Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits – such as memory, perception, or language – as adaptations, i.e., as the functional products of natural selection.

Table Of Contents

What Is Evolutionary Psychology?

Evolutionary psychology is a strategy of studying psychology that applies principles of evolutionary biology along with the logic of adaptationism. Thus, leading to derive and test hypotheses about the design and operation of the human mind. Mind Journal explains, ”evolutionary psychology is the study of human behavior, thought, and feeling as observed through the lens of evolutionary biology”. Since it is an approach, it can be implemented in an array of content areas within the field of psychology, such as –

  • Developmental psychology
  • Clinical psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Perception
  • Judgment
  • Language
  • Decision making
  • Others

Evolutionary psychology originates from the idea that the root of organized functional complexity observed in all living organisms is evolution by natural selection. It proposes that human personalities and individual differences have evolved to provide us with some form of adaptive advantage in regards to survival and reproduction. This perspective is characterized as an evolutionary psychology perspective, which is based on biological evolutionary theory. Combining the science of psychology with the study of biology, evolutionary psychologists consider that all human behaviors exhibit the influence of physical and psychological predispositions that helped human ancestors to survive and reproduce. In the evolutionary view, any animal’s brain and body are composed of mechanisms intended to work together to facilitate success within the environments that were commonly encountered by that animal’s ancestors.

5 Principles Of Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a well-defined field of study and research. It is based on fundamental foundations that have emerged and continued to guide new studies. There are five basic principles 1 of evolutionary psychology which are as follows.

  1. The human brain is a physical system that directs individuals to behave in a manner appropriate and adaptive to the environment.
  2. The neural circuitry of the human brain helps one solve problems in an appropriate manner. The specific way of construction of neural circuitry was directed by natural selection, over the course of generations.
  3. Most human psychological behaviors are determined subconsciously by one’s neural circuitry and one is largely unaware of these subconscious processes. Humans rely on conscious decision-making to guide themselves in their daily life. However, humans might be aware of the conclusions emerging from the complex neural circuitry, they still remain unaware of the underlying process involved.
  4. Neural circuits in the brain are trained to solve different adaptive problems. For example, the circuitry involved in vision is not the same for vomiting.
  5. The human mind is based on adaptive changes that originated in the Pleistocene era.

Evolutionary Psychology & Behavioral Skills

Evolutionary psychology demonstrates skills that one considers to be relatively simple and common to most humans, such as language. It is explained at the most basic level of this concept. At a given time in history, early man had acquired language skills beyond grunting and pointing. The ability to express complex thoughts became beneficial for human survival, and, as a result, language acquisition abilities grew and improved through the process of natural selection.

Advanced language skills contribute to a person’s safety, survival, and reproduction. Additionally, the language or languages one learns depends on the language spoken in his/her home and neighborhood, demonstrating the importance of cultural input.

Moral Psychology & Evolutionary Psychology

There are a few philosophers working on moral psychology who consider the topic to be empirically constrained. Philosophers make use of two main approaches to use empirical or practical results in moral psychology. One is to use practical results to criticize philosophical accounts of moral psychology and one is to generate hypotheses about human moral psychology. For individuals who think some (or all) of human moral psychology is based on innate capacities, evolutionary psychology is a good source of empirical results and empirically based theory. Our moral decisions are a product of domain specific psychological modules that are adaptations and arose in our hominid forebears in response to contingencies in our (mostly) social environments. This position is currently widely discussed by philosophers working in moral psychology.

According to a 2008 study, Cosmides (influential evolutionary psychologists) defended the hypothesis in evolutionary psychology that suggested that humans have a cheater-detection module. This module was hypothesized to carry vital components of human behavior in moral domains that ”fitted with the massively modular view of psychology in general”. Cosmides along with Tooby (influential evolutionary psychologists) had argued that cheating is the violation of a particular kind of conditional rule that goes along with a social contract. Social exchange is a system of interaction for mutual benefit and cheaters violate the social contract that administers social exchange. The cheater-detection module was designed to gather knowledge about the presence of cheaters in the social world. In fact, this module is an adaptation that arose in response to cheaters. The cheater-detection hypothesis has been the focus of intense critical discussion.

Theories Of Evolutionary Psychology

Sexual strategies theory and error management theory are the only two theories of evolutionary psychology that have received empirical support from dozens of independent researchers.

1. Sexual Strategies Theory

Sexual strategies theory is based on sexual selection theory. This theory of evolutionary psychology suggests that humans have developed a list of different mating strategies, both short-term and long-term. These vary depending on culture, social context, parental influence, and personal mate value. In its initial formulation, sexual strategies theory focused on the contrasting factors between men and women in mating preferences and strategies. It started by looking at the minimum parental investment needed to produce a child. For women, even the minimum investment is vital as after becoming pregnant, women have to carry the child for nine months inside them. For men, on the other hand, the minimum investment to produce the same child is considerably smaller, i.e., simply the act of sex. Since women carry the responsibility for pregnancy, they may use different sexual selection strategies than men do.

These variations in parental investment have an immense impact on sexual strategies. For a woman, the risk of choosing a poor mating partner is high. She might get pregnant with a man who may not help to support her and her children, or who might carry poor-quality genes. Thus, it is essential for women to make a wise mating decision. For men, on the other hand, the need to focus on making wise mating decisions isn’t as important as they don’t have to carry the child inside them. Additionally, they do not have a high cultural expectation to raise the child. This philosophy leads to a powerful set of predictions. In short-term mating, women will act choosier than men; while men, on average, will likely engage in more casual sexual activities. Owing to this, men sometimes deceive women about their long-term intentions for the benefit of short-term sex, and they are more likely to lower their mating standards for short-term mating situations.

