Using biology to explain social psychology of cultural differences wins theoretical prize at SPSP

What does the behavior of ground squirrels tell us about how people act in different societies? 

A lot, according to a new theoretical framework for understanding the psychology of cultural differences. The foundation of the framework is based on a principle from biology called adaptive phenotypic plasticity, which means that the environment of a living thing affects how it develops and acts. The four scientists, from Arizona State University and the University of California, Irvine, who proposed using adaptive phenotypic plasticity as a model for cultural differences will be awarded the 2019 Daniel M. Wegner Theoretical Innovation Prize on February 27 at the meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Each year, the prize recognizes the authors behind the most innovative theoretical contribution to social psychology.

“Winning the Wegner award is an honor, and I am excited about the ideas in this paper influencing how people think about and study cultural differences,” said lead author Oliver Sng, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine. “The adaptive phenotypic plasticity framework doesn’t just connect the dots on cultural differences, it generates new insights by examining situations in the broader context of the biological world and how organisms are influenced by their environment.”

Understanding how and why cultures differ is important because until recently scientists assumed that what was true for one group of people would generalize to others, according to ASU’s Michael Varnum, associate professor of psychology.

“Many of the previous assumptions about the universality of psychology across cultures were incorrect, even for basic processes like visual perception,” Varnum said. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that patterns of cultural variation are not arbitrary, and that in fact, basic features of the physical environment like population density or the prevalence of infectious disease appear to play an important role in shaping human cultural variation.”

The adaptive phenotypic plasticity framework provides explanations for why cultures differ that are grounded in biology.

Chirping squirrels, compromised nuclear reactors

When a Belding’s ground squirrel encounters a threat like a coyote or hiker, it makes a high-pitched chirping sound to warn other nearby squirrels. Sounding an alarm like this can put a Belding’s ground squirrel in mortal danger, so why do some of them do it?

The answer is adaptive phenotypic plasticity. 

“The way animals — which includes humans — develop can vary depending on the environment, and the resulting behaviors and physical characteristics are often tailored to the physical surroundings,” said Douglas Kenrick, President’s Professor of psychology at ASU.

Individuals with the same genes can vary physically and behaviorally because they developed in different environments and had different experiences.

Like all living things, Belding’s ground squirrels do not all grow up with the same experiences or in the same physical environment. Unlike male Belding’s ground squirrels, the females tend to live close to where they were born, which means other female family members are also living nearby.

Different environments shape the expression of genes, which affects behavior. Female Belding’s ground squirrels are more likely than males to warn other squirrels about danger. And among female ground squirrels, those with living mothers, sisters or daughters are the most likely to sound an alarm call.

Standing tall and chirping a warning might jeopardize the life of the alarm-sounding squirrel, but the lives of its family will be spared. 

Another way of thinking about adaptive phenotypic plasticity is as genetic “if-then” statements. These if-then statements are shaped by the environment and determine behavior.

“The instructions contained in an organism’s genes are not set in stone: They contain ‘if-then’ contingencies determined by the physical surroundings,” Kenrick said. “If resources like food are scarce, then animals seem to be hard-wired to act more competitively. Or, if a female Belding’s ground squirrel detects danger, then she sounds the alarm to protect her family who live nearby.” 

Adaptive phenotypic plasticity explanations and predictions

Thinking about cultural differences in terms of adaptive phenotypic plasticity can help scientists understand why people act the way they do. After the 6.9 magnitude earthquake in 2011 that threatened the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, Japan, nearly 50 workers stayed behind to prevent a complete meltdown. Like the female squirrel sounding the alarm, these workers risked their own lives to save others nearby.

The adaptive phenotypic plasticity framework explains existing data on human behavior and also lets scientists make predictions about how cultures might differ. On average, people living in Eastern societies like in Asia interact more frequently with their family members than people living in Western societies like the United States and Europe. The framework predicts that proximity to family should be related to high rates of prosocial behaviors like sharing and caring for others.

“The adaptive phenotypic plasticity framework encourages a deeper level of analysis for the study of cultural differences. It also has the potential to help us better understand inter-societal differences and find commonalities with people who might otherwise seem very different than us,” said Steven Neuberg, Foundation Professor of psychology at ASU and senior author on the paper.

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