Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Selective Attunement to Adaptive Problems

  • Allison M. WilckEmail author
  • Jeanette Altarriba
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_623-1



The tendency for individuals to readily process and focus on information pertaining to survival and successful reproductive practices.


In today’s world, individuals are constantly faced with numerous avenues where cognitive resources can be distributed. However, our cognition remains peculiarly attuned toward processing the types of problems our Pleistocene ancestors faced. While individuals in modern society do not often experience the specific issues of our grassland ancestors, our memory and attention systems evolved under this context and thus seem to demonstrate superior processing for these types of adaptive problems. Adaptive problems are those that provide challenges to an individual’s survival or ability to reproduce. For example, the possibility of starvation, presence of predators and disease, and competition in procuring a mate are all threats to an individual’s well-being or opportunity to produce offspring. The current review explores research on memory, attention, and emotions, providing support for the notion that human cognition is attuned to the adaptations developed to aid in survival under the earliest human conditions.

Human Cognition and Survival Threat

Inspiring a field of research combining evolutionary and cognitive psychology, Nairne et al.’s (2007) research on the survival processing effect demonstrated the memory advantage for processing items according to their grassland survival relevance. In a typical experimental evaluation of this mnemonic effect, participants are asked to rate a list of words for their relevance to the individual’s ability to survive in a foreign grassland – including the need to find food, water, and protection from predators – or for their relevance to a control condition (e.g., moving homes to a foreign land where a house and transportation must be obtained). A surprise recall test is then completed where participants attempt to remember as many words as possible from the rating task. Furthermore, the survival processing conditions have been pitted against intentional learning conditions, in which participants are specifically instructed to remember words for a later memory test. Even when compared to intentional learning, words processed in an ancestral survival context are remembered to the greatest extent (e.g., Nairne et al. 2008).

This robust adaptive memory advantage has been well-established. A heightened memory for survival related concepts has been shown to occur when considering survival in isolation (e.g., stranded alone in a foreign land) or within a group (e.g., stranded with others in a foreign land), as well as in both ancestral contexts (e.g., lost in a jungle) and unfamiliar scenarios (e.g., lost in outer space) (Kostic et al. 2012). While the underlying mechanisms of the effect are not yet fully understood, other known mnemonic devices such as self-reference, semantic relatedness, and elaboration have all been shown to play key parts (see Kazanas and Altarriba 2015 for a recent review). Once the concept of survival is activated, it appears to recruit a slew of memory mechanisms to achieve an adaptive end of preparing and reacting to potential threats (Nairne and Pandeirada 2016). Through an increased memory for adaptive problems, an individual is better able to seek out solutions that perpetuate life and avoid death. For example, it would be beneficial to remember where to find potable water and which color of berries is poisonous. The benefit of a memory that is keen for promoting survival by engaging various other mnemonic mechanisms allows the individual to actively maintain his or her life.

While remembering has its obvious advantages, the ability to selectively forget information is also beneficial. A healthy memory is naturally attuned to retaining positive, self-affirming information while disregarding instances that threaten the self-concept (Nørby 2015). Human memory has developed to be self-protecting as a means to ignore information that cannot be changed and could otherwise cause personal distress (e.g., maintaining an embarrassing childhood experience). Positivity is associated with comfort and is most often an indication of a safe environment. By selectively creating memories that fit the characteristics of a preferred environment, cognitive resources are able to be spent on true threats, such as avoiding predators and starvation, which can be planned for and dealt with accordingly.

To encode information into memory, attention must first be paid to the stimulus in question. What type of information best captures attention? As discussed, stimuli that allows for the detection and processing of potential danger and benefit is given a high priority in human cognition. Emotional stimuli often have a high adaptive value because they provide a large amount of information about the environment. In a recent study by Fernández-Martín et al. (2017), participants viewed pairs of scenes while their eye movements were recorded. As compared to neutral scenes (e.g., flowers or mushrooms), individuals tended to look at pleasant visual scenes (e.g., babies and families) first. This inclination toward pleasant stimuli indicates a positive orientation bias. However, negative visual scenes (e.g., mutilation or weapons) were more often assessed for a longer period of time than either positive or neutral scenes. This indicates a negativity engagement bias such that negative information is harder to withdraw or disengage from. Furthermore, when images were presented centrally in front of the participant, males were more likely to orient their vision toward scenes depicting opposite-sex and couple erotica (i.e., reproductive focus) while women more readily looked at images of illness and loss (i.e., nurturer and caregiver roles). The authors concluded that visual attention is automatically drawn toward emotional images, particularly those that coincide with an individual’s domain-specific or sex-specific goals. The heightened attention toward emotion, particularly negative emotion, serves as a mechanism for individuals to readily identify and extract information that will most benefit the individual within his or her adaptive roles.

From an evolutionary perspective, emotions have evolved to assist in solving a range of problems to include: signaling danger and disgust; indicating levels of mood, energy, and effort allocation; and prioritizing motivations (Al-Shawaf et al. 2016). Memories from experiences that elicited a negative emotion are indicative of situations that should be avoided in the present and future. However, positive emotions tend to motivate approach behaviors, as individuals tend to seek feelings of safety and comfort (see Elliot and Covington 2001, for a review of approach-avoidance motivation).

Directing attention toward emotionally arousing stimuli can serve adaptive purposes for self-survival, but also for procreation. From an evolutionary perspective, humans have an innate drive to not only preserve their life, but reproduce and maintain their genes through offspring. For both sexes, there is an attunement toward attractive individuals. Maner et al. (2007) showed participants images of male and female faces and recorded their eye-movements. When presented images of highly attractive persons and neutral-attractive persons, individuals of both sexes not only looked at the attractive faces longer, but they had the most difficulty disengaging their attention from the attractive female faces. The authors argued that for men, this attunement serves the purpose of identifying prospective mates. For women, detecting potential threats to their current or future partner is an important component of securing and maintaining a mate. In this case, the potential concern for mate poaching is at hand, where individuals seek to engage with individuals known to already be in a romantic relationship (see Davies and Shackelford 2015 but see also Buss et al. 2017 for a discussion on mate switching). The ability to quickly recognize individuals who may be potential mates or competitors is an adaptive strategy to improve one’s chance of reproductive success.


As discussed, the systems composing human cognition have developed to readily process information pertaining to survival. This ability to quickly identify possible sources of threat and procure safety and mates allows the individual a greater chance at maintaining life and passing on their genes. By allocating cognitive resources to survival, individuals have evolved memory, attention, and emotional systems that coordinate to be best fitted for solving adaptive problems.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity at Albany, State University of New YorkAlbanyUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Doug P. VanderLaan
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Toronto MississaugaMississaugaCanada
  2. 2.Child, Youth and Family DivisionCentre for Addiction and Mental HealthTorontoCanada