ended up in prison, where Skilling is still serving his sentence.

Although other Enron executives bear responsibility for Enron’s failure, Skilling was widely seen as the company’s visionary. Turchin argues that the managerial system Skilling created turned Enron into an “an epic of corporate greed, fraud, and corruption” (p. 46).

Jeff Skilling famously claimed that Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene was his favourite book (see Conniff, 2006). Although Turchin argues that The Selfish Gene was flawed and caused significant harm, Dawkins’ classic work has arguably been widely misinterpreted (for example, selfish genes don’t necessarily make selfish people).

Skilling took his variant of Social Darwinism and applied it to increase competition within Enron, enacting systems such as the Performance Review Committee–colloquially known as ‘Rank-and-Yank’. Skilling recruited hundreds of newly minted MBAs from the leading business schools every year, and fired the bottom fifteen percent of performers whilst lavishly rewarding the top five percent of performers.

Skilling told reporters that the PRC was “the glue that holds the company together.” Turchin argues that Skilling couldn’t have been more wrong. “The PRC wasn’t glue. It was poison” (p. 46).

As one former employee said; “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stamp on the guy’s throat” (Johnson, 2009, quoted p. 46).

Turchin summarizes the Enron scandal eloquently (p. 47):

“It is cooperation that underlies the ability of human groups and whole societies to achieve their shared goals. This is true for all kinds of groups, for economic organizations, firms and corporations, as well as for political organisations, such as states. But what Skilling did at Enron was to foster within-group competition, which bred mutual distrust and back-stabbing (if not throat-stomping). In other words, Skilling completely destroyed any willingness among his employees to cooperate–not with each other, not with their bosses, not with the company itself. And after that, collapse was inevitable.”

What is the relevance to your business?

With the benefit of hindsight, corporate scandals at notorious firms may seem obvious. However, the Enron scandal took the world by surprise. Fortune Magazine named Enron ‘America’s Most Innovative Company’ for six years in a row. Enron is not an isolated case. For example, Lehman Brothers was ranked #1 ‘Most Inspired Securities Firm’ in 2007–less than a year before its collapse. With the prevalence of corporate management systems encouraging intra-organizational competition, one must ask where the next corporate scandal will arise. As stated by Turchin; “It looks like Fortune doesn’t learn from its mistakes” (p. 51).

The business implications of all this should be clear: enact business policies that reduce inequality, foster an organizational culture that promotes cooperation, and suppress internal competition. As stated by Turchin (p. 93):

“As a corollary, while competition between teams create cooperation, competition among players within a team destroys it. In other words, to succeed, cooperative groups must suppress internal competition. Equality of group members is, therefore, a very important factor in promoting group cohesion and cooperation, which translates into the capacity of the group to win against other groups. This insight…should be intuitively obvious. Yet it is not. At least, it is not obvious to the majority of corporate managers, nor the owners of professional sports teams.”

I’ll wrap up this post with a few of my own suggestions–suggestions I hope you’ll find helpful for your business:

1. Reduce the discrepancy in employees’ basic pay, and increase compensation from bonuses linked to company (or team) performance.

 

2. During difficult times, it’s wise to appreciate the adverse impact mass redundancies have on group cohesion and consider alternative paths of action, such as organization-wide pay cuts. Employees may be prepared to accept change if the alternative is job losses.

 

3. Democratize team meetings so that all members are able to have their voices heard, and enable bottom-up communication processes that feed directly to senior leaders.

 

4. Also, make sure your leaders are visible and approachable. Make a priority what Nigel Nicholson calls ‘Managing By Wandering Around’ (see Nicholson, 2014). If you’re a leader, take the time to walk around and speak with employees in various contexts, and make them feel “we’re all in this together.” Don’t segregate yourself.

 

5. Similarly, make sure the amount of physical space allocated to senior management within the company is equitable and doesn’t trigger indignation (in other words, that your offices don’t resemble Enron’s headquarters).

This post was originally written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business. To buy a copy of Ultrasociety, click here

References

Bryce, R. (2002) Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of EnronPublic Affairs, New York

Conniff, R. (2006) “Animal Instincts”, The Guardian. Available here

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press

Diamond, J. M. (1998). Guns, Germs, and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Random House

Johnson, E.M. (2009) “Survival of the Kindest”, Seed Magazine. Available here 

Pinker, S. (2012) “The false allure of group selection”, Edge. Available here

Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: A history of violence and humanity. Penguin

Nicholson, N. (2014) The ‘I’ of LeadershipJoey-Bass

 

The Evolution Of Shame: Why Shame Is Adaptive

In The Boston Globe, Megan Scudellari reports on recent research by UCSB evolutionary psychologist Daniel Sznycer and his colleagues on shame:

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers argue that shame evolved as a defense to prevent individuals from damaging important social relationships.

 

“When people find out negative things about you — say, that you steal or are physically weak or sexually unfaithful — this causes them to be less helpful and more exploitative toward you,” says study author Daniel Sznycer, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California Santa Barbara.

 

That could be a threat to one’s welfare and success in life — especially back in early human hunter-gatherer social groups. It is possible therefore that humans evolved shame as a way to defend themselves by avoiding or concealing things that would make others devalue them.

 

To test this “defense” hypothesis of shame, Sznycer and colleagues recruited over 900 adults across the US, India, and Israel to answer questions about two dozen fictional scenarios. Each scenario depicted traits expected to invoke shame, such as stinginess, infidelity, and physical weakness.

 

They asked one set of participants to report — on a scale of 1 to 7 — how much shame they would feel if they themselves were committing the act in the scenario, such as stealing money from another person. People in a second group were asked to be observers, and to rate how negatively they would view the offending person. How would they feel, for example, about a person they spotted stealing money?

 

In similar experiments, the team gauged individuals’ feelings of sadness and anxiety in response to each scenario.

 

If shame is, in fact, a defense against the judgment of others, the researchers expected the intensity of shame felt in the first group to match up with the intensity of negative perception, or “devaluation,” of the second group. Such a match would suggest shame evolved to deal with the threat of being devalued by one’s peers.

 

That is exactly what they found. “The shame scores in each of the three countries were very highly correlated with the magnitude of devaluation of those in the audience situation,” says Sznycer. Morever, feelings of anxiety and sadness did not match up, supporting the idea that shame evolved as a defense against being devalued.

 

The findings suggest that shame is an innate emotion that evolved across different cultures, and that it is an evolved, rational trait designed to protect the individual.

Supplemental information about the study is here.

More from Daniel Sznycer about his research and thinking on shame (from his UCSB page):

The psychology of shame.

Ancestrally, the degree to which other people valued one’s welfare would have affected one’s access to resources such as food, mates, and support in times of conflict. Becoming less socially valuable would have entailed fitness costs. This adaptive problem is expected to have shaped adaptations for decreasing the likelihood and the costs of being socially devalued. We proposed that one such adaptation is the emotion of shame. Using this basic functional framework, and in collaboration with John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, I developed a theory of shame—the information threat theory of shame (ITTS)—and tested predictions derived from it.

 

Failing to deploy countermeasures against devaluation when one is devalued is a costly mistake. Deploying shame measures when one is not devalued is another type of mistake. Thus, effective shame countermeasures require an understanding of what does and does not elicit devaluation. In fact, we found a strong match between the extent to which a particular situation elicits devaluation on one hand (audience’s perspective) and shame on the other (discredited individual’s perspective).

 

According to the ITTS, what counts as socially valuable differs from domain to domain. For example, in the domain of cooperation, a track record of reciprocating is viewed favorably. In the domain of mating, value is indexed by things such as cues of fertility and pathogen-resistance. Consistent with this, we obtained evidence that both the elicitors and the motivational responses of shame vary across domains.

 

The more a discrediting piece of information becomes widely known, the stronger the shame response is expected to be. Supporting this ITTS prediction, we discovered that the extent of publicity of a discrediting behavior modulates the intensity of shame—but not the intensity of guilt.

 

The ITTS was also instrumental in making functional sense of cultural differences in shame. The cost of being devalued by an existing relationship partner can be attenuated by forming alternative relationships. Therefore, cultures where opportunities to build new relationships are perceived as being scarce are expected to also display higher proneness to shame—and vice versa. In collaboration with Kosuke Takemura, Andy Delton, Kosuke Sato, Tess Robertson, Leda Cosmides, & John Tooby, we found evidence supporting this prediction among American, English, and Japanese subjects.