Evolutionary Perspective in Psychology

Have you ever wondered what makes you the same as almost every other human being? We tend to notice our differences more than our similarities, but we're all more similar than different.

Evolutionary Perspective in Psychology Evolutionary Perspective in Psychology

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Table of contents
    • What is the evolutionary perspective in psychology?
    • What is the history of the evolutionary perspective in psychology?
    • How do the biological and evolutionary perspectives in social psychology interact with each other?
    • What are some strengths and weaknesses of the evolutionary perspective in psychology?
    • What are some examples of the evolutionary perspective in psychology?

    Definition of the Evolutionary Perspective in Psychology

    The main question that evolutionary psychologists want to answer is what makes humans so much alike. Evolutionary psychology is the study of the evolution of behaviors and the mind based on the principles of evolution, survival, and natural selection.

    Evolution refers to the way that living things change and develop over time.

    The History of Evolutionary Psychology

    One of the main principles of evolutionary psychology is the impact of natural selection on the existence and development of human behaviors and the mind.

    Natural selection means that inherited traits that help an organism to survive and reproduce are more likely to be passed down to future generations, especially if those traits have to compete against less useful ones.

    Charles Darwin developed the theory of natural selection during his exploration of the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, South America. He believed that his theory would help explain biological animal structures and animal behaviors.

    Darwin observed finches and other animals in the Galapagos Islands and studied different species - how they were the same and different. He noticed how specific traits, like beak size and shape, were particularly suited to survival.

    Advantageous variations of specific combinations of genes allow species to survive, adapt, and even thrive over time. The environment is an important part of developing traits in evolutionary psychology. If an animal is naturally resistant to a specific bacteria, that trait is only an advantage if the bacteria exist in the animal's environment. Another factor that plays a part in advantageous variations is mutation.

    Mutations are random errors in the structure of genes and DNA sequences that result in changes in the animal or human.

    Verbal dyspraxia is a rare speech disorder that results in severe impairment in language processing. Genetic studies show that the disorder results from a genetic mutation on a specific gene and chromosome.

    The History of Human Evolution

    Evolutionary Perspective in Psychology, a primitive stone drawing of human and animal shapes, StudySmarterAncestral stone drawing, Pixabay.com

    For humans, the genes that have survived throughout our history give us the advantage of adapting to different environments and reproducing.

    Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist, explains the logic of shared human traits, even across different cultures. Similarities from one human to another are the result of our shared human genome: the complete set of human genetic instructions. In fact, all living things have an exclusive genome.

    Did you know that the human genome is made up of 3.2 billion bases of DNA?

    How did humans develop this shared genome? Over time, our ancestors had to make life-changing decisions, like choosing allies and opponents, choosing mates, choosing what to eat, and choosing where to live. Their decisions either ended up being beneficial and helped them survive or led them to death.

    Our ancestors who had access to non-toxic food rich in nutrients had better chances of surviving long enough to pass down their genes to their children.

    Some genetically predisposed behaviors no longer benefit us the way they helped our ancestors. Humans tend to love the taste of fats and sweets. This was a good thing for our ancestors, who needed to make sure they consumed enough fats and carbs to replenish their bodies after hunting and other hard work. Today, fewer humans are hunters and gatherers, and fewer humans have to battle the elements to survive.

    When evolutionary psychologists think about behavior, they tend to ask a specific question: what is the behavior's function?

    Babies cry a lot. Why? What function does crying serve? How does it help the baby? Crying alerts the baby's mother that the baby needs attention! If babies couldn't cry, how would they get other people to pay attention to them?

    Not all genetic changes are the result of natural selection, though. As science has advanced, scientists have learned ways to change genetic codes. The scientific process of manipulating genetic selection is another way genetic changes happen over time. Scientists do this by selecting particular breeds of an animal to reproduce and excluding others. Dog breeders use this process for breeding dogs with specific traits, such as sheepdogs with the ability to herd sheep.

    The Biological and Evolutionary Perspective in Social Psychology

    Social Psychology is the study of how humans influence and interact with other people. Biological and evolutionary perspectives together offer some interesting, unique points of view in the field of social psychology.

    Kinship Groups

    For millions of years, humans have lived in small kinship groups. Evolutionary psychologists believe that human mental processes and behavior can be attributed to the need to solve the problems related to living in these types of groups.

    Kinship refers to groups of people with significant connections, relationships, or bonds due to belonging to the same family and/or the same social environment.

    Understanding who is cooperative and who is more dominant helped our ancestors identify reliable allies and leaders of groups.

    W.D.Hamilton (1964) explained that closely-related individuals are more likely to share genes and to display altruistic behaviors towards one another.

    Altruism refers to selflessness based on concern for another person's wellbeing.

    Altruistic behaviors are also present in other species. If a squirrel sees a predator, it will risk its own life to sound an alarm to warn others of the danger.

    Adaptivity and Preparedness

    Evolutionary psychologists uncovered that humans are predisposed to learn certain things more easily than others. Food aversion is an excellent example of this. We don't have to make ourselves dislike a certain food. It just happens. Once it does, the aversion tends to be very strong and hard to overcome.

    Food aversion is an example of classical conditioning. Conditioning happens naturally when environmental cues are paired together. Humans are evolutionarily prepared to quickly associate new foods with bad consequences to protect themselves from continuing to eat that food.

    Preparedness or natural learning abilities can also be more complex. Infants are born with the ability to pick up on human vocal patterns that later help them make sounds, begin talking, and learn an entire language. Imagine how hard it would be to communicate with each other if we did not have this natural ability to learn a language early on.

    Responses to Fear

    Humans also have predisposed biological responses to fear through our fight-flight-freeze response.

