Are our evolutionary human characteristics still well-functioning adaptations, or can they lead to disadvantages for human well-being and the sustainable development of our species under today's environmental conditions?

Biologists refer to “mismatch” for traits that are adaptations to previous environmental conditions, and do not fulfill their function to the extent as before under the present environmental conditions.

Are problems of sustainable development at different levels indicative of the impact of such mismatch in our species?

After all, cultural evolution has fundamentally changed the social and natural environment of humans within a few generations and a few decades. Do we have a “stone-age brain” that can not cope with these changes?

On the other hand, a particular cultural flexibility characterizes our species: We humans, in particular our perceptions, norms, and behaviors are less influenced by genes and significantly by the socio-cultural environment and experiences in the course of our development. What was normal for the previous generation may be unthinkable and unacceptable to the next generation, and vice versa. Our cultural evolution goes hand in hand with this flexibility of our species.

Mismatch? (lesson plan)

Students learn about the concept of evolutionary mismatch and apply it to various problems of sustainable development.

Here is a list of some possible instances or consequences of mismatch today. Use the resources below to explore each one further. 

To what extent can we avoid or reduce these challengens of mismatch?

  • Can we motivate and empower people to be flexible and consciously change their behavior so that it has less negative impact on themselves and their environment?

  • Do we also have to change the (natural, social, cultural) environmental conditions so that it is easier for people to behave in accordance with their own and our common values and goals? 

  • What role can (and should) technologies, the social and cultural environment, commonly established regulations, social norms, infrastructure, media, and education play?

Unhealthy diet

Our body and metabolism are adapted to environmental conditions in which high-calorie (fat-, protein-rich) food usually was not abundant. So our body can store these nutrients for a long time and extract as much energy as possible from the intake of food, with some variation between humans.

However, in today’s environmental conditions, many people have almost unlimited access to foods high in fat, salt, sugar and protein. Furthermore, food producers like to increase the amount of fat, salt and sugar in food products because this pleases our evolved taste buds and we are more likely to buy those kinds of products.

Many people today suffer from health problems or die from causes that are due to too much fat, salt, and sugar in their diet: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity.

Can we motivate and empower people to consciously change their diet and eat healthily, even when confronted with high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods in their environment?

Or do we have to change the environmental conditions to make it easier for people to eat healthily?

What role can technologies, commonly-established regulations in food production, social norms, media, and education play?

Lack of physical activity

We are adapted to environmental conditions under which we have to move a lot to get enough food and keep us alive. For example, our body is adapted to endurance and long-distance running. Under today’s environmental conditions, many people do not have to move much. Thus, lack of exercise can lead to physical and mental health problems.


Can we motivate and empower people to move and exercise on a regular basis, even when confronted with an environment where exercise is not necessary?

Or do we have to change the environmental conditions to make it easier for people to move regularly?

What role can technologies, commonly established regulations at school or workplaces, community planning, social norms, media, and education play?

Addiction and substance abuse

Our brain has a so-called reward system that encourages us to look for things in the environment or to do things that are important to our survival or reproduction: food, mating partners, other people, new knowledge, new resources. When we find these things or achieve something, we feel a positive feeling or “kick.” This feeling motivates us to make an effort in the future to continue searching for these things. For example, endurance sports also give us a kind of kick, because it was important for our survival to perform such behaviors like endurance running. This reward system is very old in evolutionary terms, and we have it in common with many animals.

Under today’s environmental conditions, we have access to many things that give us that kick: food, alcohol, coffee, drugs, sex, computer games, and many other things. Thus, there is a danger that people will develop an addiction to these things: they get into a cycle that is driven by their reward system: they need more and more of this thing at ever shorter intervals, possibly neglecting other things that are important to their lives.

Can we motivate and empower people not to become addicted to certain things, even when confronted with an environment in which these things are abundantly present?

Or do we have to change the environmental conditions in such a way that it is easier for people not to become addicted to these things?

