Safeguarding 8: Psychological/Emotional abuse

“for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

With this simple line Shakespeare’s Hamlet summed up the basic notion behind psychological and emotional abuse. Eleanor Roosevelt said it rather differently three and a half centuries later when she pointed out that an insult only hurts if we agree with it. What both of these different expressions of the same principle have in common is this:

If I want to change the way you feel I must first change the way you think, either about yourself or about your situation.

thumbnailCA3H80ASAnything that causes distress or confusion or that misleads the other person causes psychological and or emotional harm. If the behaviour that causes that harm cannot be justified then it is also abusive.

The distinction between ‘harm’ and ‘abuse’ is as important here as anywhere. After all you can’t please all of the people all of the time and people do sometimes become upset for their own reasons even though no-one has done anything wrong. If a person becomes upset because you’re carrying out your legitimate duties then that’s not your fault.

For example the relative who chooses to become angry or distressed because the carer refuses to do what they demand is not being abused. They have no right to demand that they obey them – your duty is to the service-user, not the carer and so you are not being abusive by doing what you think is right, whatever the carer’s opinion might be.

However sometimes our dismissal of others opinions, wants and needs really is abusive. The service-user who becomes distressed when the carer insults or ridicules them is a victim of emotional and psychological abuse. We may not be able to please all of the people all of the time but that doesn’t excuse meanness.

Deliberately misleading, isolating or demeaning another person is likely to be psychological abuse as are intimidation, over use of criticism and hostility. If these things are done from a position of authority they may well also meet the European criteria for torture precisely because of the distressing impact they have on the victim. Repeatedly focussing upon distressing situations for no good reason such as constantly surprising dementia sufferers with the news of their parents’ death for example is a form of psychological/emotional abuse too.

Earlier we made the point that abuse is a violation of an individual’s rights. Rights are not only about the things we shouldn’t have to put up with – they’re also about our entitlements. For example service-users have the right to experience a stimulating environment (so long as they can cope with it). Endless hours of daytime television is not really appropriate psychological stimulation which is one reason why so many people in residential care or long term hospital placements become clinically depressed. What would happen to your mood if all you had to occupy your mind were chat shows relating to a world you no longer felt part of? Physical and environmental circumstances have psychological and emotional impact, for better or for worse.

Over-stimulation due to noise, overly bright lights or even simply too much frenetic activity can cause psychological harm. Critical, demeaning staff or dehumanising routines create difficulties too, particularly in relation to self-esteem. Consider the psychological impact of having someone else make your basic decisions such as what you wear or eat, what time you get up, when you bathe and even when you go to the toilet. Imagine someone else feeding you.

Of course it is undeniable that many people in our care need a great deal of support and assistance with all these things and more. However – when they are able to exercise choice about when and with whom for example they are much more likely to maintain a sense of independence and control than when they are simply factored into a routine that is decided ‘in the office’.

To the busy care worker these things are functional – they’re just routine and can become no more than ‘tasks’ to be performed in the minds of the staff. To the incapacitated patient or resident they may be the last aspect of independence supporting their self-esteem. Even routine can be a form of psychological abuse. We’ll explore this concept a little more when we cover Institutional abuse shortly.

As with so many aspects of abuse it’s always worth wondering how you would feel if you were in that situation. If you’d become distressed, depressed, angry or humiliated then there’s a good chance that the same will be true for your service-users.

The fact that they may not complain is no guarantee that they are satisfied. It is usually the most depressed and/or dehumanised people who complain the least because they have simply given up. That’s one reason why health and social care inspectors monitor complaints about a service. The service that has no complaints is often the service chosen for an inspection visit simply because it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time and so if nobody is complaining the inspectors often want to know why not.

About the Safeguarding series

This blog series first appeared on Stuart’s personal blog early in 2010. It has been reposted here as part of a process of ‘rationalisation’ in which work from several blogs has been removed and reposted on only two.

Hard wired 19: What’s culture got to do with it?

This series began with an overview of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Then we moved on to discuss the evolutionary roots of human psychology. Most people might expect that such an endeavour would provide insights when dealing with individuals but why introduce culture? The short answer is that in relation to Homo sapiens there is no real difference. Here’s why….

Group size


As we know, Homo sapiens and our immediate predecessors in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) existed in small groups, probably of up to a maximum of around 150 individuals. In reality, of course group size would vary greatly but the 150 maximum seems reasonable in the light of research among modern humans.

This ‘village’ or ‘small tribe’ model meant that complicated intrigues and political brinkmanship, although they may have existed, seem likely to have been very different from those of today. In a society where everyone knows everyone else and where altruism and co-operation is rewarded the stereotypical ‘two-faced’ politician could not thrive. So our species evolved to make judgements based upon what we see.


