Evolutionary Psychology

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated July 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Evolutionary psychology is a contemporary branch of psychological science based on principles of evolutionary biology, particularly Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Yet, it is based on ideas of human evolution proposed by evolutionary biologists that go back at least to the 1800s.

Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical perspective that explains human nature: why human beings 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 identify effective treatments. 

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How can the past explain your present thoughts and behaviors?

Exploring human evolutionary history and the psyche

Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain human thoughts and behaviors by studying what those looked like in the past and forming evolutionary hypotheses to explain why they evolved and persisted. Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new field that combines principles from the brain sciences, natural sciences, and several other domains. Evolutionary psychologists hold that, through our human ancestors, we evolved mechanisms that influence behavior, thought, and emotion. 

Using various research methods, evolutionary psychologists have linked various psychological phenomena to psychological adaptations. Many researchers have started to test hypotheses on the ways genetic differences and psychological adaptation interact to influence the development of mental health conditions. Evolutionary psychology can also help experts provide theories for certain behavioral phenomena that are otherwise difficult to explain. For example, research into social systems has led evolutionary psychologists to view altruistic behavior as a psychological mechanism related to inclusive fitness theory. According to inclusive fitness theory, a species’ ability to pass on genes is associated with the amount of collaboration it exhibits. 

In addition to individual differences, some experts believe that cultural variation across different human populations can be explained from an evolutionary perspective. While there are many human universals—such as the need for social connection—there are also well-established differences between groups. For example, the evolutionary psychologist Lei Chang and his colleagues have proposed that certain disparities in Eastern and Western cultures can be explained by differing environmental and social factors (e.g., fewer climatic fluctuations in Asia compared to Europe) that influenced varied adaptations.  

The evolutionary perspective of various psychological processes remains a popular topic of critical discussion. Researchers continue to explore the extent to which adaptations relate to human behavior—and the conditions that foster the proper development of these adaptations.     

What is evolution?

To understand evolutionary psychology, you first need to be familiar with the basics of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary theory describes 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 likely wouldn't be passed on to future generations.

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.

The intersection of evolution and mental health

Evolutionary psychology is a new branch of psychology that seeks to discover changes in people's minds from their ancestral environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Its main focuses are on thought, behavior, and brain structure. It's concerned with the ways memory, perception, and language evolve. An important factor often expressed in evolutionary psychology is that selection works on many levels, from biological to cultural to societal.

It can be helpful in the mental health field because it allows researchers and other interested parties to understand innate cognitive architecture to explain how mental processes arise. This field of psychology can help explain mental health conditions, human cognition, brain disorders, and more. Essentially, the evolutionary hypothesis central to this field is that recurrent adaptive problems can often be traced back to those who lived centuries ago, helping explain why they’re occurring today.

This psychological approach came from the combination of cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology. Just as biologists assume that evolutionary adaptations come from natural selection, evolutionary psychologists assume that within the human brain lies cognitive mechanisms that have evolved through natural selection.

Six basic tenets

This practice 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 emerge over time.

Here are the six basic tenets:

  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 undergoing evolutionary processes, 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 mental mechanisms that come together to form human nature.

Many of these key concepts differ from those of several prominent theories of human behavior and thought. The idea that our cognitive architecture is made up of myriad cognitive programs that guide learning contrasts with the principles of past cognitive and developmental psychologists. Many experts in cognitive science, like Jean Piaget, have proposed that the psyche is guided by a select number of overarching cognitive processes, called domain-general mechanisms. According to this theory, through these broad functional components, we’re able to learn many different skills, types of information, etc. 

According to evolutionary psychologists, though, we’ve developed domain-specific mechanisms, each of which may apply to a unique learning task. For example, someone can have one domain-specific knowledge system for reading body language and another for interpreting verbal communication, as opposed to one system for understanding communication. 

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 that occurs.

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 human history, attention to detail, origins of patterns of interaction, and previous intervention methods. 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 many people in modern times don't typically encounter many snakes in their environment, the fear seems 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 go about their daily routine. 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 fear response when encountering snakes. Many believe that these phobias are cognitive adaptations that help us survive in the physical world, even though snakes do not live in the modern environments that many people inhabit. 

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Relationships

According to the evolutionary theory on which the conclusions about relationships rely, everything people do is designed to promote childbearing. Most people think this is an undesirable view of relationships. Yet, it does make sense evolutionarily. If evolution works this way in psychology, that explains why, in many cases these sex differences may be present:

  • Females are more attracted to stereotypically masculine-looking males when they're ovulating.
  • According to parental investment theory, because females are child bearers, they tend to be more selective about their mates. Since they have a higher parental investment, females will prefer mates they believe have high-quality genes.
  • Males may have multiple sex partners at once to spread their DNA.
  • Females choose powerful males who can provide for their children.
  • Some people like curvy women with wide hips who tend to be 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 women and men, and there are more sexualities than heterosexual. it can be difficult to differentiate genetic influences from socially constructed influences on human culture.
Motivation

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 they think they have other reasons. However, it may be that this is true in some situations but not in others.

Stress

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 a quick retreat. 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 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 you experience those for 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.

Parenthood

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.

Altruism

The belief that individual survival and reproduction drive behavior historically led evolutionary psychologists to believe that altruism made no sense. Everything needed to work together to ensure the survival of the individual, so why would they put the needs of others over their own? However, some influential evolutionary psychologists have alternative explanations for the basis of altruism. For example, many 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 peoples communicate thoughts that helped them survive. Yet, no one learns 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.

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 resolution of it.

Mental health issues can threaten an individual’s 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.

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How can the past explain your present thoughts and behaviors?

Online therapy with BetterHelp

If you are experiencing 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 are busy. Online therapy lets you take control of your care by allowing you to book sessions according to your schedule. You can also connect with a therapist who is trained in the areas in which you’re struggling, 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 can be an effective tool for treating a wide range of mental health disorders. One 2008 study compared the efficacy of online therapy 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.”

Takeaway

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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