What do sex and murder have to do with the meaning of life?

What do sex and murder have to do with the meaning of life?

What good could come from studying topics like incest, homicidal fantasies, and one night stands?

If the nuns who taught me at St. Joseph’s elementary school were still alive, they’d likely say a prayer for me, and wonder where they went wrong. Not only am I still cracking jokes in the classroom, but I’ve spent my adult life mucking around with some pretty sinful topics: I’ve studied one-night stands, incest, homicidal fantasies, and man’s hatred for his fellow man. Goodness, I’ve even published a couple of papers suggesting that going to church may be just another mating strategy (Li, Cohen, Weeden, & Kenrick, 2010).

A number of years back, when I told my friend David Funder that I was doing some research on everyday people’s thoughts about murder, he raised his eyebrow, and observed: “Kenrick, it seems like the M.O. for an evolutionary psychologist is this: Pick a topic that is normally not even whispered about in polite company, and shine a big spotlight on it.”

Funder’s assessment was not completely unfair. But my colleagues and I don’t pick these unsavory topics just because it’s what sells in the tabloids. Instead, we study these things because these are the issues with which humans the world over concern themselves –who’s sleeping with whom, who might stab me in the back, who might hurt my kids, and on and on. Why do so many people read the tabloids and gossip magazines like People and Us, anyway? Because they have better book reviews than the New York Times, or because they have rumors about which powerful man is cheating on his wife and sleeping with which Hollywood ingénue? And why have people the world over shelled out billions of hard-earned dollars a year and stood in long lines to see movies like Gone with the Wind, Titanic, Braveheart, and Avatar? It’s not to appreciate the finer points of cinematography, it’s because the movies present vivid conflicts between the bad guys (them) and the good guys (us), brave and heroic men involved in love affairs with beautiful young women, and other topics humans have always gossiped about.

There’s more to evolutionary psychology than just sensationally engaging topics, however. We evolutionary psychologists are also searching for an integrated conceptual paradigm to unite the social sciences with our neighboring biological sciences. Sometimes it can sound a bit grandiose —like the claim that the evolutionary perspective can integrate psychology, economics, political science, biology, and anthropology, and our further insistence that the perspective has profound implications for applied disciplines like law, medicine, business, and education. But it’s not just academic -- these issues have important implications for everyone—from your relatives in rural Wisconsin to the members of the U.N. Security Council. If there is any hope of changing the world for the better, from reducing family violence to reversing overpopulation and international conflict, economists, educators, and political leaders will need interventions based on a sound understanding of what people are really like, not some fairy-tale version of what we’d like them to be.

My colleagues and I have considered questions like these: Why are old men attracted to much younger women? Why aren’t older women drawn to young men in the same way? Why does a woman’s commitment to her partner drop after seeing a powerful executive, regardless of whether he’s good-looking or not, whereas a man’s commitment is shaken by good-looking women regardless of their social status? Why are people raised by a step-father more likely to have fantasized about killing the old man than are people raised by a natural father?

And looking at human failings is connected to some of the important Big Ideas of our time. In recent years, we’ve been combining the insights of evolutionary biology with those from two other revolutionary scientific developments (cognitive science, and the science of complexity). And along the way, we’ve discovered something rather profound: the research on simple selfish biases is intimately linked to much broader questions about economics, religion, and society. At base, evolutionary psychologists like me and my colleagues are trying to answer the biggest questions of our time—about what makes human beings tick. Although selfish and irrational at one level, our simple selfish biases are actually deeply rational at another. And the simple biases inside individual’s selfish heads combine to create complex and ordered patterns at the societal life. At the broadest level, probing into all those simple selfish biases has given us some important insights about how to live a more caring and connected life.

If you want to hear more about this research, and how it reflects on the grand questions about the meaning of life, check out my new book (just released this week):

Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.

Check out this link below to see:

  • A couple of cool videos produced by my son (who has a background in film production from NYU)
  • Praise from some of my favorite science writers (including Steven Pinker, Dan Gilbert, David Buss, Robert Sapolsky, Dan Ariely, and Richard Wrangham)
  • The book's table of contents and a downloadable introduction
  • Link to amazon.com where you can “Look Inside” to read a surprisingly large sample of the book.

And Sister Katherine Mary, if you’re looking down now, there’s something surprisingly uplifting we’ve discovered from all this mucking around in the gutter: It turns out that human beings aren’t designed to spend all day acting on our sexual and aggressive impulses.  Instead, we feel best when we’re hanging out with our friends and relatives, and we’re designed by nature to get a particularly big psychological boost from doing something for other people. You were right, charity is part of our nature after all, even if we were rowdy little delinquents who you had to send down to the principal’s office.

A few examples of research on simple, selfish biases, and on their broader connections:

Kenrick, D.T., & Sheets, V. (1994). Homicidal fantasies. Ethology and Sociobiology, 14, 231-246.

Kenrick, D.T., Keefe, R.C., Bryan, A., Barr, A., & Brown, S. (1995). Age preferences and mate choice among homosexuals and heterosexuals: A case for modular psychological mechanisms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 1166-1172.

Li, Y. J., Cohen, A.B., Weeden, J., & Kenrick, D.T. (2010). Mating Competitors Increase Religious Beliefs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 46, 428-431.

Li, N.P., & Kenrick, D.T. (2006). Sex similarities and differences in preferences for short-term mates: What, whether, and why. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 468-489.

Ackerman, J., Kenrick, D.T. & Schaller, M. (2007). Is friendship akin to kinship? Evolution & Human Behavior, 28, 365-374.

Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J.M., Sundie, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Miller, G.F., & Kenrick, D.T. (2007). Blatant benevolence and conspicuous consumption: When romantic motives elicit strategic costly signals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 85-102.

Sundie, J.M., Kenrick, D.T., Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J., Vohs, K., & Beal, D.J. (2011). Peacocks, Porsches, and Thorsten Veblen: Conspicuous consumption as a sexual signaling system. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 100, 664-680.

Kenrick, D.T., Li, N.P., & Butner, J. (2003). Dynamical evolutionary psychology: Individual decision-rules and emergent social norms. Psychological Review, 110, 3-28.

Check out my blog for Psychology Today, where I’ve covered some of the recent research findings that I find most illuminating about sex, murder, and meaning of life.