In an earlier post we introduced the concept of evolved heuristics. These are the mental ‘shortcuts’ that allow us to act without spending a lot of time thinking. These heuristics presumably served us well in the EEA when life, although undoubtedly hard was also simpler and so easier to understand.

One such heuristic is the idea that ‘what you see is what you get’.

Seeing is believing‘ in other words.

As we shall see this evolved heuristic, although undoubtedly useful and adaptive in the EEA often just gets in the way today. It’s just too convincing.


As Homo sapiens evolved we acquired a big brain and increasingly sophisticated language, and with them the ability to handle more and more abstract thoughts. Language helps us not only to see with our own eyes but also to hear about events and to discuss their meaning. We can interpret what we see.

Pattern recognition

Before we can begin to relate these psychological adaptations to modern human culture we need to revisit the idea of ‘pattern recognition‘. As culture is based upon consistent values and behaviours these too have evolved in relation to predictable, observable patterns and the interpretations we create to explain them. For example, the predictable midday heat in certain equatorial countries gave rise to the ‘siesta’ culture whereas life in North European boglands gave rise to a culture of water spirits and marsh Gods.

Cognition and memes

These factors combine to create explanations that are communicated throughout the society as memes. These shared memes prompt group norms, customs, values and beliefs. In other words, as the memes accumulate they create cultures.

Over time these memes develop more sophisticated explanations in step with increasing knowledge and understanding throughout the society. That’s the cognition part. It’s interesting that these new explanations often lose the original meaning and yet continue to be used as justification. Such evolved memes, beliefs and norms are known as ‘traditions‘.

However the really interesting thing is that even when these culture-building memes are shown over time to be false they retain their authority. That’s the power of evolved psychology.

Let’s look at a couple of hypothetical examples. I should stress that (in the absence of a time machine) there is no way to know how accurate these speculations might be but they will serve as examples of the process, if not the specific facts in question.

Moon memes – and a cultural overlay

Basic drive -


Early humans needed to make sense of the world and yet they had almost no understanding of the science and knowledge we take for granted today. They had no awareness of germs for example and yet they saw people become ill and die when exposed to disease. They also had no clue about astronomy but they saw the different phases of the moon and realised that whatever was going on was beyond their control.


They developed the mental shortcuts that diseased people should be avoided and that the moon is stronger than humans. They also had the pre-existing heuristic that ‘seeing is believing’.

Pattern recognition

Imagine life without artificial lighting. How dark would the nights be? How many wild animals might lurk unseen just beyond the campfire’s glow?

Then consider a moonlit night. How many more of these would be predators might you see. Remember that seeing is believing. If you see more predators on moonlit nights there must be more predators. You’ve found a pattern.


A new meme develops. The powerful moon influences earthly events when it’s biggest (remember it’s not actually bigger, just differently lit but it looks bigger and seeing is believing.

Developing explanation Missing the original point

As society develops science and begins to understand gravitational forces a new explanation develops to make sense of the moon’s apparent power. It’s the idea that a bigger moon exerts a stronger gravitational pull affecting humans and causing lunacy. This, of course, has nothing to do with the original issue of wildlife but that’s OK. Ideas evolve.

Explanation disproved

The ‘increased gravity’ explanation is still popular today even though we all know that the moon is no larger when it’s ‘full’ so can’t exert any gravitational increase. Yet the cultural meme continues (incidentally all astrological memes are equally easy to dismiss) because its original appeal, the need to make sense of the world remains.

This next one probably comes from an even earlier, pre-human stage in our species’ development….

Early primate groups competing for territory

Basic drive

Just like modern chimpanzees our early primate ancestors almost certainly had to compete for territory. Indeed, throughout recorded history humans have fought each other for living space in just the same way.

It seems likely that the drive for group survival and kin loyalty is very ancient indeed.


The mental shortcut supporting this drives are very simple:

‘In group: good – out group: bad’
‘Seeing is believing’.

Pattern recognition

It wouldn’t take long to realise that those who look or behave differently are usually outsiders (and therefore bad). This gives rise to some unfortunate cultural memes….


People with different skin colours are bad;
People with different customs are bad.

Developing explanation missing the original point
The developed explanation (we might even say excuse) for this group based discrimination is the notion that ‘Johnny foreigner’ (as defined by colour, religion or cultural background) is inferior intellectually and morally. This was the assumption that led to a range of psuedoscientific ‘hierarchies’ over the centuries as well as the travesty of social Darwinism and the eugenics movement.

Explanation disproved

DNA, anthropological studies, academic and physiological comparisons all disprove this psuedoscientific nonsense but the meme persists because its real basis is pre-human territorial conflict in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation. It’s primal, it’s unthinking and it’s utterly inappropriate for the modern world.


