Evolutionary psychology aims to understand how thoughts, actions, and behavior are shaped by evolutionary forces (Mealey, 2023; Workman, 2004).
Evolutionary psychology proposes that the human brain and mind have developed in ways that were evolutionarily advantageous to our ancestors.
Therefore, according to this approach, we need to understand the evolutionary origins of mental processes to fully understand human behavior.
The mental processes and mechanisms that have evolved to solve problems of survival and reproduction are called psychological adaptations.
An example of evolutionary psychology is the investigation of the underlying psychological reasons we might prefer to mate with partners with certain physical or behavioral traits.
Evolutionary Psychology Definition and Explanation
Evolutionary psychology has its roots in Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
Charles Darwin observed groups of finches on various islands. He noticed that the birds seemed to have developed physical and behavioral changes that better suited them for survival on their respective islands.
Darwin took his observations and developed the theory of natural selection. He proposed that certain traits become common in a population based on how well those traits help the organisms in a species survive and reproduce.
The traits that help organisms survive and reproduce are passed down from parent to offspring. Eventually, this process can lead to the development of new species. This long-term change in the characteristics of a species over many generations is evolution.
Like every other species on the planet, humans have evolved over time.
In the example of birds above, those adaptive traits included beak size. However, evolutionary psychology aims to apply the principles of natural selection to understand why modern humans think and behave the way we do.
Evolutionary psychology is set apart from other psychological disciplines because it typically explains human behavior through the lens of survival and reproduction.
Theories in Evolutionary Psychology
Two popular theories in evolutionary psychology include the sexual strategies theory and error management theory.
1. Sexual Strategies Theory
Sexual strategies theory proposes that humans have evolved different long and short-term mating strategies that may depend on many factors like culture and social context.
This theory focuses on similarities and differences in men’s and women’s mating preferences and strategies.
The theory proposes that women have inherited the trait of desiring mates who possess resources. In contrast, men have inherited the trait of desiring health.
Many factors, beyond resources or health, like culture, context, and personality, will influence who people choose to be their partners (Buss, 2023).
2. Error Management Theory
Error management theory (EMT) explains how we think, make decisions, and evaluate uncertain or novel situations.
We must make decisions constantly; some errors are more costly than others. EMT explains that we have evolved to make decisions that will result in less costly errors (Buss, 2023).
10 Evolutionary Psychology Examples
- Explaining Perception in Infants. Some essential aspects of human behavior seem to be innate even early on. Cognitive functions, like perceiving a steep drop off or an object coming towards you, are present in infants. For example, infants are weary of steep drop-offs, even if they haven’t experienced a fall (Mealey, 2023).
- Explaining Mate Selection through Evolution. Much of evolutionary psychology is concerned with relationships since they are important to understanding reproduction. Some evolutionary psychology tries to explain why people prefer specific characteristics in other people – like facial symmetry.
- Explaining Human Emotion. Many emotions appear early in life and do not have to be learned. Evolutionary psychology suggests that emotions have evolved in response to selective pressures. For example, fear may have evolved to avoid potential threats to survival.
- The Origins of Mental Health Problems. Behavioral traits like anxiety could have been adaptive in certain situations. For example, being worried and vigilant could have been very adaptive to survival and reproductive success if you lived in a time that involved many predators and dangers. However, too much anxiety could be maladaptive and harmful.
- Understanding Parental Attachment. Attachment theory is well-established in developmental psychology. Human infants are very dependent on their parents, much more so than many other species. Evolutionary psychology, therefore, proposes that attachment between a parent and child has arisen due to its importance for survival and reproduction.
- Evolutionary Basis for Human Personality. Evolutionary psychology proposes that some personality traits, like aggression, have persisted since they were once valuable in competition for resources and mates.
- Explanation for Cooperation in Humans. Some people are more aggressive, while others are more agreeable and cooperative. Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans have evolved to be cooperative with others to increase their chances of survival. For example, cooperative behavior could have increased access to resources, reduced potentially harmful fighting, and increased help with childcare.
- Evolutionary Basis of Social Bonds. Humans are very social creatures. Evolutionary psychology proposes that humans have evolved to form strong social bonds because these bonds were important for gathering resources, taking care of each other, and surviving.
- Evolutionary Basis of Language. Human children start learning language and communication very early on. Evolutionary psychology proposes that language development occurs because the ability to communicate would have been useful for many activities that would have increased survival. For example, these activities could have involved warning others about danger, coordinating group activities, and passing along other useful information.
- Explaining Behavioral Preferences through Evolution. Humans have many behavioral preferences. For example, many people enjoy what are now deemed “unhealthy” calorie-dense sweet and fatty foods. Evolutionary psychology would suggest that we have evolved preferences for these foods because these high-calorie foods were once particularly valuable sources of energy in our ancestral environment where food was often scarce.
Criticisms of Evolutionary Biology
Human behavior is very complex and influenced by many biological, environmental, and cultural factors. Therefore, evolutionary psychology has faced some criticism and, like any psychological field, has important limitations to consider.
For example, many human behaviors persist that are not beneficial to survival and reproduction.
Additionally, we lack knowledge on the details of all the selection pressures humans could have faced over millions of years of evolution (Confer et al., 2010). This lack of knowledge and heavy reliance on theorizing leads to a lack of testability – we weren’t there to observe selective pressures millions of years ago.
As a result, we can’t directly test how those pressures may have shaped behavior.
Evolutionary psychology has also faced criticism for overemphasizing the role of biology in behavior.
However, we know that genetic and environmental influences are important to understand why humans differ from each other (Polderman et al., 2015).
The nature vs. nurture question that is so popular is somewhat misleading, as at this point, we know that nature and nurture are both essential and often interact with each other.
Other Types of Psychology
- Biological Psychology – Biological psychology involves studying biological influences on behavior, thoughts, and emotions (Kalat, 2015).
- Clinical Psychology – Clinical Psychology is a specialty in psychology that involves the practical application of psychological theories for treating psychological problems and disorders (Pomerantz, 2016).
Evolutionary psychologists operate under the assumption that human brain structures, functions, and mental capabilities evolved under natural selection in the same way that human bodies did (Mealey, 2023).
This would mean that the mental processes that underlie thought and behavior in humans exist now because they once helped human ancestors survive and reproduce.
Evolutionary psychological theories are applied to all human behavior, including emotions, personality, perception, and learning.
Buss, D. M. (2023). Evolutionary theories in psychology. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from http://noba.to/ymcbwrx4
Confer, J. C., Easton, J. A., Fleischman, D. S., Goetz, C. D., Lewis, D. M. G., Perilloux, C., & Buss, D. M. (2010). Evolutionary psychology: Controversies, questions, prospects, and limitations. American Psychologist, 65(2), 110–126. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018413
Mealey, L. (2023). Evolutionary psychology. In Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health.
Polderman, T. J. C., Benyamin, B., de Leeuw, C. A., Sullivan, P. F., van Bochoven, A., Visscher, P. M., & Posthuma, D. (2015). Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nature Genetics, 47(7), 702–709. https://doi.org/10.1038/ng.3285
Workman, L. (2004). Evolutionary psychology: An introduction. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press. http://archive.org/details/evolutionarypsyc0000work
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]