Our ancestors evolved to seek out thrills.
Addiction is a huge problem today. Folks with addictive personalities are constantly tempted by a billion dangerous things, many happily provided by capitalism. It seems like people with this tendency were just dealt a bad hand, but they may have inherited a trait advantageous to our ancestors, explains Judy Grisel, a neuroscientist at Bucknell University.
"The very commonness of addictive disorders suggests their tendency might not be entirely disadvantageous," Grisel wrote. "In contrast to rare diseases, which are often the result of spurious mistakes in gene transcription or singular insults, the prevalence of drug use disorders indicates they are selected for, rather than against, by evolutionary forces."
People with addictive personalities tend to seek out new experiences. They may view everyday stability as humdrum, which explains why many may go overboard to get their excitement fixes.That's not great when you can pick up opium from a pharmacy. But our ancient ancestors lived in a different world. Back in the day, when droughts made all the trees stop producing fruit in your area, you'd be better off migrating somewhere new. And if you have a taste for newness, you'll be more likely to do that.
Grisel focuses mostly on how our ancient ancestors could have benefited from this novelty-seeking behavior. But what about those of us living in modern times? In this age of relative abundance, aren't addictive personalities just problems?
"New and challenging opportunities our distant ancestors regularly encountered, like stalking dinner, dealing with unexpected weather events or giving birth alone in a forest, are hardly commonplace for the average North American," Grisel explains.
I'm not so sure. There are certainly downsides to addictive personalities; nobody wants to be hooked on opium. But seeking novelty can have its upside because, in some key ways, the world really isn't all that different now.
True, I haven't tried to spear a wild pig or give birth in a forest lately (though I doubt anybody gave birth alone in a forest for the thrill). But unexpected weather events aren't exactly a thing of the past, nor is a risky, changing environment.
Being satisfied where you are is all well and good if your environment is stable and abundant. But when the world changes, people need to seek new experiences — fast. People with wanderlust are more likely to migrate when droughts destroy local crops, for instance. People who like trying new things might be quicker to take on new careers when old industries fall.
And times, they are a-changin'. Climate change is altering environments around the world. Coal is out, apps are in. People who enjoy stability may be satisfied easier, but they won't necessarily adapt so easily to newness.