Evolutionary Psychology and Fundamental Human Needs

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

Most of us are driven by five fundamental human characteristics, which include the desires for acceptance and security, as well as seemingly irrational fears. Discover how these fears and desires can be traced to our ancient ancestors.

Prehistoric cave paintings over 4,000 years Khao Chan Ngam, Nakhon Ratchasima.
Our prehistoric ancestors needed to belong to groups in order to protect themselves against those who might harm them, and to find a suitable mate.

Five Fundamental Human Motives

One primary place where evolution seems to have played a role is in people’s motives and goals. Think for a moment about what motivates your behavior on a daily basis—what does your behavior seem designed to achieve for you?

When evolutionary psychologists look for consistencies in what most people strive for in their daily lives—what they focus on, what they think about, and what they respond to—they conclude that it boils down to about five basic things.

First, all people want to be accepted—not by everybody, but by certain other people. And a great deal of what we do each day helps us to be accepted—or at least avoid being rejected—by other people.

So, we try to be nice. We cooperate when we work with others. We do our share. We try to get others to perceive us positively. We work on our close relationships, and so on.

Second, people the world over belong to cooperative groups of various kinds: work groups, committees, hunting parties, sports teams, political groups, civic organizations, and so on. Belonging to groups is a feature of human nature. It is uncommon to find many otherwise well-adjusted people who never join groups.

Third, people are motivated to influence other people. We want other people to act in certain ways, and we do what we can to get them to behave as we wish.

We also want other people to think certain things, to hold certain beliefs, and to agree with us; so we spend time trying to persuade them. The quality of our life depends on other people treating us in certain ways; we are therefore invested in influencing others.

Fourth, all of us have our antennae up for people who might harm us in one way or another—not just for people who might hurt us physically, but also for those who may treat us unfairly, take advantage of us, cheat us, or fail to do their share. And we react very strongly to being mistreated by other people. It’s part of human nature to guard against being hurt and exploited.

And, finally, at many points in their lives, people focus on mate selection and retention—having intimate sexual relationships with others.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Much of what we do every day of our lives seems to be in the service of these five primary motives. That’s not to say that all of your behavior is due to these motives, rather that they consistently exert a very strong role in what you do and how you feel.

The influence of these motives may not always be obvious. You might want to make money or learn new things or retire early.

But those specific goals are often in the service of these five broader motives. These motives are so central to human nature that it’s hard to even imagine how behavior might look without them. We simply don’t find otherwise normal, well-adjusted people who have the opposite motives.

Learn more about five key areas of our behavior in which evolution plays a critical role

How Our Ancestors Have Influenced Our Basic Motives

Why does human nature consistently emphasize these five basic motives?

The answer is that these are the motives that would have promoted survival and reproduction during the evolutionary past. What did our prehistoric ancestors need to do in order to survive and reproduce?

They needed to be accepted by other people, belong to groups, influence other people, protect themselves against those who might harm them, and find a suitable mate.

A prehistoric cave painting in Bhimbetka -India , a world heritage site which shows a king on his horse followed by his soldiers.
Prehistoric humans that belonged to groups were more likely to survive and reproduce.

That’s pretty much it. If an individual accomplished those five things, his or her chances of surviving and reproducing would have been much higher than if he or she didn’t accomplish those things.

So, we are the descendants of generations and generations of beings who sought acceptance, belonged to groups, tried to influence others, protected themselves, and had successful mating relationships.

Individuals who weren’t motivated to do those things—or worse, wanted to do the opposite—didn’t fare as well in their own lives, and they weren’t as successful passing their genes to future generations.

The bottom line is that much of what you are motivated to do each and every day, you are motivated to do because evolution built those motives into human nature.

Evolutionary Purpose of Fear

One of the topics to which Charles Darwin himself applied evolutionary ideas was the topic of emotions. Emotions evolved because they provided an adaptive benefit for our ancestors.

The most obvious example perhaps is fear. Fear alerts us to dangers and leads us to avoid things that might hurt us.

Of course, people can learn to be afraid of things that don’t pose any real danger, but, fundamentally, fear evolved to help us respond to threats to our well-being. In other words, the emotion of fear is related to the fundamental human motive to protect ourselves.

It’s informative to look at the fears that are more or less universal—the things that human beings tend to be afraid of without much learning—because those fears probably evolved.

One such fear involves snakes. During the course of human evolution, while we were wandering around on the African savannah, snake bites were a real threat.

In fact, even today in Africa and Southeast Asia, thousands of people die from venomous snake bites each year.

Our prehistoric ancestors who feared snakes were much more likely to survive and reproduce than those who weren’t afraid of snakes, or worse, those who tried to play with snakes. Prehistoric people who weren’t cautious around snakes tended not to have many offspring.

Because we descended from individuals who were afraid of snakes, it’s a feature of human nature to dislike snakes. You can override that normal wariness, but anxiety about snakes appears to be part of human nature.

That’s why you’re probably more nervous about snakes than you are about cars, even though in the United States cars are far, far more dangerous. You aren’t naturally afraid of riding in cars because our species doesn’t have millions of years of experience dying in car accidents.

The same is true of how people react to spiders, and even to the feeling that something is crawling along their skin. Think of how you react when you have the sense that something is creeping up your leg; that’s an evolved reaction.

Learn more about why we have emotions

Why Do We Overreact to Threats?

Snarling animals are upsetting to most people, particularly when they are showing their fangs. And what’s really interesting is that many people have negative emotional reactions when they simply see pictures or movies of snakes, spiders, or snarling animals.

When you think about it, that negative reaction is weird. Why would we be afraid of a picture or a movie? That’s totally irrational!

The answer is that throughout the entire course of evolutionary history, anytime you saw a snake, spider, or ferocious animal, it was really there. Your brain isn’t designed to distinguish automatically between real threats and pictured threats in photographs or movies.

One of the interesting things about evolved fear responses is that they often appear overly responsive, if not totally unnecessary. All animals, including human beings, are far more likely to overreact to something that’s not actually threatening than they are to under-react, or have no reaction at all, to a real threat.

Think of a deer in the forest. Deer startle and run away far more than is necessary. In the same way, people get upset over little things, and they worry about things that turn out to be nothing.

During the course of your life, you have likely worried about things that didn’t really hurt you more often than you failed to worry about things that posed a real threat to you.

You were probably more likely to worry about medical tests that came out fine, than you were to be cavalier about medical tests that showed a serious problem. Late at night, you’ve probably been more likely to have concerns about noises in your house that were nothing, than you were to ignore signs that there was a real intruder.

When you were a student, you probably worried more about tests on which you ultimately that you did fine, than you were relaxed about tests that you failed.

This overreaction to possible harm is also an evolved feature of the brain. Evolution seems to operate on the idea that it’s far better to be safe than sorry—that it’s better to experience unnecessary fear and anxiety, and to react as if something is dangerous when it’s not—than to fail to react to a real threat.

Our threat detection system is built in a way that makes false positive errors much more common than false negative errors.

It’s like the smoke detector that you probably have in your home. Smoke detectors are designed to be certain that they warn you about a possible fire.

You may have had smoke detectors go off when there really wasn’t a fire, but rather you burnt the toast or you took a steamy shower. But that false alarm is not a bad price to pay to be sure that your smoke detector never misses the smoke from a real fire.

Animals with very sensitive threat-detection systems were more likely to survive and reproduce, so that became a part of human nature, making us much more reactive than we often need to be.

Fear, then, strongly ties into the evolutionary need for survival.

From the lecture series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior, taught by Professor Mark Leary

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