Egosyntonic and Egodystonic: An Evolutionary Perspective

This analysis suggested that the extremity of a trait is insufficient to characterize a trait as adaptive or maladaptive. Additionally, this analysis has also suggested that multiple adaptive forms of a trait exist as adaptation is a product of the interaction between a trait and an environmental context that increases fitness. However, this analysis has yet to characterize psychopathology as maladaptive. In a traditional FFM approach, the severity of psychopathology is not a product of just the extremity of a single traits, but a product of the interaction of multiple, extreme traits (Costa & Widiger, 1994; Trull & Sher, 1994; Costa & Widiger, 2002; Warner, et al., 2004). However, from an evolutionary perspective, these personality styles represent unique adaptive strategies. As such, to determine if an individual’s unique personality style is a valid adaptive strategy is to determine whether the interaction between this style and the environment increases fitness. To this end, there are two necessary levels of analysis. The first is the individual level in which the individual’s ability to engage the environment to increase fecundity and longevity is assessed, while the second is the group level where the individual’s ability to contribute to the fitness of the group is assessed.

The first level of analysis, the individual level, focuses on adaptation as an individual’s inability to engage with the world in a way that increases fitness. In other words, this is a poorness of fit of a personality style in an environment. The first source of this inability is the personality style. For example, the high level of neuroticism associated with depression might inhibit action in the individual (Trull & Sher, 1994). Without action, the individual is unable to engage with the world and is therefore unable to benefit from the environment, leading to maladaptation. The second source of the individual’s inability to engage the world is constraints the environment places upon the individual Much of these constraints are part of the natural environment. However, constraints can also come from the individual’s culture. An individual’s culture is part of the environmental context that interacts with a trait. As cultural evolution occurs at a rate that far exceeds biological evolution, it is possible that a culture would impose constraints distinct from those imposed by the natural environment. In the right environment, ADHD might be adaptive as some individuals diagnosed as a child turn into highly successful adults who benefit from the near endless energy in the pursuit of an interest (MacDonald, 2005). However, in a modern context ADHD is seen as maladaptive as it leads the individual to be disruptive in an educational setting  (MacDonald, 1995). Given this analysis, at the individual level some psychopathologies are the product of an individual being unable to engage with the world in an adaptive manner, with maladaptation stemming from constraints imposed by the natural environment or the individual’s culture (Nesse & Williams, 1996; MacDonald, 2005).

An individual’s inability to engage with the environment characterizes disorders that are egodystonic. Egodystonic disorders are differentiated from egosyntonic disorders, as only egodystonic disorders cause the individual distress. Commonly, Axis I disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder considered to be egodystonic. The high level of neuroticism in depression  is hypothesized to inhibit an individual’s action (Trull & Sher, 1994), which may limit an individual’s ability to engage the world. This loss of fitness leads to the distress that characterizes egodystonic disorders, as the individual is aware that their personality style is not a valid adaptive strategy. Importantly, this view of egodystonic as the inability to engage the world in an adaptive manner can explain why the manic phases of bipolar disorder are egosyntonic while the depressive phases are egodystonic as the increased activity of the manic phases increases the individual’s activity in the world, therefore leading to increased fitness.

The second level of analysis, the group level, focuses on adaptation as an individual’s ability to contribute to the fitness of the group. Researchers have suggested that a more general purpose for personality traits is to evaluate others through social interaction (see Buss, 1991; Hogan, 1983, cited in Buss, 1995; Borkenau, 1990). Humans are invariably social creates and as such utilize interactions to increase both the individual’s and the group’s fitness. As previously stated, the social environment allows for the existence of multiple, adaptive niches within a population. As multiple adaptive strategies based on personality styles exists, one of the major adaptive pressures placed on the species is the ability to determine benefit from an interaction with another. To cite previous, the individuals low on neuroticism performed a fundamentally different role for the group than did the individuals high on neuroticism with the individuals engaging in high-risk, high-reward strategies and individuals engaging in low-risk, safe strategies respectively. While the fitness of the group increases through the interaction of multiple personality styles, some individuals will have personality styles that do not contribute to the group’s fitness. For example, the low agreeableness of the psychopath leads them to be callously manipulative (Hare, 1999) and the high levels of conscientiousness in obsessive compulsive personality disorder contributes to poor interpersonal relationships (Marks, 1987). As a result, an individual can be labeled by the group as maladapted when they provide no benefit to the fitness of the group and classified as possessing a disorder.

The inability of the individual to provide fitness to the group is central to egosyntonic disorders. Egosyntonic disorders are psychopathological disorders in which the individual does not experience distress as a result of the disorder. As the individual experiences no distress, these disorders are difficult to treat. Commonly, the personality disorders and psychopathy are described as egosyntonic. As with many other, personality styles, these disorders are patterns of adaptation that serve to increase an individual’s fitness. These personality styles allow the individuals to engage the environment in an adaptive manner, with the psychopath increasing his or her fitness through manipulating others, while for the individual with OCPD increasing fitness obsessive drive for perfection. However, as previously suggested, these personality styles do not benefit the group, with the psychopath’s fitness increasing at the cost of another individual’s fitness and the individual with obsessive compulsive personality disorder being unable to maintain interpersonal relationships. As such, individuals with egosyntonic disorders do not experience distress because they are able to still engage in the world in an adaptive manner, however, their personality style is maladaptive to the group as it does not increase the group’s fitness.


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