Whether upheld as heroic or reviled as terrorism, people have been willing to lay down their lives for the sake of their groups throughout history. Why? Previous theories of extreme self-sacrifice have highlighted a range of seemingly disparate factors, such as collective identity, outgroup hostility, and kin psychology. In this paper, I attempt to integrate many of these factors into a single overarching theory based on several decades of collaborative research with a range of special populations, from tribes in Papua (...) New Guinea to Libyan insurgents and from Muslim fundamentalists in Indonesia to Brazilian football hooligans. These studies suggest that extreme self-sacrifice is motivated by identity fusion, a visceral sense of oneness with the group, resulting from intense collective experiences or from perceptions of shared biology. In ancient foraging societies, fusion would have enabled warlike bands to stand united despite strong temptations to scatter and flee. The fusion mechanism has often been exploited in cultural rituals, not only by tribal societies but also in specialized cells embedded in armies, cults, and terrorist organizations. With the rise of social complexity and the spread of states and empires, fusion has also been extended to much larger groups, including doctrinal religions, ethnicities, and ideological movements. Explaining extreme self-sacrifice is not only a scientific priority but also a practical challenge as we seek a collective response to suicide, terrorism, and other extreme expressions of outgroup hostility that continue to bedevil humanity today. (shrink)
Cultural evolution depends on both innovation (the creation of new cultural variants by accident or design) and high-fidelity transmission (which preserves our accumulated knowledge and allows the storage of normative conventions). What is required is an overarching theory encompassing both dimensions, specifying the psychological motivations and mechanisms involved. The bifocal stance theory (BST) of cultural evolution proposes that the co-existence of innovative change and stable tradition results from our ability to adopt different motivational stances flexibly during social learning and transmission. (...) We argue that the ways in which instrumental and ritual stances are adopted in cultural transmission influence the nature and degree of copying fidelity and thus also patterns of cultural spread and stability at a population level over time. BST creates a unifying framework for interpreting the findings of otherwise seemingly disparate areas of enquiry, including social learning, cumulative culture, overimitation, and ritual performance. We discuss the implications of BST for competing by-product accounts which assume that faithful copying is merely a side-effect of instrumental learning and action parsing. We also set out a novel “cultural action framework” bringing to light aspects of social learning that have been relatively neglected by behavioural ecologists and evolutionary psychologists and establishing a roadmap for future research on this topic. The BST framework sheds new light on the cognitive underpinnings of cumulative cultural change, selection, and spread within an encompassing evolutionary framework. (shrink)
Beller, Bender, and Medin question the necessity of including social anthropology within the cognitive sciences. We argue that there is great scope for fruitful rapprochement while agreeing that there are obstacles (even if we might wish to debate some of those specifically identified by Beller and colleagues). We frame the general problem differently, however: not in terms of the problem of reconciling disciplines and research cultures, but rather in terms of the prospects for collaborative deployment of expertise (methodological and theoretical) (...) in problem-driven research. For the purposes of illustration, our focus in this article is on the evolution of cooperation. (shrink)
The bifocal stance theory (BST) of cultural evolution has prompted a wide-ranging discussion with broadly three aims: to apply the theory to novel contexts; to extend the conceptual framework; to offer critical feedback on various aspects of the theory. We first discuss BST's relevance to the diverse range of topics which emerged from the commentaries, followed by a consideration of how our framework can be supplemented by and compared to other theories. Lastly, the criticisms that were raised by a subset (...) of commentaries allow us to clarify parts of our theory. (shrink)
Atran & Norenzayan (A&N) survey a substantial body of theory and evidence on which there is broad agreement in the cognitive science of religion. Some parts of their argument (for instance, concerning the causes of costly commitment to religious beliefs) are more speculative and remain a focus of lively debate and further research.
Jesse Bering's theory of the “folk psychology of souls” is brilliantly elucidated and warrants further empirical investigation. While additional experimental research is certainly required, we also need to interrogate the evidence on reasoning about dead agents in a wide range of real-world settings.
A growing body of evidence suggests that two distinct forms of group alignment are possible: identification and fusion (the former asserts that group and personal identity are distinct, while the latter asserts group and personal identities are functionally equivalent and mutually reinforcing). Among highly fused individuals, group identity taps directly into personal agency and so any attack on the group is perceived as a personal attack and motivates a willingness to fight and possibly even die as a defensive response. As (...) such, identity fusion is relevant in explaining violent extremism, including suicidal terrorist attacks. Identity fusion is theorized to arise as a result from the sharing of personally transformative experiences with other group members, however evidence for this relationship remains limited to date. Here, we present a pre-registered study in which we examine the role of transformativeness and perceived sharedness of group-defining events in generating identity fusion. We find that both of these factors are predictive of identity fusion but that the relationship with transformativeness was more consistent than perceived sharedness across analyses in a sample of Indonesian Muslims. (shrink)