Evolutionary Psychology and Parenting

Parenting in the Past

Reproduction has not changed much, but the world in which we raise our children has changed. Think of life in the United States one hundred or one hundred and fifty years ago (a nanosecond in terms of evolutionary psychology). Life expectancy was forty-five to fifty years, most people were farming, clustered around small town.  Transportation was difficult and there was no such thing as adolescence.  By the age of fifteen,  the average man was married, in charge of or taking over the family farm and likely have at least one child of his own and more to come. An eighth grade education was like a college degree today. If one produced enough to feed his/her family it was adequate.  Hopefully there was extra produced to sell or barter for goods and services.

Stress was of a smaller scope.  It centered around survival and community. Education was available but little was needed for most people. People survived based on physical abilities.  One could travel to a University but it was not very common.

Parenting in this period was done in close quarters, including the physical living conditions and the community.  Everyone knew everyone and what everyone was doing, so supervision of children was constant. This also afforded children frequent access to parents, adults and grandparents. Culture was passed on very directly and compliance with cultural rules was directly enforced. Parenting basically ended around the age of twelve to fourteen when it was necessary for the next generation to take over for the aging parents.

Parenting Today

The world is very large and fast paced today.  To function in this world, children need more than 12 years of education. To function well they likely need an additional four  to ten more years of education.  Now we have people in adult bodies around the age of twelve who must stay in the role of children (adolescents) for another ten years. We have also added stress to our world.  It often takes two incomes to support a family. Transportation and city clusters have forced long travel time on a daily basis. Parents are only available to children four hours a day or less. With the movement of people around the country,  grandparents and extended family are often in different parts of the country or the world.  We often do not know our neighbors and certainly they are not keeping an eye on our children in the community. The need to parent differently is certainly evident. The need to parent longer into the child’s life is also evident. So, how has it changed?

Parental Investment

Having children is an investment in humanities future. Today we are limited in how much time we can spend parenting. The quantity of parental investment directly affects the health and welfare of the child. We know that at least in early ages the mother is likely to make a greater time investment in the child considering lactation, protection, and nurturing. Today with sexual activity not connected to a long term commitment between parents we see greater mother commitment than father commitment when looking at the whole society. We know from the evolutionary perspective that the sex of the parent that has the greatest commitment has and effect on strength of  sexual selection in the future. That is, the parent spending the most time on care giving is less likely to reproduce as often as the parent not or less involved.  The parent physically protecting the child is more prone to injury affecting the likelihood of reproduction and the parent bearing he financial burden of the child reduces their chance of reproduction due to monetary constraints.  The result is fewer children.

There is a cost benefit effect in parenting. The input of the parents has large effect on the children. This affects such things as condition, growth and survival and eventually the reproductive success of the child. The cost is on the parent side. The costs are time, finances and physical wear and tear as well as limiting relationships and opportunities for reproduction. Evolution occurs when the costs out way the benefit to the child. This is how evolutionary psychologies look at the evolution of parenting. It is not the macro concept of survival of the fittest that affect our system. It is the micro concept of the effect on the individual.

Cinderella Effect and Parenting Today

Evolutionary Psychologists have notices that there is a much higher rate of step children being neglected, abused or murdered by a step parent than by biological parents. It was the evolutionary thinking that led researchers to discover that the greatest risk factor for homicide committed against a child was when there was a step parent present. This stresses the old system. Today they found that the adaptive problem that parents face are accurate identification of ones own child, ability to provide resources of the right kind at the right time and maintaining ones own psyche.

Because parenting takes place over almost double the amount of time as it did in the past, because it is done in a high stress demanding environment and because there is less group support parenting has indeed gotten harder. Given what we know about adaptation in the brain the key here is for parents to understand this. While we can not change the demands on parenting we can provide knowledge and information to parents so they understand they are not done when the child is twelve.  Supervision is needed far beyond that.  We know that the brain is not complete until the age of twenty-five to twenty-seven years so parents are needed that long; frequent interaction is necessary.  Children learn how to be, from parents. Evolution of the individual tells us that we learn when others model problem solving. Watching effective parental problem solving helps the child’s brain evolve. For their own and their children’s support, parents must maintain their own mental health so that their relationships with other adults are stable. Children also do best when their biological parent are involved. Others in the kinship need to be aware of their importance for children as well. An investment in a grandchild, nephew or niece is an investment in the families future and the future of humanity.

