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Profile: Dan Sperber (Institut Jean Nicod)
  1. Dan Sperber, Does the Selection Task Detect Cheater-Detection?
    Evolutionary psychology—in its ambitious version well formulated by Cosmides and Tooby (e.g., Cosmides & Tooby 1987, Tooby & Cosmides 1992) —will succeed to the extent that it causes cognitive psychologists to rethink central aspects of human cognition in an evolutionary perspective, to the extent, that is, that psychology in general becomes evolutionary. The human species is exceptional by its massive investment in cognition, and in forms of cognitive activity—language, metarepresentation, abstract thinking—that are as unique to humans as echolocation is unique (...)
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  2. Dan Sperber, How Do We Communicate?
    Communicate. We humans do it all the time, and most of the time we do it as a matter of course, without thinking about it. We talk, we listen, we write, we read - as you are doing now - or we draw, we mimic, we nod, we point, we shrug, and, somehow, we manage to make our thoughts known to one another. Of course, there are times when we view communication as something difficult or even impossible to achieve. Yet, (...)
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  3. Dan Sperber, Imitation Explains the Propagation, Not the Stability of Animal Culture.
    For acquired behaviour to count as cultural, two conditions must be met: it must propagate in a social group, and it must remain stable across generations in the process of propagation. It is commonly assumed that imitation is the mechanism that explains both the spread of animal culture and its stability. We review the literature on transmission chain studies in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and other animals, and we use a formal model to argue that imitation, which may well play a (...)
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  4. Dan Sperber (unknown). Speakers Are Honest Because Hearers Are Vigilant. Episteme 10:1.
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  5. Dan Sperber, Uncorrected Proof.
    This work examines how people interpret the sentential connective “or”, which can be viewed either inclusively (A or B or both) or exclusively (A or B but not both). Following up on prior work concerning quantifiers (Noveck, 2001; Noveck & Posada, 2003; Bott & Noveck, 2004) which shows that the common pragmatic interpretation of “some,” some but not all, is conveyed as part of an effortful step, we investigate how extra effort applied to disjunctive statements leads to a pragmatic interpretation (...)
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  6. Dan Sperber, Why Are Perfect Animals, Hybrids, and Monsters Food for Symbolic Thought?
    not only anomalous animals, but also exemplary animals often take on a symbolic value, thus raising a second problem. A solution to both problems is suggested, based on an examination of the cognitive..
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  7. Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson, Rhetoric and Relevance.
    Let us begin with the paradox. Rhetoric took pride of place in formal education for two millenia and a half. Its very rich and complex history deserves being studied in detail, but it could also be compressed in a few sentences. Indeed, the same substance was inculcated by eighty generations of teachers to eighty generations of pupils. If a general tendency can be discerned, it consists in a mere narrowing down of the subject matter of rhetoric: one of its five (...)
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  8. Maurice Bloch & Dan Sperber, Kinship and Evolved Psychological Dispositions.
    This article revisits the old controversy concerning the relation of the mother’s brother and sister’s son in patrilineal societies in the light both of anthropological criticisms of the very notion of kinship and of evolutionary and epidemiological approaches to culture. It argues that the ritualized patterns of behavior discussed by Radcliffe-Brown, Goody, and others are to be explained in terms of the interaction of a variety of factors, some local and historical, others pertaining to general human dispositions. In particular, an (...)
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  9. Dan Sperber, An Objection to the Memetic Approach to Culture.
    Memetics is one possible evolutionary approach to the study of culture. Boyd and Richerson’s models (1985, Boyd this volume), or my epidemiology of representations (1985, 1996), are among other possible evolutionary approaches inspired in various ways by Darwin. Memetics however, is, by its very simplicity, particularly attractive.
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  10. Dan Sperber, Perspectives.
    Experimental evidence on reasoning and decision making has been used to argue both that human rationality is adequate and that it is defective. The idea that reasoning involves not one but two mental systems (see Evans and Over, 1996; Sloman, 1996; Stanovich, 2004 for reasoning, and Kahneman and Frederick, 2005 for decision making) makes better sense of this evidence. ‘System 1’ reasoning is fast, automatic, and mostly unconscious; it relies on ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics (to use Gigerenzer’s expression (Gigerenzer et (...)
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  11. Dan Sperber, Reasoning as a Social Competence.
    Groups do better at reasoning tasks than individuals, and, in some cases, do even better than any of their individual members. Here is an illustration. In the standard version of Wason selection task (Wason, 1966), the most commonly studied problem in the psychology of reasoning, only about 10% of participants give the correct solution, even though it can be arrived at by elementary deductive reasoning.1 Such poor performance begs for an explanation, and a great many have been offered. What makes (...)
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  12. Dan Sperber, The Why and How of Experimental Pragmatics: The Case of 'Scalar Inferences'.
