People - like all other animals - encounter a variety of "problems" in everyday life. Some of these problems are ubiquitous across species, like neutralizing infectious disease threats. Some of these problems are rather unique to humans, like forming and maintaining complex social networks. All of these problems have important implications for the manner in which people interact with each other and their environments on a daily basis. In my research, I apply an evolutionary perspective to try to better understand the manner in which natural selection has shaped human psychology to navigate these problems, and, ultimately, cooperate, punish, affiliate, and avoid. My specific research interests include:
The emotion disgust
Several researchers have suggested that disgust is a peculiar emotion, partially because it seems to be elicited by so many things that, at first glance, have little in common. Why, for example, would people feel disgust toward both expired milk and corrupt politicians? A large part of my research concerns this very question. Using an evolutionarily inspired framework, my colleagues and I have argued that the feeling people refer to as “disgust” actually encompasses three functionally specialized emotional programs – what we have termed “domains.” These domains include: 1) pathogen disgust, which functions to motivate proximal avoidance of pathogen cues; 2) sexual disgust, which functions to motivate avoidance of specifically sexual behaviors and partners that impose net fitness costs; and 3) moral disgust, which functions to neutralize some of the myriad social threats presented by poor social partners.
This theoretical perspective places disgust at the nexus of several critical aspects of human nature. A more thorough understanding of why people feel disgust, when they feel disgust, and what disgust does can inform topics ranging from mating and courtship to cooperation and punishment to prejudice and stigmatization.
Applying Evolutionary Perspectives
The evolutionary framework that has developed in psychology over the past 20 years can be used to generate and test novel hypotheses regarding topics such as intergroup conflict, financial risk taking, environmental conservation, and health. Much of my research is dedicated to informing contemporary societal problems using this framework. Examples include:
- What factors might lead people to be more or less likely to use condoms, or otherwise mitigate their exposure to sexually transmitted infections?
- What factors might lead people to engage in environmentally friendly versus environmentally destructive behaviors?
- What factors might lead people to take greater financial risks versus fewer financial risks?
- How does exposure to information about economic recession and military conflict impact basic processes involved in domains such as mate choice and risk taking, and how might this lead to socially problematic behavior?
Griskevicius, V., Ackerman, J. M., Cantu, S. M., Delton, A. W., Robertson, T. E., Simpson, J. A., Emery Thompson, M., & Tybur, J. M. (2013). Economic recessions, childhood environments, and the contingent expression of fast a slow life history strategies. Psychological Science, 24, 197-205.
Tybur, J. M., Lieberman, D., Kurzban, R., & DiScioli, P. (2013). Disgust: Evolved function and structure. Psychological Review, 120, 65-84.
Tybur, J. M., Bryan, A. D., & Caldwell Hooper, A. E. (2012). An evolutionary perspective on health psychology: New approaches and applications. Evolutionary Psychology, 10, 855-867.
Griskevicius, V. G., Tybur, J. M., Delton, A. W., & Robertson, T. E. (2011). The influence of mortality and socioeconomic status on preferences for risk and delayed rewards: A life history theory approach. Journal of Personality and SocialPsychology,100, 1015-1026.
Tybur, J. M., Bryan, A. D., Lieberman, D., Caldwell Hooper, A. E., & Merriman, L. A. (2011). Sex differences and sex similarities in disgust sensitivity. Personality andIndividual Differences, 51, 343-348.
Tybur, J. M., Bryan, A. D., Magnan, R. E., & Caldwell Hooper, A. E. (2011). Smells like safe sex: Olfactory pathogen primes increase intentions to use condoms. Psychological Science, 22, 478-480.
Tybur, J. M., & Gangestad, S. W. (2011). Mate preferences and infectious disease: Theoretical considerations and evidence in humans. Philosophical Transactions of theRoyal Society B,366, 3375-3388.
Tybur, J. M., Lieberman, D. L., & Griskevicius, V. G. (2009). Microbes, mating, and morality: Individual differences in three functional domains of disgust. Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology, 29, 103-122.