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date: 16 April 2021

(p. 447) The Self and the Social World

Humans are, above all, social. As with all primates, we owe our success as a species in large measure to our ability to cooperate in finding solutions to the problems of everyday survival and reproduction. We can do that mainly because we can call upon the willing commitment of moderately large numbers of individuals. In effect, we live in societies that are implicit—and sometimes explicit—social contracts. It is here that the issue of multi-level selection that was discussed in Section I comes to the fore. However, that kind of sociality presents serious conflicts for the individual, because the continued existence of a social group depends on individuals being willing to sink at least some of their personal interests for the benefit of the larger community in order to maintain the coherence of the coalition. There will inevitably be tensions that ultimately have to resolved. We return to this particular issue again in Section VII. Our concern here, however, lies with the more immediate questions of individual psychology, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the larger-scale influences and tensions that affect the structure of societies within which every individual is embedded.

Although evolutionary ideas first gained currency within psychology mainly in the context of cognitive psychology, recent years have witnessed a particular upsurge of interest among social psychologists. This is in some ways not so surprising. Indeed, it is surprising only in that it has taken so long to do so: social psychology would seem to be a natural arena for evolutionary ideas in that social psychology's interests focus on overt behaviour and its psychological underpinnings. Both the strategic approach offered by behavioural ecology and the more cognitive approach offered by evolutionary psychology sensu stricto add new dimensions to the social psychologist's toolkit. Of course, intellectual evolution is necessarily a two-way process, and social psychology opens up topics (and hence challenges) for an evolutionary approach that have yet to be explored in any detail. Among these are the nature of the ‘self’ (an issue explored here from both anthropological and psychological perspectives by Crook, and Skronowski and Sekidides, respectively), the importance of individual differences (Nettle) and aspects of social cognition such as disgust and social rejection (Schaller and colleagues). It is worth remarking here that the term ‘social cognition’ is used in the social psychology literature in a somewhat different sense to that in comparative (and developmental) psychology. In the latter, it refers to a handful of high-level capacities like theory of mind; in the former, it has a much wider usage that includes both basic cognitive processes (memory, perception) and larger-scale processes (p. 448) like the way reputations can be influenced by the presence of onlookers.

The conflict between the individual and societal levels has spawned a considerable literature in both social psychology and economics, where the main workhorse has been the public goods problem. Any social contract, as Salter shows, involves the risk of exploitation (the freerider or freeloader problem, sometimes also known as the public goods dilemma), and humans have a wide range of mechanisms for reducing the intrusiveness of freeriding. In traditional societies, for example, kinship often plays a central role in mitigating these risks, and badges of kinship and group membership (which may include dialects and shared knowledge, as well as more conventional badges like hair or clothing styles) are an important mechanism for enforcing conformity. Other mechanisms, as van Vugt and colleagues point out, include both punishment of ‘social loafers’ (altruistic punishment whereby the punisher of a backslider pays a cost for doing so, but society as a whole benefits) and prosociality (the strong predisposition to behave altruistically).

Many of the topics of more traditional anthropological interest continue to remain central to this debate. These include the nature of kinship and the way kinship terms are used to partition members of the community into classes (Cronk and Gerkey) and the influence that both ecology and culture have on marriage and inheritance patterns (Low). Classificatory kinship (as socio-cultural anthropologists term it) can cut across genetic kinship. This has sometimes been interpreted as disproving any claim that genetic kinship is relevant to human social behaviour, but such claims are based on a misunderstanding and are, at best, premature. To be sure, the relationship between classifica-tory and genetic kinship is not always straightforward, but that is because classificatory kinship represents the intersection of conflicting genetic and social interests (a point stressed both by Hamilton's (1964) conception of inclusive fitness and by Hughes (1988) in an important but little-appreciated book). Elucidating this remains a central, and genuinely interesting, problem for evolutionary psychology.

Finally, by being embedded within a society—whether traditional or modern—we inherit a specific culture or world view, a set of intellectual rules that define how the world is seen and how to travel through both the physical and the social state spaces created by it. So far, the evolutionary approach has given scant attention to this topic and its psychological roots. It remains an important problem for the future, and one that provides the potential for a better articulation between evolutionary psychology and socio-cultural anthropology. Crook offers us a glimpse of that world and its possibilities through his analysis of shamanism.


Hamilton, W. D. (1964) The genetical evolution of social behaviour. I, II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7: 1–52.

Hughes, A. L. (1988) Evolution and Human Kinship. Oxford University Press, Oxford.