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Having an interest in human psychology (but no formal training) I decided to take Coursera's Introduction to Psychology as a Science. Here's a snippet from an introductory lecture (it requires signup, so I'll paste the transcription):

Statement: "Much of human behavior is instinctive."

Answer: "No, we have very few instinctive behaviors. There are some reflexes that young infants have, like for example the reflex to suck if you put something in their mouth or if you tickle the bottom of their feet, their toes will spread out. Those are reflexes that go away as the child gets older. We certainly have genetic predisposition to do things in a certain way. But, instinct, species specific behaviors that lower animals have, are very rare in human behavior."

This emphatic assertion really surprised me. First -but that's just a minor detail- because I thought that instincts and reflexes were not the same thing (the article in Wikipedia seems to confirm it: An instinct should be distinguished from a reflex, which is a simple response of an organism to a specific stimulus). Anyway, my main surprise was because it was my understanding that -at least at some degree- the fundamentals of evolutionary psychology had influenced "traditional psychology" over the years (not as explanation of any human behavior, of course, but certainly more than to explain the sucking reflex).

But being a layman, here is the question: has evolutionary psychology found its place in universities (syllabus, articles, ...) or is it pretty much ignored in academia?

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Also see the Wikipedia list of evolutionary psychology programs –  Jeff Apr 11 '13 at 13:32
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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Academic psychology has been, since the middle of the nineteenth century, first and foremost empirical. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, academic (empirical) psychology is mostly experimental. For one hundred years, the basis of psychological research has been to derive theories from popular opinion or any other relevant source, derive hypotheses from these theories, and to test these hypotheses in an experiment. For example, it has been the popular opinion that playing video games "makes" children and adolescents aggressive, antisocial and violent. Psychologists have tested this hypothesis by observing the level of aggression in a random group of children after they played an action video game, compared to the level of aggression of a random (control) group of children after they played a non-action video game. Whatever phenomenon psychologists are interested in, this is the basic methodology.

In psychology, the theory of evolution is just a theory. It is neither better nor worse than other theories. For evolutionary theory -- or any other theory -- to be relevant to psychology, it has to produce hypotheses that can be tested empirically, preferably in a laboratory (i.e. a controlled) experiment.

There are many psychologists today who look at all kinds of human behavior and experiences from an evolutionary perspective, derive theories from this perspective, and test these hypotheses. This research is commonly taught in the relevant courses in universities. For example, in a lecture on developmental psychology, the lecturer will routinely present psychoanalytic, behaviorist, humanist, systemic, context, domain-specific, evolutionary, and other theories and research on how human beings develop psychologically from conception through childhood, adolescence and adulthood to old age and death, and he will try to elaborate more or less neutrally on the strengths and weaknesses of these theories, and their methodological shortcomings.

In short, evolutionary psychology has its place in academic psychology, although, from my observation, it is already a bit dated and had its high point maybe in the last half of the twentieth century. Today, neuropsychology is the height of fashion ;-)

Source: Personal observation (I work at a university)

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This is a bit of a quick answer and hopefully others will provide a more comprehensive response.

The number of reflexes that exist in humans is arguably a separate issue to the support for evolutionary psychology. The answer below focuses specifically on the support for evolutionary psychology in academic psychology.

Almost all researchers in psychology would agree that evolutionary processes have shaped what it means to be human. A good example of a well-developed theory is ACT-R, which provides a model of cognition. An underlying assumption of the theory is that the nature of the underlying structure of cognition has evolved to minimise the consumption of computational and biological resources (although you're better off reading ACT-R material directly to understand how they describe the interface of genetic and environmental adaptation, e.g., Anderson 1991). This still leaves many issues regarding how to conceptualise human nature and the extent of human plasticity.

However, "just so" arguments made in the name of evolutionary psychology are generally not respected in academic psychology. For example, Someone might say that women are better at multitasking because throughout evolution men's behaviour has required singularity of purpose in hunting and mate seeking, whereas women have had to juggle competing tasks of child rearing, looking after the camp, and so on. Of course, that's all rubbish. I just made that argument up out of nothing. Such an argument takes an observation, possibly not even true in the first place, and then seeks to find some vaguely plausible evolutionary story to justify it. It's a "just so" argument. You can see further discussion of critiques of evolutionary psychology here.

References

  • Anderson, J. R. (1991). Is human cognition adaptive. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 14(3), 471-517. PDF
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Thanks for your answer. I didn't know about ACT-R, I'll look into it. And indeed, I think we all agree that "just-so" arguments sometimes found in evolutionary arguments (psychological or otherwise) are simply bad science. –  tokland Apr 8 '13 at 10:29
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One area in which, I believe, evolutionary psychology gets a fair degree of respect is in social psychology, and in particular in the study of cooperative behavior.

You might wish to check out

Axelrod (1981) The Evolution of Cooperation

Nowak (2006) Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life

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Interesting, but note that OP is asking about the status of evolutionary psychology today, not in 1981. I suppose what you're saying is that these articles commonly appear on social psych syllabi today? –  Jeff Apr 11 '13 at 4:50
    
The Axelrod work is foundational for the Nowak stuff and the latter is fairly recent as far as I know. –  baixiwei Apr 11 '13 at 11:02
    
Not sure if Nowak is the most relevant source for psychologists, especially not that book. I think Pinker might be more relevant. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Nov 13 '13 at 5:36
    
All I can say is that we DID read Nowak in my social psych class, and not Pinker, though to be fair, I'm not a social psychologist and this was a class specifically about agent-based modeling in social psych, so it might be a special interest thing. –  baixiwei Nov 13 '13 at 15:05
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