Evolutionary Psychology: Theory & Overview

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Learn about the theory of evolutionary psychology and its roots in Darwin's studies of natural selection. See how evolutionary psychology affects your likes and dislikes and understand why it's the reason many people are afraid of spiders.

Purpose of Evolutionary Psychology

In modern American society, obesity is a growing problem associated with a variety of health problems. Although this is becoming more and more well known, people still prefer to eat high fat, sugary foods that are packed with calories. Why is this? Shouldn't we be able to tell our bodies to prefer leaner, lower-calorie foods to aid in maintaining a healthy body weight? Evolutionary psychology helps answer these questions.

The reason why we can't shut off this desire for fatty, unhealthy foods is because during the time of our earliest ancestors, food was quite scarce and it would not be uncommon for humans to go a few days without being able to find food. Due to these conditions, humans had a higher chance of survival in these times by eating high-calorie foods that would provide them with more energy over longer periods of time. Over time, a preference for these foods developed to enhance the chances of survival and, more importantly, reproduction. This is just one example of how conditions in ancestral times have influenced our behavior and ways of thinking, which is what evolutionary psychology explores.

History of Evolutionary Psychology

Charles Darwin is credited with the theory of evolution, which is the basis for evolutionary psychology. He spent time in the Galápagos Islands and noticed that the animals on each island looked different.

For example, different birds known as finches on the islands had different shaped beaks. The finches that ate nuts had beaks that were thicker and bigger for grinding nuts while the finches that had thin, small beaks that came to a point ate insects that they had to pull out from knotholes in trees.

These finches' beaks changed physically through many generations of exposure to a particular food source, and as a result, the finches with the best beaks for that particular type of food were the ones to live long enough to reproduce, which fine-tuned the beaks to become specialized for one food source. This process of gradual change to produce organisms better adapted to the environment is known as natural selection.

Just as physical changes are produced to aid survival and reproduction, changes in human psychology (thoughts, preferences, and behavior) are produced to aid in survival and reproduction through natural selection. The study of these psychological mechanisms that developed to enhance survival and reproduction is evolutionary psychology.


Evolutionary psychology is a unique perspective within psychology because it's more concerned with why people think and act the way they do rather than how they think or act. Let's return to the food example from the beginning of the lesson. It is fairly common knowledge that people generally prefer high-calorie foods, yet evolutionary psychology takes it a step further by asking why. Specifically, evolutionary psychology studies the reasons for the development of thoughts and behaviors through the process of natural selection and investigates these ideas through use of the scientific method.

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