Computational behavior theory and cultural evolution

Category Archives: Society

Mentally Ill, Inc.

The debate about corporate personhood—the legal recognition of corporations as persons—rose again to prominence in the U.S.A. when, in 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled that corporations can fund political parties under the same rules as people (they were formerly severely restricted from doing so).

If corporations are persons, they may also have health problems. Corporations themselves take all possible steps to care about their own physical health, such as having enough food (money, supplies, etc.) and keeping internal organs (administration, production, logistics, etc.) in good shape. This is what people usually mean when they say that a corporation’s health is good or poor. Corporations as people, however, may also have mental health issues. As many psychiatric patients, they may need significant external intervention to get better.

Consider, for instance, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), or the “pervasive disregard of, and violation of, the rights of others” (this definition and most of the following on ASPD is from Wikipedia). According to the American Psychiatric Association, three or more of these symptoms indicate antisocial personality:

  1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  2. deceitfulness, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead; irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  4. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  5. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  6. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;

How many corporations can be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder? And what would be the treatment?

Video: Aaron Kozbelt, The Evolution of the Creative Process

Part of the Cultural Evolution Seminar Series at Brooklyn College

Download Video (360MB)

Abstract: Much human cultural evolution stems from the creative innovations of individual persons, whose novel ideas or productions are valued and propagated by society. In this talk, I first describe the nature of the creative process as it is understood by psychologists. Next, to understand how the creative process impacts cultural evolution, I examine the possibility that the creative process itself is not historically invariant, but rather that it evolves over time. In elaborating this idea, I apply two biological frameworks: the ‘evolution of evolvability,’ whereby the evolutionary process itself becomes better at evolving over time, and ‘ontogenetic heterochrony,’ whereby small changes in the timing of developmental events can lead to profound morphological novelty. The application of these frameworks to human creativity provides a unified framework for understanding creativity, as well as informing cultural evolution – past, present, and future.

Aaron Kozbelt is Professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His research program, focusing on creativity and cognition in the arts, derives largely from his outside interests. In addition to his training in psychology, he has spent more than 20 years as a practicing visual artist, and his initial research forays grew directly out of his experiences as an artist. Kozbelt has also incorporated his long-standing interest in classical music into a line of archival research examining patterns of creativity over the lifespan of classical composers. More recently, he has started research on creative cognition, humor production and sexual selection, and metacognition and evaluation in creative problem solving.

Video: R. Alex Bentley, Social Influence and Drift in Collective Behavior

Part of the Cultural Evolution Seminar Series at Brooklyn College

Download Video (500MB)

Abstract: Human decision models often begin with individual, cost-benefit analyses as the basic behavior, with any social influence as a secondary add-on. Thisoften underestimates social influence among humans, whose brains have actually evolved to handle social relations. In fact, a better starting point in many casesmay be to assume that people base their choices (consciously or not) primarily on the decisions of those around them. As captured by experiments and simpleevolutionary drift models, undirected social influence introduces an irrationality and unpredictability to collective behavior, with implications for anthropology,psychology and economics.

Alex Bentley is Reader in Anthropology at Durham University, where he is co-founder of the Centre for the Coevolution of Biologyand Culture, and Deputy Director of a 5 year project on ‘Tipping Points: Mathematics, Metaphors and Meanings”, funded by theLeverhulme Trust.

Say it without… Human Contact

An ad in the New York subway for a whiskey says “Say it without saying it,” suggesting that it is better to gift someone a bottle of strong liquor than to express your feelings for them. Presumably, you would then proceed to drink said bottle together, in an awkward silence.

The things that you are supposed to “say without saying” are those males in some (many?) cultures feel uncomfortable with (coherently with the traditional target of strong liquor ads). That is: expression of affection for each other. It’s clearly more manly to drink half a bottle of whiskey with your pal than to tell him you care.

