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The Cultural Animal (book)

Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life
Roy F. Baumeister

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Why do people think, feel, and act as they do? Psychology has created a number of narrow, specific explanations for particular thoughts, feelings and actions. Its ultimate explanations, in contrast, generally hark back to the two eternal themes of nature and culture.

In psychology, the nature side of the question has recently been dominated by evolutionary psychologists, and their research emphasizes the similarities between human beings and animals. In contrast, the culture side has been the province of cultural psychologists, and their stock in trade is differences […] between cultures.

In this book, I have sought to switch those perspectives […] focusing on evolutionary differences and cultural similarities.

I have proposed that culture is a strategy, in the sense that culture appeared because it served the biological goals of survival and reproduction. Cultural animals survive and reproduce better than their biological relatives that are not cultural. Culture must offer advantages that produce those benefits.

[…] the benefits do seem quite real. […] life expectancy in developed nations is moving steadily upward […] Likewise, reproduction has been remarkably successful. In the relatively short span of 100,000 years, the human population has gone from a single woman to more than 6 billion souls.

To be sure, culture has brought its share of new problems. The advance of technology has created some monsters, such as weapons of mass destruction, efficient genocide, pollution, and economic crises, not to mention alienation, moral decay, and bad haircuts.

This is an interesting book about the human condition, written by a social psychologist. It does a good job of finding a middle ground between the social science understandings of the power and importance of culture and the evolutionary psychology understanding that all our behavior (including social behavior) ultimately has an evolved genetic basis. Unfortunately, it isn't well edited, so the point sometimes gets lost.

The title comes from the unifying argument that, when compared to other animals, humans are in a category of animal that happens to have only one member: us. Many animals are solitary, coming together only for mating. Quite a few kinds of animals are social, living in groups, with some degree of coordination and cooperation, and often having social structures such as dominance hierarchy. Human collective behavior is indeed social, but we are cultural animals, and differ from other social animals in ways that are quite important to us. In particular, we have a unique reliance on cumulative Culture mediated by language. We also show uniquely high levels of cooperation between unrelated individuals.

The most important parts of our synthesis that are missing from this book are:


  • Social reality. Social causation is “real”, can't be “reduced to physics”. Examples of the civil war and the Boston tea party. It seems that what he means is that social causation is impractical to predict at the physical level and also that physical explanations of social phenomena are deeply unsatisfactory. So from the physical stance we cannot explain why the air vibrations created by a person in England (the king) caused tea to end up in salt water rather than fresh, when those same vibrations created later in the day by the a cleaning maid would have had no effect. And a neuromuscular explanation of the civil war would do little to enlighten us about the causes or effects of that event, or what it was like to be involved in it.
  • The reality of meaning and concept. He argues that semantic entities such as arithmetic have a reality independent from their existence within the human social/biological framework. So, for example, 3 * 7 = 21 was true even when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, though there was no one around to appreciate that fact. This seems somewhat like arguing for the external reality of Platonic ideals. To say that something is or is not real has a certain visceral quality, but what he primarily uses this constraint to argue is that while aspects of our culture (such as language) are mediated both by our biological nature and by socially constructed systems, it may be that the result was semantically constrained by the prior structure of the world of concepts. To be very much more clear than the author, we live in a world where “shit happens”, so some concept of change and time is necessary. And given that particular similar things can happen in different contexts, for different reasons, affecting different objects, it is not surprising that all languages have noun and verb word categories. While this is probably in some sense a consequence of our brain structure, even if our language processing hardware happened to have greater neural plasticity, it is still inevitable that all cultures would develop those word categories. Neither biologic nor cultural evolution had a free hand.
  • The anti-Whorf hypothesis. Although the Whorf hypothesis, that language determines thought, was highly inflential, the reality is very much the opposite. At the semantic level, all languages are much the same because they describe the same world of concepts. Eskimos words for snow, etc. When it is useful to distinguish many snow categories, English speakers can do so, and coin words when convenient. While the author sees this as a consequence of the independent prior reality of concepts, from a pragmatic perspective (see Reality) we can get this result without making concepts quite so concrete.

Humans are Unique

  • How many people touch your food, comparison with animals. What if 40 dogs had to handle your food before it got to you?
  • Motivations

Positive Illusions

  • Positive illusions: he sees wanting others to think well of you as adaptive for a cultural animal, but thinks our positive illusions are an inadvertent side-effect, where we learn how to trick our self-assessment system in order to feel good.


