This post is in response to Personality's 'Big One': Reality or Artifact? by Scott A. McGreal

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 emerges out of 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 are often actually attractive to others. A complete set of socially desirable traits would involve striking an ideal balance between conflicting life demands. However, such a combination of traits is unlikely to reflect a single underlying dimension of personality variation. 


The Dark Side has a strange allure for many people


Currently, the most widely accepted model of personality traits is the Big Five, which consists of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. 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 a 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. If so, 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 human evolution—they call it 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 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.[2]

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 hand, 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 surely would 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.

Recently Sherman et al. (2013) tested the idea that the slow and fast strategies respectively each 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 imaginable 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 of results 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 an 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 identified James Bond as an exemplar of this personality configuration. Another real life exemplar is the Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova. This fascinating fellow, notorious for his many love affairs, was noted as a sparkling conversationalist and a brilliant writer. He stated in his autobiography that "the chief business of his life" was cultivating sensory pleasure and also admitted to swindling gullible people who were convinced that he had magical powers.  

Why do bad boys seem to 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, 2014). 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 certainly knew how to live in style!

What these findings suggest is that people following a slow life history strategy have a “good” personality not in a global sense of being generally better, but “good” in the sense of being unselfish and respecting society’s rules of good behaviour. However, these people may tend to be less socially skilled and may not experience as much immediate pleasure as their more selfish fast strategy counterparts. The latter 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 and are 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. Humans have a need to strike a balance between the potentially conflicting demands of meeting the needs of others and of advancing one’s own interests, between expressiveness and self-control. Perhaps what appears to be a GFP manifests in people who are successful in finding a satisfactory balance between these conflicting demands. However, a set of traits organised around conflicting demands seems less consistent with the idea of a unitary personality dimension than with the coordination of several independent ones. 


[1] Another minor difference from the Big Five is that in the HEXACO model neuroticism is replaced with “emotionality”. 

[2] I discuss research on the psychology of short- versus long-term mating in this post on Porn Stars.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

Image Credits

Darth Vader by Dualspades at DeviantArt

Sean Connery as James Bond from Wikia

Posts discussing the General factor of personality

Personality’s “Big One”: Reality or Artifact?

What Is An Intelligent Personality?

Do Personality Traits and Values Form a Coherent Whole?


Carter, G. L., Campbell, A. C., & Muncer, S. (2014). The Dark Triad personality: Attractiveness to women. Personality and Individual Differences, 56(0), 57-61. 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, R. A., Figueredo, A. J., & Funder, D. C. (2013). The Behavioral Correlates of Overall and Distinctive Life History Strategy. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0033772

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:

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

Your Field Guide to the Colorful Personality is a reply by Scott A. McGreal MSc.
Personality's 'Big One' and the Enigma of Narcissism is a reply by Scott A. McGreal MSc.

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