Category Archives: evolutionary psychology

Hard-wired 17a: Coincidence and irrational humanity

In terms of the psychological spandrels we discussed earlier, the tendency to make ‘false positive’ (type 1) errors is an evolved characteristic. Paranoia, pattern-seeking and agency-detection may well be the by-products.

So we assume that things are related to each other
Further we assume that they’re deliberately caused by some thinking intelligence – an agent.

This leads us to take offence that nobody meant.
This leads us to make up agents like Karma, God, ghosts or the universe.
This leads us to define places, people and events as lucky, unlucky or even cursed.

In short – this makes us all irrational and basically unfit to leave the house without adult supervision – except that we ARE the adults.

Scary, isn’t it?

 

Hard-wired 17: Bias and the evolutionary ‘spandrel’

In this video we’ll consider three of the most widespread (and misleading) of our evolved mental modules. We’ll look at ‘selective abstraction‘, ‘arbitrary inference’ and ‘confirmation bias’. Each of these is related in its own way to pattern recognition as described in part 16.

What’s most interesting from an evolutionary perspective is that these three aspects of human psychology, although universal, may not be advantageous in themselves. They may, in fact, be no more than evolutionary by products of pattern recognition.

There are many examples of by products, both physical and psychological. Certain genes seem to confer a variety of traits as though some evolutionary advantages cannot exist without other less positive or neutral correlates. The trade off between sickle cell anaemia and protection from malaria discussed in part 9 is an excellent example. Evolution isn’t perfect and so neither is the human body – or the human mind.

Sometimes these extra ‘add on’ characteristics can fool us. They look like the evolved characteristic that was favoured by natural selection but they’re not – they’re just the baggage that comes along with it. They’re what Stephen Jay Gould described as evolutionary ‘spandrels’.

Hardwired 16: Pattern recognition

It’s not hard to see why this obsession with patterns prevailed in the ancestral environment. The early hunter-gatherer who learned to recognise the association between plants and water would have a distinct advantage over those who didn’t. The homo erectus who understood that birds falling silent is often part of a pattern involving dangerous predators would certainly have the edge. So our species evolved pattern recognition as a very effective survival strategy. It’s true that this sort of inference (the assumption of danger) can lead to over caution on occasion but that probably wasn’t such a bad thing in the circumstances.

But that’s not the whole story. The human obsession with patterns and sequences also leads us to imagine patterns in the things we see and hear from faces in clouds (or even wallpaper and embers) to words and phrases in the wind. And the patterns we identify are often far from real. So we get spooked by shadows and led astray by random events that seem to come in order.

Believing nonsense (the illusion of pattern)

So humans kid themselves into believing in nonsense like astrology and bizarre ‘medical’ treatments. We become convinced that bad things come in threes or that because two unpleasant things have happened already this morning we’re in for ‘one of those days’. We see patterns everywhere. What’s worse – once we hit upon a ‘pattern’ (real or imagined) other processes known as ‘selective abstraction’ and ‘confirmation bias’ tend to keep us convinced that we’re right. We’ll cover confirmation bias and selective abstraction later. For now it’s enough to know that both of these mental modules serve to persuade us that we’re right and to resist self doubt.

This process of imagining patterns, confirmation bias and stubbornness can have extremely unfortunate results. It leaves us open to persuasion. That’s why the most skilled and influential political speakers give three illustrations of their most important points? They know that three is the magic number to create the illusion of a pattern and that once established in the mind of the listener that illusion will be hard to break.

Human gullibility

The truth is that our species’ love of patterns, our obsession with trying to place everything around us into recognisable, pre-existing categories makes us extremely vulnerable.

This is the aspect of our evolved psychology, perhaps more than any other that makes us gullible and easy to manipulate. It leads to superstition and the prevalence of people who’d never dream of playing an important sporting match without their ‘lucky’ cricket box or without reciting their favourite pre-match prayer. It’s why the actor John Wayne always insisted on carrying the same ‘six-shooter’ in every Western. He’d created an assumption of cause and effect that had nothing to do with reality.

