Darwin in the workplace

S. Craig Roberts and John E. Lycett introduce us to some graduates from the MSc in Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Liverpool

As described elsewhere in this issue, a Darwinian approach to psychology aims to understand human behaviour in light of evolutionary theory with its focus on past (and continuing) selection and adaptation. As a conceptual framework, it has proved extremely successful in describing patterns and variation in phenomena as wide-ranging as cooperation within groups, how we choose mates, how and why parents subtly treat their children differently, rules governing marriage and inheritance patterns, economic decision-making, religiosity and cultural change. Few would deny that evolutionary insight is at least a necessary component for a complete understanding of human behaviour, and perhaps unsurprisingly, evolutionary psychology now features in many undergraduate courses.

Understanding how evolution shapes human behaviour is an intriguing intellectual exercise, and furnishes excellent ice-breaking anecdotes at parties, but can these evolutionary insights also be put to good use in the real world? Can they bring a different viewpoint or solution that might otherwise be missed?

We asked Sarah Booth, a recent graduate from our MSc in Evolutionary Psychology, about her experiences beyond academia. Sarah is now a planner with McCann Erickson, a global advertising agency and part of the wider Interpublic Group, which is a major provider of advertising and marketing services.  

How did you come to study evolutionary psychology?
I didn’t initially set out to study evolutionary psychology. Growing up on a farm, my ambition was to study veterinary science. In the end, however, I elected to study zoology and evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool. During my degree, it was the evolutionary psychology elements of the course that most caught my attention, and I began to reconsider my plan to study veterinary medicine. On graduation, and still uncertain about what I wanted to do, I decided to do the MSc. It bought me some decision-making time, but also allowed me to pursue advanced study in the subject I’d found increasingly intriguing during my degree.  

What do you do now?
It’s not easy to explain what a planner in an advertising agency does, mainly because the role is quite diverse. At its simplest, we are the voice of the consumer within the agency. While creative teams develop the messages that consumers eventually see and hear, and management teams manage client relationships and oversee delivery of the project, planners consider the campaign’s effectiveness. We identify what the objectives of a project are, anticipate what success will look like and how it will be measured, and then advise our creative teams to help them develop compelling work that moves us towards those objectives.

So… quite a leap from academic evolutionary psychology?
Yes and no. In essence advertising is about driving attitudinal and behavioural change, whether it’s to increase supermarket sales or to encourage patients to recognise and respond appropriately to illness symptoms. What makes us good at our job is an ability to identify interesting insights that can be used to drive these changes. To do this well, you have to first understand the target audience – who they are, what their motivations are, what things are likely to influence their attitudes which, ultimately, are likely to strongly influence whether or not they do something. Then you need a good understanding of multiple factors that influence decisions consumers make. So my academic background is certainly helpful here – an evolutionary approach to understanding human behaviour brings a different perspective and reveals hidden motivations. This evolutionary viewpoint is not widely appreciated or considered in advertising.

Did your background help you get the job?
I think it did. When I applied for my first work placement position, I found myself competing against many other graduates with advertising degrees and a solid understanding of how the industry works. I hoped my training in evolutionary psychology would be a unique selling point, would make me stand out, and it seemed to work. At interview, I was asked to choose something unpopular and attempt to ‘sell it’ to the panel. I chose to ‘sell’ the controversial and emotive theory that the practice of infanticide could be, in some particularly difficult circumstances and environments, an understandable and rational strategy that some societies might follow. I’m not sure whether I convinced the panel about that specific issue, but I think I persuaded them that an evolutionary perspective might usefully shed a different light on behaviour.

On starting my work placement I was able to put this into practice. I worked on a pitch for a manufacturer of hair straighteners. My input was incorporated into what turned out to be a winning pitch for the company. Briefly, I was able to show that hair functions as a reliable indicator of phenotypic quality and is, therefore, important in mate choice. More than that, we were able to anchor the advertising campaign in the framework of sexual selection – that it isn’t simply about having beautiful hair, but having hair that is more beautiful than other women. On applying for my current post, I used this example to demonstrate that evolutionary psychology offers a fresh perspective when developing a brief, enabling a deeper understanding of what may need to be said or done to drive desirable behaviour within a consumer group.

