Religion, Politics & Personality: It’s All about Sex! Part 2

My last post covered Geoffrey Miller’s first book. I summarised his theory that most of the traits that make the human species unique (be it complex language, sense of humour or religious belief) have evolved due to us trying to show off certain qualities to potential mates, leading to sexual selection for those traits. Although what follows is written to be stand alone, you will get more from this post if you read that first, don’t worry I can wait.

In his second book Miller takes what he established about how our minds developed for sexual selection in the past and applies the consequences of this theory for modern society. In particular he looks at what this means for consumerism and develops new theories, as with his first theory the sheer range and amount of human behaviour that these explain and predict is staggering. In my second of this pair of posts I will explore some of these aspects of humanity, as always I will concentrate mostly on what this means for my proposal for a spiritual materialism, but I’m so taken with some of the ideas on display I cast my net more widely than often before. I hope you are equally inspired by at least the potential if not my interpretations, and if not, please, I beg your indulgence.

In Must-Have: The Hidden Instincts Behind Everything We Buy, Miller introduces the the idea that the things that we tend to show off to people fall into six categories. These pertain to general intelligence (IQ) and the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Emotional stability. He dubs these the ‘Central Six’. He also adds that we don’t just make displays towards potential mates, as was the focus in The Mating Mind, but to anyone that it is socially beneficial to impress: friends, allies, subordinates and employers. Besides, the human ability to remember individual people and their past actions means it is good for our reputation to impress as many as possible, once we find a potential mate our reputation proceeds us, we have already done a lot of the work and the love-interest can check if our current appearances match our long-term behaviour.

The Big Five

The Big Five are behavioural traits that are in part genetic and heritable (around 50% for each dimension), in part determined by factors throughout our lives. We are born with a predisposition for a point along each scale, but due to the plasticity of the brain means we can move away from that initial set point as we age. This may be only temporary, in the right situation we can act like we are at any point along any of the five scale, but if done repeatedly will rewire our brains towards one end or the other of that scale. So we can change to a limited degree from our starting point at birth, although this becomes harder and harder as we get older. Each of the five are on a scale on 1-100, they all have a normal distribution in a population and are independent of one another, so any person can have any combination of the five and people are not sorted into discrete ‘personality types’ as with something like Myers-Briggs. (There is, however, positive correlation between Openness and the sixth of the Central Six; intelligence, albeit a minor one.) They are not claimed to cover the full range of human diversity that we see between people, but they cover a lot of it.

The five dimensions, in no particular order and with the help of Wikipedia, are:

  • Openness, or Open-mindedness, is the measure of how amenable a person is to new ideas and new experiences. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, appreciative of art, and sensitive to beauty. They tend to be, when compared to closed people, more creative and more aware of their feelings. They are more likely to hold unconventional beliefs and think abstractly. People with low scores on Openness tend to have more conventional, traditional interests. They prefer the plain, straightforward, concrete and obvious over the complex, ambiguous, and subtle. They may regard the arts and sciences with suspicion or view these endeavours as uninteresting. Closed people prefer familiarity over novelty; they are conservative and resistant to change.
  • Conscientiousness is a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement against measures or outside expectations. It is related to the way in which people control, regulate, and direct their impulses. High scores on Conscientiousness indicate a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior. The average level of Conscientiousness rises among young adults and then declines among older adults.
  • Extraversion measures to what degree a person externalises their thoughts and feelings and to what extent they require external stimulation to thrive (i.e. get dopamine hits and be happy). Someone scoring in the lower half of the scale is an introvert, to a greater or lesser degree, they internalise their thoughts and feelings, get their stimulation from internal processes and can be overwhelmed by external stimulation, requiring solitude to recuperate every so often.
  • Agreeableness is roughly how self-centred someone is, those scoring high on this dimension are accommodating of others’ needs and feelings. Low scorers pursue their own desires more aggressively.
  • Emotional stability is an indicator of how prone a person is to moodiness or more pathological emotional difficulties, depression, anxiety etc.

N.B. As these five all have everyday uses as well as their more precise psychological definition to avoid confusion when referring to one of these five qualities as one of the Big Five traits I will start the words with capital letters to avoid confusion. All information is from Miller’s work unless otherwise indicated.

