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Why are people neurotic?

Psychologists have long thought of neuroticism as a fundamentally maladaptive personality trait. Neurotics experience a preponderance of negative emotions, get sick frequently, and tend to lack satisfying interpersonal relationships. In short, neuroticism seems devoid of any redeeming value. An evolutionary perspective, however, would suggest that all human characteristics must have been passed on through natural selection, meaning that even neuroticism must have somehow helped people survive and reproduce throughout history.

What benefit might neuroticism have? Recently, Daniel NettleĀ (2006; American Psychologist) theorized some benefits that the avoidance-oriented aspects of neuroticism might have. He noted that neurotics might be more wary of dangers in their environment and that they might be more sensitive to internal disturbances (for example, noticing that they feel sick). Similarly, we might hypothesize that approach-oriented tendencies, such as aggression and emotional outbursts, might help neurotic individuals gain status or attention (for example, through intimidation).

Does neuroticism, and the negative emotionality that comes with it, really have an upside? While you ponder that question, think about the parallel question for each Big Five trait (extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience); do both high and low levels of these traits benefit people in some way? The answer will help us understand the deeper adaptive significance of personality.

Discussion (1 Comment)

Alec

Yeah, it sounds like Nettle’s got a strong argument, if you’re avoiding dangerous situations because you’re neurotic, your risk for getting eaten by stuff is a lot lower. Just as someone who’s highly extraverted would have been the first to make contact with a non-native tribe and get some crazy disease or be attacked.

It’s hard to see some line of people who were extremely high or low in any of the big five traits reproducing more successfully than those who had all five in a healthy moderation.

For the purposes of blogging, here’s a weird theory as to why high levels of neuroticism could have helped in the evolutionary past. We know from animal research that even highly monogamous species (some birds) cheat on their mates, essentially, females want to make babies with a bird that sings pretty songs but they want to build a nest and care for the babies with often a much duller mate, a mate who is going to be faithful and see the offspring to maturity so they can continue the line. That’s pretty similar to what humans do too. A neurotic male might be highly protective of his mate thus cutting off her opportunity to cheat (and smashing babies that he fears might not be his own, this was big back then no jk), this way he ensures paternal certainty and keeps the pair-bond going until the child reaches sexual maturity. Males low in neuroticism would prolly just raise the cuckold’s baby and chill on a vine somewhere until his line was all but wiped out.

Another weird theory could be that gossiping and perspective taking (I’m assuming people who are highly neurotic do this…) could have lead to more complex thinking and rapid brain development.

Crude example perspective taking ->
“I’m gonna kill that boar aagghhhh” < - Low neuroticism (dies).
"If I sneak up behind the boar, he won't see me" <- High neuroticism (kills boar, shares boar, gets mates).

Crude example gossiping ->
“K, see you later honey!” <- Low N (she’s going to cheat on her mate, have other dude’s baby, his genes get passed, not yours)
“K, see you later honey!”…(to Grog) “Where she going Grog?” <- High N (Grog tells him, he intercepts)

Anyways, I’m prolly wrong but just sayin’

Alec

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