What role can technologies, social environment, commonly-established regulations, media, and education play?

Social isolation

We are primarily adapted to living in groups of up to about 150 people, where everyone is familiar and in close contact with each other every day. Human relationships and group affiliation are important basic needs for human well-being because evolution and survival depended on group life over the course of evolutionary history. Sharing laughter and emotions with others, telling each other things, having common interests, these create feelings of happiness and belonging.

In today’s social environment, many people no longer live together in small and close communities. Families are smaller, and rarely more than two generations live under one roof. Half of humanity lives in cities today. In cities, human encounters are primarily characterized by superficial, short-term encounters with strangers. Moreover, much of the interpersonal communication today is done over the telephone and the internet, minimizing the interaction between people – we do not see faces, do not touch each other, do not know each other, do not have the opportunity to share our emotions, worries and hopes with others. So some psychologists suggest that social isolation for many people contributes to depression and anxiety disorders.

Can we motivate and empower people to embrace and nurture important social relationships, even when confronted with an environment where many encounters are superficial and occur on the internet?

Or do we have to change environmental conditions to make it easier for people to build and maintain important social relationships?

What role can technologies, social environment, commonly-established regulations, social norms, media, and education play?

Communication on the internet/social media

We are primarily adapted to communication through direct contact with people – eye contact, facial expression, body language and the tone of voice help us communicate with others. They convey not only words but also emotions and thus allow emotional bonds between people.

However, communication over the internet is quite different – within a few seconds, we can tell other, far away, even completely unknown people words, or get told words by other people. We do not know who the other person is, what experience they have had, or how they feel. We do not have to look people in the eye the next day. We are more likely to communicate things that we would probably rather keep to ourselves in face-to-face situations, because social emotions such as empathy, guilt or shame have less of an impact on our communication behavior. On the other hand, the fight-or-flight emotions of anger and fear take over.

But words still hold a powerful meaning: our brains process them and connect them with our identity, they become part of our thoughts, our memories and our daily experience. Thus, cyberbullying can become a major problem for the mental health of people. Moreover, communication on social media aggravates the disagreements that exist in any large and heterogeneous group of people, and can thus lead to social conflicts.

“Conversations with people who hate me.”

Dylan Marron receives many negative, often insulting comments on social media due to his work and attitudes. In his podcast he contacts the people who write these negative comments to him, talks to them (if they do not hang up), and often interesting encounters arise between two people who did not know each other before.

Can we motivate and empower people to shape interpersonal communication in such a way that it is characterized by respect, perspective taking, humility and tolerance, even when confronted with communication opportunities that allow insults, bullying and discrimination to be done easily?

Or do we have to change the environmental conditions to make it easier for people to maintain respectful interpersonal communication on the internet?

What role can and should technologies, social environment, commonly-established regulations, social norms, media, and education play?

  • Steve Rose: Is social media making us less social? https://steverosephd.com/is-social-media-making-us-less-social/ “Social Media is making us less social when used to compare oneself to others, contributing to higher levels of loneliness and lower levels of well-being among frequent users. It can be social when used to connect with others.”

Stress, burnout, depression, anxiety

The stress response is evolutionary very old, we find it in insects, fish, reptiles, mammals. It allows animals to respond quickly in dangerous situations by abruptly taking flight or attacking, especially after the perception of predators or competitors. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline cause an increased heart rate, accelerate the breath, boost metabolism, make muscles tense and increase sweat production. Since the environment is full of potential dangers, the stress response is a highly effective adaptation. But it is also very energy-intensive for the body, and a constant state of stress can lead to impairment of physical and mental health.

Combined with the stress response, the human ability for language and symbols, as well as our ability to think about the past and the future, may today be a kind of mismatch under some circumstances. These abilities allow us and allowed our ancestors to communicate about absent things (and even things that are not yet existing or may never exist), to learn from the past, and to align present behavior with future goals. In order to make tools, plan for the hunt, and learn all these skills to master them in the future, language, symbols, and “mental time travel” were helpful and increased chances of survival and reproduction.

