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Questionsaboutstuff's avatar

I don't care what influences our unconscious brain, but why would we evolve to act seemingly irrational?

Asked by Questionsaboutstuff (199 points ) November 18th, 2012

So I don’t care that we are more likely to tip on a sunny day or having a bigger box of popcorn makes us eat more. But why would we evolve in a way that seemingly unrelated things influence our urges?

Many urges make sense in the light of evolution like why we like fattening foods, babies faces, our family. So these primary urges make sense in the light of evolution, so why did we evolve so we can acquire irrational fears, or be influenced by things that make no sense and we know it makes no sense.

So why do we have so many things that influence our decisions that dont seem to make sense in the light of evolution?

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21 Answers

bookish1's avatar

“In the light of evolution” and “rational” do not mean the same thing. The idea and process of “rational thought” as a desirable goal had to be invented by humans.

Questionsaboutstuff's avatar

Some of our behaviors are indirect results of how our brain evolved. So why would Pavlov’s dogs dribble when he rings his bell? Well if we believe the dogs evolved a hebbian learning style were it makes sense, as your brain doesn’t find causality in the real world but correlation would is a useful feature to have, even if it can have some seemingly bizarre results such as with Pavlov’s dogs.

Questionsaboutstuff's avatar

Before anyone may say “We are happier on sunnier days, that’s why we tip more.”

But why would we tip more just because we are happier on an evolutionary perspective?

El_Cadejo's avatar

I think you have a misunderstanding of how evolution works.

I could try and explain it better but I see gasman is typin an answer and really anything I say will pale in comparison to his answer.

BhacSsylan's avatar

#1, what bookish said. Evolution is random, not rational, and while we can sometimes put a reasoning on it afterwords, the mechanisms are still random.

#2, Evolution, being random, many times results in odd and useless changes. As long as they are not obviously detrimental, it may very well stay in the gene pool and be randomly selected for (also known as neutral selection). And keep in mind we’re a relatively new species, many of these traits, though now negative, may not have been during a large segment of our evolution.

#3, it may be evolutionarily favorable, and we just don’t know why. This is very true for many social traits, which are very hard to understand in terms of evolution because they’re highly complicated (and may have evolved in cultural settings we now don’t know about, perhaps being evolved millions of years before the written record).

and lastly, #4, in relation to your last post, that kind of thinking makes no sense. We can’t talk about evolutionary adaptation in terms of so recent a change. It’s like asking “why did evolution make it so we get eye strain looking at an LCD?” I mean, sure, you can ask that, but the answer has very little to do with the LCD and much more to do with the evolution of our eyes for millennia before LCD screens. We can talk about the effect of evolution on those current situations, but evolution did not occur in response to those recent situations.

zenvelo's avatar

Your understanding of what make(s) sense in the light of evolution may show an incomplete understanding of the effect.

Not all evolutionary drivers and adaptations are identical, otherwise we couldn’t evolve into different species. One cat grows into fierce strength, and takes down large game. Another is swift and lean, and captures anything that tries to run. The tiger does not capture the eland, and the cheetah does not take down an elephant or a hippo.

Some people have inherited physical attributes, others are physically average but have smarts. Why would they each react the same way?

And on top of that, the whole discussion ignores the psychopathology of how people behave.

gasman's avatar

Skeptic and author Michael Shermer proposes that we evolved a “belief engine” (How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God )

The belief engine explains how humans, as pattern-seeking creatures, could have evolved an inherent propensity to believe.

Those early hominids who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.

The problem is knowing which patterns are meaningful and which are meaningless, though discovering a meaningless pattern (painting animals on a cave wall helps the hunt) usually does no harm and may even help allay anxiety in an uncertain environment. This ties in with the saying that “religion is the opium of the masses.”

Magical thinking seems to be hard-wired into our brains, and is more or less a by-product of our pattern-seeking skills, which definitely helped us adapt and survive.

Questionsaboutstuff's avatar

@BhacSsylan
You say it could make sense but we just dont know it. But we acquire new ones that wouldnt make sense to be pre programmed like being scared of balloons. What type of system has our brain evolved to allow us to be influences by seemingly unrelated things like seeing a balloon or beans and becoming scared

Mariah's avatar

Imagine an ancestor of ours out hunting. Behind him he hears a rustling noise. He turns and sees a bush, but nothing more. Does he:

A.) Assume there’s a predator in the bush and stay on the defensive, or
B.) Assume it’s the wind blowing through the bush, relax, and carry on?

Pretty easy to tell that the pre-man whose brain operates more like choice A is more likely to survive and pass on his genes. But what does this mean for us? It means we have evolved to be a little more paranoid than strictly necessary. Better safe than sorry, basically. This is believed to be at the root of all sorts of strange behavior like irrational phobias and superstition.

Further, thousands of years of evolution have prepared us for a world that is quite different from the one we live in today. For example, we get flight-or-fight response in all sorts of inappropriate situations like while taking an exam, because the stressors of today are so different from what they used to be.

Questionsaboutstuff's avatar

@zenvelo
I’m ignoring the psychology on purpose. I want to understand our actions first on a evolutionary basis and if that doesnt answer it the neurological processes that has been evolved by the brain but then I want to know why our brain evolved to be like that. Such as with Pavlov’s dogs. So evolutionary it makes no sense for them to dribble but when you look at the neurological process it does

Earthgirl's avatar

There is data coming in on all directions to our brains from our sensory apparatus. All of the information about the world, some of which is pretty straightforward and some of which requires a little or a lot of interpretation, is consciously or unconsciously assessed by our brain. Primitive parts of the brain intuit danger based on experience and something similar to instinct. The perception is mostly immediate and unconscious. It is therefore, not strictly rational. It can be emotive, and it can be found to be dead wrong once a closer examination of facts is conducted. But by then the brain has already jumped to it’s conclusions and the fear response and fight or flight urge is activated. We can talk back to this primitive initial response with our rational, consciously directed brain functions. To a certain extent that will ameliorate the effects. Sometimes it will confirm the rightness of the first response.

