In Niccolò Machiavelli’s day, the received wisdom took an optimistic view of human nature as the product of God’s divine creation.  Man was the rational animal, superior to other creatures, a god on earth.   Human misery was only the result of man’s misuse of the gift of free will, temptation by the devil, and insufficient attention to the teachings of the church.

Machiavelli’s works are still in print and still relevant in large part because he had a more realistic analysis of human nature.  In Niccolò’s view, people are not predominantly good, but are a decidedly mixed bag of good and bad traits.  Evolutionary Psychology takes a very similar view, but also explains more precisely what traits are fundamental to human nature and how they came about.

Evolutionary Psychology is a framework for understanding human nature that views our information processing capabilities and motivations as adaptive instincts that are the products of evolution by natural selection.  Because our instincts were designed by evolution, the need not be (and often are not) adaptive now, but they would have been adaptive for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. 

Evolutionary Psychology is central to the topic of this blog, Machiavellian strategic analysis, because it helps us look beyond rhetoric and give our analysis a scientific basis.   If we think of strategic analysis in terms of Game Theory, Evolutionary Psychology helps in two ways.  First, it helps us make realistic inferences about the preferences that humans will assign to the possible outcomes of a strategic situation and it allows us to understand how humans’ information processing capabilities may differ from those of the conceptual robots who participate in our game theory models.  Second, the problem of solving some special games (such as the Prisoners’ Dilemma) presented adaptive problems for our ancestors.  Therefore, we can expect that humans have instincts that facilitate their solution.

For an excellent introduction to the topic, see Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.  


The main tenants of the Evolutionary Psychology framework are the following principles.

IP Module Network

Psychologists used to work on the assumption that the brain was a general purpose information processing mechanism, somewhat analogous to a general purpose computer.  On this view, it was difficult to visualize how the process of evolution by natural selection could make incremental changes to its general principles of operation.  There was very little scope for evolution to shape the mind.  

In the Evolutionary Psychology view the mind is not like a general purpose computer, but like a network of special purpose, information processing modules (IPMs), which are analogous to the electronic components known as ASICs (application specific integrated circuits).

The view that IPMs are the products of evolution gives evolution much more scope of action. 

Evolutionary Design

The IPMs and the way in which they are integrated into the entire information processing network are products of an (unintelligent) evolutionary design process, which took place over millions of years.  In particular, the neural wiring of our IPMs is the result of heritable variation in wiring designs and the selection of those variants that conferred on their possessor a reproductive advantage.   

Unlike the study of Behavior Genetics, Evolutionary Psychology is not concerned with the degree to which genes account for differences in behavior.  Evolutionary Psychology is concerned with those information processing instincts that we all share and it views evolution as the process that accounts for the design of those shared information processing mechanisms. 

It is important to underscore the concept that Evolutionary Psychology is concerned with information processing mechanisms not behaviors.  The idea is not that genetics controls behavior but that it controls how we process information.  The much discussed topic of nature vs. nurture does not come up.  Nature is an input to our IPMs.  It makes no sense to say that input is more important than the programming of our IPMs, or vice versa.  Nor does Evolutionary Psychology downplay the role of learning as opposed to instinct in human behavior.  One of the primary modes of operation for our IPMs is to improve the speed and facility of learning tasks that were important for our ancestor’s reproductive fitness.  The important point is that there is a link between the programming of our IPMs and the function that they served in the environment of our ancestors.

Historical Function

For each IPM, there is an associated reproductive opportunity (or problem) and a characteristic, historical function.   The opportunity must have persisted in the organism’s ancestral environment for many (perhaps 100,000 generations.  The characteristic function of the IPM is to exploit that opportunity (or to solve the reproductive problem).  Over the generations, hereditable variations in the IPM that better exploited the opportunity were selected and the function of the IPM became adapted to better perform its characteristic function.  It is the historical function that drove the evolution of the IPM.

That is not to say that every IPM has one and only one function.   The IPM may be obsolete.  The original environmental opportunity may no longer exist.  The IPM may no longer be functional.  For example, the environment conditions necessary for its development may no longer exist.  Finally, a particular IPM may have functions that are beneficial side effects of its original ancestral function.

