In this chapter, we take an evolutionary psychological approach to risky decision making, social competition, sex differences, and homicide. By "evolutionary psychology," we mean the pursuit of psychological science with active consideration of current theory and knowledge in evolutionary biolog)/, which is the field concerned with elucidating the process that gave form to brains, mind, and behavior (Daly & Wilson, 1999).
Modern evolutionists are predominantly concerned with elucidating the functional organization of living creatures ("adaptation-ism"), with particular reference to the creative role of Darwinian selection ("selectionism"). Although effective psychological scientists (like other life scientists; see Mayr, 1983) have always been adaptationists, they have not always been sophisticated selectionists. Psychologists have wandered down innumerable garden paths as a result of assuming that the adaptive complexity of brains and minds is organized to maximize some relatively proximal goal like happiness or homeostasis or self-actualization, rather than what evolutionary biology tells us that such complexity must really be organized to achieve, namely Darwinian fitness: the proliferative success of the focal individual's genes, relative to their alleles, in circumstances like those confronted by its evolving ancestors.
Here, we are primarily concerned with showing how an adaptationist perspective on human psychology and action can contribute to an understanding of confrontational risk-taking and lethal interpersonal violence. It is already widely appreciated that much social conflict and undesirable behavior is in some sense a consequence of the natural selective advantages enjoyed by the most selfish, and hence prolific, phenotypes, but an evolutionary perspective can take us much further than these truisms. Consideration of how selection has shaped such specifics as time preferences, social comparison processes, and sex differences can facilitate a more detailed understanding of variable willingness to take potentially lethal risks in social conflicts. If we are to mitigate the ills caused by such antisocial behavior, it will be important to elucidate exactly how human decision making implicitly computes costs and benefits, how we discount the future, and how these processes respond to imperfect predictors of outcomes, both in ontogeny and in facultative responsiveness to variable aspects of one's immediate situation. Our homicide research, as discussed below, indicates that willingness to use dangerous competitive tactics depends in predictable ways on one's material and social circumstances and life prospects. As far as we are aware, however, not much is yet known about perceptions and evaluations of the costs, benefits, and uncertainties associated with risky decision making as a function of one's material and social circumstances.
We are encouraged by recent efforts (for example, Burnstein, Crandall & Kitayama, 1994; Cosmides, 1989; Cosmides & Tooby, 1996; Gigerenzer & Hoffrage, '1995; Gigerenzer, Hoffrage, & Kleinbölting, 1991; Rode, Cosmides, Hell, & Tooby, 1999; Wang, 1996a, b) to posit and test evolutionär)? psychological explanations for the seemingly irrational aspects of the ways in which people process information and order their priorities. Continued success in this endeavor will depend on generating sound hypotheses about the nature of the adaptive problems that emotional reactions and other psychological processes were designed to solve, and about how these psychological phenomena are contingently responsive to life circumstances.
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