- Humans tend to have dominance hierarchies that emerge in many group contexts.
- A person can control their behavior with free will, but evolutionary forces also influence this.
- Negative emotions are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.
Life is hard. You already knew that, I'm guessing. But life is not impossible. And life is wonderful—ultimately. But, still, it is hard—and evolutionary psychology can help us understand why.
Evolutionary psychology (see Geher, 2014) is an approach to understanding human psychological processes and behavior that sees humans as an important part of the natural world—and sees our psychological systems as shaped by evolutionary forces across deep time. For the lion's share of evolutionary history, humans lived in nomadic groups (of approximately 150 individuals—including both kin and non-kin). Exercise was essential every day. Famine was common. Premature mortality was common. Disease and death from predation were parts of everyday life. Life has always been hard for our kind. Always.
And no matter how cushy your life may be in some ways today, life is still hard for our kind. Below are five reasons that you may find daily life challenging—as understood by evolutionary psychology:
5. You've got a selfish streak in you.
From the evolutionary perspective, organisms that passed the test of natural selection are those that had ancestors with qualities that facilitated their own survival and reproduction. To a large extent, all organisms evolved with a suite of physical and behavioral qualities that primarily benefit themselves. This is why you are motivated to eat when you are hungry—this basic drive benefits you and helps you survive. Hunger is a basic adaptation that works similarly in all of us. Our psychology includes a host of processes and drives such as hunger that primarily benefit us.
Our ancestors who took care of themselves were more likely than others to become ancestors. To some extent, all basic survival adaptations can be seen as the biological foundations of a selfish approach to life. And if you're reading this, then you, like me and like everyone else, have a host of such evolved features that serve to primarily benefit you. This is a good thing because this is how organisms come to exist. But it comes with a cost—we've all got a splash of selfishness built into all aspects of our evolved psychology. So you've got a good bit of selfishness in you—like it or not—and this fact is true about everyone you know as well.
And this fact makes life hard.
4. We are all hypocrites.
No one likes to be called a hypocrite. It's an insult—in all contexts. It's like being told, "You stink! You did X but you said Y and we all saw it. Ha-ha—we got you!" But as Kurzban (2011) famously pointed out, we've all got the tendency in us to be hypocritical. It's not like there are the bad people in the world—the hypocrites—and then the good ones, who are never at all hypocritical. That's not at all how things work.
Hypocrisy is a complex phenomenon often characterized by a person experiencing X in one brain system and Y in another brain system. Once you've reached a certain point in life, you've got plenty of things in your brain that are inconsistent with other things in there—that's just how it is!
And this fact makes life hard.
3. Free will is a sort of wishful thinking—there are enormously powerful factors beyond it that affect all human behavior.
We love to believe in free will—and I'd say it's important to do so in our daily lives. We need a concept of free will to hold others and ourselves accountable. But scientific psychology is all about the documentation of factors that govern behavior—beyond simply free will. The evolutionary psychological perspective suggests dozens of causes of everyday behaviors that are beyond just free will. For instance, if a supervisor at work hires his nephew instead of another more qualified candidate, he partly chose that outcome—but he also may unconsciously be demonstrating kin-selected altruism or the tendency to over-benefit kin in decisions. He may have convinced himself that his nephew really was the best—in spite of other evidence. This kind of thing happens all the time. In Little League, coaches' kids often get great field positions and nice places in the batting order. And few coaches would admit that they are engaging in unconsciously determined and evolutionarily-shaped nepotism. You control your behavior—but only to a point—and there are lots of evolved forces at work that control your behavior along with whatever free will you've got.
And this makes life hard.
2. We are all emotional.
Emotions have their upsides and their downsides. Some days, wouldn't it be great to just be Mr. Spock? But you're probably not a Vulcan. You've got a human emotion system—like it or not. Since Darwin's (1872) famous treatise on the evolutionary nature of emotions across species (including our own), scholars have been able to conceptualize human emotions as: (a) deeply rooted in our evolved past (with roots that precede the evolution of primates), and (b) as having important adaptive functions. Consider anxiety: I'm guessing that you don't love feeling anxious. But anxiety exists in our species because it is so darn adaptive. Anxiety motivates people to get themselves out of dangerous situations. For example, if you're hiking and you almost slip and almost fall off a cliff, you might feel anxious. And that anxiety will keep you away from the edge of the cliff moving forward. Negative emotions are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past—like it or not.
And, yes, they make life hard.
1. It's not always easy to get along.
Wouldn't it be peachy if everyone always got along in all groups? That would be great. But did you ever notice that this is not how things go? There are tons of reasons based on human evolution that account for this fact: In each group, each individual has his or her own interests at stake—and these only align partly with the interests of the broader group or the interests of others within the group. This goes back to people all having a splash of selfishness embedded in them. Further, like many species, humans tend to have dominance hierarchies that emerge in many group contexts. So just like in a pack of dogs, people in a group will work to reach the top of the totem pole—often stepping on the backs of others to get there—and often trying to bring down those above them. Is this good or bad? Often, it's simply our evolved nature.
And this too makes life hard.
I've dedicated much of my career to better understanding human nature and life from an evolutionary perspective. The evolutionary perspective helps us see why there is, in Darwin's (1859) words, "grandeur in... life"— but it also provides insights into why life is not always easy. If you are like me, then you often wonder why people aren't generally really happy — after all, we have cars, TVs, smartphones, pets, and endless supplies of food. Shouldn't life just be happy for everyone? In reality, regardless of what you've got and who you are, life is hard—not impossible—but hard. And the evolutionary perspective helps us understand why.
Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.). London: John Murray.
Darwin, C. R. 1872. The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray.
Kurzban, R. (2011). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.