In this post I’ve tried to pull together some of the threads already introduced throughout the series. As always I welcome constructive criticism. I’m writing this series so that I can learn about evolutionary psychology so feel free to put me straight if you know better.

Hard wired 18: Empathy and altruism

The animal within


What does it mean to call someone an ‘animal’? What does it mean to be ‘inhuman’? To put it another way….. what are the characteristics of humanity that that set us apart from other great apes?

Naturalistic theory (gene based)

According to Dutch psychologist Frans De Waal, the question of what makes us different is misleading in itself. That’s not to suggest that there are no differences between humans and other animals. Rather, De Waal suggests that all our human characteristics evolved from (& can be glimpsed in) other animals. These characteristics may not be so well developed in other animals but they’re there, none the less.



Our tendency toward patriotism and nationalism is mirrored in the group living and inter group violence of other primates;
Our inherent sense of justice has parrallels not only in primate behaviour but also the reciprocal behaviours (and outrage at cheats) of a range of mammals from the great apes to wolves and even bats;
Our species’ tendency to experiment with varying methods of heterosexual and homosexual sex is shared throughout the natural world (especially among our close cousins, the bonobos);
‘Human’ charity and selfless altruism exist not only among many mammals but indeed our rather weak-willed version of kindness is far surpassed by many, not least by the social insects.

In short De Waal argues that there is very little about humanity that cannot also be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Even our cultural developments such as fidelity, fealty and honesty have their roots deep in our evolutionary past.

Veneer theory (culturally led)

Veneer theory is also interested in human culture but it differs from naturalistic theory in that Veneer theorists see human culture as an almost artificial overlay, a ‘veneer’ laid on top of human society but lacking in other animals.

As we know already from our earlier discussion of evolutionary theory in part 3 progress is gradual and each new development builds upon what has gone before. So it seems more than a little odd suddenly to change the rules just because we’re talking about humans. In fact from my perspective it seems almost as though Veneer theorists are trying to retain a sense of ‘special status’ for humans.

Of course there’s nothing new in this. Darwin’s bulldog himself, Thomas Huxley, advocated much the same idea in the late 19th century. The term ‘veneer theory itself is much more modern, being coined by De Waal himself as a label for the theory he was so keen to criticise in his book ‘Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved’

It is unfortunate that the whole of ‘veneer theory’ rests upon the idea that human morality appeared ‘by chance’ without, so far as I have been able to ascertain any evidence supporting that assertion. Veneer theory truly does seem to me to be a mere act of faith. As such I will devote no more time to it – at least not in its purest sense.

Naturalistic veneer theory (culture as an expression of the genetic imperative)


Robert Wright, in his book ‘The moral animal’ attempts to bridge the gap. His argument is sometimes expressed as the ‘Russian doll theory’ in which every evolved individual contains within him an infinite regression of evolutionary predecessors.

Russian doll theory sees morality (and by extension ‘culture’) as the inevitable result of evolved animal expediency. Whereas chimps are territorial and aggressive toward newcomers for practical reasons, we humans rationalise our evolved (naturalistic) brutality and develop a cultural ‘veneer’ called loyalty. In this way we can pretend that our patriotic (I might say jingoistic) viciousness is somehow ‘moral’ and yet the primate drive remains. Australopithecus afarensis, Homo erectus and Homo habilis lie just beneath the veneer of the outermost ‘Russian doll’ or Homo sapien.

Russian dolls and empathy

Let’s take an example.


Empathy, that perennial favourite of anti evolutionist creationists involves two distinct traits. Humans generally possess both of these:

1. Emotional contagion: Experiencing what others feel (the emotional equivalent of a contagious yawn);
2. Empathy: The ability to understand another individual’s feelings intellectually (without having to feel it yourself).

Interestingly all the non-human great apes together with elephants and dolphins demonstrate emotional contagion although only humans and bonobos have been shown to possess empathy. In other words the human trait of empathy is just as evolved as our bipedal gait and our opposable thumbs.

As I made clear from the beginning of this series I’m writing it to aid my own studies and I value comments that help me learn. As it stands currently I find myself convinced of naturalistic veneer theory but I may well be wrong. If you know better please let me know but past experience does lead me also to advise that….

Creationists need not apply.


Hard wired 17: Bias

In this post we’ll consider three of the most widespread (and misleading) of our evolved mental modules. We’ll look at ‘selective abstraction‘, ‘arbitrary inference’ and ‘confirmation bias’. Each of these is related in its own way to pattern recognition as described in part 16.

What’s most interesting from an evolutionary perspective is that these three aspects of human psychology, although universal, may not be advantageous in themselves. They may, in fact, be no more than evolutionary by products of pattern recognition.

