How Evolutionary Psychology Explains Human Behavior

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Evolutionary psychology is a scientific discipline that approaches human behavior through a lens that incorporates the effects of evolution. It combines the science of psychology with the study of biology.

Evolutionary psychologists seek to explain people's emotions, thoughts, and responses based on Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution Through Natural Selection, similarly to how evolutionary biologists explain an organism's physical features.

Evolutionary Psychology Approach

Proponents of this psychological approach posit that as our ancestors confronted problems and developed ways of solving them, some had certain innate instincts and intelligence that gave them the ability to figure out and apply the most successful solutions.

In doing so, they gained advantages, such as better health or a longer lifespan, allowing them to produce more offspring through the process of natural selection. According to evolutionary psychology, our ancestors who had psychological advantages passed down these behavioral traits to future generations, resulting in a population of offspring that then had these adaptive behaviors.

Psychological abilities, such as reading others' intentions, making friends, and gaining trust, are known to help a person throughout life. Evolutionary psychologists believe that these skills are rooted in deeply complex neural circuits in the brain and that they are inherited.

These innate behavioral tendencies are often tempered by input from our culture, family, and individual factors, but the principle of evolutionary psychology is that the underlying neural mechanisms are shaped by evolutionary forces.

5 Principles of Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a well-defined discipline of study and research, with fundamental foundations that have developed and continue to guide new studies. There are five basic principles of evolutionary psychology:

  • Your brain is a physical system that instructs you to behave in a manner appropriate and adaptive to your environment.
  • The neural circuitry of your brain helps you solve problems in an appropriate manner. The specific ways that the neural circuitry is constructed were directed by natural selection, over the course of generations.
  • Most of your psychological behaviors are determined subconsciously by your neural circuitry, and you are largely unaware of these subconscious processes. You rely on conscious decision-making to guide you in your daily life, and you may be aware of the conclusions resulting from the complex neural circuitry while remaining unaware of the underlying process involved.
  • Neural circuits in the brain are specialized to solve different adaptive problems. For example, the circuitry involved in vision is not the same as for vomiting. 
  • Your mind is based on adaptive changes that originated in the Pleistocene era.

Evolutionary Psychology and Behavioral Skills

At its most basic level, evolutionary psychology explains skills that we consider to be relatively simple and common to most humans, such as language.

At some point in history, early man developed language skills beyond grunting and pointing. The ability to communicate complex thoughts was beneficial for human survival, and, as a result, language acquisition abilities evolved and advanced through the process of natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists may argue that advanced language skills contribute to a person's safety, survival, and reproduction.

Nevertheless, the language or languages you learn depends on the language spoken in your home and neighborhood, demonstrating the importance of cultural input.

How Evolution Explains Phobias

Phobias are fears that are irrational and that go beyond protecting you from danger. For example, research studies show you are more likely to fear snakes and spiders than other predatory animals, such as lions and tigers.

From an evolutionary point of view, this may be due to the fact that snakes and spiders are more difficult to spot. It made sense to our ancestors to look carefully for poisonous creatures before sticking their hands into woodpiles or overgrown brush.

Over time, that ability to recognize and quickly react to these small, quiet creatures became a trait that many humans inherited as an instinctive human reaction. In fact, a young child who has never heard of the dangers of snakes or spiders may have a dramatic reaction at seeing one, possibly rooted in evolutionary psychology.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Evolutionary Psychology.

  2. Cosmides L, Tooby J. Evolutionary psychology: new perspectives on cognition and motivation. Annu Rev Psychol. 2013;64:201-29. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.121208.131628

  3. Polak J, Radlova S, Janovcova M, et al. Scary and nasty beasts: self-reported fear and disgust of common phobic animals. Br J Psychol. 2019. doi:10.1111/bjop.12409

Additional Reading

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.