    These are innate processes that are difficult to control consciously. Our fear response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare the body to either fight the threat or run away to seek safety. The hormones cause chemical and physical changes in the body. Once the threat is gone, the body releases different hormones to return it to its natural state (relaxed).

    Evolutionary Perspective in Psychology, several children running away from something scary in the woods, StudySmarterFear response, pexels.com

    Strengths and Weaknesses of Evolutionary Psychology

    The evolutionary perspective in psychology has both strengths and weaknesses in explaining human behaviors and mental processes.

    Strengths of Evolutionary Psychology

    • The evolutionary perspective can provide us with a unique point of view that helps explain which behaviors and mental processes are generally shared by all humans.

    • Evolutionary psychology complements and draws from other fields of study such as cognitive psychology, biology, behavioral ecology, anthropology, genetics, archeology, zoology, and ethology.

    • Evolutionary psychology helps us understand complex patterns in causality that we see in psychological and behavioral phenomena.

    • It is growing as a field of study within psychology, with more empirical studies and evidence coming out.

    • Evolutionary psychology also helps explain why the human species has a shared genome, which is very important to studying genes and biological processes.

    Weaknesses of Evolutionary Psychology

    • Evolutionary psychology is often based on speculations about what might have happened to our ancestors a very long time ago. Some information and tangible evidence exist, like fossils or artifacts, but we still don't have a clear view of everything about life in the past.

    • We can't always tell how much of a certain trait is determined by our genes. Genes interact with the environment, so figuring out what causes the trait can be challenging.

    • The purposes or functions of some of our traits are harder to figure out than others. Some traits seem to exist for no specific reason, but those traits may have served a purpose in the past that we just don't know about.

    • It is possible that not all behaviors experienced in our world today can be based on decisions that our ancestors made long ago.

    • Accepting evolutionary explanations for specific behaviors can have social consequences.

    • Nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) certainly impact our behaviors and mental processes in our evolutionary history. Still, experiences that we face during our lives now are just as essential to shaping who we are as people.

    Social scripts, cultural guides on how people should act in certain situations, sometimes offer a better explanation for behavior than evolution. Social learning theory highlights that we learn by watching and imitating others. Culture impacts how a person behaves in ways that are not always adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

    Say that evolution shows that men tend to be more sexually aggressive. Does this mean we can excuse excessive sexual aggression or sexual abuse perpetrated by men? We need to consider factors other than the evolution of traits to answer this question. Evolutionary psychologists point out that studying the evolution of behavior and mental processes should not be used to excuse harmful behaviors. Understanding our human tendencies can help us better manage them!

    Examples of the Evolutionary Perspective in Psychology

    Two examples of how the evolutionary perspective in psychology helps explain human behavior are detecting cheaters and foraging for food.

    Cheater Detection

    One human mechanism that has evolved over time is the cheater-detection ability. We use this ability in social situations involving exchanges of some kind. The exchange could be using money to purchase something, offering to help someone, or offering to trade a service for another. People cooperating for mutual benefit is an excellent example of this.

    Evolutionary biologists find that social exchange only evolves within a species if those in the exchange can identify cheaters. Not all species engage in social exchange!

    Cheaters are those who take from others without giving anything back. They only participate in the exchange system from the receiving side. It would be like only receiving presents at Christmas rather than also giving away gifts!

    Brain scans show that identifying cheaters in social exchange situations is deeply ingrained in the human brain. We use different brain areas to pick out cheaters than we do to reason about other kinds of social violations.

    Humans as Foragers

    Foraging refers to obtaining food and resources. For humans and other animals, foraging requires deciding when to start, what to search for while you forage, where to look, and how to obtain what you want or need. Sometimes there are time restraints to collecting resources and little initial information available. Foraging can require adapting to the environment to give us an advantage over others who want the same resources.

    Do you go shopping on Black Friday? Serious Black Friday shoppers plan where to go, what to buy, how much money to budget, when to leave, and how to get the items they want before anyone else does. These shoppers adapt to Black Friday shopping to give themselves the most advantages possible.

    Cognitive processes involved in foraging may change over time due to changes in resources, availability, and lifestyles. Evidence of changes in human foraging behaviors is present throughout history and even in our own lives. Evolutionary psychology interacts heavily with social learning. We can learn directly from the environment, others, or overall cultural trends. In turn, all of these factors affect the evolution of our species.

    Evolutionary Perspective in Psychology - Key takeaways

    • Evolutionary psychology is the study of the evolution of behaviors and the mind based on evolution, survival, and natural selection principles.
    • Advantageous variations of specific combinations of genes allow species to survive, adapt, and even thrive over time.
    • Evolutionary psychologists study the idea that humans are predisposed to learn certain things more easily than others. This is known as adaptivity and natural preparedness.
    • Evolutionary psychology complements and draws from other fields of study such as cognitive psychology, biology, behavioral ecology, anthropology, genetics, archeology, zoology, and ethology.
    • Nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) certainly impact our behaviors and mental processes in our evolutionary history. Still, experiences that we face during our lives now are just as essential to shaping who we are as people.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Evolutionary Perspective in Psychology

    What is the evolutionary perspective in psychology?

    The evolutionary perspective in psychology seeks to study behavior and the mind based on evolutionary principles of how living things change and develop over time.

    What does the evolutionary perspective focus on?

    The evolutionary perspective focuses on defining what makes humans so much alike. 

    How does evolutionary psychology explain human behavior?

    Evolutionary psychology explains human behavior through what behaviors and mental processes are generally shared by all humans.

    What are the basic principles of evolutionary psychology?

    The basic principles of evolutionary psychology are the development of human behavioral tendencies through natural selection and the survival of the human species through evolutionary changes. 

    What is an example of the evolutionary perspective in psychology?

    An example of the evolutionary perspective in psychology is studying foraging behaviors throughout human history. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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