    Although a few pioneers in psycholinguistics had, for more than twenty years, approached various pragmatic issues experimentally, it is only in the past few years that investigators have begun employing the experimental method in testing pragmatic hypotheses (see Noveck & Sperber 2004). We see this emergence of a proper experimental pragmatics as an important advance with a great potential for further development. In this chapter we want to illustrate what can be done with experimental approaches to pragmatic (...)
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  13. Dan Sperber, Why a Deep Understanding of Cultural Evolution is Incompatible with Shallow Psychology.
    Human, cognition, interaction, and culture are thoroughly intertwined. Without cognition and interaction, there would be no culture. Without culture, cognition and interaction would be very different affairs, as they are among other social species. The effect of culture on mental life has always been a main concern of the social sciences and, after a long period of almost total neglect, it is more and more taken into consideration in cognitive psychology. The effect of cognition, and in particular of the ability (...)
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  14. Dan Sperber & Stefania Caldi, Attribution of Beliefs by 13-Month-Old Infants.
    In two experiments, we investigated whether 13-month-old infants expect agents to behave in a way consistent with information to which they have been exposed. Infants watched animations in which an animal was either provided information or prevented from gathering information about the actual location of an object. The animal then searched successfully or failed to retrieve it. Infants’ looking times suggest that they expected searches to be effective when—and only when—the agent had had access to the relevant information. This result (...)
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  15. Dan Sperber & Nicolas Claidière, The Natural Selection of Fidelity in Social Learning.
    Social learning mechanisms are usually assumed to explain both the spread and the persistence of cultural behaviour. In a recent article, we showed that the fidelity of social learning commonly found in transmission chain experiments is not high enough to explain cultural stability. Here we want to both enrich and qualify this conclusion by looking at the case of song transmission in song birds, which can be faithful to the point of being true replication. We argue that this high fidelity (...)
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  16. Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson, A Deflationary Account of Metaphor.
    On the relevance-theoretic approach outlined in this paper, linguistic metaphors are not a natural kind, and ―metaphor‖ is not a theoretically important notion in the study of verbal communication. Metaphorical interpretations are arrived at in exactly the same way as literal, loose and hyperbolic interpretations: there is no mechanism specific to metaphors, and no interesting generalisation that applies only to them. In this paper, we defend this approach in detail by showing how the same inferential procedure applies to utterances at (...)
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  17. Nicolas Baumard, Jean-Baptiste André & Dan Sperber (2013). A Mutualistic Approach to Morality: The Evolution of Fairness by Partner Choice. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 36 (1):59-122.
    What makes humans moral beings? This question can be understood either as a proximate question or as an ultimate question. The question is about the mental and social mechanisms that produce moral judgments and interactions, and has been investigated by psychologists and social scientists. The question is about the fitness consequences that explain why humans have morality, and has been discussed by evolutionary biologists in the context of the evolution of cooperation. Our goal here is to contribute to a fruitful (...)
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  18. Nicolas Baumard, Jean-Baptiste André & Dan Sperber (2013). Partner Choice, Fairness, and the Extension of Morality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 36 (1):102-122.
    Our discussion of the commentaries begins, at the evolutionary level, with issues raised by our account of the evolution of morality in terms of partner-choice mutualism. We then turn to the cognitive level and the characterization and workings of fairness. In a final section, we discuss the degree to which our fairness-based approach to morality extends to norms that are commonly considered moral even though they are distinct from fairness.
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  19. Dan Sperber (2013). Speakers Are Honest Because Hearers Are Vigilant Reply to Kourken Michaelian. Episteme 10 (1):61-71.
    In Kourken Michaelian questions the basic tenets of our article (Sperber et al. 2010). Here I defend against Michaelian's criticisms the view that epistemic vigilance plays a major role in explaining the evolutionary stability of communication and that the honesty of speakers and the reliability of their testimony are, to a large extent, an effect of hearers' vigilance.
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  20. Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson (2013). 10. Precis of Relevance: Communication and Cognition. In Maite Ezcurdia & Robert J. Stainton (eds.), The Semantics-Pragmatics Boundary in Philosophy. Broadview Press. 220.
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  21. Dan Sperber & Nicolas Baumard (2012). Moral Reputation: An Evolutionary and Cognitive Perspective. Mind and Language 27 (5):495-518.
    From an evolutionary point of view, the function of moral behaviour may be to secure a good reputation as a co-operator. The best way to do so may be to obey genuine moral motivations. Still, one's moral reputation maybe something too important to be entrusted just to one's moral sense. A robust concern for one's reputation is likely to have evolved too. Here we explore some of the complex relationships between morality and reputation both from an evolutionary and a cognitive (...)
