Evolutionary mismatch has become one of the most intensively studied conceptual frameworks within evolutionary theory more broadly. It has been used to explain discordances in nature between organisms and their environment, including among humans, and mismatch theorists have progressively built up an impressive canon of work outlining the constellation of misfits between our species – adapted as it is to ancestral environments – and the realities of modern life, and how this has affected us psychologically.
In their new book titled Mismatch: How Our Stone Age Brains Deceive Us Every Day And What to Do About It, organizational psychologist Mark van Vugt and novelist Ronald Giphart address a range of the evolutionary mismatches that we confront in everyday life, including in the world of business and organizations. As Mark serves as the business editor for This View Of Life, Gareth Craze caught up with him to learn more about his latest book, and what evolutionary mismatch means for our personal and professional lives.
Gareth Craze (GC): Firstly, congratulations on the release of your new book Mismatch, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. To start, can you please tell us how your partnership came about? How did an evolutionary psychologist and a famous novelist in the Netherlands end up writing a book called Mismatch?
Mark van Vugt (MvV): Well, it so happened that Ronald Giphart, my co-author, was a writer-in-residence at my university, the VU Amsterdam, at the time. Many prestigious universities around the world have such schemes for novelists, and I guess Ronald drew the short straw by ending up at a university in Amsterdam – close to where he lives. At one moment, Ronald ended up on my doorstep because he wanted to organize a wisdom-of-crowds experiment with students. So we started thinking of some questions to ask the student audience to prove that crowds are wiser than single experts. For instance, what is the distance between Amsterdam and Moscow? As we were having preparatory meetings, I told him about my field – evolutionary psychology – and about this theory that I was intrigued by, but which had never been properly tested on humans: the idea of evolutionary mismatch. Ronald was immediately won over, and showed a deep interest in evolutionary biology and psychology – his bookshelves contain many of the same pop-science books that I have been reading for years (Pinker, Ridley, Wilson). He also writes a monthly column in a Dutch science magazine. So we started developing this idea for a popular science book on evolutionary mismatch and the implications for humans and the kind of societies we have created. By teaming up with each other we wanted to ensure that the book was both credible in terms of the science, and would also be accessible and engaging. As many readers will know, the human mind is easily persuaded by good stories – hence our attraction to novels – and mismatch is such a compelling story to tell that we set out on this adventure together; a scientist and novelist. Unfortunately, the wisdom-of-crowds experiment never happened because not enough students showed up to form a crowd! But by then we already had this massive project on our hands. That’s how Mismatch came to be.
GC: Well, the collaboration between a scientist and a novelist certainly seems to have worked. What stands out about Mismatch is just how amusing it is. I found myself continually laughing whilst reading it, which is an achievement for comedy itself – and a rare feat for a science book! Can you please summarise the core concept of Mismatch. For those of us less familiar with the theory, what is evolutionary mismatch, and why does it make for such a compelling story?
MvV: Mismatch is a concept that has been around in biology for a while. Its first use was by biologists to describe how climate change affected predator-prey interactions. Migratory birds, for example, would return in the spring to the Nordic regions to feed on caterpillars but because of changes in temperature the insects’ eggs would hatch early and the birds would have nothing to feed on – leading to a crash in bird populations. More generally, evolutionary biologists use the term evolutionary mismatch to refer to situations in which the environment changes more rapidly than the biology of a species’ ability to adapt to the change. Think of the meteorite strike that killed off the dinosaurs because they were not adapted to the sudden change in the Earth’s climate conditions resulting from the strike. Early on, evolutionary psychologists, like Tooby and Cosmides, realized that mismatch could also be a useful concept to describe how human psychology, that evolved over millions of years in relatively stable environments in small-scale communities, was unable to deal with some of the environmental challenges that modern society has created. It is obvious that we now live in a world that is vastly different from ancestral situations: we live in cities comprising millions of genetic strangers, we work in high rise buildings, travel in fast machines, and get our food from supermarkets, without spending too many calories. The Agricultural Revolution that happened some 12,000 years ago at different places in the world was obviously a watershed. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens calls it the biggest fraud in human history. Our lifestyles have changed dramatically but our brains have not changed. So there is a lot of potential for mismatch. We wanted to write a visionary, albeit speculative book to outline in what ways mismatch could potentially affect our decisions as regards to what we eat, who we mate with, how we raise our children, how we work, how we choose our leaders and how we interact with the rest of the planet.
