The evolution of everything, in fits and starts

What's this about?

An evolutionary social scientist working to improve public health in developing countries, and to explain how various kinds of complex things evolved 


  • New BCD website launched The web-based home for Behaviour Centred Design (BCD) has been launched, where numerous resources, announcements and projects are made available. It is the central clearing house for all things ...
    Posted 1 Jun 2017, 04:24 by Robert Aunger
  • Global hygiene survey results published A paper modelling the causes of hand and household hygiene based on a large global dataset (12 countries!) has just been published in PLOS ONE. 
    Posted 22 Aug 2016, 01:37 by Robert Aunger
  • Intro to BCD published An introduction to Behaviour Centred Design, the approach to behaviour change developed by myself with colleague Val Curtis, has just been published in Health Psychology Review. 
    Posted 22 Aug 2016, 01:30 by Robert Aunger
  • New book published Gaining Control: How Human Behaviour Evolved, written together with Val Curtis, has been published by Oxford University Press. It describes stages in the evolution of psychological mechanisms over the control ...
    Posted 25 Apr 2015, 13:59 by Robert Aunger
  • The Evo-Eco Approach in use The Evo-Eco Approach to behaviour change has recently been used to develop a major field-based trial to promote handwashing with soap at crucial junctures during the day (such ...
    Posted 12 Jun 2013, 01:30 by Robert Aunger
  • BBC Morality test now live! Anyone can now take the web-based test of the 'human superorganism' approach to understanding the moral domain, hosted by the BBC's LabUK site. Help us do a bit ...
    Posted 9 Nov 2011, 06:05 by Robert Aunger
  • Choose soap! Choose Soap is a generic handwashing promotion campaign designed by a group of us at the Hygiene Centre, together with Good Pilot, a creative agency in London. The campaign materials ...
    Posted 21 Jul 2011, 23:29 by Robert Aunger
  • Distance learning course updated The University of London distance learning course on the Control of Infectious Disease that I run has been updated with the help of an intrepid team from LSHTM. It now ...
    Posted 21 Jul 2011, 22:40 by Robert Aunger
  • Global hygiene survey Together with colleagues from LSHTM, I designed and analysed a global survey for the Hygiene Council to investigate the causes of personal and household hygiene behaviours. The completed study of ...
    Posted 21 Jul 2011, 15:37 by Robert Aunger
  • New mums study Recent studies have suggested that the risk of death among newborns can be reduced if their mothers and carers practice hand-washing with soap. My colleague Katie Greenland and I ...
    Posted 21 Jul 2011, 14:22 by Robert Aunger
  • Research on hand-washing in Bangladesh Val Curtis and I conducted fieldwork in rural Bangladesh on behalf of UNICEF and DFID to help the SHEWA-B project (one of the largest hygiene promotion programmes ever attempted ...
    Posted 21 Jul 2011, 14:06 by Robert Aunger
  • Novel technique for analysing treatment compliance decisions Alison Krentel and I have published ‘Causal chain mapping: a novel method to analyse treatment compliance decisions, with application to lymphatic filariasis elimination in Alor, Indonesia’ in the journal Health ...
    Posted 21 Jul 2011, 14:07 by Robert Aunger
  • Textbook chapter published Falko Sniehotta and I have published ‘Stage models of behaviour change’ in the textbook Health Psychology (2nd edition), edited by French, Kaptein, Vedhara and Weinman, from Wiley/Blackwell. Check out ...
    Posted 21 Jul 2011, 23:32 by Robert Aunger
  • Behaviour change workshop Val Curtis and I conducted a popular and successful workshop in mid-May at the 2011 WASH Conference on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Brisbane. In it, we presented our ...
    Posted 21 Jul 2011, 12:41 by Robert Aunger
  • ESRC-funded handwashing study publication A study supervised by my student Gaby Judah (and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council) has recently been published in the American Journal of Public Health. It used ...
    Posted 4 Mar 2010, 08:30 by Robert Aunger
Showing posts 1 - 15 of 17. View more »


Public Health 

My 'day job' involves using our understanding of how behaviour evolved to get people to engage in more healthy lifestyles.

Behaviour change

Val Curtis and I have developed a novel approach to the problem of behaviour change based in new intellectual foundations: evolutionary biology and ecological psychology. We call our approach Behaviour-Centred Design. An introductory paper can be found here 

Maintenance behaviour

It seems likely that there is a specific category of behaviour concerned with maintaining animals far from energy equilibrium. Animals need to constantly recharge themselves with expendable but non-storable resources (i.e., engage in ‘metabolic’ behaviour), and to continually invest in cleaning up the environment after metabolic activities to support their ability to draw further energy from their surroundings (called ‘hygienic’ behaviours).

Through the regular, oft-repeated practice of such behaviours, people learn to execute them automatically – that is they become habitual. A particular interest is explaining this psychological process of habit formation.

Much of my work at the Hygiene Centre on hand-washing and other hygiene behaviours falls into this area of research.

Monitoring behaviour

People know when they are being watched (or otherwise placed in unnatural situations such as being questioned about their behaviour and beliefs). The universal tendency is to respond normatively – that is, in a socially accepted fashion. This has bedeviled social scientific and psychological investigations since the dawn of these disciplines, because it means any picture of what people think and do has been tainted by the act of observation itself. However, recently it has become technologically feasible to monitor behaviour quite unobtrusively, so that there is relatively little disturbance to what is recorded. This monitoring is achieved by placing sensors in people’s everyday environments to which people become rapidly acclimated, after which they begin behaving largely as if no one was watching. The use of networked sensors can therefore provide a reasonably accurate picture of what people do in natural situations over long periods of time. My graduate student, Gaby Judah, and I have developed a robust system for monitoring behaviour in households that we plan to use for studying both habit formation processes and reactions to public health interventions. 

