Human nature is a fascinating and important topic. Sometimes called sociobiology, but more commonly called evolutionary psychology, the study of human nature is a complicated and controversial line of scholarship. Essentially, it is the study of how the human mind was shaped by natural selection – how our psychology evolved.
Within this domain you can find numerous sub-topics, such as friendship, romance, morality, and tribalism, to which whole books are devoted. This article will just provide an overview of evolutionary psychology and briefly touch on issues like brain health and screen addiction. Soon, we’ll explore how human nature applies to learning, teaching, and parenting. Sometime in the future we’ll address how this all relates to risk-taking and fear of failure.
Learning about human nature can help us make better choices, and it can give us more freedom to choose in the first place.1 It can also make teachers and parents more effective at influencing children. Knowledge of human nature can also help students who suffer from test-anxiety or fear of public speaking. And the most effective study methods are those that, on some level, tap into our evolved psychology and convince our brains to care.
Any discussion of human nature or the genetics of human psychology has the potential to be fraught with confusion, misunderstanding, or even outrage, so I should take a moment to address some of the concerns that usually come up.
Cautions and Clarifications
First, this post will not be a discussion of psychological differences between individuals. Rather, it will be a discussion of the universals of human psychology – innate mental traits we all share – and where those universals come from. Humans worldwide share certain tendencies, preferences, and abilities, and it is these things we have in common that I wish to explore today. Genetic differences between individuals exist and are important, but that’s not what we’re considering in this article.
Likewise, circumstances, upbringing, and other forms of “nurture” are very, very important, but that’s not what this post is about either. So, as I explain human nature, please don’t mistakenly think that I’ve come down on the side of genetics in the “nature vs nurture” debate. As with many polarizing arguments, the truth can be found in the more complicated middle ground. Sometimes nature is dominant, and sometimes nurture is dominant.2 Sometimes nature works against nurture, but other times nature works via nurture.2 And at no time is either nature or nurture completely absent.2
In all cases and at all times, life requires both. Life as we know it is the result of an ongoing interaction between genes and their environment. 2 A seed may contain the genetic program for how to grow a tree, but it needs soil and sunlight too.
All parts of your personality are a result of both your genes and your environment, both nature and nurture.2 Sometimes cultures work to counteract our instincts, but, just as often, they encourage us to express our instincts more intensely than we otherwise would.1 Understanding human nature can actually help us design better forms of human nurture.
Finally, a shockingly common misconception is that the study of human nature serves to justify bad behavior.1 Let me be perfectly clear: Just because something is “natural,” doesn’t make it okay. Having a genetic predisposition for greed or violence or any other unethical behavior does not excuse such behavior.1 That which is natural and instinctual is not necessarily good.
Nor am I here to say that what is natural or instinctual is automatically bad. Humans are a complicated bunch. We have instincts which counteract our other instincts.1 We simultaneously possess the ability to be cooperative and competitive, peace-loving and violent, generous and selfish, confident and cautious.1 Often we favor some of our instincts over others. Sometimes our situation – our present environment – determines which instincts we favor. Other times, we consciously choose which instincts to obey and which ones to ignore, hopefully choosing, as Lincoln quipped, “the better angels of our nature.”3
Sometimes we’ll follow our instincts, and sometimes we won’t, but in every case we should think carefully before choosing. That careful thinking begins with understanding where our instincts come from and what purpose they serve.
In short, our instincts come from our ancestors’ environment, and our instincts serve our genes.1 Since we no longer live as our ancestors did, and since our goals often differ from those of our genes, we’d be wise not to blindly follow our instincts. Let me explain.
Genetics, Evolution, and the Human Mind
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection explains that species are molded by environmental pressures to succeed at survival and reproduction. Put simply, the only life forms that stick around, generation to generation, are those life forms that survive and have offspring. Those who fail to reproduce go extinct.4
Our theory of evolution by natural selection has been adjusted and added to over time. During the 20th century, biologists synthesized the logic of natural selection with our modern understanding of genetics. This led to a gene-based perspective, rather than an organism-based perspective.