Swede Surrender

Italian politics has never been a model to follow. Things did not improve when, in the early 1990’s, the 50 year opposition between the Christian Democratic Party and the Italian Communist Party came to an end because of corruption scandals (mostly affecting the first party) and of communism going out of fashion (mostly affecting the second one). The current political situation is of a Prime Minister who has repeatedly narrowly escaped jail (often through his own tweaking of the law) and of opposition parties who have proved unable to lift Italy out of its historical inefficiency.

I think it is time for Italians to acknowledge that a radical intervention is needed. My idea is: let Italy become a colony of Sweden. It would be a win for both countries. Italians would enjoy efficient administration and sane public policies, and the Swedes would benefit from having a base in a country with better climate and food.

Are you in favor?


The next time someone claims to be “going rogue,” they should first look up the meaning:

From the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

Main Entry: rogue
Pronunciation: \ˈrōg\
Function: noun
Etymology: origin unknown
Date: 1561

1 : vagrant, tramp
2 : a dishonest or worthless person : scoundrel
3 : a mischievous person : scamp
4 : a horse inclined to shirk or misbehave
5 : an individual exhibiting a chance and usually inferior biological variation


From the Online Etymological Dictionary:

1561, “idle vagrant,” perhaps a shortened form of roger (with a hard -g-), thieves’ slang for a begging vagabond who pretends to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge, perhaps from L. rogare “to ask.” Another theory traces it to Celtic (cf. Bret. rog “haughty”); OED says, “There is no evidence of connexion with F. rogue ‘arrogant.’ ” Rogue’s gallery “police collection of mug shots” is attested from 1859.

Semester på vinter!

In Swedish, winter is not referred to as the cold season. It is den mörka årstiden – the dark season. For a tourist, snow-covered Stockholm around Christmas is a fairy tale, but to live and work with 6 hours of daylight is not everyone's piece of cake. Winter depression is estimated to affect 5-10% of the Swedish population (compare to about 4% for diabetes). Many more people do not meet criteria for a clinical depression, but still feel depressed mood and fatigue to varying degrees (Katia's and Anna's experiences).

Den mörka arstiden's toll on Swedes is acknowledged explicitly or implicitly in many ways. There are several school breaks during the winter so that families can travel (traditionally, they went skiing even further up north, nowadays Thailand and the Canary Islands are the preferred destinations). Working hours are slightly longer in winter than in the summer, so that the brief summer can be enjoyed more fully (the workday is officially set at 8 hours and 10 minutes between mid-September and mid-May, and at 7 hours and 30 minutes the rest of the year). And so on.

I think there is a better solution: reverse summer and winter vacation so that there are two-three months of vacation in winter and one in summer. This would enable people to escape the darkness. Many people effectively do this already, thanks to the fact that work schedules are often very flexible in Sweden. There are, however, important exceptions, like schools and universities. The majority of the population is affected by school and academic schedules: kids in school, their parents, University students, and anyone who works in education. These persons cannot take vacation when they like. Those among them who suffer from light deprivation cannot take vacation when they would need it for their health. Some people are so disabled in the winter that they have to take extended sick leave, which is paid by the State, when they could on vacation (and in good health) on their own budgets.

If you live in Sweden, and are interested in reversing winter and summer breaks, drop me a line at dr.ghirlanda@gmail.com. I just saw a documentary about Howard Zinn, so I believe that if we organize we can do anything. And remember, Sweden switched from left-hand traffic to right-hand traffic overnight, on September, 3rd, 1967.

Catching Extra Time

Here I am on the Riva di Ca' di Dio in Venice visiting the 53rd International Art Exhibition. The black shirt and the tie entitle me to comment on the artworks with authority.

The shiny cube I'm leaning on is a showcase for Nikola Uzunovski's My Sunshine project. Nikola, an applied artist, wants to improve the quality of life at northern latitudes (or deep mountain valleys). The problem with these places is that, although they may well be wonderful in all other respects, they get light for a rather short time in winter. In the best of cases, lack of sunlight makes you a bit sleepy, in the worst case it makes you clinically depressed.

