Applying Evolutionary Psychology to Business

Max Beilby










Evolutionary Psychology is not a new discipline but a fundamentally new approach to our vision of psychology. 

The attraction of the concept of Evolutionary Psychology (EP), argued Max Beilby of RBS and the Evolution Institute, is that it is unique in its view of cultural psychology and the impact this has on organisations.


The Evolution Institute was the vision of American husband and wife team Leda Cosmides and John Tooby who felt that what was needed was a fresh way of thinking about psychology in a way which can be applied or linked to any relevant topic.  It can be viewed as a "Meta-Framework" or mix of biological and social science and enables us to take a more penetrating approach as to why people have particular dispositions and behave in a certain way. 


EP boils down to three basic principles:

  1. Natural Selection - the traditional theory of survival
  2. Sexual selection - preferences can determine evolution
  3. Cultural evolution – A relatively new school of thought, which models culture as an evolutionary process itself


The naturalistic fallacy articulated by Scottish philosopher David Hume, is the leap from 'is' to 'ought'. That is, the tendency to believe that what is natural is good, and that what is ought to be that way. Max warned against committing this logical mistake, and argued much misunderstanding of evolutionary psychology stems from this misunderstanding.

Max also referenced Dobzhansky, who was one the 20th Century’s most influential biologists who helped unify the field. Dobzhansky wrote a famous essay in 1973 titled "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of Evolution".  Max paraphrased Dobzhanksy by saying “Nothing in business makes sense except in the light of evolution." As stated by evolutionary psychologist Anne Campbell, "evolution doesn't stop at the neck"- and this has implications for how people work together in organisations. 

A convergence of evidence from fields such as anthropology and paleobiology has painted a picture of what life was like for our distant ancestors. For example, our great ancestor’s communities were small and isolationist.  Food was scarce and there were no hierarchies and leadership was ad hoc.  Evolution has shaped who we are today and we are at our most productive when we are facing survival and when we are in small communities.  In other words, when we are in the office we are still Primates.

In The Elephant in Brain, economist Robin Hanson and software engineer Kevin Simler argue we are largely self-interested primates, and that we are not always honest about our more ugly motives. Max read out a passage of the book, when Kevin had the epiphany of seeing start-ups as a tribe of chatting primates.


How does this relate to business issues? 

Max argued the common complaints people have about their jobs and where they work are:

*          Office Politics

*          Working in "silos"

*          Incompetent managers

*          Low engagement


Max argued that evolution also explains cooperation, kindness and empathy- the better angels of our nature. But due to the framing of the talk means and by addressing these questions, we’d be looking at the darkside.  


1.  Office Politics

Why is politics so prevalent in modern organisations; why do these tribal tendencies persist today?   Hypersociality, intelligence and culture result in a form of "flexible coalitional psychology".  Humans cooperate to compete, but this competition within groups can also have the effect of forcing people apart.  They have the capacity to further their own interests within their own groups while not being completely honest about their intentions. 

"Primates in the Operating Room" is a fascinating study which was recently published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, which looked at conflict in Operating Theatres- a stressful environment for staff.  Primatologist Frans De Waal and anthropologist Laura Jones came to a remarkable conclusion that gender dynamics was alive and well: the more women present, the more effective the team. They also found that all female teams of surgeons did not have the most beneficial effect.  It is difficult to generalise, but what this shows is that conflict cultures involving male egos still exist today.


2.         Working in "silos"

The evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar of OxfordUniversity recognised that humans have limited capacity to handle relationships with large numbers of people simultaneously.  The work mapped the relationship between brain size and average social group size attributing to him his work on the Social Cortex.  In summary we can on average handle approximately:

  • Very Close Friends - 15
  • Close Friends - 50
  • Friends - 150
  • Acquaintances - 500
  • Put a name to a face - 1500


His "magic" number of a business unit is 150. 


