Post No.: 0448
Humans operate on some basic and reasonably predictable instincts that primarily evolved long before the species created this modern world. We can essentially break human behaviour down into a number of heuristics that frequently express as over-generalisations or over-simplifications. These heuristics are overall efficient and adaptive but can sometimes over-fire and produce benign or maladaptive by-product effects…
Such heuristics include – the more resources one can personally grab the better, even if this behaviour depletes non-renewable resources. A sweet taste is good and a bitter taste is bad, even though too much sugar is unhealthy and many bitter foods like vegetables are healthy. In the drive for calories to aid one’s survival, people can become obese and ironically risk their own health and in turn survival through over-consumption. People generally favour their short-term interests because the long-term is, or especially used to be for human ancestors, highly uncertain. People naturally consume without much thought for the long-term environment because human populations historically weren’t so large that securing enough resources, as long as they could be found, was a problem – for tribes would just nomadically move elsewhere if one place ran out of something.
Humans have always possessed instincts to care about their reputations and social comparisons, especially for the way they appear on the surface, but this modern world of social media amplifies these insecurities because social comparisons are no longer just made between immediate friends and peers but also super-rich celebrities and people who are super-vain or post filtered/edited photographs of themselves. People tend to experience insecurities and desires to be, or appear, ‘normal’ (e.g. looking facially proportionally ‘average’), to generally not stand out from the crowd (herding behaviours and the safety in numbers), and by extension are therefore suspicious of those who seem different. Yet people also experience desires to try to stand out from the crowd when it comes to exaggerating culturally-desirable traits. People equate popularity with trust, and over-generalise ‘physical attractiveness’ with other desirable traits. If something looks the part then it’s inferred to be the part – ‘seeing is believing’, so much that status, attraction and perceived genetic health are frequently more about image management rather than strict truth.
Babies are considered cute so that people feel a strong urge to care for them – but people also feel the same way towards other baby animals with childlike proportions too, where the more genetically-related they are to humans (e.g. furry mammals), the generally more so. Meow.
Recreational sex and masturbation were ultimately borne from reproductive urges, even though one won’t produce any offspring through such activities. The younger the female, the more fertile they’re assumed to be by males – where this can lead to ephebophilia, hebephilia, or in the extreme, paedophilia and child sex abuse. (There are however also female sexual predators and male victims too, although they’re relatively much smaller in number than male sexual predators and female victims.) Some men who go to the gym take anabolic steroids in the drive to appear more physically attractive to women, but they ironically harm their own chances in the game of reproduction because these drugs can reduce fertility.
Many situations trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response even though most modern situations aren’t really true life-or-death situations at all. Creepy crawlies are generally feared – even those that aren’t harmful to humans. There’s avoiding a pain before seeking a pleasure, which generally helps one’s survival odds. But this is balanced with a curiosity to explore, which if successful could make one’s survival far more secure. There’s liking rollercoaster or other thrill rides even when there’s no practical risk-to-reward benefit to these activities, unlike taking the risk of hunting a mammoth and the pleasure when such a thing pays off. If something is hard to obtain or banned/restricted then it’ll be believed to be more valuable and therefore more desirable.
People favour their own genetic relatives (kin selection), and relatedly disfavour people who look personally unfamiliar (which can result in racism). Tit-for-tat is a typical social strategy. Play is about learning, although people will still play even when there’s no learning opportunity (e.g. gambling and trying to figure out patterns even in random results – gambling itself exploits the human brain reward system, as do other addictions). Sport is arguably to war as pornography is to sex – sport arguably exercises some ancient or basic drive but in a relatively safe way. Music, as with many other animals, is somewhat linked to reproduction (e.g. listen to fluffy songbirds). Art may be down to curiosity, experimentation, communication and seeking answers for things – where communication socially increases one’s chances of survival in many ways.
People like to seek answers and coherency in this world, which can even lead to ‘seeing’ patterns where there are none, which can consequently result in believing in erroneous superstitious beliefs in the attempt to explain the causal reasons for events. There’s confusing cause with effect, confusing ‘is’ with ‘ought’, confusing physiological signs (e.g. an accelerated heart rate can be for one of many reasons). Some cognitive tendencies make humans predisposed to believe in supernatural beings and certain religious beliefs.
Disorders are about behaviours that are otherwise normal or healthy but have become abnormal or unhealthy by virtue of the extent they go. For example, a symptom of OCD for some sufferers is constantly washing and scrubbing one’s hands for a certain amount of time each time via a set ritual. Thoroughly keeping one’s hands clean obviously has benefits (especially right now!) but this behaviour can still be taken too far by disrupting one’s life negatively. It shouldn’t be about having a ‘war on germs’ per se anyway but about protecting ourselves against illness or infection, but the overly-crude heuristic of ‘all foreign microbes are bad’ may be a cause of many allergies. (This doesn’t mean hygiene isn’t important – bad bacteria are still harmful, even if good bacteria are beneficial.)
