Making the Social Leap: A Conversation on How Our Psychology Evolved

Shortly after the publication of his new book, The Social Leap, I spoke to William von Hippel at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore at the University of Chicago. The Social Leap is a fascinating exploration of the evolutionary origins of our modern psychology. The book is divided into three parts: what evolution has to say about how we became who we are, how the past helps us to understand the present, and how we can use that knowledge to build a better future. We discuss some aspects of each of these to give a good feel for the trajectory of the book. The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Dave Nussbaum: Most people are familiar with evolutionary theory and most people are familiar with psychology, but not necessarily the nexus of those: evolutionary psychology. Tell us a little bit about what that is and what you study as an evolutionary psychologist.

William von Hippel: The underlying idea behind evolutionary psychology is that our mind has to evolve just like our body does. When we think of evolution, we typically think about changes in our body. You can think of an example of evolving slowly from a chimp into us—your legs will change as you cover ground and don’t climb trees anymore, your lower set of hands will turn into feet, that sort of thing. And it’s very easy to imagine how that would happen. What we tend to forget is that, just like how limbs that don’t suit your lifestyle can be debilitating, attitudes that don’t suit your abilities are also debilitating. And so you can imagine ancestors of ours who loved to eat feces, or who enjoyed tickling lions on the chin, or who had preferences that would have been dangerous, those ancestors would be less likely to survive and thrive, less likely to have children of their own, and so therefore less likely to pass on those tendencies.

Now it seems a little bit odd, I know, to think that attitudes can be heritable. But when we look at the behavioral genetics of attitudes, they tend to be like lots of other things about us—they’re pretty heritable. There are probably many, many genes that underlie them, just like there are many, many genes that underlie intelligence and personality and things like that.

There was a recent news story out of Oakland University in Michigan that got some attention as a ridiculous story, where the police chief at the university decided to hand out hockey pucks to faculty and students to protect themselves against a potential mass shooter. It’s a pretty ridiculous way to protect yourself from somebody with a gun. But I imagine, based on your book that, while you probably don’t endorse that particular policy as a great way to stop mass shooters, you understand it a bit better than most.

There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that the key evolutionary change that made us who we are today was our ancestors’ capacity to throw. This idea of the throwing hypothesis is that once we were forced onto the savanna by tectonic changes, that led to upwelling on the east side of Africa, which in turn led to drying out of the rain forests, and therefore we had to move from the forest to the savanna to survive. Once that happened, in all probability, we skulked around the edges of the savannah for a few million years. But at that point, Australopithecus was now bipedal. Bipedality makes you a much better thrower. It allows you to rotate your hips, your wrists are no longer as stable and strong and stiff as a chimpanzee who uses them almost like legs, because they’re up in the trees all the time. And so that facilitates much better throwing.

Throwing may seem trivial, especially if you’re trying to throw a hockey puck at someone armed with a gun, but in fact, throwing is probably the single most important military invention in history, because it represented the capacity to kill at a distance. No other animal has that capacity. And it’s critically important because with that capacity, a larger force of weaker individuals can successfully attack a smaller force of stronger individuals.

But for the throwing strategy to work, we needed a psychological change. We needed to start engaging in collective action, because one Australopithecus throwing stones will end up in the belly of a slightly bruised and annoyed animal. But lots of Australopithecines throwing stones could drive away leopards, and probably even lions if there were enough of them. That’s the psychological change that then basically got the whole ball rolling, that turns them into us.

So now you’ve got the social group, and one of the big psychological questions that we see in our lives today that arises out of evolutionary pressures is in social comparison because of sexual selection. I am curious to hear you talk a little bit more about why sexual selection leads us to compare ourselves to other people so much.

One of the most unfortunate qualities that we’ve inherited from our ancestors is our tendency to compare ourselves to others all the time. If you think about the things you have in life, they should either make you happy or not by virtue of what they are—it shouldn’t matter what other people have. My children do this. They say, Well, Johnny gets to stay up later than I do. It’s always this social comparison, and it’s hardly ever in the direction of somebody who has less than you. Boy, am I happy I get to stay up later than Johnny. It’s always the other way around. And it’s probably the single factor that introduces the most unhappiness into our lives.

A really great thing can turn into a really lousy thing, simply if others get more. And it makes no sense except in the context of sexual selection. Because the key of a sexually reproducing species is that we have to be one of the ones who’s chosen out of our group.

One of the most unfortunate qualities that we’ve inherited from our ancestors is our tendency to compare ourselves to others all the time…A really great thing can turn into a really lousy thing, simply if others get more.