In most cases there is not one and only one IPM for a single information processing capability.  Most mental traits are the result of systems of IPMs that were built up, by adding and integrating modules over millennia. According to the Cosmides and Tooby Primer, humans have batteries of IPMs for characteristic mental capabilities such as analyzing “objects, physical causality, number, the biological world, the beliefs and motivations of other individuals, and social interactions.” 

One particularly important capability, called “theory of mind”, allows us to form the idea that other humans have thoughts like our own.  We share this ability with only a few other mammals and it is our ability to visualize other minds that makes the Game Theory assumption of Common Knowledge plausible.   

It is important to emphasize that the adaptive opportunities must have existed for millions of years.  Thus, we are adapted for the environment of our ancestors, not for the present.

The IPM network like most products of evolution is complex.  It is made up of many systems, each of which has many subsystems.  In addition, like most adaptations the network has a hierarchical organization with many layers that correspond to the stages in the evolution of the nervous system. 

Peripheral Consciousness

Consciousness is not central, but peripheral to the overall flow of information in the IPM network.  That is, conscious thought does not direct the information flow; it is a consumer of the information that the IPMs produce.  Evolutionary Psychology views the conscious portion of the mind as analogous to a CEO who is necessarily ignorant of operational details and dependent on subordinates (IPMs and IPM subsystems).  In this view it is possible for the CEO to be poorly informed or even misled.  Evolution might (if it served the interests of reproduction) program an IPM to withhold information from the conscious mind.  

The unconscious portion of the mind is at least as large and important as Freud thought it was, but for different reasons.  We are unaware of the operation of the IPMs because they operate before and provide input to the brain’s executive functions.  Hence we are unaware of most of the operation of our instincts.  Even when we become aware of some of the effects of our instincts, they seem entirely natural and hence escape our attention. 

Mental Obsolesce

If we judge by our DNA, we are 98.4% chimp.   Even the part of our nature (the 1.6 %) that is distinctively human is not adapted to the demands of modern life, but to the very different requirements of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  Humans split off from the other chimp lines roughly 6 million years ago.  Primitive civilization is only roughly 6 thousand years old (1000th of that time).  Humans’ minds are adapted for life during the first 6 million years.   

Implications for Human nature

In the Evolutionary Psychology framework both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature are products of evolution; they are adaptations.  Furthermore, we can associate with our adaptations (good and bad) at least one historical function. 

According to this view, to understand our nature, we must imagine the environment and the life problems of our hunter gatherer ancestors, because it is to solve those problems and to cope with that environment that evolution has adapted our mind.


Our ancestral environment was very uncertain.   Hence we are opportunistic.  We are gluttonous and greedy if an opportunity presents itself, but in the absence of a clear incentive, we are prone to energy saving sloth.

Gluttony provides a prototype example of Evolutionary Psychology at work.  Foods that contain ample sugar are energy rich and fatten the body more effectively than other foods of similar bulk.   For our ancestors, body fat provided insurance against the possibility of uncertain food supplies during the winter or other famine conditions.  Thus sugar specific hunger afforded an opportunity for better fat insurance at a lower foraging cost.  

Designing sugar specific hunger requires IPMs for detecting sugar rich foods and for connecting the output of these sweet sensors to the reward system so that we can learn sugar seeking behavior effectively.   The evolutionary design process could produce sugar specific hunger IPMs because efficient fattening provided a reproductive opportunity that these circuits could exploit.  Any improvement in our ancestor’s sugar detection or in their sugar appreciation circuits allowed them to exploit the opportunity for better fat insurance. 

In our ancestral environment, it was not possible to get too much sugar.   However, in today’s world where food supplies are seldom uncertain sugar seeking is obsolete.  Indeed purveyors of sugar rich foods (such as donut shops) can exploit our sugar specific hunger with unsightly results.   Gluttony, as manifest in the current U.S. epidemic of obesity is a result of our obsolete food specific hungers for fat, salt, and sugar. 

