In psychology there are numerous different competing ‘schools of thought’ that different theorists and researchers will use to try and explain various psychological phenomena. Likewise, different therapists and psychiatrists will rely on these different models in order to try and understand psychological problems and to help you treat them.
While there are many, many different schools, some of the most popular include: behavioral psychology, cognitive behavioral psychology, social psychology, biological psychology, psychodynamic psychology and evolutionary psychology. While some practitioners will heavily favor one of these particular models over the other, the best practice is generally to use a broad knowledge of all of them in order to come to conclusions and to decide the best courses of action for someone.
Evolutionary psychology is one area that is particularly interesting and which can be used to understand a huge range of emotions, behaviors and phenomena. This is a type of psychology that aims to explain all of our thought processes, emotions and actions in terms of the previous survival advantage they would have granted us in the wild. In other words, the claim is that our brain is in many ways identical to that of prehistoric man and as such it is not always perfectly suited to life today.
Before we jump into evolutionary psychology it’s important that we first have a quick primer on evolution in general. Evolution is the most widely accepted explanation for the development of life as we know it and it essentially describes how a process called ‘natural selection’ could lead to the development of intelligent and sentient life.
Basically, our species begins life one way and has a few variations as caused by mutations and natural variation. Those with certain traits will then die, while those with more useful traits will survive causing a type of natural ‘selective breeding’ over time that favors certain traits. If your species eats from the tops of trees and you grow a little taller, then you will be able to pluck more food out of the trees and thus you will be able to eat better. Your shorter brethren will be malnourished meanwhile and they will die. As a result, taller individuals will survive and breed together and you will ultimately become taller as a species. Then one of you might be born with a genetic mutation giving you a super-long tongue. This may enable them to reach even higher in the tree and as a result you’ll thrive and have healthy children. Over time they will also thrive and produce more long-tongued offspring until you now have a race of very tall people with very long tongues.
How This Applies to Psychology
Normally we think of evolution in terms of physical traits, but it can also apply to our psychology. Someone who is angry for instance might have more chance of surviving because they are more threatening to their competition and to their prey. Someone with a better memory might be better at surviving because they can remember the location of more food.
The result is that our psychologies – according to evolutionary psychology – have developed in order to gain the very best survival advantage. The only problem is that they also happened to evolve decades ago, meaning that they aren’t necessarily all that well-adapted to modern living.
Examples of Evolutionary Psychology
But the best way to illustrate how evolutionary psychology works is to look at some examples of it. Read on and we’ll look at some different psychological phenomena and in each case we’ll see how it might be described through the lens of evolutionary psychology…
There is definite survival value to a phobia, with the idea being that someone who is afraid of something dangerous will thus keep their distance from it. So in the wild if you had a phobia of snakes, then you would have an advantage over someone who didn’t – because you wouldn’t go and pick them up to hug them.
An evolutionary psychologist would then point out that many of our phobias are in fact phobias of things that we would have had reason to be afraid of in the wild (actual phobias that is). For instance, we are much more likely to have an actual phobia of snakes or of spiders, versus something like guns which are actually a more serious threat to us today.
There are problems with this approach though – for instance it doesn’t explain why different people have different phobias. Why aren’t we all afraid of snakes? Likewise it doesn’t explain why something like a phobia of buttons or of balloons would ever exist.
If you take an evolutionary psychology approach to dealing with stress and anxiety, you would explain it in terms of the ‘fight or flight’ response entirely. ‘Fight or flight’ is what we call the process the body goes through when you see a perceived threat. You will then be flooded with adrenaline and with norepinephrine and this will cause your heart rate to elevate, your pupils to dilate and your mind to focus. In the short term, this is a very useful reaction for escaping lions or forest fires because it gives you focus and better reactions and speed.
But today, most of our ‘stessors’ cannot be dealt with by sprinting or fighting. Instead we get stressed by money problems and by our bosses shouting at us. In such a situation, the fight or flight response has no practical benefit, but instead just places a strain on our nervous system and immune system. Spending too long in this state can end up causing you to become exhausted and greatly increases your likelihood of getting ill.
Relationships and Motivation
Evolutionary psychologists would view our ‘prime directive’ as being to procreate and to have healthy children. This means that almost every decision we make will likely increase our chances of survival and procreation – even if it doesn’t feel like that. This has to be the case in a purely evolutionary explanation because it is the only thing that is being selected for.
The idea that we are completely motivated by sex is in keeping with Freudian psychodynamic theory. It also appears to hold water under some circumstances.
The nature of our relationships should also be determined with the way that we procreate. Indeed, women are more likely to be attracted to more masculine-looking men when they are in estrus. Likewise, men are more likely to ‘play away’ from home because they have less to gain in terms of spreading their DNA from staying in a monogamous relationship.
Couples who look alike are more likely to be attracted to one another because that way their children’s DNA will likely have more in common with them. Women like powerful men because they can provide for their offspring. Men like voluptuous women with wider hips because it suggests high fertility. Women like men with muscles because they are likely to produce healthier young. Both sexes prefer those with symmetrical faces because it increases the likelihood that their cells are healthy and able to divide without error.
Of course this is a very stark view of relationships, love, motivation and life in general and many people would argue that we’re more complex than that.
In the wild, it might not seem to make terrible sense that we should sometimes put our own needs behind those of another if our whole aim is to try and survive longer and thus be able to reproduce. Thus there are some who would claim that there is no such thing as a truly ‘altruistic’ act. We only give people things, because we think this will help us to form allies, or because we hope they will give us something back at some point in the future.
Another way that an evolutionary psychologist might look at this though, is as altruism being means through which we can increase the survival of our species as a whole. It may also be necessary in order to facilitate socializing – and we know that there is strength in numbers.
Once you have a child though, your work is not yet done. At this point you still need to rear said child and ensure that they grow to become healthy adults so that they can continue to pass on your DNA. That’s why parenthood is such an important aspect of our psychology and it’s why we feel such incredibly strong bonds with our offspring.
And this evolution can also explain some other aspects of our psychology. For instance, it describes our tendency to find certain animals ‘cute’. The reason we do is invariably that they have large eyes that give them the appearance of infants. In fact, it’s even possible that the reason cats have large eyes is that they have evolved this way in order to take advantage of our nature. Arguably, cats are a symbiotic at best or parasitic at worst. Their purr is even the same wavelength as the sound of a baby crying!
The Pros and Cons of Evolutionary Psychology
As you can see then, there are some clear areas where evolutionary psychology is a good fit and where it can help explain aspects of our mental lives. At the same time though, there are also some flaws with the approach and some implications that we perhaps would rather avoid.
In all likelihood, our evolutionary past can help to describe some of our traits and behaviors and it’s likely useful for these reasons. However, it is also likely that evolutionary psychology can only describe some aspects of our psychology and that it works best when combined with things like behavioral psychology, psychodynamic theory or CBT. These other schools of thought are also important seeing as evolutionary psychology doesn’t provide us with much of a plan when it comes to addressing mental health issues.
And actually evolutionary psychology can work very well when placed next to other schools of thought. For instance, behavioral psychology explains the brain’s ability to form strong associations between ideas… well you could then argue that we form associations as an evolutionary adaptation too!