Amanda Garrett

John Horn

Stacey Smith


R. Mashman. An Evolutionary View of Psychic Misery. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality. Dec 97, Vol. 12 Issue 4, p979-999.



An Evolutionary View of Psychic Misery


Psychic misery, defined as the subjective experience of nonphysical suffering, is an emotion experienced among all humans.  This mechanism that has been built into our human nature through an evolutionary process that began with the first humans.     In this article, Robert Mashman presents the theory that “the misery mechanism alerted our ancestors of the possible loss of reproductive potential due to an individual social ineffectiveness” (20). In other words, he makes the connection between our need to be accepted into social groups and our capacity for misery.   He goes on to explain the difference between our ancestor’s environment and that of modern humans as they relate to the misery mechanism.   Our ability to experience nonphysical suffering must have benefited our ancestors’ ability to reproduce in some way, but how have those benefits changed over time?

Child Rearing

The first point that Mashman makes in his argument is that the formation of social groups within a species is essential.  The greatest example of this social construct is found when considering what is required to raise a child.  There are two factors that must be heavily considered in the child rearing process.  First is the fact that humans are born physically helpless and require continuous attention and assistance in their earliest stages.  Secondly, the length of time required for human infants to develop is significantly longer than that of other primates.  These two factors show the importance of having human adult intelligence and resources in proper development of infants.

The attention required to raise an infant also had a strong influence on the adaptation of bipedalism (two-legged walking).  By using the only the lower two limbs for walking, humans developed the ability to carry their children (maternal) and carry food and water long distances (paternal).  These adaptations, and others that resulted from the need to raise infants, contributed to the intellectual development of humans.  An increase in intelligence showed our ancestors the advantages of creating a language and elaborate social structures.  The development of social structures contributed to the effectiveness of activities such hunting in groups and general communication among individuals.

Child rearing was another benefit that resulted from creating social constructs.  Because of the extreme helplessness and long developmental period of infants, mothers would constantly need assistance in raising their children.  As a result, pair bonding became common.  Pair bonding refers to both the mother and the father making contributions to the development of their offspring.  No longer would mothers be completely responsible for their upbringing.  Fathers were able to provide food and protection.  In addition, competition between males became unnecessary with this new mating system.  However, mother-father relationships were not the only advantages of social systems.  Both parents would often receive support and guidance from the society as a whole.  It wasn’t long before societies became essential to individuals as well as successful rearing of offspring.

Human Variation

The next point Mashman focuses on deals with the development of human nature through evolution.  He points out that human nature is constructed of many mechanisms that have evolved throughout history in order to solve problems in our ancestors’ environment.  These adaptations are the result of both genetic variations between generations and the effects of their environment.  Some are built into the genetic make-up, where as others require a specific developmental stage or circumstance to become activated.  An example Mashman uses for this argument is humans ability to adapt through the process of learning.  Humans have the ability to make decisions to problems never experienced before.  No other species has developed this quality to the extent human’s have.

 A final method of adaptation Mashman describes consists of random variations of a trait that either spread throughout a population or become eliminated.  A random traits survival depends on how useful that trait is in the selection process.  Positive selection leads to survival of the trait and negative selection leads to the eventual elimination of the trait.

With all of these different methods of adapting, and the different environments that people live in, there is a great variability amoung human.  There are differences in personality, sometimes in emotions, physical appearances, and even abilities to adapt to environmental changes with their lifetime.  Humans, as Mashman puts it, have a greater capacity for adaptation within a lifetime than any other species.  One such adaptation is the misery mechanism.

Psychic Misery as a Calibrating Mechanism for Maintaining Reproductive Potential

The misery mechanism was created through humans’ ability to learn.  Since we have the intelligence to assess our surroundings and situations, we are often able to create solutions to any problems we encounter.  The misery mechanism is our way of recognizing social detachment or rejection and prompts us to create a solution.   At this point in the article, Mashman brings up his argument of child rearing.  Because of the extensive effort involved in child rearing, social constructs became important to individuals who were attempting to raise children.  One could go as far as to say that parents become dependant on the support and assistance that social groups provided.

