Evolutionary Psychology And Mental Health Issues

Updated July 7, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new branch of the behavioral sciences. Yet, it is based on ideas that go back at least to the 1800s. Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical perspective that can explain why humans think in the ways we do, how we respond, and how we change and develop. One of its most practical purposes is as a tool for understanding mental health issues. Your healthcare providers may rely on evolutionary psychology to explain and understand why you are behaving, thinking, or acting the way you are. It may also help them come up with treatments to help. 

How Can The Past Explain Your Present Thoughts And Behaviors?

Evolutionary Psychology And Mental Health

Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain human thoughts and behaviors by studying what those things looked like in the past. Psychologists may look at our ancestors to gain information about how the past affects the present. Evolutionary psychology can be helpful in the mental health field because it allows researchers and other interested parties to gain insight into understanding how the mind works. This field of psychology can help explain mental health conditions, cognitive functions, brain disorders, and more. Essentially, adaptive and recurrent mental health problems can often be traced back to those who lived centuries ago, helping explain why they’re occurring today. 

What Is Evolution?

To understand evolutionary psychology, you first need to be familiar with the basics of evolutionary biology. Evolution is the process by which inherited genetic characteristics change over generations. Changes can happen due to genetic mutations, but they can also happen through natural selection or sexual selection.

In natural selection, a characteristic that promoted survival was more likely to be passed on because the person with that trait would live long enough to pass on their genetic code. If a trait didn't help someone survive, the gene that carried that characteristic wouldn't be passed on to the next generation.

Sexual selection is a special type of natural selection. In sexual selection, a characteristic that helps the individual get a mate is passed on to the next generation. An example in the animal world is peacocks, whose males developed their colorful tail feathers through sexual selection.

What Is Evolutionary Psychology?

Evolutionary psychology is a new branch of psychology that seeks to discover people's mental adaptations in their changing environment. Its main focuses are on thought, behavior, and brain structure. It's concerned with the ways memory, perception, and language evolve.

This psychological approach came from the combination of cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology. Just as evolutionary biology assumes that physiological adaptations came from natural selection, evolutionary psychology assumes that within the human brain lie cognitive mechanisms that have evolved through natural selection.

6 Basic Tenets

Evolutionary psychology relies on six core principles or basic tenets. These principles form the basis of the evolutionary perspective psychology researchers use to study how certain behaviors and thought patterns emerged over time.

Here are the six basic tenets of evolutionary psychology:

  1. The purpose of the human brain is to process information. As it does, it creates responses to stimuli.
  2. The human brain has changed over time as it has adapted due to natural and sexual selection.
  3. The human brain is made up of parts that became specialized in solving problems over time.
  4. As problems occurred time and again, the human brain evolved to accommodate them. After going through this evolutionary process, the brain became what it is today.
  5. The brain must solve problems, mostly at an unconscious level. An activity or response that seems simple may involve highly complex neural processes.
  6. Human psychology is made up of a multitude of specialized mechanisms that come together to form human nature.

An additional factor often expressed in evolutionary psychology is that selection works on many levels, from biological to cultural to societal.

Evolutionary Developmental Psychology

Evolutionary developmental psychology uses the tenets of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology. Also, this subfield of evolutionary psychology focuses on the interaction between the individual and their environment. Studies include topics related to ensuring the survival of the person, their culture, and their species. It considers education, peer groups, neighborhoods, and families. It is mostly concerned with human development and how it happens.

Applications Of Evolutionary Psychology In Therapy

The evolutionary psychology perspective can shed light on some different mental health issues. It is another way to better understand our history, attention to detail, origins of patterns of interaction, and previous intervention methods. The following are a few evolutionary psychology examples.


Phobias, or at least some of them, make sense from an evolutionary psychology perspective. A phobia is an irrational or exaggerated fear. Many people have an intense fear of snakes that reaches the level of a phobia. Since many people in modern times don't typically encounter many snakes in their environment, the fear is usually irrational.

However, long ago, when people lived in a wild environment, snakes came with the territory. A person might have to try very hard to avoid snakes and always be alert for them as they went about their daily routines. So, if they had a fear of snakes that caused them to be mindful and careful, they were more likely to survive. Those who survived passed on their genes, along with the code that carried the intense fear of snakes.