It’s also why the primitive cause and effect assumption of tribal weather Gods eventually merged into a single deity called Jahweh and ultimately morphed into the three modern versions of the God of Abraham (see The evolution of God by Robert Wright).

The illusion of control

This obsession with patterns and ‘lucky’ ritual has led to self-important, metaphysical or religious rituals from the repetitive behaviours of obsessive-compulsive disorders to the ‘hail Mary’ of Roman Catholicism, the ingestion of ‘transubstantiated’ flesh in Holy Communion and the masochism of the flagelant. In each case the assumption is the same:

If I get the ritual right I (or God/the universe) can influence the world, the weather, other people or whatever to behave as I would like them to.

It’s also why gamblers kid themselves that the next random throw of the dice is ‘due’ to fall on a 6 or why their lottery numbers are bound to come up soon. It’s because of an entirely baseless assumption that essentially random events follow patterns that exist only in the human mind.

 

Hard wired 15: The unthinking mental module

It’s easy to understand how humans and other species evolved physical characteristics as a result of adaptation and natural selection. Helpful variations confer their advantages down through the generations whilst less helpful variations die out. So longer-legged (fast-running) wild horses outrun their predators but those with overly long legs suffer broken shafts and are eaten. The optimum leg length is maintained by natural selection. That’s straightforward enough.

But what about mental and behavioural evolution? Evolved psychological traits are a little harder to grasp. To make sense of this fascinating topic it’s helpful to begin by considering evolved animal behaviours…. animal instincts, in other words.

Animal instincts

The following examples of instincts from the animal world are directly analogous to human behaviours that are often described as ‘just human nature’:

  • Social (non reproductive), sexual behaviours (including promiscuous chimps and mutually masturbatory bonobos);
  • Protective behaviours from cats with kittens to soldier ants defending their nests;
  • Slave making behaviours such as ants carrying off pupae;
  • Parasitic behaviours such as cuckoos laying eggs in the nests of other species;
  • Flight distances that determine how close a gazelle will let the lion approach before it flees (abandoning its meal);
  • The Ichneumon wasp cruelly ‘sacrificing’ caterpillars of other species so that its own young can thrive.

It’s unlikely that all these creatures are fully aware of the implications of their actions – they act unconsciously and with sometimes ruthless efficiency. That’s instinct.

Homo sapiens shares these same instincts, often with just as little awareness of their true motivation.

These instincts – these ‘mental modules’ , are just as influential for our physical behaviours (homemaking, status-seeking) as they are for our psychological behaviours (paranoia, pattern-seeking, deference to authority).

Robert Wright’s acclaimed book The moral animal provides an accessible and detailed account of mental modules, using the life of Charles Darwin himself to illustrate the point. I won’t do the book justice here (I’ve read it twice so far and I still haven’t taken it all in). But I will try to give an outline. Here’s just one example…

Loyalty

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Most people like the idea of loyalty – in fact they value it. Governments and religions, businesses and family groups alike consider it a great virtue. And yet even a moment of thought shows that in truth, loyalty is far from a universal virtue in the modern world and may actually be better thought of as a vice.

Why loyalty is a vice

People generally behave differently toward members of their own group than toward others. This is loyalty. So freemasons will favour other freemasons when seeking employees and racists give preference to strangers of their particular skin colour even though they know absolutely nothing more about them than. It doesn’t take much to realise just how unfair and unethical these sorts of distinctions, these group loyalties are. These are the more obvious of loyalty’s problems. There are other, less obvious but equally damaging examples too.

image Imagine a support worker who sees a visitor beating a vulnerable care home resident with a stick. What should the support worker do?

The answer, of course, is obvious – he should report the assault in the knowledge that adult protection is his legal obligation. This would allow the law to step in, protect the victim and prosecute the abuser. There’s nothing very difficult about that.

