According to evolutionary psychology, we are evolved to believe what is useful, whether or not what is useful is also what is true. How can we resist the tendency to believe what is evolutionarily adaptive at the expense of truth? And would it increase or diminish human flourishing to do so?

Henry Barker, Felsted School, United Kingdom

Second Prize for the 2020 Psychology Prize​ | 8 min read 

Evolutionary psychologists believe that both genetic and cultural traits have co-evolved to promote Darwinian fitness. This process of natural selection has created cognitive biases that leave us susceptible to a number of false beliefs, which may compromise our ability to pursue our own personal goals. As Nesse states, “Natural selection doesn’t give a fig for our happiness,” (1999, p.433). Indeed, some have argued that humans are mere survival machines - passive vessels designed to fulfil the goals of selfish genes and memes.[1] Against this, however, the interests of the so-called vehicles and replicators often coincide; whilst evolutionarily adaptive biases that appear to impede rational decision-making may themselves act to promote human flourishing. Moreover, where personal goals are found to diverge from those of our genes or memes, we can actively employ conscious analytical thought processes to override automatic behaviours, including using surrogates as a proxy for future emotions to circumvent the systematic errors inherent in the process of prospection. However, we must first ensure that the tools we are using to evaluate our options, have themselves been reflectively acquired.

 

Examples of automatic cognitive functioning that make evolutionary sense, but may not be rational (utility maximising) today, include our preference for sweetness and disgust at facial disfigurement.[2] Perhaps the most pernicious influence of natural selection processes on human flourishing, however, is the widespread acceptance of the meme that happiness is derived from economic success. Generating a desire to compete for resources that enhance socio-economic status and increase the chances of reproduction, this belief has become a mainstay of cultural wisdom, because it has the essential attribute of a super-replicating biological gene: it promotes its own means of transmission. Societies in which individuals strive for economic success flourish, and flourishing societies provide the means by which beliefs can propagate.

 

A multitude of evidence exists, however, that refutes this belief. Neuroscientific investigations into the mid-brain dopamine circuits have revealed that there is a difference between wanting and liking;[3] whilst research by social scientists suggests that individuals consistently overestimate the effect acquisitions will have on their wellbeing.[4] Such studies typically conclude that failure to account for our evolutionarily adaptive ability to habituate to new circumstances, means that seeking happiness through the acquisition of material goods is akin to running on an hedonic treadmill.[5] Rather than flourishing, this belief often leaves us anxious and dissatisfied; as Schopenhauer states, “Wealth is like seawater, the more we drink, the thirstier we become,” (Auweele, 2016, p.98).

 

In order to resist untruths, it is necessary to understand the cognitive processes that engender them; in particular, the evolutionarily adaptive biases inherent in the process of prospection. These include our tendency to be unduly influenced by memories of unusual or extreme experiences and to give more weight to final outcomes than to the overall level of satisfaction derived, because our brain, having limited storage, chooses which information to retain and typically prioritises that which is most useful. Similarly, errors in affective forecasting arise from a proclivity to view the future through the lens of the present. Although this prioritisation of reality over imagination keeps us safe,[6] it compromises our ability to take into account the effect of psychological adaptation on future feelings, leaving us prone to systematic decision-making errors, such as those arising from the endowment effect[7] and anchoring and adjustment biases.[8]

 

Not only do heuristics and biases foster the generation of false beliefs, but they also make it harder for us to employ methods that might be useful in resisting such untruths. For example, confirmation bias[9] may be evolutionarily adaptive, since it promotes a healthy degree of optimism in our decision-making abilities and forms a key part of the psychological immune system,[10] but by affecting our perception of experiences, it impedes our ability to learn from them. Similarly, the availability bias[11] acts to reinforce cultural wisdom, by compromising our ability to scrutinise the efficacy of our desires. An example of this is the persistence of the belief that reproduction is advantageous. Present in all societies, the cultural wisdom that children are expedient is refuted by evidence of actual satisfaction levels experienced by parents in wealthy countries.[12] However, the brain’s fixation with endings encourages women to repeat the experience of childbirth, whilst its tendency to prioritise the storage of unusual experiences, explains why experienced parents continue to extol the virtues of parenting, as memories of birthday parties and graduation ceremonies overwrite those concerning the mundanities of childcare. This, in turn, feeds into the biases of confirmation and availability, reinforcing the belief that reproduction is advantageous.

