The following article is the first of our “Ruling Principles” series. The series will highlight various psychological principles that govern how we live, often without us even knowing.
Homo sapiens have an intriguing and astonishing history, but could our ancestors genes be inhibiting our everyday decisions today?
Evolutionary psychology defines common psychological phenomena in terms of functional adaptations resulting from natural selection . As such, our ability to perceive, remember and comprehend language are a reflection of traits possessed by our most successful ancestors, passed on and honed through generations.
Our evolutionary past is a fundamental part of our ability to use our brains effectively in everyday situations, but the rate of genetic change in humans has been completely outpaced by that of everyday life. The result is a tendency for humans to make inaccurate decisions in everyday life and particularly important situations. The consequences affect moral belief, our justice systems and our economic choices, to name a few.
But before we discuss such consequences, let’s delve deeper into the theory behind evolutionary psychology.
An interesting and important theory of evolutionary psychology is ‘punctuated equilibrium’. Punctuated equilibrium suggests that evolutionary change occurs through long periods of stability, occasionally interrupted by brief periods of significant change. The most evident example is that of the dinosaurs. Their existence, which lasted over 100 million years, came to a rapid and drastic end.
The economy, technology and society also seem to develop in this way. Conventional thought is that humans first existed as hunter-gatherer communities, with definitive punctuation points being the changes from hunter-gathering to agricultural societies, and then from agriculture to the industrial society of modern life.
The point is that the conditions in which we live have changed dramatically from those that our primitive ancestors lived in and have done so very rapidly. The problem is, we as humans have not. Genetic evolution cannot keep up with the changes in society.
The hunter-gathering period lasted nearly 200,000 years – by far enough time for natural selection to occur. In this period, those traits that were most useful to survival of the hunter-gatherers were passed on by their possessors, whilst those that were not useful died out.
However, in the last 7,000 years we have undergone two punctuating periods, to agricultural and then to industrialised society most recently. This is not enough time for the necessary genetic evolution to take place. We are therefore left with and burdened by our primitive genes. As you can imagine, beneficial traits in hunter-gatherer societies are very different to those we consider useful today.
One example of such traits is the dominance of emotion over reason, highlighted by Richard Koch in his book, ‘The 80/20 Principle and 92 Other Powerful Laws of Nature’. Though there are other damaging traits that we have inherited – risk aversion, panic when under threat and predictably primitive behaviour – the dominance of emotion over reason is the one I would like to focus on. (I would highly recommend reading his book if you are interested!)
This dominance of emotion over reason stems from the fact that instinctive behaviour was essential to survival 200,000 years ago. The threat of wild animals in stone-age life meant that appraisal of many situations had to be immediate – and our immediate response is always emotional. As Daniel Kahneman highlights in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, our fast thinking system – system 1 – is intuitive, emotional and irrational.
Those without this ability would not survive in hunter-gatherer societies, meaning that the genes for rapid emotional appraisal prevailed.
And today we react the same way. We make rapid judgements with no rational thought; we believe we are right about something without the full details; we decide if we like someone within minutes, even seconds, of meeting them. We have not changed, but society has.
This affects many aspects of modern life, such as our moral belief, our legal and justice systems and our economic decisions.
With regard to moral belief, we often decide whether something is right or wrong on a purely emotional basis. This is a view accepted by intuitionists. We use our emotional response to decide whether something is right or not, then we attempt to justify it using rational thought. As an example – and I am not saying that this is right – if I told you that two step-siblings with no blood relations were getting married, you would likely judge it to be wrong within a couple of seconds. In those first few seconds, you most likely failed to produce a rational explanation for why you thought it was wrong.
What this means is that our moral judgements are often (but not always!) flawed – we should take the time to rationalise about what is and isn’t right before making a judgement.
2. Justice and Legal
The number of black people, particularly in America, that are shot by police completely outweighs the number of white people. It is our primitive, emotion-driven instincts combined with unjustified racial stereotypes that cause this. Police – consciously or not – perceive situations involving black youths as more threatening than those with white people, and respond in typically primitive fashion, just as the hunter would respond to a mammoth. Their emotional inclination is often to shoot. This leads to an incredible number of unjust arrests and killings by police of predominantly black individuals
The dominance of emotion over reason has severe, often fatal, consequences for the justice of our legal systems. If we cannot voluntarily change our genetic disposition for emotional responses – some research suggests we can – we must change racial prejudices. Police must see black youths the same way hunter-gatherers saw members of their community, rather than as mammoths or bears.
Lastly, our personal economic decisions are impaired by emotional influence. The go to example for this is that of Beats and Bose headphones. Bose headphones are objectively better. But Beats headphones are far more popular. Why? Because effective marketing from Beats has built an emotional connection between consumers and the product. Our rational self chooses Bose, but our emotional self so often prevails and chooses Beats. This is just one example. Many brands, whether intentionally or not, appeal to our stone-age emotion, and we fall for it more often than not.
Escaping our instinctive emotional response can, therefore, lead to better economic decisions and greater consumer satisfaction.
As a concluding remark, I would like to encourage you to continuously challenge your emotional instincts. It may be the case that they are often consistent with calculated rationalisation – but I question whether all of your intuitions will be accurate and justifiable.
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