Phobias refer to extreme and sometimes illogical fear and aversion towards a thing or object, such as that of snakes, spiders, heights and flying in a plane (Buss, 2015; Öhman and Mineka, 2001). Theory and research from evolutionary psychology suggests that rather than being an irrational fear, phobias are in fact rational aversion survival tactics that have developed throughout our evolution so to ensure the survival of our race (Baynes-Rock, 2017; Buss, 2015) whereas anxiety disorders are believed to be maladaptive responses of some unseen danger (Flannelly, 2017; Buss, 2015). Yet, there are criticisms and limitations associated with the theory and research from evolutionary psychology that brings into question the usefulness of such evidence (Buss, 2015), especially in terms of the application such knowledge can have on informing the treatment of mental health problems like that of anxiety disorders (Beck, Emery and Greenberg, 2005). Consequently, the following essay will critically discuss the evolution of phobias and mental health disorders, particularly those of anxiety disorders.
According to evolutionary psychology, phobias are evolutionary adaptations that evolved to ensure the survival of the human race by encouraging humans to avoid potentially dangerous animals and even sick people (Baynes-Rock, 2017; Buss, 2015). Many evolutionary psychologists argue that the fact that people still have phobias even today when animals like snakes and spiders no longer present any real danger to us is evidence for such adaptations (Buss, 2015; Sandseter and Kennair, 2011). However, most of these arguments are not founded on empirical evidence, but are more anecdotal in nature, meaning that the validity and reliability of such arguments are questionable, though interesting nonetheless. Yet, recent experimental evidence by New and German (2015) demonstrated that humans have an attentional bias to images of spiders, which led New and German to conclude that animals that were a threat to our ancestors are detected quickly and easily as a means by which to avoid any potential ancestral threat. Thus, the argument can be made that there is some recent evidence that has demonstrated that phobias are evolutionary adaptations that have evolved to protect humans and ensure their survival.
Despite this, there is a large amount of empirical evidence from evolutionary psychology that has examined the evolution of phobias. For instance, the disgust-avoidance model of phobias argues that dangerous and/or deadly animals provoke feelings of disgust and notions of illness as an evolutionary adaptation to encourage avoidance of such animals (Matchett and Davey, 1991). There has been a great deal of empirical evidence, including experiments, that have provided support for the disgust-avoidance model of phobias (Gerdes, Uhl and Alpers, 2009; Davey, 1994; Matchett and Davey, 1991), suggesting that such a theory is highly useful in terms of providing an explanation for the development and evolution of phobias. As such, animal phobias can be understood in terms of evolutionary adaptations that provoke feelings of disease and concerns for health that lead humans to avoid such animals as a means by which of ensuring their survival. However, a limitation with much of the research mentioned above, like Matchett and Davey (1991), is that it is relatively old and may no longer have any relevance to current evolutionary theory and research on phobias.
On this note, a recent review study by Baynes-Rock (2017) reviewed evolutionary psychological research on the evolution of phobias, particularly that of the fear of snakes. It was found that there was support for evolutionary theories of preparedness and threat detection in that snakes activated flight-or-fight responses that produced biases towards snakes. In other words, humans have evolved to easily detect snakes in order to avoid them so as to prevent attack. A strength of this research is that it reviewed a variety of different types of studies from evolutionary psychology, such as that of experiments and questionnaires, meaning that the results are likely to be high in validity as it produced a highly comprehensive representation of the research literature on this subject. Moreover, Baynes-Rock (2017) highlighted many inherent methodological limitations associated with evolutionary psychological research, such as the use of photographs of snakes in experiments rather than real-life interactions with snakes, highlighting the potential validity and reliability issues associated with the research literature. Furthermore, the results of Baynes-Rock (2017) have been supported by other research evidence from evolutionary psychology on fear of snakes (Gomes et al., 2017; Grassino et al., 2016), which suggests that these are consistent findings within the literature. As such, that there is research evidence that has shown that phobias, such as the fear of snakes or other potentially dangerous animals, are logical evolutionary adaptations that ensure individual survival and the survival of the human race in general. Likewise, there is also need for more authentic or ecological valid experiments from evolutionary psychology in order to acquire an accurate understanding of the fear of snakes. Consequently, future experiments could involve the presentation of live snakes to participants, though such improvements to research are fraught with new methodological issues, particularly that of ethical considerations of the possibility of harm and distress caused by showing participants real-life animals in this way.
On a slightly different note, theories from evolutionary psychology explain anxiety disorders in relation to maladaptive fight-or-flight responses to some kind of unseen danger within the environment (Jacobson, 2016; Buss, 2015; Nesse and Ellsworth, 2009; Beck, Emery and Greenberg, 2005). In other words, anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety, are malfunctioning responses to generally non-threatening environmental factors or features of the environment that would not be threatening to the majority of people. As with phobias, there is a large amount of empirical evidence from evolutionary psychology that provides explanations for the evolution and/or development of anxiety disorders (Buss, 2015; Beck, Emery and Greenberg, 2005). For example, a review study by Nesse (1994) reviewed evolutionary psychological evidence concerning anxiety disorders, finding that normal anxiety acts as a defensive and preparedness function for potential dangers, but Nesse conclude that anxiety disorders are the “dysregulation of normal defensive responses” (Nesse, 1994, p.247). However, a limitation with this research is that it is over two decades old, which means that the findings may no longer be relevant or current, meaning that these results could lack any real usefulness in understanding the development of anxiety disorders today. Nonetheless, such evidence is useful as an initial base on which to build a greater understanding of the development and evolution of anxiety disorders in that they are malfunctioning fight-or-flight responses.
More recent research from evolutionary psychology does support the findings of Nesse (1994) (Keller, 2018). For instance, a review study by Brosnan, Tone and Williams (2017) examined the evolutionary psychological research on social anxiety and social anxiety disorders. It was found that social anxiety was an overreaction and maladaptive flight-or-fight response to social interactions and the fear of social rejection, embarrassment and social exclusion to such an extent that the individual often avoids social situations altogether that is conceptualised as a flight response. A strength of this research is that of the review method as it allowed Brosnan, Tone and Williams to gather and analyse a large amount of empirical evidence, including very recent research evidence compared to that of the review by Nesse (1994), meaning that it produced a highly comprehensive representation of the research evidence on this subject. Thus, the validity and usefulness of the findings of this review study are likely to be high. Similar findings were gained by a previous but similar study on social anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder by Brosschot, Verkuil and Thayer (2016), suggesting that this is a consistent and externally reliable finding within the literature. Due to this, the argument can be made that there is a large amount of empirical evidence from evolutionary psychology that indicates that anxiety disorders are malfunctioning evolutionary adaptations and survival responses that often lead an individual to avoid situations, such as social interactions, as a form of the flight response.
On the other hand, Flannelly (2017) used review evidence to argue that anxiety disorders are in fact evolutionary adaptations rather than maladaptive responses, claiming that anxiety disorders work on the basis of it being “better safe than sorry” (Flannelly, 2017, p.91) that developed to ensure individual survival in social settings, such as avoiding fights or murder that would have a detrimental impact on reproductive fitness. Such arguments conflict with those of other evolutionary psychology researchers and authors, which suggests that there may still be gaps remaining in the knowledge and literature concerning the evolutionary psychological explanations of anxiety disorders. Likewise, this is likely to mean that it is difficult for evolutionary psychology to provide information for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Consequently, future research from evolutionary psychology should aim to resolve this conflicting and contradictory arguments and research evidence in order to provide a comprehensive account of the function and/or evolution of anxiety disorders so as to offer avenues for treatment.
In conclusion, this essay has critically discussed the evolution of phobias and mental health disorders, with specific reference to anxiety disorders. According to theories and research from evolutionary psychology, phobias are an evolutionary adaptation that evolved in order to ensure individual survival and the survival of our race in general. In contrast to this, mental health disorders, particularly those of anxiety disorders, are claimed to be malfunctioning and maladaptive flight-or-fight responses of perceived danger. In spite of this, though, there are criticisms of the evolutionary psychological theories and methodological limitations associated with the research on this subject, which may mean that the validity, reliability and usefulness of the knowledge within the literature are likewise limited. This may mean that there are still gaps in the research literature, particularly in terms of the usefulness of such knowledge with regards to the treatment of anxiety disorders. Future research from evolutionary psychology should aim to address the limitations in the theory and research, but also offer ways in which this knowledge can be used to inform mental health treatment.
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