We should also note that we are not at all aware of the ancestral function of our sweet food affinities.  We do not think, “Oh my, winter is coming, let me go to the donut shop and chow down some chocolate donuts so that I can fatten up in case food is scarce in the coming months”.  We do not even say, “Oh, I have a craving for sweets. That is a residual instinct from my hunter gather ancestors”.  We simply eat sweets because they taste good.  We do not consider why.


Our ancestors lived in a small community of related individuals that had a defined territory, which provided the resources of life, such as a defensible site, edible plants, game, and water.  Surrounding communities would be competitors at best and would normally be hostile.  Hence we have instincts that make us clannish and territorial.  We easily divide the world into “us and them.”  In its harmless form we route for our high school’s football team and take pride in our neighborhood.  In its more unattractive form, we are prone to xenophobia and ethnocentrism and to internal rivalries and factionalism of all sorts.   

Factionalism threatens the efficiency and even the cohesiveness and stability of any organization of more than a few dozen people.  Businesses have factions that form around individual leaders, locations, or business units.  After an acquisition management always promises to harvest opportunities for valuable synergies, but it is seldom able to integrate the new and old parts of a company.   

All political organizations seem to spontaneously develop rival factions and suppressing destructive factional rivalries has been a constant theme in the history of all civilizations. 

Cleisthenes reforms of the Athenian city state provide an early and well studied example.  Before Cleisthenes, Athens was organized into clans and strife among Athens clans led to instability, which enabled a tyrant to take power.  Cleisthenes overthrew the tyrant’s son (Hippias) and instituted his reforms, which dissolved the clan structure.  In its place, Cleisthenes created political units without any family or geographical significance.  In order to further subvert regional factions, each of these units, called demes, was composed of three parts: one representing a city, one representing a coastal area, and one representing an inland (highland) area.  There are analogs to Cleisthenes in ancient Rome, throughout the Middle Ages, in the cities of Machiavelli’s Renaissance Italy, and in the much bemoaned political competition between Republicans and Democrats in present day America. 

Factional rivalries are not inevitable or programmed into our genes, but we do have traits that foster factionalism.  We have proprietary attachments to our surroundings.  We recognize people that we see frequently and register them as familiar.   Conversely, we distrust people who are unfamiliar.  Very likely, those of our ancestors that did not protect their territory, or who did not readily identify familiar people and distrust outsiders, were out bred by those who did.  These instincts persist in us today and very likely they continue to help protect children.  They are subtle enough to escape our intention.  For those who care to make the effort, even the worst forms of factionalism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism, are easily overridden by conscious thought.  Our factional instincts may not be powerful, but they are persistent and   factionalism can always bias political processes, or can be exploited by demagogues.  


We must behave as though we wanted to stuff as many copies of our genes as possible into succeeding generations.  Those of our ancestors that did not would have been out bred by those that did. 

Our tendency to Nepotism (favoring our kin) is one particularly effective gene stuffing trait.  To see why, suppose that each human had an identical twin.  Since our twin has an exact copy of our genes, we could do as well by helping our twin to breed an extra child as by having one of our own.  People would evolve altruistic emotions toward their clone, i.e. people would feel inclined to help and reluctant to hurt their clone.  Those who did not have clone altruism would be out bred by those who did.  

We share half our genes with our parents and our siblings.   Hence a child or a sibling counts as half a clone.  More remote kin count as clones to a lesser degree.  It follows that we have nepotism, i.e. we favor our kin.  We are more inclined to help our kin than a stranger and more reluctant to hurt our kin than to hurt a stranger.   The degree of our nepotism is roughly proportional to the degree of our kinship.   However, those of our ancestors who did not have the appropriate degree of kin altruism would be out bred by those who did.  

One important implication of nepotism comes into play in situations where people have an opportunity to make a profitable bargain.  As we saw in the Game Theory page, people will generally forego a profitable bargain in those situations that require trust.  A classic is the Prisoners’ Dilemma bargain where cheating would be more profitable than fulfilling the terms of the agreement and being cheated is worse than not doing the deal in the first place. 

