Evolution and free-rider anxiety


Last updated 11/30/2021 at Noon

You wish you could be more present in your relationships, to achieve deeper connections, but a nagging worry about what others think of you keeps getting in the way.

Evolutionary forces that shaped our ancestors’ brains, enabling them to survive a harsh environment, may be creating a barrier to greater intimacy.

Key to our ancestors’ survival was the amygdala, the home of the brain’s threat-detection system, alerting our ancestors to potential physical dangers and mobilizing their bodies to fight, flee, or when all else failed, freeze in place.

Our ancestors discovered that their chances of survival improved when they banded together in groups that included non-kinship relationships.

Evolutionary forces responded by enlarging the role of the amygdala so that it not only monitored for physical threats but also began to monitor for threats to group membership.

“From prehistory to the present, human survival has depended on productive labor, much of which was carried out by groups of people coordinating their actions to reach a common goal and then sharing the resulting benefits. This style of cooperation—often called collective action—is seen across human societies.”

— Andrew W. Delton.

The problem of the free rider

According to evolutionary psychologists, the willingness to cooperate with others to reach a common goal could be undermined by free riders — individuals who accepted the benefits of group membership while refusing to contribute their labor to advance the goals of the community.

A single free rider could lead to a contagion of free riders, as members of the community began to question the wisdom of working to benefit the group when they could focus on their own welfare.

Communities tried to discourage free riding by cutting free riders off from the benefits of group membership, hoping that their declining welfare, along with encouragement, would entice free-riders to start working with others.

In order to provide consequences for free riding, a community first had to identify the free riders amongst them. The most effective tool — communal gossip — was used to dissect an individual’s personality and determine whether they were someone who could be relied upon to work with others, or whether they were likely to pursue their own agenda — a free rider.

On an evolutionary basis, anxiety about being labeled a free rider and losing the benefits of group membership motivated our ancestors to defend their reputations by paying close attention to communal gossip.

Even in modern times, there is still reason for some individuals to worry about being identified as free riders. For instance, whether society views an unhoused person as someone who has fallen on hard times, but with assistance may become a contributing member of their community, or views them as a free rider, may determine the amount of assistance they receive.

There may be another group of individuals who feel identical pressure to manage their reputations even though they are at limited risk of being denied the benefits of group membership.

Due to a glitch in evolutionary “programming,” their free rider anxiety motivates them to manage their reputations to avoid rejection by those closest to them.

How many of these statements apply to you?

•?I anticipate attacks on my reputation by magnifying the significance of my mistakes.

•?I assume that everyone views my behavior with a highly critical eye.

•?I use guesswork about what others might think of me, to manage my reputation.

•?I make mistakes and then experience anxiety.

•?I closely monitor other people to see whether they are in a bad mood.

•?I treat negative moods as threats to my relationships.

•?I lower the emotional temperature of my relationships through attempts to placate others.

•?When relationships feel unstable, I become anxious.

There are, undoubtedly, people in your life who care about you and want nothing more than for you to be happy and successful.

Mistakes will not change the way these individuals think or feel about you; they will not view you as incompetent or unworthy of being in a relationship with them. The people who truly care about you do not share your critical view of yourself.

Sometimes people we are close to are in a bad mood. This does not mean they want to end your relationship. Think of it as simply a small bump in the road.

Give people the credit they deserve; don’t cast them into the role of your harshest critic!

Once you know that people really do have your back, you can relax around others, be more present, practice deep listening, and ultimately forge deeper connections.


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