(If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous article for foundational information about our evolved minds.)
You’re sitting on the bus on your morning commute to work, scrolling through your news feed. Eyes glazed over, you’re not even really processing the information flashing across your screen, that is, until you come across a post from a sports network you follow. The headline reads: “[insert your favorite player here] is getting traded by [insert your home team here] to [insert rival team here].” You can’t believe what you’re reading. How could this happen? You feel betrayed. In fact, you’re outraged. Immediately, you rush to your social media platforms and fire off a barrage of tweets, snaps, and posts. Everyone needs to know the atrocity that has been committed.
After a couple minutes, and a handful of furious text conversations, your heart rate lowers and all you’re left with is a crushing sense of emptiness. You open back up your news and keep scrolling, but your heart’s not in it any more. The next headline reads: “Coral reefs bleaching at unprecedented rate. Scientists warn the end is near.” After that, “Black man shot by cops while jogging in Georgia.” You sigh and turn off your phone; the news is just too depressing these days.
Unless you happen to be a diehard sports fan, you probably get the sense that there’s something profoundly disturbing about this scenario. What is it about sports teams that can motivate such immediate and impassioned behavior, while social and ecological atrocities just make people’s eyes glaze over? To put it another way, why is it so hard to care about things that matter, and easy to care about things that don’t? In this article, we’ll attempt to address this question, providing a handful of examples of relevant cognitive biases from our evolutionary past that continue to distort and impact what we find meaningful, and why.
In-group/out-group bias is the tendency of humans to favor members of one’s own group over other individuals. For a potent example, let us momentarily inhabit the mind of the sports fan from the introduction. When our team wins, it’s obviously because of their hard work and deservingness, but when we lose, there’s no other possible explanation but bad calls. On the other hand, those guys on the other team are total assholes and when they win it’s all because of luck. As an interesting sidenote, we literally refer to the sports teams we support with “we,” binding up our selves into an entirely unrelated group structure. As a result, when they win, we win. Talk about group identification to the extreme!
As this example illustrates, what makes this bias so powerful is that the “group” has no real boundary. As far as your brain is concerned, whatever feels like your group, is your group. In our EEA, this distinction was negligible as there was little opportunity or reason to identify with any group structure beyond the boundaries of your tribe. However, as we saw in the last article, these ancestral understandings can be easily distorted when confronted with novel circumstances.
Today, we can be made to identify with arbitrary communities at all scales. This can manifest as nationalism during wartime, neighborhood groups rallying together to deal with a local issue, or all the kids who dressed up as Elsa on Halloween vs. the poor, lonely Cinderella. Sports teams, lunch tables, red-haired people, Ford drivers, those who wear pink on Wednesdays; no arena is too large or small, too mainstream or obscure, to escape the ingroup-outgroup (or us vs. them) narrative.
No arena is too large or small, too mainstream or obscure, to escape the ingroup-outgroup narrative.
Many of these scenarios are relatively innocuous. However, as some of the examples above illustrate (nationalism, brand identification, mean girls), this narrative can also be dangerous. This ardent defense and irrational preference for our own ingroups has been a defining behavior of some of history’s greatest atrocities: the Third Reich, the Khmer Rouge, and the Rwandan genocide, to name just a few. Today, the tragic results of these divisions may be better hidden, but fierce divides remain nonetheless. We have created a society where people are most-often judged not by the quality of their ideas, but by which group they identify with. This naturally leads to brutish social and political power struggles where any innovative ideas that arise are immediately branded with one party’s agenda (either us or them), and subsequent resistance from the other side makes any meaningful change impossible.
Groups are a powerful, and largely inescapable, force in human society. They spin a compelling story because they’re inherently irrational and can tap into powerful emotions. But, in reality, imagined communities are just that: imagined. Throughout our lives, we’re bound to tie up our identities with a number of different groups. Choose them wisely, because, in the end, “them” is just a concept.
Status and Consumption
As the us vs. them bias illustrates, humans are a highly social species. Beyond the strictly physical plane, we inhabit a social world, filled with a complex web of ever-changing relationships. Due to this inherent sociality, our ancestors’ fitness has always been significantly constrained not just by biological considerations, but by a variety of social factors as well. How popular were they? Were they a nice person? Did they play well with others? These questions, beyond silly affectations for one to consider while plucking daisies, became vital considerations that directly affected our ancestors’ fitness.
One major social determinant of genetic success boils down to one word: status. Merriam-Webster defines status as “position or rank in relation to others.” Today, this concept is highly correlated with wealth, but that was not the case for much of human history. Rather, hunter-gatherers live a semi-nomadic lifestyle which offers no real ability to accumulate surplus beyond what one can carry. As such, these societies are fiercely egalitarian. Higher status is not associated with more possessions, but greater prestige. This, of course, changed with the onset of agriculture and the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle, and has accelerated to the point where, today, one can display their relative status and accumulate an astounding amount of surplus. Obviously, this makes humans far happier.
This accumulation of surplus and pursuit of status become deeply problematic when we consider that humans have a variety of cognitive biases that dovetail with these tendencies, resulting in runaway consumption and continued dissatisfaction.
The Hedonic treadmill is a term that describes humans’ tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable baseline of happiness throughout our lives despite positive or negative external events. This is aptly conceptualized as a treadmill as it represents our constant pursuit of desires (presently associated with accumulation) despite the fact that they have no lasting positive effects on our psyche.