One of the most interesting things about the Big Five, and a big part of its explanatory power, is how these traits underlie other recognisable psychological aspects. One I will be making most of here is that two of the Big Five, Openness and Conscientiousness correlate strongly with liberal and conservative behaviour.

Part of the reason I was drawn to Must-Have and other books I’ve talked about on my blog stems from trying to answer a question that occurred to me some years ago when trying to understand politics: people seem to be three ‘levels’ of politics. First  ‘conservatism’ and ‘liberalism’, are used in a general, more widely psychological sense, as you may hear someone say ‘he’s very conservative’, ‘she’s such a liberal’, etc. Secondly there are left- and right-wing parties, or conservative and progressive, political parties, which seem to be found in every culture and nation despite the term being originally very specific to one nation. Finally there are national-level parties, such as Labour (liberal) and Conservatives in the UK or Republicans (conservative) and Democrats (liberal) in the US?

The Big Five explains the relationship between these three levels of politics by explaining conservative and liberal psychology at their most fundamental. People can have any combination of the Big Five factors, but on the whole as we move from conservative to liberal, people increase in their score on the Openness scale whilst their Conscientiousness scores decrease. As Wikipedia puts it ‘There is a strong connection between liberal ethics and Openness to experience such as support for policies endorsing racial tolerance… Closed people are conservative and resistant to change’. Liberals tend to be more open and less Conscientious; conservatives have scores for these traits the other way round, see the graph below. This is not only liberal and conservative terms of the political spectrum, but the widest possible sense of the terms; the way we would say ‘they are quite liberal’, ‘that’s very conservative behaviour’, etc. In fact it would appear that at the most fundamental psychological level liberalism and conservatism are Openness and Conscientiousness. Although we all treasure the idea that a person reasons their way to their point of view, including our own, and tell ourselves that one end of the political spectrum is more objectively correct than the other, as psychology shows time and time again, this is not the case.

Relationship between the Big 5 and the Chance of Being Liberal (De Neve, 2013)

The traits are independent at the population level, anyone can have any combination of 5 scores, but certain combinations are more common as shown in the graph. Of course in the individual they combine and interact to give a huge potential range for human diversity, for instance high Agreeableness combines to be expressed more as politeness by the Conscientious and as empathy by the Open-minded. So then, often, but not always, we get the stereotypes of the liberal and conservative. In Western culture these are the messy hippy; those who embrace every new fad, but is disorganised and the traditionalist who is impeccably turned out and does everything with military timing and ‘knows what I like’ before trying it. These two universal groups (or stereotypes) are likely to collect together and distinguish themselves from the other group in all nations and cultures,

Another potential explanation for the three levels of politics, another measure of the liberal-conservative spectrum, is Moral Foundation theory, which I detailed previously in my discussion of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. This explains some strange quirks of politics, such as why conservatives tend to be pro-capitalism, despite capitalism being so strongly tied to technology and progress. I suspect Big Five is even more fundamental than the Moral Foundations, which aren’t mutually exclusive, but the two integrate; the Big Five tells us about our behavioural preferences, the Moral Foundations how we judge others’ behaviour, determined by how the Big Five shape our brains and our moral attitudes and the Big Five again dictates how we show off our morals and judgments (more on this below). I will treat them as complimentary and while I recommend my earlier post, I will refresh your memory as salient points crop up below.

IQ & Liberalism: A Scientist Changes his Mind

I previously examined why the Big Five is scientifically solid as a theory of personality, but I admit that until reading Must-Have I was of the belief that IQ, used to test general intelligence, was a flawed concept with dodgy empirical support. Miller not only demonstrates that I was wrong, IQ has strong scientific foundations, but exposes the denial of IQ to be a liberal myth (and therefore one that I was susceptible to).

The sciences and the media tend to be mostly populated by liberal-minded people. As pointed out in The Republican Brain, the accusation that conservatives make of these fields habouring a liberal bias is, in fact, true! This is obvious when you think about it in terms of the Big Five; the very nature of science and journalism means you will be exposed to new ideas. So to be a scientist or journalist you have to be open to new ideas, and it’s inevitable that these disciplines will be populated by people scoring high on Openness.

