mortality - 'where we're going' - prompts us to shore up our cultural world view and engage in self-esteem boosting activities. Little researched until now, by contrast, are the psychological effects of thinking about where we came from - our ancestors.
Anecdotally, there's reason to believe that such thoughts are beneficial. Why else the public fascination with genealogy and programmes like the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? Now Peter Fischer and his colleagues at the Universities of Graz, Berlin and Munich have shown that thinking about our ancestors boosts our performance on intelligence tests - what they've dubbed 'the ancestor effect'.
'Normally, our ancestors managed to overcome a multitude of personal and society problems, such as severe illnesses, wars, loss of loved ones or severe economic declines,' the researchers said. 'So, when we think about them, we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities.'
An initial study involved 80 undergrads spending five minutes thinking about either their fifteenth century ancestors, their great-grandparents or a recent shopping trip. Afterwards, those students in the two ancestor conditions were more confident about their likely performance in future exams, an effect that seemed to be mediated by their feeling more in control of their lives.
Three further studies showed that thinking or writing about their recent or distant ancestors led students to actually perform better on a range of intelligence tests, including verbal and spatial tasks (in one test, students who thought about their distant ancestors scored an average of 14 out of 16, compared with an average of 10 out of 16 among controls). The ancestor benefit was mediated partly by students attempting more answers - what the researchers called having a 'promotion orientation'.
These benefits weren't displayed by students in control conditions that involved writing about themselves or about close friends. Moreover, the ancestor effect exerted its benefit even when students were asked to think about negative aspects of their ancestors.
'We showed that an easy reminder about our ancestors can significantly increase intellectual performance,' the researchers said. 'Hence, whenever people are in a situation where intellectual performance is extraordinarily important, for example in exams or job interviews, they have an easy technique to increase their success.'
Fischer and his colleagues emphasised their research is at an exploratory phase. Future work is needed to find out what other benefits thinking of ancestors might have, and also to uncover other possible mediating factors, which they speculated might have to do with 'processes of social identity, family cohesion, self-regulation or norm activation elicited by increased ancestor salience.'
Fischer, P., Sauer, A., Vogrincic, C., and Weisweiler, S. (2010). The ancestor effect: Thinking about our genetic origin enhances intellectual performance. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.778
Related article from The Psychologist magazine: What factors drive a person to research a family tree, or an adoptee to search for their biological parents?