Friday, December 27, 2013

Life History Strategy and the Allure of the Dark Side: Evidence against a General Factor of Personality
In a previous post, I discussed evidence for and against a general factor of personality (GFP). Existing theories of personality organise personality traits in a hierarchical structure, in which a small number of broad factors, say five or six, subsume a vast number of narrower traits. Some psychologists have proposed a higher order general factor that combines all the broad traits into one super-factor composed of all the socially desirable features of personality. According to one theory, the general factor of personality represents an evolved “slow” life history strategy associated with long-term mating as opposed to a "fast" strategy associated with short-term mating. However, a recent study suggests that both slow and fast life history strategies each combine mixtures of desirable and undesirable traits. The findings of this study might help explain not only why so many people have “dark personalities” embodying socially undesirable traits, but why these traits can actually attractive. The so-called general factor of personality might represent an imagined ideal that few people embody rather than a single underlying dimension of human personality variation.   

The Dark Side has a strange allure for many people

Currently, the most widely accepted model of personality traits model is the Big Five, which consists of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience, all of which are considered to be separate and distinct from each other. A more recent model which has become increasingly popular, the HEXACO, adds a sixth factor of honesty-humility to the Big Five.[1] Although they disagree about the exact number, both of these models agree that the top of the personality hierarchy consists of multiple and distinct factors. However, some psychologists, have argued that these broad factors are not actually independent and that there is higher order super-factor atop the personality hierarchy that combines all of them into one (Musek, 2007). For example, Rushton and Irwin (2011) argued that this general factor is a dimension of “good personality” as opposed to a “difficult personality”, with desirable traits manifested at one end, e.g. someone who is friendly, cooperative, relaxed, reliable, and clever compared to someone who does not get along with others, and is selfish, manipulative, irritable and dense. Studies on the GFP have found that it is positively correlated with subjective well-being, self-esteem, trait emotional intelligence, and even general intelligence apparently. Perhaps, this combination of traits should be called the “best” personality rather than merely “good”?  

Rushton and Irwing proposed that this general factor of personality reflects a single broad dimension that has been selected for in human evolution they call the K-factor. This K-factor supposedly applies to a whole range of human characteristics that are said to have co-evolved, including altruism, intelligence, attachment styles, growth, longevity, sexuality, and fecundity and which “form a coherent whole” (Rushton & Irwing, 2011). The idea of a K-factor is the basis for what is called life history theory which looks at individual differences in human reproductive strategies. According to this theory, people with a “slow” life history strategy (characterised by a preference for long-term mating) exhibit a high K-factor, whereas people with a “fast” life history strategy (characterised by a preference for short-term mating and promiscuity) exhibit a low K-factor.

According to a number of studies, slow life history strategy is associated with better mental and physical health and subjective well-being and with greater relationship satisfaction. On the other, fast life history strategy has been linked with socially undesirable characteristics, such as criminality and antisocial behaviour including sexual coercion (Sherman, Figueredo, & Funder, 2013). If this is true, then it would seem that from an evolutionary standpoint the slow strategy is desirable in every way, while the fast strategy is completely undesirable. This is problematic because if one strategy is “better” in every way, the alternative strategy should have died out long ago for failure to compete. However, the fact that so many people still utilise a fast strategy suggests that it may be adaptive under some circumstances.

In spite of the alleged global adaptive superiority of the slow strategy, there is evidence that this strategy involves costs as well as benefits and conversely that the fast strategy enjoys its own advantages, in spite of its drawbacks. This is because socially desirable behaviours are generally those that are good for other people but not necessarily oneself, while socially undesirable behaviours inflict costs on other people rather than on the self. Social norms then tend to favour behaviour that is closer to the slow end of the continuum. Hence, even though the slow strategy is desirable from the viewpoint of society, it is not always in the interests of the individual. For example, being honest and altruistic benefits society but may be costly to the individual. Conversely, lying and cheating are costly to society but may benefit the individual, at least in the short term. The slow strategy might be smarter in the long-term, but generally requires individuals to make sacrifices for the good of others.

This might be taking the slow strategy a bit too far

Recently Sherman et al. (2013) tested the idea that the slow and fast strategies respectively combine both adaptive and maladaptive traits. Previous studies on life history strategy that found that the slow strategy was associated with just about every benefit one could want have been based on self-report measures of behaviour and personality. Similarly, most studies that have been used to validate a GFP have relied on self-report as well. A problem with self-report measures is that people’s responses may reflect evaluative biases. Because the slow strategy is so socially normative, people’s responses may be biased towards reporting what is considered “normal”. This could explain to some extent why the slow strategy is supposed to be associated with physical and mental health, considering that the latter are also normative. Sherman et al.’s research therefore used studies based on direct observations of behaviour as well as participants’ reports of their behaviour in the last 24 hours to overcome some of the limitations of self-report measures. Trained raters were asked to assess how closely individual participants matched a template for either a slow or fast life history strategy based on assessments of their behavior. The template for the slow pattern included qualities such as responsible, warm, compassionate and capable of close relationships. The fast template included qualities of unpredictable, deceitful, manipulative, and non-conforming. The resulting pattern that emerged was that those who more closely matched the slow template were described as kind, considerate, and hard working, yet also socially awkward, insecure, shy, lacking expressiveness and emotionally over-controlled. Those who more closely matched the fast template were described as unpredictable, hostile, moody, manipulative and impulsive, yet also talkative, socially skilled, dominant, assertive charming and interesting.