Under today’s environmental conditions, most people are less likely to be exposed to real dangerous situations that would be life-threatening. Today, stress is caused a lot by social and psychological factors: perceived performance pressures and expectations at school, at work or in the family, nervousness in public spaces, perceived time constraints, worries about the future, memories of traumatic experiences from the past, fears of failure or of not being “good enough”, recurring negative thoughts, bullying.

Sometimes language, symbols, “mental time travel” into the past and future and the stress response can help us in such situations by encouraging us to take action and solve problems. But in many situations these thoughts and reactions are evoked without them causing effective behavior. Especially with triggers that are psychological: fears, pressure, worries about the future, etc. In these situations, stress and negative thoughts can only cause more of these triggers – even more fears, pressure, self-criticism, and worries – and the person becomes less and less able to act. Thus, our thoughts and the stress response can be caught up in a reinforcing feedback loop, and can eventually lead to burnout, depression, anxiety,and a range of other mental health disorders.

Can we motivate and empower people to make their lives less susceptible to stress, pressure to perform and self-criticism, even when faced with a social environment where performance, career, good looks, and wealth are the benchmarks?

Or do we have to change the environmental conditions to make it easier for people to accept themselves as they are and live a life worth living for them, in which stress reactions, memories and thinking about the future mostly play a positive role in their behavior and well-being?

What role can and should technologies, social environment, commonly-established regulations, social norms, media, and education play?

A short film about the evolution and function of the human mind. Possible discussion questions:

  • What types of mental processes do we experience daily and even every second in our waking state?

  • What functions do these processes (thoughts, emotions, memories) of our brain fulfill? What was their adaptive value in the course of our evolutionary history?

  • Why can these processes lead to problems for human well-being under today’s (social) environmental conditions?

  • What options do you see to mitigate these negative consequences? What can one do as an individual? What can/ should we do as a society? What can / should education do?

The neuroscientist and behavioral biologist Robert Sapolsky on the causes and functions of stress in animals. Possible discussion questions:

  • Why does Robert Sapolsky think that Baboons are a good model to understand the causes of stress in humans?

The full documentary: https://youtu.be/eYG0ZuTv5rs

Modern schooling

The ancestors of humans have been learning from each other for many millions of year (after all, many animals engage in social learning – imitating behaviors from each other), and our ancestors also began teaching each other probably about two million years ago, when our tools started to become more complex.

Many researchers find that human children have a propensity to teach and learn, curious to find out how things and the world work through play and experimentation. Researchers also find that humans have certain psychological needs, such as the need for autonomy, competence, and social belonging. 

Schools as institutions are a very new invention in relation to our long evolutionary history of informal teaching and learning. It was only in the last 100 – 200 years that formal public schools spread across the whole world. Furthermore, the way that the vast majority of schools are organized and the way that teaching and learning happens in schools has not changed much in the last 200 years. Children are usually separated into classes in different age levels, there is usually a standard curriculum that says what all children in a grade level should learn, children mostly sit in rooms and have to listen to an adult teacher a lot of the time, children are usually assessed through tests and usually receive grades that tell them how much better or worse they did compared to their peers, and adults are the ones running the school and making decisions.

More and more educators and educational researchers find that the way schools are designed causes more and more problems, including for the mental health and wellbeing of students and teachers, and for learning the skills that are important in the 21st century. The way schools are designed and the way teaching and learning happens has the tendency to not help fulfill learners’ psychological needs for autonomy (e.g. making one’s own decisions about what one wants to learn and is curious about), competence (e.g. feeling that one can succeed), and social belonging (e.g. feeling that the school community is a place where one is respected and supported).

So is modern schooling mismatched for the human condition? Or is our world today so much different from our evolutionary history that we need schools to be the way they are? Or is our world today so much different from how it was 100 or 200 years ago that need to reinvent what schools should be like?


