The Model: our emotional system is outdated
[This post is part of a series on The Model — my model for the human emotional system designed for use in leadership, self-awareness, and general purpose professional and personal development — which I find the most effective and valuable foundation for understanding yourself and others and improving your life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
I think everybody knows the following, but I have to say it anyway just in case.
The human emotional system evolves at the rate evolution acts, whereas our environment over the past few tens of thousands of years has changed faster than evolution can act. This difference results in your emotional system lagging behind the environment in which it acts in some areas.
For example, because our emotional system developed in environments where calories were harder to find relative to other nutrients than today, we evolved motivations to eat calories out of proportion to other nutrients. The same goes for fat and salt.
Since the bulk of the past few million years saw our ancestors outdoors in Africa, our emotional system evolved to keep us alive and passing on our genes in environments you’d find there. To understand your motivations, you have to recognize your emotional system sees today’s world through that lens. No matter how much you consciously know you hurt your health by eating too much sweets, you still feel the motivation to eat them because your ancestors who acted on that motivation passed on more genes than those who didn’t, in particular to you.
I find it interesting to think of what differences our worlds have compared to our ancestors’. We live in worlds with buildings, cities of millions of people, agriculture-based food, privacy, and laws, for example. They had trees, groups of perhaps dozens, hunting and gathering, no privacy, and they had to defend themselves. I try to imagine how these differences skew my motivations from optimal and don’t hold myself or others to overly exacting standards in the face of these differences. It helps build empathy and compassion.
These differences contribute to why people think of emotions as unpredictable and inconsistent. They do lead to counterproductive behavior in today’s world — or perhaps suggests we’re changing our worlds in counterproductive ways, it depends on how you look at it — but at least make sense. Our goal is to improve our lives and that understanding helps.
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