Adaptations From Our Evolutionary Past Impact Sports Psychology Today

The effect of evolutionary psychology on sport

Jyotirmoy Gupta — Unsplash

The Theory of Natural Selection is able to unify all species, past and present.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection shook the world when it was first published in 1859.

The theory had huge implications and provided answers to the following previously unanswerable questions:

  • How do organisms change over time?
  • How do species originate?
  • How do key, adaptive functions aid survival?

The uproar and consternation it received were in response to a theory that, at its simplest, can be summarised as follows:

Individuals with adaptations best suited to their environment, are most likely to survive and pass on those features through inheritance.

Darwin recognised that survival embodied struggle. More individuals are produced in a species than can possibly survive, therefore there must be competition either within the species or between species.

Evolution applies to psychology

Charles Darwin also predicted a time when even our psychology would be recognised as the product of natural selection.

That time is now.

Evolutionary Psychology argues that if the body is ‘designed’ as a result of natural selection, then so is the mind, and is subject to the very same evolutionary pressures.

Our cognitive processes result from human evolution in response to specific selection processes in earlier environments — also known as the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. Psychological mechanisms have evolved as an adaptive function of our long, hereditary past, to solve problems relevant to that time.

Evolutionary psychology attempts to provide explanations for behaviour by looking at our ancestral past, and the impact of the present.

  • Proximate explanations:are in response to the interaction of our individual psychology with the present environment and how these mechanisms change during the course of a lifetime
  • Ultimate explanations: are in response to asking why such a universal, psychological mechanism has the design it does, and what is it’s evolutionary past
Wade Austin Ellis — Unsplash

More simply, it attempts to answer..

How does our psychology work now, in the present environment, and what is its impact on our behaviour?

Why are psychological mechanisms the way they are?

For example, the often when considering the much-hyped “runner’s high” leads the evolutionary psychologist to ask:

  1. How is the positive feeling achieved? Through what behaviour?(proximate)
  2. Did it evolve to encourage aerobic exercise for hunting? (ultimate)

Domain-specific psychological mechanisms

According to the evolutionary psychologist, the brain mostly consists of domain-specific mechanisms — adaptations that have evolved to meet a specific need in a particular environment. It is modular and designed to solve particular problems.

Psychological mechanisms cannot do everything; they are not infinitely malleable, and are not ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ (Cosmides and Tooby, 2002)

Language is an ideal example. Languages all vary, and children all learn how to speak the language they are brought up in. And yet, all languages share certain, key characteristics, can be understood, and serve an important function in group living and working. For example, all languages have nouns and verbs, and when spoken, exhibit both consonants and vowels.

To test whether an observable function, behaviour, or mechanism, is truly an adaptation we need to look for evidence of ‘design’.

Reading and writing, for example, are not an adaptation. Both behaviours have only been apparent in humans for the last few thousand years — a mere speck in an evolutionary history going back hundreds of thousands of years. Instead, such behaviours are said to be a by-product — in this case, as a result of our spoken language.

Evolutionary psychology in sport and exercise

Evolutionary psychology, by suggesting whya psychological mechanism may have the design it does (in response to ancestral survival pressures) may benefit sport and exercise psychology by offering an insight into our behaviour, especially at times of stress, in a competitive environment.

The theory is often described as a meta-theory. It identifies evolutionary theory as sitting above, and impacting on, all psychological theories beneath.

As such (according to Shea Balish and colleagues), evolutionary psychology benefits sport and exercise psychology by:

  • Offering ‘ultimate’ explanations for our behaviour
  • Suggesting novel hypotheses for, yet to be discovered, psychological mechanisms and new interpretations of existing evidence
  • Providing links between current, seemingly disparate disciplines within sport and exercise psychology
  • Providing links into other disciplines, previously ignored, including anthropology, and cognitive science

Specific areas of focus for the evolutionary psychologist


Evolutionary psychologists believe that we share multiple, universal, motivational mechanisms that exhibit specific processing capabilities. Though shared, they do not remain static, but rather are shaped within our lifetime.

The existing, rational view of explaining our behaviour, has limitations. For example, though we are all aware that exercise, and not eating too much, are good for us, we frequently ignore the logical implications of such knowledge. Indeed, research has suggested that reasoning often has limited impact on our behaviour, and much of cognition occurs outside of our consciousness.

Often we are unable to rationalise why we make a decision.

With current theories inability to consistently explain how our cognition and motivation shapes our behaviour, evolutionary theory attempts to step in.

