Humans Are Weird, & Other Lessons From Animal Behavior: Interview w Dr. Laurie Santos

Two weeks ago was the Yale Humanist Community’s first ever Humanist Haven, a monthly nonreligious community gathering. The first speaker at the first meeting was Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology and cognitive science and the Director of the Canine Cognition Lab at Yale University. Her research explores the evolutionary origins of the human mind by comparing the cognitive abilities of humans and non-human animals.

At Humanist Haven she discussed tips from science about how to live a better life, specifically in the face of our irrationalities. Her tips included choosing to spend time and money on experiences rather than things, giving experiences to others, and using adjectives to effect your subjective experience.

Prof Santos at Humanist Haven

I sat down with her to discuss what science has to teach humanists.

Wendy Webber: You started your talk at Humanist Haven by stating that the fundamental question of humanism is “Why are humans so special?” Can you explain your understanding of “humanism” and then why this question is fundamental to it?

Laurie Santos: I guess I would say it is a fundamental question rather than the fundamental question. Humans are this weird species, one that thinks about our own mortality and is meta-aware of our own existence. So while thinking about human uniqueness may not be the fundamental question of humanism, I think it relates to what we are trying to do in humanism a lot of the time, which is trying to figure out our place in the world. How can we answer who we are from a more naturalistic point-of-view? The only reason we are asking these questions is because our species is so weird

WW: What do animals have to teach us about the questions that humanism is asking?

LS: There are a couple things animals can teach us. One is that they can give us insight into what makes us special, what makes us human to ask these humanist questions in a way that no other species does

More practically, I think other species can give us a glimpse into how organisms should behave in the absence of a theistic worldview. There are lots of other species who do compassionate, nice things for one another, who care about one another, who act altruistically towards one another, not because of some belief in a god or an all-powerful being who is watching them. They do it just because they do. Greg Epstein wrote Good Without God and I think some non-human animals provide an existence proof because they probably don’t believe in God and they are nice to each other in lots of different ways.

WW: Your talk at Humanist Haven could have been titled “Scientific Tips for Happiness.” Is that a fair title?

LS: I think the caveat would be that I was giving the free, not-a-lot-of-work, everyone-could-implement-tonight sort of tips for being happier. Cognitive science would have a lot to say about richer, more nuanced things that we need to do be happier— like having fulfillment at work and achieving gratitude and those kinds of things,— but those sorts of interventions require a lot more than simply using some more adjectives.

WW: How important do you think happiness is to the human experience?

LS: I think it’s is super important. But it also depends a lot on how you define happiness. A lot of the content I was talking in my Humanist Haven talk could best be described as improving one’s hedonic happiness as opposed to one’s broader happiness, such as whether or not someone experiences her life as meaningful and fulfilled. The bigger parts of happiness are also very important for living a good life, but I didn’t have time to get into those bigger issues.

WW: At the end of your TED Talk, in which you talk about your research into how capuchin monkeys use money in ways that mirror our own rational and irrational behavior, you talk about how recognizing our limitations is the only way we can overcome them. You say, “that might be the only way that we will really be able to achieve our own human potential and really become the nobel species we hope to all be.

My question is how do we irrationally act in ways that harm ourselves and others?

LS: There is lots of work nowadays in experimental economics tracking these kinds of situations—public goods games in which people are tempted to cheat even though they would ultimately be better off if they behaved nicely. In these situations, people have the urge to do the selfish thing that hurts everybody. Many researchers have begun studying the heuristics that people use to solve these sorts of public goods problems. The good news is that at least some of this research seems to suggest that people tend towards being nice in these situations—that our very fast or heuristic reactions are  ones that would promote kindness or compassion. David Rand, who is a faculty member here at Yale, has shown in his research that people’s fastest reaction in these games is to cooperate, to be nice to others, and to punish on behalf of others,. Our gut reaction is to do all things that reduce harm to other people. Unfortunately, we tend to switch our strategy to being selfish if given more time to think about the decision, or when we are told to act rationally. Dave’s idea is that—at least in many cultures—people developed fast instincts to do the nice thing, but that these fast instincts can be overridden. So I think the big question for researchers now is: why don’t our heuristics to lead us to behave nicely all the time. But this is a domain in which the irrational, fast thing to do is actually to be nice

There’s also work in cognitive science that people really don’t like taking physical actions that harm others, that this is another domain where our instinct is to be nice. Researchers like Fiery Cushman, who is a faculty member at Harvard, have found that people really don’t like to behave in ways that seem harmful even if rationally they know they are not. Fiery has a cute study where he ask people to smash his leg with a hammer, but he explains to people that he has replaced his real leg with a plastic replica Fiery finds that even though people rationally know that smashing the leg with a hammer will not cause harm, the fact that it seems like it is harmful is too much for people. People still don’t want to perform that action. I think that this is another example where our fast instincts make us acting nicely and stop us from engaging in harmful acts, In many situations, it takes a lot of cognitive work to get people to be jerks.

WW: The mission statement of Applied Sentience is “to find beauty in the world and explore how to live in it.” So, where do you find beauty in the world?

LS: One way I try to do it is to naturally to pay more attention to things, to be more in the moment. For me, being in the moment tends to correlate with experiencing more gratitude and noticing things more.

I personally experience a lot of happiness and get a sense of beauty from being out in nature and being around other people. So part of the way I like to structure my research and my daily life to allow for more of that. That’s were I get my awe from.

That said, I think finding awe is particularly tricky for humanists and nontheists. Folks who participate in religious traditions are part of cultural structures that allow them to experience awe all the time. They often get that sort of stuff for free. Every Sunday they participate in an experience that has been culturally shaped over many, many years to give people awe, to give people a sense of meaning and beauty. And we humanists who lack that and have to do it for ourselves. We don’t have zillions of years of religious tradition built up to help us with that. Nor do we often have that spaces where we can share that beauty with others.

I think that’s the beauty of things like Humanist Haven where people come together to try to achieve those things. Psychologically, we know that shared spaces really help to us achieve shared experiences. I think this is one strength of many religious traditions that humanist communities would be well served to take on.

Wendy Webber (Yale University)
Wendy WebberWendy Webber is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she was a founding member of an atheist, agnostic, and multifaith community that continues to foster interbelief dialogues and initiatives. Currently she's traveling the world with Pathfinders Project, which aims to create a permanent Humanist Service Corps. Wendy writes about religion, atheism, and interbelief primarily for her blog and State of Formation. When she is able, she plays tennis, takes photos, and enjoys offbeat museums.

One response to “Humans Are Weird, & Other Lessons From Animal Behavior: Interview w Dr. Laurie Santos

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