Monthly Archives: September 2014

Do Humans Have Innate Concepts for Thinking About Other People?

Gossip is one of life’s greatest consolations and one of our most reliable conversational fall-backs. In a world without gossip, many of us could realize Tim Ferriss’s ideal of a Four-Hour Work Week without even putting any of his advice into practice. Gossip is also, according to the anthropologist Donald Brown (1991), a human universal—one of those pan-human traits that people within every world society can be expected to evince.

Our ability to gossip, as is the case with all ostensive communication, is premised on the idea that our listeners are in possession of concepts that enable them to convert the sounds coming out of our mouths into ideas that resemble those we are trying to convey. Which got me to thinking about the psychology that makes gossip possible: Are there universal “person concepts”—species-typical cognitive representations of particular human traits or attributes—that every human reliably acquires during normal development? If you flew back from your vacation in Tanzania with a Hadza man or woman whom you planned to entertain in your home for a couple of weeks, would the two of you be able to settle into your living room and enjoy a little TMZ* (assuming you spoke Hadza and could translate)? The Hadza are arguably the last full-time hunter-gatherer society on the planet; it’s difficult to imagine a society more different from our own. Could you trust that your Hadza friend had acquired all of the person concepts that would enable him or her to follow the action? Are there any universal and native social concepts upon which all humans rely in order to make social life work?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first a slightly bigger question: Does the mind contain any native concepts at all? Here in 21st century, many scholars in the social sciences would answer this question affirmatively, having turned their backs on the most hardcore versions of the Blank Slate theory that Steven Pinker describes in his aptly titled (2002) book, The Blank Slate. (The Major Blank-Slater of Western thought, John Locke, famously wrote “If we will attentively consider new-born children, we shall have little reason to think that they bring many ideas into the world with them.”). Even so, there is still much to be debated and discovered about innate ideas.

For starters, how many innate ideas are there? Conceding that there are more than zero of them is not a particularly bold claim. Are there handfuls? Dozens? Scores? Many evolutionary psychologists and cognitive scientists prefer large numbers here, and not without good reason: It’s difficult to imagine how even the basic behavioral tasks that humans must accomplish to stay alive—finding food, water, and warmth, for starters—could be accomplished unless the mind contained some built-in conceptual content.

To Find Food, a Newborn Baby Needs FOOD

Since Locke brought up the case of “new-born children,” let’s think about babies for a moment. A newborn infant comes into the world with a pressing problem: She must find something to eat. Locke thought the infant came into the world with the ability to experience hunger, but he did not think the infant came into the world with a concept of FOOD. The so-called Frame Problem, which Daniel Dennett (2006) so vividly described, makes it unlikely that a newborn infant could solve this problem (“Find food”) before it starved unless it had some built-in representation of what FOOD is. The selection pressure for the evolution of a conceptual short-cut here is enormous: Successful food-finding in the first hour after birth is a predictor of infant survival, so that first hour matters. The clock is ticking. Therefore, a cognitive design that requires infants to find food on a blind trial-and-error basis is likely to be a losing design in comparison to a design that comes with a built-in concept for FOOD from the outset.

For human infants, the FOOD concept involves the activity of neurons that respond to the olfactory properties of specific volatile chemicals that human mothers emit via the breast, possibly along with visual and tactile features of the human breast as well (Schaal et al., 2009). Through a matching-to-template process, human infants can quickly locate breast-like objects in their environments, which of course are the only objects in the universe that are specially designed to provide human neonates with nutrition and hydration.

What about More “Complex” Concepts?

Convincing you that human neonates possess an innate concept for FOOD is perhaps an easy sell, but in a recent paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Andy Delton and Aaron Sell (2014) argued that humans come to possess a variety of universal and reliably developing social concepts as well, which enable them to regulate the universal components of human social life. For Delton and Sell, there can be “no motivation without representation,” so if there are certain adaptive challenges that humans have evolved behavioral programs to surmount, there should also be concepts within the human mind that enable them to parse their worlds into adaptively meaningful units so that the stimuli that are relevant to achieving those adaptive goals can be easily identified.

Delton and Sell’s list of candidates for intuitive concepts (which they in no way claim to be exhaustive) includes COOPERATOR, FREE RIDER, NEWCOMER, KINSHIP, ROMANTIC PARTNER, ROMANTIC RIVAL, ENTITLEMENT, DISRESPECT, INGROUP, and OUTGROUP, among others (see the Table below). The claim here, again, is that if humans are going to have evolved goals that involve “establishing cooperative relationships,” “deterring free riders,” or “evaluating whether to engage in trade with someone from an outgroup,” they will need concepts to represent what COOPERATORS, FREE RIDERS, and OUTGROUPS actually are. There can be no motivation without representation.

(By the way, to claim that such concepts are “innate” or “native” is not to claim that they are present in the mind from birth, but rather, that the human genome possesses the programs for assembling these representations within the mind at developmentally appropriate points in the human life cycle, and with appropriate kinds of environmental inputs. Concepts come and concepts go as we develop. Think of how the concept of FOOD gets overwritten once infants turn away from breast milk and toward other foods during the first three to four years of life. The FOOD concept within the mind/brain changes over ontogeny, but the genes that give rise to that initial FOOD concept—which the infants match against environmental inputs on the basis of the olfactory, visual, and tactile information—remain in the genome and are passed onto one’s genetic heirs so the concept can be re-constructed during ontogeny.)

Delton-Sell-Figure1From Delton and Sell, 2014

Looking for Universal Concepts in the Dictionary

Another paper was recently published that provides some confirmatory evidence, of a sort, for Delton and Sell’s position. The personality psychologist Gerard Saucier and his colleagues (2014) read through the English dictionaries representing the languages of 12 geographically and linguistically distinct cultural groups from all over the world (see Table below) in hopes of finding the universal concepts that humans use to parse up the actions and dispositions of other humans.