GC: Even for lay folks who might be coming to this concept anew, the notion of mismatch should seem intuitively plausible. Indeed, it seems that many people make mismatch propositions all the time in everyday life. Every time someone says “we shouldn’t eat X” or “we’re not supposed to X”, aren’t they effectively saying “Our species isn’t evolutionarily adapted to X”?
MvV: Yes, that’s correct. Although humans are the ultimate cultural learners and niche constructors and have traits that allow us to be very flexible in what we like and dislike, and how we behave towards others, we still have a set of species-specific adaptations that we inherited from our ancestors. These adaptations work well in certain environments, but they may backfire when environments change rapidly. So we may tolerate manufactured foods, powdered milk, dictatorships, social inequality, and environmental pollution, but these conditions do not allow individuals to thrive. A simple way to describe an evolutionary mismatch is when an individual prefers A over B, where B would be better from an evolutionary perspective. So, a person who prefers work over a relationship may do well for themselves in terms of status and income, but from a reproductive point of view, it could be a poor choice.
GC: Early in the book, you observe that “[n]o other animal species masks and compensates as much for natural weaknesses through culture as humans”. Later on, you note that this gives us a significant advantage over most animals and plant species and that, because of it, we’re all but assured of not going the way of the dodo or Coast Rican golden toad. Is there a danger that the pendulum might swing too far in this respect? That by ensconcing ourselves so deeply in the buffer of culture we are unwittingly making ourselves a fragile species walking an evolutionary tightrope?
MvV: I think your conclusion is correct. We are so reliant on our cultural abilities to cope with the evolutionary mismatches we have created that there is a danger that at some point our inventiveness reaches its limits. We obviously see that with the impact that we have on our planet. Once a species goes extinct, as a result of what we do, we cannot recreate it. Only in a museum or perhaps in a virtual world does the dodo exist. The problem with culture is that these are experiments and that we cannot always foresee the consequences of our cultural experiments in the long-run. Take our modern weaponry: we now have the capacity to create nuclear bombs that could easily destroy us. Yet we cannot grasp that reality with our Stone Age minds, and that’s a scary thought with dictators around the world who have access to these nukes. Same goes for our health and hygiene. In an effort to get rid of pathogens in our environment – a good thing – we have gone over the top with cleaning ourselves and our houses. Medical specialists have argued that such sanitary environments are bad for children because they do not develop a healthy immune system. And what about the numbers of workers who sit at home with burnout because they are struggling to cope with the demands of the modern workplace? Yes, culture is good if it acts as a buffer against the threats in our environment – disease, violence, temperature changes – but sometimes our cultural innovations turn against us. The problem is: we only know when it is too late.
GC: Keeping with the theme of how our innovations in culture might be turning against our biological upper limitations, what of our relative liberation from the grind of manual, back-breaking labor, which represents a much smaller fraction of the global population’s work profile than in any previous epoch. Nowadays, fully 15% of all occupations in the US have been classified as wholly ‘sedentary’, with another 70% only demanding light-medium physical exertion. What implications might this have for a species that spent almost all its existence as a nomadic, movement-based creature where relatively strenuous physical activity was intimately tied to survival?
MvV: Yes, our jobs have changed tremendously in recent times, but our physique has not changed a lot. Our bodies – and brains – are equipped for working conditions that involve some degree of physical activity and movement, like hunting and gathering. The expression goes that our ancestors needed to spend calories in order to obtain calories. Yet, the automatic association between physical effort, food and survival have almost completely disappeared from the modern workplace. Either people overdo it – by doing physically exhausting labor for small wages in conditions of poverty – or perhaps more so today, people have jobs that require very little physical labor. The result is that people show too little physical movement around the workplace. They take the car to their work, the elevator to their office and they interact with fellow workers via their computer. We know from neurophysiological studies that physical movement is good for both the body and brain. Half an hour to one hour of light physical exercise per day is recommended by doctors. It reduces your stress levels and enhances your creativity, and both are much needed for leading a healthy and productive life.
GC: Likewise, what about the mismatch ramifications of lumination? Many of us are stuck inside all day, shielded from the sun, and spend our evenings shrouded in artificial light. And what about thermoregulation? We are all but completely protected from the elements and spend our days in a kind of artificial Goldilocks climate with central office heating and air conditioning at our beck and call. Do you think any of this presents serious issues as well?
