The Pleistocene Dream?

Owning a home may appeal to primitive happiness-seeking instincts, but the resulting suburban isolation and solitary commutes many people face may be making us profoundly unhappy, writes Charles Montgomery.

"Though we know maxing out our ecological footprint might involve picking up some bad carbon karma, we feel somewhere deep in our guts that we need this house in order to be happy."

"Unfortunately, it has recently been revealed that our guts may be fooling us. The psychological matrix that fuels our desire for more square footage also ensures that we will be thoroughly unsatisfied once we settle into our new place. This bad news comes from a growing army of economists, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists obsessed with happiness. The field offers plenty of insight into how our cities and our emotional lives shape each other, as well as a rudimentary map of the minefield laid around the walls of the happy house."

"The big-home urge is woven right into our genes, a hand-me-down from our hunter-gatherer ancestors."

"I've been tempted by the suburbs myself. With their wide lawns and cul-de-sacs, they seem to offer a rough approximation of the pastoral landscapes that made our ancestors feel safe. This is an illusion. In the US, at least, people who live in low-density sprawl are more likely to die violently than their inner-city cousins - thanks mostly to car accidents. Meanwhile, a Columbia University study found that suburban kids are far more likely to get hooked on drugs and booze. Why? Not enough chill-out time with their parents, for one thing. And where are suburban parents in those crucial after-school hours? Drumming their dashboards on marathon commutes home from distant offices. We are fooled by the suburbs' verdant disguise, even as they lock us into more dangerous lives."

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Large Houses and Evolutionary Psychology

There are obvious problems with Luis Rayo and Gary Becker's theory that evolutionary psychology makes us want larger houses.

These two economists argue that, 50,000 years ago, our ancestors were more likely to survive if they were unsatisfied with the amount the amount of food they had and pushed on to find more, even if they already had enough. So, they conclude, we are likely to be dissatisfied with the size of our house and want a bigger one, even if our house is already big enough. Both steps of this argument are dubious.

Hunters and gatherers can store only a small amount of food. Since they are nomadic, what they can store is limited to the amount they can carry. And 50,000 years ago, they did not have domestic animals to help them with the carrying.

If they keep hunting and gathering after they have enough food, the extra food they get will go to waste, and they will just have wasted time that they might have used for other activities that could have made them more successful in evolutionary terms.

One example of these other activities is making alliances with other people, which help them gain dominance in the group. Frans de Waal has shown that these sorts of alliances are critical to chimpanzee society. They absorb a huge amount of chimpanzees' emotional energy because of the evolutionary advantage that they offer: the dominant chimps are more likely to reproduce and are more likely to get food for themselves and their children in times of scarcity.

Among early homo sapiens, forming alliances could take even more time, because they were able to speak. In fact, this is probably one reason that speech evolved. Anyone who put his energy into gathering food when times were good, rather than into forming alliances, would be less likely to be in the dominant group that gets food when times are bad.

There some is empirical evidence supporting this point. Most famously, Marshall Sahlins found that the !Kung hunter-gatherers worked only about 20 hours a week to get food.

Sahlins said that this was all the time that it took to get all the food they wanted. Some of his critics claimed that, if they hunted and gathered longer hours than this, the calories in the extra food they would get would be less than the calories they would burn to get the food, so they were really not as well-off as Sahlins said. If the critics are right, there is a disadvantage to working longer hours, and if Sahlins is right, there is no advantage to working longer hours while there could be an advantage to use those hours doing something else (such as forming alliances).

Findings about contemporary hunter-gatherers can't give us precise information about how hunter-gatherers behaved 50,000 years ago, because their environments are different, but it is clear that there is no advantage to nomadic hunter-gathers producing much more food than they need, so Rayo and Becker are wrong about their evolutionary psychology.

Rayo and Becker are even more obviously wrong in the second step of their argument, claiming that this psychology would cause people today to buy larger houses. Nomadic hunter-gatherers just built temporary shelters, so evolutionary psychology certainly has not programmed us to want big houses.

It is plausible that hunter-gatherers would want to accumulate small objects that are easy to carry around to demonstrate their status, such as attractive shells that take a long time to gather or small works of art that take a long time to carve. In fact, it is plausible that these status symbols would help people form alliances and would provide evolutionary benefits. If so, then evolutionary psychology programs to want to accumulate jewelry, art works, and the like - not to want big houses.

Rayo and Becker are right to say that, if evolutionary psychology makes us want status symbols, it doesn't follow that we should spend our lives pursuing status symbols. Because they involve constant desire for more and constant dissatisfaction, Rayo and Becker say, bigger houses don't make us happy, and we would do better to do things that bring more lasting happiness. As an example, they mention exercising, which makes us feel better over the long run.

We are not completely controlled by our evolutionary psychology. For example, evolutionary psychology makes us want to overeat, because 50,000 years ago, people who overate and gained weight when there was enough food were more likely to survive when there was not enough food. Despite this psychology, we recognize that overeating is harmful, and we know that we should try to maintain a healthy weight.

So, the Walrus article makes an additional error as it attempts to popularize Rayo and Becker's theory: it seems to be saying that we cannot control the impulse to want bigger and bigger houses, even though they do not make us happy.

Charles Siegel

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