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Stress in the Primitive and Modern Worlds

It has been argued, for instance by Steven Pinker, that people are overly pessimistic because the primitive world in which they evolved contained risks, such as the threat of being attacked by a lion, to which people adapted by becoming very sensitive to threats. On this view, due to their evolutionary history, people over-react to risks and overestimate the extent of problems.

“For most of human evolutionary history, the fitness cost of underreaction was much greater than the fitness cost of overreaction. That is, the typical threat in the environment in which our brains evolved was probably greater than it is today, now that we have exerted technological mastery over so much of our local environment. The implication would be that our current psychology is tuned to a world that was more dangerous than the world that we’re in today and that therefore our sense of risk and fear and anxiety is not optimally tuned to the objective risks that we face today.”
- Pinker, If Everything Is Getting Better, Why Do We Remain So Pessimistic?


On the other hand, it has been suggested that in modern urbanized society there is a greater need for vigilance than there was in preindustrial communities:

Peter Sterling, a neurobiologist and a proponent of allostasis, has written that hypertension in these communities is a normal response to “chronic arousal” (or stress). In small preindustrial communities, he observes, people tend to know and trust one another. When this milieu is disrupted, as in migration or urbanization, there is often an increased need for vigilance. People are frequently estranged from their neighbors. Communities become diverse and more mistrustful. Physical and social isolation can result.
- Sandeep Jauhar, When Blood Pressure Is Political, NYT, Aug. 6, 2016


Are there more stress-inducing threats in the modern world than there were in primitive times? Or are modern people unreasonably stressed by things they take to be threatening only because evolution has made them overly sensitive and fearful of stimuli that do not in fact pose any significant threat?



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