A School Fit for Humans?

A questionnaire or interview protocol to capture conceptions about the Self-Directed Education model of school design

Can we motivate and empower students and teachers to make teaching and learning more motivating and successful, to take care of their mental health, and to make school communities places where everyone feels a sense of belonging, even when faced with an education system where curriculum standards, age-differentiated classes, standardized tests, grading are a requirement?

Or do we have to change the structure and rules of the education system so that students and teachers can have more freedom in how they direct their teaching and learning, and in how they want to organize their school community?

What role can and should technologies, regulations, social norms, media play? What can we learn from the diversity of school models that exist in the world?

Resource consumption, materialism

For living organisms, having access to resources means being able to survive and reproduce. So organisms have evolved a range of behaviors that are about seeking and moving towards those kinds of resources – from bacterials chemotaxis, to growing towards light, to stashing nuts for the winter.

In some species, amassing resources is also a trait that attracts the opposite sex, and hence, means higher chances of reproduction. For example, the bowerbird is known for its peculiar courting behavior – where the male builds a structure and collects all kinds of shiny objects to attract females – the more objects and the brighter and shinier they are, the better. You can think of this evolved behavior of the bowerbird as the beahvioral equivalent of the peacock’s tail – both are traits – one behavioral, one morphological – that evolved because they functioned to attract females.

In our species, with the advent of symbolic thinking and material culture, material symbols started to play a strong role for marking social rank and social identity – in our social and symbolic species, resources started to not just mean survival and reproduction, but status.

Furthermore, since the beginning of agriculture and sedentary lifestyles, we were able to – or required to – collect and store more and more resources – which also usually marks a kind of rank or prestige in the community – the more resources you have, the more important you are, or the more other people look up to you and want to be like you.

However, through the cultural evolution of technologies and global division of labor, our species is now able to produce all kinds of stuff that we can often easily acquire without much cost to ourvelves. However, research shows that beyond satisfying our basic needs, amassing all this stuff is not necessarily leading to more happiness and life satisfaction. At the same time, producing all this stuff is having detrimental effects on our ecosystems.

So we might be in a kind of mismatch between our evolved drive to seek and stash resources and status symbols, and a cultural world that is filled with stuff whose production is in fact threatening the very survival of our species and that of many other species. We are using more and more resources, in our more or less blind drive to “keep up with the Joneses”.

So how can we adapt? Can we evolve a new kind of social status symbol or value that is decoupled from material objects and resource consumption?

  • Changing Social Norms Could Create a Green Future. Mark van Vugt, January 27 2022, This View of Life Magazine.“The biggest obstacle to sustainable behavioral change lies in human nature. Every human being has a deep-seated need for status, and many activities that cause global warming are fueled by our desire for status.”


Can we motivate and empower people to shape their consumption behavior in such a way that it has less negative effects on resource consumption and on ecosystems, even if they are faced with environmental conditions that make such consumption behavior difficult?

Or do we also have to change environmental conditions so that it is easier for people to shape their consumption behavior in such a way that it has less negative effects on resource consumption and ecosystems?

Can we motivate and empower people to make their lifestyle and self-esteem less dependent on material things or other consumption, even if they are confronted with a social environment in which the possession and consumption of these things (branded clothing and fast fashion, the latest technologies, travel, cars, etc.) as a measure of reputation and success?

Or do we also have to change the environmental conditions so that it is easier for people to make their livelihood and self-esteem less dependent on material things or other consumption?

What role can (and should) technologies, the social environment, commonly established regulations (e.g. regarding advertising, taxes?), social norms, media, and education play?

Disconnection between humans and nature

People in many societies, and especially in cities, are spending more and more time indoors and in “built” cultural environments, with concrete, traffic, noise. Most jobs are done inside, school mostly happens in classrooms and buildings, and technologies also allow or entice us to spend our free time indoors instead of outside.

