Evolutionary Psychology

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated July 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

What can the science of evolutionary psychology teach us about our early development, how we evolved and how it is closely related to and affects our behavior, thoughts, emotions, and reactions today?

This branch of study immerses us in an exploration that profoundly illuminates our understanding of human nature—the adaptations underlying ancient behaviors and psychological states relevant to our species’ survival.

In addition to deep dives into decades-old research papers and studies surrounding evolutionary dynamics, a wide range of fields such as biology, anthropology, sociology—even philosophy—add fascinating contextual clues as to why we are who we are today.

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The impact of our ancestors on our behaviors 

Influential evolutionary psychologists and social scientists, including Charles Darwin, believe that our ancestors’ behaviors and experiences have shaped our brain and behaviors today. By studying our evolutionary history, evolutionary psychologists can gain insights into the relationships between humans and their environment and uncover how our behavior has evolved.

According to evolutionary principles, our brains and bodies are made up of mechanisms designed to help us succeed in our environment. As a result, it’s believed that many of the behaviors we have today result from our ancestors' experiences. These specific behaviors are known as evolutionary adaptations, which are changes in a population’s genetic makeup that help it survive in its environment.  

Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize these adaptations are passed down from generation to generation and manifest in modern-day behavior. By studying human evolutionary history, evolutionary psychologists can observe ancestral environments and the struggles our ancestors faced to understand how our ancestors’ experiences may have shaped certain behaviors and how they continue to shape modern-day behavior and future generations in the same way. 

For example, research suggests that humans have an innate fear of snakes due to an experience that one of our human ancestors had with a snake many years ago. This fear has been passed down through generations and is still present in many people today. 

Another example of evolutionary psychology is the human preference for sweet tastes spawning from when we had to find food; this preference was likely developed because sweet foods were more abundant and safer to eat than bitter or sour foods during our ancestor's time. The natural selection theory suggests that the human mind has been trained in survival and reproduction habits over time and continually influences human behavior.

Examining our emotions

Evolutionary psychologists also examine our emotions and how our evolutionary history has shaped them. By studying how our emotions have evolved, evolutionary psychologists can better understand how they affect our behavior today. This may explain human emotions with new insights.

They can also uncover how our feelings and emotional expressions (including negative emotions) have changed over the years and what we can do to manage them in the present better.

What are evolutionary psychology and emotional evolution? 

Evolutionary psychology is a branch of psychology that examines adaptations in behavior from an evolutionary perspective. It seeks to answer how natural selection has shaped our behaviors over time and how those changes may have impacted our mental health today. 

In particular, evolutionary psychologists are interested in using the contents of evolutionary psychology to understand how human emotions and psychological mechanisms have changed over time, as this can provide valuable insights into why we behave the way we do now. Emotional evolution refers to studying how human emotions have changed over time. By looking at genetic and environmental factors and cultural variation, evolutionary psychologists can gain insight into why certain emotions are more prominent than others throughout different historical periods. 

For example, research conducted by evolutionary psychologist David Buss found that people living in hunter-gatherer societies experienced significantly higher levels of anger than people living in modern communities—likely due to their need to defend themselves from predators and other threats. 

How can we use this information? 

By studying our emotional evolution, evolutionary psychologists can help us understand why we experience certain emotions more strongly than others and what strategies we can use to manage them better. This knowledge can be the missing link used to develop effective interventions for mental health disorders and recurrent problems such as anxiety or depression or to create more effective personalized approaches for managing stress or relationships with other people. 

Additionally, understanding our emotional evolution allows us to recognize when certain traits and behaviors are no longer adaptive for the present day—such as feeling overly threatened by minor dangers—and take steps toward changing them if necessary. 

Studying evolutionary biology

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Evolutionary psychologists can also learn about our history and how it has shaped our behavior. By studying our evolutionary history, evolutionary psychologists can better understand how our behavior has been shaped by our ancestors’ experiences and their interactions with the environment. This knowledge can help us better understand our behavior today and how our past has shaped it.

Understanding the adaptation and natural selection processes

By studying evolutionary biology, we can better understand how species in the animal kingdom have adapted to their surroundings to survive and reproduce. This can help us better understand the world and see how these processes have shaped human behavior. For example, we can learn the benefits of cooperation, competition, and other traits that have enabled societies throughout history to thrive.

