The Naturalness of (Many) Social Institutions: Evolved Cognition as Their Foundation

PBoyerPascal Boyer and Michael Petersen in Journal of Institutional Economics (forthcoming):

General accounts of social institutions should provide plausible and testable answers to questions of institutional design, such as, why do social institutions have the specific features that we observe in human societies? Why do we observe common institutional features in otherwise very different cultural environments? Or, why do some institutions seem natural and compelling to participants, while others are considered alien or coercive? Here we develop the view that present institutional theories do not properly address such design questions, and that this can be remedied only by taking into account what we call the ‘naturalness’ of institutions, their connection to human expectations and preferences that result from evolution by natural selection. This perspective may help us understand commonalities across cultures, but alsowhy some institutions are more successful and compelling than others and why they change in particular directions.

To some extent, this suggestion echoes a defining feature of the neoinstitutional approach. From the beginning, neo-institutionalism has been oriented towards developing realistic models of the actors, countering the Homo oeconomicus model inherent in older institutional accounts and emphasizing the cognitive limits of human decision makers (Brousseau and Glachant, 2008). From this perspective, important lines of inquiry have been developed with regards to, first, how institutions carry a range of unintended consequences given the cognitive limits of their designers, and, second, how a function of institutions is to counter such limits (North, 1990). At the same time, however, this perspective of bounded rationality provides only a partial description of human cognition. While one line of research within the cognitive sciences has been preoccupied with the biased and fallible nature of human cognition, a complementary line of research has developed the view that human cognition is in fact ‘better than rational’ (Cosmides and Tooby, 1994). Evolutionary psychologists have argued that human cognition includes a multitude of domain-specific cognitive programs, each optimally geared (within evolutionary constraints) to solve particular problems in the course of human evolutionary history (Barkow et al., 1992). The inferential power of these specialized programs comes from their content-rich nature. That is, they are loaded with inbuilt assumptions about their domain. Environments that fit these inbuilt assumptions appear intuitive and readily understandable.

Our aim is to outline the argument that institutions are effective not despite human cognition but, in part, because of human cognition. Essentially, we argue that the content-rich nature of evolved intuitions provides a foundation which can be and is often used in the design of many social institutions. Institutions that fit these intuitions, we propose, develop more easily, require less effort to conform to and are more culturally stable.