The misery mechanism is activated when there is some type of detachment or rejection from a social group.  Since we often see social rejection as a loss of reproductive potential, we have created this mechanism to encourage change.  Because of this encouragement to change such negative situations, we ultimately increase our reproductive success once we regain social acceptance.  Like all traits that increase reproductive success, this mechanism is passed to the future generations.

Although we often become miserable when negative social situations develop, we do not feel joy to the same degree when there is a positive experience.  In other words, when we have a problem, we try to solve it. The misery mechanism brings this problem to our attention and forces us to think about it.   However, when no problem exists, we have nothing to solve and therefore no need to bring the situation to our attention.  The misery mechanism was very useful to our ancestors in this aspect.  It forced people who were dealing with social problems to first think about the problem, devise a solution, and finally act on that solution.  Through this process, our ancestors regained social acceptance and ensured reproductive success.  Misery led to motivation, which in-turn led to action, which often led to success.

One exception that is worth noting is suicide.  In most cases of social rejection or detachment, the misery mechanism provides the individual with a method to correct the problem and once again experience acceptance.  At this point, the misery mechanism has done its job and shuts off.  However, in some instances, the misery mechanism has difficulty shutting off or simply doesn’t, regardless of whether or not a solution has been reached.  When this mechanism isn’t deactivated after successfully solving their social problem, individuals become more reckless and desperate in their attempts to regain acceptance (even though they may already have).  After a certain point, an individual may realize they cannot survive alone and give in to the intense nonphysical suffering, taking their own life.

Reciprocal and Kin Altruism

It is important to consider the benefits that an individual would receive in a social group.  Further, it is important to also consider the benefits an individual receives by providing for others in his social group.  Some of the benefits that an individual can provide include sharing resources, protection, and child rearing assistance.  Benefits in these instances do not increase reproductive success directly.  Rather, they contribute to the distribution of an individual’s genes through individuals with the same, or similar, genetic make-ups.   The best example is kin.

Since humans that we are related to have very similar genetic designs, it is in our best interest to increase their survival and reproductive success.   Survival of our kin means survival of our genes.  This idea is also known as “inclusive fitness.”  The term inclusive fitness refers to our desire to increase the fitness of our relatives, even if it won’t directly increase our own reproductive potential.  It is often difficult to determine just how similar two humans may be genetically, but generally those who look the same or act the same also have similar genetic designs.  Understandably, these humans are part of the same social group.   Their preservation and the preservation of their genes is therefore beneficial.

The Misery Mechanism In Modern Times

In this section of his article, Mashman makes the final connections between human variability, evolution, and the misery mechanism.  He begins by pointing out that we have shifted from the small, social, family-oriented groups of our ancestors, to a more global-oriented group.  We no longer just consider the individuals geographically close to us to be in our social structure.  Further, the massive amount of human variation that has developed and which is seen globally, presents people who have extraordinary characteristics.  Because there is such variability, there are seemingly many of these people who are more reproductively attractive than us, and we are continually comparing them to ourselves (the media is one of the major contributors to this trend, as they are often responsible for singling these people out and providing them with attention and recognition).  When we are continually subject to such comparisons, it is easily understood that people will develop feelings of rejection or alienation from society.  We begin to feel less valuable, or in some cases useless to society.

Because these feelings of inadequacy have become more common, individuals in societies today spend more time with their misery mechanism activated, although it no longer serves us as well.  Although this characteristic benefited our ancestors, it is no longer beneficial to modern humans in this modern environment.  Although as humans we have an amazing ability to adapt by many different methods, it is important to consider the fact that the environment also changes.  As it changes so will our needs and in-turn, our characteristics.  So then why do we still have this mechanism if it provides us with no significant benefits?