Moral Foundation theory shows that liberals are wired to care most about egalitarianism and avoiding harming others. If IQ breaches those rules, by suggesting some people have a lower IQ and could be seen in some way ‘less equal’, we are psychologically predisposed to reject the idea because it simply does not feel right.  Thus the two groups of people most likely to report on the strong empirical foundations of IQ testing, scientists and journalists are the two who are most likely to be biased to dismiss it, even if it is for moral reasons.

I recommend The Republican Brain for more on the biases and mistakes that both liberals and conservatives are prone to making. Due to my typical liberal traits of high Openness, and, I like to reassure myself that, in an example of scientific humility, I am able to admit that I am wrong, even if I am not happy at what this means for human inequality.

Consumerism & Memes

The Big Five and IQ, then, are very empirically sound (see the comments section for a little more on this), no scientific theory is perfect, but they are the best we have for explaining intelligence and personality. They have withstood a lot of challenges against them since first proposed 110 and 80 years ago, respectively (although the latter wasn’t a consensus in psychology until the 1980’s).

The crux of Miller’s theory, what he adds to these concepts, is that we have evolved to show off the Central Six to people, as much and as convincingly as possible and judge others for theirs. A high scorer for Openness often shows they are by trying to stand out from the crowd and may look down on what they perceive as a low scoring conformist. A high Conscientiousness scorer shows it off by being productive or taking on extra responsibilities (such as owning pets) that require dedication on top of other work. They may view low scorers with disdain as work-shy, scatty or lazy.

This is where the Mating Mind theory of sexual selection for these traits comes in. Miller argues that these traits are attractive to members of the opposite sex and so expect also to have evolved to display them and assess other people for them, the remainder of his book contains evidence for this by demonstrating how much importance we put on the Central Six and on judging them and providing evidence that we have evolved intuitions to be very effective at correctly judging a person’s rough score for each of the Central Six.

The fact that these traits are not directly observable, like a peacock’s feathers, means we have to find elaborate ways to peacock ourselves and indirectly indicate our Central Six. For example knowledge is often used as a proxy for intelligence, as knowledge demonstrates memory and recall abilities, understanding, inclination to investigate and mental flexibility (hence an association with Openness). Whilst it seems reasonable to assume we probably all should want to demonstrate high intelligence to almost everyone and almost all of the time (although I’m less sure of this than Miller, they are times intelligence can seem intimidating or even rude), the point that we want to show off that we are on for each the other five scales depends on who you are displaying to and in what situation. For example, when looking for a job you want to display high Conscientiousness. When looking for a long term partner it’s advisable to show off our Agreeableness, among other things.

However, because they are indirect indicators it is tempting to fake our true positions on the Central Six scales. This is why employers give interviews, to see if the CV, which is easy to lie on, matches the real person in a high stress situation, which is much harder to fake in. This is because we have also evolved very good instincts for spotting fakes, but it has to be in the medium of communication we evolved for: face-to-face. Of course one can act, but only for a time, if you start the job you will have to display your traits everyday. Therefore, it is generally best, easiest and least fraught with the danger of being caught out ‘trying to be something you are not’ to display the Big Five traits as you have them. This is where reputation does a lot of ground work for you when meeting new people. There might be much more incentive to fake intelligence, if we all want to seem smarter, but it is much easier to call out fakes too, by testing their intelligence. But to test someone’s intelligence you need to have intelligence, to now if someone’s knowledge is faked you need to know it yourself. This fact means that people tend to mate assortatively, people have partners (and friends) who are similar to them.

This is where consumerism comes in. Consumer products are so attractive not just because they can fulfill basic survival needs or indulge our desires for pleasure, but because we unconsciously believe they will effectively peacock our Central Six. This Miller’s second major theory proposes is why we talk so much about the products we buy and display them so prominently on our bodies and in our homes. This is why we care so much about branding, because (ideally) brands are associated with certain properties, especially quality, expense and exclusivity, which we want to be hard to fake so we can show off that we are able to purchase them. And we are able to purchase them because our traits, whether due to being highly Conscientious and working hard, low Agreeableness and being competitive, high Agreeableness and networking well, etc. So sexual selection for traits, which we believe we can show off with consumer products, drives a huge part of the capitalist economy.

