Pathology or Pseudo-Pathology?  What do racism, sexism, and obesity have in common?

Pathology or Pseudo-Pathology? What do racism, sexism, and obesity have in common?

One of my favorite concepts from my psychological training is the idea of a pseudopathology. A pseudopathology is any trait that was selected for through evolutionary pressures, that at one point was adaptive and due to rapid changes in environment have become maladaptive. This discussion will focus on the psychological and behavioral side of pathology and pseudopathology.

The distinction between normal, pseudopathology, and pathology can be murky at best, especially when dealing with something like behavior. Not only is there drastic differences between acceptable behavior across time, but also across cultural boundaries, and often across very specific contexts. What may be normal in one society could be considered pathological in another and what was considered run of the mill a few decades ago can often be considered offensive and morally repugnant through the lens of modern society. This murkiness is where the concept of pseudopathology shines through.

A great example of this is the tendency for human beings to seek out easy and cheap calories. At one point in our history this behavior was on the front lines of the battle between starvation and survival. Our enjoyment of calorie dense foods, things like sweets and high fat/high carb dishes is because evolutionary pressures selected for sensory systems that could detect those foods and behavioral systems that rewarded the consumption of those foods. Those behaviors helped us survive for an absurdly long time and because of that they are deeply ingrained in our behavioral genetics. Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for our waistlines, many humans today no longer live in a calorie scarce environment. And thus, the pseudopathology of obesity is born. The previously extremely adaptive calorie seeking behaviors that kept us alive for hundreds of thousands of years has become extraordinarily maladaptive in a modern society where calories are extremely cheap and easy to come by.

At one point in our early tribal history the beginnings of in-group out-group conflict and behavior began to unfold and over time these behaviors were selected for. Distrust, bias, and prejudice against anyone not of your clan or tribe was an extraordinary adaptive behavior for a very long period of our evolutionary past and while the general concept of tribes or clans has largely faded from the developed world the ingrained reactions that individuals engage in when they encounter someone who is not a member of their in-group remain, even if what constitutes the in-group has changed dramatically from the close nit tribe of 50,000 years ago.

Aggressive behavior is another area that was once extremely adaptive, particularly physical aggression for males. Behaviors that may have saved your life or the lives of your family and tribesmen a few thousand years ago could get you tossed in jail these days. The list goes on and on and the implications are staggering. From the ways in which we hope to deal with immigration, racism, gender discrimination and biases, global conservation, to religious beliefs and adherence  to traditions, everywhere we look the world is full of previously adaptive behaviors misfiring like crazy.

If we are going to have any hope of properly addressing the issues we face in the world we need to start with a true understanding of the behaviors leading to those problems. The ways in which you solve a problem can be drastically different pending the causes of the problem. For example, the punishment and rehabilitation for an individual who was put in a stressful and threatening situation and reacted with a fight behavior rather than a flight or freeze behavior and hurt or killed someone would be overwhelmingly different than the punishment and rehabilitation for a person who under no duress actively sought out individuals to harm or kill.

Similarly, the ways in which we tackle complex social issues regarding race or gender are likely to be different if there is an underlying behavioral trait influencing undesirable behaviors than if those behaviors are purely the result of cultural influence. Nor will we be able to make the drastic changes in global environmental movements necessary if we operate under false assumptions of human behavior and motivation.

Understanding as much as we can about as many of the fundamental influences on behavior is going to be the way we go from solutions that kind of work to solutions that really work and the way we are going to be able to do this is by making distinctions between the default state and a more active or trained/conditioned state. Simply saying everyone do X because it is good will never be enough if our default behavior is Y.  I will expand on this general concept of default behavioral states and passive vs active states in a future post but I touched on it briefly the other day when I talked about the male tendency to act in a protective manner towards females.

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