The best answer Mashman has to this question is that until the misery mechanism begins to have an inverse effect, it will remain in our genetic design.  That is, once it lowers our reproductive success and harms us, we will slowly eliminate it.  Before this happens though, Mashman predicts that evolution will lower the mechanism’s activation threshold.  As we adapt to this new environment, the level of detachment or rejection necessary to make us miserable will also change.  He goes as far as to say that some individuals in the future will be able to live their entire lives without ever having it activated.


Mashman ends his paper by emphasizing many of the points he argued above.  He uses Sigmund Freud, who said that misery was the result of interaction between human nature and society, as support of his claims.   He also makes an interesting distinction between people with positive outlooks on life and people with neutral outlooks on life.  He says that those who are easily illusioned, or see the world through positive eyes are able to avoid being miserable, but those who see it accurately, will become depressed.  He goes on to say it is difficult for most of us to maintain the high level of optimism required to avoid misery, so most of us will fall into some type of depression.  As a result, there will be a need for us to adapt, both in our own lifetimes, and as a species over generations, to correct the modern problems found within the misery mechanism.




I.                                The Definition of Psychic Misery

A.     The subjective experience of nonphysical suffering.

B.     The warning of a possible loss of reproductive potential.

C.     Misery can be activated directly or indirectly.

1.      Directly through losing a reproductive partner.

2.       Indirectly through losing wealth or status.

II.                 Ancestral Methods of Child-Rearing

A.     Human newborns are physically helpless.

1.      Mother’s attention and time must be devoted to the baby’s survival.

2.       Father’s resources are needed more since mother and baby are dependent.

B.     Bipedalism means that the arms are free.

1.      Mothers can carry helpless babies.

2.      Fathers can carry more resources from greater distances.

C.     The social group is necessary for survival.

1.      The increased ability to cooperate meant more efficient survival for all offspring in the group.

2.      Pair bonding meant more long term heterosexual relationships.

a.       Sexual receptivity at all times meant females were open to intimacy at any time in their reproductive cycle.

b.      More bonding meant more paternal participation and more resources for survival.

c.       Male to male conflict over females was no longer an issue.

III.         The Need for Human Variation

A.     Traits that increase reproductive success will be perpetuated.

B.     Different traits are activated differently by environmental cues.

1.      Humans are uniquely capable of changing environmentally contingent behaviors within the lifespan.

2.      Humans have a unique capacity for learning that facilitates adaptation.

IV.          Psychic Misery Maintains Reproductive Potential

A.     Negative information from group forces reflection and change more than positive feedback.

B.     Since acceptance in the group is the norm, we experience more pain when rejected.

C.     Changing one’s behavior means more reproductive success within the social group.

D.     Self-esteem was a way for ancestors to measure their reproductive potential.

E.      To deactivate misery one must have self-perceptions of social status, reproductive desirability, and material wealth.

V.                 The Function of Reciprocal Altruism in Kin

A.     Resources can be shared within a community.

1.      Cooperation means successful hunting and protection.

2.      Assistance with child-rearing means better survival.

B.     Sacrifice of own life means an increase in survival for kin.

C.     Suicide as a response to rejection and lack of social support for survival.

VI.              The Misery Mechanism in Today’s Environment

A.     We continually use the misery mechanism that aided our ancestors in measuring reproductive potential, but it is no longer acceptable or necessary for survival today.

1.      Depression may be a “pseudopathology” and not a true illness.

2.      We may not be really depressed, just responding to the wrong environment.

B.     Extraordinary people in the media perpetuate feelings of inadequacy.

1.      Social adequacy is harder to achieve today so more of the population will spend their lives with their misery mechanisms activated.

2.      Half the population will experience a mental disorder within their lifetimes.

VII.            Conclusions and Suggestions

A.     In order to suppress this mechanism today, a certain amount of illusion is needed.

B.     We need useful and fulfilling social roles.

C.     Avoid merely medicating to mask symptoms of depression.