Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > What Can Evolutionary Psychology Tell Us About Our Reaction to Covid?

Nov 1, 2020

What Can Evolutionary Psychology Tell Us About Our Reaction to Covid?

tags: COVID

A new paper has been published by some of the leading lights of Evolutionary Psychology (Steven Pinker et al.) that helps explain why people around the world are reacting differently to the threats posed by Covid -- and having different results.  Click here for the paper, which was published by PNAS.

This is the section I found most useful:

Evolutionary principles can be applied to understand cultural adaptations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Human groups un- der collective threat experience evolutionary pressures to tighten social norms and punish people who deviate from norms. Ac- cordingly, we can predict that societies worldwide will tighten in response to the pandemic. From an evolutionary perspective, strict norms and punishments that deter free riders are essential to helping groups coordinate their social action to survive, and thus would be adaptive in times of threat. Consistent with this rea- soning, nations with histories of ecological and human-made threats (e.g., natural disasters, disease prevalence, resource scarcity, and invasions) tend to be tight (i.e., have stricter norms and little tolerance for deviance), whereas groups with less threat tend to be loose (i.e., have weaker norms and more permissive- ness) (76). Variation in tightness in nonindustrial societies is also related to collective threats such as pathogen prevalence, pop- ulation pressure, scarcity, and warfare (77).

Evolutionary game-theoretic (EGT) models also confirm that differences in normative tightness evolve as a cultural adaptation to threat. These models of cultural dynamics are useful for un- derstanding how human behaviors evolve over time, with the aim of illuminating evolutionary stable states. With respect to culture, a stable state represents the behavioral norms that are adaptive and can be expected to remain in the population under certain conditions. EGT models show that, as societal threats increase, agents who abided by cooperative norms and punished others for deviating thrived and had an advantage over agents that did not adhere to and enforce norms (78). Technically speaking, as threat increases, agents operate in a space of lower payoffs, which in- creases the selection pressure they face to engage in coordinated and cooperative interactions. Accordingly, groups require stron- ger norms and punishment of deviance to survive under high threat (78). Indeed, experimentally priming humans with collective threat leads to an increase in desired tightness—either from God or government (79, 80).

While tightening is an evolutionary adaptation to threat, po- tential “evolutionary mismatches” may interfere with this evolved response, with tragic consequences, as we have seen in the spread of COVID-19 in certain nations. For instance, because environmental changes like COVID-19 can occur very rapidly— but evolution is a gradual process—there are, inevitably, periods when populations need to “catch up,” often with deleterious consequences.

The varying reactions of nations around the world to early stages of the pandemic reveal potential evolutionary mismatches, wherein some loose societies have had a delayed and often conflicted reaction to tightening norms. Countries that are tight (e.g., South Korea, Japan, China) have been highly effective at limiting COVID-19 cases and deaths (81). By contrast, loose cul- tures (e.g., Spain, Brazil, and the United States) have had an ex- plosion of cases and deaths in early stages. EGT models also illustrate that loose cultures take far longer to cooperate when under threat than tight cultures (82). Because people in loose cultures have generally experienced fewer ecological threats, they may be more likely to underestimate the risk of COVID-19 than those in tight cultures. Likewise, because loose cultures pri- oritize freedom over rules, they may experience psychological reactance when tightening is required. The situation is com- pounded when governmental leaders minimize threat signals. Thus artificially diminishing the intensity of the threat can reduce the tightening response, which reinforces the evolutionary mis- match. Research is sorely needed on how to prevent such mis- matches and increase norm-abiding behaviors during future waves of the pandemic and future collective threats.

Tight−loose theory also makes predictions about other soci- etal dynamics that may occur as a result of the COVID-19 pan- demic. Research has shown that, as groups tighten to deal with coordination needs, they also experience a number of trade-offs associated with order versus openness. Tightness is associated with more monitoring, synchrony, and self-control, which is critical for coordinating in the face of threat (83). Yet tightness is also associated with higher ethnocentrism and lower tolerance of people from stigmatized groups (80), as well as lower creativity (84). Finding ways to maximize both openness and order—that is, to be “culturally ambidextrous”—is a key challenge for human societies now and in the future.

Image Credit:  

comments powered by Disqus