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How Survival Instincts Could Help You In Class

How good are your survival instincts?

It has been seven scores and sixteen years (or 156 years for people uninterested in the Lincoln reference) since Darwin first outlined “survival of the fittest” in his theory of natural selection and evolution. Even then, the term was taken to apply mostly to animals – and our evolutionary ancestors perhaps, but much less to human beings. Do we care about survival? Definitely; but certainly in a different way than a snake or a hawk might care about survival. Are we selected for? Perhaps, but certainly not in the way peppered moths are selected for in the industrial parts of England. The thing that makes us stand apart from the rest of nature is that other species, for the most part, must adapt to their environments, whereas human beings have made an atrocious name for ourselves for adapting our environments to us.

Thus, nowadays, survival of the fittest, when applied to humans, often takes on a much more socially constructed meaning than the theory it originated from. When an employer chooses a more versatile worker in hopes of getting more work done with fewer employees, we shrug our shoulders at the poor rejectees and say “survival of the fittest”. When someone who is drunk and decides to try and climb a vending machine falls and injures his leg, we laugh and say “survival of the fittest”. The term has come to embody the ideal of being social apt, versatile, and smart enough not to make self-endangering decisions. In any case, for the inhabitants of first world countries who get to sit in class and learn about Darwin, actually having to survive in the wild (as the term was originally about) is no more than a bizarre gag evoked by the flight attendant before a flight across Australia. After all, where is the relevance of “wilderness survival” instincts in a world of supermarkets and movie theaters?


But if the theory of evolution holds true, shouldn’t we still have some inkling of instinct for survival in the wilderness that so many generations of our ancestors had to deal with? In fact, we do. Cognitive psychologists looking at a phenomenon called survival processing have found that even in today’s population, people remember things better when they are related to survivability in a primitive landscape such as a prairie or savannah. And no, these studies were not done to help children survive in the grasslands. They were, in fact studies looking at memory and mnemonics, tailored towards more modern applications, such as helping students remember materials taught in class. But their findings bring to light some interesting ideas about how we may still be unconsciously processing the world around us by the principles of survival of the fittest.

James S. Nairne and colleagues have conducted  a series of studies since 2007 on how well people remember words when processed with relevance to certain concepts or scenarios. The studies found that, surprisingly, people seemed to remember words better when they were processed with relevance to survival in foreign grassland, than when they were processed for pleasantness, desirability, or even relevance to a more modernly relatable scenario like going on vacation (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008).

A more recent study confirmed that young adults were about 25% better at recalling words representing four-footed animals, fruits, vegetables, and types of human dwellings when they were processed by their contribution to survival in a foreign wild grassland, than when they were processed  for utility while moving to a new and unfamiliar country (Stillman, Coane, Profaci, Howard, & Howard, 2013). Though both scenarios asked participants to engage in a similar level of deep processing, and with a comparable level of urgency and uneasiness, surprisingly, the less modernly relevant scenario elicited the stronger response. Taken in combination with other studies on the phenomenon of survival processing (such as the studies by Nairne which can be found here), even if you grew up eating packaged beef and have never ever seen open wild grassland, you would find things considerably more memorable and important when you evaluate them by how they would keep you alive when stranded in grassland, than if you thought about them in any other way. Why is this so? Perhaps, it is a lingering consequence of our survival of the fittest instincts. Nairne et al. suggest that this “survival processing” is evidence that our minds are tuned to such matters that would ensure our ability to reproduce, and that since for the greater part of our evolutionary history, survival in grassland was very pertinent to our potential for reproduction, its relevance is still ingrained in our genetic minds.

Further explanation for why survival processing would leave a strong imprint comes from  studies on threat perception, a module-like system that alerts you of danger to your physical well being (or any part of Maslow’s hierarchy even). It turns out that making decisions on how best to stay alive isn’t just a ubiquitously necessary cognitive capacity, but also a very engaging form of information processing that draws on many past experiences and connects multiple ideas together. Such deep high level processing helps words that you survival process “stick” in your long term memory. This process of making highly relevant information more readily accessible, besides being a useful survival tactic, is also an essential part of human learning and development.

