Globalization and the rise and fall of cognitive control

Mohsen Mosleh, Katelynn Kyker, Jonathan D. Cohen & David G. Rand

Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3099 (2020)


The scale of human interaction is larger than ever before—people regularly interact with and learn from others around the world, and everyone impacts the global environment. We develop an evolutionary game theory model to ask how the scale of interaction affects the evolution of cognition. Our agents make decisions using automatic (e.g., reflexive) versus controlled (e.g., deliberative) cognition, interact with each other, and influence the environment (i.e., game payoffs). We find that globalized direct contact between agents can either favor or disfavor control, depending on whether controlled agents are harmed or helped by contact with automatic agents; globalized environment disfavors cognitive control, while also promoting strategic diversity and fostering mesoscale communities of more versus less controlled agents; and globalized learning destroys mesoscale communities and homogenizes the population. These results emphasize the importance of the scale of interaction for the evolution of cognition, and help shed light on modern challenges. Humankind is in a period of unprecedented cognitive sophistication as well as globalization. Here, using an evolutionary game theory model, the authors reveal ways in which the transition from local to global interaction can have both positive and potentially negative consequences for the prevalence of cognitive sophistication in the population.