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  22. Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber (2011). Argumentation: Its Adaptiveness and Efficacy. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 34 (2):94-111.
    Having defended the usefulness of our definition of reasoning, we stress that reasoning is not only for convincing but also for evaluating arguments, and that as such it has an epistemic function. We defend the evidence supporting the theory against several challenges: People are good informal arguers, they reason better in groups, and they have a confirmation bias. Finally, we consider possible extensions, first in terms of process-level theories of reasoning, and second in the effects of reasoning outside the lab.
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  23. Dan Sperber (2011). A Naturalistic Ontology for Mechanistic Explanations in the Social Sciences. In Pierre Demeulenaere (ed.), Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms. Cambridge University Press. 64--77.
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  24. Dan Sperber (2011). Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 34 (2):57.
    Short abstract (98 words). Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given humans’ exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of (...)
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  25. Nicolas Baumard & Dan Sperber (2010). Weird People, Yes, but Also Weird Experiments. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2-3):84-85.
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  26. Dan Sperber (2010). The Guru Effect. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1 (4):583-592.
    Obscurity of expression is considered a flaw. Not so, however, in the speech or writing of intellectual gurus. All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp. Here I try to explain this guru effect by looking at the psychology of trust and interpretation, at the role of authority and argumentation, and at the effects of these dispositions and processes when they operate at a population level where, I argue, a runaway phenomenon of overappreciation (...)
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  27. Dan Sperber (2010). Weird People, Yes, but Also Weird Experiments. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2-3):84 - 85.
    Henrich et al.’s article fleshes out in a very useful and timely manner comments often heard but rarely published about the extraordinary cultural imbalance in the recruitment of participants in psychology experiments and the doubt this casts on generalization of findings from these “weird” samples to humans in general. The authors mention that one of the concerns they have met in defending their views has been of a methodological nature: “the observed variation across populations may be due to various methodological (...)
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  28. Dan Sperber, Fabrice Clément, Christophe Heintz, Olivier Mascaro, Hugo Mercier, Gloria Origgi & Deirdre Wilson (2010). Epistemic Vigilance. Mind and Language 25 (4):359-393.
    Humans massively depend on communication with others, but this leaves them open to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misinformed. To ensure that, despite this risk, communication remains advantageous, humans have, we claim, a suite of cognitive mechanisms for epistemic vigilance. Here we outline this claim and consider some of the ways in which epistemic vigilance works in mental and social life by surveying issues, research and theories in different domains of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology and the social sciences.
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  29. Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber (2009). Intuitive and Reflective Inferences. In Keith Frankish & Jonathan St B. T. Evans (eds.), In Two Minds: Dual Processes and Beyond. Oxford University Press. 149--170.
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  30. Dan Sperber (2009). The Moral, Epistemic, and Mindreading Components of Children's Vigilance Towards Deception. Cognition 112 (3):367-380.
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  31. Dan Sperber, Ryan T. McKay & Daniel C. Dennett (2009). Culturally Transmitted Misbeliefs. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32 (6):534.
    Most human beliefs are acquired through communication, and so are most misbeliefs. Just like the misbeliefs discussed by McKay & Dennett (M&D), culturally transmitted misbeliefs tend to result from limitations rather than malfunctions of the mechanisms that produce them, and few if any can be argued to be adaptations. However, the mechanisms involved, the contents, and the hypothetical adaptive value tend to be specific to the cultural case.
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  32. Dan Sperber & Nicolas Claidière (2008). Defining and Explaining Culture (Comments on Richerson and Boyd, Not by Genes Alone). Biology and Philosophy 23 (2):283-292.
    We argue that there is a continuum of cases without any demarcation between more individual and more cultural information, and that therefore “culture” should be viewed as a property that human mental representations and practices exhibit to a varying degree rather than as a type or a subclass of these representations and practices (or of “information”). We discuss the relative role of preservative and constructive processes in transmission. We suggest a revision of Richerson and Boyd’s classification of the forces of (...)
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  33. Dan Sperber (2007). Seedless Grapes: Nature and Culture. In Eric Margolis & Stephen Laurence (eds.), Creations of the Mind: Theories of Artifacts and Their Representation. Oxford University Press. 124--137.
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  34. Dan Sperber & Nicolas Claidière (2006). Why Modeling Cultural Evolution Is Still Such a Challenge. Biological Theory 1 (1):20-22.
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  35. Dan Sperber & Lawrence Hirschfeld (2006). Culture and Modularity. In Peter Carruthers, Stephen Laurence & Stephen P. Stich (eds.), The Innate Mind: Culture and Cognition.
