Evolutionary Psychology Definition: Humans, Behavior, And Evolving Norms

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated July 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Evolutionary psychology generally seeks to understand the problems and solutions faced by early humans, and how these problems and solutions may have influenced and continue to influence human thought patterns, behaviors, and conventions. Utilizing principles from the natural sciences, brain sciences, and several other fields, this area of study may be able to explain certain facets of your personality or various mental health concerns. For further insight and professional guidance, consider working with a licensed therapist in person or online.

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Evolutionary psychology may offer insight

Understanding human behavior through evolutionary biology 

According to the Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology and Behavioral Endocrinology, “Evolutionary psychologists contend that human psychology and behavior are functional outcomes of natural and sexual selection pressures encountered in the ancestral environment.” Evolutionary psychologists are professionals dedicated to examining human cognition, emotion, and behavior through Darwinian principles of evolutionary biology and related theories. Drawing from evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, cognitive psychology, and related fields, evolutionary psychologists hold that our ingrained mental processes—known as our cognitive architecture—have been formed through adaptations that aided our ancestors in surviving and procreating. While psychologists in other fields might focus on how behavioral traits develop due to factors like childhood experiences or trauma, an evolutionary psychologist studies genetic differences and their impact on an individual’s development. 

Advances in cognitive science have helped evolutionary psychologists study the psychological adaptations that influence the way we act. By applying evolutionary thinking to psychological concepts, these professionals can better understand the evolution of the psychological phenomena underlying human behavior. For example, they may examine the ways certain adaptations led to cultural variation in behavior; or they might identify a psychological adaptation—also called a psychological mechanism—that is linked to the psychopathology of eating disorders. 

Recently, evolutionary psychologists have used various research methods to test hypotheses suggesting that, in responding to adaptive problems, our human ancestors developed psychological mechanisms and behavioral traits that contribute to mental health challenges today. For example, there is an evolutionary hypothesis of the cause of bipolar disorder. According to this evolutionary theory, to address recurrent adaptive problems related to certain environmental conditions, some groups evolved mechanisms that changed their circadian rhythms and influenced their energy levels—two commonly affected areas of functioning in bipolar disorder.

The question of "why" is typically of powerful interest to an evolutionary psychologist. The "whys" of being a human may stem from the patterns created by evolutionary impulses, at least according to EP (evolutionary psychology) theory. 

Humans normally live, eat, and move in certain ways that distinguish them from other land-dwelling mammals, and an evolutionary psychologist's primary job can be to determine why this might be the case, taking human history, archaeological evidence, and evolutionary theories into account. Instead of focusing on a narrow scope of human behavior (i.e., why people with depressive symptoms act in certain ways), this field of study generally takes on a broader set of questions and list of possibilities.

Evolutionary psychologists often work alongside archaeologists and anthropologists to study the behavior, norms, and societies of primitive humans and those who came after to try to glean exactly how early humans lived, and whether the behavior of those humans can still be seen today. Working alongside others who study society and geology from a historical and scientific perspective can allow evolutionary psychologists to find links between current cultures and past ones, as well as modern humans and early humans.

Evolutionary psychology examples

Perhaps the most well-known instance of an evolutionary impulse is the "fight-or-flight" response. This reaction can be known for its long-term effects. If kept in a state of fight-or-flight for too long, the body may begin to break down and experience serious side effects. This can be particularly true of people who experience anxiety disorders. Anxiety can place a lot of stress on the body, as it may rest in a chronic state of fight-or-flight, potentially resulting in elevated cortisol levels and corresponding body breakdown.

Evolutionary impulses can also be seen in romantic behavior (i.e., wanting to find a mate or multiple mates) and even fears, such as a fear of venomous snakes or poisonous plants. Scientists often posit that these fears and impulses may have developed over time to keep human populations safer. Seeking out a mate, for instance, may allow humans to continue to grow and survive. A consistent fear of snakes may enable humans to avoid the possibility of encountering snake venom, further ensuring their survival.

Perhaps a more interesting facet of evolutionary psychology may lie in the question of art and its purpose in human history. Evolutionary psychology is not necessarily limited to straight, hard facts regarding human beings and their history. EP can also ask more esoteric questions, including why art is important to human beings and what function it serves in the overall human psyche. Like many cultural norms and ingrained beliefs, art often continues to play a prominent role in the human experience, and can be, therefore, a subject of study for evolutionary psychologists. After all, what could it be about how humans have evolved that makes the existence of art an absolute in human history and development?

