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Social Evolution, Innovation & Technology

May 10, 2021
William Von Hippel


This week our guest is William Von Hippel, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Queensland in Australia, and author of the 2018 novel, the Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy.

We explore how the challenges of our evolutionary past shaped many of the most fundamental aspects of our behavior in the modern day, traversing a journey from several million years ago to the present day. Along the way we touch heavily on many topics, including, but certainly not limited to, our evolutionary mismatch with the modern environment, why humans innovate the way we do, and different leadership styles that are rooted in evolutionary responses to hierarchy.

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Host: Steven Parton // Music by: Amine el Filali


The following transcription was created automatically. Please be aware that there may be spelling or grammatical errors.


evolved, people, humans, world, animal, baboon, brain, gene, problem, environment, benefit, evolutionary, social, capacity, group, eat, question, years, future, stress


Steven Parton, William Von Hippel

William Von Hippel  00:00

We actually evolved to innovate socially, we evolved to work together and to figure out social solutions to problems. And that's actually our preference. Now the problem is this social solution can block a technical one. So if you just automatically think about the world and social ways, then you can fail to think about a really obvious technical solution to your problem.

Steven Parton  00:32

Hello, everyone, you're listening to the feedback loop on singularity radio, where we keep you up to date on the latest technological trends and how they're impacting the transformation of consciousness and culture from the individual to society at large. This week, our guest is whey and von Hippel, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Queensland in Australia, and author of the 2018 novel The social leap, the new evolutionary science of who we are, where we come from, and what makes us happy. And this work, von Hippel explores how the challenges of our evolutionary past shaped many of the most fundamental aspects of our behavior in the modern day. In this episode, we rewind all the way back to several million years ago to the moment von Hippel calls the social leap, and work our way quickly to the present day. And along the way, we touch heavily on many topics, including, but certainly not limited to, the evolutionary mismatch we have with our modern environment, why humans innovate the way we do, and different leadership styles that are rooted in the evolutionary responses to hierarchy. Von Hippel his passion and remarkable ability to explain this complex subject matter make for an information packed and yet entertaining episode. So if you like what you hear, be sure to check out the episode description for a link to his book. And finally, if you want to suggest a guest, ask them questions of your own, or even potentially be a guest on the podcast yourself. Be sure to go to su.org slash podcast, and explore your options for membership within the singularity community. But for now, let's jump into this conversation. Everyone, please welcome to the feedback loop, William von Hippel. Could you tell us a little bit about you know, what motivated you to write this book? And what motivated you to do the research you've been doing for the last few decades? It sounds like,

William Von Hippel  02:29

yeah, so I started, I became a social psychologist a little over 30 years ago. And what that means is that I study how people interact in their everyday lives, what makes you more or less persuadable? What causes you to hold stereotypes? What influences your self esteem, the kind of standard everyday stuff that people's lives involve? And as I was doing that work, it started to become increasingly clear to me that we are only answering half the question. And so the answers that we typically provide are well, people do that, because it makes them happier when they do that, because it raises their self esteem. But we weren't asking why does it make them happier? Why does it raise their self esteem? And so in order to start looking at that question, I started looking into our past and saying, Well, how did we evolve? How do we get to be where we are? And what were the forces that shaped us in the past? Because they should influence what makes us happy? What makes us angry, because that those emotions are there for a reason, right? They evolved to serve a purpose. And so I started taking an increasingly deep dive into our ancestral past until I eventually realized that there was this book that I wanted to write where basically, it's linking together social psychology, and its evolutionary history. Lots of us do this kind of work. But I in particular, I wanted to look at the last 6 million years, and some of the key events that had happened in our evolutionary past, and the sort of signatures or consequences of those events going forward.

Steven Parton  03:50

And what were some of the things that you found that like, really stood out to you, what was the moment you realize, oh, wow, okay, I have something here. That is a true turning point in our ancestral history that explains maybe some of these imperatives or driving forces for our behavior.

William Von Hippel  04:06

Well, the key one that strikes me and of course, we don't know exactly when it happened. I have a hypothesis about when it happened. And I talked about that a fair bit. And I'm happy to go through why I think it is, but I think that it was around three to three and a half million years ago, was the key inflection point in our ancestral history. And basically prior to that, so we split apart from our chimp cousins, maybe six or 7 million years ago. And I can talk about why if you'd like, and then you, we kind of skulking around the edges of Savannah, it's a dangerous place for us. We're evolved to live in trees, we're not evolved to be on the ground. And, and so we're nowhere near the ascendant position we'd held in the rain forest, but then by about three, three and a half million years ago, now we're bipedal and that bipedalism, it's changed our body in a way that introduces a new way to protect yourself. And that new way to protect yourself is by throwing stones. Now that might not seem like a big deal, but The single most important invention in military history is the capacity to kill at a distance. And until you at no other animal can do that, in real distance, you know, some things can spit a little bit of poison, but not really at a distance. And so once we became bipedal, and our bodies became more oriented laterally, rather than vertically to go up and down trees, suddenly we have the capacity to throw in a way that we've never been able to before. chimpanzees can throw but they do so very poorly, they can't aim very well, they typically use two hands in our overhand. But once we gain this lateral orientation, environmental longer hips and waist due to our bipedalism, and lateral structure in our muscles, due to the fact that we're not going up and down trees all day. Now we can throw in the way that really expert throwers do, which generates an enormous amount of elastic energy through the ligaments, tendons, and muscles in your body. And so the end of a human throwing motion is like the snapping of a rubber band. So now, suddenly, we have the capacity to protect ourselves in the savanna. When previously we're just food when something came along, we just scattered and and that changed everything. It changed our orientation to each other. And it changed our orientation to the environment that we lived in. So for me, that's probably the the single most important inflection point.

Steven Parton  06:11

And how did that inflection point then kind of translate into? What would be that the social side of things? How does that upright posture, the throwing, moving on the savanna, that ascension of the of the hierarchy of the food chain? How does that begin to shift us into a place where our social aspects come to kind of set us apart from other animals?