There are plenty of such crude rules of thumb concerning health, which ironically lead to unhealthy lives when they’re taken to the extreme. It’s likewise not about being hostile to foreign people but those who are here to cause us harm – it’s an overly simple rule to just be cautious of anyone and everyone who doesn’t quite look like us; and we can end up distrusting people we can trust and trusting people we shouldn’t based solely on their appearances. Most people know intellectually that they shouldn’t judge a book by its cover yet they still subconsciously likely will because they cannot escape being organisms that evolved to obey simple heuristic guides.
If there’s inflammatory content, people will reliably react to it. If people think they’re behaving originally, they’re highly likely not (e.g. their passwords, or thinking ‘it’ll be fine to go to the beach/park because everyone has been advised to abstain from non-essential travel because of the pandemic so it’ll be quite empty’ and then finding out that thousands of others thought the same ‘original’ idea, and ultimately making the place even busier than on a regular weekend or Bank Holiday(!))
All living organisms, due to survival pressures, evolved to generally seek to conserve energy, and in a sense, operating according to only a few generalised heuristics, rather than a billion specific rules, is about energy conservation too. Humans will tend to gravitate towards anything that saves them effort, from driving to preferring not to move one’s eyes across a page if one doesn’t need to (hence videos or podcasts are preferred to reading long passages of text – a video moves the words and images, and a podcast reads words out, for us, whilst one’s own eyes must constantly move back-and-forth across text and we must scroll down to read a page. Oh the hardship(!))
People hold self-serving biases, such as thinking that one is more superior to others or thinking that others are self-serving but one is not! There’s trusting one’s intuitions itself(!) There are far too many other biases to mention here.
In very short, these heuristics and biases evolved to aid survival and reproduction – to seek nourishment, avoid predators and pathogens, and try to attract mate(s).
So we can distil human instincts down to a limited set of heuristics. What number of heuristics I cannot say, but many of the above heuristics are arguably duplicates of the same overall heuristics i.e. are different manifestations of the outcome of over-generalising the same crude rule. For instance, kin selection, following the herd and prejudicing those who are perceived to be different, are all heuristics for basically favouring those who appear similar to us because it may indicate that they share similar genes with us (even though we cannot reliably judge how many genes we share with someone merely via the colour of their skin – alas, judging too much via appearances is a crude instinct itself). ‘Fight or flight’ is one behaviour that manifests in a lot of situations – many of which are when this response is being too over-generally applied and therefore sub-optimal in a largely non-genuinely-life-threatening modern lifestyle and environment; even though it may feel tantamount to life-threatening to stressed-out people.
Biases are one vast category that manifests in many different but related effects too, such as the ‘illusory superiority bias’, which explains so many attitudes and behaviours – from people thinking that they’re more right, clever, fair and/or trustworthy than others, to directing prejudice towards others. People tend to have a disproportionately high opinion of themselves! Due to ‘confirmation bias’, a person could get nine general knowledge questions wrong, get the tenth one correct, then declare that they’re clever (even if the correct answer was only a guess)! Most people think they know what’s best in what they professionally do. It shapes much of people’s personal beliefs and social interactions, and they’d almost do anything to uphold the belief that they’re at least ‘above average’ since it shapes their perceived self-identity as an intelligent, dependable and ultimately sexually attractive person. These biases are important for upholding one’s reputation, self-esteem, and may give one the confidence to take personal risks – but they can venture into sheer arrogance.
Different developmental stages often produce different patterns of behaviours – but even here, we can clearly see consistent and genuine patterns (e.g. adolescents tend to take more risks); and we’re not talking about unfounded stereotypes but actual statistical patterns (e.g. according to the vehicle accident rates).
So humans have cognitive adaptations that serve their own evolutionary purpose, but these frequently over-fire and give rise to certain over-generalised and over-simplified beliefs and behaviours. Humans largely possess the same instincts as thousands of years ago but they’re sometimes sub-optimal for the modern world most people now live in. When people feel driven to do irrational things but don’t understand why – it’s because they’re following such instincts.
In mathematics, simple rules can create highly complex outcomes – and that’s how we have the world we see. (Post No.: 0331 pointed this out too.)
But why don’t sub-optimal instincts or characteristics always get selected out via evolution? Well either something isn’t bad enough to kill us or enough of us, or the problem only generally manifests after we’ve bore offspring i.e. we’ve already passed on our genes to the next generation (and that’s why most diseases or infirmities only affect people when they’re old).
Furrywisepuppy and I like to study the human animal and human world hence regular readers of this blog will not be alien to the claims presented in this post. Regardless, what do you think? Please share your views on this topic by using the Twitter comment button below.