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Nov 10, 2023

Contrasting Cultural Strategies for Success - In the Field with Michael Muthukrishna (video)

What can different styles of working tell us about collective intelligence, cultural evolution, and innovation?

By Templeton Staff

How do you create a culture of innovation? What are the barriers standing in the way of a flourishing future? How can we harness the power of our "collective brain" to reach a higher level of energy abundance? Author, multidisciplinary researcher, and Associate Professor of Economic Psychology, Dr. Michael Muthukrishna's research tackles questions like these.

Michael Muthukrishna's book A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going, draws on research from across the sciences, humanities, and the emerging field of cultural evolution. In tandem with the book, a supplemental video series titled "In the field with Michael Muthukrishna," was produced. Made possible with funding from Templeton World Charity Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), the series features clips of the author discussing book-related topics at various global locations. This post highlights the fourth installment. Follow the series here.

"When countries or companies or people decide to do something different, more often than not they fail," says Michael Muthkrishna in this installment of his "In the Field" video series. "If it were so easy to improve on the average, the average would quickly improve. Instead, large leaps in innovation are rare, hard-won, and difficult to predict."

Diversity, Deviation, Failure & Innovation

In the above short video, Muthukrishna touches upon two contrasting cultural strategies that underpin success. Using Silicon Valley and Japan as examples, Muthukrishna discusses how diversity and deviation from the norm are crucial for evolution and innovation, but different strategies, such as constant small improvements (Kaizen) or individual freedom and creativity, exist.

He asks: Is Silicon Valley a "bastion of success" or a "graveyard of failure"? Muthukrishna offers the idea that Silicon Valley's success is a result of the collective brainpower that emerges from this varied array of individuals and ideas, with experimentation and failures playing an important role in the process. While diversity and deviation do inevitably lead to inequality – with a few winners taking large prizes – Muthukrishna cotends they are also the driving forces behind groundbreaking ideas helping humans flourish. "Without sufficient deviation and diversity there is nothing for evolution to select," he says. 

What strategies work for creating innovators?

In juxtaposition to Silicon Valley's approach, in the video, Muthukrishna introduces another cultural strategy often employed in Asia, characterized by constant small improvements and risk aversion.

Kaizen, a practice of implementing continuous improvement, and Shuhari, a Japanese martial arts concept which describes the stages of learning mastery, promote individual success and stability, and offer much opportunity for refinement of the arts. However, these disciplines may also hinder large breakthroughs for the population.

The Western strategy, epitomized by Silicon Valley champions individual freedom, creativity, and a "go big or go home" mentality. The eventual success that arises after the risk-taking and failures that are built into this approach may yield fewer individual successes. Yet this approach also can result in greater overall national wealth, emphasizing the balance between risk and reward on a collective scale.

Play the above video and/or read the book for more perspective about how different cultures pursue progress. 

Watch installments from the video series:

Introduction:  A Theory of Everyone

Episodes 1 & 2: Airplanes, Shipping Containers & the Collective Brain

Episode 3: Estonia & Rethinking Education for a Smarter Future

Episode 4: Contrasting Cultural Strategies for Success

Episode 5: Perspectives Beyond WEIRD & the Origins of Behavioral Economics

Michael Muthukrishna is Associate Professor of Economic Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Science and Affiliate in Developmental Economics and Data Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).