From an evolutionary perspective, the existence of personality differences presents a puzzle. Natural selection tends to weed out variation that deviates from optimal adaptations. Therefore, how are personality differences maintained in local environments?
In September’s edition of Evolution & Human Behavior, psychologist Reinout E. de Vries and his colleagues present a general framework which addresses this puzzle. In the process, the authors review the latest scientific developments in personality psychology, and attempt to explain the origins of personality differences.
The authors contend that individual differences likely arose because different situations favour different personality traits. From an evolutionary perspective, the fitness pay-offs of phenotypes vary across time and place.
However, what exactly are these traits that vary across individuals?
Although the authors provide an extensive review of competing models of personality, I will limit the overview to the most robust models in personality psychology.
The Big Five
Psychology has moved on from the days of psychoanalytic personality topographies. Rather depressingly however, there remains plenty of demand for such personality tests in the business world.
Rather than there being fixed categories of personalities, a convergence of evidence from various sources supports the existence of at least five independent dimensions of personality. This research accumulated into the Big Five model of personality, with the five factors being: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (inversely, emotional stability).
Each factor is composed of traits with characteristics indicating high and low levels of the personality dimension. Studies suggest that these five factors are normally distributed, and are largely stable throughout a person’s lifetime.
Due to it’s high validity and reliability, the Big Five has long been considered the gold standard of personality testing.
Despite the model’s credentials, researchers have since identified some limitations of the Big Five. Most importantly, the authors argue that the Big Five has limited ability to identify dark triad personalities. That is, crucial aspects of personality such as psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, are not well detected by the Big Five model.
This shortcoming led to the development of a new model of personality: the ‘HEXACO model’.
The HEXACO Model
De Vries and his colleagues state that although the HEXACO model is broadly aligned with the Big Five, there are also noticeable differences. The most significant difference is that the HEXACO model includes honesty/ humility added as sixth independent factor of personality.
The authors define honesty/ humility as traits pertaining to sincerity, fairness, greed avoidance, modesty, and inversely deceitfulness– noting that these traits are largely absent from the Big Five.
Studies comparing the two models demonstrates that with the inclusion of honesty/humility, the HEXACO model is able to explain more variance in antisocial personality traits– including psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Conversely, the honesty/ humility dimension also explains more variance in prosociality, such as cooperativeness.
The authors highlight other discrepancies from the Big Five. For example, the HEXACO model’s agreeableness and emotionality partially, but incompletely, overlap with the Big Five’s dimensions of agreeableness and emotional stability. These differences have implications for both the predictive validity of both models, and for theorising about the evolution of personality.
The authors summarise the advantages of HEXACO as follows (p. 411):
In sum, when compared to the Big Five model, the HEXACO model (1) has offered a better description of the largest set of replicable factors that have emerged in comparative cross-cultural lexical research, and (2) has been found to better predict a number of important criteria, including counterproductive, delinquent, and outright criminal behaviors, sexual exploitative behaviors, and prosocial behaviors such as cooperation.
What circumstances may have led to the emergence of these dimensions of personality? Historically, psychologists have failed to address this question.
De Vries and his colleagues argue that recurrent situational challenges may have promoted the emergence of these personality dimensions.
People experience a wide range of different situations throughout their lives. However the authors argue that if situations vary reliably across time and location, then different personality traits that fit well (or poorly) with these situations will emerge.
Following from a review of the literature on ‘situational affordances’, De Vries and his colleagues develop a framework for the evolution of personality.
The framework outlines the six domains of situational affordances, and maps the relevant personality dimension which addresses such challenges.
For example, some situations allow for personal gain at the expense of others, or allow for behaviours that are beneficial to others. In situations that that permit exploitation, the authors propose that low honesty/ humility behaviours are more likely to pay-off. However strategies employed by people low in honesty/ humility in stable or supervised environments are likely to be punished and suffer consequences.
The situational affordances framework of personality evolution (De Vries et al, 2016, p. 414)
By testing the propositions laid out in their situational affordances framework, the authors contend that “further progress can be made in unravelling the ‘enigma of personality’.” (p. 418).
What’s the relevance to business?
Intuitively, low levels of honesty/ humility is associated with work place delinquency (e.g. steeling from your employer).
Research suggests that people high in honesty/ humility have more negative views on theft, and report stealing less money than their less honest counterparts. Additionally, honesty/ humility predicts supervisor ratings of workplace performance, above and beyond ratings of the other five factors of personality.
Appreciating its predictive power in identifying dark triad personalities and workplace delinquency, organisational psychologists and recruitment specialists should make it a priority to measure candidates’ levels of honesty/ humility during the recruitment process. Even if HR professionals are adhering to best practice and using models based on the Big Five taxonomy, they may still be omitting one of the most important aspects of personality.
To put it another way, a combination of low honesty/ humility, low conscientiousness and low agreeableness is the nightmare of every employer. Scientific personality assessments can help prevent such nightmares becoming a reality.
Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business
Click here to read the full paper.
de Vries, R. E., Tybur, J. M., Pollet, T. V., & van Vugt, M. (2016). Evolution, situational affordances, and the HEXACO model of personality. Evolution and human behavior, 37(5), 407-421
Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., & de Vries, R. E. (2014). The HEXACO Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and Emotionality factors: A review of research and theory. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(2), 139-152
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