Evolutionary Psychology and Learning

By: Dr. Susan Siegfried, Clinical Psychology

When ever we look at human development Piaget is the theorist with which most text books begin. Piaget was a Swiss researcher that worked with understanding how children learn.  He developed a stage model which says a child must learn one stage before he/she can move on to the next. He also emphasizes that children can only solve certain problems at certain ages.  So in other words, the brain structure must be available for the child to learn certain types of problem solving or it can not be learned.  In a child, the brain is constantly forming new synaptic connections.  When the connections are available, and only when they are available, can the child learn the next skill. Piaget bases his theory on similarities in children.  Piaget would say that culture in early childhood learning is insignificant.  He reviewed children from all over the world finding the tasks at which he was looking happened at the same age across cultures.  These tasks would include smiling, rolling, sitting, crawling, object permanence (example: watching you hide a toy yet not knowing where it is. Actually, not even thinking to look for it.), concrete operational thinking (example: generalizing quantity to the size of the container) and finally formal operations which it abstract thinking (example: an algebraic problem).  At this point, we lose Piaget as he thought the brain was complete at age 12. Piaget would then say that by that age we can all solve the same problems using their full set of problem solving skills which are the same skills available to all adults.  This is not to be confused with IQ.  He is talking about problem solving skills or our approach to solving a problem.  IQ is our differing ability to use those skills. Problem solving is qualitative, IQ is quantitative.

Problems with Piaget’s Theory

The problem that arises with Piaget’s theory and many others that end around the age of 12 is that it is very evident that adolescents do not problem solve like most adults.  All adults do not all problem solve in the same way and older adults do not problem solve like younger adults. To explain this, we need another theory. Since development text books do not mention it, it is surprising to many people that Piaget himself noticed this discrepancy. He suspected that these differences in formal operational thinking (problem solving) could perhaps be attributed to evolutionary changes that are influenced by those things outside of his learning schedule. He said in 1976 that developmental psychology could only be fully understood in the context of natural history and that things like addictiveness could be an evolutionary alteration of the brain. This meaning, our brains solve proximal problems (how things work together) by evolving to meet environmental and social changes (1976).

Evolutionary Perspective

Evolutionary psychology does not use a framework for understanding why people past the age of 12 fail to use the same formal operations in problem solving. It looks at human development in two areas, primary and secondary.  Primary development encompasses Piaget’s first three stages of development.  These areas are biological and found in almost all primates happening in the same order and at the same period of brain development. Goodnow and Bethon (1966) were the first to see this contrast.  They looked as schooled and unschooled children in China and the United States as realized that is was not until they got to formal operations that there were discrepancies.  This indicates that until the age of 12 humans (and primates) develop mainly according to their biological scheduled. There is a lack of evidence according to Kuhn(1979) in the universality of formal operations. This Kuhn called secondary development and it is the area of interest to the evolutionary psychologist. Evolutionary theory says that at this point intrinsic motivation explain many differences in our learning, not ability or availability of instruction.  Here the evolution theory shifts some intrinsic motivation to being extrinsic (changes we make to adapt to what is happening outside of us.   In other words, how we use formal operations is changed by environment, environment is set up my families and culture, over time it changes brain connections that are then passes on through evolutionary changes to future generations if the problem solving is successful.  This would then suggest that if primates had the extrinsic motivation humans had over generations we would all be in the same place.

This would indicate that just as we must adapt biologically, it begins to make sense, that psychologically we must also adapt and learn new ways to solve new problems. It is now understood that the human mind is an integrated group of functional psychological specializations that have evolved over time.  This includes such areas as socializing sons and daughters, kinship, altruism (toward close relatives not distant relatives, friendship (the ability to sense cheaters), cooperation (punishing slackers) and  negotiating status.  All these areas of problem solving are causing brain changes over generations. What was the rule in one generation is learned and lived and that alters the brain which is passes on to the next generation (2010).  An example would be the role of women. One hundred years ago no one even thought to have a discussion about the female or male role in a relationship. Gradually that changed over the four generations or more that occur in one hundred years.  Now we hardly notice that either partner cooks dinner, earns the income, cares for the new born and so on.  It is not just that we have become more open minded. Young people today do these things out of natural reaction. First it is learned as problem solving, then over generation it becomes natural.

The greatest issue that arises in the field of evolutionary psychology in differentiating what learning has evolved is that it is difficult in this generation to draw too many large conclusions because we have not saved data over a long enough period of time. Today, we are saving data that will help future researchers draw stronger and more specific scientific cause and effect conclusion.


Confer, J., Eadton J., Fleishman, D., Gortz, C., Lewin, D., Perilloux, C. & Buss, D. (2010). Evolutionary psychology. American Psychologist: Febuary March, 110-126.

Goodnow, J. &  Bethon, G., (1966) Piaget’s Tasks: The effects of schooling and intelligence. Child development, 37: 573-582

Piaget, J. (1976). Behavior and Evolution:  New York, Random House.