How Does Evolutionary Psychology Apply To Mental Health Issues?

Updated December 05, 2018

Reviewer Tanya Harell

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Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new branch of the behavioral sciences. Yet, it's based on ideas that go back at least to the 1800s. Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical perspective. Yet, it can explain many of the ways humans think, how they respond, and how they change and develop. One of its most practical purposes is as a tool for understanding mental health issues.

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 sex 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 person 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 the mental adaptations people have in their changing environment. Its main foci are on thought, behavior, and brain structure. It's concerned with the ways memory, perception, and language evolve over time.

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

6 Basic Tenets of Evolutionary Psychology

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

  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 to solve problems over time.
  4. As problems occurred time and again, the human brain evolved to accommodate for 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 the biological to the cultural to the societal.

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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 takes into account education, peer groups, neighborhoods, and families. It is mostly concerned with a human to develop and how it happens.

Applications of Evolutionary Psychology

The evolutionary psychology perspective can shed light on some different mental health issues. The following are a few evolutionary psychology examples.

Phobias

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 people in modern times don't typically encounter a lot of 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 on the alert for them as they went about their daily routines. So, if they had an intense fear of snakes, they were more likely to survive. Those who survived passed on their genes, along with the code that carried the intense fear of snakes.

More modern inventions, such as firearms, aren't usually the subject of a phobia. Why? Perhaps it's because they haven't been around long enough for fear of them to be passed on for enough generations.

Another problem with connecting phobias to evolution is that sometimes the subject of the phobia is something that has never been any threat to survival. Consider fear of public speaking. What survival value is there in avoiding the podium?

Relationships

According to the evolutionary theory, 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:

  • Women are more attracted to masculine-looking men when they're ovulating.
  • Men tend to have multiple sex partners to spread their DNA.
  • Women choose powerful men who can provide for their children.
  • Men 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.

Motivation

According to the evolutionary psychology perspective, everything people do is motivated by their need to survive and have children. The idea is that these are the ultimate if 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.

Stress

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

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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.

Parenthood

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

Altruism

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 whole species.

Language Acquisition

In the view of evolutionary psychologists, developing languages helped early peoples 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 study, such as international student exchange programs, are so successful in teaching people a new language.

How Can Evolutionary Psychology Help Me?

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. By 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 survival themselves, especially if they go untreated for a long period. Even if you live to old age, having mental problems can seriously affect your ability to function the way you would like.

If you are suffering from mental problems 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.com for help with mental health issues. After you're paired with a suitable counselor based on your answers to a simple questionnaire, you can start convenient online therapy.

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One thing evolutionary psychologists believe is that, although genetics play a large part in who you are, many other factors play an even larger role in who you become. One of these is your ability to make choices and change your thoughts and behaviors. With the right help, you can choose the life you want and make changes that move you closer to the life you want most.


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