Be aware of evolutionary/ecological traps


Dead bird on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands. The bird mistook attractive coloring of plastics that float in the ocean as food. From:


Being captured by a digital device. From:

How come birds on Midway Island are dying?

How come your son keeps playing computer games even after he said he would stop?

How come you ate all the French fries and the dessert even though you promised yourself to reduce your calorie intake?

How come you procrastinated and did not get up from the couch to exercise?

How come you watched pornography?

The usual answer is absence of will, self-control or self-discipline. The person is automatically blamed for making poor life choices. If you had more self-worth than you would not let yourself get obese, addicted to computer games, or watch pornography. Blaming the victim is easy, however, there are other factors that underlie the person’s covert/unconscious choices. Many of these illness producing behaviors (e.g., overeating, playing the computer games, sitting and sitting) are responses to external cues that in prehistoric times promoted survival, reproduction and health. To respond rapidly and appropriately  to those cues offered a reproductive advantages while not reacting would reduce your survival. In many cases there are no upper limits to turn off our responses to these cues because the more the person responded to those cues the more was there a reproductive advantage. Now, however, our adaptive preferences have become maladaptive because the cues that trigger the same behaviors lead to lower fitness and illness (Schlaepfer et al, 2002; Robertson et al, 2013). The cues have become evolutionary/ecological traps!

Some of the recent evolutionary/ecological traps include:

Vigilance for survival. While playing a computer games, the person rapidly responds and continuously experiences immediate rewards (e.g., successful shooting the target, points, next game level). This process activates the same  survival mechanisms that hunter used for thousands of generations. A visual or auditory stimuli represents  sources of food or danger (a game animal to hunt for food, an attack by a predator or an enemy). The visual/auditory cue captures the person’s attention and if the person reacts to that cue he would probably survive. On the other hand, if he did not react, he may not survive and reproduce. In our modern world, similar stimuli now hijack the neurological pathways that in earlier times supported survival. Over activation of these pathways is a cofactor in the development of ADHD and other disorders (Peper, 2014). For a superb discussion of  how cellphones, computers, gaming and social medial are changing our brains, read Dr. Mari Swingle’s new book, i-Minds (Swingle, 2015)

Energy for survival: Eating carbohydrate/sugary and fat foods are necessary for survival as humans constantly searched for energy sources to support life. Breast milk and almost any fruit that is sweet contain calories and supports growth. If the food was bitter it was usually harmful. For most of our evolutionary past, we would eat as much as possible because food was scarce. There was no evolutionary advantage to limit food intake as the stored calories would supply enough calories to survive during periods of famine. In our modern world, our survival mechanisms have been hijacked by advertising and the oversupply of foods which  contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

Being a couch potato and not moving again is again survival mechanism. In a prehistoric world with limited food supply, the less movement (the fewer calories you burned), the longer you could survive. You would move when you needed to build shelter or search for food. Again in a world where shelter and food are often abundant, there is no intrinsic mechanism to initiate movement.

Sexual arousal for reproduction: Men are often captured by pornography. They can watch for hours and feel aroused. The whole porn industry is based upon hijacking our sexual drive for reproduction.

Our brain does not discriminate between actual visual and auditory stimuli, imagined or film/video images. Until the late 19th century everything we saw and heard was real. Only in the 20th century could we produce images and sounds that appeared real. These film, TV , and the ever present digital displays activate the same neurophysiological pathways as when the stimuli were actually real.  A scene on a digital screen triggers the same biological pathways and responses that for thousands of generations supported survival. If we did not respond we would not have survived.  If you have any doubt, watch a scary horror movie and check how you feel afterwards. You may feel more scared, your sleep may be disturbed, your heart rate increased, and you probably interpreted any noise around you as possible danger. Thus, cues in the environment may become evolutionary/ecological traps in the same way that birds on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands, mistook the attractive coloring of plastics as food. See: Should the birds be blamed because they have no self-control?

What can you do!

Recognize that modern industries for the sake of profits have hijacked our cues that had evolved to aid survival (Kemp, 2014).

Recognize that not reacting to product cues means inhibiting the intrinsic biological triggered survival responses. Yes, it is possible not react to the stimuli and demonstrate self-control; however, it is not only a problem of will. It is a problem that our cues have been hijacked and tricked for commercial profit.

Society may need to protect its own populations from commercial exploitation of evolutionary/ecological traps. A young child is automatically drawn to the visual stimuli on a smartphone and tablet which parents use to quiet the child during dinner. In this process they are activating the pre-wired biological pathways that captured attention for survival. By over activating these pathways, the brain is changing in response to this activation which increases the risk of developing ADHD, autism, and mood deregulation including anxiety, depression, and anger management, and other forms of addictive behavior (Swingle, 2015). In addition, school performance and memory retention are reduced when students take notes using their keyboard or read text from digital screens (OCallaghan, 2014). It will take the family and society to limit the availability of these cues until self-control has been developed. Similarly, the availability of cheap calories in large food portions, sugars in soft drinks and sugar and fats in snacks, need to be limited if the epidemic of obesity and diabetes is to be reversed.

It may be unreasonable to think that people can easily interrupt their biological responses to cues that have been created to increase profits. We need to take collective responsibility and limit the availability of commercially augmented evolutionary traps and cues in the same way we need to limit the plastic in the ocean so that the birds at Midway Island may be able survive. Without respecting our evolutionary past, our future may not be different from those Midway Island birds.


Kemp, C. (2014). Trapped!. New Scientist, 221(2960), 43-45

OCallaghan, T. (2014). Goodbye, paper: What we miss when we read on screen. New Scientist.224 (2993). 41-43.

Peper, E. (2014). Support Healthy Brain Development: Implications for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Psychophysiology Today, 9(1), 4‐15.

Robertson, B. A., Rehage, J. S., & Sih, A. (2013). Ecological novelty and the emergence of evolutionary traps. Trends in ecology & evolution, 28(9), 552-560.

Swingle, M.K. (2015). i-Minds. Portland, OR: ISBN-13 978-1-62901-213-1

Schlaepfer, M. A., Runge, M. C., & Sherman, P. W. (2002). Ecological and evolutionary traps. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 17(10), 474-480.

2 Comments on “Be aware of evolutionary/ecological traps”

  1. anon says:

    I have pretty much quit video games after 2 years of game play. I spent over 500 dollars on one online game. My eye sight has deteriorated and it is permanent. I once missed an online final quiz because I was too busy focused on game and not school. I often forgot to eat or use the restroom. I never thought about industries exploiting evolutionary instincts. I’m going to think about that next time I go to the store.

  2. erikpeper says:

    The challenge is to spend more time with friends doing actual activities and limit your game playing. See my blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s