 

However, although humans may be predisposed to execute algorithms that champion reproductive fitness, it is possible to resist reflexive tendencies by consciously employing analytical thought processes to override automatic brain functioning, i.e. to use System 2 thinking to override System 1.[13] In the case of our penchant to strive for economic success, this could involve using evidence that we habituate to material acquisitions, to encourage us to consciously divert our efforts towards pursuits that generate sustainable increases in wellbeing, such as becoming more socially embedded or prioritising the actualization of non-positional goods[14] over the generation of wealth.[15] The knowledge required for System 2 thinking could be provided by the use of a surrogate, as research suggests that using the feelings of people actually experiencing the outcomes being considered as a proxy for our own future emotions, circumvents the cognitive biases inherent in the process of prospection.[16]

 

One example of how conscious analytical thought can be used to modify automatic impulses is the use of contraception: behaviour stimulated by our evolutionarily adaptive tendency to find sex pleasurable, is moderated by the rational thinking that raising children is not. However, it is often very difficult to rationally scrutinize the efficacy of behaviours endorsed by cultural wisdom. Not only is our ability to select options that would maximise personal utility compromised by a number of evolutionarily adaptive and mutually reinforcing heuristics and biases,[17] but the memes themselves often include elements that are resistant to scrutiny[18] and our intellectual tools of evaluation sometimes invoke rules that have been unreflectively acquired and which act in the interest of memes.[19] Thus although it is possible to consciously apply analytical thought processes to counteract any sphexish[20] tendencies that do not directly serve our own personal interests, it is first necessary to actively evaluate our memes. In particular, we must intellectually scrutinize our cultural beliefs logically and/or empirically, by subjecting them to a range of efficacy tests, (such as the falsifiability and preference consistency criteria), to ensure they specifically code our own personal interests, rather than those of our genes or memes.[21]

 

Assuming, however, that we are able to install the necessary mindware[22] to execute the somewhat Neurathian process[23] of meme evaluation, it is not necessarily certain that this would enhance human flourishing. For example, whilst it may be true that, in wealthier countries, personal interests may be better served by rejecting the belief that economic success fosters happiness, the universal rejection of this belief could shatter the social fabric. As Adam Smith explained, it is only through the belief that the production of wealth brings happiness, that individuals do enough to sustain their economies.[24] Similarly, we must believe that children bring happiness, as to hold the opposite view could lead to our own extinction.[25] Thus, if the preservation of social systems is a necessary condition for human flourishing, beliefs that disguise activity that is good for society, as behaviour that is beneficial to the individual, are not actually false.

 

Moreover, if human flourishing is defined as the experience of eudaemonia,[26] then the pursuit of goals that benefit society is itself a source of wellbeing. The concepts of symbolic utility[27], “Authentic Happiness”, (Seligman, 2011) and ethical preferences all support this virtue hypothesis theory[28] that human flourishing depends not only on the freedom to strive for individual goals, but also on acceptance within our community. As Haidt states, “we are not mere apes,…..we are also part bee,” (2006, p.235); or to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, no-one wants to be a satisfied pig.[29] Thus if we resist beliefs that are socially useful, choosing instead to indulge in behaviour that is perceived as selfish, it may negatively impact upon our ability to flourish. (Against this, however, some may argue that, given the present Climate Emergency, evolutionary adaptations that may have been useful in the past, such as the pursuit of economic growth, may no longer be evolutionarily adaptive).

 

Finally, overriding our automatic system to resist untruths may adversely affect human flourishing, because the cognitive biases that foster the false beliefs themselves often serve to promote wellbeing. For example, studies reveal that we derive a great deal of pleasure from imagining the future, even if our predictions turn out wrong.[30] Additionally, the availability bias, combined with the fact that we spend more time thinking about success than failure,[31] means that we enjoy an overly optimistic view of the future both in relation to our peers and our current circumstances.[32] This sense of optimism promotes human flourishing even in the face of adversity, particularly since it is sustained, and may even increase, in response to negative external stimuli.[33]

 

