How Narcissism Evolved

January 23, 2012

In a recent post, Badger linked to Just Be a Man About It, a new blog that focuses heavily on the effectiveness of Dark Triad traits.

[Women] are drawn to the allure of the street smart Dark Triad males. Why? Simply because these are the males who can best extract resources from their environment. They most likely are the only males who will be able to extract resources in times of extreme scarcity. If for whatever reason the lights go dark, emergency services cease, and neighbor becomes pitted against neighbor it will be those who are predisposed to the Dark Triad traits who will be the ones that will be keeping their friends and family protected from the ensuing chaos.

This immediately caught my attention, because while people (not just males) with Dark Triad traits are good at getting what they want, they’re not very inclined to form lasting bonds, and they’re not protective of others. I would feel very insecure throwing in my lot with such a man in a time of crisis – surely he’d kick me to the curb rather than share his provisions? 

Additionally, I find the romanticization of Dark Triad traits troubling. I think we often tend to view narcissism as a sort of dominance on steroids – and if women like dominance, they must love extreme dominance, right? How do leadership, dominance and narcissism differ? While Dark Triad traits are clearly adaptive, it’s unclear why, though new theories continue to emerge.

What is the evolutionary story behind narcissism? Do narcissists make the best providers in times of crisis? Are they loyal to friends and family? JBAMAI linked to a study that provided some answers: Who is James Bond?: The Dark Triad as an Agentic Social Style

The researchers identify two distinctly different and mutually exclusive social strategies:

  1. Prosocial: Characterized by agreeableness, conscientiousness and cooperative behavior. Successful for long-term mating (LTM).
  2. Agentic: Characterized by selfishness, exploitativeness and manipulativeness. Successful for short-term mating (STM).

Here are the traits associated with the agentic style, reflecting the Dark Triad trio of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy:

  • Disagreeableness
  • Extraversion
  • Openness
  • High self-esteem
  • Low neuroticism
  • Low conscientiousness
  • Individualistic
  • Highly competitive
  • Low altruism
  • Low empathy
  • Low anxiety
In summary, these individuals “pursue a highly selfish agenda that is exploitative.” These traits “enable an exploiter to persist in the face of potential social rejection and retaliation.” Jonason calls this the formula for getting what you want without arousing suspicion, since people guard against exploitation and also retaliate when taken advantage of.
In a study looking at Machiavellianism and friendships, Lyons and Aitken (2010) found that “high Mach individuals of both sexes are likely to have poorer quality friendships (colder, less rewarding and more distant), a finding that in evolutionary terms seems counterintuitive for a social animal.” They suggest that the relationship between Machiavellianism and friendship could have been an adaptive response to insecure childhood attachment:

According to Mikulincer et al. (2005), securely attached individuals have a reduced need for self-protection and self-enhancement, and can afford to put energy into other behaviours, such as caring about others. Insecure attachment, in turn, fosters a personality that is characterised by having less empathy for other individuals (Britton & Fuendeling, 2005), a finding that could explain the link between Machiavellianism, empathising deficits and the lack of close social bonds with others.

Developmental evidence also points to a relationship between secure bonds and pro-social behaviour, suggesting that secure, positive friendships in children and adolescents increase their pro-social behaviour and social adjustment (Berndt, 2002; Barry & Wenzel, 2006).

Clearly, the Dark Triad traits are antisocial, yet also adaptive. How can this be explained?

Having a propensity for fewer, more distant relationships could be adaptive in a number of ways. If an individual is born into a dangerous and insecure world, it makes sense to be cautious about trusting others and investing resources in them through pro-social behaviours that are unlikely to be reciprocated (Trivers, 1971). Equally, if an individual does not really care about other‟s feelings, it is possible to form short-term pseudo friendships to one‟s own advantage. These “hit and run” relationships have significant adaptive value, particularly for males in the context of fathering offspring (Jonason et al., 2009).

In The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (2011), a chapter on the link between NPD and short-term mating, The Intertwined Evolution of Narcissism and Short-Term Mating by Holtzman and Strube, explores the latest thinking on this relationship. 

The authors point out that it’s hard to understand how such socially aversive traits could have been adaptive after humans underwent natural positive selection for pair-bonding 1.5 million years ago. It was at this time that the benefits of parental investment (LTM) began to outweigh the advantages of STM. So how did narcissism persist in the population?

Up until the occurrence of long-term pair-bonding, the two most important traits for mating were attractiveness and competitiveness. These two traits encouraged dominance. According to fossil remains, however, selection traits began to change around 1.5 million years ago to accompany LTM. Mating males became less symmetrical (a proxy for attractiveness) and smaller, reflecting “decreased selection for intrasexual competitive advantages.”

After this time, it is therefore argued (Eastwick, 2009) that a primary trait under positive selection was cooperativeness – facilitating bi-parental care, attachment and pair-bonds. This was a key turning point in human evolution. When cooperativeness began to be positively selected, contentiousness and attractiveness no longer held a monopoly on reproductive success.

In light of the available phylogenetic evidence, therefore, we hypothesize that narcissism emerged as a unique variant of dominance.

The importance and influence of learning mechanisms in the development of mating strategies cannot be downplayed; the development of narcissistic promiscuity is likely partially due to learning and the contextual effects of rearing environments or cultures. Nevertheless…the behavior genetic evidence clearly indicates a nontrivial degree of heritability…the underlying biological machinery that was shaped by evolution has reciprocally interacted with the learning mechanisms that have shaped narcissistic and STM behavior. 

While narcissistic traits clearly help in the acquisition of resources, their attraction in securing short-term mates is less clear. What were the reproductive means that molded narcissism, and why does it persist? The authors theorize that STM directly produced narcissism to compete with trends in long-term mating. The data suggests that narcissists possess greater levels of the qualities conducive to STM:

1. Attractiveness

It is unclear whether greater perceived attractiveness is innate or due to grooming. Narcissists are more likely than other males to be preoccupied with personal appearance. They may also inflate their own perceptions of their attractiveness, enabling them to pursue women beyond their realistic prospects. 

Exhibitionism is a core trait of narcissism, and also favors STM. These characteristics were favored before humans evolved to pair-bond.

2. Coercion

According to the researchers, narcissism is slightly related to behaviors that have been conceptualized as risk factors for rape. Once pair bonding evolved, narcissists who were less coercive would have had difficulty reproducing. They were ostracized from, or avoided, long-term pair-bonds.

  • Narcissists have more fantasies about coercion and sadism during sex, and self-report more coercion and sadism during sex.
  • They construe sexual behavior as involving manipulation and power.
  • They punish, i.e., have less empathy for, women who withhold sex.

3. Adolescence

Narcissism should peak during adolescence, when males are unable to provide for offspring, and more likely to pursue STM. However, poor attachment in childhood, combined with STM approaches during adolescence may set the stage for a lifetime of STM.

If narcissism evolved as a mechanism whereby men might cuckold one another, the researchers offer several suggestions for future research into the evolution of narcissism:

  • Is the sperm of narcissists different from other men?
  • Are their testicles larger?
  • Narcissists self-report larger penises. Is this accurate? (Larger penises may be more effective in scraping out a competitor’s recently deposited semen).

One final question asks whether “narcissistic tendencies are evoked in contexts where short-term mating opportunities are presented.” It seems clear to me, at least, that the proliferation of cads and players in the SMP has followed the trajectory of increased female sexual expression since the Sexual Revolution. Some narcissists are born, and some of them are self-made, apparently, but they’re all highly toxic.

Do something good for your species today. Boycott Dark Triad dudes and stamp out narcissism.