Are Extreme Traits Healthy?

Ted Grabowski, a lawyer, friend, Big Five student, and general critic of society at large, posed this question: “Are all the subtraits adaptive from the perspective of evolutionary psychology?  If yes, I wonder what adaptive challenge ‘arrogance’ solves.”

Or, said differently, according to evolutionary theory of personality psychology, no trait would prevail in the “survival of the fittest” process over thousands of years unless that trait gave folks a survival advantage. Traits disappear that do not provide an advantage for survival. Most of the traits—and even their opposites–we see today have obvious survival value—sociability (to form alliances), solitude (to get the job done), perfectionism (to build high quality, durable structures), and its opposite—casual standards (to get something done quickly in an emergency, as an impending storm). Pride drives one to show one’s best side, which has advantages in sales, courtship, alliances, and so forth. Arrogance, an excess of pride, is helpful when one is trying to call another’s bluff.

But as the ancients warn us—both Sophocles and the writer of Proverbs, pride goes before a fall. This suggests that pride/arrogance does NOT have a survival advantage. What’s going on?

The difference between a trait that is helpful and one that is not has to do with rigidity.

U.S. Department of Agriculture CC BY 2.0
U.S. Department of Agriculture CC BY 2.0

When one uses a behavior and never uses its opposite, that behavior is said to have become rigid. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) said it best in The Prince when he warned leaders to back away from their strengths from time to time. That a leader should be tough–yes, but on occasion they should back off and be its opposite—tender. That a leader who never lets up on their strength was to be feared and hated, not admired and respected.

He was not the only thinker to observe this truth. In his play Antigone, Sophocles ( c. 497-406 BCE) has Haemon, son of the King of Thebes, speak

No, though a man be wise, ‘tis no shame for him to learn many things, and to bend in season. Seest thou, beside the wintry torrent’s course, how the trees that yield to it save every twig, while the stiff-necked perish root and branch? And even thus he who keeps the sheet of his sail taut, and never slackens it, upsets his boat, and finishes his voyage with keel uppermost.

Then there was Confucius (551-479 BCE), who pronounced that “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.” And certainly we should recount Aesop’s (620-564 BCE) fable “The Tree and the Reed”:

“Well, little one,” said a Tree to a Reed that was growing at its foot,

“why do you not plant your feet deeply in the ground, and raise your

head boldly in the air as I do?”

“I am contented with my lot,” said the Reed. “I may not be so grand,

but I think I am safer.”

“Safe!” sneered the Tree. “Who shall pluck me up by the roots or bow

my head to the ground?” But it soon had to repent of its boasting, for

a hurricane arose which tore it up from its roots, and cast it a

useless log on the ground, while the little Reed, bending to the force

of the wind, soon stood upright again when the storm had passed over.

And certainly many other thinkers from many continents and cultures have urged appropriate backing off. I read once that the behavior most appreciated in men by women was the capacity to say “I was wrong” and “I am sorry.” Failure to hold a job and failure to stay in a relationship are evidence of a personality disorder, and such disorders are characterized by one or more traits that have gone rigid, like the oak in the hurricane. The proud who are never humble show Narcissistic Disorder. The submitters who never stand their ground show Dependent Disorder. Extraverts who never shut the door for quiet, private time show Histrionic Disorder. The conscientious people who never, ever cut corners show Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. And so on. Behavioral rigidity = personality disorder. Such rigidity is not inherited—it is not in one’s genes. The extreme trait is inherited, but we are not born being unable to back off an extreme and show its opposite. So, Ted, the answer to your question is that arrogance in-and-of itself, while offensive to some, has value in some contexts. It is when arrogance goes rigid and can never bow down that it loses is evolutionary adaptive value.

The image of the oak tree facing a hurricane is strikingly personal today as 1) we face the ravages of Hurricane Florence and 2) we daily encounter politicians who are unyielding in the face of the storm known as the 2018 midterm elections.

My mother raised this toast at every wedding I attended with her: “To the lovely couple, I offer, with apologies to Ogden Nash, the hardest of all advice—When you are wrong, admit it; when you are right, forget it!” Indeed!


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