Yet by the same virtue of adaptively, surely our minds have grown attuned to survivability in an urban setting. As of yet, this does not seem to be the case, but there may be evidence that the mind forsakes the outdated innate grassland survival processing for learned societal survival processing across our lifespan. Stillman et al. found that while survival processing has a robust effect in younger people, adults over 60 do not show a (grassland) survival relevance effect. In fact, older adults have slightly better retention for words when associated with moving to a new home. The authors hypothesize that the lack of survival effects in senior adults could be due to the fact that they are beyond reproductive age and thus do not hold survival considerations at as high of a priority. In addition, years of adapting to a human society while neglecting wilderness survival could have dampened the relevance of grassland survival. Perhaps human beings are born with an innate acuity for physical survival awareness, but in our present day where social, mental, and existential survivability is much more relevant than physical, the human psyche adapts by attuning to more realistic scenarios. Here is an example of the adaptability of memory working in the place of the adaptive evolution. As part of the the natural gift (or according to Schacter, sin) of transience, you eventually move away from your unconscious obsession with living in the wilderness and worry about better things like whether or not you have internet.

In a time when entertainment is digital, and recreation is in-doors; a time when many lament that children are no longer “attuned with nature”, it’s a little reassuring that we are all still being born with a bit of nature within us. Unfortunately for the most of us, this still doesn’t mean we’d stand a chance surviving in the wild. It simply means that for the next vocabulary test (provided you are under the age of 60), you should sit outside and wonder how “cacophonous cephalopods” could save you if you ever crash landed on a deserted island.

You can read more about how survival relevance could help your memory here and here. Read about why sexagenarians should look for a different study technique here.


Pandeirada, J. N. S., & Nairne , J. S. (2007). Adaptive memory: Is survival processing special?. Journal of Memory and Language, 59(3), 377-385. doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2008.06.001

Stillman, C. M., Coane, J. H., Profaci, C. P., Howard, J. H., & Howard, D. V. (2013). The effects of healthy aging on the mnemonic benefit of survival processing. Memory & Cognition, (42), 175–185. doi: 10.3758/s13421-013-0353-2

  1. November 28th, 2014 at 21:12 | #1

    There is a difference, I think, between the traditional deep processing that was first studied and the more complex elaborative processing. Rating a word for pleasantness gives you no more processing than what the item is and maybe some experiences you’ve had with it. A chair, for example, does need a lot of thought to rate for pleasantness. The probe of “How can this item help you survive in the grasslands?” makes you manipulate the object and get creative with it; you need to not only recognize the object but also think about its possible uses. I think that particular probe is a little outdated, I personally use a setting more applicable to the modern day and more familiar to me: “How would this item help you survive in a zombie apocalypse?”
    At first this concept seemed obvious, using this type of elaborative learning clearly would make items easier to remember than traditional deep or shallow processing methods; it didn’t have to be about evolution. It’s nice to think that we’ve retained some skills and instincts from our noble savage ancestors, but I don’t really buy it. Obviously many aspects of the human species are the same, but our social landscape is much more complex.
    And so I was baffled by the fact that “survival processing” resulted in better memory than another method that provided similar depth. “How would you use this item to have fun on vacation?” seems like it would make you manipulate the object and get creative with its uses in the same way, but apparently it’s still better to think of it in a survival context. It does, however, make sense. Using the item to protect from danger provides an urgency that the vacation setting doesn’t give. Using a chair to block the door and keep the zombies out is leagues more memorable than hiding under it to surprise my 2-year-old cousin. It is a kind of an instinct; survival is what’s most important to us. I don’t know how applicable reproduction and survival of the fittest are here, but living sounds pretty good to me.
    Even still, this kind of elaborative processing doesn’t have to be fantastically different from other types; it’s just the setting we can all be used to. We can all easily imagine a “primitive landscape” to be stranded in, and there aren’t many options for us to use our given item. You are forced to get creative when you’re given little to go on, and that is the most elaborative learning you can do. I mean, what are you going to do with a chair in the middle of the savannah? If you figure something out, it’ll be pretty memorable. What I’m saying is that there’s not a major difference between this and the vacation setting, it’s just easier to imagine a primitive setting. Maybe it is survival instinct of some kind that gives us this familiarity, but it’s special in the same way face recognition is special. The underlying system is the same for all settings, we just have more experience thinking about how to use something to avoid danger.

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