There are many examples of by products, both physical and psychological. Certain genes seem to confer a variety of traits as though some evolutionary advantages cannot exist without other less positive or neutral correlates. The trade off between sickle cell anemia and protection from malaria discussed in part 9 is an excellent example. Evolution isn’t perfect and so neither is the human body – or the human mind.


Ornately carved spandrels

Sometimes these extra ‘add on’ characteristics can fool us. They look like the evolved characteristic that was favoured by natural selection but they’re not – they’re just the baggage that comes along with it. They’re what Stephen Jay Gould described as evolutionary ‘spandrels’.

‘Spandrels’ are the triangular blank spaces we see at the top of arches. They serve no structural purpose but in an arched building, a cathedral for example, they are inevitable by products of construction. However some spandrels, structurally useless by products or not, are so finely decorated that it’s easy to convince ourselves that they were the builders’ main focus and not the arch. So it is with evolutionary spandrels. They’re purely coincidental but they have the appearance of selected traits.

The tendency to see patterns and to concentrate only upon what is relevant has real advantages. Work on expertise and efficiency shows us the need to weed out irrelevancies from attention but along with that undeniably helpful tendency we find a few ‘spandrels’. As we consider these three ‘less than helpful’ psychological traits it will be helpful to remember that ‘evolved’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘inevitable’. It does seem to be possible to resist these traits, however hard-wired they may be. As ever, knowledge is power.

Selective abstraction


Which pattern is most relevant?

As we know, experts and other, efficient problem-solvers develop a consistent ability to see relevant patterns without being distracted by irrelevancies. For most of us though there seems to be an equally consistent problem, at least until we gain experience in understanding just what is and is not relevant. We tend to focus as much upon irrelevancies as we do upon the relevant.

Experts rely upon experience to recognise which aspects of the current situation are relevant. They use memory of previous events to find meaningful patterns in the present. They notice similarities and take action accordingly. As do we all.

The problem comes when non-experts (that means all of us most of the time) try to identify meaningful patterns. We tend to notice what fits our existing assumptions and worldview. We also tend to ignore or under-emphasise any information that doesn’t fit. In short we selectively abstract the evidence that we already agree with and filter out everything else.


Abu Qatada

This means that whatever we first believe tends to stick (even if it’s wrong). That’s why no amount of contrary evidence will dissuade the racist, the religious extremist or the political zealot from their chosen opinion. They literally discount all the information that doesn’t support their preconceptions. It’s also why humans are so easy to manipulate. All the manipulator has to do is set up a worldview and we do the rest.

Psychological priming is a common sales and persuasion trick. Prime the prospect to think of a certain price range so that whatever is offered is seen through that particular lens.

In politics priming is just as easy. For example the current UK government has successfully primed much of the population to believe that disabled people are ‘scroungers’ and that unemployed people are lazy. Neither of these assertions are objectively true but that doesn’t matter. Selective abstraction means that these ideas are difficult to shake.


David Cameron's government brands disabled people scroungers

The same is true of labelling. For example, tell someone how generous or how clever they are often enough and there’s a good chance that they’ll look for opportunities to prove it (providing, of course, that they like the label you give them). Even our self-concept is open to manipulation by those who know how to use selective abstraction to full effect.

Selective abstraction is a psychological spandrel that really does have serious consequences.

Confirmation bias is very much related to selective abstraction. Indeed, if confirmation bias is the ‘intention’, selective abstraction is the ‘mechanism’ by which we lead ourselves astray. It’s possible that confirmation bias and the perceived need to be right (or to be seen to be right) is also related to the drive for status and dominance but it’s no less dangerous for that.


We touched upon the process of confirmation bias in part 2 when we discussed what Karl Popper described as the demarcation problem: the difference between science, psuedoscience and nonsense. Science works because it only accepts what it cannot disprove and the scientific method is all about sincerely attempting to disconfirm hypotheses. In so doing scientists are careful to consider all the available evidence. Psuedoscience and nonsense focus only upon confirmatory evidence via selective abstraction and so fail to make meaningful new discoveries.

Confirmation bias serves to blind us to reality and exacerbates our mistakes.

Arbitrary inference


The ability to plan ahead, to imagine the future is a rare trait within the animal kingdom. It’s been a real advantage to humans. It’s also based upon the ability to recognise patterns and to predict what they will look like over time. And just like other pattern recognition modules it’s open to error.

When we predict the future we’re making an inference. We take what we already know and imagine how things we already understand will play out over time. Sometimes our inferences are based upon sound evidence but not always. Sometimes they’re based upon beliefs and ideologies that are not remotely evidence-based. These inferences are arbitrary.

The trouble with Arbitrary inference is that a single error can have dramatic consequences as each new assumption compounds the problem. Consider the following example…

John and Mary are engaged. They have been together for 5 years (living together for three years) and plan to wed in a few months. One night Mary tells John that she’s going out with some old friends. John makes several arbitrary inferences….