According to a 2016 study 2 , sexual strategies theory (SST) asserts that humans have evolved a complex table of mating strategies, that some of these mating adaptations are bound to the temporal dimension of mating. While some mating adaptations are similar in women and men, some differ profoundly between the sexes. The study also states that previous theories typically declared singular mating purposes, such as a quest for similarity, a search for complementarity, or the desire for equity.

However, these theories had five major limitations that SST related to evolutionary psychology attempted to rectify:

  1. Each declared a single mating motive, presenting them to be extremely
  2. All failed to explain why humans would be triggered by the singular drives
  3. All failed to specify the domains or contexts in which
    people investigated similarity, complementarity, or equity, a degree of generality that prevented any domain-specific predictions
  4. All believed that mating psychology was identical for men and
    women, impeding any sex-differentiated predictions
  5. None specified functions, the adaptive problems solved by its central mating motive, thus separating mating psychology from any evolutionary anchoring

An extensive body of empirical evidence supports the theory and related predictions. These are as follows.

  • Men display a desire for a larger number of sex partners than women do.
  • They let less time pass before seeking sex while they are more willing to agree to sex with strangers.
  • Men require less emotional attachment with their sex partners.
  • They experience frequent sexual fantasies and fantasize about a larger variety of sex partners.
  • Men are more likely to repent of missed sexual opportunities.
  • Additionally, they lower their standards in short-term mating, thus, showing a willingness to mate with a larger variety of women as long as the costs and risks are low.

However, in situations where both the man and woman are interested in long-term mating, both sexes tend to invest extensively in the relationship and in their children. In these cases, the theory predicts that both sexes will act extremely choosy when pursuing a long-term mating strategy. Much empirical research supports this prediction, as well. In fact, the traits women and men generally look for when choosing long-term mates are very similar intelligence, kindness, understanding, loving, healthy, dependability, honest, loyal, and adaptability. Nevertheless, women and men still do differ in their preferences for a few key qualities in long-term mating as well. While modern women have inherited the evolutionary trait to desire mates who possess resources and are willing to share those resources with them, men desire youth and health in women, as both lead to fertility.

2. Error Management Theory

Yet another theory of evolutionary psychology, Error management theory 3 (EMT) deals with the evolution or development of how humans think, make decisions, and evaluate uncertain situations. In other words, EMT predicts that whenever an uncertain situation arises, humans will psychologically adapt to prefer choices that minimize the cost of errors. This theory of evolutionary psychology can be applied to many different areas of our lives. However, a specific example of it is the visual descent illusion. Have you ever imagined that there is no problem in jumping off of a ledge, however, as soon as you stood up there, it suddenly looked much higher than you thought? The visual descent illusion states that people will exaggerate the distance when looking down from a height, thus feeling wary of falling from great heights which could result in injury or death. Another example of EMT is the auditory looming bias where people overestimate how close objects are when the sound is moving toward them compared to when it is moving away from them.

EMT has also been used to predict adaptive biases in the domain of mating. For example, if we consider a smile, in one case, a smile from a potential mate may indicate sexual or romantic interest. On the other hand, it may just signal friendliness. Given the costs to men of missing out on chances for reproduction, EMT predicts that men have a sexual over perception bias. According to a study, men suffer from false-positive bias estimations in regards to women’s sexual interest. For an ancestral man, failing to recognize the sexual interest in a woman resulted in a missed reproductive opportunity. The opposite error (believing that a woman was interested when she was not) was perhaps a bit embarrassing but probably was less costly overall. Thus, error management theory predicts that natural selection created a preference in men toward slightly overestimating a woman’s sexual interest in order to reduce the likelihood of a missed sexual opportunity, which in turn, leads to modern men to “overperceive” women’s sexual interest. In laboratory studies of interactions between male and female strangers, men observing the interaction tend to infer greater flirtatiousness in the female than women viewing the interaction.

In terms of evolutionary psychology, men often misunderstand sexual interest coming from a woman, when really it’s just a friendly smile or touch. In the mating domain, the sexual over perception bias is one of the best-documented phenomena. EMT predicts that men, more than women, will over-infer sexual interest based on minimal signs, and empirical research confirms this adaptive mating bias.

Final Outlook

Evolutionary psychology is the approach that brings together the functional way of thinking about biological mechanisms such as the immune system into the field of psychology and approach psychological mechanisms in a similar way. Thus it deals with how evolution has shaped the mind and behavior. The human brain comprises many functional mechanisms, designed by the process of natural selection. This concept of evolutionary psychology has roots in cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology. Additionally, it is also closely linked to sociobiology. Thus, it’s important to consider how our evolutionary history has formed our automatic or “instinctual” desires and reflexes of today so that we can better shape them for the future ahead.

  1. Principles of evolutionary psychology. (n.d.). Human Genetics for the Social Sciences, 257-272. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781452229591.n16 []
  2. Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (2016). Sexual strategies theory. Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1-5. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1861-1 []
  3. Souve, S. N., & Camilleri, J. A. (2020). Error management theory. Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1-3. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2082-1 []
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