OSU touts world-leading center for the study of human nature
Monday, October 17, 2022
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Throughout human history, social interaction has made the world go around, whether it was for advancement through invention or tragedy through war.
The current global landscape is more interconnected but also more divided than ever. A team of Oklahoma State University researchers is using evolutionary psychological science to look to the past for answers that could help us understand each other today.
The Oklahoma Center for Evolutionary ANalysis (OCEAN) is one of the top institutions in the world in this rapidly growing area. It is the brainchild of Dr. Jennifer Byrd-Craven, an OSU psychology professor, who founded the center in 2019 with Dr. Jaimie Arona Krems, an assistant psychology professor.
“There aren't a lot of places to get high-quality training in this perspective,” Krems said. “Dr. Byrd-Craven has assembled a group of faculty who can provide that training and attract some of the best graduate students from around the world. Our group wants to publish significant research in the best journals—and to impart that striving for excellence to our students.
“So she picked people, she had a vision, she made it happen and expanded the social capital and got support from the department to make it happen. It's just such a rarity that you can do this kind of thing.”
Since then, OCEAN has attracted faculty and graduate students from near and far, each with a distinct specialty at the intersection of psychology and evolutionary theory.
“Some of the best researchers in the world have come from major centers at well-known institutions,” Byrd-Craven said. “So that's really one thing that we're trying to do. We want to launch the next generation of scholars who are really pushing this field forward, and launch them from OSU”
Byrd-Craven’s research deals with stress-response systems and relationships, particularly in women.
“Some have suggested having friendships is the next best thing for your health besides quitting smoking,” Byrd-Craven said. “That might be particularly true for women.”
For men, having a romantic partner is often a key buffer from psychosocial stress, but for women, friends often fill this role. Byrd-Craven is at the cutting-edge of exploring the psychobiological pathways that lead from friendship to health.
“We don’t yet know, for example, in what way friendships might be biologically beneficial — and in what ways might they actually be costly,” she said. “Our research helps us understand the beneficial aspects of friendship, which can translate into added years of life and better health of your children.”
One area Byrd-Craven has delved into is the understudied area of father relationships and seeing why fathers are so much more variable in the family biorhythm.
“A lot of times, it's really about the relationship quality itself,” Byrd-Craven said. “So for men, if the relationship quality with their partner is not good, they're much more likely to pull off their investment from their children as well. Whereas women are not as likely to do that. They're likely to keep investing, regardless of the quality of their romantic relationship.”
Relationships, whether they are with friends or romantic partners, are where many of us direct our energy throughout the day. Maintaining high-quality, satisfying long-term romantic relationships is central to psychological and physical well-being.
OCEAN member Dr. Juliana French, an assistant psychology professor, hopes to glean insights by integrating perspectives from neurobiology, evolutionary social science and classic relationship science to better understand how people form and maintain satisfying long-term relationships such as marriage.
“My goal is to advance theory and knowledge about relationships, and also to help people practically understand why maintaining satisfying relationships can be so challenging, especially in our modern world,” French said. “How we approach our relationships might have been shaped over the history of our species, but the world looks very different today from our ancestral past. Understanding how modern aspects of our society might alter our evolved relationship psychology is really important.”
As one example, French’s neuroendocrine work has demonstrated ways that women’s use of hormonal contraceptives, such as the birth control pill, can influence relationship functioning, from their sexual satisfaction to their partners’ jealousy behaviors.
“Crucially, women often change their contraceptive use over the course of a long-term relationship,” French said. “For example, a woman may be using something like the pill when she first meets and begins dating her partner, but she may later discontinue using hormonal contraceptives altogether at some point later on in that relationship.”
French’s recent research has shown that such changes in hormonal contraceptive use during a relationship can carry implications for women’s sexual satisfaction.
Studying individual differences that reflect core evolved motivations for relationships — such as choosing “the best” partner — is another key topic in French’s research.
“Choosing high-quality partners is certainly beneficial, but tendencies to search for the best partner and routinely compare one’s current partner to alternatives can actually fuel dissatisfaction in relationships,” French said. “This is especially important in today’s world where online dating and social media has dramatically increased the number of potential partners (or alternative partners) available to people.
“Developing theory to better understand the biological and social forces that shape such individual differences important for relationship functioning is an important goal in my lab’s ongoing and future work.”
