Developing interventions to change human behaviour at scale is critical to achieving the new Global Biodiversity Framework goals. One strategy that conservation practitioners can adopt in pursuing this ambition is to look for lessons from other fields engaged in sustainable development, such as development economics and behavioural science. Over the past twenty years, these fields have generated a large and growing evidence-base of strategies for improving key sustainability indicators in areas such as health, livelihoods and education. This empirical revolution has been accelerated by rapid advances in understanding the social and psychological foundations of human behaviour. In this paper, we identify three areas that can help conservation to bring behaviour change programmes to scale. First, conservation practitioners should develop expertise in human behaviour developed in the social and cognitive sciences. Second, conservation researchers should adopt empirical methods widely practiced in development economics to rigorously identify whether, how and why interventions work. Third, conservation should integrate with the policy institutions and systems to facilitate learning and scaling.
Why do people sometimes hold unjustified beliefs and make harmful choices? Three hypotheses include (a) contemporary incentives in which some errors cost more than others, (b) cognitive biases evolved to manage ancestral incentives with variation in error costs and (c) social learning based on choice frequencies. With both modelling and a behavioural experiment, we examined all three mechanisms. The model and experiment support the conclusion that contemporary cost asymmetries affect choices by increasing the rate of cheap errors to reduce the rate of expensive errors. Our model shows that a cognitive bias can distort the evolution of beliefs and in turn behaviour. Unless the bias is strong, however, beliefs often evolve in the correct direction. This suggests limitations on how cognitive biases shape choices, which further indicates that detecting the behavioural consequences of biased cognition may sometimes be challenging. Our experiment used a prime intended to activate a bias called ‘hyperactive agency detection’, and the prime had no detectable effect on choices. Finally, both the model and experiment show that frequency-dependent social learning can generate choice dynamics in which some populations converge on widespread errors, but this outcome hinges on the other two mechanisms being neutral with respect to choice.
For a policy-maker promoting the end of a harmful tradition, conformist social influence is a compelling mechanism. If an intervention convinces enough people to abandon the tradition, this can spill over and induce others to follow. A key objective is thus to activate such spillovers and amplify an intervention’s effects. With female genital cutting as a motivating example, we develop empirically informed analytical and simulation models to examine this idea. Even if conformity pervades decision-making, spillovers can range from irrelevant to indispensable. Our analysis highlights three considerations. First, ordinary forms of individual heterogeneity can severely limit spillovers, and understanding the heterogeneity in a population is essential. Second, although interventions often target samples of the population biased towards ending the harmful tradition, targeting a representative sample is a more robust way to achieve spillovers. Finally, if the harmful tradition contributes to group identity, the success of spillovers can depend critically on disrupting the link between identity and tradition.
The importance of culture for human social evolution hinges largely on the extent to which culture supports outcomes that would not otherwise occur. An especially controversial claim is that social learning leads groups to coalesce around group-typical behaviours and associated social norms that spill over to shape choices in asocial settings. To test this, we conducted an experiment with 878 groups of participants in 116 communities in Sudan. Participants watched a short film and evaluated the appropriate way to behave in the situation dramatized in the film. Each session consisted of an asocial condition in which participants provided private evaluations and a social condition in which they provided public evaluations. Public evaluations allowed for social learning. Across sessions, we randomized the order of the two conditions. Public choices dramatically increased the homogeneity of normative evaluations. When the social condition was first, this homogenizing effect spilled over to subsequent asocial conditions. The asocial condition when first was thus alone in producing distinctly heterogeneous groups. Altogether, information about the choices of others led participants to converge rapidly on similar normative evaluations that continued to hold sway in subsequent asocial settings. These spillovers were at least partly owing to the combined effects of conformity and self-consistency. Conformity dominated self-consistency when the two mechanisms were in conflict, but self-consistency otherwise produced choices that persisted through time. Additionally, the tendency to conform was heterogeneous. Females conformed more than males, and conformity increased with the number of other people a decision-maker observed before making her own choice.
Worldwide, an estimated 200 million girls and women have been subjected to female genital cutting. Female genital cutting is defined as an intentional injury to the female genitalia without medical justification. The practice occurs in at least 29 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In addition, globalization and migration have brought immigrants from countries where cutting is commonly practiced to countries where cutting is not traditionally practiced and may even be illegal. In countries receiving immigrants, governments and development agencies would like to know if girls with parents who immigrated from practicing countries are at risk of being cut. Risk assessments, for example, could help governments identify the need for programs promoting the abandonment of cutting among immigrants. Extrapolating from the prevalence and incidence rates in practicing countries, however, is generally not sufficient to guarantee a valid estimate of risk in immigrant populations. In particular, immigrants might differ from their counterparts in the country of origin in terms of attitudes toward female genital cutting. Attitudes can differ because migrants represent a special sample of people from the country of origin or because immigrants acculturate after arriving in a new country. To examine these possibilities, we used a fully anonymous, computerized task to elicit implicit attitudes toward female genital cutting among Sudanese immigrants living in Switzerland and Sudanese people in Sudan. Results show that Sudanese immigrants in Switzerland were significantly more positive about uncut girls than Sudanese in Sudan, and that selective migration out of Sudan likely contributed substantially to this difference. We conclude by suggesting how our method could potentially be coupled with recent efforts to refine extrapolation methods for estimating cutting risk among immigrant populations. More broadly, our results highlight the need to better understand how heterogeneous attitudes can affect the risk of cutting among immigrant communities and in countries of origin.
