Raw Concepts: Maladaptation



We’ve already discussed the ways that collective psychology disciplines like group psychology and evolutionary psychology have parallel concepts to what one finds in individual psychology. I want to carry these comparisons further with a discussion of the concept of maladaptions.

Maladaptations are an umbrella term for (1) maladaptive behavior, (2) maladaptive beliefs, and(3) maladaptive traits. Whenever I call something a “maladaptive, it means that it falls into one of those three categories.

An individual, team, culture, race, or whole species can suffer from maladapation.

When something is maladaptive, we can generally say that it is a faulty, inadequate adaptation that leads to dysfunctional results. It’s an adaptation that is good, but not good enough. A maladaptation is a behavior, belief, or trait that has become more harmful than helpful, but not necessarily so harmful that it leads to death and lack of reproduction (although that is always a possibility). It’s often an adaptation that was once very useful, and was maybe the best adapation available at a particular time in an individual, group, or species’ history, but over time it became a maladaptation due to changes in circumstances. It’s no longer good enough to provide optimal benefits, but since it’s still useful to a degree and since it’s not so faulty as to wipe the organism, team, culture, race, or whole species out of existence altogether, it remains in existence and continue to affect current and future generations.

Some examples on an individual and collective level follow:

  • On an individual level, a person may have a lot of social anxiety, because he was abused as a child growing up and ended up lacking confidence and proper social skills. To cope, he learns how to fly underneath the radar and keep quiet so as to not incur his parents’ wrath and so as not to embarrass himself among his peers. As he grows older, he sticks to this maladaptive coping strategy and avoids social situations, pursues insular hobbies and careers that allow him to keep social interaction to a minimum, and only dates and befriends people who are as awkward as he is and don’t make him feel inferior and socially anxious. His obsessive avoidance tactics, which once formed a good coping strategy when he was trapped in a household with abusive parents, have been kept around well beyond the point where they’re useful. It’s not bad enough that his maladaptation is keeping him from living and possibly reproducing, but it’s likely going to make him live and reproduce in dysfunctional ways. He won’t get as far in his career as possible because of his poor networking due to his continuing social anxiety. He will maintain dysfunctional friendships and love relationships. He’ll never make the social connections that allow him to get promoted at work easily. He will avoid more rewarding opportunities that entail more risk in favor of less rewarding ones that are more comfortable and allow him to keep avoiding social anxiety. His choices are maladaptive because while they succeed in reducing his social anxiety by avoiding certain situations and challenges, they also serve to perpetuate it because they keep him from ever properly addressing and overcoming the fears, and a host of other problems arise as a result.


  • An ecological trap is a form of maladaptation that occurs when adaptations that used to help organisms choose high-quality habitats not causes them to settle in poor-quality habitats that negatively affect their ability to survive and reproduce. For example, many organisms have evolved to be drawn to bright sources of light. However, these organisms evolved this tendencies long before the modern era of widespread artificial, electric light. So while moths used to use the light from a bright, shining star to navigate a straight line, now they will exhaust itself fluttering against a window all night because of the electric light shining from the inside, or worse will find itself flying into a bug zapper.


  • Some bugs traditionally mate, settle, and swarm on water and as a result have evolved to be attracted to the light that reflects off the surface of the water. Thanks to modern technology though, there are many new artificial sources of light that are more attractive to these bugs than the light that reflects off the surface of water. This causes bugs such as dragonfish, mayflies, and other water-seeking species to prefer to mate, settle, and reproduce on asphalt, cars, plastic sheeting, and windows rather than on bodies of water.


  • The human body evolved to crave sweets and fats more and vegetables less, because in prehistoric times meals were fewer and far between, and these were the nutrients that were most vital. Daily life was so active and food so scarce that such cravings didn’t lead to obesity and adverse health effects. Also, our bodies were built to hold on to fat and not to hold onto muscle because fat stores held up over in lean times while muscle was metabolically expensive to maintain. Fast forward to today, where we have food sources available on almost every block in every direction, and we live largely sedentary lifestyles. Now these adaptations that once helped us in times of food scarcity not lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.