While it is important for our well-being to have shelter and not be exposed to the elements, many studies found that lack of nature experience can have negative effects on human health and well-being, and conversely, that experience in nature can have positive impacts on human physical and psychological health.

How could we explain this effect on nature experience on humans? (see also Tinbergen’s questions)

  • Evolutionary function: One proposed evolutionary cause is what has also been called “Biophilia” – we humans evolved to find nature pleasant and to seek certain kinds of natural environments because for most of our evolutionary history we depended on lush and fertile natural enviornments for our survival and well-being – so we like to be in or watch green forests, rolling hills, flowing water, the ocean etc.

  • Proximate mechanism: The scenery and rhythms of nature make us feel calmness, awe, and we experience nature aesthetics as pleasing. For example, explore this “map of human emotions” from a study that explored the diversity of human emotional reactions to short video clips. Look for the cluster of videos rated for “calmness”, “aesthetic appreciation” and “awe” and watch some of the video clips. What do you notice?

  • The reverse, i.e. the negative effects of lack of nature experience have sometimes been called “nature deficit disorder”.

So is our living in cities and houses and spending more and more time indoors something that is actually bad for us? Did we not evolve for this kind of lifestyle? Or can we easily adapt? What is the right mix of us spending time in natural and cultural environments?

Other scientists propose that our disconnection with nature has bad outcomes for ecological sustainable development, for example because we do not notice directly the effects that our behavior has on our natural environment, or because we do not learn to appreciate nature. Some studies find that experience in nature, for example during childhood, can influence the degree to which we try to behave in an environmentally friendly way when we are adults.

Can we motivate and empower people to spend more time in nature, or to learn to appreciate experiences in nature, even if they are faced with cultural and social conditions that make regular experience in nature difficult?

Or do we also have to change cultural, social, environmental conditions so that it is easier for people to spend time in nature?

What role can (and should) technologies, the social environment, commonly established regulations (e.g. regarding city planning, the creation of schools and work places?), architecture, social norms, media, and education play?

Spread of misinformation

For the vast majority of our evolutionary history we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups and exchanged information with other people through direct contact and communication. In order to decide who to believe, we paid attention to things like whether the person is respected in the community, their past behavior and reputation, and signs in their behavior about whether the person is credible and well-meaning. This is especially the case when it is about information and claims that we can not verify ourselves, and where we need to trust the person making the claims. 

Information and communication on the internet often does not give us this kind of information that we have evolved to use when deciding what and who to believe. Furthermore, due to the complexity of our culture, the vast majority of ideas and claims are of the type that we can not verify and test ourselves. Most of us can not individually verify with our own senses that certain viruses and bacteria exist or cause a certain disease, that certain medications will make us healthier, that people have gone to the moon, or even that the earth is round. We still base our decisions on who to believe on trust in the source – is the source credible, prestigious, knowledgeable, and has our best interests in mind. But in today’s communication this trust can be more easily undermined and this undermining gone unpunished. 

 So it is more difficult for people to distinguish false information and misinformation from truth. The spread of misinformation in turn can undermine the basis of functioning of large societies.  


  • Can we motivate and empower people to be more critical of information on the internet and verify all sources, even if they are faced with cultural and social conditions where misinformation is spreading unchecked and becoming more and more difficult to distinguish (through things like deep fake and AI)?

  • Or do we also have to change conditions so that it is less likely that people are exposed to misinformation in the first place?

  • What role can (and should) technologies and tech companies, the social environment, commonly established regulations (e.g. regarding censoring of misinformation and fact checking?), social norms, media, and education play?

Conspiracy theories

Along with many other animals, we have evolved a cognitive bias called agent detection, which allows us to quickly notice and interpret signs in the environment that creatures with goals and behaviors are around. A rustling in the bushes, a strange sound, a shape with two dots? We quickly startle and interpret these signs as someone, some creature, a face, being there. Because for our ancestors and for many animals, noticing this quickly can mean life or death when the creature might be a predator or a rival, and can mean going hungry or not when the creature is prey.

