April 27, 2009

Why We Believe in Gods - Evolutionary Psychology and Religion

There was a lecture recently posted on richarddawkins.net (though I found out about it through pharyngula) that might be of interest for some of you.

It's a talk by Dr. Andy Thomson, (a psychiatrist from back home in Virginia!) concerning religion from the perspective of evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. It's quite a nice (and I think convincing) lecture. Essentially, his thesis is that religion is a cultural artifact or byproduct (like music) that has hijacked specific traits/modules in our brains that once provided a selective advantage for living in a social world (SCI anyone?). Of course, I cannot do his argument justice. You will have to watch it (if you haven't already) and decide for yourself. Though, remember, it's a normal academic talk . . . so it's about an hour long . . . but there's a brief Q&A near the end. The video is posted below, check it out and see what you think:


By the by, if you are not all video-ed out and you have some interest in that work by Simon Baron-Cohen, which Thomson mentioned, then check this video from the Edge website out! Besides being the brother of Sacha Baron-Cohen, Simon is a brilliant psychologist from the University of Cambridge. His work mostly concerns research on autism and theory of mind. The talk posted on the Edge site is about his experiments on how people can read the emotional expressions of others just by looking at their eyes. Specifically, he's examining sex differences on whether women can read emotional expressions from people's eyes quicker than men.

Well, that's about it. There's your two for one! Enjoy!

April 24, 2009


This week’s readings on the self seemed to concern a more classic topic than previous weeks, and that is the idea of self-presentation. In general, we like to manage the impressions that we give to others. We like to appear favorable. As well, we’ll even manipulate the impressions of others to make them appear unfavorable. For instance, Gilbert and Silvera found that people will try to hinder others by “overhelping” them. If a target person that we do not favor is performing on a task that is rather simple, or easily performed, we’ll likely help this person achieve his/her goal in order to undermine his/her competence. So, in effect, the target person will seem incompetent because he/she received help on an easy task.

Not to sound repetitive, but self-presentation makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, especially if Kurzban’s idea of the self (the SCI) is an accurate representation of reality. If the self is a collection of modules that help us function in a social world, by manipulating others, then self-presentation fits in as one tool we use to manipulate others. As I stated before, we manipulate the representations of ourselves to appear favorable to others, and we manipulate the representations of others to make them appear less favorable. An important motive that seems to be behind self-presentation is belongingness and acceptance, but it is by no means the only motive. As the SCI would predict, the activation of multiple modules will differentially affect self-presentation. In support of this notion, Griskevicius et al. found that activating self-protection versus mating goals will differentially affect whether we conform to a group or not. When people are primed with self-protection goals, they generally conform to group attitudes/norms. This is because fitting in with groups often proved to be beneficial for protection. At the same time, priming men with mate goals will make them less likely to conform to group attitudes, as being perceived as independent and differentiated from the group could potentially lead to greater reproductive success. Women on the other hand were more likely to conform, as agreeableness is often cited as a sought after quality from men. I do wonder which goal would have precedence over the other though. If self-protection and mate goals were each activated simultaneously, how would that affect conformity? Would people be more likely to conform because self-protection goals are stronger?

We also learned that self-presentation seems to depend on self-regulatory energy. It takes energy to control our self representations, as well, when our energy has been depleted, we are less likely to control them. Interestingly, representations that are familiar (overly practiced) do not deplete regulatory energy. For instance, obeying gender rules is usually familiar to us, so it doesn’t take energy to obey them. This is very reminiscent of the formation of implementation intentions, and lends support to the notion that perhaps forming implementations intentions will not endanger one to becoming thoroughly depleted. Thinking back on the Griskevicius work, it must take energy to not conform to group behavior. Will the activation of mate goals be hindered by regulatory depletion? Or will the mate goals be so familiar that their effects on self-regulation be minimal? Just some questions to think about I guess.

Citations for further reading:

Cialdini, R.B., & De Nicholas, M.E. (1989). Self-presentation by association. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 57, 626-631.

Gilbert, D.T.,, & Silvera, D.H. (1996). Overhelping. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 70, 678-690.