How does it inform your current work?
We’ve been working on some big projects where evolutionary psychology has really helped shape our thinking. For example, with a local primary care trust, we’ve been working on ways to address the borough’s high rate of teenage pregnancy. Traditionally this issue has been tackled simply by facilitating access to contraception. Of course this is important. But evolutionary psychology research in many societies describes how earlier onset of reproduction is an adaptive strategy when, for example, resources are scarce, paternal assistance is transient or uncertain, and prospects for improvement are low. An informed and holistic approach thus requires us to look at how to improve self-esteem and efficacy alongside contraceptive options.  

What do your colleagues think of your approach?
Some of my colleagues do joke that I am a bit of a geek, but that’s OK because geeks are cool these days! I think the combination of my logical approach and the application of my slightly unfamiliar scientific background has helped me gain their respect. Although evolutionary psychology hasn’t always provided the ‘silver bullet’, it’s often helped me to think more innovatively about problems I tackle day-to-day. Geek or not, my colleagues value the input – at least, they appear to! t’s perhaps unsurprising that Sarah brings evolutionary psychology with her to work each day. After all, having studied it for four years and earned two degrees along the way, it would be disappointing if she didn’t. But is she alone in using her specialist knowledge to inform her non-academic work? We asked four other recent graduates, each in roles not normally associated with evolutionary psychology, to describe if, and how, they use it in their jobs.

Harry Sharman works for the Adelphi Group, who provide marketing insights to the healthcare sector, including market research and communications.

‘My current position asked for applicants with either a biology or psychology background’, he said. ‘They were delighted I could say I had a background in both. Most applicants have a biology background and understand how diseases and drugs work. My biological training meant I can pick up these concepts easily, but through the psychology element I can also draw usefully on theory about behaviour, why males and females might respond differently for example, and to get to grips with important individual differences.’

Part of Harry’s role involves devising materials for evaluating patient motivation and behaviour, such as when encouraging adherence to prescribed medication. His background recently enabled him to contribute to an innovative project aimed at improving understanding of schizophrenic patients, who, on average, have more limited vocabulary and attention span. Having focused on schizotypal traits for his MSc dissertation, Harry knew that evolutionary explanations for the paradoxically high prevalence of the disorder include benefits, such as non-verbal creativity, that might offset its costs. He was instrumental in developing new methodology for interviewing these patients which allowed them to express feelings non-verbally, maintained their engagement, and outperformed previously used questionnaires.

Lisa Train is a trainee clinical psychologist at Bangor University, employed by Betsi Cadwaldr University Health Board. She says ‘I have found myself particularly influenced by compassionate focused therapy, as this draws on evolutionary and attachment theory. I use elements of an evolutionary framework to supplement my understanding of problems such as anxiety, depression and shame. I feel that adding this element to discussions, formulation and psycho-education helps to provide a richer understanding of emotional experience.’ Lisa is also currently planning a research project in psychosis, in which, like Harry, she expects to draw  on evolutionary benefits that may be instrumental in maintaining variability in schizotypal traits.

Gideon Gluckman is a lead software tester with EMB, the UK’s largest independent non-life actuarial and business consultancy. Although his day-to-day work is far removed from academic evolutionary psychology, he profitably incorporates elements of his MSc training into his job. For example, his proposals for user-friendly interfaces and graphical designs are positively influenced by knowledge of research in psychological attention mechanisms and visual perception. In the future, he aims to develop ideas from his dissertation research using agent-based models of structured populations to generate biomimetic improvements in software computational efficiency.

Similarly, Kyrre Wathne, managing director of the Norwegian company Kalibera, believes that evolutionary psychology provides a useful scientific framework for thinking about internet-oriented software development, particularly social media projects. In his view, to successfully deliver these types of services one has to consider individual motivations and understand rules that govern social interactions, both of which are core concerns of evolutionary psychology. More technically, evolutionary algorithms are a tool with which Kyrre became familiar while modelling the evolution of mate-guarding tactics in his MSc dissertation. Underpinned as the algorithms are by the logic of natural selection, he currently uses them to solve complex computer science problems, such as optimising  a design when there are otherwise too many possibilities to choose between.

We are encouraged by the ease and success with which these graduates of the MSc (see www.liv.ac.uk/evolpsyc) have applied their training in a meaningful way outside academia: Darwin’s influence does indeed appear to be more pervasive, and tangible, than we may have imagined. We look forward with interest to see other ways in which evolutionary psychology can be put to good use in the workplace.



BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber