Cultural evolution can solve complex adaptive problems. However, the functions of cultural beliefs are often unclear to those who hold the beliefs. To benefit from cultural evolution’s ability to provide solutions to problems, learners must therefore be credulous. However, credulity entails costs, including susceptibility to exploitation, and wasted effort due to false beliefs. One factor influencing the optimal level of credulity is the ratio between the costs of two types of errors: erroneous incredulity (failing to believe information that is true) and erroneous credulity (believing information that is false). This ratio will often be asymmetric when information concerns hazards, as the costs of erroneous incredulity will often be larger than the costs of erroneous credulity; no equivalent asymmetry will generally characterize information about benefits. Natural selection can therefore be expected to have crafted learners’ minds to be more credulous toward information concerning hazards. At the level of whole societies, negatively-biased credulity should shape cultural evolution via the aggregated effects of learners’ differential retention and transmission of information. At the level of individuals, because hazards often co-occur, the extent of this bias should be attuned to perceptions of how dangerous the world is, leading to individual differences in negatively-biased credulity. Lastly, because perceptions regarding the dangerousness of the world differ between social conservatives and social liberals, social conservatives should display greater negatively-biased credulity than social liberals. I will present results from a variety of studies supporting the above predictions.
Daniel M.T. Fessler is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute. Combining anthropological, psychological, and biological theories and methods, Fessler approaches a variety of aspects of human behavior, experience, and health from an integrative perspective in which humans are viewed as both the products of complex evolutionary processes and the possessors of acquired cultural idea systems and behavioral patterns. With particular attention to underlying affective and cognitive factors, his research examines credulity and information transmission; prosociality and cooperation; conflict, aggression, and risk-taking; morality; and disease avoidance. Projects range from the effects of war on cooperation among Israeli noncombatants to the psychological determinants of prophylactic behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Host: Muhao Chen, POC: Amy Feng
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