Still Living with the Emotions of our Ancestors

According to evolutionary theory, emotions evolved because they were helpful for survival. Anxiety alerts us to potential danger and makes us wary. Anger motivates us to fight and shows our allies that we need help. Jealousy motivates us to keep our mates to ourselves to help maximize the number of our offspring that survive to child-bearing age. But the environment we live in today is obviously very different from the environment of our distant ancestors for whom these emotions were optimized. What was useful then for the survival of our DNA is not always going to be useful now in moving us towards the goals that we wish to accomplish.

The same feeling of anxiety that once may have saved an ancestor from predators, today can lead us to sound nervous while giving a speech or blank out during an exam. Anger, while once useful to one of our ancestors for defending his living space, today could lead to bar fights, broken noses and lawsuits. And jealousy, while it helped the genetic material of our ancestors get passed on through the generations, sometimes in our world leads to unreasonably controlling behavior, arguments and divorce. It is clear that, at times, our emotions can make our lives worse.

We must conclude that some of our emotions are essentially misfirings: outdated reactions that would likely have been useful in a different time and place, but are so no longer. This knowledge can help us gain insight into the way we feel, and may allow us to switch to a more objective perspective during times of high emotion. When you feel nervous raising your hand in class, it isn’t necessarily because there is anything dangerous about doing so. But your brain may associate that situation with some ancestral scenario that could damage your social status enough to affect survival. When you are afraid just before a blind date, there is almost certainly very little at stake even if it goes poorly. But the anxiety systems in your brain may interpret it as an all-important mating opportunity, which could be the difference between your genetic material surviving or dying out. And when you feel angry with someone who accidentally blocked your way as you left the train, there may be a misfiring causing your brain to react as though a rival challenged your social status or an adversary threatened you. Of course, it is hard to know in any particular case whether an evolutionary explanation for an emotional trigger is valid (as opposed to an explanation based on conditioning in our lifetimes), or even what the precise purpose of that trigger would have been. But the point still holds: our emotional systems were not designed for this world of 2011. And they were not engineered to promote our happiness, or other goals, but to promote our survival.

So when you find yourself feeling quite emotional, it may be worth asking, “Is my emotion helpful in this situation?¬†Could this be an emotional misfire?”


7 thoughts on “Still Living with the Emotions of our Ancestors

  1. AJ says:

    I’ve been saying for some time that I thought neurosis was mistargeted existential concern. That once you’ve reached a certain level of expected comfort, the genetic predisposition to fret didn’t subside, only the threat of likely annihilation. Glad you’re blogging, Spencer!

  2. Very insightful post. Never really thought of emotions in that sense before, though somehow I always knew that they were a product of evolution. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your posts.

  3. Poban says:

    Notes taken and I ll use them, when my emotions takes over ” my rationality”.

  4. Andy says:

    Is there a way to get rid of these emotions? Are these emotions more like a hardware or a software that you can upgrade?

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      I don’t believe trying to get rid of them altogether is a good idea. But you can learn to reduce destructive emotional responses. There are various ways to approach this, for instance:

  5. Andy says:

    Thank you… Do you think its more of a hardware or software issue?

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      I think the distinction between what is changeable versus what is very hard to change, is probably a more useful distinction than the one of hardware vs. software, which is quite unclear in the brain. We can modify our emotional responses to an extent (e.g. training ourselves to not be afraid of certain things we used to fear), but cannot stop emotional responses altogether, nor would it be a good idea to do so if we could much of the time.

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