Natural kinds projects

Much of what I do can be seen as a search for what philosophers call 'natural kinds' -- the analytic units that form the foundation for some domain of intellectual interest, such as behaviour, psychology, culture, technology or macro-scale history. Since I argue each of these domains is evolutionary in nature, these 'kinds' take the form of new phenomena which arise through a process John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry call a 'major transition'. This work is thus an attempt to extend the major transition concept from biological species to new kinds of evolutionary lineages. More specifically...

Evolution of behaviour

My colleague Val Curtis and I have produced a typology of behaviour production mechanisms which have over evolutionary time led animals to increasing degrees of control over their behaviour. This typology distinguishes between reflexes, instincts, exploratory behaviour, drives, emotions, play and planning as types of behaviour production. This work has culminated in a book with Oxford University Press.

Evolution of motivation

Some types of behaviour are motivated – that is, directed toward achieving evolutionarily significant goals through persistent, energized behaviour. Val Curtis and I postulate that new tasks relevant to its reproduction or survival can arise when an animal’s niche changes. Behaviour to solve such tasks (i.e., reach related goals) would then be produced by specific evolved psychological mechanisms, which we call motives. We have developed a means for deducing the set of evolved motives characteristic of humans. For example, social motives co-evolved with social organization: Nurture can be associated with the smallest, most primordial social grouping – a mother and her dependent offspring; Pair-bond Love with a nuclear family (i.e., a parental pair with their very dependent offspring); Affiliation with clans (or small groups of related families); Status with larger, hierarchically organised groups (characteristic of Primates); and Justice with ultra-social groups (the very large groups of unrelated individuals that only humans live in).

Evolution of disgust

Further, Val Curtis and I have shown how disgust is a motive with the evolved function of protecting individuals from the threat of infectious disease. We are currently examining how moral disgust may have evolved as a psychological system for promoting third-party punishment of social parasites in ultra-social human groups. This task has been taken up as part of the next, larger one.

Evolution of morality

Of late (evolutionarily speaking), human beings have managed to organize themselves into very large groups, beginning with towns and cities, and even more recently creating nation-states and global communities. This way of life requires people to repeatedly interact with others they may not know well (at least at first). In such interactions, people exchange resources, information and effort, showing true inter-dependencies – even cooperating to make their basic living. No other species does this kind of thing – certainly not with others to whom they are not related – and a fascinating question is how we manage to get others to reciprocate our offers of goods and services when we can’t depend on shared genetic interests. Partly, this is due to shame/guilt, which forestall the tendency to cheat through imagined self-punishment. However, there is also – at least implicitly – a threat of being shunned (and thus having to forego the benefits of society) or being physically punished, for failing to follow through on social obligations. People ‘do the right thing’ because they are worried about retaliation from others. This is the essence of morality. It appears from this perspective that morality arose because policing the actions of others was required once humans had organized themselves into large groups of unrelated individuals (so-called ‘ultra-sociality’).   

To understand the domain of moral action, however – why we can think of murder, theft, rape, eating meat, and telling a lie as all being immoral – I think we need to consider cities and the like as ‘superorganisms’, similar to termite colonies, in which each individual has one or more roles to play so that the superorganism functions properly. The job of moral action, then, is to ensure that everyone plays their part, with each member of the group potentially punishing any other for falling down on the job. A test of this approach to understanding the domain of morality was conducted in collaboration with the BBC.

Evolution of technology

Technology is a major determinant of human life, but has proven difficult to understand. My hope is that a framework which explains how human technology evolved from technologies in non-human predecessors, beginning with the dwelling constructions of early animals such as worms and arthropods, can help increase our ability to understand this force in our lives. This work provides a way to rigorously define ‘technology’ and ‘artefact’ as well.

Related work suggests what psychological trait was necessary for humans to produce accumulating technological advances: ‘second-order instrumentality’, or the ability to make an artefact having no intrinsic value, which is useful only as a means to an end

Future work in this area will identify the specific mechanisms of invention and innovation that allow rates of human technological change to accelerate.

Evolution of complexity

‘Big’ history is a type of history that seeks to explain, through a conventional historical narrative, the evolution of complexity in our universe from the Big Bang to contemporary human culture (e.g. David Christian’s Maps of Time).

Perasmology (the science of ‘transitions’) seeks to cover the same ground, but using scientific methods, based on non-equilibrium thermodynamics and a novel analytical unit, the non-equilibrium steady-state transition (or NESST). A variety of NESSTs have been identified, each of which accounts for a major change in the level of free energy flowing through organized systems ranging from atoms to technological populations. A recent summary of this work is available here. (WARNING: 8MB file download) 

Previous Life

I had a number of other interests earlier in life as well. 

Evolution of culture

Previously, I took a critical look at the idea that culture evolves when information replicates during social learning -- the famous 'meme' hypothesis. This resulted in a book or two and a number of book chapters (see Publications).  

Toward a scientific ethnography

Another of my earlier concerns was to critique the post-modernist critique of the 'ethnographic project'. Post-modernists are convinced there is no way for those from one cultural group to reliably report on life in another due to the fundamental problem of bringing your own biases to the task of data collection. I argued, on the contrary, that given datasets which systematically vary potential confounding factors (e.g., interviewers), the application of statistical methods can control for spurious variation in primary data arising from the data collection process itself (e.g., the circumstances of an interview setting), leaving only 'real' variation behind.

I also criticized the cultural consensus method for taking a typological approach to describing cultural groups.