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But what if the abuser was a friend and colleague? What if the abuser was the victim’s husband disciplining his wife in accordance with religious doctrine (a religion such as Islam, for example, which the support worker also followed)?

The law is still the same. The abuse is still the same but the loyalties will be different. And that’s where the problems begin.

Loyalty prevents us from doing what we believe to be right. When the support worker fails to report their colleague or fellow worshipper through loyalty they make continued abuse more likely. The same is true of ‘no grassing’ cultures where victims and bystanders alike are seen as disloyal to the group (think of schoolyards) or some vague notion of honour (think of adult crime). Loyalty that prevents reporting of offences is no more than an abusers’ charter.

And yet that’s the whole point of loyalty – to get people to bend or even break the rules. Without loyalty people are likely to do what they believe to be right. Loyalty simply interferes with right action. Far from being a virtue it is a major vice, a cause of great unfairness and superficial prejudice. So why do humans across the globe value it so highly?

Loyalty as a universal human trait (hard wired)

Remember our earlier discussion about the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA)? That’s the environment in which most of our species’ characteristics were developed in response to the prevailing selection pressures.

In that environment early humans (and their evolutionary predecessors) lived in small groups where survival. of every individual (and their genes) depended upon the survival of every other individual. They were truly interdependent in ways that modern humans generally can only imagine. In order to survive they had to help each other, ensure mutual co-operation and, if they came into contact with other human groups, make sure that their own kin didn’t lose out. The principle of loyalty was born.

The mental module of loyalty

We covered heuristics in an earlier post too. The mental shortcut that gets us to solve problems without having to think about them. Loyalty is an heuristic. It’s a mental module hardwired since the pleistocene that says

“Favour members of your own group”.

In the early days of human evolution that may have been a vital principle but today it’s just unfair and unethical. Nationalism, sexism, racism and a host of other ‘isms’ really just boil down to arbitrary loyalties based upon irrelevancies such as skin colour, religious cultural tradition and place of birth.

And now the good news

The universal nature of loyalty based cultures shows us that this particular mental module is hard wired. And yet many people have managed to get beyond these petty loyalties and act in accordance with their conscience instead. This must give us cause for optimism.

The fact that whistle-blowers exist and that most people have moved beyond racism shows that it is possible to overcome hard-wired mental modules. I suspect that greater understanding will go a long way toward this goal as we discover more and more about the various mental modules bequeathed to us by our earliest human and pre human ancestors. Knowledge is power. If we want to outgrow the primitive behaviour of Homo habilis we’ll do well to try to understand him/her first.

Is anxiety a choice?

Is anxiety a choice?

Is an anxiety disorder a choice?

Can a person choose not to be anxious?

Last night I had an interesting conversation with a stranger in the car park of my local supermarket. We’d exchanged a few pleasantries in the queue for the checkout – like me he refuses to use automated checkouts because, also like me, he’d much prefer that people keep their jobs.

We happened to have parked our cars next to each other on the way in and so the conversation continued in the car park, this time the subject was cars, driving and the rather nasty bump he’d had to the front of his vehicle. That conversation reminded me of today’s topic on anxiety.

Some time ago, one dark winter morning I found myself driving to work down unlit country roads in the rain. Visibility was poor and so I wasn’t going particularly fast which turned out to be a really good idea.

Also on the road on that dark, wet morning was a cyclist. A cyclist who was dressed in dark clothing with no lights and no helmet. To be honest I don’t even know how this guy might possibly have seen where he was going without lights – it really was that dark. However, presumably he could. I couldn’t see him though.

As I approached this invisible cyclist he pulled out into the middle of the road intending to turn right. You can guess what happened next. That’s why it’s such a good job I wasn’t going very fast. If I’d been driving at the legal speed limit instead of to the actual conditions I’d probably have killed him.

Fortunately, amazingly even he was OK apart from a few bruises. The ambulance came and took him to hospital where he was checked over. The police arrived and took my details, including my negative breath/alcohol test and I called in to work to explain that I wouldn’t be in that day. What happened next was revealing, especially about anxiety, phobias, avoidance and the ease with which normal freeze, flight or fight responses can become pathologies if we’re not careful.