It is wrong to say that emotions are for initiating behavior, and it is even mostly wrong to say that emotions cause behavior. Instead, behavior pursues emotions. Guilt does not directly make people move their bodies in any obvious manner. Rather, guilt comes after one has done something wrong, such as hurting a relationship partner. Guilt makes people think about what they did wrong and about how to avoid repeating that mistake.

Why didn't I do something different? How could I have avoided this? If only I hadn't said the wrong thing — there is some evidence that emotions stimulate counterfactual thinking defined as imagining events or outcomes that differ from reality. This seems ideal for learning: the conscious system can consider alternative possibilities, especially considering things you could have done differently, and hence you will learn from your mistakes.

The effect of emotions is to consolidate one lesson so as to influence future behavior.

Affective Forecasting

We saw earlier that emotions often don't last as long as people had anticipated they would. In a sense, this means that emotions are inflated in their anticipation. That too probably means that anticipation is one of the important aspects of emotions, consistent with the view that people regulate their behavior based on what they expect to feel as a result.

Emotions operate as an internal system that rewards and punishes actions. Full-fledged emotions often come after the behavior is finished, whereas the twinges of positive and negative affect can help steer behavior automatically in certain ways. Emotions stimulate thoughtful learning, such as by making people think about what they just did to cause a good or bad outcome. Emotions narrow attention, thereby facilitating mental processing of some information rather than others. Anticipated emotions can be an important factor in dictating how people choose to act. Indeed, anticipated emotions are a compelling common currency, which allows cultural animals to translate different possible options, which differ in many related dimensions, onto a single factor and therefore select among them. Emotions guide people to form and maintain good relationships, to behave in rational and prudent ways, and generally to function effectively withing the complex world of culture.

Free Will

It's a nice feature of this book that the author doesn't shy away from philosophical issues, and the discussion of free will is an example. This extends to 8 pages, but it seems that a few paragraphs capture the gist of the argument.

Ultimately, the cultural animal needs to have free will, or at least what it would understand as free will. […]

I realize of course that free will is a controversial concept that sets off all sorts of bitter debates and strong opinions, many of which are not relevant to my point. Let me therefore back off from saying simply that evolution gave us free will so that we could benefit from culture. The idea of free will can be restated in a way that will be palatable to all but the most rigid determinists. To enable human beings to participate in culture, evolution gave us the ability to override our initial responses, choose among different options, and let behavior be guided by meanings (including rational analysis, abstract rules and long-term planning.)

Most psychologists are skeptical of free will, which they tend to interpret as meaning that the person's behavior is utterly immune to all previous events that might cause it. […] Psychology generally purports to show that behavior is caused, which seems to contradict the subjective impression that people have free will. […] psychology's vast stock of research findings do not support determinism all that well. […] the overwhelming majority of psychological research findings merely signify slight changes in the odds of any particular response.

The concept of a totally free will is therefore one that will not be able to find much of a place in psychological theory (even if it would exist in objective reality.) A partially free will is however more understandable […] That is, behavior may be dictated by the lawful patterns of habit, routine, and automatic response much of the time, but it is possible that these may sometimes be overridden. [which] “frees” behavior from certain causes.

From our perspective, the most important thing missing from this discussion is that Prediction is Intractable. While this may not obviate the more formal definitions of the free will problem, it does puncture the common thought experiments demonstrating why we should care. Given our pragmatic definition of Reality, we can say that free will is real by observing that it is useful to adopt the intentional stance and suppose that we are intentional agents. Freedom Evolves discusses a physical/evolutionary perspective on free will at great length.

While it is one of our premises that mental activity depends on physics, leaving no room for uncaused free will other than pure randomness, we also know that analyzing human behavior at this level is intractable, and since mind is by design distinct from brain, mental activity is in fact more deterministic than can be easily inferred from the underlying physics. The relevant levels of behavioral determinism that concern us occur at a far higher level of design. It is only because of the brain's triumph over randomness and low-quality information that we can engage in such pathologies as mindless adherence to social norms.


