Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Luis Rayo and Gary Becker On Evolutionary Psychology, Large Houses, and Happiness

Two university of Chicago economists, Luis Rayo and Nobel-laureate Gary Becker, have theorized that evolutionary psychology makes us want larger houses, even though larger houses do not make us happier.

These economists argue that, 50,000 years ago, our ancestors were more likely to survive if they were unsatisfied with the amount the amount of food they had and pushed on to find more, even if they already had enough. So, they conclude, we are likely to be dissatisfied with the size of our houses and want bigger ones, even if our houses are already big enough. But both steps of this argument are dubious.

Hunters and gatherers can store only a small amount of food. Since they are nomadic, what they can store is limited to the amount they can carry. And 50,000 years ago, they did not have domestic animals to help them with the carrying.

If they keep hunting and gathering after they have enough food, the extra food they get will go to waste, and they will just have wasted time that they might have used for other activities that could have made them more successful in evolutionary terms.

One example of these other activities is making alliances with other people, which could help them gain dominance in the group. Frans de Waal has shown that these sorts of alliances are critical to chimpanzee society. They absorb a huge amount of chimpanzees' emotional energy because of the evolutionary advantage that they offer: the dominant chimps are more likely to reproduce and are more likely to get food for themselves and their children in times of scarcity.

Among early homo sapiens, forming alliances could take even more time, because they were able to speak. In fact, this is probably one reason that speech evolved. Anyone who put his energy into gathering food when times were good, rather than into forming alliances, would be less likely to be in the dominant group that gets food when times are bad.

There some is empirical evidence undermining Luis Rayo and Gary Becker's point. Most famously, Marshall Sahlins found that the !Kung hunter-gatherers worked only about 20 hours a week to get food.

Sahlins said that this was all the time that it took to get all the food they wanted. Some of his critics claimed that, if they hunted and gathered longer hours than this, the calories in the extra food they would get would be less than the calories they would burn to get the food, so they were really not as well-off as Sahlins said. If the critics are right, there is a disadvantage to working longer hours, and if Sahlins is right, there is no advantage to working longer hours while there could be an advantage to use those hours doing something else (such as forming alliances).

Findings about contemporary hunter-gatherers can't give us precise information about how hunter-gatherers behaved 50,000 years ago, because their environments are different, but it is clear that there is no advantage to nomadic hunter-gathers producing much more food than they need, so Luis Rayo and Gary Becker are wrong about their evolutionary psychology.

Rayo and Becker are even more obviously wrong in the second step of their argument, when they claim that this psychology would cause people today to buy larger houses. Nomadic hunter-gatherers built temporary shelters, so evolutionary psychology certainly did not program them to want big houses.

It is plausible that hunter-gatherers would want to accumulate small objects that are easy to carry around to demonstrate their status, such as attractive shells that take a long time to gather or small works of art that take a long time to carve. In fact, it is plausible that these status symbols would help people form alliances and would provide evolutionary benefits. If so, then evolutionary psychology would push us to want to accumulate jewelry, art works, and the like - not to want big houses.

However, Luis Rayo and Gary Becker are right about their most important point: they say that, if evolutionary psychology makes us want status symbols, it doesn't follow that we should spend our lives pursuing status symbols. Because they involve constant desire for more and constant dissatisfaction, Rayo and Becker say, bigger houses don't make us happy, and we would do better to do things that bring more lasting happiness. As an example, they mention exercising, which makes us feel better over the long run.

It is very important that these economists recognize that we are not completely controlled by our evolutionary psychology, because this is a common error among social theorists who abuse evolutionary psychology.

For example, evolutionary psychology makes us want to overeat, because 50,000 years ago, people who overate and gained weight when there was enough food were more likely to survive when there was not enough food. Despite this psychology, we recognize that overeating is harmful, and we know that we should try to maintain a healthy weight.

Likewise, if evolutionary psychology has programmed us to want status symbols - whether jewelry or large houses - we should be able to see that this urge is self-defeating and that we are better off turning to activities that give us more lasting happiness, as Luis Rayo and Gary Becker point out.


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