Is it time for researchers to embrace the behavioural science no-one wants to talk about?

By Peter Totman, July 2018

Peter Totman argues that those resistant to, or unfamiliar with, evolutionary psychology should look in more detail at this strand of science.

The way the research community has embraced behavioural economics (BE) should auger well for evolutionary psychology, the next step up the meaning ladder. It even adopts a more respectful tone than BE, explaining that all those biases – far from making us ‘morons’ – made perfect sense when we lived the hunter-gatherer dream.

Evolutionary psychology offers insight into our behaviour, but goes beyond what planner and BE specialist Nick Southgate calls “mapping the shallows” – shedding light on our deepest feelings and motivations. Yet there seems to be a limit to our curiosity. Mention evolutionary psychology in polite research circles and there will be blank stares, awkward silences – even angry, offended eyes. 

I want to examine the nature of this resistance before exploring the benefits of overcoming it.


While most people accept the basics of evolution, ‘cognitive creationists’ argue that its impact on the brain is limited. Why wouldn’t we accept that the principles of evolution work on our brains as well as our bodies? The answer may be because it leads to inconvenient conclusions.

Word count, superficial knowledge and intellectual shortcomings prohibit me from exploring some of the more credible challenges to evolutionary psychology here. Debates as to whether it qualifies as a science or a social science should not deter engagement. Researchers are, after all, bricoleurs who use different perspectives to seek new insights; we are not scientists looking for absolutes. 


Evolutionary psychologists talk about proximate and ultimate causes. Proximate causes are those we can easily articulate. Ask someone why they buy an expensive watch and they may point to the craftsmanship – but the ‘ultimate’ cause may be to signal status. Both could be ‘true’ of course, but only the proximate motive may be readily accessible to the individual. The challenge of unconscious motivation is a familiar challenge to researchers using BE. 

Pre-BE qualitative is often falsely seen as as ‘ask and tell’ research. It was, in fact, developed to answer the deeper questions that consumers – and quantitative research – could not answer directly. ‘Good’ qualitative researchers have always been alert to signs of rationalisation, cognitive dissonance, physical ‘tells’ and verbal clues (‘Freudian slips’). Projective techniques were pioneered to explore unconscious or undesirable motivations. Some ultimate causes may still be beyond our reach. Life-history theory argues that we become sexually active earlier if raised in risky environments. How on earth do we access that?

Work needs to be done to explore what ultimate causes are accessible through ‘questioning’ or techniques. We are a more creative profession than we give ourselves credit for; however, there will be value in simply factoring evolutionary psychological thinking into our analysis and interpretation.


Political discomfort is the real barrier. However, much political criticism of the discipline is based on real or wilful misunderstanding. The Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and others attempted to extrapolate the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ on to groups and race, and was used to justify colonialist – even racist – beliefs in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Modern Darwinism focuses on the ‘deep unities’ obscured by cultural differences – and denies group selection. Evolutionary psychology is the antithesis of racism. 

Modern debates about evolutionary psychology can stray into culture-war territory. As psychologist Stephen Pinker points out in The Blank Slate, much of modern culture, education and media assumes people are shaped wholly by environment and that human nature is a myth. In fact, evolutionary psychology is subtler than portrayed, arguing that we share a universal human nature that finds many and diverse cultural manifestations.

Most tricky of all is gender difference. Evolutionary psychology recognises the genders are more alike than different, but argues reproductive and parenting roles (inevitably) mean significant differences in psychological make-up. In the current zeitgeist, claiming such innate gender differences is sacrilegious to many.  

These critics often fall prey to the naturalistic fallacy. Evolutionary psychology describes how things are and not how they ought to be. Nor is it deterministic; we always have a choice, and this is helped if we can distinguish between reason, morality and our instincts.


Some evolutionary psychology (especially around status and signalling) will be familiar to qualitative researchers of a certain vintage, trained in psychoanalytical thinking. Indeed, some have noted the similarity between the traditional Freudian unconscious and the model emerging from evolutionary psychology. Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, notes that, like evolutionary psychology, “Freudian thought finds sly unconscious aims in our most innocent acts”. Both can be contrasted with more pragmatic BE language of heuristics and biases. 

Here are a few aspects of evolutionary psychology that a researcher might find interesting – some have tangible methodological implications, others can help us understand people (and ourselves) better.


If you still can’t handle the truth…

Some will struggle with this bleak picture of humankind presented by evolutionary theory. First Darwin upset the religious, now modern Darwinism upsets humanists. The image of humanity presented is not necessarily an appealing one. The thinking may also clash with cherished political beliefs, or you may be repelled by some of the people keen to hijack aspects of the discipline.

Evolutionary psychology is broad and comprises different components. Picking and mixing according to interest and comfort is consistent with the best traditions of the bricoleur, ensuring the thinking is used as new perspective that enriches, not a grand theory that narrows. There is also Dias, MRS Conference keynote speaker (Impact, April 2018 ). His compelling take on evolutionary psychology is more hopeful and politically sensitive, winning acclaim. You no longer have to be a misanthrope to get into evolutionary psychology – but it still helps. 

The full article is published on Research Live. Read it here