Have you ever wondered why we do the things we do? Why we so often act in irrational, and unhelpful ways, even though we full well know better than that.
For instance, why do we often worry about imaginary problems in the future, even though we know they will most likely never happen anyway? Or why do we care so much what complete strangers think of us; people we have never met before and will probably never meet again?
And why do we constantly feel the need to criticize ourselves, and beat ourselves up over small mistakes, even though we know that’s not helpful at all?
The human mind is full of quirks and flaws, and much of what we think and do doesn’t make much logical sense. That is, until we look at our evolutionary past and the ways that our modern use of our cognitive abilities creates an evolutionary mismatch..
For most of human history, humanity lived in small tribes surrounded by challenges from the natural world. Dangerous animals were lurking nearby, and hostile enemy bands could fight over scarce resources.
Those in tribes that learned to work together to manage threats and challenges were more likely to have children of their own, and pass on their genes to the next generation. But that very skill required being sensitive to potential signs of danger, both directly and through learning and conditioning, so behavioral strategies could be applied.
Learning signs of danger by associative learning is half a billion years old. We’ve had plenty of time to get good at it. Being able to avoid threats based on symbolic processes (“I saw a beast at the river. Watch out”) is a more recent and apparently uniquely human skill, but we’ve had time to get good at that as well. Verbal expectations can readily harness ancient survival circuits in the brain.
Nowadays, we live in a very different environment, but we still have those circuits and those tendencies. And with this insight in mind, many of the mental ailments that plague so many of us begins to make more sense. The problem is that human symbolic learning is now over-extending our skills from long ago.
In modern times, we often struggle with negative fearsome thoughts. We are quick to see the danger and to assume the worst is yet to come. Negative thinking, it seems, makes life harder and more difficult than it actually is. We are safer as a species than ever before, but we’ve never felt so threatened. It is not hard to imagine every stranger we come across on our way home at night to be a convicted criminal. Try it on purpose (just once!). You will be surprised at how easy it is.
In an evolutionary time frame, however, detecting possible danger was critical to survival for you and your tribe. Suppose you see a fuzzy round shape in the near distance. You can be a positive thinker, and assume that’s just a big rock, and go by your way. Or, alternatively, you can be a negative thinker, assume the worst, and think that’s actually a big bear waiting to kill you.
If you make a mistake as a negative thinker, no big deal. You get scared, change your route, and that’s about it. If, however, you make a mistake as a positive thinker, and the rock turns out to be a big bear, you become lunch. Within limits, negative thinking is the better strategy, which is why you and I descended from a long line of negative-thinkers and danger detectors.
The problem now is that the vast majority of our dangers are cognitively created. We can worry about almost anything. If we cannot rein in that part of our minds, our natural tendency to detect and avoid danger can overwhelm our ability to live.
In modern times, we often go over and over our hurtful memories. We remember the times when we said something embarrassing, or when we felt the most vulnerable or hurt. And even though the memory happened a long time ago, we can still feel the sting as if it had happened yesterday. Our mind makes us relive our pain again and again – whether we like it or not.
In an evolutionary time frame, rehearsing past dangers likely helped avoid them. Suppose you encountered a dangerous animal and barely made it out alive. It was likely useful to replay the experience in your head, and review your struggle in detail; what you did wrong, and what you could have done different. It may have better prepared you for the next time you encounter a wild animal. To some degree, ruminating likely increased our ancestor’s chances at survival.
As symbolic problem solving took over our minds we could ruminate over more and more things: slights, fears about our health or abilities, or the possible source of our struggles. What once may have been helpful had been combined with symbolic abilities that make this process toxic.
In modern times, we often worry about reputation. We worry about our status, and what other people might say about us behind turned backs. And because of our worry, we then set up rules for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. We invent rules for what we are “supposed” to wear, what we are “supposed” to say, and even what we are “supposed” to think and feel.
In prehistoric times, worrying about reputation was yet another survival advantage. Humans are extremely vulnerable by themselves, and if our ancestors wanted to survive, they needed to ensure their position within the group. By tracking how we impacted others our ability to cooperate — and to survive — increased. Social sensitivity is a benefit.
The problem is that now failing to have enough “likes” on Facebook can feel like being cast out of the group. We can police our every behavior, making our life smaller and smaller with each additional rule. As we play false to avoid being excluded, we feel false even when we are included.
In modern times, we frequently compare ourselves and our achievements to others. And whenever we fall short of our expectations (which inevitably happens from time to time), we are quick to raise the stick and beat ourselves up. We see our shortcoming as a failure of character, and conclude we are simply “not good enough”; leaving us feel hurt and vulnerable in the process.
In prehistoric times, what mattered most was NOT whether people felt good about themselves, or whether they outperformed everyone else. Instead, what truly mattered was whether you could work together to survive. Some degree of self-comparison was likely an advantage. Watch young children play their games and you will see that some degree of emotional pain over losing is a motivator to close the gap between themselves and others. That was always so.
Now self-comparison and self-criticism can go to insane lengths. For one thing, we are no longer comparing ourselves to our clan members. We can compare ourselves to fictional life stories, photoshopped pictures, or the gold plated bathrooms of the rich and famous. We can imagine if we are not practically perfect in every way, we are just not good enough. No wonder both narcissism and personal insecurity are on the rise.
In modern times, people never seem satisfied with what they have. We always chase the next big thing, hoping it will give us the fulfillment and happiness we have been waiting for so long. Unfortunately, the moment we achieve our goal, our new-found happiness quickly wanes off. The newly acquired car becomes just the car, and we turn our eyes to the next big thing on the horizon. The unchecked need for more is a recipe for greed and psychological suffering.
In prehistoric times, seeking out more of positive things was absolutely essential. In a scarce environment, having more food, more weapons, and more of any other type of resource could be a survival advantage. The restraint was practical and physical. Even a king might not have what a lower middle class person can have today. In the present our “more”-ing is killing us and the planet we live on.
Our brains and behavioral predispositions were not developed for the challenges of the 21st century, with our steady media diet of fearful events and judgmental social comparisons. The weird things we do are usually because our minds are trying to solve an ancient problem of safety and belonging, using mental processes that were not designed for the modern world.
You won’t stop what you have evolved to do. You will not stop having difficult thoughts of what might go wrong in the near and distant future. Nor will you be able to always resist the urge of ruminating, or of worrying about other people’s opinion, or of comparing yourself to others and yearning for more. We are simply not that type of monkey.
However, we can learn to change our relationship with ourselves. We can learn to have our worries and difficult thoughts, without getting caught up in them. Instead of being scared by our inner mental life, and letting it dominate our action, we can notice it and refocus on what actually matters. This will take time, it will take patience, and – most important of all – it will take practice.
Whenever get caught up in difficult thoughts and feelings, we can take a deep breath, and ask ourselves how a struggle like this could have helped your distant ancestors. It might bring a greater sense of self-compassion. More often than not, you will find that your problem-solving mind is just trying to keep you safe and in the group. It is just the kind of monkey we are.