Neuroscience, evolution, and culture

Tag Archives: society

New paper: Dog movie stars and dog breed popularity

Our latest paper on the cultural evolution of preferences for dog breeds came out yesterday in PLOS ONE. The message is simple: dog breeds that are featured in successful movies (Lassie come home, 101 Dalmatians, and many others) tend to increase in popularity, sometimes for many years after movie release. This influence was quite strong until, approximately, the 1970s, but has declined since—probably because cinema no longer dominates the media as it used to. You find a nice writeup with more details on co-authors Hal Herzog’s Psychology Today column and Alberto Acerbi’s blog. Some press coverage is here:

What makes a dog breed popular?

Some time ago I wrote about fashions in dog breeds, pointing out the wild fluctuations in popularity in many breeds. Why do these occur? Owning a dog is a serious commitment in terms of time and money, and it would seem natural to try to acquire a dog that is healthy and with a good temperament. I set to find out whether this is actually the case with my colleagues Alberto Acerbi, Hal Herzog, and James Serpell.

In our new paper Fashion vs. Function in Cultural Evolution: The Case of Dog Breed Popularity, we show that, surprisingly, people do not prefer breeds that are better behaved or healthier. On the contrary, the most popular breeds are the most unhealthy, with a host of genetic defects that are at least partly related to intense selection to adhere to quirky breed standards, and possibly with more behavioral problems such as fear of other dogs, aggressiveness, or separation anxiety. We obtained these results crossing data from the C-BARQ database of dog behavior created by James (the actual data used in our analysis are here), data about dog registrations provided by the American Kennel Club to Hal Herzog (available here), and previously published health data (references 14-17 in the paper).

Thus many people (at least those interested in breed dogs) prefer to acquire a dog that is socially recognized to meet a certain “standard” than a healthy and well behaved dog. If you are unfamiliar with breed standards, I can tell you that they are quite exacting, and to many may appear just pointless. Here is, for example, what the nose of a bulldog is supposed to look like:

The nose should be large, broad and black, its tip set back deeply between the eyes. The distance from bottom of stop, between the eyes, to the tip of nose should be as short as possible and not exceed the length from the tip of nose to the edge of underlip. The nostrils should be wide, large and black, with a well-defined line between them. Any nose other than black is objectionable and a brown or liver-colored nose shall disqualify.

(From the AKC web site)

Note: “disqualify” means that the dog should not be considered a “true bulldog.”

Empirical support for openness-persuasiveness dynamics

A recent study by Aral & Walker provides support that the openness-persuasiveness dynamics we suggested a few years ago actually goes on in cultural evolution. In short, we had put forward mathematical and simulation models to support the notion that learning from others produces individuals that, over time, become more conservative (less likely to learn from others) and more persuasive (more likely to convince others of one’s own ideas). These predictions have been confirmed by Aral & Walker, who showed that older Facebook users are more difficult to convince do adopt a Facebook app than younger users, and yet are better at convincing others to adopt the app. Up to now, we only had indirect evidence about openness (older people score low on openness in personality tests), and no evidence on persuasion.

We have submitted a comment to the journal relating Aral & Walker’s intriguing findings to our theory. You can find a slightly extended version here, essentially with more references to relevant work.

The Logic of Fashion Cycles

As announced a few weeks ago, our paper “The Logic of Fashion Cycles” has been published, and is freely available on the PLoS ONE website. You can find a good summary at The National Post.

New paper: The logic of fashion cycles

Plos ONE has accepted our paper “The logic of fashion cycles,” where Alberto Acerbi, Magnus Enquist and myself present a new theoretical model to understand fashion cycles (see my previous post on dog breeds). You can download a preprint, and here is the abstract:

Many cultural traits exhibit volatile dynamics, commonly dubbed fashions or fads. Here we show that realistic fashion-like dynamics emerge spontaneously if individuals can copy others’ preferences for cultural traits as well as traits themselves. We demonstrate this dynamics in simple mathematical models of the diffusion, and subsequent abandonment, of a single cultural trait which individuals may or may not prefer. We then simulate the coevolution between many cultural traits and the associated preferences, reproducing power-law frequency distributions of cultural traits (most traits are adopted by few individuals for a short time, and very few by many for a long time), as well as correlations between the rate of increase and the rate of decrease of traits (traits that increase rapidly in popularity are also abandoned quickly and vice-versa). We also establish that alternative theories, that fashions result from individuals signaling their social status, or from individuals randomly copying each other, do not satisfactorily reproduce these empirical observations.

Video: Stefano Adamo, The Social Diffusion of Specialist Knowledge

Part of the Cultural Evolution Seminar Series at Brooklyn College

(Download video, 660 MB)

Abstract: I argue that the social diffusion of specialist knowledge is contingent upon a combination of environmental and cognitive factors that make such ideas significant to the lay person and motivates their social transmission and retention. The same combination of factors, however, also engenders an incomplete comprehension of the ideas being spread. I propose a qualitative method to understand what makes specialist knowledge relevant and anticipate how lay peoplemay retain and spread such knowledge.

Stefano Adamo is Reader in Italian History and Culture at the University of Banja Luka, Bosnia Herzegovina, and fellowat the International Center of Economic Research, Turin, Italy. His research interests include the history of ideas and the cognitive theory of culture,especially the history of economic concepts (money, market, etc.) and their social diffusion.

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: 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.

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.