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When is evolutionary psychology useful?

by snog toddgrass1 min read10th Jul 20209 comments

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I am currently improving my courtship skills and am reading Mate by Geoffrey Miller. The book relies heavily on evolutionary psychology, which I was previously critical of.

My earlier perspective was that because we know little about the human evolutionary environment, evo psych is full of "fully general arguments". I can assert lots of attributes to the evo environ to support any position, so I can support no position.

But I do not have a good source of priors for what women find sexy. Evo psych is offering priors and most of them so far match observational data. Was my previous view of Evo psych wrong, and if so how?

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There are two things in favor of evolutionary psychology. On the one hand it provides a good source of priors. On the other hand, it produces a community which doesn't want political correctness interfer with their observations.

Given the methods of antropologists you might expect them to say useful things about courtship but unfortunately, they operate in the sphere of social science while evolutionary psychologists operate in the department of psychology. In social science you would get attacked by feminists for many factual accurate statement that a person like Geoffrey Miller make and thus the topic is shunned by the researchers who care about truth and left to those who care about activism. 

In the academic field of evolutionary psychology you have people running studies about what people actually do in our times that are useful. 

Thanks for the informative comment. My observations also support this claim.

Evopshych is not useless, just a tool that's really, really easy to shoot yourself in the foot with. Buyer beware, I guess. It can be done right - for a beautiful example, read or skim Homicide by wilson and daly.

In the context of mating things are complicated by the fact that evopsych itself says that female tastes are very plastic, designed to adapt to whatever is "fit" in each time and society. They're set around puberty, and are much more varied than male tastes. Which I guess is actionable info - there are women that like almost anything, but not much point in trying to conquer every woman. Or even to conquer one particular woman.

Hmmm, I have a few thoughts about that

1. If true, all of my reading should be useless. Depressing, but possible!

2. That contradicts some of my data. I have dated <anonymized other culture> women and American women and a few mediteranean catholic women. Some aspects of their tastes were maybe different, like for monogamy vs. polyamory. American women were more likely to leave the relationship after having sex than both catholic med and <anonymized>. Other than that, they both prefered high status men. The <anonymized> women seemed to like ... (read more)

I'll just add: You can use evopsych to predict present behaviors based on what we actually know of the evolutionary environment (which is what you're doing). AND you can use evopsych to infer the evolutionary environment based on what we know of present behaviors. But you can't do both with the same set of facts. That's what Yud would call "double counting the evidence"

True. Interesting point.

I have no time to wade into evopsych debates, so I am just reading Geoffery Miller's "Mate"

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I think evpsy is general enough that a socially savvy person won't gain much by learning about it (e.g., to a first approximation, people love sex and status and their morality is merely virtue signalling), but a less worldly person might. I personally learned about evpsy early in my childhood (probably around 4th grade), so it helped me a lot (especially since I am a damned idealist). Epistemically speaking, it's also very satisfying to know WHY the hell people love, say, power instead of an infinity of other things that some mind can like.

Another example; Why do non-famous people waste so much time on Twitter? A normal answer might be that people are very social. Evpsy can enhance this answer by providing the reason people are so social, and also telling you that in this instance their behavior is maladaptive and they are executing the wrong heuristic. The normal answer can not give you this, because if people are just inherently social, that's their personal characteristic that can't be 'wrong.' I.e., evpsy can help us recognize which of our own values are suspect and misaligned with our core values.

In your own example of dating, this last technique can help you see that your desirability function for women probably is quite disaligned with your actual values, and you'll gain a lot by meditating on what you really value and fixing your desirability function. The technique can be quite helpful in fixing your nutrition as well.

Lol if I was socially savvy. I would not be asking these questions. 9 years of the wrong moves in the dating game have brought me here.

In your own example of dating, this last technique can help you see that your desirability function for women probably is quite disaligned with your actual values, and you'll gain a lot by meditating on what you really value and fixing your desirability function. The technique can be quite helpful in fixing your nutrition as well.

Can you explain this in greater detail?

This is really a rather subjective thing, so the only thing I can do is produce some examples that are somewhat true for myself. Let’s name my desirability function for a mate f.

I have f( x | x is male) near zero, while I think that if my mind was architectured ideally according to my values, it’d be much higher. True, there are strong statistical differences between the sexes that make being female a good heuristic of things I like in a mate, and also there are very rare males I’d find sexy, but still, if I know a male M who has my desired characteristic, even if he is not sexy, f(M) should be much higher than zero.

I find young people more attractive, usually the younger the better. I might have a strong inclination to not even consider someone 5 years older than me for a mate. But when I think about the things I value, much of them are mental characteristics which are very rare in the population, and some of them correlate positively with age, plus the fact that older people are probably more unwanted by other people, it seems a dumb move for me to ignore them.

It’s not easy for me to produce examples for dating, because I feel my interests there are already mostly aligned. But let me give an example that feels more salient to me. I really enjoy playing civilization. When I’m playing, I always want to reach the next Schelling point of that important milestone before quitting. When I analyze my feelings and intuition though, through their evolutionary context, it’s clear to me that I am mistaking my “core” activities. My brain is categorizing something truly important like studying as a religious chore that does not produce value, while thinking of Civilization as the core activity that brings us status and power in the tribe. Of course, this is quite a fatal mistake, so I try to align myself by reminding myself that no, it is the studying that brings me status and stuff, and I should convert my “One more turns” energies into “One more pages.” This is somewhat of a successful endeavor for me; My subagents find the argument convincing and become somewhat better aligned, though they do need lots of reminding not to revert.