A general theory of personality based on social selection and life-history theory

When it comes to personality psychology the Big 5 (or Five-Factor Model/FFM) are still considered the gold standard and many other personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) are considered pseudoscience. The FFM is even more useful and has more predictive power when a sixth dimension is added: honesty humility (HEXACO model).

However, adding new personality dimensions is of little use when it comes to understanding human nature, as not even five factors are human universals. Two of the factors that are often associated with mental disorders (neuroticism and openness to experience), never even show up in non-Western societies, which are called “WEIRD” (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) by Joseph Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World (2020). Henrich points out the Big 5 are indeed WEIRD 5, as they are by no means human universals. Some societies yield only three or four factors. Subsistence-level economies often only have two factors. The Tsimane'  practise subsistence farming and Henrich writes about them:

So, did the Tsimane' reveal the WEIRD-5? No, not even close. The Tsimane' data reveal only two dimensions of personality. No matter how you slice and dice the data, there’s just nothing like the WEIRD-5. Moreover, based on the clusters of characteristics associated with each of the Tsimane'’s two personality dimensions, neither matches up nicely with any of the WEIRD-5 dimensions [...] these dimensions capture the two primary routes to social success among the Tsimane', which can be described roughly as “interpersonal prosociality” and “industriousness.” The idea is that if you are Tsimane', you can either focus on working harder on the aforementioned productive activities and skills like hunting and weaving, or you can devote your time and mental efforts to building a richer network of social relationships.

Henrich doesn’t mention it, but the two personality profiles that emerge from these farmers are more provisioning (male majority) and a more caregiving one (female majority) from an evolutionary point of view. The same can be expected from other subsistence economies: for foragers you will get a “hunter” profile and a “gatherer” profile. What these two factors thus capture is the ancient evolutionary difference between male and female traits. In the Big 5 this trait is represented by the factor “agreeableness” and T/F (testosterone/estrogen) in MBTI. Men are on average much lower in agreeableness than women. Women often complain about men and their lack of empathy, however, it is their very female ancestors who sexually selected the traits men have.  So, the term “agreeableness” for this personality dimension is somewhat unfairly biased against men.

According to our ancestral mode of subsistence, we can therefore derive six (3x2) different personality profiles:

Going even further back in time when there was no division of labour we find the general factor (GF) of personality: “socially and sexually desirable traits”, or being socially appreciated, which made sure the individual would be socially accepted and a desirable mate. The GF was therefore socially and sexually selected traits. The increasing division of labour happened due to mate preferences: a skilled provider (also technical problem solver) for females and a skilled social problem solver (also caregiving profile) for males. Depending on the different subsistence level economies different personality traits become desirable: competence (hunting is a skill that takes life-long learning) for foragers, productivity and industriousness for farmers (farmers had to work many more hours.  

Assuming that ancient farmers had much harder lives than foragers, they would also have a tendency to have a higher reproductive rate than (one child every 2-3 years) than hunter-gatherers (one child every 3-4 years).  When it comes to mate choice a farmer-female would choose a male who achieves high food productivity and by doing so selected all the traits that were required: industriousness, conscientiousness, delayed gratification, long-term planning capabilities. Yes, these traits sound very much like the Big 5 trait “conscientiousness”. These traits most likely did not exist in humans before the advent of agriculture. Conscientiousness also goes hand in hand with many other traits that were necessary for early farmers: conformism, love of tradition, love of strict rules (law and order).

Pastoralists had most likely the hardest and shortest lives of all. According to life-history strategy, they should be the risk-takers and somewhat sociosexual. Indeed, it is pastoralist tribes that tended to wreak havoc among their farmer neighbours in history: the Yamnaya (Indoeuropeans), Huns, Mongols, Vikings, etc. We, thus, arrive at the following traits:

Shortest lifespan (pastoralist)

medium (farmer)

Long lifespan (HG)

