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Why are the Big Two of Agency and Communion so Fundamental to Human Psychology? An Agency-Communion Theory (ACT) of Social Learning and Cultural Activity and Its Novel Account of Social Influence

Project description

Novel theory explores fundamental questions of social psychology

Agency (influence, resourcefulness, authority) and communion (benevolence, prosociality, honesty) are the two most basic dimensions in cognition, self-concept and personality. Known as the Big Two, agency concerns attaining goals and prospering while communion involves forming bonds and getting along with others. Funded by the European Research Council, the ACT project intends to propose and test the Agency-Communion Theory (ACT) in answering why the Big Two are important for humans. To do so, it will perform laboratory experiments and use formal evolutionary models, Big Data and panel studies. According to ACT, the Big Two are vital components of humans’ cultural endeavours and their remarkable evolutionary achievements.


The Big Two of agency (influence, resourcefulness, authority) and communion (benevolence, prosociality, honesty) are fundamental to human social cognition, the self-concept, and personality. The Big Two must have a tremendously important function for humans, otherwise they were not that fundamental to human psychology. Yet, what is this function? State-of-the-art answers explain the function of the Big Two either in social cognition or in the self-concept or in personality and those answers contradict each other in critical ways. Here, I propose the first all-encompassing answer to the functional question of the Big Two in social cognition and the self-concept and personality. My answer comes in the form of a novel theory: Agency-Communion Theory (ACT) of Social Learning and Cultural Activity. According to ACT, the Big Two are the chief enablers of high-fidelity social learning. Never before have the Big Two been considered relevant for high-fidelity social learning, but the latter is widely seen as the reason for humans’ capacity to build culture and thrive by cultural activity—humans’ most powerful evolutionary strategy. Thus, ACT considers the Big Two the essential building blocks of human cultural activity and, ultimately, of humans’ extraordinary evolutionary success. ACT’s novel portrayal of the Big Two entails a wide variety of previously unforeseen behavioural consequences, including a novel account of social influence. The state-of-the-art account presupposes the existence of an innate tendency to conform to majority norms. ACT questions the existence of such an innate tendency and offers an alternative with far-reaching implications for many theories across social sciences and urgent societal challenges in the sphere of social influence. My interdisciplinary team will empirically test ACT and its novel account of social influence. We will use new, tailor-made methodology in laboratory experiments, formal evolutionary models, Big Data, and panel studies.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 215 004,25
68161 Mannheim

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Baden-Württemberg Karlsruhe Mannheim, Stadtkreis
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 215 004,25

Beneficiaries (3)