What Is An Evolutionary Psychologist And What Do They Do?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

An evolutionary psychologist tries to understand humanity by examining specific traits that were passed on from our ancestors and how they have shaped our cognition and behavior today. They can then use that information to explain human thoughts, feelings, and actions that may have seemed entirely random before. This article will explain what evolutionary psychology is and how people can utilize it to learn more about themselves. 

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Your DNA could help explain your thoughts and behaviors

What is evolutionary psychology?

Psychology has many different subfields and branches, such as social, clinical, and forensic, to name a few, and evolutionary psychology also belongs to this broad discipline. In general, psychology can be defined as the study of the human mind and behavior. Since this is non-specific, that's where different subfields become useful. 

For example, someone might specifically be interested in working with athletes and their mentality and choose to pursue sports psychology. Likewise, a forensic psychologist closely collaborates with the legal system and may work to understand criminal behavior. Evolutionary psychology is no exception, and this niche also has its own goals and focuses on certain factors.

While a formal evolutionary psychologist definition is not widely documented, this subfield can be described as studying how the human mind has changed over time, such as by adaptation, especially through Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Through natural selection, cognitive abilities have developed in response to the challenges that our ancestors faced in the past. The ability to adapt and solve such problems would be passed on successfully through reproduction.

What are some evolutionary psychologist examples?

In evolutionary psychology, reproduction is vital. Just like in biology, where certain physical traits will be more favorable and passed on through natural selection, the same theoretical concept applies here as well.

Let's look at our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors. In these societies, communication and cooperation were crucial for survival. This is known as strategic communication, and it provides social advantages, including the likelihood of reproduction.

One of the purest forms of strategic communication is the ability to make friends. One example of this is reciprocal altruism. In anthropological theory, this means that an individual will temporarily reduce their fitness to improve the well-being of another individual, in hopes that the favor will be returned later, not necessarily immediately.

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Such actions build trust and can form small bonds to large alliances, which can continue over time if they are maintained. This behavior has stood the test of time, and even to this day, humans still use strategic communication to increase their chances of making friends and finding a mate. Even regular altruism, where someone may do nice things with no expectation for anything in return, is commonplace.

However, these types of behavior and communication patterns can also be observed in our closest relatives - the primates. Like humans, primates are social creatures and have various organized systems. Some might form monogamous pairs while others form massive groups. Regardless of how large their society is, mating is crucial because it passes down one's genes.

Several different altruistic and mutualistic behaviors have been demonstrated to reinforce bonds between group members, including grooming and agonistic support. Interestingly, they have shown to consider the history of altruism, rather than expecting something immediately.

Although we did not directly evolve from the monkeys and apes that we see in the modern age, there was a common ancestor at one point in time, and eventually, that branched out further and further and developed into present traits and characteristics. Therefore, it is safe to assume that such behaviors that have shaped our psychology can date even further back to before humanity.

How does an evolutionary psychologist conduct research?

In the modern world, hunter-gatherer societies are quite limited, and many have been influenced by technology. Further, not all evolutionary psychologists are trained in primatology, so how do they perform fieldwork and gather accurate data without ancient groups to study? 

As it turns out, an evolutionary psychologist can examine various present-day cultures, compare them with the past, and theorize explanations for certain behaviors. Some are even universal amongst all cultures.

Take marital dissolution, for example, or any type of mating separation for that matter. Even today, two major causes of these kinds of divides are infidelity and infertility. In the past, infidelity, particularly for men, meant that they could not be completely certain that an offspring was theirs. Regarding infertility, if the man cannot reproduce, this implies that their genes would not be passed down.

Similar behavior is present in primates and other animals. Baboons are particularly notorious for performing infanticide if they find a mate that has already produced offspring, and this stems from the desire to father their own, and not another male's genes.

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Your DNA could help explain your thoughts and behaviors

This type of behavior has been mostly phased out in humans, and step-parenting is very common. While laws might have had something to do with discouraging it, an evolutionary psychologist may be able to explain the decline of infanticide scientifically through research.

However, other violent acts in humans still need more investigation. For instance, it can be deduced that sexual jealousy has risen in response to infidelity, but spousal homicide, which is cross-cultural and prevalent, doesn't quite have a logical explanation to scientists. It isn't believed to be adaptive, other than being tied to a sense of ownership. 

Nonetheless, even looking at modern society, evolutionary psychologists can attempt to answer questions by picking out certain aspects and looking at older groups of people. Particularly, mating and relationships are some of the most researched areas by evolutionary psychologists because these are what facilitate natural selection in the first place. They also come with emotional investment, which leads to behavioral responses.

Why are evolutionary psychologists important?

Like anthropologists, psychologists—particularly ones interested in human evolution— dedicate their time to further our understanding of our species. By looking at past and present societies, evolutionary psychologists can connect the dots and give us an explanation of why certain behaviors exist. On the other hand, the field can also provide some insights into what kind of traits might be observed in the future.

One example is an aversion to venomous creatures because they can interfere with one's ability to reproduce: for instance, by causing death. This behavioral trait has existed for hundreds of thousands (or possibly millions) of years and is still common. 

However, automobiles have a similar threat level as the aforementioned venomous animals, and while there are many people who do possess a fear of driving or flying, vehicles have only been widespread for the last century or so. This is not enough time for our brains to adapt and evolve; yet it presents the possibility that humans one day might develop an innate fear of vehicles because of the risks, though this is theoretical.

By examining the present and looking at current aspects of everyday life, an evolutionary psychologist can propose ideas of how the brain might perform down the road in human history.

How do you become an evolutionary psychologist?

Like most subfields in any academic area, some degree of specialization, as well as interdisciplinary study, will be required to begin a career as an evolutionary psychologist. For credentials, a doctorate, such as a Ph.D. or a PsyD should be obtained, but it is recommended that an individual has a firm grasp of other fields such as biology and anthropology.

The examples throughout this article demonstrate the usefulness of other disciplines when analyzing the origins of certain human behaviors. For instance, having prior experience with anthropology can familiarize an individual with evolution specifically for humans, while also diving into the cultural aspects of behavior.

There are many fields of psychology, and this one is still relatively young, at least in comparison to other areas. There is a lot of room for evolutionary psychology to grow and attempt to answer many of our questions about the human mind and behavior by presenting possible reasons for adaptation. Without evolution, scientific explanations for behavior could be difficult to come by and much more confusing.

Online counseling with BetterHelp

Although it takes years of education to become an evolutionary psychologist, it can be a rewarding experience for those who are interested in the field. To discuss this field further or explore other career options, consider speaking with a career counselor through BetterHelp, an online therapy platform. With BetterHelp, you can talk to your counselor anywhere and at a time that’s convenient for you. This can make it easier and more convenient to get quality mental health care. 

Online counseling can be beneficial for addressing various types of mental health conditions and other life concerns. In a review of 17 different studies, researchers found that online therapy was more effective in treating behavioral issues than in-person interventions. Online sessions were conducted using cognitive behavioral therapy, an approach that helps people develop more positive thoughts. 

Takeaway

Evolutionary psychology seeks to explain human behavior through biological factors and theories. It is just one unique approach to understanding humans on a deeper level. Those interested in evolutionary psychology can explore the field in greater depth by speaking with an online career counselor. Career counseling can help individuals discover their passions and find paths that are likely to help them feel fulfilled and happy with their work.

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