Our Inner Caveman

I’ve always been puzzled by the way humanity at large have tended to ignore warnings about smoking, about excess sugar in their diet, about global climate change.

It seems it may be that our evolution has led us to worry about today and to leave tomorrow to itself.

An opinion piece in The Scientist by João Pedro de Magalhães throws some light on this human habit.

Here are the final three paragraphs of that article.

For those lower on the social ladder, fitting in with the ancestral group may have been the safest strategy. Fear of embarrassment, disapproval, and rejection is another human tendency that is likely rooted in this tribal need for belonging. ‘This instinct to seek social acceptance may explain why most people are uncomfortable speaking in public. Fear of public embarrassment and disapproval, while once beneficial in a small group where acceptance was essential to one’s survival, can surface today even when dealing with complete strangers we will never meet again. The deep-rooted drive to fit in, a legacy of our tribal past, is already exploited by modern commercial markets. In our information-rich, decision-overloaded environment, companies take advantage of our instinctive behaviors by using celebrity endorsements or claims of popularity to promote products.

Perhaps the most obvious trace of humans’ primordial past is our persistent shortsightedness. We respond quickly to clear and present dangers, but not so rapidly to unclear and future ones. Far more people die of type 2 diabetes than from terrorism; far more people die of skin cancer than from shark bites. But terrorism and shark attacks could kill you tomorrow, so they garner much more of our attention. Short-termism is also why convincing people to act on issues like global warming—which will most significantly affect those in the future, with poorly defined consequences—is so difficult.

Our tribal-era instincts are still very much a part of who we are. Studying the social and physical environments that shaped human evolution, then, could help us better understand the modern human psyche. Acknowledging our own tribal instincts can also help us overcome these obsolete behaviors in our daily lives.

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