Nikola's solution is a device that lengthens the day: a mirror that floats up in the sky, electronically controlled to shine the sun's image on an otherwise dark spot on earth.

How does it work? Simply, the device exploits the fact that up in the sky the day lasts longer than at the earth's surface – as shown in the diagram at left (please do not blame Nikola for that). The mirror, floating inside a helium filled balloon, reflects 90% of the afternoon rays onto the earth below creating a virtual sun.

My sunshine is a step toward bringing Italian climate to Swedish civilization – the Eden of humanity. Bringing Swedish civilization to Italian climate, unfortunately, remains a daunting challenge for artists and scientists alike.

A Fine Example of Sexism in Italian Divorce Law

In italy, a woman cannot remarry until 300 days after a divorce. This norm intends to avoid paternity disputes by making sure that, upon remarrying, a woman is not expecting a child from her previous husband. Such intent is apparent from the provisions, stated in the same law, that allow to cut the 300 days short if:

  • The woman proves she is not pregnant.
  • The woman proves that she did not legally live with the former husband in the 300 days after divorce.
  • The previous marriage has been terminated because of the sterility of either partner.

How many flaws can you find in behind this norm? I have found the following:

  1. A divorcing man is not required to prove that his former wife is not pregnant, hence the norm is sexist.
  2. The law assumes that a woman has sex only with her husband.
  3. The law assumes that a woman has sex with a man only if they live together.

All this makes the norm ineffective in its intent, i.e., preventing paternity disputes. The law was written around 1980, mostly by men born in the 1920s and 1930s. Those aging, somewhat sexist, democratically elected lawmakers could not anticipate that paternity tests would obsolete their hard work in a few years. While point 1 above is, in theory, sufficient to make the law unconstitutional in Italy, the law itself has not, apparently, been challenged in court, and thus stands as of today, August 20th, 2009.

I have been able to find other similar cases: Puerto Rico, Lousiana before 1970 (remarriage laws in the U.S.). Do you know of other similar legislation elsewhere?

Mind the Data!

Gapminder is a wonderful, public tool that lets you visualize current data and historical trends in many demographic, economic and social indicators. Do you want to know how life expectancy in the USA has developed compared to, say, Cuba and Qatar? Just go here and click Play (then come back here, please). Three rather different development paths toward the same life expectancy. Fantastic.


The image to the right is the first thing you see on gapminder. It shows
the relationship between income (horizontal axis) and life expectancy
(vertical axis) in countries throughout the world. Each circle is a
country and its size is proportional to the country’s inhabitants (the
big red circle is China, the big blue one India).
There is clearly a positive relationship.

In a TED lecture, Gapminder founder Hans Rosling uses this image to argue that focusing on economic growth is the best thing to do to improve life expectancy in developing countries (the low-income, short-life blue dots in the image represent Africa). I think this is true, but the statement should be qualified. The catch is that the horizontal dimension does not show raw income, but orders of magnitude of income – notice how the distance between, say, $200 and $400 is the same as between $2000 and $4000.  This is called a logarithmic scale and is used for better display of certain patterns.

If you display income dollar-for-dollar, as in the image on the right, the pattern looks a bit different. Now it shows clearly that a very small income, by Western standards, can be associated with a rather long life: people in big red China achieve a life expectancy of 73 years with under $5000 per year. And so do many other countries, like Vietnam (where under $2500 per year buy you 74 years of life) or Syria (74 years for $2200). Beyond this point – about 75 years and $5000 per year – additional income buys relatively little, as the fat yellow dot (the USA) says: 78 years for $42000 per year.

Thus there seems to be a lot to gain from economic development in very poor countries (Africa is blue), and relatively little to gain from further increase in income in moderately rich to very rich countries.