Along with many other animals, we also have a cognitive ability called pattern recognition, which allows us to infer regularities and cause-and-effect relationships in the world from small amounts of information. This is very helpful for survival since we can better react to and prepare for the threats and opportunities posed by the environment. For example, when one event follows another, we are likely to infer that the two events are somehow linked, one causing the other, rather than thinking that it might just be coincidence, or that both might be caused by some other, hidden factor. 

The population of our species slowly began to grow throughout our evolutionary history. Competition and conflict between groups increased, and it seems that our species probably also evolved a kind of us-and-them mentality and ethnocentric tendencies, which make us care for the wellbeing of the groups we are a part of, and which can make us notice (or imagine) threats or danger coming from other groups trying to harm us. These psychological tendencies were probably beneficial for the survival of our ancestors.

Today, most of us live in large and complex societies in which many different kinds of groups exist whose intentions and behaviors are difficult to observe. Furthermore, societal problems today, such as climate change, a pandemic, social inequality, corruption, or the result of an election, are very complex and it is difficult for us to really grasp and understand the complex cause-and-effect relationships that lead to these outcomes. We try to explain them by using the little information which we have. Combined with our hyper-attention to other agents’ goals and to potential threats coming from “them”, this creates a lot of fuel for conspiracy theories – some person or small group of people must be behind all this and causing it intentionally. When people believe that certain groups are engaged in a conspiracy to harm them, this might in turn influence their behaviors, such as violence, or refusal to accept certain policies or measures that would actually help them (e.g. vaccines). 

  • Jan-Willem van Prooijen (2019). Suspicion makes us human. Conspiracy theories have always been with us, powered by an evolutionary drive to survive. How’s that working for us now? Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/how-conspiracy-theories-evolved-from-our-drive-for-survival

  • Can we motivate and empower people to be more aware of their tendencies to detect threat and intentions by certain groups of people, to think more critically about claims that involve simplistic explanations about phenomena?

  • Or do we also have to change conditions so that it is less likely that people are exposed to false conspiracies theories?

  • What role can (and should) technologies and tech companies, the social environment, commonly established regulations (e.g. regarding censoring of misinformation and fact checking?), social norms, media, and education play?

Nationalism, xenophobia, racism

The population of our species slowly began to grow throughout our evolutionary history. Competition and conflict between groups increased, and it seems that under these conditions our species evolved a kind of us-and-them mentality and ethnocentric tendencies. These allow us to automatically and relatively unconsciously recognize who belongs to “Us” by noticing similarities and differences in our behavior, appearance, language, beliefs, preferences, and symbolic markings. These tendencies also make us feel that our groups are somehow better than “them”, makes us care for the wellbeing of the groups we are a part of, and at the same time makes us suspicious or feel less warm towards others. These psychological tendencies were probably beneficial for the survival of our ancestors, because they motivated cooperative behavior within groups and aggression towards competing groups.

Think about how you like to hang out with people who share similar traits with you, e.g. your taste in music, your political views, your beliefs, or life style choices. Our ethnocentric tendencies need to be a problem, if they simply make us prefer to spend time and engage with certain kinds of people more than with others.

However, under certain conditions, especially when there is a perception that some outside groups are posing a “danger” or “threat”, this perception may encourage aggression towards other groups.  

In today’s globalized world, together with increasing migration due to war, economic inequalities, natural disasters or food shortage fueled by climate change, we are finding ourselves in increasingly diverse societies.  Furthermore, today’s problems such as climate change are of a global nature, and we need to find ways to cooperate with all humans across cultural differences. We never had to collaborate on this global level in our evolutionary history. Our ethnocentric tendencies might well stand in the way of making progress on these levels and .

At the same time, many people are confronted with uncertainties and worries about the future. Politicians and the media can easily exploit our ethnocentric tendencies by stirring fear or hate towards some group that is identified as the cause of all problems. 

