The Evolution of Risk Aversion: Settling for “Mr. Right Now” or “Mr. Right”?

Researchers from Michigan State University think that “Settling for ‘Mr. Right Now’ [is] now better than settling for ‘Mr. Right‘”, based on their recent research that was published in Nature. Truth is though, that headline is basically just a ploy to get you to read about their work (which apparently succeeded, because here we are).

In fact, these researchers didn’t even prove that “Mr. Right Now” is better . They were really going after something else, trying to understand risk-taking, when presented with the “equivalent mean payoff gamble” (which we can just call the EMPG). The what now? The EMPG is basically a test in which someone is given two options; the “safe” option gives a payout 100% of the time, the other “riskier” option only pays out 50% of the time, but at a higher reward. The thing is though, the experiment is designed so that either way the overall average payout is the exact same. Therefore, neither action should be preferred.  The weird thing is though, when faced with this decision humans routinely go for the safe option. But why?

The MSU researchers argue that this happens because the “risk aversion” (going for the safe option) trait developed from evolutionary adaptations to living in small populations. To test this, they ran a complicated computer simulation that mimics evolution using artificial agents (let’s call them “Sims”), that live in groups of various sizes. As part of the simulation, a Sim’s “evolutionary fitness” (i.e. the ability to survive and reproduce) is determined by a single life choice. What they found was that risk aversion was indeed selected for among Sims living in small populations. They then extrapolate this to say that perhaps risk aversion in modern humans evolved because humans have historically lived in small populations.

So where does Mr. Right come in? Well, they say that because their model holds really well for once-in-a-lifetime decisions, that perhaps a good example of risk aversion would be in mating or mate-selection. Personally, I think that’s quite a stretch. I mean let’s face it, the divorce rate in this country kind of shows that mate-selection isn’t quite a once-in-a-lifetime event. Also, people don’t live in small populations anymore, especially now that the internet is so commonplace. Therefore I don’t think their research proves at all that you should settle for “Mr. Right Now”. I say stick to Mr. Right!

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