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The evolution of mechanisms that control behaviour

Final Report Summary - EVOMECH (The evolution of mechanisms that control behaviour)

Our project seeks to understand how evolution has shaped the psychological and physiological mechanisms that produce behaviour, in all kinds of animals including humans. We take a theoretical approach, building mathematical and computer models to identify the kinds of rules for making decisions that have helped animals to survive and reproduce in the natural world. The natural world can be complex and unpredictable, which means that animals will regularly face situations they have never encountered before. For this reason, we expect them to have evolved simple, general-purpose rules that do well across a wide range of different situations—so-called ‘rules of thumb’.
Although such rules should perform well on average, they may never be exactly optimal in any given situation. Sometimes, particularly in the artificial environment of a scientific laboratory, the underlying rule an animal is using may cause it to behave in a strange or ‘irrational’ way. One striking example is the human obesity epidemic: an ancestral liking for rich, fatty foods may be a poor fit to the very different environment we find ourselves in today.

Our research has identified plausible evolutionary explanations for apparently irrational behaviours and has shed light on some widespread psychological phenomena, such as optimism, depression, anxiety and impulsiveness.