Evolutionary Personality Theory

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Personality Theories, Eighth Edition - Engler

Evolutionary Personality Theory

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has exhibited a far-reaching influence throughout a wide range of disciplines. It has become a foundation of the natural sciences such as biology and anthropology, and its impact has certainly been felt in psychology as well. Specifically, Darwin’s theory of evolution has formed the basis for theories of a variety of personality and behavioral variables. If we accept Darwin’s assertion that the drive to survive and have one’s genes represented in the next generation is the primary motivation of life, numerous explanations of personality-related phenomena can be generated.

For example, Darwinian theory may help to explain altruism. Altruism is best understood as selflessness, or actions that have no apparent benefit for the person performing it but instead benefit other people. At first glance, such actions may seem contrary to evolutionary theory, since they may involve a significant degree of self-sacrifice, or at least placing one’s own interests behind those of others. However, a more thorough consideration of altruism suggests that one possible motivation for it is to help others whose genes overlap with those of the individual in question. In other words, if an altruistic act decreases one’s own likelihood of survival or reproduction but increases the likelihood of those outcomes for others who share his/her genes, then in the larger picture, genetic transmission to the next generation is increased. This theory has been labeled inclusive fitness, and is closely related to the concept of kinship theory. It can explain why individuals often make tremendous sacrifices for close family members (who are likely to share their genes), such as their siblings, parents, and children. It can also explain why sacrifices for the well-being of those who are not relatives are less likely to occur. Of course, a separate theory, known as reciprocal altruism, explains that altruism toward any individual—related or not—is more likely when the individual expects that altruism to be reciprocated at some point in the future. These views on altruism suggest that although altruistic acts may appear not to benefit the individual performing them, they may indeed have less obvious or immediate—but nonetheless beneficial—consequences.

Evolutionary theory also sheds light on gender-specific approaches to mate selection, which are summarized by parental investment theory. This theory suggests that the evolutionary process has selected in men a tendency to prefer women whose physical attributes indicate that they will be likely to bear and physically nurture children. Women, on the other hand, place a premium on men who are likely to provide necessary resources for them and their children for long periods of time. Thus, men and women seeking heterosexual relationships are seeking very different qualities in each other, but these differences are consistent with the evolutionary theory put forth by Darwin.

Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. When heterosexual men and women seek romantic relationships, do their efforts to be attractive to the opposite sex appear to reflect an awareness of the gender-specific mating strategies suggested by parental investment theory?

  2. According to the theory of inclusive fitness, how might racial or cultural differences influence altruistic (e.g., charitable) behaviors?

  3. In your opinion, what other aspects of personality can be explained by evolutionary personality theory?

Web Links:


From the website of Theodore Millon, leading personality researcher, a discussion of evolutionary personality theory.


From the Personality Project of William Revelle of Northwestern University, a discussion of evolutionary personality theory.


Recent article on the impact of evolutionary theory on the study of personality.

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