Evolutionary psychology definition: Humans, behavior, and evolving norms
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. This field 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.
Who are evolutionary psychologists?
Evolutionary psychologists are typically scientists dedicated to solving the question of human behavior. Although this can be said of all psychologists, this field of study usually seeks to answer this question using Darwinian principles and evolutionary theories.
While psychologists in other fields might focus on how a brain has taken on certain characteristics due to immediate factors, such as childhood experiences or trauma, an evolutionary psychologist may examine neurology and corresponding attributes according to deeply ingrained and inherent beliefs about the world and those in it.
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 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.
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 concepts can be found in the general feeling of disdain regarding murder, or the deep discomfort experienced when others are in pain. These 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 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. 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.
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.
What is the best definition of evolutionary psychology?
To put it simply, evolutionary psychology is psychology (the study of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) in the context of evolutionary history and evolutionary biology (the study of how humans and their traits, behaviors, bodies, brains, and psychological mechanisms have evolved over time).
What is evolutionary psychology with example?
One commonly cited example of psychology as it relates to our evolutionary past is proposed sex differences in mate selection. Some researchers in this field suggest evolutionary hypotheses around this concept, such as the theory that males may select female partners with wider hips for greater chances of reproductive success—which may have happened over generations and generations through evolution.
What is the primary focus of evolutionary psychology?
The core principle of evolutionary psychology research and theory is that psychological adaptations occur in human nature gradually over long periods of time, and that current functional adaptations should be able to be traced back through human evolutionary history.
What is an example of evolutionary perspective in social psychology?
One of the examples of evolved psychological mechanisms as they relate to social psychology is altruism. On its face, altruistic behavior—or behavior that is done with selfless concern for the welfare of others—seems contrary to the individual survival or reproductive mechanisms that are normally the hallmark of evolutionary behaviors. However, today, some evolutionary psychologists argue that altruism may still fit within this theory because it may help ensure the survival of communities and therefore the species overall.
What are the key concepts of evolutionary theory?
Key concepts of evolutionary theory as proposed by influential evolutionary psychologists include tenets like:
- The brain has been shaped by natural selection over the course of human history into a machine that can perceive and interpret information from the surrounding environment.
- Human behavior is governed by these actions of the brain through “cognitive programs.”
- “Cognitive programs” that govern our behaviors are adaptive mechanisms that have evolved over time to help humans of previous eras to survive.
The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology by Oxford University Press is one of many resources for research and theory that those interested in this field may find useful. Resources from other university press sources are also likely to be reputable if you’re interested in learning more.
What is a real life example of evolutionary psychology?
One real-life example of evolutionary psychology that is commonly cited by evolutionary biologists and psychologists is the common fear of snakes among the modern human population. While many today are unlikely to encounter snakes in their lives very often, the fear may persist because of human psychological mechanisms that evolved over generations and generations, when encountering a snake was a more common and potentially fatal occurrence.
Can evolutionary psychology explain everything?
The field of evolutionary psychology can’t currently explain everything about why human psychology is the way it is today. Human psychology is an incredibly diverse, complex, and nuanced topic, and no field or theory today can truly explain everything. That said, many proponents of this area of study believe that much of how we function today is due to adaptive mechanisms that evolved for specific reasons related to survival or reproduction over time.
What is evolutionary psychology theory of personality?
In general, evolutionary psychologists believe that even individual personality types evolved through natural selection over the generations in order to provide individuals and the species as a whole with some adaptive benefit(s).
Why is evolutionary psychology good?
Evolutionary psychology can be helpful because it considers roots in the long-term past for current human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the context of our existence as a species over time. It may help us understand more about ourselves and why we are the way we are today.
How is evolutionary psychology different from behaviorism?
A key tenet of evolutionary psychology is that whatever psychological behaviors help humans survive are likely to be passed down over the generations through natural selection.
One of behaviorism’s key tenets is that human behavior can be explained through the lens of conditioning over time. Behaviorists tend to believe, for example, that behaviors that humans over past generations found to produce positive impacts on their well-being or, more impactfully, their survival would be passed down to future generations.
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