What's the Root Cause of Many of the World's Problems?

We didn't evolve to live in such a complicated world. This is a big problem.

Posted Sep 04, 2020

Note: This is the fourth blog in a series about how our views of truth and reality contribute to some of the problems we experience as individuals and as a society. I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world! Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive these problems in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

JJ Gouin/iStock
Source: JJ Gouin/iStock

As discussed in my previous blog, we often perceive the world to be more negative than it is as part of a negativity bias. This bias manifests us to be hyper-vigilant to potential threats because this helped our ancestors survive. This is why, even stretching back to the beginning of civilization, it always feels like it's the end of the world as we know it. 

On its own, our negativity bias is not a bad thing. The way that natural selection works, it was necessary for a negativity bias to distort the way in which our ancestors saw the world for them to survive as a species. As cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman describes in The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes, fitness beats reality. That is, survival is more important than the truth, so, through natural selection, perceptual distortions of reality naturally emerge when it helps the organism survive and reproduce.

Thank goodness our hominid ancestors distorted reality because otherwise, we wouldn't be here! But as we look back at history and see the problems of war, genocides, religious persecution, slavery, misogyny, oppression, and so on, it has often been a rough road indeed! While we have made much progress over time, many of these same problems persist to this day. Ironically, part of our suffering that we have experienced and continue to experience is a by-product of the evolution that got us here in the first place. How is this so?

The Explanatory Power of Evolutionary Mismatch

Our highly evolved brains have helped us to master fire, invent the wheel, and to develop language, writing, agriculture, intricate social structures, monetary and political systems, vaccines, plumbing, computers, smartphones, blogging for Psychology Today, and so on. Yet, herein lies a big part of our problem. Our evolved brains have allowed us to escape the simplicity of the hunter-gatherer environments from which they originated. This very progress has left the door open for problems to creep in because we cannot easily escape our evolutionary heritage.

The legacy of our hunter-gatherer brains and bodies lives on in us. Biological evolution cannot keep pace with cultural and technological evolution. The problems caused by the discrepancies between our ancestral and modern living environments is known as an evolutionary mismatch. Simply put, we did not evolve to live in the world in which we now live. While we are adaptive creatures, we cannot so easily liberate ourselves from the adaptations that evolved over the millennia to help our ancestors survive in a world that is very discrepant from our own. In a manner of speaking, we perceive the modern world through ancient eyes.

Oh, What a (Wicked) World!

An evolutionary mismatch does not, of course, explain all of the world's problems. The world is extremely complicated, and we can't point to a single cause to the myriad of problems in life. Strangely enough, this tendency to search for simple answers to complex problems can be viewed as another manifestation of evolutionary mismatch.

We are drawn toward more concrete answers because our ancestors evolved in a world in which more short-term, casual thinking was adaptive. That's primarily the type of thinking that our ancestors needed for survival. Find food, water, shelter, a mate, and stay alive. Life was so simple in those “good old days!”

A way of looking at the difficult challenges in this modern world comes from the work of Dr. Robin Hogarth and his colleagues. In their research, they proposed that there are kind and wicked learning environments. Importantly, "kind" does not mean "good," and "wicked" does not mean "evil" in this context. Rather, kind learning environments are simple, straight-forward cause-and-effect relationships—if I do this, then that will happen. Feedback in these kind learning environments is quick and accurate. Hunting and gathering food were conducted by our ancestors in kind learning environments.  

In contrast, wicked learning environments are complicated ones. Cause-and-effect relationships are hard to see, and predictions are difficult to make. Feedback is infrequent, inconsistent, and often delayed in time. Moreover, in wicked learning environments, the feedback can be mismatched with the outcomes. This can result in us learning the wrong lessons.

The Evolution of a Quandary

Our magnificent brains evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to solve problems and challenges to increase our survival in a kind but often brutal world. Our ancestors didn’t have to wrestle with wicked problems, such as geopolitical instability, improving the quality of national health care systems, the impact of lifestyle decisions on the environment over time, saving for retirement, managing global pandemics, determining the most equitable and functional taxation system, and resolving international trade disputes. Our brains evolved to help us to adapt, survive, and pass on our genes. They’ve succeeded at this, in part, through the creation of these wicked learning environments (e.g., political and monetary systems) that are very discrepant from our evolutionary origins. Paradoxically, these wicked learning environments are filled with complicated problems that can confound our poor noggins.

 "And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore.” —The Grinch, From the Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Our Biases in a Wicked World

Psychologists have identified scores of cognitive biases that affect our perceptions and judgments. From one perspective, these biases distort reality, but they do this (largely) because fitness beats reality. They are an unconscious way of reducing complexity in decision-making that is rooted in our ancestral, kind learning environments. Cognitive biases exist because they serve fitness (survival) over reality. They are like mental shortcuts that allow an organism to make decisions more quickly to navigate potentially life-or-death situations. 

Yet, because the modern world is so wickedly complicated and mismatched with that of our ancestors, cognitive biases contribute to some troublesome problems. It is as if our brains are trying to solve the challenges of wicked learning environments with the same cognitive biases that helped our ancestors survive. 

This begs the question: What was most critical for our survival as a species in our ancestral world? The answer is one another. Our ancestors were able to evolve because they learned how to work together in groups. A strong tribal community meant survival. A contentious, dysfunctional tribe, or a life in isolation, meant death. 

The problem is that our ancestors evolved in tribes of 100-150 people. In our wickedly complex world, we are still "wired" to be tribal, but our modern world is so vastly different from those small, nomadic hunter-gatherer groups. This big evolutionary mismatch is the root of some major problems we are seeing in America and across the world now. Much of the hatred, the vitriol, the polarization, and the "us vs. them" mentality in our politics is an outgrowth of mismatched tribalism. 

"A house divided against itself will not stand." —Jesus, Matthew 12:25 of the New Testament

When it comes down to it, tribalism trumps reality. This is not a "left" or "right" problem. It is a human problem. Importantly, we need to transcend the toxic levels of political division, or we will suffer even more of the painful consequences. I will tackle this in my next series of blogs, so please join me!