Prospection also gives rise to a feeling of control, in itself a fundamental human need;[34] and whilst this may be illusory, numerous studies illustrate that effectance motivation[35], real or otherwise, is a significant positive contributor to mental health.[36] In addition to this, although our peculiar ability to imagine a future is inextricably linked to feelings of fear and anxiety, even the experience of these negative emotions has been found to confer considerable benefits. For example, the anticipation of harm not only motivates us to try to preclude harmful situations without first having to experience the trauma, but it also reduces the emotional impact of harm.[37]

 

Similarly, although retrospection may be more fabrication than information retrieval, we derive great comfort from our memories. In the same way, although confirmation bias may compromise our ability to learn from experience, it enables us to change our view of situations we cannot change and, hence, is an important contributor to feelings of wellbeing, whether or not we are, actually, flourishing.[38] Finally, whilst the overestimation of our own uniqueness may cause us to reject the use of a surrogate as a proxy for our own future feelings, studies show that belief in our individuality is a great motivator, it raises self-esteem and we cherish our uniqueness.[39]

 

Overall, therefore, although it is true that genes and memes have co-evolved to promote reproductive fitness and that this process of natural selection has created a number of cognitive biases that make us vulnerable to false beliefs, it does not mean that we are hostage to our genes and memes, nor that our ability to flourish is necessarily diminished. We are both selfish and hive creatures, thus goals that appear to champion societal needs may also serve our own self-interest. Not only this, but whilst it may be argued that humans need contact with reality to genuinely flourish,[40] most would accept that some cognitive biases, such as those that enable us to reframe situations that we cannot change, are themselves a source of wellbeing. That is not to say, however, that we should always conflate our own interests with those of our genes/memes; and where a conflict of goals is discovered, conscious analytical thought processes should be actively employed to override automatic tendencies. Moreover, in deciding our preferences, we must first be careful to scrutinise our beliefs, ensuring they pass selective tests of efficacy and directly code our personal interests rather than simply ensuring their own successful propagation, as only then can we be sure that we not just reproductively fit, but also flourishing.

Footnotes

1 Dawkins deliberately employed pejorative terms such as survival machine, replicators and vehicle in The Selfish Gene, (1976), to encourage the reassessment of Natural Selection.

2 The evolutionary adaptation to favour sweet food is probably shaped by the fact that the most nutritious fruit are often those with the highest sugar content. For a discussion on how beauty is often used as a proxy for reproductive fitness, see Buss, (1989) and Langlois et al., (2000).

3 For a review of some of these experiments see, Nettle, (2009, chapter 5).

4 For evidence of the overprediction of the impact of increased material wealth, see Lowenstein & Schkade, in Kahneman, Diener & Schwarz, (2003, p85-108); and Brickman et al., (1978).

5 The term hedonic treadmill was first used by Brickman and Campbell, in M. H. Appley, ed., (1971, p.287-302). A study clearly demonstrating the hedonic treadmill effect can be found in Easterlin, (2003).

6 For example, it prevents us from drinking engine oil, if we happen to be thinking about coffee.

7 The endowment effect is a tendency for individuals to overestimate the impact of a loss. For evidence of how this impacts decision-making, see Kahneman, et al. (1990, 1991).

8 The anchoring and adjustment bias is based on the premise that individuals estimate future values by starting at an initial, (often random), value, (the Anchor) and then adjust their guess. A bias exists, because research suggests that the adjustments will always be insufficient. See Tversky & Kahneman, (1974).

9 The confirmation bias suggests that individuals scrutinise sources that support their view less critically than those that oppose it; similarly, less evidence is required to endorse a strongly held belief than is needed to reject it. For evidence of the effect of confirmation bias, see Frey & Stahlberg, (1986); Holton & Pyszczynski, (1989); Ehrlich et al., (1957).

10 Gilbert uses the term psychological immune system to refer to processes that “defend the mind against unhappiness in much the same way that the physical immune system defends the body against illness”, (2006, p.177). For an overview of other psychologists’ discussions on psychological defence mechanisms, see Paulhaus, Fridhandler & Hayes, in Hogan et al., ed., (1997, p543-79).

11 The availability bias suggests that people are more likely to believe something is true, if they can easily recall an instance of it. For more detail, see Tversky and Kahneman, (1973, 1974).

12 A number of studies have revealed that marital satisfaction levels fall significantly following the birth of the first child and do not return to even close to their original levels until the youngest child leaves home. See Walker, in Chester et al., (1977, p127-129); D. G. Myers, (1992); and Kahneman et al., (2004).