Evolutionary Psychology and Personality

The Difficulty in Combining Personality Theory and Evolutionary Theory

Personality is a combination of thoughts, motives, distinctive behaviors, enduring behaviors, and emotions. This combination of knowledge about a person predicts how we will react and adapt to given situations. When we talk about personality we need to talk about theory as personality is unique to each individual and it changes over a life time. The trait theory suggests that personalities are a genetic accumulation of general traits that remain over a life time.  These traits include:

  1. Introversion/Extroversion: Extroversion is focusing your attention outward first rather than inward toward your self which would be introversion. So this is the difference between that quiet shy person and the outgoing people person.
  2. Contrary/ Agreeable: Contrary refers to the individual who is very cautious and not likely to be concerned about the needs of others before themselves. Some suggest this in an individual who is anxious or scared. The Agreeable individual tends to trust, be altruistic, affectionate and kind.
  3. Unreliable/Conscientiousness: An unreliable person is just that, not to be depended upon. They do not go the extra mile for others even in a committed relationship. The Conscious person is thoughtful, have good impulse control and show goal-directed behaviors.
  4. Neuroticism/ Emotional Stability: This is not as bad as it sounds. Neuroticism just means that individual that tends to be more pensive or moody.  They tend to have more ups and downs in their feelings. Emotional stability is the individual who is more even tempered.  This is a differences that is about control of what one shows to the world not a differenced in how much an individual feels.
  5. Seclusion/Openness: The secluded individual likes thing just the way they are.  They do not have an interest is trying or learning new things or new ways of doing or thinking about what they already know. The open person is imaginative, has good insight into process and people and tends to be interested in many things.

There are other theories of psychology; however, they tend to be more existential. Freud you will remember came up with the Id, Ego and Superego. When we are working with evolutionary psychology we must remember it is more biology based.  It is easier to quantify dependability a trait than it is to quantify the id. Evolutionary psychology has been able to identify species –typical and sexual adaptations when applying it to psychology one must look at evolution on a smaller scale. The real question is, how can evolutionary psychology explain personality with its many individual differences? The trait theory tells us that personalities are different having a continuum upon which all people fit. While the traits may be the same in everyone where we are in that trait is our alone to own. As hopeless as it may see to pin this all down in scientific terms it is interesting to note that evolutionary psychology has made many major strides which are proving to be helpful to further the science and also are useful to the field of therapy.

What are Researchers Working on in Terms of Personality  (Buss, D., 2009)

We only have a short time in life to accomplish what we choose to accomplish. Our energy (time) is finite. We must make trade off in how we use it. What we have begun to learn from this research is what drives one person in one direction and another person in another direction. So far, it seems to be basic biology. For example, higher testosterone levels in a male seem to cause that individual to spend more time on mating and less time on parenting. This would be considered predictive information for a therapist.

Costly signals tend to be positive signals that we send to attract others whether it is for mating or business.  People tend to be attracted to the more costly signals.  For example, giving away money, throwing a lavish party or buying expensive gifts tends to attract more people to you.  This may explain some of the disparity between economic classes.

We find environmental heterogeneity in fitness optima maybe necessary for survival.  For example, we know that people who have lived on small islands near Italy for twenty generation show much lower scores on openness and extroversion.  This adjustment allows people to adapt to particular situations. This allows then for prediction of success based on the Trait assessment.

Frequency-Dependent selection is also an interesting discovery from evolutionary psychology.  When several strategies for success or survival are maintained within a population the usefulness or fitness of a strategy decreases as it becomes more common. Example: as the ratio of men to women increases in a population the average fitness of the male decreases. This theory has been used to explain psychopathology. When things are out of balance the individual must find new and unique methods of getting their needs met.

These tend to be the main theories about personality that evolutionary psychology has proposed at this point in time.  There are more possible theories they are looking at but they need more research.  This is a very open area for this type of research.  The Frequency-Dependent theory has been looked at the most recently in the wake of the increase in mass violence in many successful societies today.  Some would propose that we need to look at our social balance to observe relationships to the individual changes in how we are competing today. Is the individual become so insignificant that one must do something big to get their needs met?  How could we address those needs as a society in a positive way? Why does the individual need to choose violence to meet those needs?  Are we creating a dichotomy between those that can achieve and those that can not?  Truthfully we are getting into a bit of sociology at this point but it is interesting none the less.

What have we learned for psychology today from the evolutionary researchers? Therapist and cognitive researchers are looking more and more in to personality theory to form treatment plans that allow individuals who are struggling with the fit of their genetic personality traits with success within their environments.  How do we teach the contrary individual to be affectionate and kind so as to facilitate long term relationships both personally and professionally?  Understanding how this all works shows the importance of thinking in these terms which is somewhat new to therapeutic psychology.


Buss, D. M., (2009). Explaining personality and individual differences. Association for Psychological Science, Vol. 4, No. 4, 359-366.

