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evolution, science, Uncategorized

Evolutionary Psychology in Action

In a recent article in Evolutionary Psychology, Brown, Young, Sacco, Bernstein, and Claypool have presented their findings from two studies dealing with social inclusion and mating.  I’m going to attempt to give you the layman’s version and contrast it with the scientific explanation to try to show you how we can think scientifically about our own behavior.

Being left out of social groups has always been recognized as detrimental to humans.  There’s a very good reason why solitary confinement is recognized world wide as one of the worst kinds of punishments available.  Humans are extremely social animals.  We all know this intuitively, but let’s look at it rationally for a minute.

Imagine for a minute that you are a human living in the wild before the discovery of agriculture.  You are constantly hungry, but there simply isn’t enough food lying around to keep you alive.  There are predators all around that would love a human for dinner.  You have no claws.  Your teeth can’t possibly be used as weapons.  There’s really nothing you can hope to do against a lion, or even a few hyenas.  What can you possibly do to stay alive?

The only practical answer is that you can stick close to other humans and work together with them to overwhelm large animals for food and deter predators through sheer numbers.  That’s it.  If you’re going to live more than a few days, you literally need to be accepted by the group. *  With this knowledge, we can say that natural selection would favor humans who tended to form strong durable social bonds, and would pretty much eliminate those who didn’t.    We can also say that social acceptance would be very high on human’s list of instinctive priorities, right up there with eating and mating.

This is where the new studies come into the picture.  All animals have built in “priority meters.”  In the simplest animals, it’s little more than the imperative to find food whenever hungry and to mate whenever possible.  As animals and societies become more complex, the number of things that need to be prioritized also becomes longer and more complex.  Still, if we examine an animal’s behavior scientifically, we ought to be able to come close to describing the algorythm for arranging priorities.  For instance, a particular animal’s priority list might go something like this:  “First, avoid predators at all costs.   Second,  find water.   Third, find food.   Fourth, when predators are avoided and hunger and thirst sated, explore new territory.  Follow these rules unless females are in heat and there is a female present, in which case, attempt to mate as a second priority, even above finding water.”

Evolutionary theory predicts that humans will also have instinctive priority lists.   This study was an attempt to identify and quantify two elements within our list — social acceptance and mating.  The researchers predicted that social acceptance ought to be a higher priority than mating based on the evolutionary pressures I mentioned earlier.  In other words, social acceptance literally equalled survival for early humans, and so we ought to instinctively be more concerned with that than mating, since it’s quite difficult (and a bit creepy) to try to mate while dead.

It turns out, their predictions were borne out by the research.  Humans do prioritize social acceptance higher than mating.  In practical terms, that means people are more likely to be interested in mating shortly after they have experienced a moment of social acceptance.  Though this particular study focused primarily on the positive side of things, the negative has been demonstrated in other studies.  People who have recently experienced social rejection are less interested in mating.

On a certain level, this is a no-brainer.  It’s kind of hard to mate if we haven’t been accepted in a group.  Single females don’t wander around having sex with random passers by.  They go to bars and have drinks with their friends, or they go to church or school, or they go shopping.  When they meet someone they like, they often “test” him by letting their friends give him the thumbs up or thumbs down.  They check out the friends he’s hanging out with.  Likewise, single men sitting alone in bars rarely have much luck finding sexual partners, while men in groups often mix and mingle with groups of women, giving everybody a much better chance of finding someone.

Still, we shouldn’t brush an observation aside just because it appears obvious.  This is a mistake I see a lot of people make.  They think that saying something is obvious is the same as explaining it.  It is most certainly not!  Observing that the system works is not explaining how the system happened.  Also, there are some not-so-obvious applications of this knowledge.  The findings suggest that any social acceptance makes people more likely to want to mate.   They don’t say that social acceptance makes people want to mate in that exact group with those exact people.

Consider that having a presentation go over well and getting your first handshake from the boss is an act of social acceptance.  Maybe you are a straight man and work in an office of only men.  You’re not going to be mating in that group, but nevertheless, it’s going to tend to make you more interested in mating in general.  Have you ever noticed that you’re sometimes curiously turned on by things that aren’t particularly sexual?  Here’s a principle that you can use to try to understand what caused it.  

Also, there are real world applications for this knowledge.  Want to help a certain someone become interested in you?  Find a way to give them a positive social acceptance moment.  It doesn’t need to be anything in particular.  You just need to trigger their instinctive reaction!  Encourage them to give the big presentation at work, and then be there with flowers right afterwards.  Trigger the instinct, be there for the reward.

