The Motivated Ape: Lessons from a 5K in the Outerbanks of North Carolina

The human spirit is amazing. I write from a beach house in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where my brothers (Seth and Adam) and I – and our families – are doing our first annual all-family vacation. In modern times, kin become scattered (LA, New Jersey, Upstate NY …) – and we know that this is not the evolutionary norm. Under ancestral conditions, having close kin live thousands of miles away would have been fully unheard of. We benefit enormously from cooperation with kin – and that’s clearly a secret to the success of Homo Sapiens. In any case, we now do things like Facebook and we go on week-long family vacations to help keep us connected to those who are so evolutionarily crucial in our lives. So that’s what we’re doing. And it’s great!

This morning, there was a 5K that started near our house. As a runner, I wasn’t going to turn down this opportunity. Even if it cost $30 and I could have run up and down Rt. 12 for free as I’ve done every other morning. I just really liked the idea of doing a formal running event in such a special place as the NC Outerbanks – beach region sine qua non. So I brought my $30 and joined the fun.

Over 300 people participated – and it was a perfect course – with lots of cheering fans. I’ve run lots of 5Ks in my life, but this one was different. This was the reasonably well-to-do family crowd (as that’s who you find on the Outerbanks in August). Not the rich and famous, but, generally speaking, the folks on vacation here are successful (you sort of have to be with the prices!) – and it’s pretty much all families. It’s a unique crowd.

What struck me was how these people pushed themselves and their families. Not at all in a bad way – but in a very positive way. There were lots of kids of ages from like five and older – with tons of encouragement from family members and folks in the crowd. It was really great to see (and note that my daughter Megan was fully planning to do it, but we couldn’t find her sneakers! And I’m sure my son Andrew will be doing this kind of thing soon enough! And I think Kathy’s in for next year too!).

I guess what struck me as blog-worthy was the fact that these people didn’t need to be doing this! It was early (8am), it was hot (NC in August), it was physically uncomfortable (running for 3.1 miles). And look at these people – doctors, lawyers, professors, principals, teachers, Wall Street types, etc. They don’t need to do any of this! These people are all set. Why not stay home and be lazy? Seriously.

This all gets to my main point – which pertains to the inspirational nature of the human motivational system. Human beings are clearly motivated to succeed beyond absolute standards (see Hill & Buss, 2006). We’re a “positional” ape – motivated not by how well we do in an absolute sense, but largely by how well we do relative to others. If you get an A on the exam with a 94 and your roommate gets an A with a 99, you might care. In fact, you probably would, and that’s perfectly natural.

Clearly, as Hill and Buss (2006) show, this phenomenon has a dark side – and we call that envy. But it also has a bright side. A VERY bright side – and I’d like to see more work to help us understand the very-bright side of the positional bias. We strive – and we strive even if there seems to be no objective reason to do so. This partly has to do with our need to display (that ultimately relate to things like courtship and other presentational phenomena – see Geher & Miller, 2008), but it also has to do with our striving to “be the best.” As long as this striving is tempered by checks on reality and is fostered in a positive manner (which is what I saw in the race this morning), I think this is actually a good thing.

And I think that research on the evolutionary psychology of positional bias should be complemented by the evolutionary psychology of “achieving personal bests” and “the benefits of knowing you tried your hardest.”

And the folks in today’s 5K clearly had this attitude. Do your best. Work hard. Succeed. Achieve. Finish. Perform. Make a difference. Support others. These were all themes that clearly emerged in this family-oriented event. Today’s 5K was special – and I think this is why.

All the folks that I could see seemed like people who could have stayed in bed. They could have let their bodies go. These people are the upper-middle class – no need to work that hard – why go to the gym? Why eat healthy foods? It’s so interesting to me to see that these people, who are exactly the folks who can afford to not work hard, are people who clearly have the mantra of “Hard Work” fully built into their family ethos.

Clearly there are lots of psychological phenomena at play here – it’s not just about trying to out-do others and it’s not only about courtship-display mechanisms. But the suite of psychological processes and biases that characterize our evolved psychology sheds important light on the nature of human success. Success doesn’t just breed success – it also breeds hard work and a lifestyle of intrinsic motivation.

When we look at the bright side of human evolutionary psychology and our motivational processes, we realize that we are fortunate to be the motivated ape. Hope to see you at the next 5K!

p.s. my time, in case you’re wondering, was just over 27 minutes – I’ll do better next time!


Geher, G., & Miller, G. F. (Eds., 2008). Mating Intelligence: Sex, Relationships, and the Mind’s Reproductive System. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hill, S.E. & Buss, D.M. (2006). Envy and Positional Bias in the Evolutionary Psychology of Management. Managerial and Decision Economics, 27, 131-143.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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One Response to The Motivated Ape: Lessons from a 5K in the Outerbanks of North Carolina

  1. Phyllis R. Freeman, Ph.D. says:

    Your 5K experience also fits so nicely into the evo literature on exercise and health. The ancestral environment of humans was active! As we heard from Robb Wolf when he spoke at SUNY New Paltz in Februrary this year, our normal ancestral genotype is lean, strong, and healthy. Without exercise we experience the failure of genes to express their products (proteins) for worse ! Wolf pointed us to evidence for this claim in the amazing paper by Booth, Chakravarthy, and Spangenburg paper, Exercise and gene expression: Physiological regulation of the human genome through physical activity. J of Physiology, 2004, 543 (2), 399-411. So keep on running, Dr Geher!

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