The Evolution of Aspiration

I’ve been thinking and reading about consumption as seen through the eyes of evolutionary psychologists for some considerable time. This ties in with my interest in well-being economics, particularly the question of why we do things that don’t necessarily make us happy. From an evolutionary perspective, the answer is quite simple: human happiness mechanisms are purely means to an end in evolutionary terms, not ends in themselves. Frankly, our genes don’t care if we are happy; rather, they care that we survive, reproduce and help our close kin to survive and reproduce.

There is scope for reciprocity and trust in this Darwinian jungle. But such higher moral values are again just tools, albeit sophisticated ones, to further our genetic inheritance. We may act altruistic, but this is to either earn potential altruism in return at some future date or purely to signal our superior intellectual or physical fitness.

The evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad argues that a mind is no different from any other organ that has evolved in the body (here).

The human mind is an amalgamation or collection of domain specific computational systems, each of which evolved to solve a specific adaptive problem: find a mate, avoid predators, find nutritious food, avoid poisonous foods, invest in kin, build coalitions and friendships. Each of these important problems would necessitate some adoptive solutions that are ultimately incapsulated in our human minds….

….This is very much well-described by the Swiss Army Knife metaphor. So if you think of the Swiss Army Knife, it is an amalgamation of different knives each of which serves a different function.

Saad doesn’t address the issue of happiness and well-being. However, if you follow his logic, happiness is a dog treat to get our minds to perform these computational tricks. But you don’t give a dog an infinite series of treats after performing one trick. Likewise, we never remain in a permanent state of bliss regardless of our individual evolutionary successes.

An evolutionary psychologist who does delve into the link between evolution and happiness is David Buss of the University of Texas. In a paper called “The Evolution of Happiness“, Buss starts by emphasising that we do what we do because such strategies were successful in the past. Those that may have adopted different strategies in the past are no longer with us, suggesting such strategies were either inferior, or just met unlucky fates.

Current mechanisms of the mind are the end products of a selective process, a sieve through which features passed because they contributed, either directly or indirectly, to reproductive success. All living humans are evolutionary success stories. They each have inherited the mechanisms of mind and body that led to their ancestors’ achievements in producing descendants. If any one of their ancestors had failed along the way to survive, mate, reproduce, and solve a host of tributary adaptive problems, they would not have become ancestors. As their descendants, people hold in their possession magical keys-the adaptive mechanisms that led to their ancestors’ success.

The problem we have with these ‘keys’ is that they are the ones that opened the door to success in ancestral environments but may not function so well in modern contexts.

Our craving for animal fat and sugar is a classic example. Our bodies evolved to seek out sources of food that could be efficiently stored in energy warehouses as insurance for times of shortage. Saad notes that the top 20 global restaurant chains by revenue are all focused on food made up of an amalgam of fat and sugar to meet this craving. And so, with no food shortages, we grow obese.

David Buss also sees problems with respect to psychological as well as physiological keys. Having evolved in groups of 50 to 200 individuals, we were presented with a couple of dozen potential mates at maximum. Now such potential mates number in their thousands. As a result, we may grow much harsher in evaluating both those around us and ourselves.

So how does consumption fit into this framework. In his book titled “The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption“, Saad claims that most consumption patterns are just manifestations of what he calls the “four most elemental Darwinian modules that drive purposive behaviour”. These are 1) the reproductive module, 2) the survival module, 3) the kin selection module, and 4) the reciprocation module. Youtube has a one-hour video by Saad introducing the main strands of his book’s argument here:

Consumption is viewed as a method of signalling status, which in turn is a means of attaining reproductive success. For example, Saad conducted a psychological experiment whereby women were shown pictures of identical men placed alternatively in Porsches or low end cars. Placed in a Porsche, the same man was rated as more attractive than when driving an old car. Unfortunately, we never appear to grow out of such status seeking, even when age and situation precludes the possibility of achieving greater genetic replication. The fast car, the big house, the exotic holiday, the promotion are all part of an endless status-seeking treadmill.

Moreover, the search for status via consumption is a zero sum game. We cannot all trade up to a high status good, for by doing so it will no longer be high status.

In addition, status-seeking has costs. In Buss’ words:

An impediment to happiness stems from the competition inherent to evolution by selection. Reproductive differentials caused by design differences make up the engine of evolutionary change. Selection operates on differences, so one person’s gain is another person’s loss….