Women, it may not feel intuitively correct, but you can get romance by encouraging your men to hang out with the guys.  Ever notice how often your man is horny when he gets home late at night and you’re already in bed asleep?  It’s annoying, to be sure, but it’s this principle in action.  How many times have you or someone you know said something like, “He shouldn’t want to put the guys before me.  He should want to be with me first, and hang out with the guys afterward.”  Sure, it sounds logical, but it defies what science is now telling us.  Evolutionarily speaking, being with the guys before might very well make him more romantic after.  

Armed with accurate scientific knowledge of what makes humans tick, you can rearrange your own life to give yourself a better chance of getting what you want.   There are some who will say I’m encouraging you to be manipulative, but that is a hollow accusation.  (In fact, I ought to do a blog on the equivocation in the word “manipulation.”)  We all try to manipulate our environments to our advantage.  It feels a little sneaky or creepy to suggest that we ought to use “hidden instincts” to get what we want from people, but I must point out that everything we do triggers instincts in other people anyway, so it really comes down to how you use the knowledge you have.  This is a principle that can make marriages better, can help people find love, and can potentially motivate shy people to “come out of their shell” more.  So, next time you’re feeling a little neglected by your mate, instead of instinctively trying to fix it by begging them to spend more alone time with you, do the scientific thing and encourage them to do something fun with a group!


*If you read my article on equivocation, you’ll note that I’m using the strong sense of the word “need.”



6 thoughts on “Evolutionary Psychology in Action

  1. So the idea is to use evolutionary traits that we may not necessarily need anymore because these traits do exist and are real and can be used for modern benefit. That makes sense.

    So maybe my RRS comment should be more along the lines of how do we turn things like critical thinking or long-term planning into peacock feathers? That would help us a lot more than conspicuous consumption does. Definitely some food for thought here. Thanks.

    Posted by AnnieT | January 22, 2009, 10:08 pm
  2. I’m very hesitant to say that any given trait is no longer necessary. Evolutionary psychology is still in its infancy, as sciences go, and our understanding of how various instinctive behaviors fit into the “big human picture” is still quite limited. Still, I believe there is an important lesson to be learned: Our instincts are not necessarily on board for our individual plans. Humans have the ability to project their minds into the future and make goals. Evolution has no such ability. There’s no particular reason for us to assume that our instincts will work towards our personal goals, and we must therefore treat them with skepticism and reserve the right to go against them.

    I don’t know if it’s possible for humans to accomplish consciously guided natural selection in the way you suggest. Can we act as a whole for enough generations to make any kind of change realistically possible? I am highly skeptical. However, I do think it’s possible to act as a whole to change society so that it encourages the best parts of our instincts while suppressing the worst. The more we know about our instincts, the easier that will be to do.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 23, 2009, 3:39 am
  3. Those ladies in the running shorts have very nice bottoms.

    Posted by Ryan | January 24, 2009, 3:34 am
  4. Soon, I’ll have to do a blog on the male tendency to tune out discussions when bottoms or cleavage are visible.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 24, 2009, 3:36 am
  5. Every time I take stock of my life I realize how different it is from the majority of people who have lived in the past and how current needs have changed. I’m fat because I don’t need to use my body, but it is programmed to store energy because that was needed in the past. I used to teach autistic and other mentally diferent kids who would not have survived in the past but do now. I don’t need a male mate in order to raise my kid. I’m sure this list could just go on and on. I know you know what I’m getting at here.

    It seems like much of the goal at RRS is to reassess how our culture has grown up over the past few millenia, keep what is good, and get rid what is not based on the needs of life in this age. How do we approach physical evolution in the same manner? People aren’t getting killed off from disease or accident like they used to and our needs regarding our physical bodies have changed. Is this something we can even look at as a community at this point in time? Given all the flack over stem cell research it may just be a waste of time at this point, but it just seems like a big issue that is going to hav eto be addressed at some point – not only possible genetic engineering of people one day, but also a realization of how our minds work and how some of those functions are counterproductive to the types of lives many of us want to live.

    It does seem like addressing the workings of the mind would be a lot less of a hot button issue than genetic engineering. But how do we even get people to think about how they think if they don’t want to take the time to think? 🙂 I think I’ll stop now since I think I am babbling and I need to think on this some more.

    Posted by Annie T | January 24, 2009, 4:19 pm


  1. Pingback: Grandparents, Parents, and Favoritism « Life Without a Net - February 17, 2009

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