This could put memes in their place as not being mind viruses that infect a defenseless host replicating themselves in spite of us human saps, but are unconsciously selected by an ‘immune system’ that regulates what ideas best fit with the image the host wishes to advertise to others. Miller asks, ‘Why do people display such ideas so fervently in young adulthood, especially during courtship? Why do people compete to invent new memes that will make them famous? Why were most memes invented by men? Why did natural selection leave us so vulnerable to ideological nonsense? Perhaps by viewing ideological displays as part of courtship, we can answer such questions. Mostly, we use our memes to improve our sexual and social status; they do not just use us.’

Meme theory applies to brands as well as ideologies, both are selected based on host personality, the environment they interact with (both their culture at large and their more immediate peer group, who judge and record their reputation), their self-image and the person(s) they are trying to attract; meme prevalence is perhaps ultimately shaped by sexual selection and mate choice rather than any kind of independent selective force. We are not blank slates for potentially any branded product, but as choosy as our hoped-for choosers.

However, Miller goes on to show why consumerism largely fails. In part it is because products tend not to be very good at displaying the Central Six traits efficiently, accurately, or honestly (they are easy to fake), so the don’t make the distinctions we crave. In part because marketers are hopelessly wallowing in out-dated, pseudo- or non-science and don’t take advantage of the fact we buy things for display purposes that show off particular traits. And in part because creative advertisers tend to be Open-minded, liberal and therefore don’t like the idea that people vary in traits any more than scientists or journalists do. But mainly because we’ve evolved to be very efficient and accurate intuitive judges of those traits; we are able to see past the surface distractions of consumer products from only limited interactions with people. You may make a swift stereotype judgement of someone dressed like a hipster (high Openness, high intelligence?) or a punk (high Openness, low Agreeableness?) when passing them in the street, but it has been demonstrated empirically in a number of experiments (some by Miller’s research team) that if you talk to them for the length of a speed date (3 to 8 minutes) and you should determine a rough estimate of their true Central Six traits with pretty good accuracy.

Capitalism & Taxation

There’s a lot of fascinating possible ramifications of this theory (along with that of the mating mind) for human social interactions and society, some of your own of which I’m sure you’ve already come up with. I could write forever about them, but I will note a couple of the largest and most interesting before turning to my usual stomping ground of science and religion. Like I warned in The Mating Mind post, these are ad hoc hypotheses, I would by no means defend them as definite or even as having persuaded me, but they are intriguing enough to put in for discussion and I’ve yet to think of any arguments that give cause enough to reject them.

First Miller explains why consumerism succeeds where communism doesn’t, the latter doesn’t allow for individualism required for competitive signalling of traits and it does not encourage working harder in order to earn more so we can buy more and so display our traits better. If we are all conformist or if we all earning the same then we don’t have the incentives that consumerism preys on, that if we could just work harder we could buy that special thing we desire that will show off how great and unique we are! This isn’t to ignore the problems of wealth inequality, but it makes the challenge to resolve the problem all that much harder and it probably means we need to find a way to do so within the context of capitalism rather than setting our hopes on an unrealistic, utopian, alternative system.

That relates to a second point, and to really go off at a tangent, how tax should work. (skip to the next section if tax isn’t your kinda thing :-P) Miller proposes the idea of only one type of tax: consumption tax.

It would work like this: Since consumption is inevitable given our instincts to display, given the benefits of capitalist society in hooking into those instincts and given lack of better alternative and the ease of producing and selling, we should not be anti-capitalist as liberals. Therefore, best system of tax should be based on the science of consumption and should be based purely on the idea that if you are going to consume resources, thus denying others of those resources and damaging the environment or society, directly or indirectly, then tax should be levied on the product proportional to the affect that the manufacture and use of that product will have on others’ well-being. The rich shouldn’t be taxed more on their earnings, but since we expect them consume more and with greater wastefulness they will still provide more tax. Wasting resources is an indicator that you can afford to waste them, so the rich tend to buy expensive, wasteful things as status symbols; indicators for the wealth which you have worked so hard to amass (and supposedly that you were able to amass due to your Central Six traits and sexually desirable genes). If you are going to buy a status symbol such as a high polluting sports car or luxury yacht then you can pay for the damage done to the environment. My favourite example of this system from the book is that bullets in the States should be taxed individually, rather than per box, for if you are considering using one you should be prepared to pay for the potential loss of a life. The tax then should be equivalent to the total value of a person’s potential contribution to society through working and paying taxes, which was estimated at about $30 million in 2009!