I think that the response to certain stimuli connected with other stimuli which had negative consequences for us in our past can become cowired into our brain and we can react to something innocuous in a fearful way because it is connected with a former bad experience. So that Pavlovian type reaction occurs without rational thought and this can have very negative consequences for us. It’s not something that is helpful in most cases for our evolution or making intelligent, rational responses. If we are aware that it is happening we can try to therapeutically alter it before it becomes too ingrained. We can talk back to our fears.

In other cases the fear response and non rational, non linear thought is helpful. In cases where there’s no time to think and a quick reaction is required it can save our life. So in that way it is very helpful to our survival and consequently to our evolution.

Questionsaboutstuff's avatar

@BhacSsylan
“why did evolution make it so we get eye strain looking at an LCD?”

This does make sense though, we evolved not looking at LCD screens so evolution never needed to fix this problem.

I understand that there will be problems as many things are new and we havent had time to evolve new process. But I want to know what the processes are that allow us to be influenced by seemingly unrelated things, what is that process.

So what is the process in our brain, that allows two seemingly unrelated things like lets say “seeing balloons and for that to maybe make is want to be sick.” even if we know it makes no sense

marinelife's avatar

We’re complicated and those things are byproducts not end products of evolution.

Coloma's avatar

Well….this is where programming, conditioning and psychology comes in. The answer is in the realm of psychology, not evolution. Certain associations that seem to be irrational are not. Somewhere along the way there has been an experience with a balloon has become intertwined with a sense of anxiety.
Maybe the 2 year old was devastated when he let go of his balloon and lost it, evoking a feeling of sadness and anxiety that his beloved balloon was gone.

The psychological experience was traumatic enough to impart a negative feelings associated with balloons that is deeply ingrained in the psyche.
Again, individual temperament styles and levels of maturity and integration of ones inferior functions carry much weight in how one responds to certain stimuli.

This is where phobias and PTSD come into the picture. The veteran that freaks out when he hears gunfire even if he is safely sitting in his living room watching TV and not on the battle field. A surge of anxiety will still arise, based on past conditioning.
It is impossible to not take psychology into consideration with this question.

BosM's avatar

Emotional intelligence has some application to your question. The answer it that it has more to do with the human brain being wired to respond emotionally first. From The Emotional Intelligence Quick Book: Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves I think the following helps to explain why emotions can override rational thought:

“We have a choice in how we respond to emotions. Each of us takes in information from the world around us through the five senses. Everything we see, smell, hear, taste and touch travels through the body in the form of electrical signals. These signals pass from cell to cell until they reach their ultimate destination, the brain. Our sensations enter the brain in one place at the back near the spinal cord. Complex, rational thinking happens on the opposite side of the brain at the front. When the electric signals enter your brain, they must travel all the way across it before you can have your first logical thought about the event.” ... “Signals passing through the limbic system create an emotional reaction to events before they reach the front of the brain” where rational thought occurs.

Emotional Intelligence helps us strengthen the connection between the rational and emotional centers of the brain to balance emotional and rational thought in our response.

BhacSsylan's avatar

“This does make sense though, we evolved not looking at LCD screens so evolution never needed to fix this problem.”

We also didn’t evolve reading books, yet we don’t get eye strain as easily looking at books. What I’m saying is that evolution had little do with the LCD screen. It is, as @marinelife said, a byproduct, not an end product. Like this question: “But why would we tip more just because we are happier on an evolutionary perspective?” That is a nonsensical question in terms of evolution. Evolution doesn’t care about tips. Questioning our liking of fatty foods is one thing, because we had time to evolve in relation to fattening foods, and there are relatively simply, non-neurological answers to that question. But questioning complex interpersonal and psychological reactions in terms of evolution is either nonsensical, such as asking about tipping, or fiercely complicated, such as asking about the evolution of PTSD or phobias, which in many cases have highly cultural as well as evolutionary components.

This is a major error of the great majority of evolutionary psychologists, who tend to break down hugely complicated interconnected forces into “oh, this totally helped a guy spread his seed” or something. It’s incredibly reductionist and most times wrong. You cannot separate psychology from nurture, and doing so is, at best, lazy.

Wait, and I just reread the question, and you want us to answer this with absolutely no reasoning of unconscious effectors? You realize this is the main way that irrational actions take effect, right?

Coloma's avatar

@BhacSsylan LOL
Yes, spot on, to refute rational information is irrational.

Response moderated (Spam)
Earthgirl's avatar

@Questionsaboutstuff Maybe you would enjoy this book!

kitszu's avatar

A brand new animal that is wired in a brand new way? Our brains don’t function like any other species on earth (not exactly like any other species-as far as we know). My best guess would be that as genetic anomalies we would be prone to develope other anomalies. The human brain is a complicated thing. You say that you don’t care about why people are prone to tip better on a sunny day or to eat more if you have a bigger box of popcorn but I’m wondering why you think those things are somehow separate from the question? Humans are part “nature” and part “nurture”.

Mariah's avatar

Another book recommendation, Alan S. Miller’s Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters. All about evolutionary psychology, and is where I got the ideas from my response.

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