  • Can we motivate and empower people to become more aware of their normal ethnocentric tendencies and to be less susceptible to messages that want to stir fear, hatred or aggression towards groups of people? Can we motivate and empower people to find ways to cooperate across cultural differences, or to identify things they have in common with other people, rather than just focusing on differences? 
  • Or do we also have to change the environmental conditions – such as safe environments, trust, and social equality – so that humans are not inclined to have hostile attitudes towards others? Do we also have to change the environmental conditions so that people are less exposed to messages that aim to stir fear and hate – for example, what is the role of freedom of speech vs. censuring of hateful speech? Do we have to change the environmental conditions so that people are more regularly interacting with people from different backgrounds?
  • What can and should technologies (such as social media platforms), the social environment, commonly-established regulations, social norms and institutions, the media, and education play?

Socioeconomic inequality

For most of our evolutionary history, we humans have been living in small groups, with no more than a few hundred people. Any life in groups brings with it the potential for conflict and the challenge of how to distribute resources or how to make decisions. We have evolved social behaviors that allow us to regulate social life in such small groups, including social emotions, social preferences, moral intuitions such as a sense of fairness and a sense of liberty and autonomy, and a so-called norm-psychology – a tendency to learn and imitate the behaviors of the people around us, considering these behaviors as “normal” and being angered if someone behaves in a way that doesn’t follow the group’s norms.

Today’s hunter gatherers give us some clues about the social organization that our species lived in throughout most of our history. Hunter-gatherers tend to live in egalitarian groups, meaning that there is no strong hierarchy and an equal distribution of resources. Attempts by individuals to dominate the group or hord resources are discouraged and punished by everyone else in the group.

However, with agriculture, the ability to store and accumulate valuable resources, division of labor, the first cities, our group sizes started to grow, from a few thousand to many thousands and finally millions of people. How can life in such groups be regulated? It seems that with the increase in group sizes, the leveling mechanisms that worked well in small hunter-gatherer groups did not work sufficiently anymore in such larger group, and with increasing group size came an increasing inequality in power and wealth.

Scientists are trying to better understand the factors that have lead to this departure from egalitarian hunter-gatherer origins and the spread of inequality throughout our history. One such factor seems to be the ability to store, accumulate, and defend valuable resources, which became possible and important with the beginning of a sedentary lifestyle and agriculture. Another factor seems to be the inheritance or transmission of these resources to children (instead of redistributing them equally to everyone in the next generation). Whether or not wealth is inherited or redistributed in the population, and to what extend, is governed by more or less formal social norms and institutions (such as property rights, tax regulations for different sources of wealth, existence or absence of social welfare programs such as funding equal access to education and health care for all citizens).

These factors together led to a transition to greater inequality in the neolithic period, and to an increase in inequality over time, through a feedback loop – the more wealth someone has, the more access to power and education they have, and the more wealth they can accumulate (and transmit to their offspring). Over time, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

However, we humans are still very aware of and care about equality. Some scientists found that living in conditions of high social inequality decreases people’s wellbeing.  

Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies.

Social scientist Richard Wilkinson presents his findings about the effects of economic inequality on social and psychological measures of well-being.

Transcript English with graphs

Discussion questions:

  • According to the researcher Richard Wilkinson, which indicators of social and psychological well-being are corrrelated with the degree of inequality in a country (and US state)?

  • What are some explanations for how economic inequality might be causing such effects on human well-being?

  • What can we do, as individuals and as a society, to increase equality within and between countries?

Can we empower people to become more aware of the role of social equality in human well-being and in the prosperity and stability of their societies? Can we motivate people to help create more equality in their societies, even if this might come with some personal (financial or otherwise) disadvantage to themselves?

What role can (and should) technologies, the social environment, commonly established regulations such as social welfare programs and taxes, social norms, media, and education play?


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