What’s more, humans are likewise evolved to strongly monitor perceived fairness. Any perception of inequality or favoritism against oneself is met with great anger and strongly anti-cooperative behavior. This tendency has deep roots in our animal family, appearing in the behavior of birds, chimps, dogs, and, as it was emblematically (and humorously) discovered, capuchin monkeys.
Clearly, this demonstrates a powerful desire for fair treatment, but what is fairness really? In this example, “fairness” completely disregards the other monkeys who didn’t participate in the experiment and thus received nothing. It likewise overlooks the fact that the capuchins were in a cage, while the experimenter was not. And while it might not be “fair,” the monkey who gets the grapes seems to be pretty happy with the distribution, so what’s the big deal?
It turns out that capuchins are not that far off from humans in this field. In one study, when participants were asked whether they would prefer to live in a 4,000 square foot house surrounded by 6,000 square foot houses, or a 3,000 square foot house when others lived in 2,000 square foot houses, most chose option B. They ignored the “rational” choice (a 33% bigger house) in favor of feeling better-off than their neighbors. Together, these experiments highlight our tendency to obsess over relative, rather than absolute fairness. And fairness, rather than an objective state of perfect equity, is most often regarded by an individual as “doing at least as well as those around me, if not better.” Would the cucumber monkey have preferred a world in which they received cucumbers and their partner received grapes, or a world where they received only water and their partner got nothing? I wonder…
To throw a final bias into this cognitive grab bag of pain, this negligence of absolute context can be explained by status quo bias. This bias describes the tendency to perceive one’s current situation as “normal” and any deviation from that baseline as a loss or gain. In the modern-day global North, humans have habituated to a ridiculously engorged baseline of surplus. And while this supernormal situation is fundamentally irregular, it nonetheless seems normal; and no one freaks out if everything is normal.
To tie this all together, status is not inherently tied to consumption, but it starts to be when we have the ability to accumulate surplus. Once we have access to surplus, we live life on the hedonic treadmill, buying more and more to satisfy our insatiable desires. Today, our society is flush with an astounding amount of surplus, but we think this situation is “normal” because it’s the world we were born into. Within this energy-swollen context, we deeply care about the relative behavior of those around us and respond dramatically to minor slights, but react much less to structural unfairness as long as we’re doing better than those around us.
The cherry on top of all this is that status has no inherent meaning, and surplus won’t make us any happier. So why pursue ‘em anyway?
Humans are notoriously bad at thinking about the future, and even worse at acting on it. Here, we will outline several cognitive biases that distort our ability to rationally consider future possibilities, and some of their implications.
Present bias is the tendency to prefer smaller immediate rewards over larger future payoffs. For example, in one study people preferred to receive $100 today rather than $110 in a week, but when asked if they would rather receive $100 in four weeks versus $110 in five weeks, most chose the latter option. Although in both of these situations the larger payoff is the more “rational” choice, most couldn’t resist the possibility of immediate reward. This is also known as dynamic inconsistency or hyperbolic discounting, which describes the process by which one makes inconsistent choices for themself over time, “discounting” future rewards against present gain. In other words, we favor immediate rewards, even when these are not a rational choice that we would make for ourselves in the future.
This tendency has vastly important implications for our lives. As we discussed in the last article with regard to supernormal stimuli, our urges are often hard to resist. Time biases likewise demonstrate a powerful tendency to prefer immediate “vices” over delayed “virtues.” In one curious study, people were asked to rate their movie preferences amongst a number of “lowbrow” vs. “highbrow” movies and had to decide what they would choose to watch tonight vs. in a week. Unsurprisingly, people strongly favored lowbrow movies in the present (immediate gain), but highbrow movies in the future.
This translates into many fields. Every New Year, countless thousands pledge to exercise more, eat healthier, and read more books, but often end up spending more time watching TV, eating junk food, and browsing social media. Clearly, we have good intentions about the future, but it’s far harder to follow through on them when the future becomes the present. And it’s always the present.
With that in mind, we must strive to give our present decisions the same clarity of thought that we usually dedicate to theoretical choices and wishes we make for our futures. Our biology is just one part of ourselves, and these biases in no way dictate that we remain present-addicted, vice-seeking, urge-following barbarians. We have the power to choose another path, be it a highbrow movie, a reusable bag, or a bike commute. And together, we can work for a better planet, in the future, and the present.
Looking Forward, and Inward
In these articles, we’ve explored a number of cognitive biases we believe are relevant to our current planetary and personal predicaments. Through these discussions, we’ve tried to share a basic understanding of some of the irrational tendencies inherent to our thought processing but, in all truth, we’ve barely scratched the surface (just check out the cognitive bias codex below for an idea). If this is something that continues to pique your interest, you can find a comprehensive list of cognitive biases and their effects here for your own perusal.
I would like to end by saying that evolutionary psychology is not a one-size-fits-all explanation to behavior. Our minds are vastly complex and assuming that every thought can be pinned down to a simplistic causal relationship would be a gross oversimplification and a disservice to cognitive science. That being said, we live in a society that loves to exploit our irrational tendencies, leading us to pursue behavior we may not truly want to. In these instances in particular, I find evolutionary psychology to be an incredibly useful tool for understanding the inner workings of minds.
Beyond these articles, and for application in your daily life, I’d like to recommend a simple thought experiment. When you feel something especially strong or potent, just take a moment to check in with yourself. Ask yourself, How am I feeling? Try to interpret that emotion or thought through this psychological framework. Why would it be beneficial to my ancestors’ fitness to feel this way? What cognitive bias might be at work? Do I really believe this?
If it’s helpful, great. If it’s not, let that shit go.