David Buss’s Evolutionary Theory of Personality

Overview of Evolutionary Theory of Personality

Charles Darwin (1859) laid the foundation for modern theory of evolution, even though the theory itself has been around since the ancient Greeks. Darwin’s major contribution was not the theory of evolution but rather an explanation for how evolution works, namely through selection (natural and sexual) and chance. Chance occurs mostly through random genetic mutation and we won’t have much to say about chance. Instead, we focus on selection of three different kinds: artificial selection, natural selection, and sexual selection. The evolutionary process (natural and sexual selection and chance) results in three distinct outcomes: adaptations, by-products and noise.


  1. Biography of David Buss

David Buss was born April 14, 1953 in Indianapolis Indiana to Arnold H. Buss, Sr. and Edith Nolte. Arnold H. Buss Sr. earned his PhD in Psychology from Indiana University in the early 1950s and was a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers, and finally the University of Texas, where he is currently Professor Emeritus. Arnold Buss’ research focused on aggression, psychopathology, self-consciousness, and social anxiety.


III.   Principles of Evolutionary Psychology
Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer were the first thinkers to argue for an evolutionary perspective of psychological thought and behavior. The term evolutionary psychology can be defined as the scientific study of human thought and behavior from an evolutionary perspective and focuses on four big questions (Buss, 1999):

  1. Why is the human mind designed the way it is and how did it come to take its current form?
  2. How is the human mind designed, that is, what are its parts and current structure?
  3. What function do the parts of the mind have and what is it designed to do?
  4. How do the evolved mind and current environment interact to shape human behavior?


  1. Evolutionary Theory of Personality

         Most personality theories, as you have seen in Sections I to III, assume that personality is caused by environmental events alone and seldom mention a biological component. Evolutionary theory, however, assumes that the true origins of personality traits reach far back in ancestral times. The true origin of personality is evolution, meaning that it is caused by an interaction between an ever changing environment and a changing body and brain. Evolutionary theory is one of the few recent theories of personality that attempts once again to explain the grand view of human personality—its ultimate origins as well as its overall function and structure.


The field of evolutionary personality psychology itself has been divided by psychologists arguing for two solutions: personality differences were either “noise” or they were perhaps “by-products” of evolved adaptive strategies. More recently, however, other theorists have made the case for personality traits being something more than noise or byproducts, namely adaptations. David Buss was the first and most prominent theorist to take up the cause of developing an evolutionary theory of personality. The essence of Buss’s theory of personality revolves around adaptive problems and their solutions or mechanism, with a foundational understanding of the nature and nurture of personality.


  1. Common Misunderstanding in Evolutionary Theory

         When evolutionary theory first became popular in the 1980s it caused quite a bit of controversy. There was a lot of resistance both from inside and outside university settings against applying evolutionary ideas to human thought and behavior. Evolution is all about the body changing due to changes in the environment. In this sense it is inherently a “nature and nurture” interaction perspective. Evolution occurs from the interaction between adaptations and input from the environment that triggers the adaptations. More generally, the discovery of epigenetics is an even more powerful example of how genetic influence is not set in stone at the moment of conception and interacts with input from the environment. Epigenetics is change in gene function that does not involve changes in DNA.


  1. Related Research

The evolutionary model of personality cannot be tested directly in so far as we cannot conduct studies over hundreds of generations. And yet, just like in biology, there is much support for the evolutionary basis of human personality, which can be divided into at least three general topics: temperament, genetics, and animal personality. All three lines of evidence support the view that personality has a biological basis and that these biological systems have evolved.


VII. Critique of Evolutionary Theory of Personality

Evolutionary psychology in general and evolutionary personality psychology in particular have stimulated a lot of controversy but also a relatively large body of empirical research. The field has its own scientific society (Human Behavior and Evolutionary Society, HBES), and its own scientific journal Evolution and Human Behavior. The discipline also rests upon other scientific disciplines, such as evolutionary biology, ethology, behavioral genetics, and neuroscience, so there is a solid empirical foundation to the field.


VIII. Concept of Humanity

It is difficult to say on which side of the optimism-pessimism debate evolutionary theory would fall. It is mostly descriptive and, in that sense, tends to be somewhat neutral about describing human nature.

Evolutionary psychology has a complex view on the question of determinism versus free-will. A common assumption of evolutionary theory by critics is that it is harshly deterministic in that it explains behavior in terms of an evolved past and genetic influence. Indeed, evolutionary psychology is often criticized for condoning traditional sex-roles (e.g., women are attracted to high status men and men are attracted to physically attractive women). Buss and other evolutionary theorists make clear, however, that evolutionary psychology is a theory of how these traits began, not how they should be. On the question of causality versus teleology it is clear that evolutionary theory comes down heavily on the causality side of the equation. Evolutionary theory sides more with the unconscious influences on thought, behavior, and personality than on conscious ones. The concept of humanity that will be most surprising to many people will be evolutionary psychology’s stance on biological versus social influence. Clearly there is a strong emphasis on biological influences, from brain systems, neurochemicals, and genetics. Evolutionary theory is also balanced on the question of the uniqueness of the individual compared to general commonality among all people.



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