If that headline makes you feel bad, an expert says it’s because we’re genetically wired to take offense.
Insults are painful because we have certain social needs. We seek to be among other people, and once among them, we seek to form relationships with them and to improve our position on the social hierarchy. They are also painful because we have a need to project our self-image and to have other people not only accept this image, but support it. If we didn’t have these needs, being insulted wouldn’t feel bad. Furthermore, although different people experience different amounts of pain on being insulted, almost everyone will experience some pain. Indeed, we would search long and hard to find a person who is never pained by insults—or who himself never feels the need to insult others.
These observations raise a question: why do we have the social needs we do? According to evolutionary psychologists, our social needs—and, more generally, our psychological propensities—are the result of nature rather than nurture. More precisely, they are a consequence of our evolutionary past. The views of evolutionary psychologists are of interest in this, a study of insults, for the simple reason that they allow us to gain a deeper understanding of why it is painful when others insult us and why we go out of our way to cause others pain by insulting them.
We humans find some things to be pleasant and other things to be unpleasant. We find it pleasant, for example, to eat sweet, fattening foods or to have sex, and we find it unpleasant to be thirsty, swallow bitter substances, or get burned. Notice that we don’t choose for these things to be pleasant or unpleasant. It is true that we can, if we are strong-willed, voluntarily do things that are unpleasant, such as put our finger in a candle flame. We can also refuse to do things that are pleasant: we might, for example, forgo opportunities to have sex. But this doesn’t alter the basic biological fact that getting burned is painful and having sex is pleasurable. Whether or not an activity is pleasant is determined, after all, by our wiring, and we do not have it in our power—not yet, at any rate—to alter this wiring.
Why are we wired to be able to experience pleasure and pain? Why aren’t we wired to be immune to pain while retaining our ability to experience pleasure? And given that we possess the ability to experience both pleasure and pain, why do we find a particular activity to be pleasant rather than painful? Why, for example, do we find it pleasant to have sex but unpleasant to get burned? Why not the other way around? I have given the long answer to these questions elsewhere. For our present purposes—namely, to explain why we have the social needs we do—the short answer will suffice.
We have the ability to experience pleasure and pain because our evolutionary ancestors who had this ability were more likely to survive and reproduce than those who didn’t. Creatures with this ability could, after all, be rewarded (with pleasurable feelings) for engaging in certain activities and punished (with unpleasant feelings) for engaging in others. More precisely, they could be rewarded for doing things (such as having sex) that would increase their chances of surviving and reproducing, and be punished for doing things (such as burning themselves) that would lessen their chances.
This makes it sound as if a designer was responsible for our wiring, but evolutionary psychologists would reject this notion. Evolution, they would remind us, has no designer and no goal. To the contrary, species evolve because some of their members, thanks to the genetic luck-of-the-draw, have a makeup that increases their chances of surviving and reproducing. As a result, they (probably) have more descendants than genetically less fortunate members of their species. And because they spread their genes more effectively, they have a disproportionate influence on the genetic makeup of future members of their species.
Evolutionary psychologists would go on to remind us that if our evolutionary ancestors had found themselves in a different environment, we would be wired differently and as a result would find different things to be pleasant and unpleasant. Suppose that getting burned, rather than being detrimental to our evolutionary ancestors, had somehow increased their chances of surviving and reproducing. Under these circumstances, those individuals who were wired so that it felt good to get burned would have been more effective at spreading their genes than those who were wired so that it felt bad. And as a result we, their descendants, would also be wired so that it felt good to get burned.
Evolutionary psychologists would also remind us that the evolutionary process is imperfect. For one thing, although the wiring we inherited from our ancestors might have allowed them to flourish on the savannahs of Africa, it isn’t optimal for the rather different environment in which we today find ourselves. Our ancestors who had a penchant for consuming sweet, fattening foods, for example, were less likely to starve than those who didn’t. The problem is that we who have inherited that penchant live in an environment in which sweet, fattening foods are abundant. In this environment, being wired so that it is pleasant to consume, say, ice cream, increases our chance of getting heart disease and other illnesses, and thereby arguably lessens our chance of surviving.