How People Act

Behavior and Consciousness

Behavior is not the endpoint of cognitive processes, but rather behavior goes on all the time with or without rational thinking. A “self” can sometimes use rational thinking to intervene and hijack the behavior process, however, and when it does so the results are often adaptive and beneficial. […] Rational thought is not always emphasized as a way of making here-and-now choices in everyday life. […]people may just do whatever seems appropriate at the moment, following the obvious path. When things go bad and the feel a big dose of negative affect, then—and mainly then—do they engage in rational thought, to try to figure out what they did wrong.

The emotions are linked to the motivations. You don't have strong feelings when you don't care about something. […] emotion carries messages from the motivation system to the cognitive system, and that in turn can pass preferences along to the behavior system.

In the discussion of goals he also mentions the importance of mindset in influencing behavior, such as in the distinction between deliberate and implemental thinking. The degree of positive bias varies depending on whether a course of action has already been committed to (see Effects of Mindset on Positive Illusions.)

Self control and Delayed gratification

The crucial point is that behavior is often the result of the interplay of two types of forces. Something creates the positive impulse to act, but this may be opposed by restraining forces. […] Neuropsychologist Jeffery Gray has proposed that the brain actually has two different systems for these different tasks. Evidence for his work is not limited to human beings and indeed emerged from studies on the brains of rats.

Although this is difficult to prove, my sense is that culture generally is more successful at shaping behavior by means of restraints than impulses. To make people want something, culture generally has to build on pre-existing natural motivations. […] but it can shape and strengthen people's inner restraints.


The self's capacity to choose operates like a muscle with a limited amount of strength—just like self-regulation. Making a choice drains some of that strength. Laboratory studies have confirmed the view that making choices and decisions depletes the same resources that are used in self-regulation. […] making conscious, deliberate decisions took something out of them, which was then no longer available to enable them to keep working on the frustrating puzzles.

Attitudes are thus vital benefits in helping the person avoid expending precious resources in making choices. If you have the simple attitude that one political party is always best, then voting is a simple matter. […] it is not surprising that people who have many clear and well-formed attitudes tend to find life easier and to experience lesser levels of physiological stress when faced with choices to make.

Do people really behave in a way consistent with their attitudes? The very concept of attitude has held a special, privileged place in social psychology for decades, because it was assumed that knowing attitudes was the key to understanding human behavior. Unfortunately, when the merciless criteria of cold statistical analysis were applied to the question, attitudes suddenly began to look weak if not irrelevant. […] study after study showing people would say one thing and then do something quite different.

A response to the attitude-behavior gap was based on recognizing that many people do not consult their general attitudes when a specific behavioral choice is met. You might be in favor of helping others in general, but when someone asks you to give blood you do not see it as a test of your helpfulness in general. Rather, you may see it as an inconvenience, as a […]

See Attitude Behavior Gap.

Departures from Rationality

The author's discussion of cognitive biases hews closely to the behavioral economics view of regarding these purely as regrettable failures of rationality, which from an evolutionary perspective shows evolution doesn't result in perfection. While this is to some degree true, what is entirely lacking is the compelling story advanced in Gut Feelings, that in the real world where Prediction is Intractable, reliable information is scanty, and our cognitive resources are not up to the task, these biases may be nearly optimal.

For example, when someone promises you $1000 today or $1200 in two weeks, is it really irrational to take $1000 today, yet when offered $1000 in a year and $1200 in a year and two weeks, we take the latter offer? Perhaps it is true that different brain systems are engaged by an immediate, certain outcome, but is this erroneous? As Ben Franklin put it, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The issue is not that money next week is worth less than money today (though this is somewhat true also.) The issue is that money my hand right now is real, whereas money in two weeks is just mouth noises. Given the incredibility of the subject being given $1000 for no particular reason, why take the risk that this crazy offer might be retracted?

Self-Defeating Behavior

Self-defeating behavior comes from a failure of what makes the cultural animal special. People sabotage themselves by not using self-control. When the cultural animal reverts to impulsive, short-term, selfish patterns of action, the result is often failure and misfortune (even death) in the long run. Nature gave the cultural animal the ability to pursue enlightened self-interest in a complex, meaningful environment. But when people fail to make use of those capacities, they bring woe (sometimes) on their own heads

Likely true, so far as it goes. Of course, in the long-run we are all dead, so a judgment of self-defeating behavior also involves external value judgments. Can we say that it is in some absolute sense wrong to live fast and die young?