Evolutionary Psychology – Linguistics

It is only human beings that have verbal language naturally.  We really do not teach our children to talk they acquire it as their brain becomes ready. If we want our pets to understand language we need to purposefully teach the meaning of a word and they likely will never learn to verbally respond to carry on a conversation. They only follow instructions. So the understand but can not produce language.  The study of language if often attributed to Norm Chomsky. The developmental understanding of language is that there is a location in the brain that is mainly used to learn language. Newborns come fully equipped to learn language and to learn any language. Babies hear sounds called phonemes.  These are not full words just sounds.  Mothereeze is so interesting to babies (and helpful) because it centers on these sound. Babies will stop sucking to listen to mothereeze. It is thought that children are listening to these sounds even before birth. An infant will turn toward their own mother’s voice speaking mothereeze and not toward another mother.  This likely indicates that the child is familiar with that voice of their mother’s and not the other voice. He/she has been listening in the womb. Cooing which happens at about 4 weeks old is imitating those phonemes. Later babbling is imitating the sentences. It begins to show sentence cadence and inflection.  To go from babbling to speech the child must learn that words are symbols. Children soon recognize that words and objects are connected and they go from there very quickly. At two years, a child knows a few hundred works, by six he has a vocabulary of 10,000words.

After recognizing phonemes, children learn grammar.  That sounds strange but it is true. So, while parents are busy enunciating words thinking baby is learning, the child is putting together the grammar rules in their language. That is why when a child is fist putting sentences together just past one year old, the child will say “Mommy goed to the store.” The rule for past tense in the English language is to add an ed.  The child is following those rules it began to learn at birth. By the age of one the child knows 5 to 100 words and all the grammar rules they need. The area in the brain intended for language learning begins to be used for other things by the end of the third year of life.  These first three years are the years to teach multiple languages.  After they turn four they must learn language in another way (Like when you were learning a foreign language in high school) and it does not come as easily.

Theorists believe because of the adaptive nature of language learning that it suggest it has an adaptive origin. They think perhaps it is the FOXP2 gene that allows us to utilize language.  Humans seem to have a unique form of this gene that seems to have appeared between 100 thousand and 200 thousand years ago.

Language and the brain

In most animals that communicate using sound, we know that language is centered in only one hemisphere of the brain (usually the left). This would include such animals as birds, dolphins, mice and to some degree monkeys. This is also true of humans. The right hemisphere control language in only 3 % of  right handed people and 19% of left handed people.

There are basically two areas in the brain involved in language, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Broca’s area is mainly responsible for putting sentences together using proper grammar and locally appropriate vocabulary. Wernicke’s area is responsible for language processing. That is, understanding the meaning of the words heard and then a ability to put words together to make sense to others. It is thought that other areas surrounding the Sylvian fissure, which is a line separating the parts of the brain that are only found in humans from those shared by animals, also has something to do with language production.

Evolutionary origin of language

One theory (Michael Tomasello and Talmy Givon) claims that we learn language by imitation which puts it in the category of learning. They do not believe that there is an innate grammar structure in the brain for language. That theory began before we had the valuable brain imaging we have now.  They still say that since that portion of the brain that shows early language learning is taken up by other areas of the brain that therefore it is not language specific in nature.

Tecumseh Fitch says that it is impossible that every aspect of language is adaptive. He says instead that the evolutionary origin of language is best understood as resulting from the convergence of many different and separate adaptations coming together into one complex system.

Terrence Deacon, the author of The Symbolic Species believes that different aspects of language have evolved at the same time independently from one another but in conjunction with the general evolution of the mind.   Therefore, the ability to use symbols is part of our whole cognitive evolution.

If we could agree on a single theory, we are still left with the most important question if we are to use this knowledge in the future and that is: which of the brains many functions has been the basis of the language adaptation?  Several theories (as you likely expected) are out there. One theory is that it evolved for the purpose of social grooming. So, it is useful to humans for forming contracts, everything from mating contracts to business contracts.

It is likely that as needs have changed; the way in which we communicate has changed.  Evolutionists study the difference between direct and derived functionality. Direct communication refers to the things that are responsible for reproduction and survival. Derived communication are the things we have found to use language with along the way. This may be something like using gossip to obtain socially acceptable outcomes. It may be that we are moving into an era of more derived evolution.  We certainly have moved into a time of different kinds of communication much of it being digital. Where this research will take us and how it will apply to our understanding and use of psychology is yet to be determined. If nothing else we will likely be updating how we understand language as a part of human development.


The Evolution of Language Out of Pre-Language, Michael Tomasello,  edited by Talmy Givón, Bertram F Malle

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary Psychology and Emotions

Human Emotion

An emotion has four parts.  First you appraise the situation to determine if you are safe. Second, you experience a subjective feeling.  Third you have physiological responses.  You heart rate may increase or slow down, your breathing changes and hormones are likely released.  Finally, you show some observable behavior. This could be anything from smiling to crying to running.