    Members of a human group are bound with one another by multiple flows of information. (Here we use “information” in a broad sense that includes not only the content of people’s knowledge, but also that of their beliefs, assumptions, fictions, rules, norms, skills, maps, images, and so on.) This information is materially realized in the mental representations of the people, and in their public productions, that is, their cognitively guided behaviors and the enduring material traces of these behaviors. Mentally represented (...)
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  36. Dan Sperber (2005). Modularity and Relevance: How Can a Massively Modular Mind Be Flexible and Context-Sensitive. In Peter Carruthers, Stephen Laurence & Stephen Stich (eds.), The Innate Mind: Structure and Content. Oup. 53.
  37. Dan Sperber & Deirder Wilson (2005). Pragmatics. In Frank Jackson & Michael Smith (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy. Oxford University Press.
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  38. Dan Sperber (2004). Agency, Religion, and Magic. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27 (6):750-751.
    Atran & Norenzayan (A&N) ask: “Why do agent concepts predominate in religion?” This question presupposes that we have a notion of religion that is (1) well enough defined, and (2) characterized independently of that of supernatural agents. I question these two presuppositions. I argue that “religion” is a family resemblance notion built around the idea of supernatural agency.
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  39. Dan Sperber & Lawrence A. Hirschfeld (2004). The Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Stability and Diversity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 (1):40-46.
  40. Jean-Baptiste Van Der Henst, Dan Sperber & Guy Politzer (2002). When is a Conclusion Worth Deriving? A Relevance-Based Analysis of Indeterminate Relational Problems. Thinking and Reasoning 8 (1):1-20.
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  41. Dan Sperber (2002). In Defense of Massive Modularity. In Emmanuel Dupoux (ed.), Language, Brain and Cognitive Development: Essays in Honor of Jacques Mehler. MIT Press.
     
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  42. Dan Sperber (2002). Truthfulness and Relevance in Telling The Time. Mind and Language 17 (5):457-466.
    Someone asked ‘What time is it?' when her watch reads 3:08 is likely to answer ‘It is 3:10.' We argue that a fundamental factor that explains such rounding is a psychological disposition to give an answer that, while not necessarily strictly truthful or accurate, is an optimally relevant one (in the sense of relevance theory) i.e. an answer from which hearers can derive the consequences they care about with minimal effort. A rounded answer is easier to process and may carry (...)
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  43. Dan Sperber (2002). Use or Misuse of the Selection Task? Rejoinder to Fiddick, Cosmides, and Tooby. Cognition 85 (3):277-290.
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  44. Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson (2002). Pragmatics, Modularity and Mind-Reading. Mind and Language 17 (1&2):3–23.
    The central problem for pragmatics is that sentence meaning vastly underdetermines speaker’s meaning. The goal of pragmatics is to explain how the gap between sentence meaning and speaker’s meaning is bridged. This paper defends the broadly Gricean view that pragmatic interpretation is ultimately an exercise in mind-reading, involving the inferential attribution of intentions. We argue, however, that the interpretation process does not simply consist in applying general mind-reading abilities to a particular (communicative) domain. Rather, it involves a dedicated comprehension module, (...)
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  45. Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson (2002). Truthfulness and Relevance. Mind 111 (443):583--632.
    This paper questions the widespread view that verbal communication is governed by a maxim, norm or convention of truthfulness which applies at the level of what is literally meant, or what is said. Pragmatic frameworks based on this view must explain the frequent occurrence and acceptability of loose and figurative uses of language. We argue against existing explanations of these phenomena and provide an alternative account, based on the assumption that verbal communication is governed not by expectations of truthfulness but (...)
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  46. Jean-Baptiste Van Der Henst, Dan Sperber & Guy Politzer (2002). When is a Conclusion Worth Deriving? A Relevance-Based Analysis of Indeterminate Relational Problems. Thinking and Reasoning 8 (1):1 – 20.
    When is a conclusion worth deriving? We claim that a conclusion is worth deriving to the extent that it is relevant in the sense of relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1995). To support this hypothesis, we experiment with ''indeterminate relational problems'' where we ask participants what, if anything, follows from premises such as A is taller than B, A is taller than C . With such problems, the indeterminate response that nothing follows is common, and we explain why. We distinguish (...)
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  47. Jean–Baptiste van der Henst, Laure Carles & Dan Sperber (2002). Truthfulness and Relevance in Telling the Time. Mind and Language 17 (5):457–466.
    Someone asked ‘What time is it?' when her watch reads 3:08 is likely to answer ‘It is 3:10.' We argue that a fundamental factor that explains such rounding is a psychological disposition to give an answer that, while not necessarily strictly truthful or accurate, is an optimally relevant one (in the sense of relevance theory) i.e. an answer from which hearers can derive the consequences they care about with minimal effort. A rounded answer is easier to process and may carry (...)
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  48. Deirdre Wilson & Dan Sperber (2002). [Book Chapter] (Unpublished).
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