Evolutionary psychology (EP) is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, i.e., as the functional products of natural selection. In short, evolutionary psychology is focused on how evolution has shaped the mind and behavior. EP proposes that the human brain comprises many functional mechanisms, called psychological adaptations or evolved cognitive mechanisms designed by the process of natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists hold that behaviors or traits that occur universally in all cultures are good candidates for evolutionary adaptations, including the abilities to infer others’ emotions, discern kin from non-kin, identify and prefer healthier mates, and cooperate with others.
Evolutionary psychologists study the evolutionary development of the mind and its attendant psychological characteristics. Organized around the concept of natural selection, evolutionary psychologists examine how brain design and function are “selected” in response to organisms’ survival and reproductive needs. These specialists come from a variety of majors including: psychology, biology and anthropology, as the field encompasses aspects of each of these disciplines. Because evolutionary psychologists engage in research-not clinical practice-candidates for graduate programs often must demonstrate particular interest in the field. The most competitive candidates possess prior research experience and relevant undergraduate study. Students interested in this profession will need a master’s degree, which typically takes one to two years to complete before advancing to a doctorate.
For those preferring the campus route, one example is the University of California, Santa Barbara, (UCSB) that offers a graduate degree through their Psychological and Brain Sciences department. The graduate program in Developmental and Evolutionary Psychology consists of students working and studying the developmental and evolutionary origins of human thought and behavior. Research is carried out on a wide variety of specific topics within this field, including social and cognitive development; the social functions of facial expression and vocal intonation; conflict, coalitions, and communication in social interaction; human mating psychology; and family violence and aggressive threat.
(UCSB does not offer a terminal M.A. program. Admission is to the Ph.D. program only. Master’s degrees may be awarded in the case of students who leave the Ph.D. program, or for continuing students who have successfully completed the requirements of the first two years of the Ph.D. program, completed an acceptable master’s thesis, and request the M.A. degree.)
Evolutionary psychology, as field of study, is treated differently by the various colleges and universities offering relevant degree programs. Some schools offer specific degrees in evolutionary psychology, while others treat evolutionary psychology as way of approaching the study and application of psychology, and only confer degrees in areas such as development, social or cognitive psychology. Most careers in evolutionary psychology are research oriented, although more and more evolutionary psychologists can be found working in more traditional psychology roles. For example, they are applying their unique approach to psychology in the treatment of mental health disorders, such as depression.
Many students enter the graduate level with degrees in anthropology, biology and psychology. For those preferring the campus route, the University of Arizona offers a master’s program that has been taught since the 1930’s. Throughout these years, the Department of Psychology at this institution has continued to grow and increase its reputation as a center for excellent undergraduate and graduate education, and increasingly, for cutting-edge psychological research.
There are many master’s degree psychology programs offered online. Many students pursuing a graduate degree in Evolutionary Psychology have come from diverse degree programs with either a bachelor’s degree, and some earn a master’s while progressing to the doctorate. At the University of Texas, Austin, the time required to complete the PhD. program is, perhaps, one semester less for students who enter with a master’s degree from another institution.