Re: Memes and evolutionary psychology

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue 24 Dec 2002 - 00:56:02 GMT

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    (Re life threatening cult memes)

    Why are (at least some) humans highly susceptible?

             To answer this question I must digress far into evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology (EP) grew out of the same background as sociobiology. EP is based on the simple concept that our minds have been shaped no less than our bodies by evolution. Because evolution acts slowly, our psychological characteristics today are those that promoted reproductive success in the ancestral environment, i.e., our race's millions of years of living as social primates in tribes and small villages. EP asserts that our psychological traits are the constructs of genes that were selected in the ancestral environment.
    "The goal of research in evolutionary psychology is to discover and understand the design of the human mind. Evolutionary psychology is an approach to psychology, in which knowledge and principles from evolutionary biology are put to use in research on the structure of the human mind. It is not an area of study, like vision, reasoning, or social behaviour. It is a way of thinking about psychology that can be applied to any topic within it.

    In this view, the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This way of thinking about the brain, mind, and behaviour is changing how scientists approach old topics, and opening up new ones. This chapter is a primer on the concepts and arguments that animate it. " Leda Cosmides & John Tooby

    (See for more on evolutionary psychology.)

    There has not been enough time for human genes to adapt to the changes in the environment in the last few thousand years. In fact, most humans lived in tribes or small villages until relatively recent generations. I suspect that a substantial fraction of human problems in the world today, not just cults, result from the mismatch between the current--highly artificial--environment and the environment in which we evolved. (Mismatch and all, I much prefer the modern world.)

             In the Western culture block the tribal environment is largely gone--our success has greatly modified the world. We have to use the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups and our nearest relatives to give us a view into the past. While there was plenty of variation in what people did for a living, (depending on local resources) the picture that emerges for humans in the previous several million years is that of a social primate living in small bands and villages.

             There may be other factors, but I see at least two major evolved psychological mechanisms emerging from the past to make us susceptible to cults. The Patty Hearst kidnapping exemplifies one. We know that people can undergo a sudden change of thinking and loyalties under threat of death or intense social pressure and isolation from friends and family. Usually called "brainwashing," it is also known as The Stockholm Syndrome and "mind control."

    An evolutionary psychology explanation starts by asking why such a trait would have improved the reproductive success of people during the millions of years we lived as social primates in bands or tribes? One thing that stands out from our records of the historical North American tribes, the South American tribes such as the Yanamano, and some African tribes is that being captured was a relatively common event. If you go back a few generations, almost everyone in some of these tribes has at least one ancestor (usually a women) who was violently captured from another tribe.

    Natural selection has left us with psychological responses to capture seen in the Stockholm Syndrome and the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Capture-bonding or social reorientation when captured from one warring tribe to another was an essential survival tool for a million years or more. Those who reoriented often became our ancestors. Those who did not became breakfast.

             Tribal life was not very many generations in the past even for western people. Recent genetic studies in Iceland have found that many of the women who were the founding stock of Iceland came from England and what is now France. Some of them might have been willing brides, but some were probably captured and carried off in Viking raids only 40 generations ago.

             Fighting hard to protect yourself and your relatives is good for your genes, but when captured and escape is not possible, giving up short of dying and making the best you can of the new situation is also good for your genes. In particular it would be good for genes that built minds able to dump previous emotional attachments under conditions of being captured and build new social bonds to the people who have captured you. The process should neither be too fast (because you may be rescued) nor too slow (because you don't want to excessively try the patience of those who have captured you--see end note 3).

             An EP explanation stresses the fact that we have lots of ancestors who gave up and joined the tribe that had captured them (and sometimes had killed most of their relatives). This selection of our ancestors accounts for the extreme forms of capture-bonding exemplified by Patty Hearst and the Stockholm Syndrome. Once you realize that humans have this trait, it accounts for the "why" behind everything from basic military training and sex "bondage" to fraternity hazing (people may have a wired-in "knowledge" of how to induce bonding in captives). It accounts for battered wife syndrome, where beatings and abuse are observed to strengthen the bond between the victim and the abuser--at least up to a point.

             This explanation for brainwashing/Stockholm Syndrome is an example of the power of EP to suggest plausible and sometimes testable reasons for otherwise hard-to-fathom human psychological traits. Some cults use abuse and confinement to induce capture-bonding, especially for those who try to escape. Others, particularly the Moonies, used fear as an element to get prospective members to bond. (In the 70s, those who went with them for a weekend found themselves 30 miles from the nearest town.) Historically capture-bonding was important in the spread of some religions. (Convert or die, infidel!)

    Capture-bonding does not by itself account for the influence cults have on their victims, though it does account for the success of classic
    "deprogramming" cult members by capture. To account for the success of most cults we need to look at another powerful psychological reward mechanism.

    (to be continued)

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