13 The idea of the mind being composed of a number of different systems that can conflict with each other has a long history, often described through the use of vivid metaphors. Plato, for example, described thinking in terms of a charioteer commanding two horses, see Cooper, (1997, Phaedrus 253d); Buddha characterises the mind in terms of the taming of a wild elephant, see Mascaro, (1973, verse 326); Kant portrayed human nature as being part animal and part rational, (1959/1785) and Freud conceived the mind as being composed of the id, ego and superego, (Freud & Freud, 1995/1900). The terms System 1 and System 2 were first used by Keith Stanovich and Richard West, (2000), but have recently been popularised by Daniel Kahneman in his international bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow. System 1 refers to automatic brain functioning, which can be contrasted with System 2 thinking that “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations”. See Kahneman, (2012, p.20).

14 Frank makes the distinction between positional goods, (valued because they increase social status, such as cars and houses), and non-positional goods, (valued for their own sake rather than through comparison with what other people own, such as health, wisdom and the quality of the environment), (2014).

15 Exploring these avenues may be more beneficial in terms of increasing subjective wellbeing, once the threshold to remove finances as a stressor has been reached. In the UK, this figure has been estimated to be around £43,000 p.a. per family, Dolan, (2015). The specific level, however, has been found to vary with profession. For example, clergy require only £20,000 p.a., whilst those in the legal profession need significantly more, Evans et al., (2015).

16 Biases inherent in the process of prospection include the tendency to subconsciously fill in missing details when imagining future events, the proclivity to view the future through the lens of the present and the failure to incorporate the psychological immune system’s ability to rationalise a loss. For a comprehensive overview of these biases and the difficulties of affective forecasting, see Gilbert, (2006). See also, Ligneau-Herve & Mullet, (2005); Dunning, et al., (1990) and Vallone et al., (1990).

17 An obvious example here is the confirmation bias, however, cognitive biases also make us predisposed to reject the use of information from surrogates. For example, despite evidence that the satisfaction levels of someone actually experiencing the outcome being considered is a good proxy for our own future feelings, we are apt to disregard the opinions of others, because we have evolved to attend to and search for differences between ourselves and other people, resulting in a tendency to overestimate both the strangeness of others and our own individuality. Although a heightened sensitivity to the differences between ourselves and other people typically serves us well, (for example when selecting partners for life, business or even sports), it makes us inclined to reject the use of a surrogate as a proxy for our own future feelings. For a comprehensive review of evidence of the ways in which individuals perceive themselves as different, as well as the reasons why, see Gilbert, (2006, p.252-255).

18 Examples of memes that are difficult to evaluate include many which are faith based, (such as the promise of huge rewards in the afterlife), most conspiracy theories and perhaps even the recovered-memory meme that infiltrated clinical psychology at the end of the last century. For examples of such memes, see Dawkins, in Dahlbom ed., (1993, p.13-27); Dawkins, (1995); Lynch, (1998); Piper, (1994); Dawes, (2019).

19Whilst it often assumed that employing System 2 thinking will increase personal autonomy, the philosophical example of Huckleberry Finn illustrates how rational decision making can be compromised, if it invokes unreflectively acquired rules. After acting on his instincts to free his friend, Huckleberry then begins to question the morality of a white man assisting a slave to run away. In this case Huckleberry’s automatic tendency to find slavery unjust, serves him better than the unreflectively acquired rules that govern his intellectual thought processes, see Bennett, (1974). The idea that some memes may have evolved simply to promote their own means of transmission was first suggested by Dawkins, (1976, p.200).

20 The term sphexish was first employed by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, (1982), to allude to the fact that human behaviour can sometimes be characterised as a pre-programmed response to external stimuli, in much the same way as the digger wasp’s preparation for its larvae, which appears to be thoughtful and considered, but it is actually just an automatic reaction.

21For a comprehensive discussion of how we should actively evaluate which memes are good for us, see Stanovich, (2004, chapter 7).

22 The term Mindware is used by both Clark, (2014) and Perkins, (2014), to allude to the fact that acquiring the meme evaluation tools that are necessary to ensure that our analytical thinking processes directly code our own personal interests is like installing software on a computer.

