Thursday, December 14, 2006

Evolutionary Psychology - A Disclaimer

In my posts over the last two months discussing American tribes, trust cues, and human behaviors which were designed for the Pleistocene era but persist today, I may have given the impression that I believe these constructs provide a fairly thorough explanation for much of what we do. I don’t.

I do think that we overrate our own rationality, and are subject to primitive schema which we don’t acknowledge. I give things a tribal description because it provides a way of looking at ourselves and each other that is often illuminating. But behavior is multideterminate, and we are not trapped in a narrow range of behaviors. We have predilictions, predispositions, and tendencies, but we are often able to override one desire and replace it with another.

Example: in predator-prey relationships, the potential prey will sometimes display a behavior that puts it at a temporary disadvantage and wastes enormous energy. This seems counterintuitive until one considers a specific case. The stotting behavior of pursued gazelles is frequently used as a dramatic illustration. Gazelles have this pattern of slowing down, then leaping very high as the predator gets closer. This allows the predator to get closer still, and would seem to be to the gazelle’s disadvantage. But the wasteful leap also sends the message “I have energy to burn. You will use much more energy pursuing me than another gazelle.” And as only fit gazelles have the spare energy for the leap, thre strategy seems to work. The predators, not by reasoning but by instinct, gravitate toward the non-leapers, which will cost them less to catch.

Human beings engage in something similar in dangerous situations - sometimes consciously, usually not. People walking through tough neighborhoods adopt a confidence, posture, and speed that says “You may want to mess with somebody, but it’s not me.” The communication “I have energy to burn” also works for the predator, in intimidating those around him. “I have so much anger and fear pain so little that I can hit this wall. Hitting you would be no problem.”

Wastefulness can also be useful in obtaining status resources and attracting mates. (Sorry if you don’t like to look at yourself as being a tribal resource. I kind of like it myself.) Teenage boys leaping onto cars or throwing each other around are communicating “I have such an abundance of physical resources that I can just waste them profligately. I can risk danger because of my skill” This is also true for females, though less so. Old guys don’t go around wasting resources – we conserve them. And now you know why sixth-grade boys do dumb stuff around girls even when they don’t think they like them. They aren’t programmed to have to do that – they can sit back and watch TV instead if they choose – but the behavior is on disc, ready to roll, and if something doesn’t overrule it, it will come out.

Conspicuous displays of wealth may send the same message. “If I can obtain this many bracelets and feathers, which are inedible, you just know I’ve got enough to keep you in mammoth chops, baby.” Self-deprecating humor can also be considered conspicuous waste: “I have so much stability and confidence that I can give it away and not feel the pinch.” Most display behaviors – birdsong, plumage, sports, dancing – are personally expensive and useless in the short run.

But the point is that this wastefulness can be overruled by other parts of the personality – in fact, it frequently is. We don’t have to engage in conspicous consumption. We can decide for a dozen different reasons to conserve resources instead. Understanding the tribal background may give us insight into why we feel a certain way, or why the folks in our lives act a certain way.

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