Darwin asked the question, “How does this animal’s trait benefit this animal?” The question evolutionary biologists now ask is, “How does this animal’s trait benefit this animal’s genes?” 5 This perspective explains why ants will sacrifice themselves to save their colonies: because members of their colony share most of their genes. The self-sacrificing warrior ant may die, but he’s increased the odds that his many close relatives will survive.5 The same is true of bees who die defending the hive.5
It also explains why parents sacrifice so much for their children – because their children carry their genes.5 And here we’ve hit on the first critical piece of evolutionary psychology. We all know that parents actually sacrifice for their children because they love their children. Parental caregiving is driven by emotions, not some cold drive for genetic proliferation. But evolutionary psychology argues that those emotions exist because they serve a genetic purpose.2
In the case of parenting, that purpose aligns with our sense of morality because caring for your children is the right thing to do. But one reason we study human nature is that what’s good for our genes is not always good for our world or even for ourselves.
Like everything else in the biological realm, the human brain is a product of natural selection. Your brain was designed, through millions of years of trial-and-error, to ensure the reproduction of your genes.1 It is your brain that pushes you to find food, water, shelter, and mates. It is your brain that makes you feel afraid when your life is threatened. Your genes, of course, don’t have any idea what they’re doing. They have no motivations and no consciousness. But because the only genes that make it in the long run are the ones that act like they want to proliferate, it’s useful to pretend that the genes have desires.5 Specifically, we’ll pretend that genes want nothing more than to get as many copies of themselves as possible into future generations.5 Evolutionary psychology examines how our innate psychological traits – natural tendencies, preferences, and abilities – would have benefited our ancestors’ genes.1
The implications of this are profoundly important.
Our instincts aren’t designed to make us happy, nor are they designed to make us moral.1 They’re not designed to make us successful students. They’re designed to encourage us to pass down our genes.1 But most people want more for themselves than survival and reproduction. We want meaning, love, joy, and we want to be good people. To fulfill those dreams, we must recognize that our instincts can sometimes lead us astray. Gut instincts can lead us down the wrong path because they’re designed to benefit our genes, not to benefit ourselves.1 Learning about your instincts can help you choose your own path, a path that is more beneficial to you and to other people.
Our Ancestors’ Environment
As I said before, in Old Brain, Modern World, we don’t live in the environment of our evolution. The modern way of life – cities, grocery stores, hospitals, electronics – hasn’t been around long enough for our species to adapt to it on a genetic level.1 We’ve been farming for just 10,000 years, which seems like a long time, until you compare it to the 200,000 years humans spent as hunter-gatherers, or the 7 million years that have passed since our line of ancestry diverged from non-bipedal apes, or the 25 million years that have passed since apes diverged from other primates.6 Our brains spent far longer adapting to the way of life we practiced before farming, before cities, before smartphones.
That this is the case is far from trivial. For one, it means our brains contain the instincts of our more distant ancestors – reptiles and non-primate mammals,7 which is one reason why it’s smart to know your brain’s history. Secondly, it means that our instincts were designed in an environment we no longer live in. So not only are your instincts designed to help your genes, rather than you, they’re not even very good at that anymore because they were designed for a different world.
The most recent ancestral environment we spent an evolutionarily significant amount of time in was the tribal, hunter-gatherer world, so many of our emotions and automatic thoughts would have served us better in a tribal world than they do now.1
Many of the ways we teach kids completely ignore this aspect of human nature. In the hunter-gatherer world, children learned outdoors, while moving around. They usually learned by watching and doing, rarely by listening, and never by reading. But now we force kids to spend all day sitting indoors, primarily learning by listening and reading. And then we wonder why the lessons don’t stick, and we wonder why kids fidget and look out the window.
