“Mismatch Hypothesis: According to evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, humans evolved to survive in the African Pleistocene savanna. However, today’s environment is very different from that ancestral environment. This mismatch between our evolved psychological traits and today’s environment is detrimental to our well-being (Fitzgerald & Danner, 2012).”*
Evolutionary Psychology’s Mismatch Hypothesis that behavior traits formed in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) about 125,000 years ago do not always serve us well – is not without its critique. Arguments against, most notably from the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, center on the difficulty in disentangling biology and culture, particularly given the paucity of direct observational data on which the assumptions of the hypothesis are based, and the abundance of studies on American college students as somehow representative of Homo Sapiens all.
Skeptics of the Mismatch Hypothesis talk about evolutionary psychology’s explanations on why we are the way we are as “Just So” stories, from Rudyard Kipling’s seductively simplistic ‘Just So” stories or myths about, for example, how the leopard got its spots. But seduce they do for many of us, including yours truly and a long list of evolutionary psychologists, many of whose work I know and have really enjoyed. As a lot, they are smart and very funny on how ridiculous we as humans can sometimes be and behave.
It’s not all funny though. Indeed, the ‘mismatch’ idea is that our biological priming to respond to an environment that no longer exists can really hurt us, if we let it. Maybe you’ve already heard about our famine related preferences for sugar and fat. Once upon a time, we had no idea where our next meal would come from. Now sugar and fat are everywhere, too much of a good thing, but tell that to the anxious brain primed to store up as much sugar and fat as possible because, well, you never know. Here’s another example: Way back when, we were all nomads with bodies accustomed to being on the go. Look at us now, with our Sitting Disease, and associated heart disease, diabetes, blood clots, and other inactivity related ailments. And another: In the ancestral environment, we were never far from kin. Now we are, on purpose, spread all over the place, away from our biological kin, with little to no consideration of the deleterious effects to our mental health.
The “Mismatch Hypothesis” holds that we were not built for these demands on our minds and bodies built at an earlier time for other things. Mismatches are everywhere. Even at, especially at, work. In “Evolution in the Office: How Evolutionary Psychology Can Increase Employee Health, Happiness, and Productivity,” the authors talk about how dramatically different our modern day office environment is from the savannah type environment for which our brains may be adapted. Their premise is that the modern day office causes “biophilia – an appreciation and longing for our natural environment.” So, for example, they recommend windows for sunlight, actual greenery, or images of greenery, napping times and places, and both exercise and socialization opportunities.
Now some would say, oh please…those office windows have nothing at all to do with our love of and yearning for sunlight. It’s cultural not biological. An office with a window is all about prestige. Well, guess what, some would say that prestige, or status seeking, is biologically programmed into who we are too. Let’s hear from one of my favorites, Robert Wright, who taught evolutionary psychology at Princeton, and wrote the book I cut my teeth on after hearing him speak at a small seminar I attended back in the 90’s. From his book, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology:
“The stakes are very real. Resources are allotted in rough accordance with status….The genes may work by instilling drives that, in humans, get labeled “ambition” or “competitiveness”; or by instilling feelings such as “shame” (along with an aversion to it and a tendency to feel it after conspicuous failure); or “pride” (along with an attraction to it and a tendency to feel it after doing impressive things. But whatever the exact feelings, if they raise fitness, they will become part of the species’ psychology….Whether we know it or not, we tend naturally to rank one another, and we signify that rank through patterns of attention, agreement, and deference – whom we pay attention to, whom we agree with, whose jokes we laugh at, whose suggestions we take (pp. 245, 257).”
Status matters, more than we think it should, and my clients tell the tale.** Otherwise wonderfully attractive and talented men and women, restricted in work and love, by their own condemnation of the very human nature Wright just described. Whether we know it or not, whether we think we like it or not, the best of us can experience ambition, competitiveness, shame, pride, envy, jealously… These are human qualities that may have helped us to survive and to thrive as a species, why they are here, even if they are at times overblown, overdone, overused in our present day environment.
So no, if someone else appears to have more status than we do ourselves, we will not be deprived of food and drink and left to die. And it is a serious case of “mismatch” to respond as if we will. We may be programmed to feel crummy if we have tried in work or love and missed our mark. We are wired for this, from a long, long, time ago when the stakes were a whole lot higher than in reality they currently are. Okay fine, we may even want to lay low for a limited period of time so no further shame nor harm will come our way until we feel better enough to try again, but we will not die. And breathing – in through the nose count of 6, out through the nose count of 6, belly out on the in breath, belly in on the out breath – is the best and most immediate way I know to calm the anxious mind when the mismatches come crashing in to bring us down. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.
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* A Critique of Evolutionary Psychology, Kirk Honda, Psy.D., LMFT, October 7, 2014. https://psychologyinseattle.squarespace.com/a-critique-of-evolutionary-psychology/
** Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.
Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.