MvV: Yes, these can pose serious mismatch issues. Natural light is essential for Vitamin D intake. Yet, in many modern societies, people do not receive enough of it, because they live at higher latitudes where sunlight is scarce in wintertime, or else they spend most of their time indoors. Remember that for most of evolutionary history humans lived in parts of Africa with plenty of sunlight and there was little difference between the seasons in light or temperature. That’s our natural state. A well-documented mismatch is the link between depression and Vitamin D deficiency as the result of a lack of light exposure. For instance, postpartum depression is more likely among young mothers living in higher latitudes of the world. Migrants from southern countries who move north are at higher risk of depression than migrants that move from east to west. Similarly, our bodies are adapted to relatively stable climatic conditions, an ideal outside temperature of around 20-22 degrees Celsius. Any hotter or colder, and the thermoregulation of your body suffers, increasing the prevalence of illness.
GC: You mentioned the obtaining of calories, and in the book you address mismatch with respect to diet and nutrition, noting the calorific intensity of modern human eating patterns and how this has cashed out with respect to the so-called diseases of civilization (obesity, diabetes etc). But most nutrition scientists these days believe that pure calorie load can’t be the center of the bullseye, given that different foods have specific macro-nutritional compositions and unique metabolic properties. Is there also a mismatch consideration with respect to this aspect of certain foods; particularly with respect to modern “Frankenfoods”? And what about the perennial availability and hyper-palatability of modern foods?
MvV: I suppose the general aversion towards these Frankenfoods, like those coming from genetically modified crops, may be stemming from a deep-seated desire for “natural” foods. But what is natural is not all that clear from an evolutionary perspective. Even those adhering to the paleo diet must know that this diet – with modern meats and vegetables – is still quite far removed from our ancestral environment. Meat from animals now contains a lot of fat and protein, whereas the game that our ancestors caught was probably leaner meat. Also, the vegetables we eat now bear little resemblance to what our ancestors ate. It seems that what we like to eat is quite a flexible disposition that is shaped in part by evolved preferences but is probably quite culturally malleable. Of course, our evolved preferences for sweet and fatty foods is what clever marketers in the food industry have exploited to create these superstimuli foods, like crisps and jellybeans, for which we have no inborn resistance or self-control. Yummy!
GC: Mark, you wrote at length about the evolved dynamics of leadership and followership in one of your previous books, Selected. In the new book, you note that a shift to a formal, culturally-structured conception of leadership and hierarchies is highly novel in human history. Are we naturally averse to having formal bosses with specific, vested leadership powers? Is codifying rank and positional legitimacy inherently problematic?
MvV: Yes I would say so. Hierarchy is not completely new to us, of course. We are primates after all, and primates have dominance hierarchies. Many hunter-gatherer societies are able to convert to a hierarchical decision-making structure when it is needed – such as in an imminent attack or another kind of emergency. Yet these hierarchies are temporary and they are based on prestige – e.g., the best hunter directs the hunt. The scale and complexity of our societies have increased since the Agricultural Revolution and later the Industrial Revolution, and to deal with this we have created these large-scale formalized hierarchies with multiple layers to which we are ill-adapted. Think of this: when you are called in by your boss who wants you to work extra hours because his managers are on his back, what do you do? Chances are that you follow his orders, understand where he is coming from, but curse him nevertheless. We have not evolved to separate the formal role of a boss from the person themselves, and so we dislike our bosses. Or, at best, we are ambivalent toward them. Same with leadership succession. That happens in the large corporates from the top-down. Yet in our ancestral environment, no boss was parachuted into a band to take over. When external bosses are coming in they have a legitimacy problem. Even more so because the top management likes to see other qualities in middle management than the teams want to see. Not for nothing: the middle-managers job is the most stressful job in an organization. It is completely alien to our ancestors’ social structure because their loyalties are fundamentally mismatched.
GC: Even taking narrow, local hierarchies out of the equation, the massive complexity and often highly impersonal nature of modern commerce must be an even greater strain on our faculties for working with others. Trust is currency in modern business, particularly in the context of a knowledge economy often populated by relatively anonymous actors who might go through a lifetime without ever being in the same room as each other. How does this shake out given our evolved decision-making capacities for engendering trust in a relatively finite social circle?