Overview of theories explaining how emotions work

James-Lang theory of how emotions work is likely the most accepted basic theory.  He says that first our brains read physiological changes in the body such as increased heart rate.  Then your brain interprets different pattern in those changes. Then those patterns trigger different emotions and then you finally  outwardly react, ie. smile, scream or run. So, first you see the bear, then the brain checks things out with past brain patterns, then you know your are scared and finally you run (or what ever other behavior your basic psychological traits or past experience, or knowledge push you to do).

There is a facial feed back theory that says you brain reads you automatic facial expression and then reacts based your basic psychological traits, past experience, or knowledge push you to do. This could explain why some people show little facial expression on a regular basis.  It keeps them from feeling emotions.

The cognitive appraisal theory starts with the appraisal of the situation and then you pull up past emotions from past experience and find yourself in a particular emotional state. The second piece of this theory is that you can have a feeling without any cognition.  This would be like when you are surprised by that bear and you just run.  There is no time to notice emotion.

There are four qualities about emotions we must keep in mind no matter to which theory you subscribe.

  1. Emotions are expressed in stereotypical facial expression.
  2. Emotions are not always comfortable and we can choose whether we respond to them or not.
  3. Emotions change many cognitive processes, such as goal setting, decision making and personal relationships.
  4. Some emotions are hard wired in the brain. An example of a hard wired emotion is crying in a baby.  When uncomfortable for any reason they are hard wired to show their discomfort by crying.  They do not need to learn how to cry or when to cry Toby, (Cosmides, 1999)

The Brain and Emotion

It is mainly the limbic system,  sometimes called the old brain or the animal brain,that is responsible for producing emotions.  The limbic system is the part of the brain that we have in common with animals that regulate our bodies without our thinking about it.  It keeps our heart beating, your lung taking in air and your stomach digesting food.  We do not think about doing this and many other things because the limbic system just keeps on doing it.  However,  in humans this is a connection that the needs the limbic system and the forebrain communicating.

It is this forebrain that the evolutionary psychologist is thinking about.  We know that your brain always learns and memorizes experiences with emotions of the moment connected.This is the process that is important here. In many ways, the evolutionary psychologist sees the brain much like a computer with many different programs working together. There are two levels of circuitry. There is a level that controls cognitive process and then there is a superordinate level.  The problem with the first level of cognitive processing is that several of these programs contradict each other so superordinate programs must be available for support. For example, the program that says you should sleep now contradicts the need to run (fight or flight) when you see that bear.  Therefore, you need a subordinate program to mediate the situation.

According to this theoretical framework, and emotion is a superordinate program whose function is to direct the activities and interaction of the subprograms governing learning, memory, goals choice, motivational priories, categorization and conceptual frame words and psychological reactions  (heart rate, endocrine function, immune function, gamete release), reflexes, behavioral decision rules, motor systems, communication processes energy level and effort allocations, affective coloration of evenings and stimuli, recalibration of probability estimates, situation assessments, value and regulatory variables (self esteem, estimations of relative formibability and relative values of alternative goal states and efficacy discount rate), and so on (Lewis, Haviland-Jones, 2000).

Affective Coloration of Events

This is the major understanding that influences evolutionary psychology.  While the above process is very complicated we must remember that every memory that is stored is first “colored” by emotion.  Then remember that information only enters the brain through your five senses.  Everyone’s body is different and no two people can be in the exact same location at the same time so the information that is sent to the brain is first bias by difference in our senses physically, then colored by our individual emotion at that moment and then it is stored.  Now it begins to make sense why two people can be in the same place at the same time and see two different things and remember the event completely differently—-and both are right according to their body make up —-and both are wrong because  the body makes up bias.

The Evolutionary process – Adaptation

The way in which this all works together is the evolutionary process.  We have basic biological responses to situations including your senses sending information to the brain. Then there is the natural physiological responses to them such as the release of hormones, and finally there is a first response behavior followed by possible modulation by the superordinate programs.  With each experience, additional information is recorded and stored making more informed superordinate programs or additional programs.  This is a process of learning that evolutionary psychologist consider to be an evolution of brain function. This is the adaptive process of evolution. To postulate long term, the folks that do the best job of this process are the most likely to survive and pass on genetics.  That genetics may not be this exact information but it is the genetics that set up the ancestors to be successful so over time changed should be recorded genetically.  So far, scientists are convinced that the concept of natural selection is a strong force in the understanding of emotions.  The true evolution is the adaptation of the individual or groups of individuals.

It should be noted that there is one application for cognitive therapy that comes out of this information and that is the practice of emotional rehearsal. A client can walk thought an event, past or anticipated, and practice the emotion that they choose to experience either in a stored memory or in anticipation of and event. It is used in treatment of PTSD clients and in emotional control clients.


Lewis, M & Haviland-Jones, J. (2000). Handbook of emotions, 2nd Ed. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1999).The past explains the present: Emotional adaptation and the structure of ancestral environments. Ethology and Sociobiology. 11, 375-424.

Evolutionary Psychology and Learning

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.