23 Stanovich refers to the process of meme-cleansing as Neurathian, alluding to Otto Neurath’s allegory of fixing a rotten boat, whilst out at sea, (2004, Chapter 7). The difficulty here, is that evaluating beliefs necessarily requires using rules and practices that may themselves be “rotten”. However, Stanovich argues that it is possible to intellectually scrutinize our beliefs and suggests that the efficacy of “meme-cleansing tools” have already been illustrated, for example in Nozick’s book on rational preferences, (1993, p.139-51) and could be based on the insights of Rawls’ Original Position, (1971, 2001) and Parfit’s idea of treating our future selves as different people, (1984); see Stanovich, (2004, Chapter 7).

24 For a full discussion of this idea expressed by Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, (1759; Adam Smith Institute, 2001), see Ashraf et al., (2005, p.131-45).

25 An example of this is the historical experience of the Shakers. Members of this community have been discouraged from engaging in sexual intercourse, which has led to a decline in their population from a peak of around 6000 to just a few elderly members today.

26 Literally “good spirit”, but more commonly interpreted as a life well lived.

27 Symbolic utility arises when utility is derived from an action that represents the utility of something else, see Nozick, (1993, p.27). For example, the act of voting has symbolic utility, see Baron, (1998); Quattrone and Tversky, (1984).

28 The term virtue hypothesis is used by Haidt to encapsulate ideas that have been repeatedly suggested by philosophers including Plato, Buddha and Franklin that duty brings its own rewards. It is supported by a large and diverse body of evidence, such as Durkheim’s study that found suicide rates are positively correlated with freedom from social ties, (1951/1897), to Thoits and Hewitt’s longitudinal study that undertaking volunteer work improved every measures of happiness, (2001).

29 This idea that happiness is not simply the experience of pleasure, rather it is derived from living a meaningful life, is discussed in J. S. Mill, “Utilitarianism” (1863), in On Liberty, the Subjection of Women and Utilitarianism, (2002).

30 For example, evidence suggests that most people would opt for a slight delay before a pleasant experience, in order to derive pleasure from both the event and the anticipation of it. Investigations into the utility derived from the anticipation of delayed consumption include Loewenstein & Prelec, (1993); Loewenstein, (1987); and Elster & Loewenstein, in Loewenstein & Elster eds., (1992, 213-34).

31 For evidence of the frequency and utility derived from positive daydreaming, see Singer, (1981); Klinger, (1990).

32 For a selection of evidence regarding the unrealistic levels of optimism about future events relative to our peers, see Weinstein, (1980, 1987); Shepperd et al., (2015). Evidence of levels of optimism in relation to current circumstances can be found in Brickman et al., (1978).

33 For example, research suggests that cancer patients may experience higher levels of optimism as compared to their healthier counterparts, see Stiegelis et al., (2003); and that optimism quickly returns to its previous, (unrealistically high), level following a natural disaster Burger & Palmer, (1992).

34 For discussions of the need for self-efficacy, see A. Bandura, (1977, 1982, 1990).

35 The effectance motive was first illustrated by Robert White, (1959). The term describes a basic desire in human beings to make things happen.

36 For a selection of evidence on how a sense of agency, perceived or otherwise, contributes to feelings of wellbeing, see Seligman, (1975); Langer & Rodin, (1976); Rodin & Langer, (1977); Taylor & Brown, (1988).

37 For evidence regarding the positive effects of anticipating negative outcomes, see Micheli & Castelfranchi, (2002); Norem, in Sanna & Chang, eds., (2003, p91-104); Wheeler, Stuss & Tulving, (1997); Norem & Cantor, (1986), 1208-1217; Norem, (2001); Arntz, et al., (1991).

38 For a discussion of the way confirmation bias causes us to re-evaluate decisions that are irreversible, see Frey et al., (1984); Frey, (1981).

39 Research regarding the effects of overestimating our own individuality, includes studies that show that we like to be seen as different, we often view ourselves as better than average and we try to differentiate ourselves from others. See Kruger, (1999); Wylie, (1979); Larwood & Whittaker, (1977); Felson, (1981); Walton & Bathurst, (1998); Cross, (1977); Pronin et al., (2002); Johnson et al., (1985); Fromkin, (1970, 1972).

40 For example, in Nozick’s thought experiment, the Experience Machine is used to show that real experience is preferable to a better, simulated version, suggesting that humans need contact with a “deeper reality” to genuinely thrive, (1974, p.43).

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