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Who Really Likes Evolutionary Psychology?

A particular characteristic predicts endorsement of a controversial theory.

Key points

  • Evolutionary psychology represents a controversial approach, particularly in the domain of human mating preferences.
  • Individuals who appear to be privileged by the approach might be those most likely to endorse it.
  • Physically attractive individuals may be more likely to view evolutionary psychology favorably, new research suggests.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

When I was an undergraduate biology major, I had the opportunity to pursue an independent study with Professor E.O. Wilson, reviewing some of the contemporary literature on sociobiology, a field he helped to popularize. Sociobiology investigates the biological bases of social behaviors in various animals, including humans. When I entered graduate school to study social psychology, I was struck by the strong opposition from some individuals to the predictions of what was called evolutionary psychology, a close relative of sociobiology.

As biological creatures, our physical traits have been shaped by the forces of natural selection, but what about our social behaviors? There are, of course, no behavioral fossils, at least not in the same way that changes in physical characteristics leave lingering clues in sedimentary rock as to their ancient origins. So when evolutionary psychologists suggest that social behaviors may be rooted in our genetics, the case is going to be a hard sell. Ironically, as my colleague Barry Schwartz has pointed out, perhaps no domain of human behavior is more controversially linked to adaptive forces by evolutionary psychologists than human mating behavior, even though such behavior would appear to be at the root of the evolutionary imperative to reproduce one’s genes.

Aside from the methodological difficulty of establishing definitive causal links between adaptive pressures and behavior (granting agencies are unlikely to wait for the outcome of a planned 300,000-year experiment), evolutionary psychologists have faced opposition from those who argue that behaviors supposedly attributable to biological forces are, in actuality, the result of cultural and societal constraints. Where evolutionary psychologists might argue that, in heterosexual pair bonds, females seek males with cues to resource acquisition so as to ensure survival of the offspring, cultural critics might argue that that same pattern reflects the result of oppression of females, and thus denial of personal resources to them, throughout the ages. Where males’ purported tendency to place more emphasis on physical attractiveness than do females in selecting a mate can be explained in evolutionary terms as a search for cues to reproductive fitness (Buss, 1989), socio-cultural critics might argue instead that markers of attractiveness represent traits best suited for the restrictive occupational roles that females have been historically permitted to play (Eagly & Wood, 1999).

In teaching evolutionary psychology principles, I have observed the same distaste among many undergraduates that I had experienced from individuals in graduate school. This response coming from people who all (or nearly all) subscribe to the validity of biological evolution as an organizing principle of life on the planet. Such a dissociation suggested an interesting paradox: Might people who believe fully in biological evolution show a greater tendency to reject basic tenets of evolutionary psychology than do folks who do not believe in biological evolution but are willing to endorse what sound like stereotypical behaviors of men vs. women?

Working with Barry Schwartz and Matthew Wallaert, that is exactly what we found (Ward et al., 2011). In two survey studies, our college student sample overwhelmingly endorsed the notion that human beings evolved from earlier species, but those same supporters were relatively lukewarm in their endorsement of items suggesting that men more than women value physical attractiveness in a mate, whereas women more than man value good financial prospects in a mate (i.e., basic predictions from evolutionary psychology). By contrast, community members who indicated a lack of support for the idea that humans evolved from earlier species were actually more likely than our college sample to endorse the accuracy of the evolutionary psychological items. This difference between groups held (though in a somewhat reduced form) even when it was made clear to all that the behavioral items were derived from the “theory of evolution.”

If there is such opposition to evolutionary psychology among many individuals in academia, might there nevertheless be exceptions? One possibility came to mind. Maybe people who stand to benefit from the predictions of the theory are the same people who might endorse it. After all, we’ve known in psychology for a long time that, at least in other domains, individuals with, say, certain political stances are more likely to endorse evidence that supports rather than refutes their position (Lord et al., 1979; see also Kunda, 1990).

Perhaps the same would hold in the domain of evolutionary psychology. Maybe women who are physically attractive and men who hold substantial resources would look more favorably on a theory that appears to privilege those characteristics. Working with Tammy English and Mark Chin, in research just published, we investigated that possibility (Ward et al., 2021). Because our participant population, all undergraduates, was unlikely to personally control substantial fortunes (or even vary all that much in family wealth, given the time and place in which we conducted our research), we chose to focus on physical attractiveness as the trait that might be associated with greater endorsement of evolutionary psychology.

In our first study, after expressing their views regarding a basic summary of evolutionary psychology provided to them—one that emphasized that men value physical attractiveness in a mate whereas women value resources in a mate—participants were asked to consent to be videotaped. We then asked two coders, blind to the hypothesis of the study, to view the tapes and rate the attractiveness of the respondents.

What we found was a positive correlation (r = .31) between the rated physical attractiveness of the participants and their support for evolutionary psychology. Interestingly, we did not find a difference between female and male participants in their endorsement tendencies, even though the materials only suggested the value of physical attractiveness in female, not male, mates.

Why no sex difference? First, it might be the case that physically attractive men are more likely to mate with physically attractive women (i.e., a version of the “matching hypothesis”; Walster et al., 1966) and thus also endorse a theory that privileges female attractiveness. It’s also possible that a theory that reduces people to physical traits appeals to members of either sex who possess those traits.

Of course, these findings are correlational and thus subject to the standard limitation involving some other variable that might be influencing both physical attractiveness and endorsement of evolutionary psychology. In the same study, we measured additional variables (political affiliation; height and weight; family income) and found no association linking any of them to ratings of evolutionary psychology, but naturally other unmeasured possibilities remain.

Accordingly, we decided to run an experiment in which we would manipulate physical attractiveness to investigate a possible causal link with ratings of evolutionary psychology. Not having access to sophisticated “morphing” software to, for example, alter photographs, our approach was decidedly low-tech. In the control condition, we simply asked each participant to indicate how a “typical observer would rate your physical appearance”; in the experimental condition, we preceded that request with an instruction to “Think of a time when you looked your absolute best.” That proved to be a very powerful manipulation, resulting in dramatic differences in participants’ self-rated attractiveness between the two conditions.

And the manipulation was successful, too, in altering endorsement of evolutionary psychology. Although a smaller effect than documented in Study 1, participants randomly assigned to indicate their own attractiveness to others when they “looked their best” rated our summary of evolutionary psychology significantly more favorably than did those assigned to the control group. By contrast, the two groups did not differ in political orientation or self-esteem, two other variables we also measured in this study.

Granted, there was still the possibility that permitting participants to express an enhanced sense of attractiveness might translate into greater endorsement of any controversial theory. Accordingly, in a subsequent study, we again employed (successfully) our attractiveness manipulation and asked participants to weigh in on two other contentious approaches in psychology, namely Freudian psychoanalysis and a critique of the connection between psychological states and biological causes. Neither approach was especially favored by those in our enhanced attractiveness condition, suggesting that the manipulation did not render just any concept in psychology more acceptable.

In sum, it appears that, at least among our participant sample, greater physical beauty is indeed associated with greater endorsement of specific principles of evolutionary psychology. Whether that counts as good news or not for those who espouse such theories is a question best left to the intuition of the reader.