Mary’s going out with her old friends
That crowd used to go out ‘on the pull’
Mary’s going out to get laid
Mary can’t be trusted
Mary doesn’t love me
Mary wants to break it off
Mary will leave me soon
If Mary dumps me I’ll be humiliated
I should dump Mary first

Clearly this is a fairly dramatic example but these things do happen. The problem isn’t with our tendency to recognise patterns though, it’s with our tendency to accept patterns uncritically. The thing all these psychological spandrels have in common is their lack of critical thinking.

If we are to overcome our evolved tendencies to mislead ourselves and those around us we must begin by developing the habit of true deliberation and by accepting the fact that our initial assumptions may be wrong.

Hard wired 16: Pattern recognition

Look at these numbers. What comes next?

2….. 4…….

I may be wrong but my guess is that you chose either the number six or the number eight. That’s because depending upon the pattern you first thought of you’ll either add two or you’ll double the last number. In either case you’d be wrong. Actually the next number in the sequence should be sixteen. Each number in the sequence is the last number squared (multiplied by itself).

That’s the problem with patterns – they lead us astray with stunning regularity. And yet still we try to find them. We have an inbuilt pattern-recognition mechanism that never stops. And it’s not just sequences although they’re common enough and leading to all manner of assumptions about ’cause and effect’.

Why patterns?

It’s not hard to see why this obsession with patterns prevailed in the ancestral environment. The early hunter-gatherer who learned to recognise the association between plants and water would have a distinct advantage over those who didn’t. The homo erectus who understood that birds falling silent is often part of a pattern involving dangerous predators would certainly have the edge. So our species evolved pattern recognition as a very effective survival strategy. It’s true that this sort of inference (the assumption of danger) can lead to over caution on occasion but that probably wasn’t such a bad thing in the circumstances.

But that’s not the whole story. The human obsession with patterns and sequences also leads us to imagine patterns in the things we see and hear from faces in clouds (or even wallpaper and embers) to words and phrases in the wind. And the patterns we identify are often far from real. So we get spooked by shadows and led astray by random events that seem to come in order.

Believing nonsense (the illusion of pattern)

So humans kid themselves into believing in nonsense like astrology and bizarre ‘medical’ treatments. We become convinced that bad things come in threes or that because two unpleasant things have happened already this morning we’re in for ‘one of those days’. We see patterns everywhere. What’s worse – once we hit upon a ‘pattern’ (real or imagined) other processes known as ‘selective abstraction’ and ‘confirmation bias’ tend to keep us convinced that we’re right. We’ll cover confirmation bias and selective abstraction later. For now it’s enough to know that both of these mental modules serve to persuade us that we’re right and to resist self doubt.


This process of imagining patterns, confirmation bias and stubbornness can have extremely unfortunate results. It leaves us open to persuasion. That’s why the most skilled and influential political speakers give three illustrations of their most important points? They know that three is the magic number to create the illusion of a pattern and that once established in the mind of the listener that illusion will be hard to break.

Human gullibility

The truth is that our species’ love of patterns, our obsession with trying to place everything around us into recognisable, pre-existing categories makes us extremely vulnerable.


This is the aspect of our evolved psychology, perhaps more than any other that makes us gullible and easy to manipulate. It leads to superstition and the prevalence of people who’d never dream of playing an important sporting match without their ‘lucky’ cricket box or without reciting their favourite pre-match prayer. It’s why the actor John Wayne always insisted on carrying the same ‘six-shooter’ in every Western. He’d created an assumption of cause and effect that had nothing to do with reality.


It’s also why the primitive cause and effect assumption of tribal weather Gods eventually merged into a single deity called Jahweh and ultimately morphed into the three modern versions of the God of Abraham (see The evolution of God by Robert Wright).

The illusion of control


This obsession with patterns and ‘lucky’ ritual has led to self-important, metaphysical or religious rituals from the repetitive behaviours of obsessive-compulsive disorders to the ‘hail Mary’ of Roman Catholicism, the ingestion of ‘transubstantiated’ flesh in Holy Communion and the masochism of the flagelant. In each case the assumption is the same:

If I get the ritual right I (or God/the universe) can influence the world, the weather, other people or whatever to behave as I would like them to.

It’s also why gamblers kid themselves that the next random throw of the dice is ‘due’ to fall on a 6 or why their lottery numbers are bound to come up soon. It’s because of an entirely baseless assumption that essentially random events follow patterns that exist only in the human mind.

In later posts we’ll explore some of these ideas as we consider selective abstraction, arbitrary inference, confirmation bias and the gambler’s fallacy in more detail.

