Appendix – Evolutionary Psychology: Essential Concepts
This branch of psychology examines mental functions from the perspective of human and animal survival. All organisms since the earth was formed survived and reproduced by adapting to the conditions around them. This is called natural selection. Those that could not leave viable offspring became extinct. Homo sapiens ultimately descends from single-cell organisms and a long line of intermediate animals. For survival, physical functions, as well as adapted behaviours, were necessary.
The behaviours of organisms evolved to adapt to the environments where they lived. Thus memory, motivation, social interactions, or personality features can be examined from the perspective of their utility for survival in humans and non-human animals (Tooby and Cosmides 1996; Buss 2016). The aim is to understand the processes that designed the human mind in order to resolve issues that are not easily explainable as independent phenomena (Piha 2018). Hypotheses informed by evolution can be tested (Durante and Griskevicius 2016).
Many behavioural adaptations probably developed in the Palaeolithic era, when humans were hunters and gatherers (about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago; also called sometimes “stone age”). They experienced include nomadic, kin-based lifestyle in small groups, long life and low fertility for mammals, long female pregnancy and lactation, cooperative hunting and aggression, tool use, and the sexual division of labour. They also dealt with predators and prey, food acquisition and sharing, mate choice, child-rearing, interpersonal aggression, interpersonal assistance, diseases and a host of other fairly predictable challenges that constituted significant selection pressures. Successful behavioural adaptations arose over millennia of pressures, for example, to hunt large and dangerous animals.
The individuals carrying the most successful adaptations reproduced and left offspring that were more likely to display the traits that favoured survival. The advent of sexual reproduction facilitated the exchange of genes for survival in more challenging environments, so sexual selection has been a powerful selection force. The organisms able to mate with individuals possessing traits that favoured survival could have offspring that survived in subsequent generations. Genes carry DNA codes that influence various traits, so evolutionary psychology takes the “gene’s eye view”. If you were a gene what would you do to survive? In some respects, genes are agnostic. There seems to be no forward-thinking or general plan for better-adapted animals. The only criterion that matters is offspring survival to adulthood and reproduction.
Natural and sexual selection are not the only ways genes change. Chance variations over time (called genetic drift) also produce genetic expressions that may be harmful, harmless, or neutral. Some traits are merely “carried along” by an adaptive trait. Some are merely consequences of behaviours, such as the existence of belly buttons. Also, a trait can evolve because it served one particular function, but subsequently, it may come to serve another (exaptation). One example would be reading in humans, which uses circuits specialized for face recognition and the detection of small objects. It is often difficult to determine which behaviours are a direct outcome of evolutionary forces and which ones are carried along.
Survival strategies are manifest in all organisms. Even relatively simple organisms have the means to sense the environment and take action, avoiding harmful events and maximizing feeding. Nervous systems and hormonal molecules have generated mechanisms such as sensory and motor systems, memory and emotions, and motivation. And many animals found it advantageous to live in groups, such as bacterial colonies. The biological basis of behaviours is not always obvious, but existing research confirms many biological links.
Nevertheless, behaviours are not “hardwired” or genetically determined in a straightforward way. Multiple genes, as well as epigenetic mechanisms, typically affect behaviours. Humans are born with nervous systems that are malleable, and they become adapted to the environments they live in. And in various times of history, humans have encountered different cultures and technologies and adapted to those. Cultures also depend on human capabilities, so the possibilities are not infinite. Our behavioural systems today appear to function in ways that are quite different from those of 3000 years ago, but genes change slowly. People can only use capabilities whose essential features exist. For example, humans do not automatically use brainwaves to control equipment, though many people seem capable of learning this skill. And it is unlikely that the population can be trained to move large items from a distance, fly, or see behind walls.
In brief, the following are some evolutionary psychology concepts that seem relevant to internet phenomena.
Inclusive fitness is a concept which implies that people may support the offspring of relatives who carry their genes (Hamilton 1964). To avoid incest and expect support, humans (and many animals) privilege their closest relatives and give them much care (Trivers 1971). Evocations of brotherhood, kindred, lineage, or close communal links may increase care and support. One example is the many internet searches for long-lost relatives, genealogy, surnames, and genetic testing.
Unlike most animals, human males care for their offspring and defend them. To maximize their reproductive chances, they use complex long- and short-term mating strategies (Buss 2016). The typical female oestrus cycle of the animals was replaced by a hidden menstrual cycle, making it hard for men to detect fertility. Complex mating strategies ensued from this phenomenon, including a demand for fidelity, female coyness, and mutual attempts at deception.
One important strategy concerns the features of women who are to raise men’s children. Men are primarily interested in young women, whose reproductive life is long (Artfolk 2017). The appearance of youth, therefore, has become a primary concern of women. Selfies attest to an interest in looking thin, to the point of digital manipulation. The desire for youth may be one reason for the emergence of child pornography.
Men must entice the most suitable women with resources suggesting the ability to support the young. They must also be considered worthy comrades. Important to male support strategy is the acquisition of resources and power that they then use to signal competence to women who need childbearing support and to attract male followers. One consequence is a tendency for males to be selfish and acquire power. Internet entrepreneurs and leaders have been almost exclusively male and have, among others, focused on power acquisition through users’ data.
