Evolutionary Psychology at the Association for Psychological Science 2009 Convention

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) is the largest research oriented Psychology conference in North America. One often sees renowned researchers from earlier academic generations as well as those at the height of research productivity. I was in the conference hotel for less than five minutes when I saw Gordon Bower talking to someone in the hall, perhaps without even noticing that he was standing in front of a poster of himself.

APS is a fairly large conference, yet the organizers have strategized to keep it from becoming too unruly (in terms of seeing the presentations one is interested in). APS restricts oral presentations to symposiums and invited talks and has a bountiful number of poster presentations. In the ten poster sessions, there are likely over 1,000 individual poster presentations. This gives one the opportunity to forage across a large number of presentations and focus on those that are most appealing.

APS usually has specialized workshops before the Opening Ceremony, but this year there was a full day of regular sessions scheduled before the Opening Ceremony. Perhaps this is a sign of growth, though I will not be able to make travel plans so far in advance next year. Although I arrived in the afternoon, I had a smooth transition from the airport to the conference and was able to see the last session of “Evolutionary Economics: Synergistic Insights into Motivation, Satisfaction, and Consumer Behavior.” Kristina Durante showed that single women shifted purchasing towards revealing outfits when ovulating, but only when primed with attractive female competitors. The effect was not seen when attractive females were in a different region or when attractive men were shown. From the discussion, it sounded like the rest of the session was also quite interesting.

As has been the case in recent APS conferences, there were several invited talks of interest to evolutionists. Daniel Fessler discussed disgust as an emotional mechanism that shapes behavior to guard against pathogens, particularly concerning the body-environmental interface. Steve Cole gave a presentation on the “Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression,” describing how stressed people are more vulnerable to viral infections because they cannot turn on the genes to fight these infections. Rather than organizing his presidential symposium on time perspective, Walter Mischel chaired “The New Genetics and What It Means for Psychological Science,” featuring one of the newer faculty members in his department, Frances Champagne and her academic mentors. The speakers discussed the epigenetics of offspring licking and grooming in rats and foraging strategies in fruitflies. One of the speakers conveyed the message that genes influence the probability that behavioral differences will be expressed in a given environment, which should hopefully allay fears of genetic determinism. I have to wonder how many audience members got lost in the highly technical discussion of mechanics. For most psychologists, a functional approach may provide greater comprehension and appreciation.

Dario Maestripieri also presented on epigenetics, describing cross-fostering experiments with rhesus monkeys having either the short or long allele of the serotonin transporter mechanism. Rhesus mothers who carry the short allele are more likely to abuse their infants; cross-fostering experiments show that daughters follow their mother’s behavioral patterns. Given the considerable risks that were apparent for abused infants, the question of what possible benefits the short allele might give was left hanging. After the talk, I asked Dr. Maestripieri why the short allele is perpetuated in the gene pool. He replied that males with the short allele are more competitive and likely have higher reproductive success. I had to wonder why this was important consideration was not emphasized or even stated in the presentation. Are most psychologists so Pollyannaish that they would be horrified to learn such a fact?

There were also several evolutionary poster presentations, some given by folks who were later seen at HBES. I noted that there were several EP enthusiasts who were seen viewing multiple evolutionary posters. I suspect that APS will continue to be an attractive venue for evolutionary researchers. The conference combines presentations by the “best and brightest” across widely ranging areas of Psychology as well as considerable representation of the evolutionary perspective.

Daniel Kruger

About Daniel Kruger

Daniel Kruger is a Social Psychologist at the University of Michigan. He studies several areas from an evolutionary perspective, including altruism, cooperation, competition, economic and consumer behavior, health outcomes, mortality patterns, risk taking, and reproductive strategies. Many of his projects are united by life history theory. He has interests in basic research as well as practical applications for social and ecological sustainability.
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