MvV: Trust is based either on a direct experience with another person – having a history of cooperation – or on reputation. In ancestral environments, it was probably more based on personal experience. Yet nowadays we have many one-shot encounters with complete strangers in the business environment. So there is no direct experience to rely upon. Instead, we increasingly rely on reputation information: how many stars does a bookseller have on Amazon; what do the reviews say about this restaurant? That’s fine and it seems to work reasonably well. However, the reputation system can be easily manipulated and if you really want to do harm you establish a good reputation with smaller transactions and then cheat with a bigger one. The ability to move around the globe, switch jobs easily, and create fake identities on the internet creates a niche for smart but devious individuals to exploit the modern reputation system in order to get the best possible outcomes for themselves. So, perhaps there is cultural selection for these dark triad traits in modern society.
GC: Evolutionary psychology as a field has never shied away from using sexual selection to better understand sex differences in certain behaviors, temperaments, and other features of the human cognitive and affective repertoires; many of which have real consequences for organizational life. How can we use an understanding of evolutionary mismatch to address these issues in a manner which emphasizes equity and fairness in the workplace?
MvV: What we argue in Mismatch is that the kind of organizations in which we currently work and live – the large corporates, the bureaucratic states, the army, the institutionalized religions – are evolutionarily novel cultural creations. These serve the evolutionary interests of one half of humanity very well: men. Men have created these complex hierarchical structures because these are places in which they can compete with each other, play their coalition games, engage in ostentatious status battles, and manage their old boys’ network. Sexual selection obviously underlies these competitive and status tendencies among men as it allows them to signal a wide range of qualities to each other and to the opposite sex. Yet at the same time, these structures are not the ones that women thrive in. Their evolved psychology is based around deeper emotional connections with fewer sets of individuals in egalitarian working relationships. I call this the glass pyramid hypothesis because this kind of organizational structure forms a real obstacle for women to reach the top of the corporate ladder. If we want to increase the promotability of women we should redesign our organizations. At the minimum organizations should involve team members in the selection process of top executives as they look at different traits in leaders – more feminine trails — like warmth and trustworthiness – than members of supervisory boards do.
GC: What about male-female relational dynamics in the workplace? You devote a section in the book to the proposition that we evolved to recognize someone we spend a lot of time with as someone we must be close to – perhaps intimately so. Does this also have some bearing on your proposition that we should redesign our organizations – where unrelated men and women work closely together on a regular basis?
MvV: That’s a tough question. Our first response is that all kinds of organizations benefit from the diverse views and strengths that men and women bring to the workplace. For instance, men are relatively more assertive and task-focused, women are relatively more caring and considerate. You need both kinds of inputs to make an organization a success. At the same time, a workplace is also a hotbed of emotions and there are particular challenges for gender-mixed workplaces. A sexual division of labor was arguably characteristic of the small-scale societies in which humans evolved and, generally, men were the hunters and women the gatherers. Nowadays we work in gender-diverse teams and as work has gained importance over the past hundreds of years we spend more and more of our time at work. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is a major “mismatch” challenge, and this also applies to the development of romantic relationships in the workplace. As we see our co-workers longer we become more intimate with them and, in mixed teams, this can easily create sexual tensions and feelings. This is, of course, particularly problematic in hierarchical relationships; for instance between male professors and female Ph.D. students. But even in working relationships between peers, romantic or sexual feelings can stand in the way of a healthy work environment. Hence it is important to at least acknowledge this, exercise some self-control and if needed develop procedures on how to deal with romantic relationships in the workplace.
GC: You examine the often severe consequences of loneliness, the absence of close social ties, and the alienation that accrues from workplace specialization. What might this all mean as many professions increasingly transition to “telework” and other remote job roles without a central social hub?
MvV: There is clearly a mismatch at work here as humans evolved in small-scale societies characterized by frequent face-to-face interactions. If important cues are lacking that facilitate our communication – such as facial expressions of emotions, voice pitch, and body posture – we may not work as effectively, and there may be plenty of misunderstandings which could impede personal and team effectiveness. We recently conducted a survey on how workers rate the quality of interactions with their supervisors depending upon the medium. We found that workers were most satisfied after a face-to-face meeting with their boss, and this was followed by video-conferencing. They were least satisfied with receiving a call, email or SMS from their boss. We followed this up with an experiment where we showed that people work harder after receiving face-to-face instructions from their supervisors as compared to receiving these instructions via phone, Skype or email. So this clearly shows the limits of remote forms of management in the workplace. In addition, informal social interaction cues are important in getting people to increase their commitment to their jobs. Having lunch together, meeting each other by the water cooler, commuting to work together, these are all important but ignored aspects of workplace satisfaction. The result of telework is that people will feel less loyalty towards their work and also that the creative process associated with informal and unplanned meetings may disappear.
