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Evolutionary Personality Theory

Tandi Carignan, Emily Cummins
  • Author
    Tandi Carignan

    Tandi Carignan is a 15 year veteran teaching science at the high school and advanced placement level and was named 2006 Teacher of the Year in her district. Her Masters Degree from Eastern Connecticut State University is in Secondary Science Education and a BS from the University of Connecticut in Environmental Marine Biology. She holds a Connecticut teacher certification with Endorsements in Biology.

  • Instructor
    Emily Cummins

    Emily Cummins received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and French Literature and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology. She has instructor experience at Northeastern University and New Mexico State University, teaching courses on Sociology, Anthropology, Social Research Methods, Social Inequality, and Statistics for Social Research.

Explore the evolutionary personality theory. Study the definition of evolutionary perspective and view examples of the evolutionary personality theory. Updated: 03/11/2022

Table of Contents


What is the Evolutionary Personality Theory?

Darwin is known as the Father of Evolution, but not everyone knows the tenets of Darwin's theory of natural selection. An avid pigeon collector and breeder Darwin were well aware of artificial selection and how selective breeding could produce traits that were deemed desirable. During Darwin's travels, he hypothesized that a force in nature could breed strategies for survival. In his hypothesis, the organisms that possessed the traits necessary for survival were the ones that survived. These surviving organisms mated together and passed their traits onto the next generation. In other words, Natural Selection is the theory that some species have traits that make them better able to adapt to their environment and continue to survive. These traits are considered fit - traits that aid in survival and reproduction and are selected for.

The theory of Sexual Selection is that some organisms are better equipped to survive because they have adapted traits that make them better able to attract a mate, and this differs slightly from the theory of natural selection because traits based on sexual selection may not be the fittest for their environment. However, attracting a mate ensures the genes are passed to the following generation, which may not be an intentional choice but, rather, a characteristic of natural selection as females that chose particular mates and had surviving offspring passed down the attraction to that trait.

Evolutionary Personality Theory, also developed by Darwin, builds on the two above theories to determine how personality traits are derived and then selected. The evolutionary psychology perspective on human personality is innate (offspring are born with it) and biological. Like other traits, personality has evolved in human evolution due to genetics - shaped and selected for by the environment. Individuals' behavioral traits can be considered more or less fit depending on the social environment. Traits that enable individuals to fit into a particular niche will be passed on.

Evolutionary Perspective Definition

Evolutionary perspective, sometimes referred to as evolutionary psychology, refers to the expression of phenotypic traits that provide survival and reproductive values within an environment. These include behaviors such as fears and prejudices that help individuals survive in their environment. For example, having an inherent fear of a dangerous organism can be considered "fit" for the environment since our ancestors who had a similar fear were those that survived to reproduce. Diversity in human personality allows individuals to fit into a particular social niche. This variation ensures that the species will survive in times of change. The human ability to react and respond to changing environments and social cues has allowed us to survive and outcompete other early human species. The adaptive strategies surrounding behavior and personality are similar to physical traits. Each is helpful in a particular niche; however, unlike physical traits, behaviors do not follow purely Mendelian inheritance. In addition to vertical transfer from parents to offspring, behaviors can also be acquired from non-kin adults and peers.

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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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Evolutionary Personality Theory Considerations

It's important to remember that no one trait, physical or behavioral, is solely better than another. Expressed traits are domain-specific, meaning that adaptive personality traits have evolved to be helpful in particular areas of human life. For instance, risk-taking behaviors can be rewarded, selected for, and seen as more fit within a more dangerous environment where risk-taking can lead to survival. The image below from 1000 BC shows acceptable risk-taking behaviors for the cultural niche in Egypt.

Pharaoh with Lion

The image shows a Pharaoh hunting a lion with a spear.

On the other hand, risk-taking behaviors could be detrimental in a different environment, leading to decreased survival and/or reproduction.

Evolutionary personality theory then is the idea that all of our human personality traits were derived over time to help us survive and reproduce. Even traits that lower survival rates can be passed down if they assist in more significant numbers of offspring. Over time, the behavioral traits that shape our personality evolved from our ancestors. Researchers can expect to find similar personality traits within the human population in many regions if there is a similar selection for that trait in the environment. Other species exhibit similar traits to their species in what is referred to as species-typical phenotypic traits.

Some components that are taken into consideration in the evolutionary personality theory are:

  • Personality variation - the variation in a population allows for natural selection to act on traits in an environment that provide differential survival and reproductive success. The diversity of personality allows each individual to fit into a social niche providing for the species' survival. Historically we have seen that organisms that occupy the same niche compete for resources, whereas variation in phenotypic behaviors or traits allows more organisms to survive in a similar environment.
  • Behavioral flexibility - refers to the ability to respond to a changing environment. In nature, the organisms that are best adapted are flexible, with those inflexible being less fit for the new environment and thus under negative selective pressures even as they attempt to navigate to environments that are better suited for them.
  • Personality disorders - Personality disorders then refer to the inability to adapt to the environment in which you find yourself. Organisms that behave in ways that are not in line with the standards of environmental culture are seen as dysfunctional and less fit for their environment. The organism's traits do not imply that their particular traits would not be appropriate anywhere. However, the lack of acceptable behavior for a particular environment would be seen as a disorder.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the focus of evolutionary theory?

The focus of the evolutionary theory is to determine the origin and evolution of behaviors. Evolutionary behaviors have been selected by natural selection as fit for their environment. Behaviors that help an organism survive and reproduce tend to be passed on and continue.

What are the personality components of evolutionary theory?

Some personality components of evolutionary theory are personality variation, behavioral flexibility, and personality disorders. Personality variation refers to the diversity of the behavior in the population, which leads to differential survival and reproduction. Behavioral flexibility is the ability to respond to a changing environment. Personality disorders refer to the inability to adapt to the environment you find yourself in, which is considered inappropriate and dysfunctional.

What is the evolutionary perspective?

Evolutionary perspective refers to the expression of phenotypic traits that provide survival and reproductive values within an environment. These include behaviors, such as fears and prejudices, help individuals survive in their environment. Similar to physical traits, beneficial behaviors and aid in survival are passed on to future generations.

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