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The Evolutionary Psychology of Politics

Our minds did not evolve to deal with large-scale politics

  • When I hear that a nation halfway across the globe has adopted laws to reduce freedom of expression, I shake my head.  
  • When I find that that a state in my own nation is trying to limit some kind of rights based on sexual orientation, I get mad.
  • When a political problem erupts within my family system or at work, I might lose sleep.

In many ways, political situations get worse as they strike closer to home.

One of the core ideas that underlies evolutionary psychology is the idea of “evolutionary mismatch” (see Geher, 2014). This is basically the idea that the human mind evolved for generations under conditions that were, in many ways, very different from modern contexts. And when humans run into situations that are very discrepant from our “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (i.e., the EEA), we are often not well-equipped to deal with them.

A classic example of such mismatch is found in our desire for high-fat and sugary foods. Under ancestral conditions, during the lion’s share of human evolution, everyone was a nomad – and there was no agriculture of livestock. And droughts and concomitant famines were common. Under such conditions, a desire or preference for high-fat and sugary foods was adaptive, as such preferences led people to put much-needed fat on one’s bones in anticipation of the next drought. Nowadays, high-fat and sugary foods are produced by humans in outlandish quantities and this stuff is cheap and highly accessible. This is why many westernized societies have such major issues with obesity and Type-II diabetes.

Modern Politics Conceptualized in Terms of Evolutionary Mismatch

Food production is not the only way that modern life differs from the conditions of our ancestors. There are, in fact, many socially relevant mismatches that similarly typify our modern worlds.

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar (1992) has provided evidence that our neocortex evolved to be able to accommodate information on about 150 people at a time. And this fact makes sense as ancestral human groups that were nomadic in nature rarely exceeded 150. A straightforward implication of this finding is this: Human minds did not evolve to deal with the large-scale social worlds of today.

In a recent study that was just published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, summarizing work by my research team (the SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab),  data are presented on how well people are able to cognitively process information related to large-scale versus small-scale politics. In this study, 49 college students read definitions and examples of large and small-scale politics. Large-scale politics were defined as political situations dealing with states, nations, or international conflict while small-scale politics were defined as the kinds of politics that our ancient ancestors might have run into, such as conflict within one’s family or localized social group.

Participants were asked to write paragraphs describing four different kinds of political situations, as follows:

  • situations that were large-scale and not self-relevant
  • situations that were  large-scale and self-relevant
  • situations that were small-scale and not self-relevant
  • situations that were small-scale and self-relevant

Our research team used a “writing sample analyzer” to assess the nature of the writing used for these different kinds of tasks. The writing-sample analyzer provided quantitative information on such characteristics as the number of words used, number of sentences used, readability, and the grade level (e.g., 6th-grade level) that the writing was pitched at.

As we document in detail in the Results section of the paper, we found that writing samples designed for large-scale political situations had more sentences and were less readable than those designed for small-scale situations – and writing samples designed for small-scale (especially self-relevant) situations were written with the most fluidity. People seem to have a much easier time writing and, thus, thinking about small-scale political situations compared with large-scale political situations. Our interpretation of the data is straightforward: The human mind did not evolve to take large-scale political situations into account as there were no large-scale politics that even existed for the lion’s share of human evolutionary history.

A Mind for Localized Politics: Bottom Line

The human mind evolved for conditions that are, in many ways, very different from modern conditions. The modern world has such evolutionarily unnatural features as Taco Bell, Cosmopolitan magazine, cocaine, and socially defined groups that number into the millions. Modern politics often revolves around such large-scale social groups. One reason that modern politics often leads to epic failure is the fact that under ancestral conditions, political situations never addressed issues that pertained to more than 150 or so at a time.

The evolutionary psychological perspective has proven to have significant implications for such fields as education (see Gray, 2011), physical health (see Kruger & Nesse, 2006), mental health (see Glass, 2012), and other facets of life that underlie the human condition. Based on the recent research on the evolutionary psychology of politics described here, I’d say that the fields of political science and international relations would be wise to start seriously applying the work of evolutionary psychology.*

To understand any facet of being human, you need to understand why a human exists in the first place. The evolutionary perspective provides a framework for such understanding.

References and Additional Information

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.

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

Geher, G., Carmen, R., Guitar, A., Gangemi, B., Sancak Aydin, G., and Shimkus, A. (2015) The evolutionary psychology of small-scale versus large-scale politics: Ancestral conditions did not include large-scale politics. European Journal of Social Psychology, doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2158. 

Glass, D. J. (2012). Evolutionary clinical psychology, broadly construed: Perspectives on obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 6(3), 292-307.

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.

*Note that my evolutionist colleague and fellow Psychology Today blogger, Gregg Murray (Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences), is already working hard on the issue of integrating an evolutionary perspective into the field of political science.