The Impact of Culture on Hard-Wired Behaviors

Anthropologists tell us that our species of humans called Homo Sapiens first surfaced about 200,000 years ago.  And our ancestors survived through certain behaviors that became pretty much hard-wired into their brain circuitry.   When agriculture was invented about 10,000 years ago, our ancestors no longer had to move around, live in small groups, and live a hand-to-mouth existence. 


However, according to Nigel Nicholson (1998), all the environmental changes we have experienced since that time have not stimulated further human evolution.  Evolutionary psychologists believe that 10,000 years is simply not enough time for significant genetic modifications to take place across populations.


“ … there is a limit to how much the human mind can be remolded.  Proponents of evolutional psychology assert that, because of natural selection, human beings living and working in today’s modern civilization retain the hardwired mentality – that is, the needs, drives, and biases – of Stone Age hunter-gatherers.”


So what are some of the behaviors which Nicholson believes are hard-wired?  They include the following:

1.     Relying on emotion or instinct as the first screen for all information received.  Stone Age people tended to rely on instinct so they could react quickly to predators or strangers outside their circle.

2.     Feeling more self-confident than reality justifies.  Those who survived the brutal conditions of the Stone Age had to project confidence so they could attract friends and mates. 

3.     Quickly classifying people, situations and experiences into categories (e.g., good or bad, in our out) rather than engaging in time-consuming and nuanced analysis.  Without relying on “big data” or complex analyses, our ancestors had to make decisions quickly, whether they were about people to befriend or about the types of food that would not be poisonous.

4.     Participating in public competitions for status and chest thumping about their successes.  Winning in contests and battles, as well as showing off through elaborate rituals and artistic displays, were important to impress others and to boost their status – making them more attractive to potential mates.

5.     Empathy and mind reading.  Our ancestors were not all about crushing their foes.  To survive, they also needed to anticipate shifts in status and build alliances.  They needed to share food, barter and trade, and those who learned how to be friendly and guess what others were thinking tended to be more successful. 


Sound familiar?  We haven’t changed that much, it seems.  I generally agree with Nicholson, and certainly the evidence he and others provide is quite strong.  However, here is what is interesting:  different cultures seem to encourage or discourage these behaviors based on their cultural values.  So while there may be some universal truths to these behaviors, we are malleable enough that culture may trump some of these so-called hard-wired behaviors.


Let’s examine how each of these hard-wired behaviors can be seen through the filters of some cultural values, focusing especially on workplace behaviors.  In my experience, organizations across the world vary in the importance and emphasis they place on different organizational and management practices, in part as a function of their cultural values.   And some preferred practices (and their underlying values) may clash with some of these hard-wired behaviors.


Relying on emotion.  Many organizations like to pride themselves as being data-driven, and push for decisions that are based primarily on facts and air-tight logical reasoning.   On the surface, this might seem to contradict those hard-wired behaviors that rely on instinct.   Yet we know that, like our ancestors, emotion plays a large part in our decision-making.  So organizations with practices that place a high premium on rationality and logic (e.g., through the use of quantitative tools and a preponderance of data to drive decisions) may sometimes find them difficult to implement. Not only are we hard-wired to use emotion, but there are cultures where freedom of expression and spontaneity are encouraged (what Hofstede calls “high indulgence”).  On the other hand, even societies where emotional expressions are not encouraged will have citizens who will from time to time find ways to express their emotions.  Several years ago, the organization I was working for decided to assign a very competent and passionate leader from a Latin American country to become the general manager of its failing German subsidiary.  He was just what the German employees needed; he energized the organization, excited the employees in that subsidiary; in two years he had turned the subsidiary around to profitability.


Feeling self-confident.  I am sure that we are all familiar with cultures where this kind of behavior is encouraged.  In fact, in countries like the U.S. and Great Britain, pointing out your accomplishments, doing a bit of self-promoting, and making sure that colleagues and bosses know about what you have done are in general acceptable behaviors (as long as they are not done excessively).  In other cultures, individuals may let their accomplishments speak for themselves because of the cultural norms around humility.  Ken Watanabe, a very well-respected Japanese manager in a Tokyo-based financial services organization, is looked up to by all his colleagues.  He has a quiet and calm style, is always prepared, and has developed a reputation for his research reports on the industry he is focusing on.  Yet he is very self-effacing, and to a Western manager, may seem to constantly be diminishing his accomplishments constantly.  In some ways, this behavior reminds me of the profile of what Daniel Zweig (Harvard Business Review, May 2014) calls the “invisibles” in an organization, those who do not toot their own horn but are at the top of their game and are very valuable to an organization.


Classifying people into categories rapidly.  We will tend to do this, don’t we?  What I have observed is that different cultures make judgments about people based upon a narrow or wide scope.  In some cultures, we look at someone’s face, perhaps their attire and their bearing and the way they speak, and quickly classify them accordingly.  People from other cultures may cast a wider net in classifying people.   They may also consider a person’s family background, social status, and the way they follow the unwritten rules and the cultural code.   For example, George Freidrich, an Austrian manager just recently back from Buenos Aries on a two-year assignment, made sure that while in that country, he was careful about his attire, his body language, the way he addressed people at different levels in the organization, and his deference to women.  He knew that the Argentinians would be looking at all these cues in reaching conclusions about him.


Engaging in competitive behavior.  Our capitalistic culture is based on the value and benefits of competition, and most organizations encourage some form of competitive behavior – whether it is through beating the competition, or competing for scarce resources within the organization.  Yet in some cultures, such competitive behavior is downplayed; Hofstede refers to these cultures as more feminine, in that they place less emphasis on power, wealth, assertiveness and “living to work.”  It’s not that these cultures (which include Denmark and Norway) are not competitive; the competitive drive may still be there, but it is within the larger context of a culture that values family time, relationships, and “work to live.”


Empathy and mind reading.  While Daniel Goleman popularized the term emotional intelligence, it seems that even with our ancestors, having this characteristic enhanced one’s chances of survival and success.  I definitely think that cultures that are more high context (Edward Hall’s term) develop people who are good at “reading between the lines,” and who can communicate in different ways without offending others.  These cultures have code words that people in that culture understand.  For example, in Japan, a statement like “that might be difficult” really means “I don’t agree with you.”  Similarly, in China, a statement like “it’s not convenient” really means, “I don’t want to do it.” 


As a leader managing individuals and teams across cultures, there are two implications for you.  First, be aware that these hard-wired behaviors are part of what makes us “human” and it will be impossible to completely eliminate these behaviors in the work place. Through organization design and the reinforcement of specific management practices, we might be able to curb some of these behaviors but they will always be present.  For example, many organizations have implemented hiring and promotional practices that emphasize merit and results rather than relying on the initial impressions or judgments that people might have. 


Second, recognize that a society may differ in how the workers in that society express behaviors associated with these hard-wired behaviors.  Understanding the cultural code and the hidden cues will help you better manage and motivate individuals in different cultures. 


Goleman, D.  (2005).  Emotional Intelligence.  New York:  Bantam Books.


Hall, E.  (2013, reissued).  The Silent Language.  New York:  Anchor Books.


Hofstede, G.  (2001).  Culture’s Consequences.  New York:  Sage Publications.


Nicholson, N.   (July-August, 1998).  How Hard-Wired Is Human Behavior?  Harvard Business Review.


Zweig, D.  (May, 2014).  Managing the Invisibles.  Harvard Business Review.