evolution evolutionary psychology psychology video

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?


evolution evolutionary psychology psychology video

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.


evolution evolutionary psychology psychology seminars tutorial video

Selection pressures 2

Our series on evolutionary psychology continues with the basic ‘nuts and bolts’ of natural selection and its impact upon speciation, survival and behaviour (flight, hiding, sexual attraction etc). This necessarily brief overview sets the scene for the rather more complex work on evolved psychology to come. These selection pressures have been the drivers that led our species to become fully human and to develop the enigmatic set of behaviours and attitudes we call ‘human nature’.

evolution evolutionary psychology psychology seminars tutorial video

Selection pressures part 1

What do we mean by ‘selection pressure’? Doesn’t evolution just happen anyway?

evolution evolutionary psychology psychology video

Hard-wired 6: Why is anything hard-wired at all?

Back into the routine with the mental health YouTube channel. Here’s the latest instalment of the evolutionary psychology series

evolution evolutionary psychology psychology video

Evolutionary psychology: The naturalistic and agency fallacies

Just because the theory of evolution by natural selection explains how we got to be the way we are, there’s no reason to imagine it can tell us how we ought to behave. There’s no particular goal-direction for the human or any species inherent in evolution. Nor is there any master plan pointing us toward perfection. Nobody is in charge and no great plan exists in a realm beyond.

Natural selection is a non-conscious, automatic mechanism that determines how likely individuals are to get their genetic material, their DNA into the next generation. That’s it. The fact that certain individuals with specific adaptations and attributes survive whilst others die off may provide the illusion of a plan, even of design but don’t be fooled.

Natural selection isn’t random because it follows some simple principles and it does so consistently. But those principles weren’t designed either. They just are.

evolution evolutionary psychology mental health psychology tutorial video

Evolutionary psychology video playlist

Here you will find my developing video playlist on evolutionary psychology. It’s a long term project. Enjoy.

mental health video

Hatred: A burden too great to bear

When we hate we damage our own mental health. We subject ourselves to anger, resentment and frustration. When we hate because of irrational prejudices like racism or religious discrimination we find ourselves worn out by self-censorship as we try to deny the reality in front of our eyes.

Why do it to yourself?

mental health social care

Privileged glimpses 10: Sympathy isn’t usually helpful

This series of blog posts first appeared a few years ago on a now defunct blog called ‘Care Training’. It was inspired by the training maxim of ‘making the unconscious conscious’. It is intended to take what really ought to be the most basic principles of health and social care and put them down on paper. The series isn’t only an exercise in stating the obvious though whatever the title might suggest. It’s actually intended as a philosophical foundation manual for workers and informal carers to help them get their care ‘on track’ and then to keep it that way.

I spoke with a colleague recently about a difficult situation she had to deal with at home. It doesn’t matter what the situation was. It’s enough to say that this lady considered that she was being treated unfairly and unreasonably by a family member. So far as I could tell (having heard only one side of the story) I’m inclined to agree.

The temptation was to sympathise with her. That often feels like the most human, most compassionate response to another person in distress. It’s how we show that we care, how we demonstrate understanding and, perhaps most importantly, it maintains rapport. When we sympathise with people we usually find ourselves ‘on their wavelength’ and that feels good.

Unfortunately though, however good it may feel sympathy is far from positive. In reality it’s usually very destructive. Here’s why….

When I sympathise with you I’m really telling you what you already want to hear. I’m reaffirming what you already think:

Sympathy empathy“Yes it is awful and you’re quite right to feel that bad about it.”

Sympathy locks us into the same emotions and beliefs as the other person and that’s not a good place to be. I can’t help you to move on and solve problems if I’m wearing the same emotional blinkers as you.

Of course, it is true that people really do have a right to feel bad when things don’t turn out as they would like them to. But it is also true that you don’t have to feel bad as well. You’re not obliged to join in.

If you resist the urge to sympathise you can keep a clear head without risking being drawn into the ‘doom and gloom’ thinking of the other person. This means that you will be free to explore other explanations and solutions. You can problem-solve and you can encourage others to do the same.

Sympathy acknowledges that people are right to feel bad and that traps them:

“Oh poor you. I’d feel awful if that happened to me.”

Empathy is a much, much more helpful proposition. Empathy acknowledges that people have a right to feel as badly as they want to but then it asks:

“But why would you want to?”

Empathy acknowledges and validates problems and emotions but then moves on to find solutions. Sympathy merely validates distress but offers no help to overcome it. In fact sympathy risks prolonging distress.

Don’t ‘do sympathy’.’ Do empathy’ instead.


mental health social care

Privileged glimpses 9: Lapse is different from relapse

This series of blog posts first appeared a few years ago on a now defunct blog called ‘Care Training’. It was inspired by the training maxim of ‘making the unconscious conscious’. It is intended to take what really ought to be the most basic principles of health and social care and put them down on paper. The series isn’t only an exercise in stating the obvious though whatever the title might suggest. It’s actually intended as a philosophical foundation manual for workers and informal carers to help them get their care ‘on track’ and then to keep it that way.

A good friend of mine began attending a well known self-help group for problem drinking a few years ago. I’m happy to say that he didn’t attend for very long, partly because he found himself far from convinced about the group’s ‘message’.

He’d been having a difficult time at work and briefly retreated into alcohol as a way of coping. It wasn’t the best tactic he could have chosen by any means and it did start to cause more problems than it solved. It was a response to stress and like many such coping strategies it made him feel better in the short term but only served to exacerbate his troubles in the long term. But it was still a coping mechanism, however self-defeating it may have been over time.

The self-help group he attended took a very simplistic, almost religiose stance. All alcohol was bad, or so they told him and even a single drink would automatically put him right back to square one. They wanted him to believe that he had a permanent, unresolvable problem that could be managed with total abstinence but never ‘cured’.

According to my friend, we’ll call him Tom, the other members of the group accepted this idea uncritically. Presumably that was because those who didn’t accept it left the organisation, as did Tom after a few months. But he did stay around long enough to notice something very interesting.

As the pressures at work lessened he found himself able to drink in moderation once again. He reverted back to previous levels of alcohol use – social and quite infrequent. He stopped getting drunk and found himself quite able to ‘take it or leave it’ as the occasion required. However the other members of the group, those who believed the ‘one drink and you’re back where you began’ mantra didn’t seem able to do that.

During Tom’s time in the group he witnessed a small number of others ‘fall off the wagon’. They too had intended to have only a couple of drinks but they seemingly were unable to do so.

Lapse isnt relapse

Tom realised that their belief prevented them from controlling their alcohol use. They thought that they must keep drinking after their first little tipple and so didn’t attempt to do otherwise. They defined a single drink as impossible to achieve and nobody tries very hard to do what they think is impossible.

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy

Had those people been able to acknowledge the possibility of ‘lapse’, a single event, they might have stopped at a single drink but since they believed only in relapse or abstinence they couldn’t.

So it’s important that those of us who work in mental health and/or addiction services understand that success in any endeavour (not just in overcoming substance related problems) depends upon both achievements and lapses into previous ways of coping. The lapses are a vital part of the process because, as we saw in a previous entry, it’s how we learn. It is neither necessary nor desirable to convince people that they’ve failed when all they’ve really done is stumble a little along their path to success.

Lapse is different from relapse


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