Sunday, 20 March 2011

Trials and Themes – What Makes Humans Tick?

Evolutionary psychology sees human life, like that of any organism, as consisting of strategic attempts to maximise our success along various key axes, such as mating, care-giving, satisfying appetites etc. Along these axes, humans face a variety of unavoidable Life Challenges (what David Attenborough, in one of his TV series, calls “The Trials of Life” - his list of trials includes Finding Food, Hunting & Escaping, Home Making, Friends & Rivals, Courting, Continuing the Line). Life is a series of problems and temporary solutions along these axes, with no single overall purpose or goal.

There is no definitive list (yet) of these motivational axes, but I have put together a list for myself for practical use in the therapy context, which probably covers the main areas. The terms Instincts, Drives, Domains are often used in this context - I find it useful to call these species-specific major themes in human life “THEMAs” (Typically Human Evolved Motivational Axes). Themas can be seen as analogous to schemas, but operating at an even deeper level, in the way that they structure our lives without us being aware of the fact most of the time. Schemas operate at the level where we are not generally aware how much they structure our experience as individuals. Themas operate at the level where we are not even generally aware how much they structure our experience as a species. Although I am describing them as “axes”, which makes them sound like they are outside us, they are actually within us, arising out of a variety of psychological mechanisms/instincts/prepared learning tendencies/neural circuits which have evolved to respond to the different challenges found along these axes. They define what is important to us as members of the human species.

Apart from the basic appetites (for food, water, warmth etc), I list below what I see as the main Themas using the mnemonic “PASTMARKS”.

Parenting – Focus is on care-giving, nurture, protectiveness.

Attachment – Focus is on care-receiving, especially at an early age.

Safety – Focus is on self-protection, both physical and psychological.

Territory – Focus is on possessions, land, home, money, resources in general.

Mating - What can I say… one of the central themes of human life (and literature, film etc…)

Affiliation – Focus is on forming alliances, friendships, cliques/clubs/gangs.

Reciprocity – Focus is on keeping track of fair exchange. Connects with moral emotions such as guilt and outrage.

Kinship – Focus is on our roots, who we belong with, “family” both literally and metaphorically.

Status – Focus is on reputation, “face”, success, fame (usually at a very local level, obviously).

This area of science is still very much a work in progress, and current thinking breaks down many of these areas into further “modules” – Tooby & Cosmides (in Barkow et al), for instance, show evidence for a “cheater detection module” as one of the elements in our reciprocity toolkit. Similarly, our safety-seeking thema/drive operates via cognitive-emotional response systems such as anger and anxiety, and our mating thema can be further subdivided, as Patrick Carnes has pointed out, into various aspects of human courtship such as noticing, demonstrating and falling in love.

I find that this list does, however, cover most of the territory in a way which can be useful for therapists. Naturally, most of the problems that clients bring to therapy relate to goals which lie along these axes, though some axes are of more concern to some people than others (some may prioritise status above affiliation, for instance). And of course conflicts often arise between the various themas, and between our themas and other people’s themas…

I’ll close with some examples of the possible relevance of these axes to common issues which clients bring to therapy:

Social Anxiety: This of course may be partly rooted in Attachment problems, but probably also in difficulties with affiliation, kinship and status, and possibly mating as well.

Addictions: Again, attachment problems are commonly cited, as are difficulties in controlling appetites, and issues with experiencing safety (due perhaps to trauma).

Depression: Paul Gilbert makes a strong case for this being primarily an evolved response to loss of status and territory. Job loss is therefore a common trigger.

Relationship breakdown: While this is obviously a problem which is located on the mating axis, it can also affect pretty much all of the others (run your eye down the list and you’ll see what I mean).

Suicide: For somebody to feel that life is no longer worth living, I would assume that they must feel a distinct lack of success, or prospect for success, along pretty much all of these axes.

I’ll be coming back to the topic of evolutionary theory, and to the list of Themas, in future blogs, but there are other aspects of Naturalism that I also want to explore. Next month I will take a general look at the role of science in psychotherapy.


Barkow, J.H, Cosmides, L & Tooby, J. (1996) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. OUP.

Buss, D. (2008) Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. Pearson Education.

Carnes, P. J. (2001) Facing the Shadow: Starting Sexual & Relationship Recovery. Wickenburg, AZ: Gentle Path Press

Gilbert, P. (1992) Depression: The Evolution of Powerlessness. Psychology Press.