Evolutionary Clinical Psych at HBES (The Lost Chapter)!

Well, HBES has been over for more than two months now, but it’s never too late for the fourth and final installment of “Evolutionary Clinical Psychology at HBES” series (part 1 begins here). In this piece, I’ll cover the posters and talks that I, sadly, did not get to attend (which is why it has taken me so long to get the information together to write this post).

One talk I was very interested in but didn’t get to see was Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook, Martie Haselton, et al.’s (UCLA) presentation on postpartum depression and breastfeeding. I presume the basis for this research was Gallup et al’.s theoretical article in Medical Hypotheses which suggested that bottle-feeding rather than breastfeeding might be an unconscious physiological cue that one’s baby has died. Even though a human mother would consciously know her baby was still there, Gallup et al. suggested that an ancient biological pathways would nevertheless send a contrary message to the emotional system which is essentially “I just gave birth and am producing milk, but no offspring is suckling; therefore, the baby must be dead.” Or, maybe more accurately, in the absence of the hormones released during breastfeeding, there might be a lack of a normal signal which says “I just gave birth and am now suckling, so the baby is alive.”

The testable prediction, of course, is that breastfeeding mothers would show lower levels of postpartum depression than bottle-feeders (or mothers who use wetnurses, a common historical and cross-cultural practice). Hahn-Holbrook et al. took it to the streets, comparing maternal depression at 1 year after birth in mothers who had and hadn’t engaged in early (3 month post-birth was the marker they used) breast-feeding. Not only did the breastfeeders have lower levels of depression than non-breastfeeders, but the effect was dose-dependent, with women who breastfed more less prone to 1 and 2 year depression than those who breastfed less. Fascinating.

Louis XIV and his wetnurse, retrieved from Wikipedia.

Another, somewhat counterintuitive prediction that might follow from this theory, by the way, is that mothers whose babies have died young may be able to alleviate some (although certainly not all) of their inevitable depression by utilizing breast-pumps to simulate suckling (which is, of course, contingent upon such mechanisms stimulating any of the hormone release which happens with a real baby) — or becoming a wetnurse for the babies of others; in fact, wetnurses likely sometimes were/are women who had recently lost their own babies.

Jacobs and Figueredo presented a  theoretical piece entitled “A Danger to Oneself and Others: The Behavioral Ecology of Risk-Taking.” My friend Gordon Bear was kind enough to tell me about this one, and shared with me what I had missed. Jacobs and Figueredo note that the phrase “danger to oneself and others” is a commonly used rule-of-thumb for legal purposes involving detention or institutionalization; however, the authors argue, being a danger to oneself and being a danger to others are two dissociable concepts–so why are they so commonly described together?

Very briefly, a “fast” life-history strategy in contemporary human society (what is popularly and similarly known as “fast-living” or “living dangerously”) can be seen as an adaptive response to an uncertain environment; risk-taking and related behaviors have better overall payoffs in these contexts than cautious strategies. Malamuth (1998) draws a distinction between mutualistic sexual strategies (marked by convergent interest between oneself and a partner; i.e., “your well-being is my well-being”) and antagonistic sexual strategies (featuring divergent interests; i.e., “your best interests are at my expense, and vice versa, so let’s follow my best interests.”). Figueredo and Jacobs extend this concept into the social realm, suggesting that mutualistic social styles are associated with slower life  history strategies, and antagonistic ones with faster LH strategies (and thus, more unpredictable backgrounds). Antagonistic social styles and fast life history strategies are predictive of a number of outcomes related to both harm to self and harm to others others (increased risk-taking, sexually coercive behavior, interpersonal aggression, etc.). This, the authors argue, is the reason the concepts of “harm to self” and “harm to others” are often conceptualized as if they are a unitary concept: because they have a common underlying predictive factor, which is life-history strategy (and more deeply, early environment).

Next, there were a couple of really cool posters that I didn’t get to check out; I contacted the authors and was able to get some info on them! Firstly, Laura Cowan and Christian Hart from Texas Woman’s University had a poster entitled “Is Counseling Psychology Integrating Evolutionary Perspectives?” The answer (spoiler alert) is “no.” Based on the initial observation that counseling psychology tends toward social and cultural explanations for behavior patterns (which is fine) while ignoring evolutionary/biological considerations (which is problematic), Cowan and Hart analyzed the top four journals in Counseling Psychology, the top four in Clinical Psychology, and the top two in general psychology (APA and APS) for terms relating to biological evolution, natural selection, and Darwin.

In the decade from 2001-2011, what percentage of the articles do you think referred to evolution in each of these journals? Keep in mind that this is thousands of papers. Now the answers: for the general psychology journals, it was 1.17%, not surprising. For clinical psychology, it was 0.12%…finally, for counseling psychology, the answer was a whopping 0.0%. To hammer the point home, the authors conducted a highly significant chi-square showing the difference between journal groups. It’s great that clinical psychology is latching onto these concepts in a small way, but counseling psychology, as a discipline, seems to be the last holdout. There are approaches to psychotherapy which utilize evolutionary perspectives (the best of which is covered in Exiles from Eden by Glantz and Pearce, now available in eBook format!), but the trouble is that with counseling psychology per se as its own distinct academic area with its own tradition, it will remain walled-off from potentially transformative evolutionary perspectives (and may very well be fully okay with this). [By the way, see this article by Jonathan Raskin, a counseling psychologist from the constructivist school, which utilizes Donald Campbell’s concept of evolutionary epistemology, although the perspectives within are radically different than what researchers from an evolutionary psychology background are familiar with.]

Finally, there was a poster by Molly Fox and Leslie Knapp of Cambridge which dealt with Alzheimer’s disease, a particular interest of mine. Human females remain alive for years after reproductive senescence (i.e., menopause), which is unique in the animal kingdomIt has been proposed that grandmothering is the evolutionary reason for this postmenopausal period, during which women can bolster their inclusive fitness by helping to raise their high-maintenance grandchildren. This is also the period of time during which cognitive impairment can set in. Fox and Knapp hypothesized that modern shifts in women’s reproductive life history may lead to novel hormonal changes that may exacerbate dementia. To explore this possibility, Fox has spent the last couple years conducting interviews of probands and their families to determine which life history traits may influence Alzheimer’s risk, both today and in our evolutionary past. I look forward to the publication of this data!

Okay, that’s all for HBES 2012! Hopefully next time there’s a conference, I’ll get all the news posted within a reasonable timeframe.

Daniel Glass

About Daniel Glass

Daniel Glass is a doctoral student at Suffolk University. He is interested in evolutionary approaches to clinical psychology. Evolved This Way explores this burgeoning field, which uses evolution to understand, classify, and treat mental disorders and other clinical phenomena.
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