GC: In the book, you claim that in ancestral environments “there [was] no clear distinction – either physically or psychologically – between private life and work”. Given this reality, just how useful are constructs like “work-life balance”? In an age where the lines between work and life are becoming increasingly blurred, are we in some way returning to that kind of ancestral state, or moving further away from it?
MvV: Interesting question. I suppose the reason why we talk about a healthy work-life balance is that we recognize the mismatch consequences of having work and our private lives so strongly separated. Recognizing that this is perhaps not the way forward, would it help if we allowed our work to come into our homes – think of teleworking – for example? I suppose that might be a trend worth following. Nevertheless, we should recognize that we cannot recreate the network of social connections that our ancestors had with people who they lived and worked with. People may still feel a mental separation between work and their private lives even if they work from home. Furthermore, the cues to stop working that are characteristic of the workplace – e.g., people leaving the office at 6pm to get home –are missing when people work from home and this is not necessarily a good thing.
GC: What about the vagaries of our digital age? What are the most significant implications that the mass proliferation of social media has for our Stone Age brains? And what about the increasing shift away from human cognitive labor toward a greater reliance on artificial intelligence? Do you think, as Yuval Noah Harari has postulated, that we are likely doomed to go the way of the horse with respect to the value and necessity of our own industriousness? What might this mean with respect to human evolution in the future?
MvV: Social media is like an exaggerated cue, a supernormal stimulus. We, humans, crave social interactions but in our ancestral past, we had to expend energy and time to invest in and maintain these relationships. Yet in our modern day environment, these social media interactions come very cheap. That means that there is a danger of it developing into an addiction. Just as drugs hijack our reward system so do tweets, likes, and shares. The problem is that we have no natural defense mechanisms against the social media invasion of our lives. That means that we have to rely on our self-control and this is better developed in some people than in others. AI offers a host of new evolutionary challenges: suppose algorithms could be developed that predict with higher accuracy than humans whether someone will be a good or poor fit with a particular working organization. Would it be acceptable to base one’s recruitment decisions on AI alone, instead of on the judgments of an application panel of fellow humans? Or, if we let our cars drive without a human driver who would be responsible for a deadly accident? Our mismatch theory predicts that humans may have difficulties accepting the implications of AI-systems although they are perhaps scientifically more reliable.
GC: Finally, what are some of the most important practical take-homes that both organizations and the individuals working in them can take from an understanding of evolutionary mismatch? Where does the buck ultimately stop with respect to using this perspective to perhaps better design or structure organizational life? And, thinking even bigger, how can we use a mismatch perspective to better navigate the global marketplace? Can it be used to inform bigger picture questions in world business, including those with existential implications for our species?
MvV: In our book, we offer a number of ways out of the mismatch challenges facing our society. We could, of course, decide to do nothing. That means that we humans will need to ultimately adapt biologically to the new environment that we have created for ourselves. Or, alternatively, we go extinct. The latter is not so unreasonable; all other known human subspecies went extinct, from the Neanderthals to Homo erectus and Homo habilis. So it is not inconceivable that we will go down the same path. Also, when we think of some of the global challenges that we face, this might happen sooner than we think. When we consider the huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction that are around, from nuclear to biological weapons, and the leaders that possess these weapons, we should be worried about mismatch catching up on us. For global business, in particular, there are mismatch challenges ahead. For instance, we humans are a trading species, but it is also true that trading in our ancestral past was based on trust that emanated from personal face-to-face interactions between trading parties. We can make global trade possible via ingenious complex systems that create trust without a personal touch, for instance via reputation systems (like the stars we give for traders on Amazon transactions). But these systems can be easily undermined by cheaters. Another challenge ahead is the replacement of human effort by robots, from driverless cars to algorithms that replace managers. These innovations constitute clear mismatches for our species and it is not yet clear whether humans can cope with them – for instance, who is to blame when a driverless car kills a pedestrian or an algorithm rejects your job application and thus your career prospects? These issues need to be solved, but can we do so with our primitive minds? A final, possibly greater challenge lying ahead for business is climate change. Global economies need resources to keep them going from oil to trees to freshwater. But these resources are in short supply and their depletion causes evolutionary mismatches for many species that have inhabited this planet for millions of years, from rare trees in the Amazon rainforest to various primate species. So the transition to a new more sustainable economy needs to happen quickly to overcome these evolutionary mismatches.
Mismatch is available now in paperback, audio and Kindle versions.