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10 November 2022

Why do humans kiss? Procrastinate? Take risks?

In a new radio series, the palaeoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi reveals how science can help us rethink our behaviour.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It was inevitable, really, that when idly browsing radio shows to review I was drawn to the one offering absolution for my poor time management. It posed the question: is there a biological basis for procrastination? Its presenter, the stand-up comic and palaeoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi, has other questions too. Is kissing a natural impulse? What about the crushing chest pain of getting your heart broken – is that real, or in your head? And could the urge to do things that are clearly bad for us actually be helpful in some circumstances?

[See also: From Jeffrey Dahmer to Adnan Syed: can true crime as entertainment ever be ethical?]

Al-Shamahi’s new series is described as “an anthropologist’s guide to the modern world”. With the help of guest experts from the worlds of media and behavioural science, her aim is to find out if there’s an evolutionary reason behind some of the odder things we humans do. And more often than not, there is. Excessive risk-taking in adolescents, for example, might be a crucial developmental impulse that encourages juvenile mammals to leave their parents and learn to fend for themselves. Procrastinating, meanwhile, can be a way to deal with negative emotions – substituting a task that has a risk of failure (such as revising for exams – or writing this radio review) with one that has a surer chance of success (such as washing the dishes). 

[See also: My Name is Leon: a horribly preachy drama]

It’s natural to be a bit wary of evolutionary psychology and the easy answers it purports to offer to mind-bogglingly complex questions. But Al-Shamahi’s cheerful, self-deprecating style makes clear this show doesn’t take things too seriously. It sketches out in rather small bites how science could help us rethink human behaviour. As for whether kissing is biologically hardwired into us or a cultural phenomenon learned from Hollywood, you’ll have to listen to find out. But I’m far more interested in the revelation from an Oxford psychology researcher that the frequency of kissing is a better indication of relationship quality than the frequency of sex. How’s that for informing, educating, entertaining?

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink