A while back, you may have run into EvoS Journal Editor Rosemarie Sokol  Chang’s recent research – blurbed all over the news, including WINS 1010 (one of NYC’s largest news radio stations), MSNBCReutersHuffington Post, and many many others. This thing nearly had the internet in fear of explosion.

The hoopla came over a very sharp piece published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology – a peer-reviewed article written by Dr. Chang (who teaches Psychology and Evolutionary Studies at SUNY New Paltz). The paper was co-authored with Nicholas Thompson who’s at the Psychology Department at Clark University.

In short, this research works so well because of its elegant simplicity. This research seeks to see how cognitively affected someone is by having to be exposed to constant whining. All participants either listened to a child whining (in a foreign language) or they listened to another noxious noise – such as a table saw in action (in another condition). Participants conducted a cognitive task when listening to the stimuli (simple subtraction problems). The main outcome variable here pertains to scores on this subtraction task – with the idea that if you were distracted, you would do worse on this simple cognitive task. When all the chips were counted at the end, this effect was most pronounced in the whining, non-English-Speaking version. Participants in the whining condition did the worst at subtraction.

Dr. Chang found that whining has a basic effect on human psychology. An important and provocative implication for everyday life is this: So much of what we do in our lives is probably (unwittingly) whatever we can do to stop the whining of others!

Whining likely evolved for a critical function – to ensure that the needs of the whining individual are met. This function is much like the adaptive function of crying in babies – noxious, but effective in ensuring that the baby gets basic things needed for its survival, such as food or a diaper change.

All things equal, the whiner gets the early bird, the first place in line, and the last creampuff in the box. And this tendency, mildly despicable as it is, is adaptive and it outcompetes non-whining strategies. If we had an island filled with three-year olds and we operationally defined the tendency to whine as an individual-differences variable – we could find that the whiners actually do alright for themselves (popularity aside!). Whining helps them get their way. Now think about the poor non-whiners! They don’t make much of a fuss, so they likely get some “nice kid” points (which do ultimately have Darwinian benefits), but they lose out on the essential survival needs like coconuts, optimal shelters, etc. You can easily see how whining would be differentially selected by nature.

When some people think of the attributes of an organism as differentially selected by nature, they think of evolution and everything makes sense! But, as we've shown in some of our work (e.g., Geher & Kaufman, 2013), some others hear the word “nature,” and they start to point an angry finger …

Think about the naturalistic fallacy – or the tendency to believe that just because some phenomenon is framed as “natural,” it is framed, concurrently, as “how things should be.” For instance, there is research showing that males are more likely to seek short-term partners than are females (see Buss & Schmitt, 1993). From their perspective, Buss and Schmitt are scientists – they are reporting data to help elucidate our understanding of a phenomenon (in this case, the nature of short-term mating).

Many scholars from outside EP, on the other hand, have accused this kind of research (by Buss and Schmitt, 1993) as conflating what is natural with what is good. The argument goes, essentially, “you are saying that male short-term sexuality is a natural part of our evolutionary heritage – thus, you are saying that it’s natural – and that it is something that people SHOULD do. You are using this evolutionary mumbojumbo to justify this horrible behavior on the part of men all over the world!”

Slippery slope. When looked at a certain way, I guess that studying something and describing it as “natural” almost might have this kind of “well then you should do that in your lifestyle” kind of thing – potentially. But it certainly need not be that way.

I don’t think that evolutionary psychologists who study short-term mating in males support or expect males in general to pursue short-term tactics. Rather, from a scientific perspective, the idea is simply that such behavior does exist – and it exists for clear evolutionarily informed reasons. This research simply is a description and explanation of this phenomenon – which is elucidated by evolutionary theory.

But in the literature, there is a huge back-and-forth with EPs saying “oh, they’re just making the naturalistic fallacy – ignore them” and folks outside EP saying “If they say that is how it is, and it’s part of our nature, then how we can stop it – and are evolutionary psychologists even suggesting that we do stop it – or are they promoting this horrible behavioral pattern?”

The naturalistic fallacy really sits at the center of much of the debate regarding EP (see myarticle from 2006 (“Evolutionary Psychology is Not Evil!” for development of this point).

It occurs to me that Dr. Chang’s whining research may shed light on this issue. In her research, Dr. Chang is arguing that whining is natural and has an evolutionary foundation in that it likely evolved to help facilitate needs of young humans.

I don’t think you’ll find a lot of evolutionary psychologists who read about Dr. Chang's research and then say “look – whining is natural! Hey, let’s as a society, increase the amount of whining!” or “We just need more whining!” or “Whining is natural – go ahead and whine!” or “You know, you really should get some of that whining out of your system!”

Rather, evolutionists are just like everyone else – they are just as annoyed by whines and they are unlikely to hold more positive attitudes about whines compared with attitudes held by the general population (and yes, this is a testable hypothesis here – if you’re looking for a thesis topic!).

As evolutionists have argued for years: Just because it’s natural, that doesn’t make it good! And I think whining is a great example of a phenomenon that is understood in adaptationtist terms, but is not exactly everyone’s favorite attribute. Thanks to Dr. Chang, we now better understand whining – this does not mean that we now love whining – there is a difference.

As an analog, consider the famous Stanford Prison research. When Phil Zimbardo conducted this research years ago, he found that highly traumatic responses among the participants were a natural outcome of being in jail-like conditions for an extended amount of time. This hardly made him think, then, that since this kind of outcome is natural as a response to certain conditions, it’s somehow good and that we should incarcerate more innocent college kids! In, fact he used the findings to argue much the opposite. In light of his findings, he fought for prison reform – not for status quo. Showing that something is natural does not mean that you have to then morally endorse it!

Saying something is natural is not the same as saying something is good! It is erroneous to commit the illogically conceived naturalistic fallacy – and you wouldn’t want to be erroneous, now, would you?

Here is a list of natural things that I personally think are bad:
Mosquitos, Poison Ivy, Deer Ticks, Lyme Disease, Tsunamis, war, cauliflower, and murder. And whining. Notice that we can, as evolutionists, believe that the items on this list are both natural and bad at the same time!

Seriously – we (evolutionary psychologists) don’t like whining – you have to believe us!

I ran this research by star NEEPSter Megan Geher (who also happens to be my daughter). She thought it was interesting – and is very happy for Dr. Chang with the major media blitz. And Megan offered a hypothesis that might be worth exploring in future work (if you’re a new graduate student looking for a topic, pay attention!). Simply, Megan said, “I bet screeching would make people do way worse on the task than whining. Screeching, now that’s annoying!”

Now there’s something to think about!

Thanks Dr. Chang for the deeply provocative and well-conducted research – and congrats on all the awesome media attention. Well-deserved.


Chang, R. S., & Thompson, N. S. (2011). Whines, cries, and motherese: Their relative power to distract. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, 5, 131-141.

Buss, D.M., & Schmitt, D.P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232.

Geher, G. (2006). Evolutionary psychology is not evil … and here’s why …Psihologijske Teme (Psychological Topics); Special Issue on Evolutionary Psychology, 15, 181-202.

Geher, G., & Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Mating intelligence unleashed: The role of the mind in sex, dating, and love. New York: Oxford University Press.

This post is cross-posted at my EvoS blog, Building Darwin's Bridge

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