Humans have a mild degree of polygyny; women are about 18% smaller than men, and this dimorphism helps men prevail violently when opportunities arise. Women have had to adapt to abuse, while at the same time seeking strong males who will protect their families. Polygyny means that women must fight other women over men’s resources. This puzzling phenomenon seems to be reflected in workplaces and in social media, where women tend to forgive straying men and attack other women.
Perhaps more than other mammals, humans have survived in communities. Groups were small, about 40–150 individuals, judging from contemporary hunter-gatherers. Arguably, people are unprepared to process the features of 1500 Facebook “friends”.
Hunter-gatherer groups had a division of labour where women were occupied with child-rearing and gathering plants. Men hunted in male-only groups for animals that provided protein. Therefore, men have a bias towards single-gender groups.
Communal living in a precarious era seems to have given rise to multiple cognitive rules. To survive in groups of people who are not close relatives, humans follow a social contract among their members, delineating benefits and obligations on the basis of reciprocal altruism. People who coexist in communities are bound by social contracts, that is rules of cooperation for mutual benefit (Cosmides and Tooby 1992).
The collaboration between individuals tries following a tit-for-tat rule. Members must contribute as well as benefit. To ensure wise management of scarce resources, humans (and some primates) have developed abilities to spot and punish free-riders and cheats. In fact, a morality system ingrained in humans has developed for this purpose. The punishment or detection of deviants is regulated by social contracts. Revenge against violators causes pleasure. When social contracts do not exist, the punishment may be excessive (Cosmides and Tooby 1992).
Status is a powerful social force among animals and also humans. Skilful Palaeolithic hunters, stronger individuals, and those protected by more aggressive people left more offspring (Buss 2016). In principle, its role should be reduced in the modern era, but from a very early age, children seem attuned to status displays around them (Benenson 2014). Status seems to be established relatively quickly in schools and also in online groups. Men and women vie for status given their different roles, and marketers of various types take advantage of this desire. In an online environment, personal impressions are missing, but confident written expressions may serve to establish expertise, even when it does not exist (Locke and Anderson 2015).
Bullying seems to constitute efforts to increase status. It implies the use of superior strength and perception of greater benefits from a status increase. Higher status seems linked to credibility; that is, people may believe those who display indicators of high statuses, such as self-confidence and a number of allies. Women are often bullied online by both sexes, and much distress results from such events, particularly among adolescents.
Humans are also only one of two species that attack individuals of the same species. Thus, men have been embroiled in wars in just about every generation (Wrangham and Peterson 1996). Men seem specialized for fighting with their hands (Hare and Simmons 2019). One prominent feature of male attacks is the abduction of women, who will bear and raise the next generation. This feature has profound implications for sexual selection. Men fight with each other for the right to mate with women. Women vie and compete with other women for the attention of strong men who can protect and feed their children. One problem with this strategy is an increasing level of violence with subsequent generations, as women bear “sexy sons”.
One consequence of male alliances towards hunting or abducting women is a rejection of women in their groups. They are less fit for battle, and they are certainly not interested in abducting more women. The male tendency for single-gender groups has been the exclusion of women from technological positions, as well as elaborate explanations about women being unfit for technology (as presented by a Google employee in 2017) (CBS News 2017). Sexual assaults and harassment may also be expressions of this ancestral feature.
Male fighting has had multiple effects in history. Men rely on others to follow orders, so they seem able to abide by strict hierarchies. Wars and conflict engender efforts to overcome the opponent, thus creating technological progress. Men compete among themselves and tend to be prejudiced towards men of other groups. But they also create alliances, a concept that is called “cooperative competitiveness” (Buss 2016; Benenson 2014). Men’s ability to form alliances towards a greater goal is evident in the development of hardware and software, as well as in the advertisement alliances that collect and apply people’s data.
Evidence for some of these traits comes from young children. Young boys show the signs of aggression and war-related play that parents may have never taught them (Benenson 2014). This may be one reason for the tendency towards motor expertise through videogames and the desire for multi-player videogames. Research also shows that strong men are less interested in equity (Price et al. 2017). Thus, groups of young males may espouse totalitarian political beliefs, and they may have increased aggressive displays as a result of violent media exposure.
The strategy for winning wars often leads to the use of deceptive tactics. Both genders use deception, but men are more likely than women to engage in various practices, and testosterone levels seem related to this propensity (Lee et al. 2015; Stanton 2017). The incidence of theft and deception that has prevailed on the internet that was to be open and egalitarian suggests trends that are not random. In effect, hacking is modern warfare. The strategies combine technical and psychological behaviours. They may hark to the role of testosterone, which increases the opportunity to trick people. The players on both sides find it stimulating, and two sides are needed for cooperative competitiveness. Evidence suggests that the male-only groups that created and promoted the internet treated its many challenges in terms of war-like offence and defence. Much of the terminology, such as “killer apps”, attests to the male propensity for aggression.