Many of the children who are diagnosed with ADHD don’t actually have a disorder per se; they’re just natural humans stuck in an unnatural situation, which is school.8 It should come as no surprise to learn that exercise helps alleviate the symptoms of ADHD.9 Modern humans don’t move nearly as much as we used to, and this causes a range of problems.10 The restless fidgeting of people with ADHD is largely the result of insufficient movement.
Our brains evolved to reside inside of bodies that moved all the time.10 As such, we have a deep need for movement that is both physical and psychological.10 Exercise makes us smarter,7 more creative11 and happier.12
And that brings us to the first big, practical point: Knowing about human nature can help us make better decisions about brain health.
Our modern food supply is radically different from the food our ancestors had access to.13 Our instincts for food are simply not meant to handle the sort of things found in grocery stores and restaurants. Modern, processed food is designed to manipulate human nature. It’s designed to overstimulate normally helpful instincts in a way that deceives your brain.14
Your sweet tooth is supposed to get you to eat fruit, not cake and candy, but the ridiculous amount of sugar in cake and candy makes it hard for fruit to compete. Salt was rare for our ancestors and is necessary for our survival, so our instinct is to eat a lot of salt whenever we find some. This instinct is a recipe for disaster in a world where it’s easy to get two days’ worth of salt in an afternoon snack.15
Food itself was often in short supply for our ancestors, so we’ve evolved to gorge ourselves whenever food is abundant and to not be too picky about what to eat. Since food is now always abundant, we gorge too often. The hunter-gatherer brain has a hard time making good choices when presented with a dollar menu or an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Now, I don’t mean to advocate for a strict “paleo” diet because that idea is problematic for a number of reasons.16
What paleo diets get right is that we should swap out sugar-filled, processed food for whole foods. As much as people argue over which particular diet is best, no one says we should eat more sugar or more processed foods.17 And, from an academic standpoint, it’s quite clear that sugar is bad for the brain.18, 19, 20
In the same way that processed food is designed to trigger our instincts, modern inventions like television, movies, pop music, advertisements, the news, social media, and video games are all designed to manipulate human nature. And just as with the food, we get tricked into consuming much more than we should. The producers, programmers, and marketers behind this media know exactly what they’re doing. They make their shows and songs and games bright, shiny, loud, and dramatic because that fools us into thinking these things matter more than they actually do. If we want to get a handle on tech addiction, we’d better be mindful of human nature.
The media makers are tapping into the way we instinctually distribute our attention. Whatever might be relevant to our survival or reproduction will draw our attention like a magnet, even when it defies all logic. Hence, a woman in a bikini might be used to advertise a Jeep Wrangler because, as they say, “sex sells.” Or, tapping into our survival instinct, the evening news might say, “This common household product might kill you! We’ll tell you what it is right after these commercials.”
Our ancestors’ environment was full of things that warranted immediate attention: falling tree branches, spiders, snakes, predators, hostile neighboring tribespeople, and social drama.15 The hunter-gather world was also full of opportunities: nuts and berries, water sources, tools, opportunities for social advancement. Thus, our psychology evolved to be constantly on the lookout for new stimuli.
It’s not in our nature to be good at focusing on something that requires sitting still, such as schoolwork, amid loud noises, a chaotic visual environment, or a complex social scene. Recognizing this is rather important when you’re choosing a location to study. If you choose to study in a place that frequently triggers your instincts with distractions, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
Romance is perhaps the ultimate distraction. Human nature makes it far easier to focus on dating prospects than on science projects. And it’s pretty hard to convince a teenage boy that his algebra homework is more important than the girl he has a crush on. I don’t have an easy solution to this challenge, but I will suggest that giving yourself permission to be human will probably work better than pretending that you don’t feel that way.12 And, just to be clear, giving yourself permission to feel natural human emotions doesn’t mean that you will always act upon those feelings, nor does any aspect of human nature give you a license to behave immorally.