So if our group doesn’t have much, well, that’s good for us, right, because we’ve got a good chance of rising to the top and being chosen as somebody’s mate. But if our group is pretty wonderful, then we’ve got to be even more wonderful, or we’ve got to be wonderful in some kind of way to have a chance of being chosen. And so sexual selection mandates that we care all the time how others are doing, even if in principle it has no bearing on us. It doesn’t change anything about our life, but it can reduce our status if others have more.

I want to talk a little bit about the evolutionary origins of self-control. You have a great TEDx Talk about it. And I wanted to let you give us a little taste of that argument here.

We were interested in how self-control might manifest itself in social skills. In psychology, we often think of self-control as preparing for a better tomorrow—not eating that extra piece of cake, so we don’t gain weight; saving our money, so we have a happy retirement; studying hard and listening to boring teachers, so that we can get a good job. And it is the case that self-control is very predictive of your capacity to do that. But those things are actually irrelevant to us as a species in our past. They have no bearing on why we evolved self-control, because our ancestors never avoided eating tasty things. They never worried about retirement. They barely even worried about tomorrow.

So why would we evolve the capacity for self-control? And, although we may not think that we’re great at self-control, we’re way better at it than the other primates. What we argued is that there’s big social advantages to gaining self-control. If I can control the way I respond to you, then I can give you the kind of impression that I want to give you, and I can also say, well, it’s not the right time to say what I’m really thinking, I’ll wait until the time is right, either because I might get in trouble or because it’d be less effective now than it might be later.

Our ancestors never avoided eating tasty things. They never worried about retirement. They barely even worried about tomorrow.

We wanted to test this idea that self-control skills would predict social functioning, so we ran a study. My graduate student who worked with me on that study was Chinese and we took advantage of her ethnicity. At the time we were in Sydney, Australia. Our participants were white Australians. In the critical condition, she tells them, Today, we’re studying the effects of food, chemicals on memory. And so they think, Okay, I’ll be eating something. And she looked him up on a list, and she goes, You’re in luck, you’re going to get to eat my favorite food, which many people regard as the national dish of China. Now, you don’t know what you’re about to be served beyond the fact that it’s Chinese food. But you do know that it’s personally important to her and culturally significant as well. So it’s one of these situations that whatever you’re served, you should at least pretend to like it.

There’s a camera in the computer that they don’t notice. And right in front of their face, we open up the little Tupperware dish, and there’s a chicken foot with toenails and all intact cooked in this Chinese style. And they’re expected to eat it, so we can test the effects on their memory. Whether they eat it, that’s a side issue. What we really care about was how did they respond to it. It’s this provocative stimulus, you don’t expect to see this intact foot with toenails and all that you’re expected to eat. And so your dominant response is to say that’s disgusting. But of course, that’s not good manners. And in fact, the title of the paper is “That Is Bloody Revolting!” because that was my favorite quote by one of our participants, who then looked at Karen, and she looked at him, and he kind of smiled sheepishly.

But what predicts people’s capacity to not do that? It turns out that the better you are at these fundamental self-control tasks, in this case, reading the word green written in red ink and ignoring what the word means and just saying what the ink color is—so a very basic task about inhibition—the better you were at that, the more successful you were saying, Oh, that’s lovely, but I’m afraid I’m a vegetarian, I won’t be able to be part of your study today, or whatever excuse they might have made.

Another major area where evolution helps us understand some puzzling psychology, and some of my favorite work of yours, is in these areas of overconfidence and self-deception. Elaborate a little bit on why it is that overconfidence may be good for you.

Freud and Socrates and people like that talked about this form of self-deception where we’re seeing ourselves as something more than we are. And they regarded it as this protective mechanism. The world is an inhospitable place, it doesn’t regard me as highly as I’d like to be regarded, and so I protect myself from that knowledge by believing that I’m better than I really am, that people like me more than they really do, etc. Perhaps there is an element of truth to that.

But Robert Trivers, an eminent evolutionary biologist, argued that overconfidence and self-deception, it’s not a defensive weapon, where you’re protecting yourself against an inhospitable world, it’s actually an offensive weapon. It’s a social weapon that allows you to achieve more than you could achieve otherwise.

So how does it work? Well, if I believe I’m Bill plus 20 percent, I’m 20 percent better than I really am, then when I interact with people, they’re going to be trying to decide, Am I a good coalition partner, should they take things from me, should they date me? They’re trying to make those decisions about me. And if I seem to believe that I’m better than I really am, then maybe there’s more to me than meets the eye.