  • Evolutionary psychologists think human beings evolved to gossip as a way to root out free riders. Communities rarely got larger than 150 people, and when there was a free rider, meaning someone who was selfish, took more from the community than he gave back, and was generally untrustworthy, this was a problem that had to be nipped in the bud. The more free riders a community had, the worse the consequences for that community’s survival. Communities that gossiped had a higher likelihood of identifying free riders early, ruining their reputations, minimizing the damage they caused, and eventually driving them from the communities. Gossip was a great adaptation in the times before mass media and long-range travel, when everyone you would hear rumors about was someone you were likely to come into contact with in your community. Nowadays though, thanks to mass media, we have access to information about people who will likely have no impact in our lives and who we will likely never come into contact with, yet we’re still driven to gossip about them. Gossip has now become maladaptive behavior, since we are obsessing over the reputation of people we will never even meet and derive no immediate benefit from discussing.


  • A culture can follow maladaptive beliefs. In our modern culture, many people still believe what past generations did: that the key was to go to college, get married without a prenuptual agreement, have kids, buy a house, work with the same company until the day you died, and reap the retirement benefits. Past generations did this without questioning it, and it paid off. But many kids today following this advice are sorely disappointed with the results. Meanwhile many of the people breaking the traditional rules are thriving.


  • Chasing increases in dopamine levels, as well as spikes in other neurotransmitter levels, often led human beings to engage in behaviors that increased their chances of surviving and reproducing. This made the urge to pursue dopamine a great adaptation. However in the modern world, there are many temptations that offer dopamine spikes but make our lives worse and actually decrease our chances to survive and reproduce, like drugs, gambling, pornography, and others. Thus destructive addictions may be viewed as the result of maladaptations.


  • Many experts view narcissism as a form of maladaptation by an individual. Either due to extreme pampering or extreme torment from caregivers, the narcissist as a child develops an extreme sense of shame, and finds that overcompensating with grandiosity and selfishness and developing an idealized, false self to deal with the world, especially the caregivers, makes his interpersonal world easier to navigate. However as an adult in the real world, these faulty coping mechanisms cause more harm than good, both to others and himself. Since narcissism is an addiction to narcissistic supply, and likely results in a dopamine spike whenever the narcissist receives a hit of narcissistic supply, the last bullet point also applies to narcissism.


  • Many self-sabotaging acts done by self-destructive people have their roots in maladaptive beliefs, behaviors, and traits they developed during traumatic childhoods.

Again, maladaptations were usually a useful, superior strategy within a very specific context, given the tools and abilities that were available to the organism at the time.

This article about how addiction is a result of maladaptation is a good resource for understanding maladaptation on the individual level, and it gives four reasons why maladaptation occurs:

  1. Faulty logic
  2. The maladaptation appears to be working in the beginning
  3. Copying others
  4. A willingness to accept long-term deterioration in exchange for the brief reprieve from discomfort that maladaptive behavior can bring.

The article also gives some examples of individual maladaptations:

Examples of maladaptive behavior can include:

  • Substance abuse
  • Attention seeking behaviors is where people use excessive or inappropriate behaviors in order to gain attention.
  • Power seeking behavior can involve attempting to undermine authority figures and rebelling against the rules.
  • Converting to anger refers to how the individual can use anger as a means to vent their frustrations. This may mean that they engage in extremely inappropriate behaviors such as physical violence against other people.
  • In an attempt to cope the individual may try withdrawing from the world. This means that they isolate themselves and refuse to engage fully with the world.
  • The individual may try avoidance in order to not have to deal with the unpleasant situation. This can lead to phobias which can severely damage the individual’s ability to deal with life.
  • Workaholism is where the individual becomes obsessed with their work and devotes increasing amounts of time to their job. This is another means of avoiding having to deal with unpleasant aspects of life.
  • Revenge behaviors is where the individual tries to punish other people who they feel are responsible for causing problems.
  • Exercise addiction.
  • Internet addiction.
  • Gambling addiction.
  • Sex addiction.

We’ll be returning to the theme of maladaptation often in future posts.