The implications of this research were summed up by Stephen Corelli of the University of Michigan, who concluded that effective communication, coordination, trust and cohesion breaks down once the social unit exceeds 150, which has become known as "Dunbar’s number".  He recommended that:

 *          Keep business units small

*          When units exceed 150 people the old unit should be cleaved and a fresh one established


A working example is the firm which manufactures Gore-Tex.   A rapidly expanding company, the founder Bill Gore realised he couldn’t recognise his own employees at their factory, which he found alienating. Gore did some calculating, and decided to cap factories to a number of 150 people.   The decision is reported to have been successful: everyone knew who were the managers, the coffee makers and the accountant.  Questions raised in the audience suggested that Johnson and Johnson however found that their optimum size of unit was 300 people.  Other organisations including the Swedish Tax Authorities have created similar experiments.


This gives a useful prescription for observing different kinds of organisations.   What seems to be important is the capacity for communication and effectiveness of connectivity between various activities which can clearly have an effect on optimum size. 


3.         Incompetent Managers

In general, managers suffer from:

  • Optimism Bias 
  • Overconfidence
  • Illusory superiority  - Evidence is all around us: most of us consider ourselves to be superior drivers when we are really no better than everyone else, and, more frequently, than we should like to admit,
  • Deceit and self-deception - Most of us overestimate our capabilities and to cover this delusion as a form of advanced social manipulation, as uncovered by Robert Trivers (Presidential Fellow, Chapman University). Trivers argues that we fool ourselves, the better to fool others.     


Tomas Chamorro Premuzic (CEO of Hogan Assessments)  recommends that problems with overconfidence should mean that decisions be removed from human judgment, and that Artificial Intelligence has the ability to revolutionise the recruitment industry.  His work on Talent Management has exposed the oft held concern that in order to persuade others that you have it, it is often enough just to persuade yourself.  The problem is that having then persuaded others of their ability and lack of insecurity, the organisation only belatedly recognises their true ability or lack of it.


Bad managers also suffer from "Interview Illusion", The problem is that most of them are blissfully unaware of their lack of competence and can only look for what they see as themselves in candidates. 


It is convenient at this point to turn to Evolutionary Theory and its explanation that hypothesises that mismatches have developed, as a result of our rapidly changed environments.   Our environment in terms of communication and social structure has changed so rapidly that it threatens our own survival, as we and other species have not adapted to keep pace with change.  The Dutch Psychologist Mark van Vugt argued that the mismatch was especially important when describing human bodies and brains, with the concept extending naturally to business. 

Our ancestors worked without hierarchical structures but all organisations now have managers, directors and CEO.  The result is power differential and opportunities for abuse, and burnout as the immune system is poorly adjusted with elevated stress levels.  It is hardly surprising that most of us demonstrate poor levels of job satisfaction and elevated physiological levels of stress. 



So what are the conclusions from this research and work about the future of organisations?

*          Organisations should be Small Scale: units should ideally reach a maximum size of 150

*          Where size is different, try to establish units within units and work round the problem

*          Units should encourage a social element

*          Work content should be built on prestige rather than coercion.  


Criticisms of EP

*          Genetic determinism can disproportionately influence organisations.

*          The field has been criticised for speculation about the conditions of our ancestral environment.

*          Comparisons and similarities made to other primate species. However many argue we humans are unique, and not much can be gleamed from this knowledge

*          Classical EP does not give sufficient consideration to the development of culture, which is largely unique to humans. Max advocated a school of thought called ‘cultural evolutionary psychology’ (or evolutionary psychology with a small ‘e’ and ‘p’)


As with Darwin's Evolution ideas some 150 years ago, Evolutionary Psychology has been criticised for its perceived complexity, its relevance and its speculation.  However despite the field’s criticisms, Max argued evolutionary psychology has significant implications for business practice.

Max’s talk concluded with a quote from Nigel Nicholson, a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, who wrote in his book Managing the Human Animal that "The system that knows itself has better control over its own destiny".  Perhaps EP has a future.


Richard Taylor, July 2018


Max Beilby is a business psychology practitioner working in the banking industry, and author of the Darwinian Business blog. Max has recently joined RBS as an internal auditor. Previously Max was working as a research manager at HSBC. Additionally, Max taught at Birkbeck College’s Department of Organizational Psychology. Max is affiliated with the Evolution Institute, and serves as a business content editor for This View of Life Magazine.