Indeed, according to evolutionary psychology, it has been hypothesised that sport may serve as an opportunity to both display our attractive qualities to potential mates and also to gain social status. Male confrontation on a sports field may be more intense, and confrontational, due to ancestral pressures of sexual selection. Research has confirmed that competition between males may be linked to a motivation to impress would-be partners.

Though the arguments are likely justified, and provide a clear insight into universal behaviours, there is limited, obvious, practical application at an individual level, to benefit performance in sport.

Expertise and performance

Evidence has clearly identified the importance of both nature and nurture in sporting performance.

According to evolutionary psychology, humans have built-in, implicit psychological skills that enable survival due to their resilience to both fatigue and the passage of time.

Robert Collins — Unsplash

Research has strongly identified implicit, automatic learning and behaviour, as being more resilient under stress, as opposed to explicit learned behaviour involving deliberate, conscious thinking. The experienced basketball player, able to pass the ball without conscious thinking, will be able to react more quickly, under extreme stress than the novice requiring a larger, cognitive investment.

Whilst extremely fatigued after a long cycle, run, or swim, the individual still must be able to react quickly to a warning of danger. Implicit behaviour whether innate, or learned, provides that fast response.

The evolutionary-based theory provides a clear ultimate explanation why, for the sports person, internalised and automatic sporting behaviour has crucial performance benefits.


Research findings have suggested that the colour red is linked to levels of testosterone, anger, arousal, and dominance in many animals, including humans.

Subsequent studies have identified its impact on sporting performance, with the potential to benefit an individual, or team, over their opponents.

According to evolutionary psychologists, this may be due to seeing the opponent as more dominant, or that red may serve to distract. The very act of wearing the colour may increase testosterone levels and thereby impact both behaviour and performance.

Groups and teams

Most sports either involve competing as part of a team or amongst a larger group of competitors. Evolutionary psychology has the potential to improve our understanding and offer insights to strengthen the perception of group membership.

The need for co-operation is universal. The process of working together is key to the maintenance, and the performance, of groups across all cultures. One of the biggest risks to a group, and their performance, is ‘free riding’. This is where one or more members reduce effort knowing the momentum of the group will take the task forward. By being part of a group, they, in a very literal sense, increase their own fitness at the cost of the group’s. This is the perceived reason for many cross-cultural, initiation rites within a group or tribe.

In sport, especially competitive team sports, rites of passage, sometimes known as ‘hazing’ are therefore seen as an initiation, a sign of honesty, authenticity, and a pledge of allegiance. The behaviour, which at times is unwarranted and inappropriate, may therefore be a subconscious attempt to deter free-riders, or associated behaviour, from the team.


Evolutionary psychology draws on a number of disciplines, from cognitive science, sociology, through to anthropology, and may provide a useful insight into sporting behaviour and performance.

Matt Lee — Unsplash

Importantly, it attempts to understand multiple behavioural influences, including ecological validity — the impact the setting has on an activity, or behaviour — culture, and inheritance. Indeed, evolutionary psychology may assist our understanding of both sport and exercise through its recognition of culture as being both socially transmitted, or ‘evoked’ in response to inherited psychological adaptations.

As humans, we can therefore display a large variation in behaviour depending on context, and perhaps more importantly, our perception of it.

At times it is difficult to fully comprehend how, directly, evolutionary psychology may practically benefit the sports performer. However, undoubtedly, an approach that is interdisciplinary, and predicts both universal behaviour and individual variations in the context of sport will offer hitherto unrecognised insights.

Jeremy Suttonis a writer, speaker, researcher, and ultra-marathoner.

He was awarded his PhD in Human Endurance in 2018, and continues to explore the psychological, physiological, and philosophical factors of extreme endurance through research and running. He has a BSc in Cognitive Science and an MA in Philosophy. You can find more of his work at his website,

Useful references

See also, within Medium: limits of enduranceadaptationmental toughnessevolutionary enduranceaerobic fitness10,000 hoursimpact of exercise on cognitive impairmentmotivationsports geography

Balish, S. M., Eys, M. A., & Schulte-Hostedde, A. I. (2013). Evolutionary sport and exercise psychology: Integrating proximate and ultimate explanations. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,14(3), 413–422. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.12.006

Buss, D. M. (2009). The great struggles of life: Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary psychology. American Psychologist,64(2), 140–148. doi:10.1037/a0013207

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2002). Unraveling the enigma of human intelligence: evolutionary psychology and the multimodular mind. In R. J. Sternberg, & J. C. Kaufman. (Eds.), The evolution of intelligence (pp. 145–198). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.