Between June 2nd and June 5th, the St. Mary’s University campus in Halifax, Nova Scotia saw one of its conference rooms invaded by a group of evolutionary theory fanatics. As the tenth conference of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society took place, old friendships were revisited and new friendships were made. Referred to as “the best little evolutionary society in the world” by former president Daniel Kruger, NEEPS began as a regional sister organization of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES). Started by my mentor Glenn Geher, NEEPS grew past its intended geographic boundaries and now includes scholars from all across the country (such as Georgia and Michigan) and even the world, with this year’s meeting consisting of visitors flying all the way from England, Chile, Brazil, Russia, Japan and South Africa.
But how did a little regional conference become the phenomenon it is today? Well, it wasn’t done by one person alone. The reason as to why NEEPS has grown so much is the same as to why our species has gone from foraging the African savannahs to sending men into space: cooperation that transcends kin. Humans are, after all, social animals, and as such we have mechanisms to choose social partners that will allow us to reap future benefits from cooperation. Furthermore, research suggests that cooperation is not limited to blood relatives (Trivers, 1971). Because we are born into a particular kin group with its own preexisting alliances and political structures, our personal history greatly constrains our choices for social interactions, but because social life, particularly in today’s technological world, is complex, opportunities arise for us to restructure any affiliations and thus choose our own social partners (Kurzban & Neuberg, 2005). More importantly, our decisions to do so are not random but are rather contingent on the likelihood that the individuals selected can provide benefits such as skills, access to resources, and social networks.
Because we tend to form groups with distantly related others, we should have evolved psychological mechanisms that allow us to carefully select members that possess traits that make them good partners. By asking students to contemplate different groups (e.g. basketball teams, fraternities, work project teams, etc.) and asking them to rate the importance of members of the group possessing certain traits, Cottrell, Neuberg, and Li (2005) found that trustworthiness and cooperativeness were rated as highly important, regardless of the nature of the group. Additionally, research has shown that the probability of future interactions increases the success of reciprocal strategies and the chances of ongoing cooperation (Axelrod, 1984).
So how does all this map into NEEPS? Well, for starters, as mentioned earlier, NEEPS was not built overnight by a single person. Glenn joined forces with trustworthy and cooperative individuals such as Maryanne Fisher, Daniel Kruger, T. Joel Wade, Killian Garvey, Daniel Glass, and many more (the list is endless). Assembling a conference is no easy task, and as part of the program committee, I can say first hand that simply creating the program required great amounts of coordination. Had Glenn not found individuals willing to cooperate, founding NEEPS would have probably been a lot harder. Additionally, NEEPS board members have constant interactions throughout the year, and thus this increases cooperation. Even non board members meet at least once a year during the conference. These meetings provide great benefits; a friend of mine discussed factor analysis techniques with another member who knew more on the topic (the benefit acquired being skill) and I was able to discuss my thesis and discuss possible collaborations with other members (the benefit being increased social networks). Such collaboration is essential in academia, and everyone can benefit from exchanging knowledge.
A second factor that makes NEEPS a success is its broad interdisciplinarity. Evolutionary psychology borrows knowledge from more areas than traditional psychology. In fact, a study analyzing 1000 journal articles across ten leading peer-reviewed psychology journals found that journals that were more evolutionary-based had more first-authors from disciplines outside of psychology (Garcia, Geher, Crosier, Saad, Gambacorta, Johnsen & Pranckitas, 2011). For instance, Evolution and Behavior contained first-authors whose disciplines included medicine, anthropology, economics, epidemiology, public policy, biology, sociology, musicology, and law. Such interdisciplinarity was observed at NEEPS, with talks and posters addressing female roles in romantic novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sex in the City, consumer seating preference at restaurants, use of 311 systems to maintain the urban commons, predispositions to form non-arbitrary associations between heard sounds and visual input, and more. These four examples alone have great implications in areas such as literature, business, urban planning and psycholinguistics. Such is the power of the interdisciplinarity of evolutionary studies that it can unify different disciplines under its wings.
Overall, NEEPS is and will continue being a success due to the collaboration between members, who after ten years even refer to NEEPS as a small family and rightly so given the friendliness all members provide, and its ability to include disciplines that go beyond the scope of traditional psychology.
Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York, Basic Books.
Cottrell, C. A., Neuberg, S. L., & Li, N. (2005). What do people want in a group member? A sociofunctional analysis of valued and devalued characteristics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Garcia, J. R., Geher, G., Crosier, B., Saad, G., Gambacorta, D., Johnsen, L., & Pranckitas, E. (2011). The interdisciplinarity of evolutionary approaches to human behavior: a key to survival in the ivory archipelago. Futures, 43(8), 749-761.
Kurzban, R., Neuberg, S. (2005). Managing Ingroup and Outgroup Relationships. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (653-675). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.