What these results suggest is that both the slow and fast strategies have their respective strengths and weaknesses. This is consistent with the idea that each one may be adaptive under some circumstances, yet maladaptive under others. On the other hand, the results appear to contradict the notion that one strategy is globally better than the other. Furthermore, in terms of personality traits expressed, neither strategy appears to fit in with the notion of a general factor of personality which combines all socially desirable traits in a uniform way. Participants who demonstrated a slow strategy could be described as agreeable, conscientious, and honest, yet also introverted and to a certain extent neurotic. On the other hand, those who demonstrated a fast strategy showed the opposite pattern of disagreeableness, dishonesty, and low conscientiousness, but were also more extraverted and emotionally stable. The fast life history strategy also seems consistent with a group of socially undesirable traits known as the “dark triad” of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. One study found that people who are high in “dark triad” traits tend to manifest a pattern of being selfish, disagreeable and low in conscientiousness, yet also extraverted, confident and socially dominant (Jonason, Li, & Teicher, 2010). This particular pattern of traits may allow people to successfully exploit others for selfish reasons and yet escape social punishment due to their social skills and charms. The authors of this paper compared this personality configuration to James Bond. Another real life example is the Italian adventurer Casanova. This fascinating fellow, notorious for his many love affairs, was noted as a sparkling conversationalist who stated that the chief business of his life was cultivating sensory pleasure. He also admitted to swindling people who he managed to convince that he had magical powers.  

Why do bad boys have all the fun?

Researchers have argued that “dark triad” traits may have evolved to facilitate short-term mating. Evidence for this comes from a study which found that women rated men with dark triad traits as having more attractive personalities than men who were low in these traits (Carter, Campbell, & Muncer). Another study found that men who were high in psychopathic traits (one of the components of the dark triad) were rated by female observers as being more physically attractive than men who were low in these traits (Visser, Pozzebon, Bogaert, & Ashton, 2010). Perhaps, these findings might help to explain why so many people are so fascinated by “dark” characters both from fiction and real life. Casanova for example was not the most moral person but he knew how to live in style!

What these findings suggest that the traits associated with the slow life history strategy represent a “good” personality in the traditional sense of being unselfish and of respecting society’s rules of good behaviour but not in a global sense of being generally better implied by JP Rushton. However, people who follow a slow strategy seem to be less socially skilled and may not experience as much immediate pleasure as their more selfish fast strategy counterparts, who are more focused on having a good time, often at the expense of other people. One of the differences that emerged between the two strategies, is that people with the slow style appear over-controlled and lacking expressiveness, whereas those with the fast style are more lively and impulsive. This suggests that one of the key differences may be in how much people inhibit expression of their impulses. Some people may be overly concerned with not doing anything that might give offense to others, whereas other people are more focused on expressing themselves, being less anxious about what other people might think.

The findings from Sherman et al. suggest that neither a fast nor a slow life history strategy is associated with a complete set of desirable traits that a general factor of personality would entail. In my previous post, I suggested that a general factor of personality might not represent a unitary dimension underlying all personality traits, but instead a particular cluster of separate traits combined in a way that maximises a person’s well-being. Perhaps this entails a personality type that can strike a balance between the conflicting demands of expressing the self on the one hand and exercising the self-control needed to comply with social expectations and rules for getting along with other people.


[1] Another minor difference from the Big Five is that in the HEXACO model neuroticism is replaced with “emotionality”. 
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This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. Any version of this article appearing on sites other than Eye on Psych or my blog at Psychology Today has been ripped off without my consent.

Further reading: 
What is an Intelligent Personality? - discusses the relationship between personality and various concepts of intelligence, particularly in regard to claims that a general factor of personality is correlated with general intelligence. 

Image Credits

Darth Vader by Dualspades at DeviantArt

Sacrifice poster created at using image from Flickr

Sean Connery as James Bond from Wikia


Carter, G. L., Campbell, A. C., & Muncer, S. The Dark Triad personality: Attractiveness to women. Personality and Individual Differences(0). doi:
Jonason, P. K., Li, N. P., & Teicher, E. A. (2010). Who is James Bond? The Dark Triad as an Agentic Social Style. Individual Differences Research, 8(2), 111-120.
Musek, J. (2007). A general factor of personality: Evidence for the Big One in the five-factor model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(6), 1213-1233.
Rushton, J. P., & Irwing, P. (2011). The General Factor of Personality: Normal and Abnormal. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. v. Stumm & A. Furnham (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Individual Differences ( First ed.): Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Sherman RA, Figueredo AJ, & Funder DC (2013). The behavioral correlates of overall and distinctive life history strategy. Journal of personality and social psychology, 105 (5), 873-88 PMID: 23915038
Visser, B. A., Pozzebon, J. A., Bogaert, A. F., & Ashton, M. C. (2010). Psychopathy, sexual behavior, and esteem: It’s different for girls. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(7), 833-838. doi:

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