As globalization brings people with incompatible attitudes into contact, cultural conflicts inevitably arise. Little is known about how to mitigate conflict and about how the conflicts that occur can shape the cultural evolution of the groups involved. Female genital cutting is a prominent example. Governments and international agencies have promoted the abandonment of cutting for decades, but the practice remains widespread with associated health risks for millions of girls and women. In their efforts to end cutting, international agents have often adopted the view that cutting is locally pervasive and entrenched. This implies the need to introduce values and expectations from outside the local culture. Members of the target society may view such interventions as unwelcome intrusions, and campaigns promoting abandonment have sometimes led to backlash as they struggle to reconcile cultural tolerance with the conviction that cutting violates universal human rights. Cutting, however, is not necessarily locally pervasive and entrenched. We designed experiments on cultural change that exploited the existence of conflicting attitudes within cutting societies. We produced four entertaining movies that served as experimental treatments in two experiments in Sudan, and we developed an implicit association test to unobtrusively measure attitudes about cutting. The movies depart from the view that cutting is locally pervasive by dramatizing members of an extended family as they confront each other with divergent views about whether the family should continue cutting. The movies significantly improved attitudes towards girls who remain uncut, with one in particular having a relatively persistent effect. These results show that using entertainment to dramatize locally discordant views can provide a basis for applied cultural evolution without accentuating intercultural divisions.
The World Health Organization defines female genital cutting as any procedure that removes or injures any part of a female's external genitalia for nonmedical reasons (1). Cutting brings no documented health benefits and leads to serious health problems. Across six African countries, for example, a cohort of 15-year-old girls is expected to lose nearly 130,000 years of life because of cutting (2). We report data that question an influential approach to promoting abandonment of the practice.
Recent evidence indicates that priming participants with religious concepts promotes prosocial sharing behaviour. In the present study, we investigated whether religious priming also promotes the costly punishment of unfair behaviour. A total of 304 participants played a punishment game. Before the punishment stage began, participants were subliminally primed with religion primes, secular punishment primes or control primes. We found that religious primes strongly increased the costly punishment of unfair behaviours for a subset of our participants—those who had previously donated to a religious organization. We discuss two proximate mechanisms potentially underpinning this effect. The first is a ‘supernatural watcher’ mechanism, whereby religious participants punish unfair behaviours when primed because they sense that not doing so will enrage or disappoint an observing supernatural agent. The second is a ‘behavioural priming’ mechanism, whereby religious primes activate cultural norms pertaining to fairness and its enforcement and occasion behaviour consistent with those norms. We conclude that our results are consistent with dual inheritance proposals about religion and cooperation, whereby religions harness the byproducts of genetically inherited cognitive mechanisms in ways that enhance the survival prospects of their adherents.
Error management theory is a theory of considerable scope and emerging influence. The theory claims that cognitive biases do not necessarily reflect flaws in evolutionary design, but that they may be best conceived as design features. Unfortunately, existing accounts are vague with respect to the key concept of bias. The result is that it is unclear that the cognitive biases that the theory seeks to defend are not simply a form of behavioral bias, in which case the theory reduces to a version of expected utility theory. We propose some clarifications and refinements of error management theory by emphasizing important distinctions between different forms of behavioral and cognitive bias. We also highlight a key assumption, that the capacity for Bayesian beliefs is subject to constraints. This assumption is necessary for what we see as error management theory's genuinely novel claim: that behavioral tendencies to avoid costly errors can rest on systematic departures from Bayesian beliefs and that the latter can be adaptive insofar as they generate the former.
Cultural boundaries have often been the basis for discrimination, nationalism, religious wars, and genocide. Little is known, however, about how cultural groups form or the evolutionary forces behind group affiliation and ingroup favoritism. Hence, we examine these forces experimentally and show that arbitrary symbolic markers, though initially meaningless, evolve to play a key role in cultural group formation and ingroup favoritism because they enable a population of heterogeneous individuals to solve important coordination problems. This process requires that individuals differ in some critical but unobservable way and that their markers be freely and flexibly chosen. If these conditions are met, markers become accurate predictors of behavior. The resulting social environment includes strong incentives to bias interactions toward others with the same marker, and subjects accordingly show strong ingroup favoritism. When markers do not acquire meaning as accurate predictors of behavior, players show a markedly reduced taste for ingroup favoritism. Our results support the prominent evolutionary hypothesis that cultural processes can reshape the selective pressures facing individuals and so favor the evolution of behavioral traits not previously advantaged.
Human cooperation is unparalleled in the animal world and rests on an altruistic concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated strangers. The evolutionary roots of human altruism, however, remain poorly understood. Recent evidence suggests a discontinuity between humans and other primates because individual chimpanzees do not spontaneously provide food to other group members, indicating a lack of concern for their welfare. Here, we demonstrate that common marmoset monkeys (Callithrix jacchus) do spontaneously provide food to nonreciprocating and genetically unrelated individuals, indicating that other-regarding preferences are not unique to humans and that their evolution did not require advanced cognitive abilities such as theory of mind. Because humans and marmosets are cooperative breeders and the only two primate taxa in which such unsolicited prosociality has been found, we conclude that these prosocial predispositions may emanate from cooperative breeding.