Evolutionary Mismatches: Why It’s So Hard to Achieve Your Goals

Do you have a hard time sticking with your intentions?

If so, you’re not alone.

It’s a problem that people have been struggling with throughout history.

In fact, philosophers all the way back to Ancient Greece have found this tendency puzzling.1

If we know which actions are best for us, why do we routinely act in other ways?

It’s a good question.

And today, thanks to insights from evolutionary biology, we have a much better understanding of the answer.

Evolutionary Mismatches

The human species has evolved for millions of years.

During almost all that time, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers.

It wasn’t until about 10,000 years ago that we transitioned to a mainly agricultural lifestyle.

And since then, our lives have changed dramatically.

Today, only about 0,001 percent of the world population lives a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The vast majority of us instead live in societies where technology is changing our everyday life at an exponential speed.

Unlike our environment, though, our bodies and brains don’t change much at all.

They’re still primarily adapted to the life that our ancestors lived.

And this creates what evolutionary biologists call evolutionary mismatches2 — ways in which our old traits don’t fit our new environment.

These evolutionary mismatches lie at the root of many of our modern-day problems.

Let’s have a look at a few examples.

Obesity

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors rarely knew when they would get their next meal.

So, in an environment where high-calorie food was scarce, it was beneficial to eat as much as possible when you could.

These days, this approach is no longer helpful.

Now that high-calorie food is readily available, large portions instead tend to lead to obesity.

Sedentary Lifestyles

As hunter-gatherers, we were constantly on the move, and that has shaped our biology.

Essential functions like the immune system, reproduction, and digestion require continual movement to work optimally.

Our modern environment constantly nudges us to be sedentary, which causes a lot of adverse health effects.

Sleep Deprivation

Throughout history, most people slept about ten hours per night.

Our sleep-wake cycles used to be guided mainly by the rising and setting of the sun.

But after the electric light was invented, people started sleeping less and less.

And today, at least 50 percent of the adult population suffers from chronic sleep deprivation.

Stress

Hunter-gatherers had one primary objective: getting food.

Once they had done that, they rested up for the next effort.

These days, the work we do is very different.

Many people have complicated tasks, demanding bosses, and constant deadlines that make it hard to rest and recover.

And that can lead to chronic stress, exhaustion, and burnout.

Technology Addictions

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors experienced very little instant gratification.

If they were to have any leisure time at all, they first had to earn it through hard work.

Today, we can get instant gratification any time we like through the Internet, social media, online casinos, and so on.

And that makes our smartphones, computers, and tablets incredibly addictive.

Evolutionary Mismatches Makes Success Difficult

If you’ve ever wondered why you struggle to achieve your goals, I hope this article has provided an insightful perspective.

The society that you’re in is vastly different from the environment you’re genetically adapted for.

That means that whenever you attempt to attain a goal, you’re in a battle with your natural predispositions.

And that makes success inherently difficult.

So, whenever you fall short of your ambitions, give yourself some compassion.

You’re not lazy, unmotivated, or weak-willed. You’re just human.

Footnotes

  1. Akrasia
  2. Evolutionary Mismatch And What To Do About It: A Basic Tutorial