And we also underline the sometimes above. Because Prediction is Intractable people take risks. Sometimes those risks pan out, and sometimes they don't. As the author elsewhere observes, we are highly motivated to dissect and explain other's failures, and this is likely the major adaptive function of gossip. But in hindsight, numerous causal explanations for the outcome, some valid, may become obvious. The Black Swan does well in examining the narrative fallacy that an after-the-fact story does not have nearly as much predictive power as we generally suppose. So behavior that in hindsight seems self-defeating may have just been a gamble that didn't pay off.

Interactions between people

Economics, cooperation, law

As a member of a group, the individual confronts two main projects or superordinate goals, namely, getting along and getting ahead. Getting along involves developing positive, pleasant relationships with other people, so that interactions can be pursued in a friendly, cooperative manner. Getting ahead refers to rising in power, status, prestige, or some other indicator of place in the hierarchy. Getting ahead breeds competition and even antagonism.

This is nicely put, though we object to equating “getting ahead” with “moving up in the hierarchy”, because we participate in many social comparisons that do not clearly map onto anything we would consider a hierarchy. We prefer to reserve hierarchy for power relationships or at least formally defined rankings. See Hierarchy

The anthropologist Alan Page Fiske concluded that there are four major types of human relations, which correspond to the four basic structures of human social life.

  • Communal sharing […] is based on the principle that the members of the group all own and use everything in common. […] Most close relationships operate on the basis of communal norms.
  • Authority ranking is based on hierarchy. Those higher in the ranking take precedence over those lower in it. […] it seems especially effective under difficult or stressful times. It is no accident that military organizations almost always use it.
  • Equality matching […] In this form, everyone counts the same, and expects to be treated the same. […] fairness begins with the principles of equality and reciprocity.
  • Market pricing […] everything is assigned some degree of abstract value. People relate to each other as buyer and seller.

There is also discussion of cooperation in Economics and game_theory (non-zero-sum). This section is on target, but doesn't contribute much that is new.

The Family

The author's musings on the changing nature of the family are interesting. It remains important, but has evolved from primarily an economic entity into an emotional one. This has become increasingly important as larger scale communities have been dissolved by the forces of modernity.

The Sexual Market

He makes the interesting argument (backed up by research) that aspects of human sexual behavior can be understood from a market perspective, where men have a higher interest in sex than women, so women gain power by regulating the demand. This explains why female genital mutilations and other restrictions of female sexuality are largely enforced by women. This is a response to female powerlessness, rather than being directly caused by male power. The women are in effect forming a sex cartel to restrict production, thereby increasing their market power.

Relations Between Groups

I have emphasized the advantages of belonging to a group. […] Life in nature involves competition, and groups can certainly compete better than individuals. […] once groups exist anywhere, everyone has to join a group, if only for self-protection. […] some features of human nature have been shaped by what happens between groups. […] Nature probably prepared us to align ourselves with others to square off against other groups.

What gives rise to this pattern of in-group favoritism? Several researchers set out to test this theory with a seemingly foolproof plan. They decided they would start off with groups that were so meaningless and trivial that there would not be any in-group favoritism, and then one by one they would add in other factors such as perceived similarity, common goals, shared values, […] They could then see at what point people started showing preferential treatment to their own group. This plan seemed good, but it failed for a surprising reason—the researchers could never get to the starting point. That is, they were unable to construct a group that was so trivial or random that people didn't show in-group favoritism. Even when people knew that everyone had been assigned to the groups utterly at random, that they did not necessarily have anything in common, and that the group was only temporary and had neither a purpose nor a future, people still directed more resources toward their group members.

An unpleasant implication of this work is that prejudice is likely to be the normal, natural tendency. […] I do not know of any society that has been shown to be free from prejudice–certainly not any society that consists of multiple groups or that has regular contact with other societies. Moreover, prejudices seem to form quite quickly and easily, and it takes considerable training and effort to overcome them.

See Social Conflict. We add that prejudice may be important for enabling Genetic-Cultural Coevolution because it reinforces the cultural boundaries, preventing cultural differences from being washed out by too-free motion of people or ideas.


books/cultural_animal_book.txt · Last modified: 2014/04/26 19:43 by ram