….Given the apparent universality of status hierarchies in all groups and all cultures worldwide, escape from relative ranking may prove exceedingly difficult. If a person’s happiness depends in part on another’s misery or failure, then how can people design lives to improve the quality of all, not just those who happen to get ahead?

Some of the most potent people who are designing our lives are our politicians. Unfortunately, they appear to being doing everything in their power to exacerbate the discordance between our urges that evolved out of lives lived in small groups and the mega societies within which we live now. Take the current preoccupation with the word “aspiration” in the aftermath of the UK general election. The opposition Labour Party has been accused on not appealing to “aspirational” voters. The Conservative Party’s victory has been attributed to the successful offer of a “good life” by David Cameron, a “good life” almost wholly defined by the aspiration for, and the acquisition of, more goods.

The Conservative Party branded itself as a party for those who want to get ahead: the so called “strivers”. Yet, by definition, if you get ahead someone must fall behind.

While this may be good politics, it may not necessarily be good for society. We have created a zero sum arms race for material status. Every obstacle to material acquisition is being cleared away. We are encouraged to work longer. Spouses are discouraged from child-rearing with incentives to move back into the workforce as soon as possible after giving birth. The abandonment of kin and friends in the pursuit of a better job in a distant town is socially endorsed and even applauded.

Against this background, the economist and happiness scholar Richard Layard identifies what he calls the Big Seven factors affecting happiness:

  • Family relationships
  • Financial situation
  • Work
  • Community and friends
  • Health
  • Personal freedom
  • Personal values

At this point, I need to reiterate that from an evolutionary perspective we are not designed to seek the optimum mix of the above factors to maximise happiness. Indeed, the urge to seek status for reasons of reproduction and survival appears to have been given pride of place in the past. But it was constrained within the environment in which we lived. We couldn’t usurp the status of the clan chief by buying a better car. Hierarchies were slow-moving. Accordingly, time was better allocated to non-status pursuits that could be beneficial such a friendship-building rather than futile status building.

Fast forward 100,000 years to our current environment and status-building has been let off the leash. Not only have few personal constraints on the pursuit of status-attaining strategies, but we are being positively encouraged to pursue such paths by the global advertising industry and our governments.

So what is to be done? Firstly, I don’t think that we have to relinquish the search for status: it is too hard-wired within us for that. But this is a game where we are allowed to play by our own rules. Status can be signalled in a wide-variety of ways. The ability to play a musical instrument, engage successfully in a sport, become knowledgeable in a particular field (academic or not) or lead a charitable activity–all are potential sources of status. The advantage of such activities is that they can also bring forth other sources of happiness such as family relationship strengthening and friendship formation.

On the flip side, we live in a post-modern cynical world, yet we seem to shelve our cynicism when it comes to material acquisition. For a 20-year old, a Porsche may lead to more sex, but will it do the same for a married 40-year old? If the 40-year old wants to remain in the marriage but wants more sex, wouldn’t it be more efficient to either make use of the services of a prostitute or advertise for an illicit affair on an on-line dating site such as Tinder.

Indeed, when we signalled status of a clan group of 50 to 200 people out on the Savannah these were people we would see day in day out. Status would give us the opportunity to mate more frequently and also to survive hostile encounters with competing clans. Signalling status by driving a large car through the streets of London appears ridiculous. We are signalling status to people we don’t know and we will never see again. As apes of high intelligence, we often act pretty thick.

As for governments, the last thing we need is for them to prompt us to pour all our resources into the pointless and zero-sum pursuit of materialistic status. A more enlightened policy would be twofold. First, encourage us to conduct our evolutionary urgings such that they maximise happiness rather than status-enhancing income and wealth alone.

Second, while admitting that we all seek status, restructure education such that status can be achieved in a myriad of ways. ‘Good exam results, good university, good job’ should just be one path to status among many. A talented musical instrument-playing non-Grade A student is just as valuable a product of the educational system as a non-musical instrument playing Grade A student.  The task of education should be to find and foster at least one status-enhancing talent for every student. Similarly, bias both monetary and non-monetary awards within the system away from material acquisition. Those within society who seek non-material status and in the process promote happiness should be especially feted.

Given that we are thinking apes, we have the capability of calmly assessing our evolutionary aspirations and aligning them with well-being. We are like mice who have the capability to run through a maze of our own design. Let’s design our own maze.



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