A core approach in evolutionary science is studying how human culture over the millennia has paved the way for how humans behave in today’s society.
Dr. Daniel Sznycer, an assistant psychology professor and OCEAN member, studies how the mind generates values and emotions.
“When we hear the word ‘values’ we often think about big-sounding abstractions: ethical values and political values, for example,” he said. “But our brains appear to attach value to pretty much everything: water, oranges, brown recluse spiders, smartphones, friends and so on. When we value, our brains implicitly estimate the degree to which things, actions, ideas, events or organisms are good — or bad — for us valuers.”
Sznycer studies the emotion of shame and how it has played a role in human nature, even going back to ancient times.
“The notion is that shame is a bit of psychology that defends against the threat of being devalued by others if you do something that fellow group members don't like,” Sznycer said. “So shame makes people hide and destroy incriminating evidence, for example; these behaviors might serve the purpose of limiting the degree to which other people find out or ostracize you. I've been finding regularities in how shame works, and how shame is calibrated across many societies, industrial societies, but also traditional small-scale societies.”
Sznycer thinks there are deep historical regularities in how the mind values things. In recent research, he found that people with no training in law intuitively evaluate criminal offenses such as robbery, battery and homicide in ways that echo the legal thinking of both contemporary U.S. lawmakers and ancient Mesopotamian and Chinese lawmakers.
“In OCEAN, we integrate approaches from the humanities and the natural and social sciences to get a fuller picture of human nature,” Sznycer said.
Krems’ work in social psychology leverages evolutionary approaches to uncover how our social minds can help us reap the benefits — and avoid the costs — of living in large, interconnected groups. For example, her work on stereotyping and stigma casts these phenomena not only as products of our social brains, but also as hurdles that our psychologies can help us navigate and overcome.
“I hope that some of this research sheds light on understudied populations,” Krems said. “I hope that it provides some actionable insights into dismantling stereotypes and stigma. So if we know really what causes these pernicious phenomena, if we understand them on that level, we can combat them.”
Studying topics such as race or gender inequality are crucial, but also have been controversial. The OCEAN team sees students’ mindsets begin to change when they really think about these subjects, though. A student having a new understanding of these is why evolutionary science is so important, Byrd-Craven said.
“When you're in a science that has findings that make people uncomfortable, you're going to get a little bit of pushback,” Byrd-Craven said. “But I think it's important that people understand where we're coming from, and that we're scientists who are producing data; our role as scientists is to understand how the mind-brain works.”
Studying human nature, including aspects of it that can be disagreeable or depressing, and finding out the causes behind those facts can solve a lot of society’s issues, as it will keep people from making the same mistakes, Krems said.
“If we don't know the reality of something, if we don't understand something, because we're too afraid to look at it, we're not going to be able to know how to change it,” Krems said. “So if we don't know how stigma works, because people just want to make it go away, or we're afraid that the other side might use it, we're not going to be able to change it. And a lot of us got into this because we want to know how the mind works. And some people got into it because we want to know how the mind works to make the world better.”
A relatively new center, OCEAN is already attracting top student talent from around the nation and the world.
“The fundamental thing is the passion to understand human nature,” Sznycer said. “Students driven to understand human nature are a pillar of OCEAN, and they do important work at the undergraduate and graduate levels..”
A core mission of OCEAN is to advance knowledge about human nature at the highest level of research and share that research with the public. OCEAN faculty have had their research featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and at OSU’s own Research on Tap series.
“It makes me very happy to put back into the community, to show people the wonders of the human mind, and they might not have had that opportunity anywhere else,” Krems said.
OCEAN has launched the highly successful regional conference FOSSIL (FlyOver State Scientists Integrating evoLution), which welcomed over 80 people in its inaugural year, mostly graduate and undergraduate students, from around the nation. And each semester, OSU students are invited to an OCEAN Speaker Series event, where a leading evolutionary social scientist presents cutting-edge research.
“There are a lot of questions about who academia is for,” Krems said. “But one of the things that I think you immediately see and can't help but see when you look at our center and our grad students, they are 85% students of color; they include McNair scholars and first-in-family scholars. They were also just the best candidates, and we could attract them because of the exciting work our team is doing.
“OCEAN is changing the face of psychology and evolutionary social science in ways that just show that science is for everyone.”
Photo By: Gary Lawson | OSU Photographer
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