Just finished Evolutionary Psychology (2004), a textbook on a new approach to psychology that has been on my "Now Reading" list (now banished far down the left sidebar) for about a year. Evolutionary psychology might revolutionize the field. It is a new subdiscipline that attempts to understand human psychology in all its varieties in an evolutionary context, considering the many facets of human thought and behavior in light of their adaptive contribution to human survival (i.e., reproduction). For those with some knowledge of and sympathy for evolution, the book makes psychology understandable, even reasonable. I don't have time to write a lot, but I'll throw out a couple of teasers, then end up with this interesting question: Is there a Mormon view of psychology?
Perception, for example, is modeled in evolutionary psychology as a set of information processing subroutines that key on certain environmental inputs that are particularly important for early man, such as facial recognition and cheater detection. For example, people who can't remember a phone number to save their life can recognize a face they saw ten years ago because (following this approach) distinguishing strangers from familiar faces was a critical skill to our pre-Adamic ancestors, whereas memorizing strings of numbers was not.
Consciousness, a focus of inquiry for philosophy as well as psychology, is speculated to have emerged as tree-swingers such as orangutans and chimpanzees had to deal with the practical problem of deciding whether the next branch in their swinging path would hold their weight or not, obviously a life or death determination in some cases and one that can't be done without a sense of one's self. This isn't idle speculation: mirror tests show that chimps, for example, recognize themselves in the mirror and use that new view to inspect places they ordinarily can't see, whereas gorillas (who don't tree swing) just don't get it. So (following this approach) humans have consciousness because our un-self-aware evolutionary ancestors who didn't have enough self-consciousness for the job fell to early deaths and didn't reproduce.
For a final example, consider anxiety disorders. Emotions (following this approach) are the affective components of motivation; they are mental shortcuts that make us want to do (or not do) actions that contribute (or endanger) survival or fitness. Anxiety, or discomfort/fear of certain situations, is adaptive. Fear of heights and fear of spiders, for example, are adaptive because one can be injured or die from a fall or a poisonous spider. Anxiety is a more generalized discomfort/fear. Evolutionary psychology offers two explanations for modern anxiety disorders. First, the modern environment is oversaturated with stressors and threats compared to the pleasant African savannah where we honed our mental toolkit. Second, anxiety may be a polygenic trait that will contribute to a distribution or range of realized anxiety sensitivity across a given population. One who happens to be overendowed with contributing anxiety genes is more likely to become overly sensitive and display anxiety disorders.
It strikes me that the evolutionary biology approach fits nicely with the philosophical view known as Pragmatism. William James argued, for example, that the question Does God exist? makes little sense, but the question Should I believe in God? made a lot of sense because it has practical consequences, often termed the "cash value" of a fact or belief. Not that pragmatists are indifferent to truth, but the bias is against metaphysical questions and in favor of those that have practical consequences.
So how do Mormons respond to evolutionary psychology or to any other theory of the human psyche and the wellsprings of human behavior? The Church has always taken a dim view of mental illness, but in the last couple of generations has at least come around to counseling bishops that not all problems are treatable by moral exhortation and prayer. Another positive sign: Despite the scriptural examples of demonic possession and evil spirits that plague mankind, I've never heard of a bishop diagnosing demon possession as the cause of an individual's problems (despite the generalized dangers of being overcome by "the spirit of apostasy" one often hears in talks). And there is a branch of LDS Social Services designed to handle inquiries from bishops and take referrals for treatment. This is all rather encouraging. But I don't know whether there is an LDS model of human psychology that such LDS practitioners are given by senior LDS leaders, apart from the general guideline that if a person has problems it is never the Church's fault. Hence my initial query: Is there an accepted or acceptable Mormon model of psychology?