William Von Hippel  06:35

Yeah, that's the key question, right. And so the if you look at also a pit the seeds, which is where I believe it happened, I could easily be off by a million years in either direction. But I think around 3 million years ago is where this happened. The what you see is an is an animal that had evolved away from chimpanzees to that point where it's bipedal. But probably we don't know, but probably its psychology was quite chimp like. And if we look at our best guess of what a chimp like psychology would look like, then is to look like what it looks like now, because of course, they live in much the same environment. And they're fundamentally competitive with each other. They will cooperate on occasion when they want to hunt monkeys, or things like that. But they don't work together in any fundamental way. And they don't want to work together in fundamental way. But once you gain the capacity of throw, and you're, you know, Australopithecus is probably for four and a half feet tall, they're not a huge animal. But once they gain the capacity to throw, well, they could do harm to an animal that's trying to attack them before that animal can get to them. But they can't do any real harm. Unless they work together. They're simply not big enough and strong enough. But if you've got a bunch of us will have different scenes together. And now they're being attacked by a lion, or a leopard, or even a saber tooth cat which lived on the savanna during that time. If a bunch of the men together and all throw at once, well, for the first time in our evolutionary life, they're safer if they work together than if they just scatter and hope for the best. So imagine, you know, a lion comes upon a group of Australopithecines. If they all scattered from the trees, well, I'd say there's 30 in the group, you've got a 29 and 30 chance of making it right because the lions faster than all of you, but it's can only be able to get one of you. And so your, your odds are pretty good. I mean, I don't want to do that every day, but your odds are pretty good. But if you all throw stones, the lion, then you can drive it off. Well, now your odds are perfect, because now that you're completely defensible, it's actually way safer than one in 30 chance of dying. And so for the first time, the group needs and the individual needs coincided perfectly in our line. And so what I believe happened at that inflection point is that we started to become much more social, we became much more cooperative because it served our best interests. Now, we don't know if it happened the first time, the 1,000th time, or even the millionth time that the opportunity presented itself. But somewhere along the line, there was those ancestors who had a proclivity to stand their ground and to not run away and all to work together. Were the ones who suddenly discovered the strategy that served us so well. And that began our social ascension to becoming a highly cooperative social being, and for a whole other set of reasons that also led to the massive expansion of our cranium and becoming as smart as we are.

Steven Parton  09:01

And was that do you think that was related at all to what people typically call the cognitive revolution? I know that came much later. That's more like that's still like a 3 million year gap, I would suppose because it's a cognitive revolution, as far as I understand is about 40,000 to 70,000 years ago. Was that maybe a moment where that journey that started 3 million years ago kind of came to fruition? And what kind of happened in that period of time that might have caused us to maybe be more sensitive to social ostracism, asters, you know, ostracization, maybe social judgment, status rank, maybe different kinds of behaviors that we evolve to be sensitive to during that time?

William Von Hippel  09:42

Yeah, that's the key, right? So that's really what I think all the cognitive stuff started to happen because for the first time, in our line, we now have the possibility of expanding our brain but gaining some caloric benefit by virtue of that expansion. And so you know, any animal on this planet would benefit by being Smart, right? So if zebra is way smarter, it could chat with other zebras about stuff that zebras just can't talk about. You know, they don't talk at all. But it could do Einstein, it could be way smarter than us. And if it were way smarter than us, he could outwit the lions. And it would say, all right, well, let's, here's a plan tomorrow, and the lions come after us, you fake left all fake, right? Well, both, you know, and they can come up with something that's going to work a lot better than Oh, run, right. But if they get a bigger brain, they got to be able to pay the rent on that bigger brain, they've got to be able to bring in more or higher quality food. And a zebra as it is spends its whole day eating grass, so it can't get more grass, it's only got foods doesn't have hands, can't manipulate tools or objects. So it would be wonderful for it to be smarter, but it couldn't pay the rent to get that bigger brain, it would actually be a caloric negative rather than a positive, despite the greater safety that it would bring. But once our ancestors started working together as a group, now they could start to pay the rent on a bigger brain, if they could start doing more interesting things with it. So once we work together as a group by stoning the predators that are coming after us, we can start to say, hey, let's go get dinner that way, tomorrow, let's donate some food and bring it bring it home and eat it. The smarter you get, the more opportunities you have. And it's not long, about a million years after that, where you start to see division of labor, you get to Homer rectus, who evolved division of labor. And that gives you an enormous advantage. Once you have division of labor, then groups have emergent properties that individuals just don't have. They're not you know, the effectiveness of individual times x, they're effective of individuals by x squared, or whatever the number might be, right? And they can start to say, okay, you wait here, I'm gonna go there, we'll chase the mammoth, it'll fall off the cliff and die, and we're going to eat a meal that's way bigger than any of us individually, no other animal can do that. Wolves can bring down a large animal by all jumping on at once. But that's pretty dangerous business. We're not designed for those big dangerous projects. But we are mentally. And coincidentally, we have really interesting genetic gene in our line that appears to have popped up. And I'm happy to talk about how that came about and how we think it came about at around that exact same point. And so if you look at our at our cranial expansion, for the first 3 million years after we left the forest and our chimp cousins behind, it goes very slowly, we gained hardly anything. But after that three min years, it really takes off. So I think in answer your question, the cognitive revolution is definitely something we see in homosapiens within the last 100,000 years, of course, that's where we have the best data. But it all really probably started there on the savanna the day that those Australopithecines realized, boy, if we band together and throw stones all at once, we can drive off even the biggest predators.

Steven Parton  12:27

Yeah, I'd love to hear more about this gene. What when did it arrive? And what what are we thinking that the gene does in terms of influencing or how its expressed.

William Von Hippel  12:36

So the one of the ways that evolution often works is by accidental duplication. So in it when the DNA splitting and and reforming you know, in, in meiosis, sexual production, or any of the permutation, any variety of places, the and I'm not a biologist, so I could be butchering this. But basically, what often happens is, I believe, to RNA processes, but it could be completely wrong, a gene accidentally duplicates itself on the genome. Now, however, that comes about as you ask a proper scientist to that, but however, that comes about, what you've got now is a really great situation. Because the gene is duplicated itself, the the gene that already exists, is doing the job that it was doing before. So now we can change any way it wants, or do other things that are related and without harming the organism. And in our case, somewhere around 15 million years ago, the notch two nl gene appears to have accidentally duplicated on the genome. Now the notch two ml gene appears This is all pretty new, it's within the last few years. So there's lots of work to be done. But what it appears to do is cause your neurons to remain as stem cells for longer. And so when neurons are stem cells, they duplicate a lot more. And so once they stopped being stem cells, then they hardly duplicate at all, they hardly regenerate themselves. It happens but not not at the level that happens when there's still stem cells. And so, what you've got is now around 15 ish million years ago, I can't remember the exact date, this gene duplicates itself and then just sit silent on the genome for about 10 million years until it runs into our 15 ancestors when it then duplicates itself again, and it turns on now why would it turn on right at the most propitious time? Well it probably didn't probably turned on 1000s of times in between, but every time it turned on in the past that gene was more expensive than it was benefit so it was all cost and very little yield to be the super smart chimp and you know you're still doing chippers things you're still competing with the other chimps and and you're getting the only game is individual and you've got to pay the price on that bigger brain with more calories. So it's probably best to neutral and more than likely a cost. The now when it happens to do it again, right when they could use it when also put the scenes are working together. Now you see cranial expansion just take off over the next 3 million years. So prior to that event, 3 million years on the savanna gained us about 75 grams of brain power. We've gone from about a 380 gram brain as a chimp to about a 450 gram brain as an Australopithecus and then we go in Next million and a half years, we more than doubled in size to a 960 gram brain is a home Erectus. And then in the next month and a half years from them, we add another chimp brain on top of that to about 1350 grams, which is what you and I are sitting with today. And and what assuredly happened during that time is all sorts of key innovations and key changes in our behavior, one of which was fire, bringing in higher quality food, protecting ourselves better, etc. But a number of those events allowed us to keep growing a bigger and bigger brain, which kept bringing in more and more benefits with it.

Steven Parton  15:28

Is I know that there's, I guess I shouldn't say, I know, I've heard that there is concerns about the role that the size of the hips played and keeping a brain smaller for premature birth so that there was a longer learning period. Is that still something that is credited that from what you've seen?

William Von Hippel  15:51

No, there's no question that the birth of the now birth canal, narrow, comparatively speaking matters, I watched my children being born. And it's like pretty blown away, that a woman can get that thing through, it doesn't look easy. I don't want to do it myself. And, and that definitely matters. But Robert sapolsky, has made a really interesting argument. And I'm not sure if it's the first to make this Arden. But that's the first time I encountered it in his book behave, where he points out that, you know, are Think about it this way, we've got a few billion base pairs on our entire genome, right. But we've got billions of neurons and trillions or trillions of connections. So even if our entire genome were dedicated to wiring, our brain couldn't do the job, there's just too many connections that it has to wire with too little information to start with. And so what's supposed to keep points out is that by Yeah, the birth canal definitely wants you to push that baby out earlier before the brain gets bigger. But you actually want the brain to be connecting to itself when it's experiencing the world. You don't want it to be connecting to itself when it's inside, and there's nothing going on. And so the brain actually probably cobalt with that problem, we might have come up with a different solution to it, the cobalt for that problem, then it's really good for us to be born completely hopeless and completely dependent, because then we can just sit there in this world with this buzzing confusion. And we can allow the regularities in our environment to wire our brain for us. Now, this only happens at the cortical level level at the subcortical level, you've got your older brain, so to speak, which is subcortical. And then on top of it, you've got this big cortex, which is like a newspaper that's been crumpled up and shoved in there. So it's all wibbly wobbly. So lots of surface area bits crammed into a smaller space, that cortex, the wiring of that cortex is random, you barely know anything about how two neurons are going to be connected by their proximity to each other. Whereas if you look sub cortically, depending where you are, you know a lot about who's talking to whom, as a function of proximity. And what that tells you is that, yes, narrow hips meant that we had to come out pretty, pretty premature, pretty half baked. But it's, it's actually in our best interest to do that, because in our genes don't have to regulate the way our brain forms is neuronal connections that can be regulated by our interactions with the environment,

Steven Parton  17:59

which definitely makes sense, right? Because we want our brain to create its expectations of the world based on actual stimuli stimuli that it's going to encounter. So maybe that's a good point where we can maybe jump this conversation forward in time a little bit. You know, since that time period where we were developing those social evolutionary behaviors, we've went through the agricultural revolution, through the Industrial Revolution, and now we're in the technological revolution. That's a very major change and environments. And I can't remember how that line goes exactly. But it's like, it's almost pointless to talk about behavior unless you're talking about how genes are expressed in relationship to their environment. So given all that work that you've done, and the behaviors that you've seen, evolve, you know, in our ancestral environment, what are some of the ways that you are seeing it change maybe as a result of either the agricultural revolution, the industrial or the technological?

William Von Hippel  19:01

Yeah, that's a great question. And and there's two key parts to the answer. One is that we evolved to be cultural animals. And so what makes us it's had such an enormous advantage over all the other animals in this planet, is our incredible communicative capacity. And so every other animal when it's born, it has to learn the world starting at ground zero, and when it dies, has learned a lot and everything it learned dies with it, and it starts over again, the next generation starts at Ground Zero, for whatever that animal is a couple of inborn bits of knowledge, and then you got to learn everything else. And there's no one there to teach you. We have such extraordinary cognitive capacity blended with such extraordinary communicative capacity that we can communicate to each other and culture ratchets itself and scaffolds on itself. And that the clearest example that I know of is if you look at what only the geniuses knew a few generations ago, Copernicus figures out that we're not the center of the universe. Darwin figures out that evolution is how we got here. Nobody knew that before them. Now you learn them in primary School, every kid knows that. And so it's this extraordinary process of learning and ratcheting up and working through the world in an amazing way. You and I don't know how any of the devices work at any real level that sit between us, and yet we're talking to each other from 1000s of miles apart, we don't need to know because other humans know. And so what that tells you is that, despite our brain being an enormously impressive device, single individual humans by themselves are not that impressive. And the example I always give is, how would you feel if I told you I was going to drop you in the forest naked and alone in some tropical rainforests, you'd be like, scared, oh, I'm going to, I'm going to be animals, animal food, right. But if I told you, I'm going to take 100 of you, and drop you naked in the rain forest, you'd say, Wow, that sounds like a party A and B, even though none of us were techies, or we're humanists, or whatever we are, we don't know how to survive in a rain forest. I'm not even scared anymore, I know that we're going to make a plan, and we're gonna figure it out in between all of us together, we're going to, we're going to be the new top predator in that section of woods. And so what that tells you is that human connecting to each other is mission critical. And we evolved to do that. And, and so what that allows us to be is a generalist who becomes a specialist in every single environment on this planet. And so every other animal has had to evolve its own specialization, because specialization usually wins. And so that means you eat the certain fruit, and you pollinate the certain flower, and you have this deal with the tree or the plant, or you've lived this complicated, intertwined life. And we can do that too, everywhere on this planet with different rules about what we eat different rules about how we live, but we figure them out as we go. And so what that tells you is that, yeah, there's a lot of evolutionary mismatches that now exist in our modern world where we evolved to live in this Pleistocene Savanna environment, and we don't live there anymore. But fortunately for us, we also evolved to be generalists who are capable of becoming specialists in any environment. And so there are things that causes problems. I'm happy to talk about that if you want. But really, what's happening now is the pace of technology, the pace of cultural change, is what drives us to be who we are, there are winners and losers, and every one of those changes, right. And sometimes those losers never get to catch up, like society forgets about them, but they got a raw deal. When Imagine you're, you know, a heavy truck hauler, and now there's self driving heavy trucks, well, that was your job, you might have other skills, and it might be hard to upskill at this point in your life, there's a lot that happens a lot, it keeps happening throughout human history. And so there's, there's a lot of, you know, breaking of eggs to make this particular omelet. And it's an ongoing process. But society itself does incredibly well every time. And so if you look at sort of the first, Luddites, so to speak, who are destroying machinery, because it's putting people out of work, and you look at the life they lived compared to the life we live, now, everything's cheaper, there's far fewer, you know, it used to be 90% of humans were farmers and 10% got to do something else. Now, it's far more than 90% are doing something else. And we're benefiting from those wonderful 10%. We're doing all the growing and allowing people to do all the different kinds of things they want to do. So we're very fortunate that we live in the exact time and the exact place that we do, even though it's a super intimidating place.

Steven Parton  23:04

I agree with all of that. One thing that makes me think of is your discussion around social innovation, particularly how, you know, most people aren't? Well, let me rephrase that. Most of us have the capacity to be really genius innovators, but most of us don't do it for many reasons. One of which is that you say we just prefer to socialize and a lot of instances, and we don't even think about the technical solution, because we prefer the social aspect. How does that kind of cultural shift to maybe tie into social innovation as like our niche, and maybe you can just explain Social Innovation itself a bit more?

William Von Hippel  23:47

Sure. So the if you look at the history of humanity, the what separates us from our chimp cousins is all this technical innovation, the conversation you and I are having at a distance, the warm climate control room, I live in the sun shade shirt that I own, you know, all those kinds of things, right? But it turns out that most humans never innovate anything, when they do the surveys, and they call you on the phone and they say, Have you modified any product or invented anything new in the last three years, and they then try to find out what it was they the highest they ever get is about 6% of done at once in three years. I actually think that's an over estimate. I've never made anything worthwhile in my life, and that none of my friends have either, right? But obviously, I don't hang out with techie types. And so maybe they would think it's an underestimate, because they're constantly making new things. And so then the question is, well, why is it that the single most defining species of our, our defining quality of our species are innovative as our technical innovation? Why is it actually so rare? And an answer that question, but I believe the answer so my colleague, Thomas ludendorff, and I have proposed that what's going on there is that we actually evolved to innovate socially. We evolved to work together and to figure out social solutions to problems and that's actually our preference. Now the problem is this social solution can block a technical one. So if you just automatically think about the world and social ways, then you can fail to think about a really obvious technical solution to your problem. and advance the example I always use because it's so amusing, I was just how stupid I was. And everybody else for that matter, it's not just me is that you didn't use to be wheels on suitcases until the 1980s. And so we would travel around with these really heavy suitcases that had no wheels on them. And then we pay somebody to put it on their wheeled cart and roll it the last 100 meters to the counter because we just couldn't carry with all the suitcases we once we get out the car. And I never once saw boy bill, you could make a fortune if you redesign a suitcase to put wheels on it. All I thought was who could I talking to go into the airport with me to help me carry my suitcases across the hall because I don't really have extra money to be paying a border, there goes a pizza, right? And so once they put wheels on suitcases, the second I sought out Now, of course, now I have to have that I must buy myself a new suitcase. But but it's so obvious and so simple. Why didn't we think of it? Because we weren't focused on that aspect of the problem? So the question is, who is focused on that aspect of the problem? And what the data suggests is that people who tend to be more out on the autism spectrum, and the reason for that is they're less socially inclined. So if they're less engaged with with other socially, then they're more, they're more likely to look at the problems and think, well, how can I saw that myself? And what that typically means is, well, what can I do to change the world? What can I do to make it technically more suitable to me. And if you, you know, if you look at Silicon Valley, if you look at the big companies that have changed the world, I would hypothesize that there's a lot of ASCII people working in those companies. They're brilliant, but they're on the spectrum somewhere. And being on the spectrum is actually behoove them in this case, because it's made them more technically oriented. And those technical skills then, because the rest of us are so social, and because they see Oh, boy, if I spread this idea, it'll be very lucrative for me, we all connect together, and boom, off go those ideas. And so I think that every human, not every human, most humans could innovate new project new products, but almost none of us do, because it just doesn't it we're devoting our intelligence and our creativity elsewhere.

Steven Parton  26:58

Do you think that that's changing in a world of social media and online interaction? Like how do you think this new paradigm of you find your mates online? You know, you use emoticons instead of emotions, you sit at home and stare through a screen instead of staring, staring into their eyes and reading body language? How is that shifting some of the ways that those genes and evolved behaviors express themselves for us as a species,

William Von Hippel  27:25

and totally speculating, I don't know at all. But what I would say is that we do know that when if you and I were in person, staring at each other face to face, and we're friendly, and we're having a good conversation, which is all happening, we would start to synchronize our behaviors in a very interesting way. at a low level, by the way, we move our hand and if I lean back, you'd be more likely to lean back and vice versa. But we even start to synchronize our pupil dilation. And so what happens when two humans get together is they become simpatico with each other. And mirror neurons may play a big role. I'm not totally sure exactly what's going on here. But there's even some decent evidence in neurologically we've synchronized what we don't yet know is how well does that work over zoom or any Skype any other platform, right? The End may work, once we get the internet working well enough, it may work basically perfectly. Like, you know, we didn't evolve to see two dimensional pictures. So I don't feel like I'm looking at you and your flat, I feel like I'm looking at you and your person, right. And even though you're only that big to eyeball, I don't feel like you're a miniature person at all that our mind just solves that problem instantly. And so it may well be that if you get the technology good enough, that actually you mirror most of those synchrony effects that really matter beyond the kind of fact that we also evolved the desire for touch, we also evolved desire to connect to each other. When humans do touch, there's oxytocin released, if it's friendly touch, hugs, and all that kind of stuff. And those oxytocin releases play an important role in friendship, and in romantic relationships, and in parental relationships, family relationships. So it would be in my mind, probably bad if we ended up always being connected to each other and never ever got a chance to physically interact. But maybe we would have also that those humans who were better connecting over the video screen were the dominant ones and for more relationships and shipped off their sperm and egg and had more babies, I mean, who knows? Right? Those kinds of things are very hard to predict. Are you

Steven Parton  29:15

seeing ways in which it might be more specifically maladaptive? Hopefully that's not quite the same question. But are there specific like maladaptive occurrences that you're you're concerned about or maybe seen because of the shift from ancestral environment to technological technology environment?

William Von Hippel  29:34

Well, this COVID one is bad for lots of people anxieties up depression is up. This is it. We're on zoom. It's a great mechanism for the kind of conversation we're having. But it's not so good to go meet people because a bunch of squares in my screen How do I talk to the square I want to talk to my niece and nephew actually have started a new company called to cam where they're actually trying to make it more like a just a friendly environment and it's really lovely idea There's probably quite a few out there where people are trying to do that. How can we go forward in the world that we now live and make a make an environment that actually is more conducive to natural conversations and relationships. And in their case, they've done this wonderful job. It's still on screen, of course. But it's like, you can move in and out of conversations, you can have messaging to people that they do and don't see. I mean, imagine that you and I are at a party. And imagine I don't really want to talk to you. So we're zooming, there's four of us, how do I pretend to talk to you, but really try to talk to the other guy in a party, I could do it, I could find my moment to escape, or I could bring the other person in and get a job from them, I could say, Hey, I'm gonna go grab some punch, and then never reappear to you. There's lots of strategies I could use without being rude. But on zoom, it's hard, right? And so because this platform wasn't designed for that, and so as we go forward to the degree that we retain the positive qualities of these relationships, and E interactions, I think you're going to see a proliferation of platforms that serve different kinds of purposes. But secondarily, there's also likely to be costs and, and one of those costs that may be unavoidable, at least for the time being, which is this sort of increasing desire to be with people and, and even if people don't know, that's what the problem is the increase in anxiety and depression and things like that, which right now is bad. I mean, we here in Australia are super lucky, where there's basically no COVID anymore because of the strict lockdown, and we're never surrounded by ocean, so it's easy to control our environment. You come here, you go into quarantine, you can't just come to Australia, and it's hard to come at all. But in America, it's it's not so easy to do. And so, you know, it's you guys are much more lockdown situation, and therefore much more relying on these forms of communication and seeing, therefore, the more negative sides of it.

Steven Parton  31:42

Yeah, have you done much research or study into the effects of like status and rank, like, in social circumstances, like how that affects cognition,

William Von Hippel  31:55

when status is a super important power that a person has is a super important quality. And I don't know if it differs in any meaningful way over IE, communication versus non knee communication. But the higher power you are, the more disinhibited you can be, the more everybody's curious, like, if I hold power over you, if I can determine your race, if I can determine who you get to marry, or even just determine where you eat dinner tonight, you need to understand what I'm thinking, right? That becomes super important to you. What's it, what am I going to eat tonight? It's up to Bill, what's bill thinking, as you look at Pizza like or is he looking at, you know, taco night. And so suddenly you care a lot what I'm thinking, whereas if I have no power over you, and I don't set you up for dinner tonight, you may not care at all when I'm thinking. And so we know all sorts of effects where attention gets aimed at people with power, even just for selfish reasons, I want to know what's going to happen to me. So I need to understand this person's mind. Now the one thing that we know and this separates us from all the other animals to the best of our ability is all humans want to share the contents of the mind all the time. But I become particularly interested in the contents of your mind when you hold power over me, because now I can predict my future. And maybe I can even nudge your mind a little bit in the direction that I want to go. Like, I want it to be taco night. And so I can drop Mexican themes into our conversation and hope that you pick it right. And so things like power matter a lot in the way humans interact. And whether that proves to be showing different effects by virtue of the environment or not, we don't know yet.

Steven Parton  33:20

Yeah, I've just one of the personal kind of questions, I guess, that I've been wondering about lately is the role of having like these permanent objective counters that kind of tell us how many likes and follows and what our community looks like, and having that as an act like constant reminder, in the digital space, whereas I would think in ancestral environment, you know, we might have a more like ephemeral or nebulous understanding of our role, like, we might be like, yeah, I'm not the highest rank, but I'm not the lowest rank guy there. And I don't really think about it all that often because I don't have a reason to. But now in this modern environment, it's like you wake up, you immediately see your profile with exactly your like social stats in a permanent objective. Everyone sees it for him. And I'm, I can't help but wonder if that's like that, just that constant reminder, that's a habitual, you know, stimuli for our brain to consider that,

William Von Hippel  34:15

it seems a great example. It's a great example of an enormous mismatch between where we lived in the past and how we live now. So use your example. You and I are hunter gatherers, 100,000 years ago, and there's 27 of us in our group, and it'll come and go as people leave it and join it. But that's about where we stand. I know them all. And you know, and you're just a better hunter than I am. I wish I were better, but you you're better at it than I am. But probably I'm better than you at something. And probably something matters. Maybe I'm better at making errors. And so you know, you're really useful to our group, and I really admire you and we check it out like you do, but you need me to. And so you like to feel like hey, Bill, man, I really use another one of those arrows you made the other day. And I'm like, no worries, mate. Thanks for that piece of giraffe here you go right. And so everybody could be the best at something Or at least be really useful in some way in a group that size. And so we evolved to want to be more benefit than we are cost to our group. Because the day that you guys all decide bill costs more than he's bringing in, I wake up and I'm the only one there because you guys have left or I never wake up again at all right? It's too costly to live in that world to have somebody whose only cost benefit is someone who who's only consuming resources and not providing. And so we evolved this strong need to be benefiting our group and to be valued by their group and the way we the way we evaluate where we stand is to be like, right? If bill stops bringing in the bacon, people just stop liking them, they stop talking to them. And so do people like me Do they respond positively is my little barometer I sociometry. And Mark Leary and Roy Baumeister terms about how I'm doing. And as you point out, now, I've got all sorts of numerical indicators that which is bad thing, number one. Now it's very quantified and bad thing. Number two is there's a bazillion other humans out there. And some of them have way more followers than I do. And some of them have way more likes than I do. And so in a group of 27, I could be the best arrow maker, but I could never be the best arrow maker on the planet, much less in my city. And so the psychology that saw us to try to find our nation to try to find a way to contribute to it also saw I was trying to be the best, because we're engaged in the status competition all the time comparing each other, not just that, we know that we're valued by our group, but also so the girl will pick me, and I know she's gonna pick you, she wants a better Hunter, but she might pick me and she really cares about the quality of our arrows, right? I've got a reason to be picked. But if I got no reason to be pick, because somebody else better handle somebody else better or make something better than everything. And that's the modern world we live in, nobody is the best at anything, except for one fleeting moment, you're the richest or the strongest, or the fastest, and then it's gone. But the rest the other 9 billion, 7 billion of us, we don't get to be that ever. And so social media rubs our nose that in a very bad way. And that's that kind of social comparison process, where we come out not high in the hierarchy, but low in hierarchies, very bad for happiness. So yes, it's it's a real example of a mismatch that our ancestors didn't have to suffer through because they didn't get likes on their Facebook page. Now, there's huge benefits to Facebook, there always are benefits to any of these new forms of technology, but there's almost nothing that comes without cost. And in this particular case, I think that quantification with a large number of humans, it's out there is a real cost. You know,

Steven Parton  37:26

the the subtitle of your book is, of who we are, where we came from, but also what makes us happy, and we're talking a lot about anxiety and anxiety and depression here. And, you know, it feels like your motto is, generally we learn how to move forward by looking back. Are there are there lessons from looking back that you think we can use moving forward to help assuage some of that anxiety to help make us happier? Like, are there specific? Are there specific things you feel that we can keep in mind? Or do to use these lessons from the past as we move forward?

William Von Hippel  38:02

Yeah, that's a great question. And I do think there are if you think about happiness, it's an it's an emotion that evolved to serve a evolutionary purpose. It evolved because those people who got happy when they did things that were in their genes, best interest passed on that proclivity to more people than those people who got happy by doing things that weren't in their genes, best interest. So we're all happy when we eat a delicious meal, none of us, almost none of us are happy if we eat dog feces, because dog feces are bad for us. And they lower a probability survival, a delicious meal is full of nutrients, and fats and sugars, that give us a better chance of surviving. Now, unfortunately, in that particular case, we live in a world where there's too much of that. And so that proclivity to want to eat. foods that are full of fat, sugar, and salt is now a bad thing, unless we can control it. So again, costs and benefits of everything. But But yes, if you look to our ancestral environment, you can see a few key things. We're pair bonding species. And the reason we're pair bonding is because it takes a lot of effort to raise our young as we talked about earlier. And so what that means is that a newborn baby's got a much better chance of surviving if both a mum and a dad are providing resources to it, and preferably other family members as well. So we formed strong family units. And that means that we evolved to proclivity to find joy in our family. And so we can look to that and say, Well, I should try it. Not all some families are very dysfunctional, they're hard to find joy in, but you can start your own family as well, right? It doesn't just have to be the Natal family in which you were born your biological family. And so that's a big part of it, we evolved to pair bonds to raise those kids. And so again, that tells you forming long term romantic relationships is really good for your happiness. But if you rewind the tape to when we're talking about us flipping the scenes on the on the savanna, they started this process of evolving to cooperate. And what that tells you is that, you know, you're going to get great satisfaction in your life. If you can cooperate with other humans to solve problems that you think are important and we're solving and they may only be problems at work. How can I feed enough People tacos during the day, right? But that's a really important problem if you work in a taco shop. And so it's not, I'm not saying that you're making the world a better place, I'm saying you're solving the local problem that you're confronted with. And so what that means is that if you can find whatever you like to do the most and, and people often say, find your passion. And I try to avoid saying that because so many people struggle to find their passion, right? It's not easy to know what, what you're best at, and what you're going to enjoy the most. But that doesn't matter, all you have to do is find something you're good at, and enjoy for now. And if you can find that, and then you can find a way to work with others to do it better, to, in some cooperative way, solve problems, and it doesn't have to be at work, it could be another context in your life, that's going to make you happy, you're going to go home without even knowing it, but feel like you've you've achieved something meaningful that your days works been done, because you want other humans work together and achieve something and that's what we evolved to do.

Steven Parton  40:52

Could you maybe expand upon that a little bit with your good samaritan example, I forget which one of your graduate students it was who worked on that, but I'm pretty sure they had to go down a hallway where they had a chance to help somebody to the point where that person was actually like, in the hallway, and they had to step over them. And depending on how rushed or not that person was, would depend on whether they helped. And one thing I thought particularly interesting about that, be working, you know, here, Singularity University where focus is on the future, the singularity, you know, the, this moment of like, true technological revolution, you talk about the fact that we can get really blinded to the present issues, because of our future obsession. I'm wondering if you could just maybe unpack that and expand upon that a bit.

William Von Hippel  41:40

Sure. So one of the most important weapons that evolution gave us is the capacity of this large brain of ours to simulate the future. Other animals can't do that. And in my inbox, simulate the future. I don't mean just think, oh, what's about to happen next, but actually imagine contrary futures, mutually contradictory futures. And so my favorite example of experiment from that, as my colleagues, i'm john red, Shawn Thomas soudan, Dorf invented this amazing experiment, where they have this basic y tube, it's a long, straight line, and then it splits in two directions. And they drop a grape diamond or some preferred food, and they do it with chimps, or little kids. And all they want to do is see what does the animal do to catch the grape or the preferred food now you can look at that and go, Oh, I can't tell for certain which side the grapes gonna go on. It'll go left, it'll go right. And you know, it's going to be 5050. But if I let you, you use both hands, if I don't tie one hand behind your back, you know, you're going to get the grape every time. It's not rocket science, right? apes can't do that. And neither can little kids, not until they're, I think it was around three or four, they can reliably do it. And what's amazing is, sometimes they'll put both hands out, and then they'll catch up with one hand, and they'll go back to just use net one hand, they don't understand that there was this mutually contradictory futures that they could not simulate, and therefore it was going to be one or the other. They could say, well, I'm not sure which it will be, I'll go for that. One. They couldn't say I can guarantee that no matter which one it is, I'll take both right. And so we have that capacity. And then of course, that moves on to go to do all sorts of amazing things. Because now rather than just say, Well, I'm going to dive in there and try to win this fight, or I'm going to try to solve this problem, we can sit back and reflect on it for as long as we possibly want to write, we can reflect on it for days, weeks, months, or years. And then say now I know the answer. I've simulated 900 possible ways I could do it. And once I did get my face beat in once, and now I'm going to go in there and I'm going to beat you up because I know the way to do it right? So I don't suffer at all, I just bide my time till I've got the perfect plan in place. And that's the different conflict or hopefully not for friendship, or making the world a better place or whatever. But what all that means is that this, this enormously beneficial piece of turf right here gets us to start living in the future all the time, because it works so well. And so it's really hard for us to snap back to the here and now. But the here now is very important for happiness. And the example experiment you gave I wish it were my own. It's very famous experiment run by john darleen, dan Batson. And what they did is they they were at Princeton, and so they had seminary students come in who were learning, you know, wanted to either be priests or study religion. And they told them, oh, here's what we need you to do, we need you to go give a lecture on the Good Samaritan. And you're either ahead of schedule, you're right on schedule, you're running behind schedule, they told them that so off, you go to that other building and give you a lecture. It's another walking off and they're all their mind is caught up on the lecture, they have to give about how you should stop and help somebody who's in need, because that's the parable of the Good Samaritan. And when they walk outside the building, there's this person clearly needed help rolling around on the ground moaning and some of them as you say, step right over him on the way to tell other humans, why they should always stop to help. And the more they were caught up thinking about the future, because they're running a little bit behind schedule, Oh, I got to get there, the more likely they were to do that. Now all of them are likely to do that, even when they were ahead of schedule, something like a third to a half step to write past this guy who they ought to be helping in order to lecture others on how you ought to help and then what that's telling you is that we get caught up in the future and don't even notice the present. Right? My favorite example, that This amazing Washington Post demonstration they did were Joshua Bell, they came he came to Washington DC to, to put on a concert. He's an amazing soloist on the violin. And they had him in his $3 million Stradivarius in the metro in Washington playing this amazing music. And they just want to see how many people would stop and listen, what he did on the way into work when everybody's going in thinking about what they got to get solved that day. And out of over 1000 people who are past them, only seven stopped, even listen for a minute, to one of the world's greatest violinist busking for free, when you're going to pay a fortune to watch him as part of the symphony several nights from now. And so it's this great capacity that we have, but it's a costly capacity to our happiness, because it can make us not even notice the present, we just get caught up in the future. And so lots of great opportunities to solve your problem can go unnoticed when you're busy trying to solve that very same problem because your mind is elsewhere.

Steven Parton  45:51

Is that something that you've seen impacted by stress? Like Have you done much work in terms of how stress affects our proclivity to maybe be pro social or anti social? Or maybe both? For instance, I know I vary from it's my understanding that the amygdala has kind of antagonistic relationship with the prefrontal cortex. And the prefrontal cortex often you know, is where we process these kind of critical thoughts and our narratives and we maybe have these linguistic abilities to process a moment more, more abstractly. If we're really stressed out, though, you kind of feel like you would lose that ability to kind of catch yourself in a moment where you could be doing something more intelligently. Is that is that a relationship you've explored?

William Von Hippel  46:43

Yeah, I haven't done the work on that. There's lots of great work on that problem. Actually, we're doing a little bit of it. Now we're collaborating with Ruth is some biometric capture company. And so we're looking at stress among executives. And we've done some really interesting fun work with that work because we can monitor heart rate and stress in real time. The basically, if you look at the literature, in general, what it shows is exactly what you're saying that as people get more stressed out their attentional focus narrows. Now, there's also other bodily consequences that and so we see in our research with with whoop, and actually with McKinsey here in Australia, that these executives were under these high stress circumstances, the next day, their frontal lobes aren't working as well. So you have a really stressful day yesterday. And now we give you a frontal lobe task. For example, I keep telling you words over and over, and you have to remember where two ago or three ago or four ago, that's just like mental explosion task, and they don't do as well on it if yesterday was a stressful day, but they do better on it if they got lots of slow wave sleep last night. So this device is really giving us some fun windows into these things. But we have to remember, will stress evolved for you know, we evolved our stress response in a very sensible way because our stresses were short term, I'm being chased by a saber toothed tiger. This is not the time for me the huh. I wonder what the best way to solve this problem really is. It's just like, go legs go, right. And so we we evolved in an environment where stressors were short term, where you, human beings have this amazing capacity to be both deliberative and implemented. And so when you're deliberating you're trying to decide what you're going to do, we're really open minded during that phase. But then once you implement You're doing well, it's not the time to deliberate when the saber tooth is running at you, you make a very quick fight or flight decision, and then you're implementing, and once you're implementing, you want to have this closed focus. And my favorite example of that is, if you ever watched these nature shows with a cheetah, it's doing the deliberative thing when it's picking, which Gazelle it wants to eat. It's like, okay, I want to eat you. And then it goes after that animal, it's chosen that based on proximity, and seeming, how fast it is, etc. Well, now sometimes it'd be running after in this, like tunnel vision. And you'll see this Gazelle right next to suddenly realize there's a cheater right next to me. And that sounds like and it just peels off in the other direction. Well, the cheetah doesn't care, it's evolved to stay focused in this implementation phase on the animals pick, because if it chooses that one, and then that one, and then that one, it's going to run out of steam and not catch anybody. Now there's a cost every once in a while it will, it should have grabbed the one that was right next to it, it should have broken out of that mindset. But that's uh, that benefit would happen less than it would be costly. And so what we see is the exact same thing with stress. On average, it's beneficial for us to now our attentional focus, and to be just dealing with this very immediate problem that we have. But that's a terrible idea when you live in a modern world where stress is a long term where we don't patch something or run away from it, where our solutions to these problems don't fit anymore the way we're trying to work on them. And so the stress system that made perfect sense for this implementation phase of trying to deal with this really acute important stressor that would be gone in five minutes. Makes no sense at all when you're trying to deal with long term stressor of you know, cardiac care my boss doesn't like me or you know, you name it. There's a long list of things that tunnel vision only hurts.

