Evolutionary Cognitive Psychology

The study of how humans learn, recall, and handle problems is known as evolutionary cognitive psychology. It aims to describe the cognitive processes that underpin human conduct and their evolutionary roots. This branch of psychology concentrates on cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and problem-solving. It investigates how people have adapted to their surroundings and how these changes impact their cognitive processes.

What is Evolutionary Cognitive Psychology?

Evolutionary cognitive psychology holds that cognitive processes like focus, memory, and problem-solving result from natural selection. They were developed to handle particular adaptive issues encountered by humans in their ancient settings. Evolutionary psychologists replace conventional cognitive psychology's key assumptions—general-purpose and content-free processes, as well as functional agnosticism—with an alternative set of assumptions that allows integration with the rest of life science −

  • The human mind is made up of an evolved collection of information-processing systems that are incorporated into the human neurological system.

  • These mechanisms and the developmental processes that create them are adaptations natural selection produces in traditional settings throughout evolutionary time.

  • Several of these systems are functionally specialized, resulting in behavior that solves specific adaptive issues like partner selection, language acquisition, and cooperation.

  • To be functionally specialized, many of these processes must be highly organized in content-specific ways.

Evolution of Attention and Memory

The world has an unlimited number of objects that may captivate human attention. Attention, on the other hand, is a finite resource. Even if we could pay attention to everything in our environments, from the movement of each blade of grass to the intricacies of the tone of each word of each discussion taking place around us at a cocktail party, we would be swamped by the knowledge that was unimportant to survival and reproduction.

The same is valid for memory. If we recalled everything we encountered, we would have difficulty recalling the experiences essential to guiding adaptive behavior quickly. As a result, a realistic evolution-based hypothesis is that human attention and memory are extraordinarily selective and built to detect, store, and recall information critical for addressing adaptive issues.

A fascinating examination of 736 front-page newspaper stories from eight nations over 300 years shows surprising consistency in substance. Death (accidental or natural), murder or physical attack, robbery, reputation, heroism or altruism, suicide, marital issues such as adultery, harm or injury to kids, abandoned or destitute family, taking a stand or fighting back, and rape or sexual assault were all prominent themes.

The fact that these historically and cross-culturally recurring themes correspond precisely to the topics covered in this textbook provides objective evidence that human attention is targeted explicitly toward information content of maximum relevance for solving adaptive problems that have recurred for humans over long periods.

Posing questions concerning evolved roles sheds light on the study of human memory. In one research, individuals in committed romantic relationships were instructed to enter the lab for one session and anticipate meeting clues indicating their partner's infidelity. Additional indicators of emotional infidelity were "he starts seeking reasons to start disputes with you" and "she no longer responds when you tell her you to love her." These cues were mixed up with other neutral stimuli. Participants returned to the lab a week later and were given a surprise memory recall test. They were instructed to jot down any signs of adultery they could recall.

Men were more likely than women to recall indications of sexual infidelity. These findings support the theory that the substance of what we remember is strongly related to the adaptive difficulties we must address, in this case, the sex-related adaptive challenges of sexual vs. emotional infidelity. In summary, people are intended to detect and retrieve information most relevant to solving the unique adaptive difficulties they confront.

Evolution of Problem-Solving Mechanisms in Humans

Most so-called "higher cognition" concerns problem-solving and judgment under ambiguity. Several modern judgment scholars believe people are prone to mistakes while solving problems and making judgments in unclear situations. Furthermore, a small industry in cognitive psychology has developed to chronicle the many mistakes and biases people are inclined to. Following are two examples −

Base-Rate Fallacy

People prefer to dismiss base-rate information when provided with complete individuating information. The total proportion of anything in a sample or population is called the base rate. Consider the following example. Consider a room filled with people, 70% of whom are attorneys and 30% of whom are engineers. One is George, who avoids literature, enjoys woodworking on weekends and keeps his pens in a pocket protector in his shirt pocket. His writing is boring and mechanical, and he is obsessed with order and neatness. How likely is George to be either (A) a lawyer or (B) an engineer?

Most individuals prefer to disregard the basic information, implying that George is more likely to be a barrister (70 percent of the people in the room are attorneys). Instead, they overestimate the importance of the individual information and conclude that George is most likely an engineer. This inaccuracy, known as the base-rate fallacy because people tend to neglect the accurate mathematical proportion (of attorneys in our sample), contradicts mathematical formulae that need a base rate and individuating information to be integrated appropriately.

The Conjunction Fallacy

Is it more probable that Linda is a bank teller or a feminist bank teller if she wears tie-dyed blouses and pins proclaiming that "men are slime" and constantly seeks to organize the women in her workplace? The majority of individuals feel that (B) is more likely, although this defies logic: B (feminist bank tellers) is a subset of A (bank tellers). Thus A must be more likely than B. Put another way, the combination of "feminist" and "bank teller" must be less likely than bank teller alone because conjunctive occurrences can never be more likely than their constituents. However, because Linda's description indicates a feminist, most people disregard reasoning and go with what appears clear.

The considerable literature demonstrating how stupid people are, of course, fantastic entertainment. However, is the mental model it depicts accurate? Is human cognition filled with biases and mistakes merely because people make judgments under uncertainty using simple and error-prone shortcuts? This result should be questioned from an evolutionary standpoint, if only because our predecessors had to solve hundreds of adaptive difficulties to survive and reproduce.

Ecological Rationality

Tooby and Cosmides advocate for ecological rationality, an evolutionary explanation of cognitive systems. Rain frequently followed thunder; violence occasionally followed furious yells; sex occasionally followed extended eye contact; hazardous bites frequently followed going too near a snake; and so on. These statistical patterns are referred to as ecological structures. Ecological rationality comprises evolved processes with design elements that use ecological structure to aid adaptive problem resolution.

In other words, the shape and form of cognitive systems correspond to the repeating statistical regularities of the ancestral settings in which humans originated. We dread snakes rather than electrical outlets, for example, since there is a recurring statistical regularity between snakes and debilitating or death results; electrical outlets, on the other hand, are too new an innovation to have caused recurring debilitating or lethal outcomes.

In summary, problem-solving techniques may be perfectly adapted for one set of issues—those that have recurred over evolutionary time—but exceedingly inefficient at handling artificial or novel problems. Errors occur when there is a mismatch between the problem given and the problem the mechanism was meant to tackle.

Frequency Representations and Judgment under Uncertainty

Is there proof that human cognitive circuits are built to record event frequencies? Cosmides and Tooby (1996) present the frequentist hypothesis, which states that some human reasoning systems are built to receive frequency information as input and make frequency information as output. Some advantages of using frequentist representations are that

  • They allow a person to preserve the number of events on which the judgment was based (e.g., how many times did I go to the valley to look for berries in the last two months?),

  • They allow a person to preserve the number of events on which the judgment was based (e.g., how many times did I go to the valley they allow a person to update his or her database when new events and information are encountered (e.g., adding information from a third month of trips to the valley to look for berries), and

  • They allow a person to construct new reference classes after the events have been encountered and remembered, allowing a person to reorganize the database as needed (e.g., remembering that the frequency of encountering berries differed depending on whether the trip was made during the day or night).

Frequency representations may be pretty helpful in problem-solving and decision-making systems.


Throughout our evolutionary past, humans have evolved different cognitive mechanisms, such as attention, memory, and problem-solving, that have allowed them to adjust to various environmental obstacles. These cognitive skills, when combined, have played a critical role in human adaptive success and continue to influence our ability to flourish in a variety of environments.

Updated on: 11-Apr-2023


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