Clearly this system is extraordinarily biased towards liberal concerns, perhaps because I’m that way inclined myself I cannot think of any argument against it. While tracing the cost of every product’s direct and indirect effects on the world may be pretty much impossible in practice, a proxy for the proportional impact of a product probably would serve just as well. Other than that I can’t think of a reason against this idea in theory, but I’m not knowledgeable enough on the subject to say. It seems worth serious consideration and I’d be glad to hear anyone’s thoughts in the comments section.

The Truth Will Out?

As we’ve discussed, high Openness scorers are on average more open to changing their minds. I often feel there’s an assumption that ‘open-minded’ in its everyday usage implies that it leads to the truth, that open-minded people accept more possibilities and then select the one that is correct. Rather it can be a case of so open-minded that the brain falls out and a subjective truth chosen that doesn’t correspond to reality (think Deepak Chopra). Highly Open people are open to new ideas, but no-one is so open that they accept new ideas everyday. (The president of the universe from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy shows in Douglas Adams’ usual, brilliant way, how bizarre someone like that would be.)

Someone like Chopra has been led to some very non-traditional ideas, from his personal history, education, peer groups etc, but now he’s accepted they are entrenched for him and he defends them. However, Chris Mooney in the Republican Brain argues that on the whole highly Open people will be more likely to the accept the findings of science than less Open people, who will reject them in favour of sticking to their traditional world view (which also has no guarantee that it represents reality). High Open people will also be more comfortable with the idea of uncertainty in science than low Open people who like certainty and stability. Again this can be abused, such as by some New Agers (high Openness) taking the uncertainty principle to say ‘ooo, the soul’s all rather difficult to pin down, therefore you scientists will never be able to define it unless you open your mind to the possibility of <insert particular case of mumbo jumbo here>!’. Conservatively-minded people are more likely to reject science in favour of their reassuring view of the world, liberals to reject it if triggers concerns about their fellow man or the environment (e.g. nuclear power, GMOs, vaccines) or because they are drawn to novel beliefs so they can show them off – a sexual selection indicator of how unorthodox they are.

As I have covered before, looking at both Moral Foundation theory and at how religious thinking is mostly naturally wired into our brains, rather than due to indoctrination, the Big Five again challenges the idea held by most atheist commentators, that everyone is able to quite readily accept atheism if only the pall of indoctrination could be lifted. It also undermines the guiding principle (or at least hope) of the Skeptics movement that the evidence will set you free and it is only mis-education that causes people to believe things contrary to it. This hope is simply unrealistic based on what science tells us about human biases and motivations; at least as atheism currently stands.

Atheism as simply a rejection of the idea of god is much more a liberal idea, attractive to those who are wired to be open to different ideas and to demonstrate their difference from the rest of society and who have less need for tradition or to respect for authority, sanctity and loyalty. (The same urges partly responsible for why liberals are the ones who tend fall for conspiracy theories, complimentary medicine and Deepak Chopra).

There is a similar problem noted in The Righteous Mind, it is easier to be a candidate for a conservative party because conservatives care equally about all six Moral Foundations, as long as they hit all six the two or three that liberals care about will also be hit, they can be won over. Liberal candidates will only score hits on a couple of conservative concerns (missing out nationalism, authoritarianism and sanctity) and thus are far less likely to win over opponents. Atheism alone only gets hits to those of a liberal persuasion. My blog was set up to argue need something more like religion, but shorn of supernatural belief. More and more as I have written about it I realise that this system also has to aim to be more universally appealing, than atheism. We need something that can get all the hits that appeal more to the whole diversity of human psychology. I still think this is correct, but I admit I don’t yet know how to construct a fully fledged spiritual materialism. Of course, even if we have a better atheist philosophy then it is a challenge to make people give up their traditions if they are the sort of personality types that are keyed to sticking to tradition, unlike the majority of types that make up atheism which are keyed to showing their uniqueness and finding their own path away from tradition. Still I now know more about how atheism (or rather several strains of it for variety) would need to look to appeal to the whole diversity of humankind.