Each party has an incentive to harm the other party by cheating.  For strangers making a Prisoners’ Dilemma bargain is irrational; so strangers miss the opportunity.  However, close kin both feel inclined to help (cooperate) and reluctant to hurt (cheat) one another and they feel that their kin share their feelings.  Hence close kin can rationally make profitable bargains that rational strangers would have to forego.  This implication of Game Theory and Evolutionary Psychology may account to a considerable extent for the great political and business dynasties that march through the pages of history.  

Nepotism can also amplify the influence of factionalism.  Family groups often form the backbone of factions in politics and business.  Again in a hunter gatherer society the scope for factionalism was limited.  Most communities formed around a single patrilineal family unit, perhaps with important subunits.  However, in modern society family based clans can live side by side in the same town. 

Shakespeare’s tragedy of Romeo and Juliette dramatizes one such rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets.  However, the tragedy of the feud (if not that of the lovers) played itself out continuously throughout Medieval Europe.  In the early Middle Ages factions formed around aristocratic families (often called magnates) that lived in a constant state of armed conflict.  For example, feuds were so common that they threaten the stability of the emerging Italian cities. 

John Najemy, in his book A History of Florence 1200-1575, gives a real example that indicates the magnitude of the problem.  In Florence, magnate families feuded with one another so frequently that they built towers for observation and defense.  So intense was that threat of violence that in an area of only 3,500 feet square, magnate families had erected 62 towers (see the map on page 8 of his book).  In response to such constant disturbances from magnates, members of the middle class formed sworn societies (called communes) that armed themselves for mutual protection and excluded magnate families from participation in city politics.  

Even when the effects of nepotism and factionalism are as dramatic as the 62 towers, we are not conscious of our instincts.  We do not think that it is odd that we should want to sacrifice our personal well being to help our kin.  We simply feel that it is natural to hate our enemies, and to love our family members and to help them when we can.   

Nepotism is not a perfect or rigid mechanism.  Our siblings are not perfect clones.  We have conflicts with our siblings.  We obviously cannot gauge our genetic similarity and consequently, we must rely on family resemblance and physical proximity as proxies for genetic affinity.  If we grow up with people we might mistakenly “love them like a brother.”  Nonetheless, nepotism is a real and persistent factor of human nature. 

In modern society, nepotism often presents a conflict of interests.  Citizens of a monarchy may feel badly served by having to endure the reign of an idiot prince.  Some Americans may have analogous feelings about the second Bush presidency.  Citizens who accept the rule of an autocratic dictator (e.g. in Egypt) may resent the dictator’s attempts to install his son as his successor.  Competent professionals are reluctant to work for a family company, because they know that their prospects for promotion are limited and that all good positions will go to family members.  Still, the fact that all these cases are plausible attests to the persistence of nepotism.  In analyzing a strategic situation where nepotism is a factor in one of the outcomes, it cannot be ignored. 

Status Seeking

Evolution has designed our preferences to promote reproduction, not to advance our material wellbeing or happiness.  Indeed reproductive instincts necessarily work against our personal material well being and frequently work against our long-term happiness.  We are famously prone to lust, which is so often the source of unwise decisions and remorse that it has become a staple of comedy.  But lust is only the tip of the iceberg.  When it comes to the implications of reproductive instincts for human nature and their effect on our strategic interactions, the mass of the iceberg is status seeking. 

Status (the uncontested control of resources) attracts mates and provides assets needed for successful child rearing.  Status seeking makes us, particularly males, prone to prideful posturing, to envy those who have more status, and to fly into a rage when our status is challenged.  In our small hunter-gatherer clan the scope for status seeking was limited, but in our modern stratified society the scope for status seeking is endless and status seeking can therefore become addictive.

This sorry state of affairs is an indirect result of the most distinctive human adaptation, our large brain with its advanced features for planning and language based collaboration.  The human brain is so large that an infant’s head barely fits through the birth canal.  For that reason, human females, unlike those of other animal species (and even our chimp cousins), have an appreciable threat of miscarriage.   To mitigate the problem of miscarriage but still accommodate a large brain, evolution developed the tactic of having human children born in an immature state so that the head can grow to its full size outside the mother. 

