by Robert DePaolo
This article discusses two core aspects of personality that have broad impact on multiple behavior patterns; including creativity, politics, sexuality and antisocial behavior. The model is derived from human/primate evolutionary origins which include the quest for social hierarchical status and the drive to reproduce. The two factors are presented as inextricably linked as an integrated, bimodal motive to a wide range of emotions and behaviors.
Freud’s tripartite theory of the psyche emphasized the relationship between reason, impulse, the conscience and their interactive relevance to normalcy and pathology. If one were to include all the other components of his theory, for example the unconscious, dreams, complexes and stages of development, gaining a concise understanding of what makes Homo sapiens tick would be very difficult indeed.
Over time the sheer complexity of psychoanalytic theory put it somewhat on the sidelines as a conceptual and therapeutic methodology. In addition its long term parameters created a bottleneck for insurance carriers who began to gravitate toward more economical methods such as cognitive-behavior therapy and behavior modification. Whether the newer, briefer methods are more effective than psychoanalysis is open to question, particularly since the ways in which therapeutic improvement is determined can be subjective and ultimately existential. Still the elegance of Freud’s theory remain appealing, in part because it dovetails with some irrefutable facts about human nature. For example his unification of the libido and the principle of energy conservation (borrowed from Maxwell and Einstein) was elegant. Much of what we do has some sort of relationship to the drive to seek pleasure (sexual and otherwise); particularly in an evolutionary context. Archaic Homo was only modestly encephalized, could neither run very fast nor climb as well as his quadrupedal cousins. Over time our forebears were evolving into a more slender, gracile creature. Despite potential advantages emanating from that, including enhanced fine motor dexterity and greater heat tolerance for long distance traveling, having less muscle mass was also a physical liability. In addition, archaic females, in typical primate fashion gave birth to one child at a time in most instances and the infant’s development extended beyond the usual primate norms. Faced with such long odds and predatory vulnerability nature had to bestow on the creature a fervent, compensatory sex drive.
Ladies to the Rescue…
Fortunately, females in at least one of the Archaic Homo groups changed in their morphology (by a quirk of nature or something more neo-Lemarckian?) Protruding breasts and pelvises, which in other primates only emerge during estrus, became more permanent. It looked to males as though these females were in permanent estrus. Good fortune prompted a physically weak, not yet brainy species to develop an intense interest in mating, which helped to ensure species continuity.
The final result was a complex human psycho-sexual dialectic. On one hand having such a lustful orientation favored much-needed propagation. On the other hand, since the infants’ development began to take longer, females had to balance their sexual interest with their maternal/protective instincts. They did so by selecting males with a helping, cooperative orientation, that is, males whose behavioral traits signaled commitment and stability. To the prospective mothers, it was clear that while having males around to help in child rearing was beneficial, it also meant males would have more contact with the infants. Males are not as typically gentle with infants so the females offered themselves up as a laboratory. An empathic strategy evolved in which females used the males’ behavior toward them as an indication of how the males would react to off spring in what amounted to a fusion between courtship and paternal fitness. As a result of this complex process a distinctly new primate mating pattern emerged which was both revolutionary and evolutionary.
One might ask; why use the term “revolutionary”? For example, don’t most animals treat each other gently during mating season? For example, even the lion in the throes of sexual fervor makes sure none of his sexual reactions will hurt or frighten off the lioness – pleasure, not pain being the whole point of the interaction.
The problem is that this is not necessarily true of primates. Chimps (our closest evolutionary relatives) have a fairly random mating process, whereby deception, opportunism and aggression are a bit more common (Crystal, 2018). Because they tend to live in large social groups sexual competition is more intense. Indeed alpha males attempt to hog all the action and lesser ranked members have to persuade or cajole females into clandestine rendezvous. If caught by alpha males the consequences can be dire – which makes one wonder if this is the original/primal source of sexual guilt (fear of getting caught in a non-approved sexual encounter by an authority figure).
That, of course, is mere conjecture. Less speculative is that sexual opportunity in primates has a direct correlation with social status. Thus a more comprehensive view of the human psyche would suggest one fundamental catalyst of human behavior, the libido, must be integrated with another, the drive for social status. In that context “rank and arousal” would be coupled in the same way that Einstein coupled mass and energy.
While this proposal is theoretical there is ample research lending support. For example Muehlenbein, Watts, et. al. showed that as social status was enhanced not only did chimp males experience an increase in testosterone levels but also became more attractive to females-who apparently sensed both the status and fertility of the higher ranking male. (2003 ).
Such a neo-Freudian modification might entail not just a unification of two prominent (previously separate) personality factors; social need and sexual need but would also include the inferiority/superiority complex and derivative compensatory mechanisms discussed by Alfred Adler, (Orgler 1976).
A (Psychic) Theory of Everything?