Combined with the reality of IQ; that not everyone may be equipped to understand every intricacy of science, it’s even harder to replace religious belief with worship of something that approaches reality based on the findings of science, as sadly this means not everyone can understand all of it. We could envision some science-based religion replacing faith-based religion where the ‘priests’ are the high-IQ scientists, who, like all priests, are holder of arcane and obscure knowledge. Adherents in the bulk of the IQ bell-curve would then have to take their statements as a matter of faith if they cannot understand them. The treasured idea of Richard Feynman, that anyone can understand any idea as long as it is presented in the right language (a treasured ideal of groups like Skeptics who teach how to argue against anti-science beliefs) sadly doesn’t seem to hold up to scientific scrutiny. However, whatever else, science would still hold its transparency and democracy, its ease of access to anyone who would try to engage with it. This emphatically doesn’t mean it is ok to escape to ivory towers and not bother; it’s still part of the scientific values, and one that should form the basis for a spiritual materialist philosophy, to help as many as possible understand as much as possible. The research simply suggests that not all would succeed.

Miller sums up the problem ‘Natural selection can favour accurate intuitive models of the world, but it seems incapable of producing communication systems that allow those models to be shared. Sexual selection can favour rich communication systems such as language, but it tends to distort verbally expressible world-models, making them more entertaining than accurate. There seems to be a trade-off between reliable individual cognition and social communication—we can be mute realists or chatty fabulists, but not both. This is far from the evolutionary epistemology view, in which truth-seeking cognition evolved with truth-sharing language to give us a double-barrelled defence against falsehood.’

I considered in my post on The Mating Mind that belief can be used as an indicator in sexual selection.Religious attendance can indicate Conscientiousness, Agreeableness (at least perceived as displaying the desire to be nice to everyone, setting aside the debate as to whether religion as a whole improves human well-being) and intelligence, such as in the IQ needed to think up rhetoric to defend beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. In this sense beliefs in themselves have some advantage to people; they are a elaborate method of peacocking. My hope that we can separate belief from spiritual practice becomes very small if belief is the indicator signalling the practices are undertaken and religious indicators cannot be separated from belief in unprovable things about the nature of the universe. However, if the culture changes, so that belief instead signals undesirable things: the rejection of the findings or values of science, moral short-sightedness, absolutism or archaism; then rejection of belief, atheism, irreligion and/or secularism will gain ground.

A Force for Change?

‘Cultural change’ doesn’t mean waiting for some obscure change in the whim of the masses. Conservatism is primed in the short term, in even the most liberal people, by the fear of death. Miller convincingly shows that Openness correlates negatively with mortality rates from disease. The putative cause of the relationship being that in an environment that is well suited to the reproduction and spread of disease, lower Openness prevents the mixing of groups of peoples, avoiding contact with new diseases. This of course has to be balanced with the benefits of contact; trade of ideas, commodities, genes, etc, but if you are likely to catch a life-threatening disease, even if you are not conscious of the reason, it makes sense to treat outsiders and those that act differently with suspicion. As this predicts, countries with conditions ripe for pathogens, warm temperatures, high humidity, etc, have been shown to have lower average Openness scores across their populations. However, those countries with less amenable conditions, such as the high latitude Northern hemisphere countries have higher Openness. Those countries also have historically had the best and earliest access to modern medicine. As medicine reduced mortality from disease, the benefits of population mixing could take hold, ideas could be exchanged and Openness became not only more possible, but also more attractive as traits of members of the population. Perhaps, as Miller wonders too, progress in egalitarianism in the last hundred years or so (the end of slavery, women’s lib, legalising of homosexuality, etc) are due to cultural change underscored by change in what makes desirable mates and friends. This was in turn due to the opening up of the range of Big Five qualities that could be considered attractive and that arose from modern healthcare. This tendency means there is and should remain a trend towards a greater degree of liberalism in populations worldwide as long as we continue to combat disease more and more effectively with science-based medicine. There is then hope for an end to traditional faith-based religion and a lot of discriminatory prejudices (racism, sexism etc). However, there is still the caveat that liberals will still be prone to the abuse and rejection of science; alternative medicine, astrology, anti-technology, anti-nuclear, anti-GM etc etc. Too much Openness can be as bad for science as too little (see The Republican Brain and The Geek Manifesto for an analysis of these biases).

What does this mean then? There’s little most people can do to help medical development after all, should we just sit back and wait for mortality rates to drop ever more worldwide? Well the answer is in the mating mind theory of displaying and choosing desirable indicators. By signalling behaviours and making choices based on those personality traits we can encourage a trend towards Openness and Agreeableness. We can approbate scientific values and critical thinking, and derogate ideas accepted uncritically, not because we think we will necessarily persuade others by the strength of our arguments (as many in the Skeptics and New Atheist movements believe), but engendering change by good old peer pressure; creating a climate where it is unattractive to be unthinking and unfeeling.

