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Does COVID-19 Lead Women to Cheat?

The “subpersonal” approach to human psychology is popular but is it valid?

Is it really true that, as a recent column in a psychology magazine claims, women are more likely to cheat during the COVID-19 crisis? An evolutionary psychologist thinks so; let’s explore this a bit.

First, philosopher Subrena E. Smith (right) has recently pointed out that evolutionary psychology (EP) is a doubtful enterprise in science, maybe an “impossible” one.

EP’s basis is modern folklore: The claim that we inherited modules from the Stone Age that govern our behavior with respect to “predator avoidance, mate selection, and cheater detection” — which sold paperbacks in the 1980s — do not correlate with neuroscience findings about the human brain. We have not found any such modules. We have no way of knowing whether the neural correlates of our behavior are the same as those of humans who lived under very different circumstances 50,000 years ago. Neuroplasticity (the tendency of brains to change with types of use) raises doubts. Brains don’t fossilize. Smith calls this lack of clear correlation the “Matching Problem.”

No similar problem exists for understanding the behavior of, say, gorillas. We have no reason to believe that they behave differently today from the way they did in the human Stone Age. Humans, by contrast, have a detailed and varied history since then, which includes trips to the Moon. Something happened to us that did not happen to them.

Smith makes an important contribution to the debate by identifying the “subpersonal” approach of evolutionary psychology, an approach that deforms and misdirects discussions. The evolutionary psychologist melds what humans can obviously know and what animals can obviously know into a huge, confusing mess. Explicitly, EP seems to deny the assumption that abstract thinking makes any difference to human behavior. But of course it does and it must.

Consider, as noted earlier, issues around “fatherhood,” Perhaps the gorilla is driven by some (so far unidentified) inner force to spread his selfish genes. That might explain why gorillas continue to exist. Very well, but many factors play a role in why gorillas continue to exist, including the fact that they are now protected by humans from other humans.

There is far more evidence for human protection of gorillas than for the selfish gene. But we needn’t press the point. What’s not happening with gorillas is actually more significant: A gorilla may have a sense of territory and what’s “his” but he has no abstract idea of fatherhood. He probably does not know that baby gorillas come to exist explicitly as a result of adult gorillas’ actions. But he isn’t wondering about such things either. If he never wonders, he is none the worse for it.

More important, in terms of “fatherhood,” he does not know that a specific baby gorilla came to exist as a result of his own actions, nor would he necessarily conclude that any obligations to his offspring might follow. All this is so different from the typical human experience, played out over a vast variety of cultures around the world, that it is a wonder anyone entertains “evo psych” explanations of fatherhood at all.

Human awareness radically changes what we experience.

We encounter this problem in a number of areas in which evolutionary psychology proposes explanations for human behavior. Consider our title question, sexual infidelity (“cheating”). The recent column by Martin Graff (left) in a psychology magazine, offering an “evolutionary perspective” on female sexual infidelity during the COVID-19 crisis, tells us:

Genetic immunity from disease is obviously necessary for the wellbeing of a women’s offspring, yet because there are no real obvious visual indications of genetic immune functioning in men, beyond perhaps appearing to be in good health, it may be difficult for women to select men on this criterion. The only way in which women can attempt to increase the probability of strong immunity in their offspring in a time of infection in the environment, is to engage in a multi-male mating strategy, which would provide the genetic diversity afforded when their children are fathered by different men, and make it more likely that at least some offspring will possess the necessary genetic immunity to protect them. Therefore, the threat of disease in the environment may increase the likelihood of women seeking sexually diverse mating strategies driven by such bet-hedging behaviour.

Martin Graff, “Will the Coronavirus Threat Lead to Female Infidelity?” at Psychology Today

While Dr. Graff claims that some studies back his assertion, it sounds so off-base that one can only suspect that a poorly supported psychology underlies such thinking.

Women’s experience of motherhood is, obviously, different from men’s experience of fatherhood. For one thing, it is not remote. If you are a mother, you know you are one. The mother may be planning to kill, abandon, sell, or raise the child. But she more or less knows what she is expecting, even if she does not understand how it came about.

Because she is a human being, she is also aware of something else: Children believed to be the outcome of infidelity may have poorer survival prospects.

At the same time, there are many things she could know but maybe doesn’t, depending on her time and place. Maybe she does not know the germ theory of disease or immunity. Her culture may have some traditions of placating the forces of nature, some of which work better than others in checking disease — though, apart from science, a biology-based account of the events remains elusive.

In short, the things she knows and doesn’t know, have nothing to do with the evolutionary psychologist’s speculations about her innate drive to spread her selfish genes (a drive only speculated to exist). If she did engage in indiscriminate sexual behavior during a pandemic (itself a risky proposition for her), the cause might be more conventionally ascribed to underlying stress and anxiety in the face of an unfamiliar threat.

To understand why evolutionary psychology is taken seriously, it helps to realize that the “subpersonal” approach to human psychology — the assumption that humans are no more able to understand or affect their environment than, say, chimpanzees or gorillas are — is favored by naturalism in science (nature is all there is), even though it is in conflict with evidence.

Naturalist theories of human psychology generally hold that human consciousness is an illusion that our ancestors accidentally evolved in order to survive. On that view, there is no reason to think that consciousness impacts the way we behave. Recently, philosopher David Papineau expressed the widely held — though not always clearly articulated — view that the notoriously Hard Problem of consciousness would disappear if we just stopped making any distinction between the mind and the brain.

Evolutionary psychology might have become a vital part of the sort of project he espouses. The problem is, EP appears wedded to a view of the human brain that neuroscience does not support. Thus, proponents expend their energy dreaming up scenarios of how humans might behave if they didn’t really have human awareness and were guided instead by a so-far-undiscovered module in the brain which aims at producing healthy offspring.

But that’s not all. A bigger problem awaits. Neuroscience supports a different view: The mind is not identical with the brain. It’s an open question whether the mind evolved at all and therefore whether evolutionary psychology is any help in understanding it.

The problem is, as noted earlier, one cannot at one and the same time claim to represent science as applied to human psychology and refuse to be bound by its standards.

Further reading:

Philosopher flattens evolutionary psychology. There is no such thing as a fossil mind.


Philosopher: Consciousness is not a problem. Dualism is! Physicalist David Papineau says consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something”

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Does COVID-19 Lead Women to Cheat?