Griskevicius, V., Goldstein, N.J., Mortensen, C.R., Cialdini, R.B., & Kenrick, D.T. (2006). Going along versus going alone: When fundamental motives facilitate strategic (non)conformity. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 91, 63-76.

Tice, D.M. (1992). Self-concept change and self-presentation: The looking-glass self is also a magnifying glass. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 63, 435-451.

Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F., & Ciarocco, N.J. (2005). Self-regulation and self-presentation: Regulatory resource depletion impairs impression management and effortful self-presentation depletes regulatory resources. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 88, 632-657.

April 18, 2009

Social Neuroscience and the Self

The studies from this week’s readings examined the self from a social neuroscience perspective. There were some pretty interesting findings in general, but I think the most important implication of all the studies is that the “self” can be linked back to physical/biological structures. For instance, Gailliot (along with my advisor and their colleagues) observed that acts of self-regulation actually deplete blood glucose levels. And Kelley et al. even found that self-referential (comparing traits to ourselves) thought is related to the deactivation of unique areas of the brain (the medial prefrontal cortex). It’s possible that this area is related to the processing of unique self-knowledge. These findings help remove the self from just being some abstract, theoretical concept, and instead shows how the self is linked to our evolutionary development.

We can also view threats against the self through brain imaging. Eisenberger et al. have shown that social exclusion is linked with activation of the same brain areas that are activated for physical pain. This has significant implications for how important belongingness was for us during our evolutionary development. Our social pain system has co-opted the physical pain system. When we feel exclusion, we really feel pained. It makes sense. Not only is having one pain system suited to deal similarly with physical and social pain more efficient/resourceful, but feeling pained after exclusion is a good way to motivate one to avoid social exclusion. It’s likely that those early humans who were not motivated to avoid exclusion were at a significant survival disadvantage. I think that this also goes in hand with Kurzban’s perspective of the self, in that the self-system evolved in order for us to succeed socially. I wonder then if those self-referential areas (the MPFC) in the brain developed at the same time as when the social pain system started to co-opt the physical pain system.

Another cool finding came from Neiss et al., who were able to link the relationship between self-esteem, executive function and negative affect to genetic influences. Generally, they found that people with low self-esteem had greater negative affect. As well, people with low executive function (self-regulation) had greater negative affect. And they also found that the relationship between self-esteem and affect mediated the self-regulation/affect link. Lastly, genetic factors accounted for a significant portion of variance (38 - 44%) in self-esteem, executive function and negative affect, though the largest contributing factor was due to the non-shared environment. Overall, they concluded that the executive self did not display a genetic or environmental link with negative affect above that shared with self-esteem. This makes sense to me from the sociometer/SCI perspective as well. If we developed our sense of self as a means for succeeding socially, and our self-esteem acts as a guage for our social worth, then negative feelings that come out of an inability to self-regulate should only arise when the regulation issue is connected to social worth (which will be gauged by the self-esteem). So when our self-regulation is low, and we have increased negative affect, it should be because our self-esteem is low too. Very cool.

There is one comment that I have wondered about though. They stated that genetic influences explain 30 – 50 % of the variance in self-esteem usually. I wonder what implications this has for the sociometer hypothesis. If self-esteem is just a guage for our social worth, then I would hypothesize that most of the variance in self-esteem (if not all) would be explained by non-shared environmental factors (i.e., whether we’ve been threatened with exclusion).

Citations for further reading:

Eisenberger, N.I., Liberman, M.D., & Williams, K.D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290 - 292.

Gailliot, M.T., Baumeister, R.F., DeWall, C.N., Maner, J.K., Plant, E.A., Tice, D.M., Brewer, L.E., & Schmeichel, B.J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 325-336.

Kelley, W.M., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C.L., Caglar, S., Inati, S., and Heatherton, T.F. (2003). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Neiss, M.B., Stevenson, J., Sedikides, C., Kumashiro, M., Finkel, E., & Rusbult, C.E. (2005). Executive self, self-esteem, and negative affectivity: Relations at the phenotypic and genotypic level. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 4, 593– 606.

