Saturday, December 26, 2009

Evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology is something that I've become interested in recently. The basic idea is to apply the way we think about evolutionary biology to psychology. Just as our biological selves have evolved over millions of years, so have our psychological selves. Many human psychological traits are thus "adaptations-" evolved responses that help us overcome dangers and difficulties in our environments that would otherwise reduce our likelihood of survival and reproduction.

Where it gets interesting is when you consider that the world is a different place now that it was for the majority of human history. The problems that our psychologies have evolved to deal with are those of primitive societies, which are very different from the problems we face today. Our psychologies are geared to deal with the problems that cavemen face, not those of global citizens in an information economy. As a result, our psychological selves might not be serving us very well in our present environment, leading to all sorts of behaviors that are difficult to explain or rationalize as we subconsciously follow our caveman imperatives.

My introduction to this topic was through Robin Hanson's blog and particularly this wonderful podcast. Robin is convinced that one evolutionary story in particular explains a lot of seemingly inexplicable human behavior today. He thinks about primitive societies where people live in tribal sorts of groupings. He argues that one of the biggest threats that an individual faces in this kind of environment is essentially tribal politics- shifting alliances between members that alter the power structure and could leave you on the outside looking in, denied access to preferred resources or mates, or even killed. In an environment like this, it becomes very important to be able to convince others of your worthiness as a coalition partner- to effectively demonstrate to them that you are both capable and loyal, and thus someone that they would want to ally themselves with.

As result, Robin argues, much of our psychologies have evolved around the imperative of engaging in "signaling behavior." He believes that much of seemingly inexplicable human behavior can be understood as an subconscious attempt to signal to other our worthiness as coalition partners.

I think Robin is on to something very interesting, though I don't quite agree with his story. Much of what Robin sees as people trying to convince others of their worth I would see as people trying to convince themselves of their own worth. I think everyone has a narrative about who they are and what they're good at. Almost everyone spends a lot of time trying to validate and reinforce that story, and make it a more favorable one. Why do people do things like take golf lessons? Robin might say, because of a subconscious need to show off their golfing ability to others. But I would say it's usually more that people want to see a better golfer when they look in the mirror. And ultimately that's because being a better golfer makes it that much easier to convince yourself that you are capable and successful more generally.

I'm hoping to learn more in the future about other theories of evolutionary psychology, and how human behavior today can be explained by our evolved adaptations to out of date problems.


  1. But I would say it's usually more that people want to see a better golfer when they look in the mirror.

    Regardless of the claims of the cognitive motivation for the action, you'd both note that these people are trying to be better in a socially appropriate manner. Golf for the middle to upper middle classes. Darts/pool for the lower classes.

    Ultimately, I don't think many EvoPsychologists would necessarily be too interested in the conscious motivation, merely the role the behavior plays in human interactions.

  2. True. Where it would get interesting, I think, is where the two models would predict different behaviors. You could do an experiment where you give people the opportunity to engage in some costly signalling behavior, where one group has their decision observed by others and the other group is completely anonymous. Are the anonymous ones less likely to signal? I would expect only a little, Robin would presumably say a lot.