7 Modern behaviours explained by evolutionary psychology


Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection revolutionised biological science, but it can also reveal a great deal about our psychology. As natural organisms, our behaviours serve a biological purpose, no matter how divorced they might seem from those of our comparatively apish ancestors. The field of evolutionary psychology provides these explanations, offering a unique insight into modern behaviour based on knowledge of our evolutionary history and the behaviour of other primates. If you think the mid-life crisis, footballers having affairs and your Twitter updates are creations of modern civilisation, think again.

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Mid-life crises

The “mid-life crisis” is typified by a man approaching 40, with balding hair and a general dissatisfaction with the way his life is going who decides to start listening to modern music, making cringe-worthy attempts to use up-to-date slang and driving around in a throbbing red sports car. Evolutionary psychologists argue that this behaviour is related to women, not men. When a man is approaching 40, his wife will probably be around the same age – coming up to the menopause. The male is unconsciously aware that his wife is no longer able to reproduce, and sets about attracting a younger, more virile mate. The sports car isn’t an attempt to recapture lost youth; it’s a status-symbol, the man flaunting his cash and acting "cool" in an unconscious attempt to find a younger mate. This also means that the man’s mid-point in life isn’t really relevant – a 25 year old man with a 40 year old wife will go through the same experience, but a 40 year old man with a 25 year old wife won’t.

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Suicide bombing

The idea that suicide bombings are always religiously motivated is false, but according to Oxford University sociologist Diego Gambetta, when religion is a motivation, the religion is always Islam. For evolutionary psychologists, the reason for this is ultimately related to sex. There are two contributing factors, the first of which is that Islam is tolerant towards polygamy. The net effect of this is that the most desirable males may have two or three wives, thus creating a deficit of females for the less desirable males. This drives the males to compete, and generally leads to violence and increased frequency of murders and rapes in polygamous societies. In Islam in particular, the combination of this effect with the promise of “72 virgins” waiting in heaven for martyrs makes suicide bombing much more appealing. Faced with life without a mate, disadvantaged men are much more likely to martyr themselves for a sex-filled afterlife.

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High-status men and affairs

Whether it’s a footballer having an affair despite having a beautiful wife – like Ashley Cole cheating on Cheryl Cole – or a politician whose murky sex life threatens to destroy his career – like Bill Clinton’s illustrious indiscretion – it seems men of high status are more prone to having affairs than ordinary men. The evolutionary explanation for this is that achieving high-status, whether through diligent political work, excellence in academia, creative talent or sporting ability, is ultimately an effort to attract females. Darwinians point out that successful men throughout western history have married monogamously, but mated more freely – evoking the image of a medieval king, draped in jewel-encrusted gold with a loyal harem of female slaves at his feet, ready to indulge his every pleasure.

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Taking your husband’s name

In this age of (at least relative) gender equality, it seems like an archaic, traditionalist curiosity that women should take their husband’s surname on becoming married. However, just like other primates, humans are inherently social animals. In our hierarchical societies, status is inherently important, signalling our position on the social ladder to everybody around us – like a rich businessman with a Rolex watch permanently visible at the bottom of his sleeve. Similarly, women who’ve found a mate can signal this move up the social ladder (particularly if she marries someone of high-status) by taking her husband’s name and switching to the “Mrs.” title. Even in societies where wives don’t change their names, other social signals like wedding rings are used as a status display.

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Sports uber-fandom

If you happen not to share the typical British passion for football, you might be awe-struck at the sight of grown men swinging from screams of anger to guttural wails of disappointment during the course of a 90 minute match. Evolutionary psychology holds that sports evoke this uber-fandom because it taps into a primal urge. Zoologist Desmond Morris argues that there is a territorial element to supporting a sports team, donning identifying colours, chanting and being generally tribe-like. It’s been similarly argued that there is an almost religious side to support of a sports team, where fans are almost worshipping the accomplishments of stars within their group in stadium-come-chapels. Some argue that this devotion helps sports fans find focus and a deeper meaning in their lives, in much the same way as religion.

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Territory is evidently important to many of the creatures we share the planet with. Early humans had small tribes, with whom they shared the spoils of hunting and gathering and generally co-operated with for mutual benefit. Someone from outside the tribe was essentially a competitor and therefore inherently untrustworthy, if not an enemy. As our tribes grew exponentially into modern nations, we were in some ways robbed of our close-knit collectives, but the underlying desire for one is still present. Our tribes are our nations, and for some individuals, this tribal desire (apparently not adequately addressed through other outlets) develops into nationalism and racism. Not that these two necessarily go hand-in-hand, but they are both symptoms of the same underlying mechanism, that we favour our own little “tribe.” The method used to identify outsiders is the only difference, either through nationality or race.

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Social media

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all other social media websites are a manifestation of our inherent sociability. More precisely, our ever-expanding “tribe” and social groups have made it more difficult to meaningfully communicate with all the people we class as “one of us.” In our evolutionary history, this led us to replace time-consuming primate-like grooming behaviour with language, and now the face-to-face requirement of spoken communication has made it inadequate for conversing with our goliath social groups. Phones partially address this issue, but a phone call is a one-to-one and time-consuming activity, usually reserved for close friends, courting couples and family. Social media has enabled us to transmit messages and socialise en-masse, essentially authenticating our relationships with our fellow homo sapiens whenever the mood strikes us. This also explains why the sites are almost addictive, because socialising is ultimately a means of cementing tribal bonds and finding a mate. Having an internet equipped phone sitting in your pocket at all times allows these essential goals to be pursued at all times.

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