Exploring human evolution

Evolutionary biology can be a handy tool for studying human evolution. It helps us see how different populations and other members of the animal kingdom have undergone specific changes to become more successful and adaptive. Human behavior is unique compared to other species. Understanding its underlying processes can provide important clues about our present-day behavior patterns and give insights into future innovations.

Appreciating nature's complexity

Studying evolutionary biology helps us get a deeper appreciation of nature's complexity and its incredible patterns. For example, many experts agree that the diversity seen within ecosystems across the globe played a significant role in making our planet so hospitable for human life in modern times. 

By understanding this adaptation process, we can better grasp the intricate web of life on Earth and why certain species are successful while others struggle to survive or go extinct.

Benefits of applying evolutionary biology to modern times

Since many diseases are caused by changes to our genes or contact with harmful pathogens, understanding how evolution has shaped our physical system can be highly beneficial in preventing or treating these diseases more effectively. 

By applying evolutionary principles such as natural selection, scientists may be able to create more effective treatments that target specific viruses or bacteria without affecting healthy cells within the body too much.

Creating more sustainable agriculture practices

Knowing how plants evolve gives us insight into which ones are best suited for different climates or terrains and when they should be planted to maximize yields or minimize crop loss due to pests or drought conditions. 

This knowledge can help farmers increase their crop potential while reducing their environmental footprint at the same time due to reduced use of pesticides or certain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Developing new technology solutions for everyday problems

Understanding evolutionary biology also gives us clues into how technology evolves and why certain technologies become popular. In contrast, others fail quickly after launch or remain stagnant for long periods before being adopted by society. 

In addition, this knowledge can help engineers create products that fit into people’s lifestyles better than existing solutions since it considers people’s preferences for convenience, cost efficiency, aesthetics, etc., all factors which could influence a product’s success over time.

Evolutionary biology is an incredibly useful tool that can help us better understand our behavior today and how our past has shaped it. Understanding the adaptation and natural selection processes, exploring human evolution, appreciating nature's complexity, and applying evolutionary principles to modern-day challenges can provide invaluable insights into our world today.

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Benefits of applying evolutionary psychology to online therapy

Online therapy allows mental health professionals to apply evolutionary biology to the therapeutic process. By understanding evolutionary concepts, clinicians can connect modern psychological processes to those found in the distant past, informing their approach to counseling and interventions.

Applying evolutionary biology benefits clinicians and patients by giving practitioners additional insight into individual patient needs and providing a deeper understanding of biological traits and underlying issues.

Additionally, therapists can use knowledge from evolutionary biology to create more accurate diagnoses and better target treatments. Consequently, this knowledge allows them to develop new practice methodology with sound scientific principles at its foundation and customized patient interventions tailored specifically for each individual. 

Ultimately, integrating evolutionary biology into online therapy has the potential to profoundly improve mental health outcomes for both clinicians and their patients.

Effectiveness of online therapy thanks to evolutionary biology

In recent years, the effectiveness of online therapy has been studied in several unique contexts. Evolving technology has enabled the development and use of these platforms to provide mental health services to certain populations who may not have traditional therapy options. 

Thanks to research in evolutionary biology, we now know that interpersonal relationships and social support are essential for our evolutionary survival as a species as they are integral for social group structure and knowledge dissemination. 

This understanding can be applied to psychology by examining different ideologies on how this type of communication, relationship building, and change process can be achieved through digital tele-mental health outside the scope of traditional interpersonal interaction. 

As such, studies have shown multiple benefits associated with online therapy, such as increased engagement with clients, increased psychological services due to reduced geographic barriers, and an increased sense of safety during counseling sessions. 

Ultimately, these findings demonstrate that online therapy is an effective tool for providing much-needed mental health support, thanks greatly to advances in evolutionary biology.

Takeaway

The theory of evolution provides a unique evolutionary perspective which evolutionary biologists have been studying as it relates to natural selection and social behaviors of humans.

By understanding the science of psychology, evolutionary psychology and the nuances of evolutionary theory, we can unpack many of the complexities and answer some of the eternal questions about the human mind and human behavior, which can lead us to improving our society on a structural and personal level.

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