Related to the romantic instinct is the instinct for gaining social status. In the hunter-gatherer world, as in much of the modern world, a person with higher social status has more options, so our genes have evolved to encourage us to climb the social ladder.1 On the lighter side of things, this causes us to focus more on fitting in and being popular than on doing well in school. On the darker side, it can lead to cruel competitions, bullying, and social anxiety. Again, I don’t have a solution to offer here, but I strongly suspect that understanding human nature is a step in the right direction.
Our ancestors lived in tribes, and these tribes were often in conflict with neighboring tribes.15 As a result, we’re all inclined to what is known as the “in-group/out-group mentality,” which means we like and trust those who are members of our group, while disliking and distrusting those who are outside of our group.1 In the modern world, this instinct manifests itself in a stunning variety of ways, ranging from high school cliques and sports-team rivalries to party politics and war.
The in-group/out-group mentality is one of the most powerful instincts we have. It’s not always a bad thing, but it can make us prone to believing false things and acting irrationally, so we need to be aware of it.1 And we need to be aware of the fact that everyone from advertisers to demagogues will happily manipulate this instinct.
Success in any arena, be it school, parenting, or citizenship requires seeing things as they really are. And that brings us to the last topic: honesty.
Deception and Self-Deception
There is nothing about natural selection that says honesty is a requirement.1 Genes just want to make it into future generations, and they’ll do so by any means necessary.1 So if it benefits your genes to have you lie, they’ll make you feel like lying is okay, even though it is not.1
And sometimes human nature goes one step further and tricks you into believing something false, so that you can present that falsehood to the world with full confidence.1 Self-deception is an insidious instinct that all humans have to one degree or another.1
Self-deception is how we fool ourselves into believing our own excuses. For example, if I want to be more productive, but I fall short of my goal, I might believe that I just didn’t have enough time. As I have that thought, I’ll almost certainly not be thinking of the four hours I spent watching TV last week. Catching my own self-deception is tricky, but I’m sure that being aware of the tendency makes it more likely that I’ll be honest with myself.
Human nature is just one of the many factors that influence who we become, yet it is profoundly important. Successfully changing our culture, our institutions, or ourselves depends on understanding human nature. This understanding gives us critical insight into what works for humans, as well as what doesn’t work. And it gives us a chance to stand up for our own values against a tide of people who want to manipulate our instincts.
Sometimes we will thrive by encouraging people to express some helpful aspect of their innate psychology, and other times we’ll need to reign in our less helpful instincts. At all times, we’ll be wise to at least take human nature into account.
About the Author
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal. Vintage Books, 1994.
2 Ridley, Matt. Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, & What Makes Us Human. Harper Collins, 2003.
3 Lincoln, Abraham. “First Inaugural Address.” March 4, 1861. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. Yale Law School. Lillian Goldman Law Library.
4 Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Signet Classics, Penguin Books, 1958.
5 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1976.
6 Zimmer, Carl. Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. Harper Perennial, 2007.
7 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.
8 Gumbiner, Jann. “Overdiagnosis of A.D.H.D.: When did inability to sit still in class become a medical condition?” Psychology Today. May 24, 2013
9 Brennan, Daniel. “Exercise for Children with ADHD.” ADHD in Children Health Center. 2012.
10 Bowman, Katy. Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement. Propriometrics Press. 2014.
11 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
12 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.
13 Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin Books, 2009.
14 Dennet, Dan. “Cute, sexy, sweet, funny.” TED2009.
15 Diamond, Jared. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Penguin Books, 2012.
16 Warinner, Christina. “Debunking the Paleo Diet.” TEDxOU, 2013.
17 Johnson, Brian. Philosopher’s Notes TV.
18 “Your Brain on Sugar.” WebMD.
19 Reas, Emilie. “Sugar May Harm Brain Health: High levels of blood glucose are linked to memory impairments.” Scientific American. June 12, 2014.
20 DiSalvo, David. “What Eating Too Much Sugar Does to Your Brain.” Forbes. April 1, 2012.
Self-Deception: Image from here. Quote from Seinfeld, Season 6, Episode 16, “The Beard.” February 9, 1995.