Hard wired 15: The unthinking mental module


Slavemaking ant stealing pupae

It’s easy to understand how humans and other species evolved physical characteristics as a result of adaptation and natural selection. Helpful variations confer their advantages down through the generations whilst less helpful variations die out. So longer-legged (fast-running) wild horses outrun their predators but those with overly long legs suffer broken shafts and are eaten. The optimum leg length is maintained by natural selection. That’s straightforward enough.

But what about mental and behavioural evolution? Evolved psychological traits are a little harder to grasp. To make sense of this fascinating topic it’s helpful to begin by considering evolved animal behaviours…. animal instincts, in other words.

Animal instincts

The following examples of instincts from the animal world are directly analogous to human behaviours that are often described as ‘just human nature’:

Social (non reproductive), sexual behaviours (including promiscuous chimps and mutually masturbatory bonobos);

Protective behaviours from cats with kittens to soldier ants defending their nests;

Slave making behaviours such as ants carrying off pupae;

Parasitic behaviours such as cuckoos laying eggs in the nests of other species;

Flight distances that determine how close a gazelle will let the lion approach before it flees (abandoning its meal);

The Ichneumon wasp cruelly ‘sacrificing’ caterpillars of other species so that its own young can thrive.


The Ichneumon wasp laying eggs in a host csterpillar

It’s unlikely that all these creatures are fully aware of the implications of their actions – they act unconsciously and with sometimes ruthless efficiency. That’s instinct.

Homo sapiens shares these same instincts, often with just as little awareness of their true motivation.

These instincts – these ‘mental modules’ , are just as influential for our physical behaviours (homemaking, status-seeking) as they are for our psychological behaviours (paranoia, pattern-seeking, deference to authority).

Robert Wright’s acclaimed book The moral animal provides an accessible and detailed account of mental modules, using the life of Charles Darwin himself to illustrate the point. I won’t do the book justice here (I’ve read it twice so far and I still haven’t taken it all in). But I will try to give an outline. Here’s just one example…



Most people like the idea of loyalty – in fact they value it. Governments and religions, businesses and family groups alike consider it a great virtue. And yet even a moment of thought shows that in truth, loyalty is far from a universal virtue in the modern world and may actually be better thought of as a vice.

Why loyalty is a vice

People generally behave differently toward members of their own group than toward others. This is loyalty. So freemasons will favour other freemasons when seeking employees and racists give preference to strangers of their particular skin colour even though they know absolutely nothing more about them than. It doesn’t take much to realise just how unfair and unethical these sorts of distinctions, these group loyalties are. These are the more obvious of loyalty’s problems. There are other, less obvious but equally damaging examples too.

image Imagine a support worker who sees a visitor beating a vulnerable care home resident with a stick. What should the support worker do?

The answer, of course, is obvious – he should report the assault in the knowledge that adult protection is his legal obligation. This would allow the law to step in, protect the victim and prosecute the abuser. There’s nothing very difficult about that.


But what if the abuser was a friend and colleague? What if the abuser was the victim’s husband disciplining his wife in accordance with religious doctrine (a religion such as Islam, for example, which the support worker also followed)?

The law is still the same. The abuse is still the same but the loyalties will be different. And that’s where the problems begin.

Loyalty prevents us from doing what we believe to be right. When the support worker fails to report their colleague or fellow worshipper through loyalty they make continued abuse more likely. The same is true of ‘no grassing’ cultures where victims and bystanders alike are seen as disloyal to the group (think of schoolyards) or some vague notion of honour (think of adult crime). Loyalty that prevents reporting of offences is no more than an abusers’ charter.

And yet that’s the whole point of loyalty – to get people to bend or even break the rules. Without loyalty people are likely to do what they believe to be right. Loyalty simply interferes with right action. Far from being a virtue it is a major vice, a cause of great unfairness and superficial prejudice. So why do humans across the globe value it so highly?

Loyalty as a universal human trait (hard wired)


Remember our earlier discussion about the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA)? That’s the environment in which most of our species’ characteristics were developed in response to the prevailing selection pressures.

In that environment early humans (and their evolutionary predecessors) lived in small groups where survival. of every individual (and their genes) depended upon the survival of every other individual. They were truly interdependent in ways that modern humans generally can only imagine. In order to survive they had to help each other, ensure mutual co-operation and, if they came into contact with other human groups, make sure that their own kin didn’t lose out. The principle of loyalty was born.

The mental module of loyalty

We covered heuristics in an earlier post too. The mental shortcut that gets us to solve problems without having to think about them. Loyalty is an heuristic. It’s a mental module hardwired since the pleistocene that says

“Favour members of your own group”.

In the early days of human evolution that may have been a vital principle but today it’s just unfair and unethical. Nationalism, sexism, racism and a host of other ‘isms’ really just boil down to arbitrary loyalties based upon irrelevancies such as skin colour, religious cultural tradition and place of birth.

