Aarhus University Seal

Evolutionary Psychology and the Design of the Social Mind

Talk by Professor Leda Cosmides, University of California, Santa Barbara

Info about event


Tuesday 6 December 2016,  at 14:15 - 15:30


Auditorium A1 in building 1333


Michael Bang


All the human sciences rest on assumptions about human nature—but these often remain implicit. The goal of evolutionary psychology is to examine and test these assumptions; to discover the architecture of the many programs that comprise the human mind. I will first explain evolutionary psychology as a research framework, then illustrate how it can inform research through a specific example in which we asked, “Can race be erased?” Without an evolutionary framework to guide them, social psychologists came to believe that the mind cannot help but categorize other people by their race; this was based on decades of research in which they failed to find social contexts that reduced racial categorization. But does the human mind have programs that evolved for categorizing others by their race? This hypothesis makes little sense when examined in the light of evolution. I will explain why, and show how easy it is to reduce racial categorization when your experiments are guided by evolutionary thinking. Our studies indicate that racial categorization is a byproduct—a side-effect—of a cognitive system that evolved for a different function: detecting new coalitions and alliances as they emerge, and predicting which of many potential alliance categories are currently organizing an interaction. In this view, racial categories do not exist because skin color is perceptually salient; they are constructed and regulated by an alliance detection system when it operates in environments where race predicts social alliances and divisions. We have tested a surprising prediction of this hypothesis: When race does not predict coalitional alliances, but other cues do, race fades in relevance. Alliance cues sensitively regulated categorization by race—sometimes eliminating it—but these cues did not regulate categorization by sex or age. If time permits, I will also show how a universal evolved psychology can explain cross-cultural variation, using alliance detection data from seven states in Brazil.


Professor Leda Cosmides is recognized as one of the key founders of the field of evolutionary psychology, i.e., the application of principles from evolutionary biology to the study of psychological processes. From this perspective, Professor Cosmides has done path-breaking research on cooperation, group psychology and aggression.


Michael Bang Petersen, Professor, PhD, Department of Political Science
Email: michael@ps.au.dk