Ever since Einstein put forth his special and general theories of relativity, theoretical physicists have argued about what a unified field theory would look like, i.e. one describing a common source for the electromagnetic, weak, strong and gravitational forces and whether such a mechanism exists. Whether it be Neils Bohr challenging Einstein on the orderliness vs. uncertain nature of the cosmos, Richard Feynman depicting the universe as having no more of a cause-effect history than a fluctuating random particle, the central question has been the same: Which model/argument has enough teeth to resolve all issues related to the functions of the large and subatomic aspects of the universe?
A similar question could be asked regarding this bimodal socio-sexual theory, to wit: does it explain a significantly wide range of human behaviors and motives?
In addressing that question, obviously one must wax subjective, since there seems to be a dearth of research on this topic. Yet one can begin on fairly solid anecdotal ground by pointing out that almost every human motive has either a sexual or social source. From the moment of early human art, depictions of large breasted females and otherwise voluptuous characterizations were prevalent. The influence of sexual themes on language, morality, literature, art, filmmaking and music remains pre-eminent in human affairs.
So does social concern. Modern technology has shown us that our need to know about what every person does, what they achieve, what they say, how they act, how they sin and how sincerely they apologize has turned social media into a trillion dollar enterprise. Clearly Homo sapiens is by nature a bit snoopy, gossipy and competitive – traits that are thankfully (occasionally) balanced by altruistic concerns.
If sex and social interest are in themselves powerful drives, one could argue that the unification of those drives into a psychological mosaic would be powerful enough to be at the root of other motives. That is precisely the argument here.
Freud’s theory of the personality was by far the broadest and possibly the most ingenious ever devised; not just because of its clinical, physical and biological breadth but also because Freud was bold enough to apply his theory to a wide variety of behavior patterns – even some of the most mundane. He discussed history, dreams, humor, smoking (his own personal vice), art, politics, child development, as well as psychopathology through the prism of psychoanalysis. While it is difficult to aspire to that level of intellectual prowess, it might be worthwhile to apply this socio-sexual model to various aspects of human behavior to see if a theoretical unification is possible.
The drive to create has many possible antecedents. For example, the curiosity drive forces us to seek new stimuli. Humans not only have a tendency to invent new and useful or entertaining concepts and tools but often invent new fears and worries because we need to not only adapt to our environment but also to anticipate its perks and dangers. (One cannot come up with solutions unless there are problems to solve in the first place and creativity initially requires an irritating vacuum). Yet art is also a social phenomenon. Painting, music, sculpting, literature, architectural design – all pass through the filter of social approval. While not experimentally validated, but demonstrable, artists usually have no dearth of mating opportunities. That does not mean artists employ their skills merely to attract sexual partners but the effect is the same. The fact that their social rank (through reputation, notoriety and financial success) is enhanced by artistic endeavors offers further support of the inextricable link between status and the libido. As an interesting side note, paleo-anthropologists have long wondered what motivated early man to paint in the caves at Lascaux and Altamira. Some believe the paintings were spiritual (Greene 2007). Others believe the drawings were the inevitable byproduct of a cognitive leap in brain evolution (Waldman, 2012). These theories, and others, are interesting and possibly valid. One question seldom asked is whether the ancient artists drew these pictures to among other things, obtain higher rank and sexual access.
One way to address this aspect of human endeavor is to conjure up a kind of thought experiment, whereby one group of well-trained athletes are asked to run as fast or jump as high as they can with no one watching, the second group to do so with people observing. This is not the same as asking whether some athletes perform better or worse under pressure of scrutiny – clearly that varies with the individual. Rather it is to ask whether non-social performance would differ significantly from social performance. The same question could be asked of musicians, lecturers and actors. Research on this is sparse but one suspects the presence of observers would more often than not enhance performance; for various reasons having to do with social status, heightened adrenal output and the performance enhancing reinforcement (or fear of rejection) from the crowd.
The role of socio-sexual elements in politics is obvious; not only in light of the sexual exploits of various leaders over time (and not just in the USA – which begs the question of why we are so surprised by revelations about the sex lives of powerful politicians) but also because politics is not only about policy but also about appeal, attractiveness, and abstractions such as…”connecting with the people” “being charismatic” and “having a following.” Under the most horrendous circumstances we have seen this tendency utilized by figures like Caligula, Jim Jones and Charles Manson to manipulate the social and sexual/political instincts of their followers. Yet even benevolent figures have fished in those waters. Henry Kissinger’s famous quote about power being an aphrodisiac comes to mind.
Humor can also be said to derive from socio-sexual roots. It is of course social, since much of it pertains to one person’s observations of others; for example George Carlin’s comments on the flat rear ends of white folks and Richard Prior’s epiphany at seeing predominantly black folks in his travels to Africa. Yet while it is social it is also, interestingly, devoted to social rank. In fact when this writer was a young man a joke-fest among peers was often called a “ranking party.” Freud maintained that inherent in humor is an aggressive or taboo component, that allows us to say or imply things that have hurtful, demeaning tones but are masked as sarcasm and irony. Hennie Youngman’s “take my wife… please”, Jeff Foxworthy’s…”You could be a redneck if” are just two of many examples of the hierarchical underpinnings of humor. Since social rank has bearing on sexual access it can be said to fit into the bimodal personality paradigm as well.