And now the good news

The universal nature of loyalty based cultures shows us that this particular mental module is hard wired. And yet many people have managed to get beyond these petty loyalties and act in accordance with their conscience instead. This must give us cause for optimism.

The fact that whistle-blowers exist and that most people have moved beyond racism shows that it is possible to overcome hard-wired mental modules. I suspect that greater understanding will go a long way toward this goal as we discover more and more about the various mental modules bequeathed to us by our earliest human and pre human ancestors. Knowledge is power. If we want to outgrow the primitive behaviour of homo-habilis we’ll do well to try to understand him/her first.

Evolutionary psychology part 1

The final PDF is nowhere near finished yet but I’ve completed part 1. So it’s available for <a href="Hard wired book part 1“>download in pdf format here.


International society removes ‘schizophrenia’ from its title

Woohoo! First it was a joke that was taken seriously only in the post-psychiatry movement. Now it’s a mainstream opinion. Soon the only discussion will be how anyone could ever have believed in the syndrome of schizophrenia.

Hard wired 12: Heuristics

Heuristics – the amazing mental shortcuts that lead us into trouble

“A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgements quickly and efficiently. These rule-of-thumb strategies shorten decision-making time and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about the next course of action.”

Making teaWe all use heuristics. We have to. The alternative would be ‘paralysis by analysis’. We’d be too busy thinking through our every action actually to do anything. From a smile or a handshake to how to cross the road or even boil a kettle. Without heuristics life would be exhausting and probably very short. After all – by the time you’d thought through how to respond to the speeding car hurtling toward you, you’d probably be dead. Heuristics are the psychological shortcuts that keep us going in a complex world.

Some of our heuristics are learned. That’s why experts are so good at what they do. Years of experience has taught them the heuristics of their work.

In my own field for example, I remember as a novice psychiatric nurse spending hour upon hour wondering how to approach each individual, trying to be aware of their every characteristic as though all that information, somehow would tell me what to do. With experience I learned that not every piece of information is important in every situation. I can ‘cut out the irrelevant’ and take appropriate action based upon only the important things. In a very real sense the study of ‘heuristics’ is the study of ‘the relevant’.

So I know that depressed people need motivation; I know that anxious people need a way to problem solve; and I know that psychotic people need a way to assess their perceptions and beliefs. These are the shortcuts, the heuristics that allow me to be effective. But they’re not foolproof.

In choosing to ignore irrelevant information and act according to pre-conceived patterns of need psychiatric nurses run the very real risk of ignoring ‘the individual behind the distress’. By focussing only upon the depression and working to motivate a service-user I might fail to notice their suicidal ideation. That would be a serious omission and working too hard on motivation without addressing the underlying desire to die could result in the person actually killing themselves rather than just thinking about it.

Of course experienced nurses know this and work hard not to limit their attention only to motivation without understanding what might come next but the point is clear. Mental shortcuts are useful but they are also, by definition, superficial. They make us prone to mistakes.

The good news is that we can learn to take account of these pitfalls. The bad news is that most of the time heuristics just take hold of us and we carry on in our own sweet, superficial way because that’s what we evolved to do.

Like all evolved tendencies, heuristics favoured survival of the fittest in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA). They are so embedded in our evolutionary journey that they are a universal trait among humans. We act without thinking. That’s what kept our ancestors alive. It’s also what keeps us alive today. Whether the threat was a predatory tiger in the Pleistocene or a speeding car in the present we act instantly to keep ourselves safe. Natural selection kept the gene pool viable and the evolution of heuristics was assured.


neonateWhen we talk about ‘instinct’ we often really mean heuristics. A newborn human has only two instinctive responses:

1. Suckling;
2. Fear of falling.

Everything else has to be learned. The more effective the heuristic shortcut the more likely it is that we confuse the lesson with instinct. But it’s not instinct. The tendency to develop learned heuristics is an evolutionary trait but often the heuristics themselves are the products of experience and of culture. They develop as we learn from experience and, as we have seen, they can lead us astray.

In a sense, evolutionary psychology might be thought of as the study of heuristics. It’s the study of those ingrained mental shortcuts that mould our basic drives even (although not necessarily our specific behaviours). Protection of children, for example or a general commitment to justice (at least justice so far as other people are concerned) seem more hard wired than a healthy respect for road safety. That’s because although the need to survive is hard wired the rules governing traffic have to be learned.

As already noted, one of the aims of this blog series is to understand the role of determinism in our evolutionary make up. I suspect that if we are to embrace free will (the opposite of determinism) in any meaningful way then attention to heuristics will be the way forward.

