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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 May 11;107 Suppl 2:9007-14. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0914623107. Epub 2010 May 5.

Colloquium paper: adaptive specializations, social exchange, and the evolution of human intelligence.

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Center for Evolutionary Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA.


Blank-slate theories of human intelligence propose that reasoning is carried out by general-purpose operations applied uniformly across contents. An evolutionary approach implies a radically different model of human intelligence. The task demands of different adaptive problems select for functionally specialized problem-solving strategies, unleashing massive increases in problem-solving power for ancestrally recurrent adaptive problems. Because exchange can evolve only if cooperators can detect cheaters, we hypothesized that the human mind would be equipped with a neurocognitive system specialized for reasoning about social exchange. Whereas humans perform poorly when asked to detect violations of most conditional rules, we predicted and found a dramatic spike in performance when the rule specifies an exchange and violations correspond to cheating. According to critics, people's uncanny accuracy at detecting violations of social exchange rules does not reflect a cheater detection mechanism, but extends instead to all rules regulating when actions are permitted (deontic conditionals). Here we report experimental tests that falsify these theories by demonstrating that deontic rules as a class do not elicit the search for violations. We show that the cheater detection system functions with pinpoint accuracy, searching for violations of social exchange rules only when these are likely to reveal the presence of someone who intends to cheat. It does not search for violations of social exchange rules when these are accidental, when they do not benefit the violator, or when the situation would make cheating difficult.

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