Exploring the evolutionary origins of culture and stereotyping

Oliver Sng

Oliver Sng studies human social psychology by thinking about animal behavior

When fish grow up in tanks with lots of other fish, they tend to have fewer babies, but the babies they have are bigger. Why?

“This phenomena happens across many different species,” says Oliver Sng, who has joined the School of Social Ecology’s faculty as an assistant professor of psychological science. “You see it in fish, you see it in beetles, you see it in lizards. The idea is that organisms have evolved over time to be sensitive to the environment and different aspects of the environment they live in. One aspect is density, and they change their behaviors when it’s dense. One behavior change is you end up having fewer offspring so that you can focus your resources and energy and care on those fewer offspring. That’s how those fewer fish end up becoming bigger, because their parents are caring and investing more resources in those fewer babies.”

Sng’s research shows that such behavior is happening with humans, too. He explains that when you examine societies in different countries, especially in very dense places, people are having fewer kids, they’re getting married later and they’re taking part in a “slower reproductive strategy.”

In a dense environment, Sng says, “there’s more competition between individuals, and in order to compete successfully in this environment, you need to take time to build your skills, you need more education and you can’t afford to have too many children because if you have too many, you have to split your energy. You want your kids to be competitive, too. So, it might be better to have fewer kids so you can focus your investment in those fewer kids.”

Sng is fascinated by people’s social behavior and psychology in different environments. He notes that his research explores “how aspects of environments we live in shape our psychology and social behavior. How crowded it is, whether we live with family relatives or not, whether there are more women or men around us, all of these factors can have profound effects on our psychology. More broadly, these factors may also be driving fundamental psychological differences across cultures and societies.”

Sng has a B.A. in psychology from the National University of Singapore and a Ph.D. in social psychology from Arizona State University. He recently completed a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan.

He leads his lab, the EVOCS (EVOlution, Culture and Stereotyping) Lab, which conducts psychological research on fundamental questions in social behavior, drawing upon ideas from evolutionary and cultural approaches. Current questions include:

  • How do various aspects of our environment (e.g., population density, presence of family relatives) shape our social behavior?
  • Where do cultural differences come from?
  • Why do we have stereotypes?
  • What exactly is the content of our stereotypes?

“The environments we live in don’t just influence our own behavior,” Sng notes. “The environments that others live in can also influence what we think about them. Now, imagine a person who lives in a neighborhood that is poor and underdeveloped, and where life is very unpredictable. Do you think this person will plan for the future? How aggressive do you think he or she will be?”

Just as the environment “shapes our psychology,” he says, “the environment shapes how we think other people are like, depending on the environments they live in.”

Read more about Sng’s research in these articles:

Story by Mimi Ko Cruz / Photo by Patricia DeVoe