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Evolutionary Psychology With Dr. Geoffrey Miller

Episode 232
Chad sits down with Dr. Geoffrey Miller to discuss psychology in marketing, how storytelling is changing how we communicate, and how to confront existential risks.

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Dr. Geoffrey Miller (Website | Twitter) is an evolutionary psychologist, effective altruism advocate, and author. His work has been featured in Nature, Science, Discovery Channel, The Washington Post, National Geographic Channel, and The Economist.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Chad sits down with Dr. Miller to discuss psychology in marketing, how storytelling is changing how we communicate, and how to confront existential risks.

Show Notes

[2:00] Geoffrey’s Background

  • Geoffrey started in psychology and then became interested in evolutionary psychology. In university, he started to learn how to use machine learning to simulate genetic and evolutionary algorithms.
  • Chad and Geoffrey discuss how randomness and unpredictability are an adaptive strategy. Once A.I. can simulate these things, an A.I. arms race of predictability vs unpredictability is inevitable.

“Strategy is being able to be logical and still unpredictable.” – Chad

[6:30] How To Apply Evolutionary Psychology To Business

“What a lot of companies don’t get is how much of a cultural bubble they are in.” – Geoffrey

  • There’s variation in human personality traits that marketers need to recognize. If they assume that what they are interested in is what their customers are interested in, a mismatch can occur that hurts the business.

“Marketers want to virtue signal politically to their peer group… But that’s not necessarily in the shareholders’, company’s, or consumers’ interest.” – Geoffrey

“Everybody wants to be idealogically accepted by their peer group, but in business, you have to look beyond that. You have to calibrate yourself to, ‘who am I really trying to deliver value to?'” – Geoffrey

[10:30] Storytelling And How It Impacts Our Future

“One thing that makes me emotionally optimistic about America is that the same adults that are being completely insane to each other about politics on Twitter are watching this really sophisticated and emotionally insightful series on Netflix.” – Geoffrey

“Because we have so much focus, emphasis, and resources being devoted to good storytelling, I feel like we are approaching a point where we can have a shared narrative or shared story about the future that people can agree on.” – Chad

  • The stuff that is really popular on TV (things like Westworld or Game of Thrones) are incredibly complex. Compare these shows to 70’s sitcoms and you see a clear shift towards great storytelling. Why is it so easy for us to deal with this level of sophistication in the fiction world, but so difficult for us to navigate hard discussions in the political realm?
  • We are currently trapped in a text-based, linear culture that limits our thinking, but with new mediums of communication, that is changing.

[15:00] How The Internet Is Changing Lectures

  • Geoffrey has found that he has to teach in a much different style than those before him. To be a good professor nowadays, you have to learn how to integrate your class material with your students’ internet ecosystem.
  • There are tons of weird, small internet subcultures, and with so many influences, it’s hard to find common ground with every single student. It takes a lot of cultural and mental flexibility for older generations to engage with these younger students.

[18:15] Defining Effective Altruism

“Effective altruism is using reason and evidence to try to do the most good that you can in the world and trying to think imaginatively about who could be affected by what you are doing.” – Geoffrey

[28:20] Confronting Existential Risks

  • It can be overwhelming to address or think about existential risks but confronting them is part of the hero’s journey. It requires you to dive deep in the dark abyss and find your way back to the light.

“[Existential risks] are our call to adventure in our modern times.” – Chad

“It’s not the survival of the fittest, it’s the survival of the most creative.” – Geoffrey

[32:00] Prioritizing Problems, The Effective Altruist Way

  • How to prioritize existential risks:
    • 1) Determine how big the problem is. How many people will this impact? What are the worldwide consequences of this risk?
    • 2) Determine if you can actually do anything about it. How many ways are there to solve it? If you can’t solve it (for example, there’s currently no way for us to stop a supernova from wiping out the planet), then it’s not worth the emotional energy to worry about it.
    • 3) Find out how many people are already working on the problem. Do we need more effort or attention devoted to it? If it is already receiving a decent amount of public resources, your time and energy might be better spent promoting a separate issue that needs more attention.
  • These three questions — How big is the problem? Can you solve it? and How many people are working on solving it? — will empower you to find a place where you can fight the issues that really matter.

[35:35] What Geoffrey Teaches

  • Geoffrey teaches his classes about EA and existential problems. It can be a lot for students to understand, but he believes that asking these hard questions can ultimately help them decide on their career path.
  • Interesting Note:
    • Geoffrey has noticed that a lot of young men seem to be more interested in self-development and finding a meaningful place in life because of Jordan Peterson‘s call to excellence. Men are starting to ask themselves: what kind of man should I become?
    • Young women don’t seem to struggle with this in the same way because they mature faster and are more future-orientated. Joseph Campbell held the opinion that women were forced to see the suffering of the world much earlier on than men, so they confront these questions at a younger age.

[37:00] Future Of Higher Ed

  • Geoffrey thinks higher ed should be one of today’s proving rituals; something that’s really hard and that you are proud of yourself for getting through. Unfortunately, it seems like most colleges are trying to do the opposite.

“It needs to be a proving ritual and I think confronting existential risk and confronting our responsibility to future generations is central to that.” – Geoffrey

[39:00] Geoffrey’s Recommendation for Parents

  • Today, Geoffrey is really interested in studying the future of relationships. He is curious to see what kind of relationships people will have in 20 or 50 years.
  • Geoffrey has a daughter in her 20s and his recommendation to parents is to learn to trust your genes.  If you make a good choice in mate, your kids will probably turn out okay.

“Having kids is a forcing function for what matters. It expands your imagination.” – Chad

“It’s really important to remember that we are descended from successful parents. You are the result of an unbroken chain of success stories… You are pretty unlikely to be the weak link in terms of being uniquely bad at parenting.” – Geoffrey

  • As a culture, we need to fight against helicopter parenting, tiger mothering, and forced perfectionism. It’s an unhealthy mindset to believe that it is up to you as a parent to make sure your kid is smart or successful.
  • Don’t forget to make time in your personal life so that parenting isn’t the only thing you do.

[47:00] Media Geoffrey Is Consuming

To learn more about Dr. Geoffrey Miller’s work, check out his website or connect with him on Twitter.

This week’s theme is Past, Present, Future. It is dedicated to learning from the good, the bad, the terrifying, and the exceptional so that we can create a better future. If you have any stake in what the future holds (spoiler alert: we all do!), then you won’t want to miss this week’s mind-boggling interviews. Stay tuned!

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