One of the most stimulating talks at the European Human Behaviour and Evolution meeting last week was by Randy Nesse from the University of Michigan, who should be well-known to anyone whose had any interest in evolutionary psychology over the last ten years. Nesse has been at the forefront of investigating how an evolutionary perspective can lead to new and useful insights into psychiatry. I think that in the earliest stages this endeavour suffered a little from over-application of the A word (adaptationism); though I have absolutely no problem with the concept of maladaptive behaviour, I think that detractors were right to be skeptical about the assertion that many psychological problems were in fact “mismatched” “over-active” or “malfunctioning” adaptive psychological mechanisms built in the Pleistocene. Nesse’s talk showed how that kind of thinking has changed into considering that it is not the problem per se, such as depression, that is adaptive, but that the broader class of cognition and/or behaviour into which depression fits, in this case mood, that has adaptive features.
The main point of his talk was that in (evolutionarily?) important life areas such as love, health, work, intelligence, family etc we have (a) wants, (b) expectations, and (c) realities. From these, we can identify where certain things are poorly balanced, and where our “hopes” are unrealistic in the medium-term. Unreasonable “hopes”, Nesse argued, seem to be at the core of much depression that he sees clinically, and restructuring the pursuit of goals can be very helpful.
Relatedly, Presentation Zen links to Barry Schwarz’s TED talk on the illusory link between a plethora of “choices” in life and happiness. Schwarz argues that in an ecology of too many choices, we become detrimentally paralysed, and only ever just-satisfied. Constraints on options (the fishbowl of the title) might lead to less frustration and unhappiness with our choices. I strongly believe this is true, and not just with the trivial example of consumer anxiety. Parental investment and mate choice seem to be two important evolutionary areas where members of industrial/urban societies are overloaded with choices. Whether the choices are real or illusory also seems important too – for instance, the great anxiety of balancing career/family/personal goals seems to me to be clouded by the illusion that one can maximise all those choices.
The video is well-worth watching, as are some of the other TED talks on YouTube. I like the focus of TED, but at US$4400 for an invitation to a meeting, I do feel this is quite the privileged club.
Related paper by Nesse here [pdf]