Saucier_Figure1From Saucier et al., 2014

The logic behind Saucier et al.’s effort was straightforward: All human societies should end up making words to represent the attributes that humans universally use to parse their social lives—presuming, I suppose, that those concepts are worth talking about. (Universal social concepts for which humans universally make words might be only a subset of all universal social concepts: Some universal social concepts might not be worth talking about, though I can’t think off-hand of what such concepts might be. Can you?)

By scouring these dictionaries, Saucier and colleagues ultimately located nearly 17,000 words across the 12 languages that could be used to refer to human attributes. Through a reduction process that enabled them to thrown out synonyms and variations on common roots (fool, foolish, foolishly, “to fool,” and “to be fooled” can all be reduced to a single attribute concept, as can all of the other words that gloss in English as “to be foolish”), they were able to greatly simplify the number of attribute concepts within each language to more manageable numbers.

Having reduced each language’s human attribute lexicon down in this fashion, they then looked for attribute terms that cropped up in either (a) all 12 of the languages they studied; or (b) 11 of the 12 languages they studied. With their “11 out of 12” rule, they were taking a cue from the anthropologist Donald Brown, who argued that “Human Universals” should be manifest in the ethnographic materials for 95% of the world’s societies. Placing the empirical estimate at 100% would be too strict because it doesn’t allow for ethnographers’ oversights. With only 12 dictionaries to work with, 11 out of 12 is as close as you can come to 95%.

What Saucier and colleagues discovered was fascinating. All twelve languages had human attribute concepts corresponding to BAD, GOOD, USELESS, BEAUTIFUL, DISOBEDIENT, STUPID, ALIVE, BLIND, SICK, STRONG, TIRED, WEAK, WELL, AFRAID, ANGRY, ASHAMED, JEALOUS, SURPRISED, BIG, LARGE, SMALL, HEAVY, OLD, and YOUNG. If you use the slightly more lenient “11 out of 12” criterion for judgments of universality, you get to add EVIL, HANDSOME, GOSSIP, HUMBLE, LOVE, CLUMSY, DRUNK, FOOLISH, QUICK, SLOW, UNABLE, WISE, DEAD, SLEEPY, HUNGRY, PAIN, PLEASURE, THIRSTY, HAPPY, SATISFIED, TROUBLED, FAT, LITTLE, SHORT, TALL, MARRIED, POOR, RICH, and STRANGER.

To me, this is a fascinating list. Some of the traits on the list involve moral evaluation (e.g., BAD, GOOD, EVIL, HUMBLE). Others clearly have to do with physical health, condition, or capacity for work (e.g., ALIVE, BLIND, SICK, WELL, QUICK, SLOW, UNABLE, STRONG, WEAK). Others relate to reproductive value (e.g., BEAUTIFUL, HANDSOME, MARRIED), and age (YOUNG, OLD). Many of the universals relate to more temporary motivations, emotions, and behavioral dispositions (e.g., TIRED, AFRAID, ANGRY, ASHAMED, JEALOUS, SURPRISED, PLEASURE, THIRSTY, HUNGRY, PAIN, COLD, HOT). And still others are associated with reliability and judgment (e.g., CLUMSY, WISE, RIGHT, USELESS). I think Delton and Sell would be especially pleased to see that STRANGER even makes it to the list—consistent with their speculation that humans possess innate “NEWCOMER TO A COALITION” and “OUTGROUP” concepts.

I wouldn’t want to overstate the significance of Saucier and colleagues’ findings (although I think the findings are extremely important): As I mentioned above, just because we lack a word for something doesn’t mean we don’t have an innate concept for it (remember that infants can find food because they come into the world with a well-developed FOOD concept, even though they can’t converse with you about food). Saucier’s list of universal person words almost surely does not exhaust the list of evolved person concepts that humans reliably acquire through ontogeny, but it might be a decent rough draft of the set of person concepts that all adults eventually find regular occasions to gossip about. And of course, if you can count on the fact that your Hadza houseguest has concepts for Bad, Good, Beautiful/Handsome, Love, Drunk, Sick, Ashamed, Jealous, Fat, Short, Old, Young, Rich, and Poor, then translating an episode of TMZ for him or her should be no trouble whatsoever.

Postscript: After reading this post, Paul Bloom wrote me to ask why I “didn’t mention the enormous  developmental psych literature that looks at exactly this question—work that studies babies with an eye toward exploring exactly which concepts are innate and which are learned, e.g., Carey, Baillergeon, Wynn, Spelke, Gergely, Leslie, and so on.” (Paul was too modest, I think, to put himself to this list, but he should have.) Hat in hand, I couldn’t agree more. If you don’t know the work of the scientists that Paul mentioned above, you can look to it for further evidence that humans come into the world with complex social concepts. ~MEM


Brown, D. E. (1991). Human universals. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Delton, A. W., & Sell, A. (2014). The co-evolution of concepts and motivation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(2), 115-120.

Dennett, D. C. (2006). Cognitive wheels: The Frame Problem of AI. New York: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking.

Saucier, G., Thalmayer, A. G., & Bel-Bahar, T. S. (2014). Human attribute concepts: Relative ubiquity across twelve mutually isolated languages. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(1), 199-216.

Schaal, B., Coureaud, G., Doucet, S., Delaunay-El Allam, M., Moncomble, A.-S., Montigny, D., . . . Holley, A. (2009). Mammary olfactory signalisation in females and odor processing in neonates: Ways evolved by rabbits and humans. Behav Brain Res, 200, 346-358.

*I trust that you were able to infer that by TMZ I meant the celebrity gossip show and not the cancer drug or the Soviet motorcycle manufacturer.