Some theories within EP can contribute to what some psychologists see as an increased incidence of mental health decline in human populations. Although most evolutionary impulses develop over thousands or even millions of years, recent years have generally seen an accelerated rate of industrialization, leading to an accelerated rate of change in human lives and societies. This could explain the increasing incidence of mental health disorders. 

Humans may not be able to evolve quickly enough to match the changes in their environment, potentially leading to a mental and physical disconnect and a corresponding break in mental acuity. While humans tend to be incredibly adaptable beings, some scientists have posited that the progress required to keep up with the rate of change in human environments may not be possible.

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One way evolutionary psychology can differ from its counterparts may be in its explanation of human behavior. This area of the study suggests that human behavior is universal, to some degree, rather than being nuanced based on local environmental or biological factors. 

The notion of universal behaviors can be found in the concept of parental investment, which is the tendency for parents to make sacrifices for their young, or inclusive fitness theory, which states that a species’ ability to flourish is influenced by the degree to which individuals within it work together. It can also explain the deep discomfort experienced when others are in pain. These phenomena are generally not borne of societal conditioning, according to evolution, but a widespread, deeply ingrained pattern of behavior that evolved over countless years to allow humans to progress and survive.

Universalism can also be used to explain persistent social norms across wide ranges of people, groups, and cultures. If humankind is derived from a single common ancestor and a certain way of living (typically identified as a hunter-gatherer state), then consistent norms despite wide cross-cultural differences can be explained by powerful instincts honed by countless years of living a certain way. Such habits were likely designed to keep humans strong, healthy, and fit for survival within the framework of their environmental position and needs.

Being close to family, for instance, was (until recently) usually considered the normal state of humans. Long-distance travel can be considered relatively new. The impulse to have family near, or to create a family dynamic with nearby friends, could be explained by long-held norms in early human development. 

Similarly, many people experience fear of the unknown. This could also be explained by the likelihood that early human populations recognized the potential danger inherent in moving toward or experiencing new places or things after numerous instances in which new things led to harm or death (i.e., eating a new species of plant resulted in poisoning or exploring a new terrain resulted in encountering a bog).

Evolutionary psychology: Moving forward

Evolutionary psychology theory can be multifaceted and vast, but it typically centers on a single, important principle: that evolution is the source of social conventions, behavioral patterns, and neurological developments. 

Although some basic tenets of evolutionary psychology may be undergoing an evolution, the general idea may remain the same. Evolution can play an important role in the overall development of the human mind and the behaviors and experiences that humans embody and create. Like any other field that studies the human mind, evolutionary psychology can be an ever-changing, ever-adapting study that seeks to understand the underlying causes of human behavior and dysfunction. Although its primary focus is not necessarily concerned with improving human relations and conditions, the importance of the field may lie in its ability to better understand and equip human beings.

Although, at its outset, evolutionary psychology generally believed human beings were fairly static in their development, subject entirely to their environment, growth in this field suggests humans may play a far more advanced role in their evolution and progression, and may be responsible for creating the circumstances that lead to the most adaptation and progress. The dual inheritance theory, which developed in the latter half of the 20th century, suggests that both societal and genetic influences contribute to human behavior. This can be an important find, as it may help psychologists in all fields better comprehend how the human brain functions and self-corrects, and how an individual's environment can lead to humans' downfall or increase humans' overall ability to adapt and improve.

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Evolutionary psychology may offer insight

Therapy’s role in evolutionary psychology

Understanding the role that the environment plays in mental health can also be important for personal development and treatment. If you feel your environment is affecting your mental health or contributing to the decline of your mental state, psychologists can use details of your environment and history to determine how best to treat you. 

Online therapy can be an example of how mental healthcare has evolved to better meet the needs of different people. In particular, those living in geographic areas with limited therapeutic services may be matched with a licensed therapist in as little as 48 hours after completing the initial questionnaire. Through online therapy platforms like BetterHelp, you can schedule appointments at your convenience and attend them from a preferred location – all you may need is an internet connection.

Online therapy can effectively treat a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many online licensed therapists use an internet-based version of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to support BetterHelp users in reframing their thoughts in order to achieve desired behaviors.

Takeaway

Regardless of whether you have a mental health condition, talking to a licensed therapist can help you find clarity as to why you have been feeling a certain way in a particular environment. Evolutionary psychology may also offer insight into various aspects of the human psyche, as it generally aims to understand the ways in which the lives of early humans may continue to impact human behavior today.
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