Episode 98: Evolutionary Psychology – An Interview with Dr. David Buss

David BussDo you know your own "mate value" in the dating world? Curious about evolutionary psychology? In this interview with Dr. David Buss we discuss a number of interesting and controversial topics, such as the matching hypothesis and date rape. Are there evolutionary roots to the battle of the sexes and can we change our behavior? Find out in this interview.
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Evolutionary Psychology

  • Click to download Dr. Buss’ article, The Great Struggles of Life.
  • Dr. David Buss has an excellent website where you can learn more about him, his articles and books, and the Buss Lab, where his graduate students study evolutionary psychology.
  • From the great site Academic Earth (lots of free videos from well known teachers around the world), here’s an interesting video of a lecture by Paul Bloom (Yale University) entitled "Psychology, Sex, and Evolution"
  • Here’s the website for the Evolutionary Psychology journal.
  • I’m a subscriber to the excellent Skeptoid podcast, written and hosted by Brian Dunning, and in episode 10 he gave an excellent primer on evolution theory.
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  • Dr. Todd K. Shackelford maintains the Evolutionary Psychology Lab site. Excellent resources can be found here.
  • Lots of interesting information at this FAQ site for evolutionary psychology. The site "is maintained by Edward Hagen, formerly of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara."
  • Another site with lots of information about evolutionary psychology is maintained by the Center for Evolutionary Psychology.

Comments

  1. Purgatori says

    Although I enjoyed listening to this episode, as I do all Psych Files episodes, I was a little bit disappointed that more wasn’t said about the _weaknesses_ of evolutionary psychology. Sure, evolutionary psychology is great at constructing some very plausible-sounding stories, but they are often hard to directly falsify — which is every bit as important a criteria for any scientific theory as the capacity to make predictions. Not only that, but at the current stage of development at least, evolutionary psychology is pretty lousy when it comes to explaining individual human behaviors or characteristics that don’t seem to have any apparent survival and/or sexual selection value, or which even contradict the predictions made by the theories of evolutionary psychology itself. Attempts have been made to address ostensibly paradoxical phenomena such as homosexuality and cross-gender identification within evolutionary psychology, but they strike me as being rather ad-hoc, and not very robust or plausible.

    I have to say that I was a little mystified by this talk of people having an innate sense of their own “mate value”, as if it were some finely attuned or calibrated guide to estimating one’s own prospects in the dating/coupling arena. I can certainly infer that some such mechanism may be operating for the majority of people, but I seem to lack it myself, as I have never developed a stable estimate of my own “mate value” that I have been the least bit confident with. In fact, I am so clueless in this regard that for the most part I have avoided making any advances toward the opposite sex whatsoever, as I never have any idea of what my chances are, and always fear that I will be going so far above my “station” that I will appear quite the fool. On a related note, I can attest that despite being male, I definitely do subject to the sexual overperception bias that is apparently a characteristic of my sex. My tendency is to interpret signals that most people would find highly suggestive, as merely being indicative of friendliness, or even an attempt to either manipulate or make fun of me — never as a sign of genuine interest.

    Of course one exceptional individual is not enough to invalidate a theory which only purports to deal with tendencies and general patterns of behavior, but that is really the problem I have with evolutionary psychology: it never rests any of its claims on specific, concrete predictions, which lets it off the hook when it comes to explaining exceptions or deviations, but doesn’t make for great science in my opinion.

  2. Randy B says

    Hey Purgatori – I think those are some pretty astute comments. I agree that Evolutionary Psychology has some weaknesses, and hopefully that is because the field is new. My hope is that when we advance further in linking genetics to behaviors, we will arrive at the point where we can tie specific genes (or groups of genes) to specific behaviors. Naturally, that will be tough given the ability of humans to adopt behaviors as a result of learning experiences or other environmental cues. In spite of that difficulty, one can hope that predispositions to certain behaviors can be discovered and linked to genes.

    Re: identifying the ‘mate value’ of men, you raise some interesting points. My personal observations are that, while status is probably the strongest predictor of a man’s mate value, it is not the only one. Male mate value is easier to predict, IMHO, in less complex species’. Further, my experiences indicate that womens’ mate value is easier to predict than mens’.

    Here’s a hypothesis which deals with your observation:
    – Women have a need to mate early because they have a limited period of time when bearing young is optimal
    – Given the prevalence of monogamy, they generally need to find mates who are young,
    – Because the high status males have already found mates
    – Forcing them to guess which of the younger males will, in the future, achieve high status
    – High status for males varies in stable societies (where men can accumulate wealth); in those societies, high status males are strongly linked accumulation of wealth, and wealth can be measured many ways.
    – However, for hunter-gatherer societies, this may not have been true, as they may not posses formal means of measuring wealth, and they may not be able to store their wealth.
    – Depending on what type of society a male lives in, his status might linked to physical abilities such as hunting/fishing prowess, horsemanship, ability to defend the family etc.
    – I could speculate and postulate that some of these physical attributes could be hard-wired. Women always like tall men.
    – Male status could also be linked to mental abilities such as the ability to negotiate with other tribes, the ability to predict animal behavior, the ability to form coalitions with other males, or the ability to write music, all depending on what is valued in the society the male lives in.
    – Depending on what kind of society they live in, different mental attributes can be predictors of future status.
    – This makes it very confusing for women to assign mate values to men.
    – In a society like ours, which is very dynamic, there are many paths to success for men, and thus many predictors of mate value. That would explain why you find it hard to determine your mate value.