My plan had been to return to work the following day. However within an hour or two of getting back to my accommodation I’d started to think. I actually believe that it would have been much easier to deal with the anxiety that followed if the accident had been my fault. If I’d done something wrong I could just decide to correct the flaw in my driving and make sure that nothing like this happened again. But that’s not what happened.

No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t think of any aspect of my driving that morning that I can change for the better. I hadn’t been drinking, I wasn’t going particularly fast, I was awake and alert, I was certainly concentrating due to the poor conditions, my car was in good condition and roadworthy and I was correctly positioned on the road. There was nothing I could think of to do that might prevent something like this happening again and if it does the next one might be fatal. That’s a really scary prospect.

It’s interesting that even though this is the first such accident I’ve had in over 30 years of driving all across UK, all that evidence of safe driving paled into insignificance against this one event. That’s because of a particular mental shortcut, an heuristic we know as the availability heuristic. I mentioned heuristics in an earlier video as part of my evolutionary psychology series. Click the link at the top of the screen for more information.

The availability heuristic is an evolved mental strategy that gives precedence to recent events. In a changing environment it’s useful – it allowed our ancestors to recall and give weight to the location of food, of predators and a whole host of other, changing environmental and behavioural artefacts. In the modern world it’s still extremely valuable but it has its drawbacks. One such drawback is the over-emphasis we give recent events. Here’s how it can turn useful anxiety into pathological disorders.

My emphasis on this single, recent memory caused me to work hard to find a way to avoid similar problems in the future. So far so good – we can all see the benefit of that. Unfortunately, the only thing I could come up with to avoid a repetition of this awful event is to stop driving. That’s rather less positive – especially in the light of the odds, bearing in mind my years, even decades of driving without hitting anyone, cyclist or not. But recent memories are the thing and that’s why I seriously considered not driving, giving up my job because I’d have no way to get to work without my car and I even spent time trying to rework my finances to allow me to retire early, all because I didn’t want to drive.

Now think about this. If I’d actually stopped driving that day what would my most recent driving memory be? Obviously it would be the traumatic memory of hitting, and initially thinking I’d seriously injured or even killed a cyclist. If that’s the result of the availability heuristic, the result of my most recent memory then my anxiety about driving will never dissipate. Not only that, the sense of fear I’d feel when contemplating driving, coupled with the relief I feel when deciding not to constantly reinforces the heuristic every time I think about getting back into the car.

Even though I know all this it took me three more days to pluck up the courage to drive my car again. I chose a quiet, sunny afternoon in broad daylight and drove around quiet country roads and literally had to force myself to turn the key and start the engine. That gave me a new memory but not enough to overcome the power of the traumatic heuristic. Powerful, traumatic memories take a lot of subsequent memories to take away the fear they generate. And the longer we avoid the issue the harder the trauma is to overcome. And that’s the point of this little video.

If you have an anxiety state that doesn’t seem rational, regardless of the emotion you feel, it’s important to ignore the emotion. Do this as soon as you can to build up new memories that can take advantage of the availability heuristic. That’s what people mean when they tell people to get back on the horse. Don’t let anxiety overcome rationality or you might find that your life choices become governed by fear to such an extent that avoidance shrinks your world, your opportunities and your options over time until there’s almost nothing left.

And it all begins when we give in to traumatic memories because of the availability heuristic.

Hard-wired 14: Why Freud was almost right

Although not a fan of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection (he was more influenced by the earlier, Lamarckian evolutionary theory), Sigmund Freud was very nearly right with his hypotheses around the unconscious mind. It’s hard to describe Freud’s ideas as theories because, unfalsifiable as they were, they cannot be tested and so can never become more than speculative hypotheses.

