What Is Evolutionary Psychology?

5 Foundational Concepts for Understanding Evolutionary Psychology

Posted Aug 18, 2015

Evolutionary psychology is a powerful approach to understanding human behavior and mental processes – leading to advancements in such important domains as education (see Gray, 2011), physical health (see Kruger & Nesse, 2006), and mental health (see Montgomery, 2010). As a passionate researcher in the field of evolutionary psychology (for example, see my brief textbook Evolutionary Psychology 101; Geher, 2014), I think it’s important for anyone interested in the behavioral sciences to have at least a basic understanding of this approach to psychology.

Below are five foundational concepts in the field of evolutionary psychology.

1. Natural Selection Applies to Behavior.

Observable qualities of organisms with some heritable component are “naturally selected” if they lead to probabilistic increases in survival or reproductive success of the organism. Behavioral patterns in humans, which are often partly heritable, may be naturally selected. Evolutionary psychologists, thus, often conceptualize behavioral patterns as qualities of humans that have the capacity to increase likelihood of survival and/or reproduction. Behavioral patterns that facilitate survival and/or reproduction may well be the result of natural selection.

2. The Importance of Human Universals.

Human universals play an important role in evolutionary psychology, as universals (such as fear of snakes that exists in multiple human populations, see Öhman, & Mineka, 2001) likely evolved as adaptations to help our ancestors survive and/or reproduce. Otherwise, these things wouldn’t be universal. So if some behavioral trait is universal across human populations, that’s a clue that it’s a product of basic evolutionary forces such as natural selection.  

3. Evolutionary Mismatch.

The lion’s share of human psychology evolved over eons in the African Savanna. And only recently (in evolutionary time) have humans lived in large-scale post-agricultural and post-industrial societies. Since organic evolutionary processes take a long time to effect change, our minds are actually better-suited to ancestral, pre-agricultural contexts than to modern contexts. Many features of modern living (e.g., the large-scale availability of processed foods or the fact that many people do not live near to extended family members) do not match our evolved psychology – and problems (such as physical or mental health issues) are often the result.  

4. Strategic Pluralism.

Human behavior is highly flexible, and many different behavioral strategies have evolved in our species across various psychological domains (see Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). For instance, under highly stable conditions, humans are more likely to pursue long-term mating strategies (such as monogamy) than they are under relatively unstable conditions (see Figueredo, 2005). The evolutionary psychological approach seeks to understand the nature of behavioral flexibility in terms of evolutionary principles.

5. Multiple Evolutionary Forces Underlie All Human Behavior.

Natural selection is but one evolutionary force that underlies human behavior. Darwin documented several other evolutionary forces, such as “sexual selection,” which exists when some trait increases the probability of reproductive success, often at a cost to likelihood of survival. Further, cultural forces have been shown to result from evolutionary processes – and such cultural evolution plays a significant role in shaping human behavior. Evolutionary psychologists consider the panoply of evolutionary forces that work together to produce behavioral outcomes.

Bottom Line

In much of his own research, Darwin laid the groundwork for modern evolutionary psychology. Armed with a clear understanding of Darwinian principles and modern statistical and research methodologies and technologies, modern evolutionary psychologists of today are helping realize Darwin’s vision of understanding the entirety of behavioral phenomena in terms of natural principles.


Figueredo, A. J., Vásquez, G., Brumbach, B. H., Sefcek, J. A., Kirsner, B. R., & Jacobs, W. J. (2005). The K-Factor: Individual differences in life history strategy. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(8), 1349–1360.

Gangestad, S.W., & Simpson, J. A. (2000). The evolution of human mating: Trade-offs and strategic pluralism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 573–644.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Gray, P. (2011). Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.

Kruger DJ, Nesse RM: An evolutionary life history understanding of sex differences in human mortality rates. Human Nature,74 (1): 74-97, 2006.

Montgomery, J. (2010). The Answer Model: A New Path to Healing. TAM Books.

Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108, 483-522.