    How could we test my hypothesis?
    Part 1 – Does the lack of unmarried, high status, males require women to try predicting which of the available males will become successful?
    1) Identify societies where successful (high status) men are either
    – Allowed to have more than one wife, or
    – For some reason the men are not married at the age at which they have been able to prove their status
    2) In the selected society, tests to see which men are most sexy to women, choosing strangers but making the measurements take into account their status as well as their physical attributes.
    3) Also, in societies where divorce is possible, does the rate at which women ‘upgrade’ their mates vary depending the success of their current mate (probably need to control for women with children).

    Part 2 – Do the predictors of success in a given society increase a man’s mate value? In other words, if trait x is associated with future high status in men, does presence of that trait increase a man’s mate value?
    1) Identify stable traditional societies where success is predicted by a simpler set of skills. Perhaps isolated tribes that depend only on fishing, such as the Inuit. Hunter-gatherers in complex places like New Guinea, who depend on many sources of food, are thus not suitable because of the large set of available predictors.
    2) The ideal society would also know which traits make good fisherman (or whatever the means of support is).
    3) Find a trait (mental or physical) associated with that means of support that is well known in the society to be strongly linked. Maybe good fishermen are known to be strong rowers or good navigators.
    4) Assuming such a trait (or set of traits) is identified, set up a test with unmarried women so they rate men for sexiness and check whether the traits we are studying are correlated with the results.

  3. Randy B says

    Hi Michael – In your podcast, you invited us to submit questions for Dr. Buss. I can’t help but be interested in the linkage between your previous podcast, the obedience study, and evolutionary psychology. I am particularly interested in the set of test subjects who would not administer strong shocks in Milgram’s experiment.

    Has anyone tried to study whether there is any evolutionary predictor for which people would not give the shocks? Potentially, these people could be more altruistic, a trait which seems pretty hard to nail down in evolutionary psychology, since it involves helping others at a cost to yourself.

  4. Jason says

    I’m not a professional, and won’t pretend to be one.

    While falsifiability is an issue, it does seem logical that evolution, and the factors that drive it, has at least *some* hand in determining how our day to day mental life plays out. In the same way that evolution has had at least some hand in determining what our ideal diet should be. No one, that I know of, is claiming that evolutionary psychology is some sort of grand unified theory.

    While some theories of evolutionary psychology will obviously be shown to be wrong, the field is, I believe, “ahead of it’s time”. It is also largely beyond human perspective (which is of course limited by in part by our evolved “state”). “Ahead of it’s time”, in the sense that many of these theories make many people uncomfortable, whether consciously or unconsciously. I’m speaking specifically about the “confirmation bias theory”, which I believe has far reaching implications. At it has had far reaching implications for my views over the years.

    Thanks for the great podcast…
    Cheers

  5. Michael says

    There are some excellent comments here. I’m collecting your feedback into a document that I will give to Dr. Buss. I’ll ask him to respond to your thoughts in the next interview I have with him.

  6. Sterling says

    The posters here had some great comments. I was especially glad to see Randy B mention divorce and its effect on the mate selection process. Excellent point re: homosexuality by purgatori.

    Dr. Buss mentioned that a person’s mate value will change over the course of their lifetime. What does this mean for the mate selection process in older divorced persons? If its true that men value youthful physical attributes in a mate, shouldn’t older divorcees have more trouble finding a mate among the older, more financially settled divorced males? At first glance, I wouldn’t think this is the case.

    But that line of reasoning goes to mating. What about the coupling side of purgatori’s mating/coupling model? We see younger females in the coupling phase of their lives (before settling on a mate) opting for physical attributes in the male that are much like the physical attributes males seek in females. In short, if a female is looking to couple, she prefers Lars (who owns a Harley). If she’s looking for a mate, she likes Irv (who owns stock options).

    All of this chauvanistic, unenlightened talk leads to the same point. I think there’s tension between our ‘hard-wired,’ evolutionary drives and our higher-level, societal drives. I think the best avenue of endeavor would be to study how much of our behavior is driven by nature and how much by nurture. And how the ratio changes as we age. I think this research is more vital than most of us realize. So does Steve McNair.

  7. says

    Sterling – you make some good points about nature and nurture. I’ve asked Dr. Buss to address these in a follow-up interview, which I hope we can do within the month. Thx, Michael

  8. Isabel says

    Are there any female evolutionary psychologists? The theory presented in this episode is relentlessly negative towards women. Not only is our “mate value” based on something over which we have little control, but apparently we have nothing but a lifetime of steady decline to look forward to. How incredibly depressing.

  9. haroon choudhry says

    sir,
    my name is haroon i am the student of MBa in pakistan i wanna really appreciate the lecture u give in ur web site but i foud some lack of video lectures so will u plz tell me the that how to get ur video lecture
    thanx a lot ur sincerely
    haroon from sialkot pakistan

  10. Michael says

    Haroon, This web site supports my podcast episodes, most of which are audio and some are video. However, this isn’t a class – I just create episodes based on what I think are interesting topics. So what you see here on this web site – or in iTunes – is everything. – Michael

  11. says

    “Episode 98: Evolutionary Psychology – An Interview with Dr.
    David Buss | The Psych Files Podcast” Patio
    Door Blinds was in fact a terrific article and thus I was truly glad to
    find it. Thank you,Brigida

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