The strategy of immature birth, however, comes at a cost because it implies a protracted childhood, during which the offspring cannot live on its own.  In humans, as in chimps and most other animals, the burden of child rearing falls mainly on the mother.  In fact, chimp mothers rear the children with almost no involvement from the father.  But in humans, prolonged childhood imposes such a burden on the mother that the human father is obliged to help by supplying additional resources (in particular protection and additional food from hunting).   

Male parental investment is a distinctive feature of human primates, and it too has implications for human nature.   The reproductive potential of a human female is limited by her physiology and that limitation was very severe for our ancestors.  Large families are a modern phenomenon.  In our natural environment, a female would have had to breast feed for many months because early weaning would be dangerous, and during lactation she could not normally become pregnant.  Even after weaning, the human mother has to devote considerable energy to caring for children who are not fully self-sufficient for many years.  The number of children that a mother can rear is strictly limited.  However, the reproductive potential of the human male is limited only by the resources that he can control.

Control of resources then is the key factor that determines the ability of a male to stuff his genes in to succeeding generations.  However, the facts of limited resources and exponential population growth guarantee that one male’s control will be contested by other males.  This competition has the potential to be destructive to both parties but it is mitigated by the mechanism of status. 

In many animal species, including our chimp relatives, two males may fight but they fight not to the death but only to the point where they establish status.  Thereafter, the subordinate male concedes control to the dominant male.  Note that both parties benefit, the dominant male saves the exhaustion of repeated challenges and the subordinate male saves the injury of repeated beatings.  If our male ancestors did not challenge other males, they would be out bred by those who did.  But if males did not concede status to stronger rivals they would also be out bred by males who showed more discretion. 

Evolution has improved the design of the status mechanism by providing for signaling.   A dominant male can choose his battles for maximum publicity value.  He can ignore a tentative challenge in a private setting, but in a public forum he should respond with rage in order to maintain or enhance his reputation.  The more uncontrollable his rage, the more effective it is as a deterrent.  A dominant male can also advertise by his posture and gate that he is a dominant male.   Rage, reputation and status symbols have obvious correlates in modern culture. 

Status signaling is essentially the deadly sin of pride.  Those of our ancestors who avoided prideful status displays, found themselves needlessly facing challenges that they could have deterred.  They would have been out bred by their more ostentatious contemporaries.  On the other hand, those males who did not envy a prideful, dominant male his position, never achieved the uncontested control of resources that allowed him to support many females.

In our ancestors’ small communities reputation was easy to establish and the scope for status seeking was limited.  However, in our modern vast and many-layered, hierarchical society, it is hard to establish high status and maintain it by means of symbols and reputation.  To have the desired effect in a large society status symbols have to be correspondingly large and expensive.  In a primitive village, a man might have achieved high status by displaying a simple, tasteful necklace made of the ears of enemy dead.  However, in today’s society a man needs expensive watches, clothes, cars, boats, airplanes, etc.  Thus status seeking amplifies the effects of simple greed.

Furthermore, because the status hierarchy has many layers there are added dimensions for status seeking.  There is competition not just for the top slots, but status seeking to avoid the bottom slots.  In addition, and here is the decisive point, advancing to the top of one layer in the status hierarchy, merely puts the status seeker at the bottom of the next layer.  For that reason status seeking is addictive. 

The status addict finds that the more he has, the more he wants.  Each success makes an even greater success more attainable, more tangible, and more attractive.  Success breeds grasping, which breeds success, but ever more expensive and more precarious success.  He may sacrifice all his time, his health, his family, and in the end his judgment to the search for glory. 

For the modern Machiavellian the importance of status seeking comes into play because, in the final analysis, all power is personal power.  Power is never exercised by a class of people, or an organization in the abstract.  In modern society, power requires an organization, but in the end, a decision can only be made and executed by a person who has the power (imperium) to act for the organization.  The role of status seeking, pride, and ambition in determining the conduct of our business and political leaders cannot be over estimated. 

“Ambition is one of the most ungovernable passions of the human heart.  The love of power is insatiable and uncontrollable…”

“There is a danger from all men.  The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty”. 

John Adams (quoted on page 69 of David McCullough’s book John Adams)


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