In recent times there has been an emphasis on analyzing the psychological motives of criminals – particularly terrorists and serial killers through the prisms of religious fervor, symbolism, maternal relationships, child abuse etc. While each of these elements no doubt plays a role one has to wonder if the hyper-analysis of criminal behavior misses the point and if the roots of such behavior also derive primarily from a socio-sexual dynamic. For purposes of discussion let us review some crimes of note.
Ted Bundy’s horrific dynamics…
For all the analysis in books, commentary and documentaries on the motives of serial killer Ted Bundy the dynamics of his horrendous acts might have been fairly uncomplicated. He was spoiled as a child – perhaps due to guilt over the deception that his mother was really his mother. His eventual discovery that he was illegitimate and that his sister was really his mother created a dissonance-fomenting demotion from status of favorite son to gullible, unwanted bastard. He was later rejected by his fiance’, a slender woman with long dark hair who broke their engagement abruptly. This was no doubt interpreted by Bundy as a further demotion in status. He then found another girlfriend whom he tied up regularly as part of a sexual control ritual (possibly in a feverishly compulsive act of self restoration: “If I prevent you from moving and exert maximal physical control you can’t leave or demote me”) and subsequently went about murdering numerous look-a-likes to his fiance’. Did his need to kill, then rape his victims posthumously occur because he was never able to reestablish his hopeful, self perceived social rank as “bright, charming law student”; his female-directed nihilism a bizarre way of re-promoting himself and during the process, raising his testosterone levels through the safety valve of ultra control ?
Similar dynamics seem to be involved with many mass murderers and Islamic terrorists – the latter of whom had been promised not only legendary heroic status in death but also access to 72 virgins in paradise.
Meanwhile, Charles Manson was a rejected musician who neatly divided up the world into “injured have-nots” (his narcissistically inspired group) and the “haves.” For all his rants about “helter skelter” his actions might have been designed for rank restoration and to establish sexual and physical dominance.
Freud’s main emphasis was of course on psychopathology. In recent times many syndromes have been found to derive from biochemical processes in the brain. At face value this would seem to mitigate against a bimodal, evolutionary model of causation; that is, unless correlations can be found between the neurochemical and socio-sexual systems.
Perhaps there are. For example a causative feature of many depressive disorders is a depletion of pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters such as the catecholamine group. This and other transmitters are also related to social-hierarchical experiences, including an uptake following successful experiences and increased social status (Cheng, Kormenko, et al. 2015). Thus many of the same chemical agents involved in psychopathologies are functional in the socio-sexual dynamic. In addition, the cognitive themes of psychotics, dissociative as they might be, often pertain to social themes. For example a sense of being programmed or spied on by the paranoid schizophrenic, social anxiety at being in a room full of people, compensatory (status enhancing) rage at authority figures by an individual with an anti-social personality, status enhancing acts of sexual dominance by a low ranking individual who engages in rape or child molestation and the status seeking hysteria of the spotlight-seeking borderline personality.
Whether one can, as per this model, simplify the psyche via the integration of two indistinguishable drives is, of course, speculative. To do so would probably require proof that on a basic neurobehavioral level the human brain is co-wired in this way. It might also mean conjuring up an evolutionary link between social and sexual need (perhaps even extending to the origin and primal functions of human language).
It is clear that studies of the comparative cognitive abilities of young children and chimps showed that (brain mass notwithstanding) the advantage human infants had was a greater capacity to learn by observing and copying others (Hirschon, 2017). It suggests enhanced social perception might have been the evolutionary ratchet leading to our higher intelligence and unique capacity to pass information down through generations in building a cumulative culture. If the sex drive fuels us and social concern drives us, perhaps it can be assumed that in some way there would be a level of cooperation and mutual influence between the two in virtually all aspects of the personality.
Cheng, T. Kormenko, O. Granger, D.A. (2015) Prestige in a large scale group predicts longitudinal changes in testosterone. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Cherry,K. Freud, Ego and Superego. Article on Internet on Very/Well/Mind.com 11/6/2018
Crystal, M. (2018) Chimpanzee mating habits; Home, Science, Nature, Animals. Science Web site
Greene. F.J. (2007) Lecture at N.Y. Museum of Biblical Art. Religious Awareness in Art from prehistoric to today; A Course in Art Appreciation.
Hirschon, B. Apes vs. Toddlers: Although equivalent in many intellectual tasks human toddlers are much better than apes in social thinking. Science Net Links. Science Update Nov. 2017
Muehlenbein, M. Watts, D. Whitten, P. (Dec, 2003) Dominance, Rank and Fecal Testosterone Levels in Adult Male Chimpanzees at Ngogo,Kibale National Park,Uganda. American Journal of Primatology
Orgler, H. (1976) Alfred Adler; International Journal of Social Psychiatry 22 (1) 67-68
Waldman. K. Lascaux’s Picassos; What prehistoric art tells us about the evolution of the human brain. Health & Science Oct. 18, 2012