• Updated
22 November 2022

Behavioural sciences applied to poverty and inequality issues: Meeting with Prof. Daniel Nettle

Professor of behavioural sciences at the University of Newcastle, Daniel Nettle is also researcher in the Evolution and Social Cognition (ESC) team at the Institut Jean Nicod since November 2022. Specialist in behaviour and cognition, he uses these disciplines to study various current health and social issues, such as trust, happiness, ageing and hunger. At the Institut Jean Nicod, he will mainly work on issues related to poverty, inequality and political psychology.


 A career shaped by an undying curiosity for the human spirit
 Daniel Nettle

Daniel has a very interdisciplinary career, '' enthuses Nicolas Baumard, research director in the ESC team, about the new member, starting in linguistic anthropology and continuing in behavioural ecology, animal behaviour, cognitive psychology and now in social sciences !”. Daniel Nettle describes this rich career path as the result of chance, of the directions he has taken driven by opportunities and interest. "I actually wanted to study literature at university. Just in time I realised I was excited by the possibility of scientific, as opposed to literary, understandings of human nature. I switched psychology at the last minute, and then my PhD was in anthropology because the people working on the evolution of language at that time were anthropologists rather than psychologists".

This perpetual curiosity about the human mind is reflected in Daniel Nettle's work, which adresses subjects as diverse as trust, cooperation, ageing, hunger, moral knowledge and politics. In 2003, he turned his attention to the perennial question of happiness: his best-selling book Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile uses psychological and neuroscientific studies to examine what makes us happy and unhappy, what happiness really is and how to explain our irresistible desire to achieve it.  Later, he explored the great mystery of the different 'personalities' of human nature in Personality: What Makes You The Way You Are ? The book examines the evolutionary origins and consequences of different personalities through questions as varied as why do family members have such different natures? Can personalities be changed and what is the best personality to have? Gradually focusing his work on the issue of inequality, in 2015 he turned his attention to the social consequences of deprivation and inequality in western countries in his book Tyneside Neighbourhoods. Using multiple ethnographic methods, Daniel Nettle presents the results of five years of research comparing relationships and social behaviour in a relatively wealthy neighborhood in Newcastle upon Tyne with a very deprived one. This varied background and the plurality of methods used by the British researcher reflect the importance that Daniel Nettle attaches to an interdisciplinary approach to understanding human nature.

Books covers

Poverty and human behaviour, a social commitment to affect public policy

The evolution of Daniel Nettle's research themes and their gravitation around the topic of human welfare reflects a socially engaged work, which wishes to document the effects of the various inequalities and insecurities in our society and to bear witness to anyone who is willing to listen. Within the ESC team, Daniel Nettle will in fact mainly work on issues related to poverty, inequality and political psychology. “This issue of poverty is scientifically interesting because the differences in outcomes and experiences between people in poverty and affluent people are huge, explains the researcher - arguably, they dwarf the differences across cultures. So, if we want to understand human variability and plasticity, there is no need to go to the other end of the world; we can go to other parts of our own cities”. 

The Changing Cost of Living Study, one of his ongoing projects, with ESC researcher Coralie Chevallier among others, looks at the effects of poverty and social economic change on mental health. This natural experiment undertakes to record monthly changes in the psychological state of cohorts of around 250 volunteers in the UK and France as a function of fluctuations in the household economy. In his current reflections, relayed in his personal blog in posts that are not without humor and pedagogy, Daniel Nettle also contributes to the ongoing debates on how to improve health and well-being by also asking the question of how should we reduce the wellbeing costs of poverty : should we prioritise increasing low incomes or access to free, quality basic services to alleviate some of the problems associated with lack of money?  “The experiences of people in poverty are very much under-represented, still, in the human sciences, explains Daniel Nettle. People facing poverty display creativity and skill in coping with their situations which we ought to understand, not marginalise”.

The researcher is also exploring how his work could be applied to and support public policy. He explains that beyond the scientific interest, research in cognitive and behavioral sciences can be useful for the issue of poverty: "it can provide an evidence base for policy-makers. Policy-makers like to do cost-benefit analyses, but without the cognitive and behavioural sciences, it is hard to characterise the costs, the benefits, or indeed the various dynamic responses there might be to a policy change. And intuition is often a bad guide to what people are doing and why they are doing it. Scientific evidence does not resolve policy questions, but it can help”. 

Evolutionary approach: a natural fit with the Evolution and Social Cognition team

EvolutionWithin the multitude of subjects and disciplines of Daniel Nettle's studies, we find the common ground of the evolutionary approach, which fits perfectly into the work of the ESC team at the Institut Jean Nicod. “The work of our team is already partly inspired by Daniel's work, explains Nicolas Baumard. We have used his textbook 'Evolution and Genetics for Psychology' for several years in our Master's course”. This book proposes to explore the key fundamental principles underpinning evolutionary psychology and behavioural genetics, in the form of a conceptual toolbox for applying these approaches to various issues of human behaviour. "I actually think adaptationist [which holds that the traits of living species are primarily the result of adaptation to selection pressures], or at least functional, reasoning is inescapable, says Daniel Nettle. If you don't do it explicitly, you do it implicitly in the assumptions you make about what minds are for and what constitutes them working successfully. I think it is better to do it explicitly and have access to the tools of modern evolutionary theory. Also, when you theorize in an explicit way, your predictions tend to be clearer and your theories better identified”. 

Nicolas Baumard points out that in addition to the method, Daniel Nettle's interests fit very naturally with those of the team: "his work on the impact of poverty on human behaviour reinforces the work in psychology and public policy developed by Coralie Chevallier and Hugo Mercier, through new questions and new methodologies. At the same time, his work in behavioural ecology, cooperation, life history traits and culture integrates with the work in evolutionary psychology and cultural evolution developed by Jean-Baptiste André, Hugo Mercier, Olivier Morin and myself. We have already started several projects, and we are eager to continue!”.  An enthusiasm shared by the English researcher: "I knew all the researchers in the Evolution and Social Cognition team and I admired the way they linked cognitive and social sciences, so I knew that my interests would fit in well with the team," concludes Daniel Nettle.

To go Further

Latest publications

  • Johnson, M., E. Johnson and D. Nettle (2022). Are ‘red wall’ constituencies really opposed to progressive policy? Examining the impact of materialist narratives for Universal Basic Income. British Politics
  • Scott-Philips, T.C. and D. Nettle (2022). Cognition and society: prolegomenon to a dialogue. Cognitive Science
  • Nettle. D. and T.E. Dickins (2022). Why is inequality associated with lower life satisfaction and poorer health? Evidence from the European Quality of Life Survey, 2012. The Social Science Journal.
  • Thomas, AJ, B. Woo, D. Nettle, E. Spelke and R. Saxe (2022). Early concepts of intimacy: Young humans use saliva sharing to infer close relationships. Science
  • Bridger, E.K. and D. Nettle (2022). Public perceptions of the effectiveness of income provision on reducing psychological distress. Journal of Public Mental Health
  • Johnson, M., E. A. Johnson, D.Nettle & K. Pickett (2022). Designing trials of Universal Basic Income for health impact: identifying interdisciplinary questions to address. Journal of Public Health

Latest books

  • Nettle, D. (2018). Hanging on to the Edges: Essays on Science, Society and the Academic Life. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.
  • Nettle, D. (2015). Tyneside Neighbourhoods: Deprivation, Social Life and Social Behaviour in One British City. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.
  • Nettle, D. (2009). Evolution And Genetics For Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nettle, D. (2007). Personality: What Makes You The Way You Are. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Nettle, D. (2005). Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile. Oxford: Oxford University Press.