A recent news story about a finding about the neuroscience of “self-control” ventured that the reason that someone “who works very hard not to take seconds of lasagna at dinner winds up taking two pieces of cake at desert” was that the person had used up their mystical and mythical self-control resource. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that an alternative – dare I say simpler? – explanation would be that the person who didn’t take a second helping of lasagna was still hungry when the desert tray appeared. Similarly, one need not posit a resource to explain why hungry judges are more punitive or hungry people are less patient. Generally, as organisms get hungrier and hungrier, we should expect their behavior to change, prioritizing acquiring food over other tasks, taking greater risks to obtain food, and, of course, when food is available, eating more of it.

One talk at the HBES conference I discussed in a recent post presented some research that extended this idea in an intriguing new direction. Michael Bang Petersen and colleagues reasoned as follows. As people get hungrier, they ought to adopt strategies that will aid in either acquiring food from others coercively – showing more aggression, selfishness, etc. – or acquiring food from others voluntarily. In modern environments, one way that people can increase the chance of receiving aid from others is through the welfare machinery of the state. (This might be a good time to mention that the lead author on the study, Petersen, is at Aarhus University, Denmark…) So, the authors reasoned, maybe hungry people will be more favorably disposed towards policies that result in wealth transfers than people who have recently eaten.

Read more at the Evolutionary Psychology Blog

Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his PhD at the University of California Santa Barbara in 1998 and received postdoctoral training at Caltech in the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, UCLA Anthropology, and the University of Arizona’s Economic Science Laboratory with Vernon Smith. He investigates a wide array of topics, including morality, cooperation, friendship, mate choice, supernatural beliefs, modularity, and self-control. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Evolution and Human Behavior the Director of Undergraduate Studies in his department and the President of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.


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