This is a shame. Even if incorrect, a testable hypothesis has the advantage of teaching us something by virtue of its ‘wrongness’. Unfalsifiable hypotheses like Freud’s can’t even make it to those, dizzyingly modest’ heights. Freud wasn’t just wrong – he wasn’t EVEN wrong.

And yet he was so close to being right.

It’s easy for me to snigger behind the great man’s back, especially so long after the poor pioneer’s death. But the fact is that, mistaken and unscientific though he was, without Freud we’d be nowhere near as advanced as we are today.

So despite all his problems, I say…

“Three cheers for Freud – the man who was almost right about our deepest psychological drives a century before anyone else had any clue at all.”

 

Hard-wired 13: Creationism? Bring it on!

I was recently challenged to a debate by a creationist who confidently informed me that evolution is a lie, even going so far as to ask me if I knew that it’s ‘only a theory’. Yes, I know – it’s hard to accept that in 2019 such a level of scientific illiteracy continues to plague our society.

Ultimately, this creationist appears to have bottled out of the debate he challenged me to so I though I’d make this little video instead. Creationists – please watch and learn. Trust me – you really do need to learn!

Unfortunately, when putting the above video together, late one night after a shift at work, I messed up. The diagrams I used to illustrate the fallacious Kalam cosmological argument didn’t make sense. So I made this shorter video to correct my mistake. Sorry about that.

 

 

 

Hard-wired 12: Know thy enemy

Nobody seriously can deny that our evolutionary journey, from the simplest chemical compounds to the complex organisms we know as Homo sapiens involved extreme callousness and even casual cruelty.

Survival of the fittest has never been noted for its compassion. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we must always remain slaves to ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. The selfishness of natural selection is not the model for a compassionate society.

As Richard Dawkins put it in his groundbreaking 1976 book The selfish gene:

“Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.“

To put it another way……

Know thy enemy!

Hard-wired 11: Heuristics – our evolved psychological shortcuts

Heuristics are the psychological shortcuts that keep us going in a complex world. They shorten decision-making time and allow us to function without constantly having to stop and think about our next course of action.

Hard wired 10: Evolution, human culture and the big brain

Evolutionary psychology as we shall see, is tightly bound up with culture. To understand the evolution of culture we need first to explain how we developed our big brain. Without increased brain power it’s unlikely that human culture would ever have developed beyond the level of modern chimpanzees.

Whilst there is good evidence that our species (& its forebears) evolved ever larger brains the question of why they did so is much harder to answer. We do know that it must have resulted from selection pressures and that the process involved pre-existing traits but that’s about all. So far as I can tell there is no definitive evidence to explain the exact process. However there are a number of possibilities.

The following is a ‘just so’ story. It’s not even the only such story that has been proposed. It is, however the one that seems most plausible to me. It’s a speculative explanation for the currently known facts. Those facts undoubtedly will be added to as time goes on. As our understanding increases our explanations will improve. That’s the scientific process. We haven’t reached the end of our journey of discovery. After all, it is only 2019.

What is culture?

In this context ‘culture’ means shared beliefs, rituals, understandings and explanations. That’s not rocket science. It would be hard to imagine any sizeable human group that didn’t have at least some cultural traits. The real question isn’t why humans developed culture but why (and how) our ancestors evolved the ability to do so in the first place. It seems that many changes were necessary to make human culture possible:

Selection pressures and adaptations

  • Habitat changed (our ancestors became increasingly well adapted for life in the open and less well adapted for life among the trees;
  • Brain volume increased significantly;
  • Technology developed and changed (from basic ‘processed’ tools such as flint spear points and arrowheads to axes, jewellery and even boats);
  • Hunting changed (there is evidence of much larger game animals being butchered as the species evolved).

These things must have resulted from selection pressures favouring individuals best suited to cope with change. Collectively they represented significant advantages to those individuals who possessed even some, if not all of the necessary adaptations. The gene pool was changing.

