Why do people want what they want?
Posted March 14, 2010
Where do individual values and preferences come from? Why do people want what they want? What explains the origin of idiosyncratic individual preferences and values?
The problem of values – their origin and individual differences – is one of the unresolved theoretical questions in behavioral sciences. The economists’ traditional answer to the question of individual values and preferences is: De gustibus non est disputandum. There is no accounting for tastes, and one therefore cannot explain individuals’ idiosyncratic values and preferences.
I believe evolutionary psychology is key to uncovering the origin of individual preferences and values. The Savanna Principle states that the human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. The theory of the evolution of general intelligence suggests that general intelligence evolved as a domain-specific psychological adaptation to solve evolutionarily novel problems. Their logical conjunction suggests a qualification of the Savanna Principle and leads to a new hypothesis about individual preferences and values.
If general intelligence evolved to deal with evolutionarily novel problems, then the human brain’s difficulty in comprehending and dealing with evolutionarily novel entities and situations (proposed in the Savanna Principle) should interact with general intelligence, such that the Savanna Principle holds stronger among less intelligent individuals than among more intelligent individuals. More intelligent individuals should be better able to comprehend and deal with evolutionarily novel (but not evolutionarily familiar) entities and situations than less intelligent individuals.
Thus the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis (hereafter “The Hypothesis” in this blog) suggests that less intelligent individuals have greater difficulty than more intelligent people with comprehending and dealing with evolutionarily novel entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. In contrast, general intelligence does not affect individuals’ ability to comprehend and deal with evolutionarily familiar entities and situations that existed in the ancestral environment.
Evolutionarily novel entities that more intelligent individuals are better able to comprehend and deal with may include ideas and lifestyles, which form the basis of their preferences and values. It would be very difficult for individuals to prefer or value something that they cannot truly comprehend. So, applied to the domain of preferences and values, the Hypothesis suggests that more intelligent individuals are more likely than less intelligent individuals to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel preferences and values that did not exist in the ancestral environment and thus our ancestors did not have, but general intelligence has no effect on the acquisition and espousal of evolutionarily familiar preferences and values that existed in the ancestral environment.
In future posts, I will discuss some of the implications of the Hypothesis in different domains of life, and empirical evidence pertaining to them.