Evolutionary psychology – the missing link

Being human-centred in learning design is not just about understanding all you can about the specific audience you’re designing for; you should also seek to understand humans as best you can in general. An area that we find very enlightening is that of evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology is a way of considering how observed modem behaviours might have been advantageous to our evolution. Essentially, it extends Darwin’s thinking on natural selection to how our minds and behaviours have evolved. It helps us to make sense of modern human behaviour which, on the face of it, seems illogical and counterintuitive but, when considered in the context of human evolution, starts to make a lot more sense.

For example, we are probably the most social of all species – and with good reason. We are not top of the food chain because we are stronger, faster or fiercer than other species. We are here because of our ability to collaborate with others and in order to collaborate we need to build trusting relationships. Quite simply, we’ve evolved to seek connection with other humans because there is an evolutionary advantage to it.

It’s why even those who seemingly shun human contact still spend their time reading books, listening to music, watching films and television or gaming. These are all ways that we get a window into another human’s mind – it’s a form of connection and we instinctively reach for it.

Look at the huge numbers of people on social media. For a species that has evolved to seek human connection, social media really hits the sweet spot. It’s a way we can ‘connect’ to more humans more easily than ever before – it’s why it’s so highly addictive.

Additionally, I have observed in myself and others that happiness with a situation is relative. If you believe you have more of something positive than those around you, you generally feel more happy and satisfied. If those around you have more, however, you are likely to feel less satisfied. It is natural for us to compare ourselves with those around us – our tribes – and strive for higher status. The trouble now is that with social media, ‘our tribe’ is much of the global human population.

So what does this need for human connection mean for those of us in the business of helping humans learn and adapt to rapidly changing situations (i.e. anyone involved in workplace learning)?


● Knowing that we instinctively seek human connection, don’t remove it from a learning experience and expect it to be successful (traditional elearning courseware, for example). Instead allow people to connect to peers, experts and tutors and design in clear benefits for doing so.
● Be mindful that connecting online is not the same as connecting in person. It takes longer to build trust and you need to allow time and space for this. Designing purposeful reasons for people to connect online will help.
● Seek to engage with your learners’ emotions, both in the learning experience itself and the communications and engagement campaign around it. Use storytelling, anecdotes and humour. Use friendly and inclusive language and imagery.
● Make use of positive peer pressure. We want to fit in and, even better, feel like we’re one of the cool kids (have higher status). Find the people who already excel at what you want others to learn and make them visible. Let others learn from and aspire to be like them.

A consideration of evolutionary psychology absolutely does not remove the need for user research; rather it’s an additional lens we can look through to gain deeper insight. It’s a fascinating field and one which has helped me to make sense of the often bizarre, sometimes self-destructive and counter-productive behaviour I observe in the wider world.

About Rob Hubbard

Rob is the founder of LAS, a human-centred digital learning agency. At heart he is a designer through and through, who is fascinated by how we learn, what we remember and why. He is a great enthusiast of all that technology can offer to enhance learning and has completed a huge variety of projects in his 20+ year career.

He is a conference speaker and the editor and co-author of The Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual published by Wiley and featuring contributions from the brightest and best digital learning minds on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a former Chair of the eLN.

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