Most risk-taking/least fearful

Least risk-taking/most careful

Earliest onset of puberty

Latest onset of puberty

Highest reproductive rate

Lowest reproductive rate

Least paternal investment

Most paternal investment

Most sociosexual

Most pair-bonded

Higher sexual dimorphism

Lower sexual dimorphism

Most in-group social

Most out-group social

Each of these personality profiles would have had evolutionarily selected optima (fine-tuning) when it comes to traits such as extraversion (which includes risk-taking), which probably left much less room for variation than in modern societies, which are basically a mix of all three personality types. However, due to evolved mate preferences, we can expect that these traits are not completely mixed in the gene pool. Assortative mating is a well-known phenomenon in psychology, and I am certain it works along the lines of these ancestral personality types. The anthropologist Helen Fisher has found four personality profiles that tend to date and mate. They align well with the four MBTI temperaments and my proposed evolutionary types:

Fisher also states that these types look for different traits in their mates. Builders (farmer types) want a helpmate, explorer (pastoralist types) want a playmate and directors/negotiators want soulmates. This characterisation fits well with there different evolutionary types. 

This model would account for the assortative mating among people with ASD and other forms of neurodiversity. These people are most frequently hunter types, who prefer (female) hunter or gatherer types as mates. Autism frequently runs on both sides in the family and autism rates can be extremely high in places that attract hunter-types, such as university centres (MIT has high autism rates among their staff’s children) and Silicon Valley. It is a well, known fact, that autistic children have on average much older fathers. This can partially be explained by life-history traits (later puberty), but also due to higher social awkwardness. Hunter and gatherer ironically often find each other because they are the “leftovers” who are still unpartnered when herder and farmer types have long found their partners.

In connection with autism, it is also interesting to note that the provisioning/prosocial split (i.e. evolution of gender roles) may have been responsible for what is known as the "great leap forward", or human inventiveness. Basically, almost all inventors are of the hunter-type (Edison, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, etc.). This evolution may have happened over thousands of years, culminating in what is known as the Upper Paleolithic Revolution about 40.000 years ago. 
This is might mark the split between the General Factor of Personality and the provisioning/prosocial personality profiles, whereas the further split into forager/farmer/herder types is marked by the Neolithic Revolution. Of course, some T/F personality differences existed before the Upper Paleolithic revolution, due to female nurturing and male mate competition. However, these difference may have become increasingly "stretched" and lead to the evolution of hyper-systemizers (NT types) and hyper-empathizers (NF types). 


  1. I'd say that human nature is rather plastic, in that many potential personality types and personality patterns potentially can exist, as shaped by culture and the larger environment, maybe influenced by diet and nutrition as well. This could manifest along gender lines, but this is not necessarily built into genetics.

    Prior to the invention of the bow and arrow, hunting was not limited to men for the whole tribe hunted together. That is what recent evidence is pointing to in showing that women were also part of spear hunting. So, there has never been a single kind of hunter-gatherer social order, since there are diverse ways of hunting and gathering.

    Early rock paintings also show Native American men holding the hands of children, which some take as indicating men were involved in childcare or at least not kept separate from it. That would make sense if the women were also part of the hunts. Men holding the hands of children was apparently so important as to be memorialized in paintings.

    As we have WEIRD bias, there are many other forms of biases, depending on the kind of society. Yet, even among hunter-gatherers, the diversity is immense: sedentary and mobile, egalitarian and hierarchical, patriarchal and matrifocal/matrilineal, gender division of labor and not, etc. This would effect personality development in numerous ways.

    1. Farming is another example. Research was done on wheat and rice farming in China.

      What they found is that the two populations fell into the stereotypical patterns of Western and Eastern thinking, even though both populations were Chinese. The explanation is that wheat farming is typically done by one person alone working a plow, whereas rice farming requires highly organized collective labor.

      Interestingly, China stands out in that psychopathy is found equally among both genders, unlike in the West and some other places. It would be interesting to study if this is primarily an effect of the larger populations involved in rice-growing and the culture that has developed around it.

      Wheat farming is as different from rice farming, as bow-and-arrow hunting is from spear hunting. What stands out is that both rice farming and spear hunting are collective activities involving both genders, but wheat farming and bow-and-arrow hunting can be solitary activities that have tended to be done by men.

      In Western Europe, there never was rice farming. And, unlike certain populations, spear hunting probably hasn't been common in recent history. Yet there are still spear hunting tribes in various places. Some of those also do persistence hunting, probably the original form of hunting.


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