Evolutionary Personality Theory: Definition & Origins

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  • 0:03 Darwin & Personality Evolution
  • 2:08 Evolutionary Psychology
  • 3:06 The Psychology of Personality
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
What explains human personality? In this lesson we'll discuss the evolutionary perspective of human personality, which suggests that personality is innate and biological, evolving over time in ways similar to things like opposable thumbs.

Darwin & Personality Evolution

What explains human personality? Why are some people shy and quiet, while others are more outgoing? When we think about personality, we're generally referring to our motives, thoughts, emotions, how we get along with others, how we react to different situations, and the like. We might think of some people as having a more pleasant personality than others. But is personality biological or something that we can change and cultivate over time? This is a question that evolutionary psychologists have spent a good deal of time trying to understand. But to really understand their research, we need to go a bit farther back in time.

If you've ever taken a biology class, chances are you've encountered the work of Charles Darwin, who is considered to be the father of the idea of human evolution. Darwin was interested in understanding the origins of the human species and wrote a now-famous work titled On the Origin of Species in 1859. He developed this perspective through two main contributions: natural selection and sexual selection.

First, natural selection is a theory that suggests that some creatures - whether birds, or bugs, or fish - have traits that make them better able to survive or adapt to the world. Because they survive more frequently than other species, they reproduce more frequently, too. The earth, Darwin reasoned, cannot handle unlimited population growth, so some specifies will naturally die off and other species, who are better adapted, will survive.

Next, Darwin came up with the idea of sexual selection, which suggests certain animals develop physical features that are more desirable to potential mates. This means that certain animals will ultimately reproduce more frequently, continuing the survival of this species. Here's the classic example: male peacocks have brightly colored tail feathers that attract potential female mates. This is an adaptive trait that increases the odds of reproducing and thus continuing to survive as a species.

So now that we have some background, what does this have to do with personality or psychology? Let's talk a bit more about that.

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a sub-discipline that tries to understand human behavior as a series of adaptive strategies, which are essentially behaviors that help a species survive. Basically, evolutionary psychologists are interested in the origins of human personality. They suggest that personality comes out of Darwin's concepts of natural and sexual selection. So personality, like other traits, is based in biology. Personality traits can be more or less favorable or adaptive. And this evolves over the long course of human evolution, in a way that's similar to something like opposable thumbs.

According to this perspective, personality is partially biological and innate. It is also inherited. For example, studies have examined aggression and found that, in some societies, this is an inherited trait. Some studies found that individuals who were more aggressive had higher levels of certain neurotransmitters available, pointing to the biological aspects of personality.

The Psychology of Personality

Evolutionary psychologists who study personality have come up with a few important concepts to explain how, exactly, personality evolves. Evolutionary psychologists who study human personality are interested in the origins of it, just like Darwin was interested in the origins of the human species. So this means that we look back to see where things started as opposed to blindly accepting that, for example, we have certain drives or motives.

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