Steven Parton  49:58

Absolutely. That makes me feel In a perfect segue, maybe looking at executives and stress, you know, we deal with a lot of organizations and executives at SU. And one of the things you mentioned in your book is two different leadership styles and how that could be brought into the organizational realm. I believe it's either the baboon or the elephant, could you could you talk about what those two different styles of leadership look like?

William Von Hippel  50:23

Sure. So remember, humans beings evolved away from chimpanzees who are very hierarchical and very selfish, not cooperative. And then we had this moment where suddenly cooperation really benefit us. And we shifted dramatically became much more collectivist and cooperative, we evolved this proclivity and ability for collective action. And so what that means is it inside us we have both a strong group orientation, but also a strong individualistic orientation that did not go away just to have this new layer put on top of it. And so what that means is that you in all sorts of activities in life, we're going to see people being grumpy, and cooperative and helpful, and we're going to see them being selfish and jerks. That's just the universal. But the thing that brings that out the most is as you become a leader, because once you become a leader of your group, now you have all sorts of opportunities to really help people. So your goofy side can really manifest itself into a great thing. But you've also got these great opportunities to help yourself, right, I can be the leader of this group, I can get all the females to be attracted to me, I can take all the goods, all the pay raises, you know, whatever it might be, I can get all those things for myself. And so I call these elephant in baboon leadership styles. Because elephants, the leaders have these old females, and they don't benefit in any way from their leadership, there's no way to get extra food because all elephants eat everything that holds stale, right, they just eat all day, because they have to, to maintain that massive bulk. And it's just plant life. And her job is really just to call the group, the group of females and young males together whenever there's a threat. So she gains nothing by being leader, other than doing a good job, because that way, nobody gets eaten. And everybody else benefits in that same way. So they're totally group serving. baboons are the opposite end of the spectrum, the male who rises to the top of the hierarchy, which he does by fighting, he males leave their group and so they have to fight their way to the top females are born into their group. And so they inherit the status of their mother, he has to fight his way to the top of these enormous canines. And all he really cares. Once he gets there, it's benefiting himself. So the fertile females that he likes he monopolizes their attention, you won't let any other males near them. If there's a really good food that they get. They're omnivorous. If they get a high calorie, meat, food hills, he'll take it, if there's a nice shady rest bot, he'll take it. And so they're totally self serving. And human beings fall somewhere in between. Some of us are more elephant, like just in personality, some of us are more about boom, like in personality. But in my mind, the more important effect is that the more unequal the environment is, the greater the inequality in any one setting, the more likely you are to shift to a baboon mentality. Because if there's lots of great things to be had, and if you don't have those, you got nothing. Well, there's a lot to be gained by selfishness. And then as you become a leader, you're going to be doing everything you can to benefit yourself and your immediate family, you're going to be very baboon light, very self serving. But if you live in a highly equal environment, your tendency is going to be to be off in life, because there's not much to gain by being so selfish, and there's a lot to lose, nobody likes me as much anymore. And I don't want to suffer not being liked. I'd rather everybody likes me. So if I can, if the goods spread evenly naturally, that's what I'm going to attempt to do. And we know in our hunter gatherer ancestors, that's how they tend to live very flat hierarchy. And so leaders tend not to throw their weight around. But once you can got agriculture, you can store food once you can make a lot of money. Now you can have much more possibility to develop these baboons leaders.

Steven Parton  53:35

Yeah. And that flat hierarchy seems like it would cause less stress, and then therefore, you would get those better thought processes that we talked about before. So seems like the elephant is what we would usually desire more than the baboon. Yes. Absolutely. William, I want to thank you so much for joining us, man. That was a really fantastic succinct exploration from 6 million years ago to leadership in the modern day. Before we go, I'd like to give you the chance if there's anything you're working on right now that you'd like to tell people about, maybe where to find your book, any anything at all, please feel free,

William Von Hippel  54:09

of course. So my book fortunately is available that it's on social leap, it's on Amazon, it's on. If you can give us an audible it's an all those different kinds of any place that you'd want to buy a book. Fortunately, they've done a great job. Harper Collins is a wonderful publisher, and I really enjoyed working with them. So it's out there in all sorts of formats. The what we're working on now is trying to explore a lot of the ideas that we talked about in that book. So we're super excited to be having the time to now go back into the lab and test some of them and as I said before, some of that work we can do out in the real world. We're working doing some work with the US Army doing some work with Australian Army doing so I live here in Australia now even though as you can tell by my accent, I didn't grow up here. And, and then doing lots of work in the lab as well. So just it's for me as a social scientist. It's super exciting to have the time to then try to see which of these ideas really gain some purchase and help in which of these ideas Wow, that was interesting, but it didn't really pan out. Wonderful.

Steven Parton  55:03

Well, I'll include some links to that in the show notes and everything so we can get people in the right direction. I want to thank you again, though.

William Von Hippel  55:09

Totally, my pleasure is really enjoyed chatting with you.

Steven Parton  55:12

And now we're going to take a moment for a short message about our membership for organizations, which you can find by going to su.org and clicking organizations in the menu.


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