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Evolutionary Psychology: We Lap It Up, Even When It's Plainly Wrong

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I write a blog for Psychology Today, but it doesn't hold a candle to the popularity of Satoshi Kanazawa's Psychology Today blog on evolutionary psychology, called "The Scientific Fundamentalist: A Look at the Hard Truths About Human Nature."

Recently, Dr. Kanazawa had a real hit (it was in the top five among posts for weeks), titled "Why Intelligent People Drink More Alcohol." The subtitle was, "More intelligent people are more likely to binge drink and get drunk."

Here's how it begins: "Drinking alcohol is evolutionarily novel, so the Hypothesis would predict that more intelligent people drink more alcohol than less intelligent people."

I love science, don't you? This seems so scientific-sounding, and it traces back to human prehistory and genes, mind you!

But it is totally, utterly wrong, at least as it applies to current human beings. And isn't that what good evolutionary psychology is supposed to be about?

How do we know that Dr. Kanazawa's assertion is wrong? The United States conducts an annual study called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Here are two tables from the 2009 results: drinking rates by level of education, and binge drinking rates by level of education.

Alcohol use in the last month, by level of education:
  • Less than high school: 35.2 percent
  • High school graduate: 50.5 percent
  • Some college: 60.8 percent
  • College graduate: 68.4 percent
Binge alcohol use in the last month, by level of education:
  • Less than high school: 24.1 percent
  • High school graduate: 26.4 percent
  • Some college: 27.6 percent
  • College graduate: 22.6 percent
As you can see, college graduates are the most likely to drink but the least likely to binge drink. Since only drinkers can binge, we can calculate the percentage of drinkers at each educational level who are binge drinkers:
  • Less than high school: 68.5 percent
  • High school graduate: 52.3 percent
  • Some college: 45.4 percent
  • College graduate: 33.0 percent

Remember, the subtitle of Dr. Kanazawa's post was, "More intelligent people are more likely to binge drink and get drunk," but the fact is that while better-educated are more likely to drink than less-educated people, they are the least likely to binge drink. It's as plain as the nose on your face, but readers of Psychology Today's blogs still lapped up Dr. Kanazawa's "science." And we're going to improve scientific literacy in America?

So, the real psychological science behind this actual behavior (as opposed to Dr. Kanazawa's fantasy) is that better-educated people are more in control of their lives and more likely to maintain their alcohol consumption within healthy limits.

I know, this isn't nearly as sexy as Dr. Kanazawa's hypothesis, but what can I do? It's only psychology, but it makes up for its deficient sexiness by being true.

Of course, apologists for Dr. Kanazawa's hypothesis might respond in one of the following three ways:

  • Which are you going to believe: the data or science? (Apologies due Groucho Marx.)
  • We don't care what people actually do; this is about the evolution of mankind!
  • It's disappointing when intelligent people don't know how to act in line with their genetic heritage.

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