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Personal, Group, and Evolutionary Psychology



[This post has been revised from the original that appeared only a few days ago. I felt there were some major flaws in my original examples. - T.]

One of the more interesting tendencies I’ve noticed among online intellectuals is the glorification of evolutionary psychology, but coupled with a disdain of regular, personal psychology. I often find people who are into evolutionary psychology big-time, but will have nothing but bad things to say about regular psychology, claiming it’s pure junk.

I don’t understand this tendency, since they’re both psychology disciplines at the end of the day and operate on many of the same principles. Personal psychology analyzes the individual, while evolutionary psychology analyzes the whole human species as a collective. In between both of these two extremes are different collective psychology disciplines that analyze different types and sizes of groupings. For example group psychology may analyze the psychology of small groups of people like friends, coworkers, or cults. Cultural and racial psychology may examine the psychology of a race or country, a collective bigger and of a different nature than that studied in group psychology but smaller than the collective studied in evolutionary psychology. I think the fact that the term evolutionary psychology has the word “evolution” in it gives the impression that it is somehow far more scientific than it is. However, like other forms of psychology, it still requires a lot of informed speculation and theories that are not falsifiable.

For example, take my recent post summarizing Adlerian Psychology. Everything in that post not only applies to individuals, but can also be applied to a small group, an entire culture, or the whole human species. In that post I said:

Alfred Adler believed that we are all driven by a primary inferiority, some major inferiority feeling that we spend our whole lives trying to overcompensate against, avoid thinking about, or surrendering to. If you surrender to it, you develop an inferiority complex. If you overcompensate against it, you get a superiority complex, which is another way to state narcissism.

The Wikipedia entry for Adlerian psychology delves deeper into the topic of primary inferiority, with emphasis added by me:

The primary feeling of inferiority is the original and normal feeling in the infant and child of smallness, weakness, and dependency… inferiority feeling usually acts as an incentive for development. However, a child may develop an exaggerated feeling of inferiority as a result of physiological difficulties or handicaps, inappropriate parenting (including abuseneglect, over-pampering), or cultural and/or economic obstacles.

The “incentive for development” aspect of primary inferiority is very important. For all of us, our primary inferiority, even if we don’t keep it alive in our conscious awareness on a regular basis in our adult lives, is what spurs us to chase our big goals. Many people who were bullied grow up to want to be powerful and bully others in some form, for example. Another person may idolize a parent and have grown up feeling only conditional, distant love from that parent, and that forms his primary inferiority. His life goal may be to pursue the career that parent pushed him into, as a way to prove his worth to that parent. Our primary inferiorities often inform many of our personal goals. And extreme, dysfunctional primary inferiorities like abuse, violence, rape, terrorizing, pampering, and smothering will create extreme and dysfunctional personal goals as well.

Some races and cultures can have a history of being oppressed or invaded, much like a person can have a bad upbringing involving a lot of abuse. Races and cultures can develop inferiority and superiority complexes, just like people can. Races and cultures can engage in overcompensation, avoidance, and surrender in relation to racial or cultural inferiority feelings. One example of a racial or cultural primary inferiority feeling is a negative stereotype or a historical, traumatic tragedy. A group may surrender to a stereotype and live up (or down) to it. They can overcompensate against the stereotype and try extra hard to live in defiance of it by consciously becoming the extreme opposite of it. Or the overcompensation could involve an over the top national pride and patriotism, and intense and overt displays of racial pride. A race or culture may avoid the stereotype by never acknowledging it and trying to suppress any discussion of it. Another example could be a historical, traumatic tragedy like persecution for Jews or slavery for blacks.

Very often a race, nation or culture’s collective agendas will stem from their primary inferiorities. If you understand what their collective primary inferiorities are, you can understand why they choose the goals and behaviors they do.

With evolutionary psychology, you expand the scope of psychology beyond individuals, races, and cultures to cover the whole species, and to cover a time frame of not just a person’s lifetime or a nation’s history but the timeline of the entire existence of the species. The primary inferiorities of the human race come from the environment , or nature, whether in the form of extreme weather and climate changes like the Ice Age, natural disasters, violent conflicts with other men, predators, lack of available food, etc. Just like Adler says that individuals strive for superiority as a way to fix their primary inferiority issues, the human race also strived for immortality as a way to deal with the feelings of inferiority they felt to their environment. This explains humankind’s obsession with progress, whether in the form of creating advanced civilizations, mastering agriculture, inventing and mastering tools (especially weapons), understanding nutrition, studying medicine, and obsessively inventing technology. All this can be seen as a way for the human race to strive for superiority and master its environment and feel a sense of control over nature and reduce its anxiety, thus overcoming whatever inferiority feelings humans had toward nature and the limitations it once forced upon us.

I’m going to give two more examples on how the same principles can apply to personal psychology, group psychology, and evolutionary psychology in later posts.

Further reading:

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. A book describing a theory of how races and intelligence evolved around the globe.
  • The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. This book is the main book behind a school of psychology called terror management theory, which operates under the premise that the fear of death is the primary inferiority feel the human species strives against. A Pulitzer Prize winning book, and also Bill Clinton’s favorite book. It’s a major, life-changing work to read, and is going to be one of the main texts I will be working with this coming year.

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