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Modern technology vs. our stone-age brains

Psychology professor's new book taps evolutionary positive psychology to address the problems of contemporary life


Portrait of ASU President's Professor Douglas Kenrick and ASU psychology department program manager Dave Lundberg-Kenrick.

ASU President's Professor Douglas Kenrick (left) and psychology department program manager Dave Lundberg-Kenrick.

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May 25, 2022

If a family from a traditional hunter-gatherer society were transported into the modern urban world, they would think they’d landed in paradise.

Self-driving cars, homes with air conditioning and plush mattresses, and supermarkets stocked with fresh fruit, pre-made meals and some chocolate ice cream for dessert.

The hunter-gatherers would probably be shocked to learn that people living amid all of these luxuries are often miserably depressed, anxious and lonely.

Arizona State University President's Professor Douglas Kenrick and co-author David Lundberg-Kenrick recently published a new book through the American Psychological Association, "Solving Modern Problems with a Stone-Age Brain," which focuses on how many of the problems we face in our daily lives stem from the fact that our brains evolved to deal with problems our ancestors faced but that are no longer major factors in our lives.

Together, the authors wanted to discover why people are so unhappy despite having such amazing technological and societal advances since the time of our ancestors.

“The book asks what are the problems that human beings have always had to solve? And which of those are the same problems we face now?” Kenrick said.

“They needed to survive, as in feed themselves and keep themselves from falling out of trees. They needed to protect themselves from the bad guys. They needed to make friends – human beings don't do very well on their own. They needed to get some respect and acquire mates. And then a special problem for human beings that other mammals don't face is they needed to hang on to those mates and care for exceptionally helpless offspring.”

In the book, the authors tap research from modern evolutionary psychology to suggest some ways to reach these fundamental human goals in more effective and fulfilling ways, and to avoid what they call “robo-parasites” — technological advancements that prey upon our previously adaptive motivations. 

The two authors approach the connection of psychology to human behavior in different ways. Lundberg-Kenrick has a background in film production and leads the Psych For Life production team with a focus on using emerging technologies to help people solve everyday problems. Lundberg-Kenrick is also the co-host of the ASU podcast "Zombified."

The senior Kenrick’s research for the last four decades has been on evolutionary social psychology, or the study of human behavior through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Some of their work modified Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which focused on fulfilling biological and social needs on the way to the ultimate goal of “self-actualization.”

In 2010, Kenrick published a new model of what motivates people, together with two ASU alums, Vladas Griskevicius and Mark Schaller, as well as Steven Neuberg, current chair and Foundation Professor of psychology. This research team suggested that kin care, or parenting, was the ultimate goal of humanity, not just a selfish need for self-actualization.

In this new model, they use a renovated pyramid of human needs as a framework to compare modern humans with our ancestors in terms of addressing seven fundamental goals:

  1. Surviving.
  2. Protecting ourselves from external threats.
  3. Making friends.
  4. Acheiving status.
  5. Finding mates.
  6. Keeping those mates.
  7. Taking care of our families.

"We wondered how we could use the lens of the seven major goals of ancestral humans to help guide problem-solving in the modern world,” Lundberg-Kenrick said. 

“Ironically, the same powerful, evolved motivations that helped our ancestors achieve those goals are often miscalibrated to the current world. Worse yet, those powerful motivational systems often open us up to being parasitized by modern technology.”

Kenrick and Lundberg-Kenrick examined the evidence about how people in small-scale societies handled similar problems of survival and family relationships. They then asked how their problems differed from the problems we confront today, and finally, they reviewed evidence to suggest a few solutions to these recurrent problems. 

The naturalistic fallacy

As evolutionary psychology has entered the mainstream dialogue, people sometimes make the mistake of thinking that everything natural is a good thing, as in natural foods and walking in the woods.

“The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is natural equals what is good. Our ancestors did evolve to have selfish genes. But that doesn't mean that the right thing to do is just go out and do whatever we can to get as much as possible for ourselves,” Kenrick said. 

Instead, research in positive psychology suggests that a more successful strategy for fulfilling life is to simply “be kind to others.”

In this book, Kenrick and Lundberg-Kenrick aim to show people how to fulfill their own needs by helping those around them also succeed.

“If you think about how you can help other people fulfill those seven fundamental motives, it can help your business, it can improve your relationships, and it can help you improve your own life,” Lundberg-Kenrick said.

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