According to the evolutionary theory that psychology relies on, everything people do is designed to promote childbearing. Most people think this is an undesirable view of relationships. Yet, it does make some sense. If evolution works this way in psychology, that explains why, in many cases:

  • Females are more attracted to stereotypically masculine-looking males when they're ovulating.

  • Males may have multiple sex partners to spread their DNA.

  • Females choose powerful males who can provide for their children.

  • Some people like curvy women with wide hips who are better adapted physically for childbirth.

  • Both men and women prefer partners with symmetrical faces, a clear indication of healthy cell division.

Disclaimer: We have learned through findings, research, and article intake that there are more genders than just women or men.


According to the evolutionary psychology perspective, everything that people do is motivated by their need to survive and have children. The idea is that these are the ultimate (even unconscious) goals, even when you think you have other reasons. It may be that this is true in some situations and not in others, however.


The evolutionary basis of stress is very clear. When you perceive a threat, your body and mind may go into fight or flight mode. Physiological changes happen that prepare you for a great struggle or quick retreat. The adrenaline kicks in, and your heart rate shoots up. Other physiological changes happen, and your mind becomes focused on the threat.

While fight or flight is extremely useful in the wild, it doesn't do you much good when you're, say, facing a critical business meeting or a default on your mortgage. Instead, your mind and body go on alert and then have nothing to do. The result is stress and anxiety. If they go on too long, it can seriously damage your physical and mental health. Learning the implications of these reactions in the present day, along with new treatment methods and challenges can help us understand the effects and causes of fight or flight.


Regarding evolution, raising children is just as important as having them in the first place. After all, if a child doesn't grow to maturity, they won't pass on your genetic code. Evolutionary psychology explains why people form such strong bonds with their children. It also suggests that people tend to like certain characteristics like large eyes because they're drawn to children and their caretaking role.


For many evolutionary psychologists, altruism made no sense when people were living in wild environments. Everything needed to work together to ensure the survival of the individual, so why would they put the needs of others over their own? Some evolutionary psychologists, however, look at altruism differently. They suggest that, while altruism may not help the individual who practices it directly, it does help ensure the survival of the community and, potentially, the whole species.

Language Acquisition

In the view of evolutionary psychologists, developing languages helped early people communicate thoughts that helped them survive. Yet, no one learns the language in a vacuum. The most effective ways to learn a language are through the cultural environments of the home and community. This is why language immersion studies, such as international student exchange programs, often successfully teach people a new language.

How Can Evolutionary Psychology Help Me Through Therapy?

In most circumstances and for most people, evolutionary psychology is best used in combination with other types of therapy. It can be very helpful for explaining and understanding mental health issues. However, to solve those issues, you typically need a more practical approach, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or psychodynamic therapy. Using different psychological theories, the therapist can get to the heart of the problem before delving into the nuts and bolts of solving it.

Mental health issues can threaten your well-being, especially if they go untreated for a long period. Even if you live a long time, having mental health problems can seriously affect your ability to function in the ways you would like.

How Can The Past Explain Your Present Thoughts And Behaviors?

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

If you are going through mental health challenges that seem too difficult to handle on your own, a therapist can help you face and overcome them. You can talk to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp for support with your mental health issues. After you're paired with a suitable counselor based on your answers to a simple questionnaire, you can start therapy online.

Finding the time for therapy can be difficult, especially when you have a busy schedule. Online therapy lets you take control of your care by allowing you to schedule sessions according to your availability. You can also connect with a therapist who is trained in the areas you’re having problems in, no matter what you may be experiencing. The versatility and convenience of online therapy make it an increasingly popular option for getting mental health treatment. 

Online Therapy

Online therapy can be an effective tool for treating a wide range of mental health disorders. One study compared the efficacy of online therapy in comparison to traditional face-to-face interventions. Researchers found no differences between the two, providing “strong support for the adoption of online psychological interventions as a legitimate therapeutic activity.”


Evolutionary psychologists believe that, although genetics play a large part in who you are, many other factors play an even larger role in whom you become. The information gained from studying the past is just one piece of the puzzle. With the right help, you can make changes that can move you closer to the life you want. You can learn more about this theory through online therapy, where a qualified therapist can assist you with any questions you may still have.

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