Hosts: Coren Apicella and Robert Kurzban
Title: When Enemies Loom Large Representations of Relative Formidability and Social Cognition
In situations in which violent conflict may occur, deciding whether to fight, flee, or negotiate hinges on the likelihood of victory and the costs incurred in the event of defeat. In turn, these considerations are contingent on the parties’ relative fighting capacities, or formidabilities. In species having limited behavioral repertoires, physical size and strength are key determinants of relative formidability, and, among humans today, these two factors continue to be relevant in one-on-one conflicts, a pattern universally experienced by children during development. My collaborators and I hypothesize that, in humans, natural selection employed the ancient ability to internally represent relative size and strength as the foundation for a representational system that encompasses diverse determinants of relative formidability. This representational system provides a single tabulation that summarizes the various tactical assets and liabilities that the two parties bring to the conflict; actors then consult this summary in deciding whether to fight, flee, or negotiate. In essence, relevant information about oneself and about one’s opponent influences how physically large and strong one envisions one’s opponent to be. This talk will present a series of studies testing this thesis, and will illustrate how it provides tools for exploring a variety of social phenomena in humans. I will discuss results from experiments exploring the contributions to social assessment made by: knowledge about another party’s access to weapons; knowledge about the successes or failures of a coalition’s leader; knowledge about another party’s propensity to take risks; the proximity of one’s friends; the experience of physical incapacitation; one’s own muscular strength; one’s status as a parent, and the proximity of a child; racist cultural stereotypes; and signals of commitment, among others.