I close with some words on this topic by the author himself, in far better words than I could ever manage, from The Mating Mind:

“Given minds shaped by sexual selection for ideological entertainment rather than epistemic accuracy, what hope do we have of discovering truths about the world? History suggests that we had very little hope until the social institutions of science arose. Before science, there was no apparent cumulative progress in the accuracy of human belief systems. After science, everything changed. From a sexual selection perspective, science is a set of social institutions for channelling our sexually selected instincts for ideological display in certain directions according to strict rules.

These rules award social status to individuals for proposing good theories and gathering good data, not for physical attractiveness, health, kindness, or other fitness indicators. Scientists learn to derogate the normal human forms of ideological display: armchair speculation, entertaining narratives, comforting ideas, and memorable anecdotes. (Of course, this spills over into derogation of popular science books that try to present serious ideas in attractive form.) Science separates the arenas of intellectual display (conferences, classrooms, journals) from other styles of courtship display (art, music, drama, comedy, sports, charity). Science writing is standardized to channel creativity into inventing new ideas and arguments instead of witty phrases and colourful metaphors. Scientists are required to provide intellectual displays to young single people (through undergraduate teaching, graduate advising, and colloquium-giving), but are discouraged from enjoying any sexual benefits from these displays, so are kept in a state of perpetual quasi-courtship until retirement. These scientific traditions are ingenious ways of harnessing human courtship effort to produce cumulative progress towards world-models that are abstract, communicable, and true. It is surprising that science works so well, given the absence of referential content in the sexual signals of all other species, and our Scheherazade-style genius for fictional entertainment.”

– The Spiritual Materialist

Update: since writing this post some nice evidence showing that people do use proxies for open-mindedness to choose romantic partners has been published.


De Neve, J. E. (2013). Personality, childhood experience, and political ideology. Political Psychology.
Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Allen Lane, London.
Henderson, M.(2012) The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters.
Miller, G. (2000) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. William Heinemann Ltd, London.
Miller, G. (2010) Must-Have: The Hidden Instincts Behind Everything We Buy. Vintage, London.
Mooney, C. (2012) The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey.
Olsen Lane, M. The Introvert Advantage: How To Thrive In An Extrovert World. Workman Publishing, New York.


11 thoughts on “Religion, Politics & Personality: It’s All about Sex! Part 2

  1. Pingback: Science & Values: Is My View of Religion Reductionism or Scientism? | The Spiritual Materialist

  2. Pingback: What Makes Us Human? It’s Sex! | The Spiritual Materialist

  3. I got asked a question about the cultural relevance of the Big 5 when I posted this on facebook:

    Have you considered the cultural-specific context of the arguments? While they may describe the personality ‘of today’, that doesn’t make them fundamental explanations. Does the author’s reference to sex in the context of evolutionary biology mean that he regards this as universal human nature? The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ as variations on fundamental psychology do not mean anything political, it would be as well to say they are short hand for saying ‘relatively higher openness and lower conscientious scores’ and ‘relatively lower openness and higher conscientious scores’, respectively. The political meanings of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are cultural variations built on top of that fundamental personality dichotomy.

    My response:

    Good question, I didn’t put the cross cultural aspect in because it was a long enough post already! The aim of those who research both big 5 and moral foundations, as well as Miller’s team looking at human sexual selection, is to find the universal, cross-cultural factors in human psychology.

    From Must-Have:
    ‘In the 1990s each of the big five proved to be highly stable across time within individuals, about 50 percent genetically heritable across generations, and fairly universal across cultures. For example when administered to Chinese, German, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, and Turkish subjects.’ p.157
    Personality traits exist not only across human cultures, but also across animal species… domesticated dogs shows analogues of four out of the big 5 traits… The big 5 also seem applicable to five other species of pets (cats, ferrets, rabbits, hedgehogs, horses), and to the four other great ape species (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos). Thus the big 5 are likely to have existed for at least 13 million years (back to the least common ancestor of all great apes), and possibly for as long as 125 million years (back to the common ancestor of all mammals).” p.154


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