You can certainly get yourself into trouble, if you introduce inaccuracy into your self-beliefs, right? But to the degree that you’re encountering other members of your species who don’t know you as well as you know yourself, if you can convince them of a world in which you’re really better than you really are, then you can get benefits that you wouldn’t get otherwise.

The key thing to remember about all of this is that human beings don’t like to come into conflict. All animals don’t like to come into conflict, when they’re members of the same species. All they want to do is figure out who would win. If it’s predator–prey, someone’s going to die. The predator starves to death or the prey gets eaten. There’s no signaling, there’s no faking out, there’s none of these rituals. But when they’re members of the same species, you and I don’t want to fight, it’s going to hurt my knuckles to hit you, and if you hit me back, that hurts even more. And so all we want to do is decide who would win if we did. And that works if we’re crayfish, it works if we’re humans. And so all these animals learn to signal that they’re more than they really are. And what Trivers argued, and we’ve been working on this together since, is if you really believe that, if you really believe you’re more than you really are, then you’re more convincing to other people, than if you’re just bluffing—

As the great philosopher George Costanza said: It’s not a lie …

… if you believe you’re telling the truth. That’s exactly right.

Why did evolution give us happiness to begin with? And then what has that taught us about how we could be happy?

Happiness is actually a super interesting and complicated emotion, and there’s lots of answers about why evolution gave it to us, but I would say that the simplest first answer I would give is that happiness is a wonderful motivator. Our ancestors who were happy when they got sugar, salt, and fat in their diet, which were all in short supply, they’re the ones who survived and reproduced, whereas the ancestors who were happy when they ate feces or dirt are not, because that wasn’t beneficial to them. So evolution uses happiness to guide us toward what’s in our genes’ best interest, giving us the best chance of reproduction.

The downside of that is it’s virtually a guarantee that we can therefore not ever be permanently happy. Because if we were able to become permanently happy, evolution would lose one of its best tools to motivate us to do what’s in our genes best interest. And so we often feel like we would be permanently happier, if we could just achieve X—if she would just go out with me, if I would just get that job, if I could just move to that city, I’ll be happy forever. But it doesn’t work that way. You’ll be happy for a little while, and then you go right back to baseline so that you’re re-motivated to go out there and achieve more. Because remember, sexual selection says whoever is achieving the most is going to be the one who others want to mate with. If you were able to be happy forever from one achievement, it’s a guarantee you’re not going to achieve the most and you’re going to be left behind. So the good news is that evolution gave us happiness. The bad news is that evolution made it temporary.

The good news is that evolution gave us happiness. The bad news is that evolution made it temporary.

It tells us that the things that made our ancestors happy are highly likely to make us happy. And some of them are very straightforward, and some of them are somewhat complicated. Keep in mind that evolution tends to give with one hand and take with the other. Giving us happiness but not letting us keep it is a perfect example. And one of the greatest gifts that evolution gave us, compared to our chimp-like ancestors from 6 million years ago, is that we’re the only animal that we know of who has the capacity to envision a future that includes unfelt needs, so needs that I don’t currently have at the moment. And furthermore, we then have a capacity to simulate that future and how we would address those currently unfelt needs.

What it means is that we tend to live in the future, our minds are constantly planning what we’re going to do next. And so when wonderful things happen in the moment, we often ignore them or pay very little attention to them.

My favorite example is one you might have read about in the Washington Post about a decade ago. They had one of the world’s great violinists, Joshua Bell, playing the violin in the metro, busking with his three-and-a-half-million-dollar Stradivarius to see who would stop and listen to this amazing violin player. Well, over a thousand people walk by him on their way to work, and only seven stopped for one minute or more to hear one of the world’s greatest violinists. I think the reason they failed to appreciate what he’s doing is it literally didn’t bounce through their thoughts. It didn’t get through the buzz of their own activity, as they’re mentally figuring out their day—they’re on their way to work and all the things that they’ve got to do. So interestingly, though, the only humans who did tend to stop with high frequency were children, they all wanted to listen to him. And you can see in the video the mothers dragging them along as they’re trying to get on with their day.

Lots of meditation traditions are all about trying to live in the present, but it’s actually super hard to do. I’ll sit down with a favorite dessert, I say alright, I’m going to live in the moment, I’m going to eat this and appreciate every bite, and three bites into it, I’m thinking about something else. And I might as well be eating dirt for all the good it’s doing me, right? And so it’s super hard for us to maintain this focus on the present, because our capacity to think about the past and learn from it and to think about the future and simulate it was so important in our success.