Perosnality traits: some more evolutionary perspectives

My last post  was about the David Buss chapter in The Handbook of Personality Psychology book by Hogan et al; this post is about the Arnold Buss chapter in the same book.

In this chapter, Buss considers Humans as a primate and lists down 7 personality traits that are found in most primates especially the great apes. These are:

The seven traits listed below have already been mentioned in previous sections. They may be divided into two groups.

The first involves activation, which is defined as involving various kinds of arousal (here defined broadly):

1. Activity, the total energy output as observed in rate of movements and their vigor

2. Fearfulness, wariness, running away, cowering, and the concomitant physiological arousal

3. Impulsivity, acting suddenly and on the spur of the moment; the opposite is the tendency to inhibit behavior

The second set of personality traits are all social:

4. Sociability, preferring being with others (though primates are a highly social group, there are still individual differences in sociability within each species)

5. Nurturance, helping others, especially those who need help, even at a cost to the helper (altruism)

6. Aggressiveness, attacking or threatening others

7. Dominance, seeking and maintaining superior status over others versus the opposite pole, submissiveness

I would like to group them slightly differently ( and in accordance with my eight stage theories) and also introduce another trait that of suspiciousness when we consider humans as other primates have a rudimentary ToM ability.

  1. Fearfulness mapped to Neurtoticsm.
  2. Impulsivity mapped to Conscnetiousness
  3. Sociability mapped to Extraversion
  4. Nurturance mapped to Agreeableness
  5. Dominance mapped to Rebelliousness/ Conformity
  6. Suspiciousness mapped to Trust/Defensiveness
  7. Activity mapped to Activity
  8. Agressivenss mapped to Masculinity/Feminity
He also lays down the framework for how such traits may become evident ; he works within attachment theory paradigm and highlights research on primate attachment studies to lay down the foundation for why such traits may develop in an individual.

The period of attachment in primates has been divided into three phases (H. F. Harlow, Harlow, & Hansen, 1963). At first the mother is solicitous and completely accepting of the infant, and she is a haven of safety and nurturance.

The infant’s feeling of security depends in large part on the mother. If she is sufficiently protective and available, the infant will be secure enough to venture out in the wider environment. Primate infants appear to be motivated by two opposing tendencies: the need to seek novelty and stimulation versus the need for security and protection (Mason, 1970). An insecure infant remains close to the mother, too scared to explore the environment. A secure infant tends to be low in fear and can venture away from the mother so long as she is in sight.

In the second phase of attachment, the mother withdraws affection, diminishing attention to the infant, and starts to punish the infant. The latter may react with withdrawal, anger, resistance, or negativism. These first signs of independence are typically met by even more irritabihty and punishment by the mother.

In the third phase, the mother is often occupied with the birth of the next offspring and therefore is even more rejecting of her older child. The presence of this new infant is likely to elicit jealously and temper tantrums by the displaced sibling. If the mother can spare some attention and affection for her older sibling, the latter’s jealousy and annoyance should gradually wane.

The events of the attachment period may be expected to affect personality traits. The mother’s behavior should be regarded as only one determinant, albeit an important one, of her youngster’s personality. If she is not sufficiently protective and a haven of security, her infant may become fearful and inhibited. If she fails to provide enough attention and social stimulation, her infant may become withdrawn and less sociable. And if she cannot share at least some affect with her older offspring after the birth of a new one, the older one may become intensely jealous. In brief, the events of attachment are assumed to affect the personality traits of fearfulness, impulsivity (the opposite of inhibition), sociability, and the anger component of aggressiveness (jealousy).

To me this seems to be valid developmental trajectory of the traits: A non-protecting mother leading to Fearfulness (N); not providing a safe haven leading to lack Impulsivity or Inhibition (C); not providing enough attention leading to less sociability (E); not providing social stimulation and care leading to lack of Nurturnace in child (A) (which Buss doesn’t touch upon) and finally not sharing affect leading to Jealousy/ Dominance problems within siblings(Rebelliousness/Conformity).

Before we accept this attachment theory in its entirety it is apt to pause and remeber that many times the behaviour of mother is driven by infant behaviour and that mother and chil may share the sam temperamental quality due to genes and not due to nurturing and this however reflects in a pattern of traits in child and parenting practice in parent.

Finally Buss goes on to show how some of the traits in other primates are not well developed as compared to humans and are at the level of human infants and thus cannot lead to much insight about human personality. One exapmle is that of self-awareness; though primates and human infants may have a mirror-test self-awareness, it is limited.

Adult humans are capable of mirror-image recognition, which is absent in infants and develops slowly during the second year of life as part of more general trends in cognitive development. By the age of 2 years most infants possess this capacity (Amsterdam, 1972; Schulman & Kaplowitz, 1977). Does this mean that children of 2 years have a self-concept and the same kind of self-awareness as older children and adults? There are five cognitive attributes present in older children that are absent in 2-year-olds, which suggests that the answer is no.

The first is self-esteem. The basis for later self-esteem may be laid down in 2- year-olds, but children of this age do not show behavior that allows us to infer the general self-evaluation called self-esteem. This diffuse feeling of self-worth develops gradually and can be measured perhaps by the age of 4 years. Nor are infants clearly aware of the difference between their private feelings and public behavior.

It is still too early for the sense of covertness and an awareness that private thoughts and feelings cannot be observed. Infants and primates lack the sense of covertness that can be inferred in children of 4 years. Infants are still egocentric and do not know that others view the world from different perspectives. Even children of several years of age are Umited in social perspective-taking. In one study children were asked to select gifts for their parents, teacher, brother, sister, and self (Flavell, 1968). Most 3-year-olds selected the same gifts for others as for themselves. Some 4-year-olds selected gifts appropriate for others, half the 5-year-olds did, and all the 6-year-olds did. Social perspective-taking evidently emerges during the fifth year of life. Linked to perspective-taking is the abihty to view oneself as a social object. Such public self-awareness, as seen in the reaction of embarrassment, does not occur until the fifth year of life (Buss, Iscoe, & Buss, 1979).

The last facet of the advanced self to develop is identity. It may be a personal identity, the sense of being different from everyone else in appearance, behavior, character, or personal history, or it may be social identity, knowing oneself to be a member of a nation, religion, race, vocation, or any other group that offers a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. And most of us have a sense of continuity, identifying ourselves as the same person across decades of time or across diverse social roles.

Thus five aspects of the self are absent in 2-year-old human children: selfesteem, a sense of covertness, perspective-taking, public self-awareness, and identity. These may be regarded as evidence for an advanced or cognitive self, which is conspicuously absent in human infants and the great apes. They do appear to have a primitive, sensory self—an awareness of where the body ends and not-me begins, and mirror-image recognition (Buss, 1980). But they lack the advanced cognitive self that is implicit in constructs such as self-concept, self-esteem, selfconsciousness, and identity, constructs easily applied to older human children and adults.

To me this beautifullay sums-up what we can and cannot derive from studies of primates and other mammals about human personality.

References: Buss, H. Arnold. (1997). Evolutionary perspectives on personality traits. In R. Hogan, J. A. Johnson, & S. R. Briggs (Eds.), Handbook of Personality Psychology (pp. 345-366). New York: Academic Press..

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