It seems to me (at least at this early stage of my studies) that the most important selection pressures were:

  • Group size;
  • Communication and language needs;
  • Need for larger amounts of food;
  • Need for cooperation to sustain large groups;
  • Need for co-operation to ensure the survival of larger groups;
  • Need to develop shared ‘memes’ to facilitate cooperation;
  • Need to develop explanations to foster group cohesion (and ‘out-group’ alienation).

Many of the ‘mental modules’ we’ll discuss later in the series are refined versions of adaptations resulting from these very pressures.

Existing traits available for natural selection via directional and sexual adaptative pressures seem likely to have included…

Rudimentary communication via mating ‘songs’ & dance

Studies of our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos show a tendency to communicate via a range of sounds and gestures – especially during courtship. Gibbons which pair for life advertise their relationships to others via song and studies have shown that they also have different calls (rudimentary language) representing different kinds of threat.

All these things represent viable precursors of language. Assuming, as seems likely, that similair abilities were present in our early hominim ancestors, we have the raw material for natural selection to work with.

But there’s a problem. For sophisticated language to develop the animal would need a big brain. However to build a big brain the animal needs plentiful protein. Obtaining plentiful protein requires effective, co-operative hunting of big game. Co-operative hunting of big game requires communication which requires a big brain. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Catch 22!

This was a major quandary for evolutionists for many years. It seemed as though big brain development was impossible and yet it happened. We have the fossils to prove it. What we didn’t have was an explanation. But now we have….

Theory of mind

Cooperation requires ‘Theory of mind’. That means an awareness of self and of others. It also requires an understanding that others may see things differently from ourselves. Without these two insights teamwork (and effective, cooperative big game hunting) would’ve been impossible for humans. And yet for years it was believed that no other primate species exhibited even rudimentary theory of mind. Until…………..…..

Co-operation and empathy

Another set of primate studies revealed not only significant theory of mind but also remarkable co-operation, especially related to aggression, dominant coalition and access to ‘mating rights’. Not only that, studies involving bonobos demonstrate significant empathy – another major requirement for the development of culture as we humans would recognise it. Once again we see the rudiments of another of the elements needed for big brain and cultural development. We can assume that our pre-human ancestors possessed the same rudimentary characteristics before the big brain developed.

So how might these elements come together? The process isn’t quite so complicated as it first appears.

As our ancestors left the forests and ventured out into the grasslands the need for effective warning systems became pressing. Natural selection (predation) favoured the best communicators creating a directional pressure toward more and more sophisticated language.

Improved language facilitates cooperation (largely based upon shared ‘memes’ or ‘explanations of the world’) which in turn facilitates more effective hunting.

More effective hunting meant more protein which allowed better brain development leading to even better communication.

Dependency and parental investment

The mechanics of childbirth provided a new problem for the evolving apes. Bipedalism (walking upright) was necessary for survival out of the woodlands but it meant a narrow birth canal. That means that bipedal hominims need to be born before their brains are fully developed. Otherwise their heads will be too large for the birthing process. This results in extended periods of helplessness for newborns (a characteristic that exists in humans to this day). This creates a serious selection pressure. Only those babies that are well looked after survive.

This explains why, compared with most other primates, human males invest far more of their time, energy and resources in providing for and nurturing their young. Chimpanzee males, our closest relatives typically don’t even know which offspring are theirs. Human males generally do – and they participate. We are a ‘High Male Parental Investment’ (MPI) species.

The extended helplessness of human infants created a significant selection pressure. Empathic and co-operative males provided the best nutrition and protection. Females that selected effective providers and nurturers as mates were most likely to see their young make it to maturity and produce offspring of their own. Their genes will survive.

Consequently males and females are subject to directional and sexual selective pressure favouring empathy, high parental investment and cooperation. This selection pressure (over many generations) imbued our ancestors with the ingredients for social culture and the means to fuel a big brain. The big brain in turn built upon these qualities to facilitate even greater technologies, communication and social interaction. This remarkable combination of selection pressures and adaptations allowed our species to develop, step by step from small bands of hunter gatherers into the large societies with sophisticated cultures that we know today