Communal living and the decision mechanisms about it have big implications individuals inhabiting the internet. Like many animals, humans do not think alone about complex issues. Knowledge is distributed in a community, and it may be transmitted within a group through majority-biased learning (Sloman and Fernbach 2017). In fact, education is one strategy to disseminate community-based knowledge in an organized manner. One implication of communal knowledge is a tendency to believe what the majority says rather than doubt it. As mentioned above, our decisions are influenced by the number and status of people who have various opinions. Our brain collects statistics about these events. For people to understand a statement, they must have an initial belief about it. Understanding is believing (Gilbert et al. 1993). People may read or hear something, and then refute it through critical thinking. This feature creates a bias in favour of stated beliefs and gives an advantage to advertisers. Corporations create social illusions to manipulate the digital currency, which signals value to users. One means is fake accounts and images created to give the impression that many people support a certain position.
Social media heavily invest in the concepts of social contracts and reciprocal altruism (Trivers 1971; altruism consists of helping others at a cost to ourselves). Companies goad users to reply to messages and ensure that responses by default are open, enabling others to exert social control over this essential moral function. A user who refuses could be labelled a violator. But this requires a personal investment. By responding to comments, sending “liking” comments; one becomes a slave to the system and spends many hours creating content for advertising companies. People may feel good; certain brain areas are linked to social exchanges and linkage to the limbic system results in dopamine release (Purves et al. 2012). However, many interactions are generated by computers. Humans have had no relevant evolutionary pressures in distinguishing humans from software messages.
One important feature and community-based manipulation involves the “fear of missing out”. People seem unwilling to be left alone, perhaps as an adaptation from millennia of community survival. Social media show friends engaged in interesting activities or purchases and websites emphasize that users must participate in order to keep up. Conformism is another important feature used, particularly when information is limited. Women seem particularly prone to conformity (Pearson 1982; Nagle et al. 2014). And the current status of the internet, with written messages coming from unknown parties, seems to be a fruitful environment for this phenomenon. Marketing and news websites show the numbers of people who share or respond to certain messages, though the veracity of the numbers is uncertain. Social herding is expected, that is users are to follow the hints of others in opinions or in marketing.
Scarcity was a reality in the era before abundant food and basic infrastructure. Animals are set up to eat however much they can when they find food. The threat of scarcity, therefore, seems to be a powerful carry over into the modern era. Corporations market merchandise by evoking scarcity; “buy while supplies last”, buy today. Evidence points towards a neural network that governs social interactions, and it’s heavily linked to the mesolimbic dopamine pathway and therefore excitement and emotional centres (Supekar et al. 2018). Therefore, positive and negative interactions are rewarding. People find opportunities to improve status by humiliating others, such as taking compromising pictures and posting them online. These variables are not conscious, so people cannot easily say what they are doing and why. It may just seem “fun”.
Humans learn a great deal from their companions. Children are able to imitate extensively, and there is a dedicated neurological circuitry for observational learning (e.g. mirror neurons; Rizzolatti et al. 2002). This suggests that they are likely to imitate high-status people similar to them. Aggressive and emotional expressions are sometimes beyond people’s control, particularly when they have been trained from childhood by violent media.
One of the many applications for this pertains to “internet influencers”, people who have large numbers of followers. Also, YouTube, owned by Google, is a prime medium for performance-related displays and seems to have become an important conservative recruitment strategy. As with all advertisers, viewers are encouraged to keep watching as long as possible, and people are drawn to content that is more extreme than their original position. So a business practice may be responsible for increasing the worldwide incidence of extreme views (Tufekci 2018).
The challenges among groups of males result in technological progress. Little by little over the millennia, humans have overcome the ancestral living conditions. We now live in warm housing, we are safe from predators, we have organized education, and have optimized food sources. Thus, the inherited aspects of our mental apparatus interact with the environment in new ways that are only partly explored. Clearly, humans have not been subjected to aeons of natural selection for many features that are now common in our lives (Machin and Fisher 2015).
What helped survival and reproduction million years ago does not make for suitable behaviour in the twenty-first century (Harrari 2018; Kool and Agrawal 2016). People over the millennia interacted with others in person, rather than, say, as disembodied voices. They can detect deception in face-to-face interactions (ten Brinke et al. 2016), but not online. Also, the ancestral environment did not include pressures to distinguish between real and fake people. Accordingly, people cannot identify fake photos reliably (Nightingale et al. 2017). In person, people are often able to detect lying or duplicity, but they tend to believe statements seen in writing. Furthermore, people tend to conform when they are unsure of their role (Cialdini et al. 1990). Thus, they may become liable to suggestions. When a piece of software asks to fill out surveys or accept an invitation, it is difficult to conceive that there is no human behind the screen. Genetic linkages of traits in conjunction with new environments open a raft of possibilities that have not been encountered before. Clearly, the biological roots of behaviour are only partly understood, and new explanations are not always easy. Furthermore, humans display a lot of variability in their traits. But the uniformity of some behaviours like taking selfies (Diefenbach et al. 2017) shows the utility of exploring evolution in hopes of improving quality of life under these new circumstances.