Hard wired 9: Selection pressures and types part 1

Strata 5When I was at school evolution was taught in biology lessons according, I suppose, to the UK’s prevailing national curriculum. We had two main biology teachers – Mr. Davidson, a remarkable ex-soldier with a passion for discipline and Mr. Toogood whose enthusiasm for his subject seemingly knew no bounds. Between them they variously terrified and inspired generations of kids at Workington Grammar School into getting to grips with the basics of evolution by natural selection, among other things.

And yet – knowing what I know now I have to say that the curriculum (presumably through no fault of Messrs Davidson and Toogood) was sadly lacking. You see it missed out the most important part – the key bit of natural selection that makes sense of the rest. It missed out equilibrium.

Messrs Davidson and Toogood told us all about evolutionary change and how survival pressures favoured certain genes, leading to adaptation and eventual speciation over time. But they neglected to inform us that natural selection usually favours no change at all. They didn’t explain that speciation isn’t the norm – it’s the exception. Most of the time natural selection favours organisms that are well adapted to their environment – just as their parents were.

That’s why chromosomal changes that result in disorders like Down’s syndrome don’t suddenly swamp the gene pool. That’s why disorders such as spina bifida don’t take over the planet. These are real genetic changes but they hold no advantage in a relatively stable eco system and so they don’t prevail. Natural selection usually favours what has gone before because what has gone before is already well adapted to its environment. My parents lived long enough to breed. Natural selection has no reason (all thing being equal) to make any great changes to their basic genetic structure because it works.

In the last entry I raised the issue of why evolution seems to have stopped. Well – actually it hasn’t (as we shall see) but that doesn’t mean that it has to impose change for change’s sake. As the maxim goes….

If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it!

This is why Stephen Jay Gould came up with the term ‘punctuated equilibrium’ to explain the pattern of prolonged periods without change, occasionally punctuated by rapid explosions of adaptation and speciation. Some commentators have dismissed the concept of punctuated equilibrium as flawed because it doesn’t quite meet the criteria of ‘gradual change over time’ (also Gould used it to explain some of the gaps in the fossil record which caused problems of its own) but really it’s the logical conclusion of a system of natural selection that responds to change but maintains stability in periods of constancy.

sabre tooth tigerIt’s only when the environment or other circumstances changes that natural selection starts to favour adaptation. In a stable ecosystem with no significant pressure to adapt, very little changes. That’s why certain apex predators such as sharks and large predatory cats (tigers and lions for example) seem to have changed little or nothing for thousands or even millions of years. There’s no need for them to evolve – they’re pretty damn successful as it is.

If all the fish and other shark prey in the ocean suddenly died out then sharks would need to adapt. Natural selection would begin to favour those sharks who by some genetic fluke had developed the ability to digest the hulls of wooden boats. They would survive whilst their fellows with less digestive options would die off. Eventually all surviving sharks would be adapted to eat wooden hulls (and small fisherman would have a major problem).

This imposed change in diet caused by the death of a food species is what we call a ‘selection pressure’. There are several different kinds of selection pressure as we shall see. But first we need to make a few points about the nature of the theoretical basis of evolutionary psychology.

One early criticism of evolutionary psychology was that it assumed genetic change in isolation from the environment. This seems to have been due to a misunderstanding of the basic tenets of evolutionary psychology. So far as I have been able to ascertain (please feel free to comment on this blog post if you know differently) early critics assumed that evolutionary psychologists were working to a ‘1 gene:1 trait’ model whereby they assumed it would be possible to find single genes that would be sufficient to explain behavioural traits in humans.

In fact that isn’t the case. At least it isn’t currently the case (and I don’t think it ever was). Nobody whose work I have read seems to suppose that genetic determinism alone is enough to control and predict behaviour. Rather there is a complex interaction between genes and environments that shape our behaviours. That’s part of what we mean by ‘the modern Darwinian synthesis’. The role of natural selection in favouring some genes and not others has ‘stacked the deck’ by downplaying some genetic tendencies and emphasising others but the environment still plays a part.

It’s not ‘nature or nurture’ – it’s ‘nature and nurture’ combined.

Traits are selected because they are helpful in certain circumstances (although they may not be helpful in all circumstances) – so responsiveness to environment plays a role in human psychology. A good example of this comes from the realm of physical advantage/disadvantage via natural selection.

Guppies 1The genetic defence from malaria also creates sickle cell anaemia. Therefore in areas of the world where death by malaria is commonplace, sickle cell anaemia is also commonplace – there’s an evolutionary trade off. In areas of the world where malaria is rare or effectively unheard of sickle cell anaemia is also rare or unheard of. Other examples of this trade off with regard to physical traits include the male peacock’s tail feathers which, whilst increasing his breeding chances also reduce life expectancy as they make him more visible to predators. The same trade off was observed in the Trinidadian Guppie populations mentioned in an earlier post.

Evolutionary adaptations, be they physical or psychological/behavioural, tend to be much more complicated than mere ‘either/or’ equations.


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