April 4, 2009

the implicit self

This past week’s readings on the self concerned the implicit or automatic self. The implicit/automatic self are those self-evaluations and goals that are most practiced and evaluated. Those representations are activated so often that they eventually become ingrained into the unconscious and become automated. This idea of the implicit self is related to the concept of the adaptive unconscious. We do not have the cognitive resources to deal with all the stimuli that we are presented with in our environment. Instead the unconscious takes on much of the workload.

It seems that much of our behavior is guided by goals that are outside of our conscious awareness. Once non-conscious goals are activated by the outside world, we are motivated to pursue those goals. Take the above picture for example. Cats are predatory animals and often like to attack birds among other things. This goal is activated so often that it's unconscious (and in the cat's case, probably instinctual). Nonetheless, when the cat's goal of attacking birds is activated, it strikes, even though the chicken (or rooster or whatever) is so much bigger. This is just an example that I'm using, but that's pretty much how non-conscious goals work for humans. Activation of non-conscious goals even help us persist in the face of obstacles. Such evidence seems to support the prior argument for forming implementation intentions.
For implementation intentions, one would form and practice a self-regulation goal until it is automated. Then once that goal is activated, he/she would be guided to pursue that goal (self-regulate). This idea is even more interesting, after reading up on non-conscious goal pursuit. If non-conscious goals are formed when one does not have the cognitive resources to pursue the goal consciously, and they make you persist in the face of obstacles, then perhaps implementation intentions really do have a minimal effect on regulatory resources. Though, I still think that it would take some energy to complete the goal and am not convinced that non-conscious goal pursuit would not deplete self-regulatory resources at all.

On another note, our implicit associations seem to have a strong effect on our behavior. For instance, for the most part, we like ourselves, so much so that we hold positive implicit self-associations. These associations make us favor things that resemble the self. People are more likely to live in cities that resemble their names. We’re more likely to favor people who have the same birthday as us. We’re even more likely to prefer teas, crackers, chocolates, etc. that share letters with our names. Additionally, when our self-worth is threatened, we compensate by having higher implicit self-esteem.

The implicit self is separate from the explicit self. In fact, Rudman et al. explained that “the picture that emerges is not of a unitary self, but of one composed of multiple subsystems that can operate in tandem or apart.” This is very interesting to me. It is remarkably similar to the Social Cognitive Interface theory of the self, which states that the self is a collection of cognitive modules that help us navigate the social world, but their actions are outside of our conscious awareness. I think the evidence from the research on implicit egotism and self-esteem are congruent with predictions from the SCI perspective. It would make sense that we would unconsciously seek out, and prefer things that are similar to us. People who are similar to us are probably more likely to accept us. Also, often times when we are threatened, we unconsciously compensate by gaining in implicit self-esteem. This compensation leads to an increased intergroup bias. Essentially, we’ll be more likely to favor groups that we are a part of. This, again, makes sense from the SCI perspective. In the evolutionary past, if we were threatened, it would be better to seek out the groups that we belonged to for protection. Of course, this increased intergroup bias has negative social side-effects for groups we are not a part of. This is more of a problem in modern times because different groups live in such close proximity to each other now. I think this issue would be good to explore further.

Citations for further reading:

Bargh, J. A., Gollwitzer, P. M., Lee-Chai, A., Barndollar, K., Trotschel, R. (2001). The automated will: Nonconscious activation and pursuit of behavioral goals. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 81, 1014 – 1027.

Fitzsimons, G. M., & Bargh, J. A. (2003). Thinking of you: Nonconscious pursuit of interpersonal goals associated with relationship partners. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 84, 148 – 164.

Koole, S. L., Dijksterhuis, A., & Knippenberg, A. (2001). What’s in a name: Implicit self-esteem and the automatic self. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 80, 669 – 685.

Pelham, B. W., Carvallo, M., & Jones, J. T. (2005). Implicit egotism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 106 – 110.

Rudman, L., Dohn, M. C., & Fairchild, K. (2007). Implicit self-esteem compensation: Automatic threat defense. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 798 – 813.