Why Social Darwinists Are Less Happy Than The Rest Of Us

New research explores the personality traits of people who profess a belief in social Darwinism.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 9, 2021

A new paper published in the journal PLOS-ONE suggests that people who espouse a "Social Darwinist" view of the world — that is, a belief that the world is a competitive jungle where only the strong survive — are more likely to exhibit a range of problematic personality traits such as avoidant attachment styles, antisocial inclinations, and high anxiety.

"Many researchers stress that individuals' and social groups' behavior are conditioned by how they perceive and understand the nature of social relations," state the authors of the research led by Piotr Radkiewicz of the Polish Academy of Sciences. "The content of such 'naive' theories about what people are and what we can expect from them activates specific actions against others. They can be prosocial (cooperation, helping) or anti-social (exploitation, manipulation, hurting). The social world view as a competitive jungle, also named naive social Darwinism, is probably the most straightforward expression of the negative vision of human nature and social relations."

To delve into the mind of the social Darwinist, the researchers recruited around 2500 Polish adults to participate in an online or phone survey. In the survey, participants completed the 15-item Competitive Jungle Belief Scale that measured their endorsement of social Darwinism (example agree-disagree statements include: "My knowledge and experience tell me that the social world we live in is basically a competitive 'jungle' in which the fittest survive and succeed, in which power, wealth, and winning are everything, and might is right" and "It's a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times").

Next, the researchers asked participants to complete a series of personality tests to understand which facets of personality were most predictive of social Darwinism beliefs. They measured participants' attachment style (secure, dismissive, preoccupied, or fearful), the Big Five personality dimensions (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experiences, and emotional stability), Dark Triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), basic human values (openness to change versus conservation and self-enhancement versus self-transcendence), and moral foundations (care, fairness, loyalty, and authority).

They also recorded demographic information such as age and gender.

They found that people who endorsed social Darwinism to a higher degree scored higher on every "negative" personality trait they tested. For instance, social Darwinists were significantly more likely to exhibit a fearful, preoccupied, or dismissive attachment style than a secure one. They also exhibited less emotional stability, more narcissism, more Machiavellianism, and more psychopathy. They preferred self-enhancement values such as ambition, resourcefulness, and security over self-transcendence values such as helpfulness, loyalty, and compassion. And, they valued the moral codes of justice, reciprocity, and caring less than non-social Darwinists.

The researchers also reported that males were more likely to believe in social Darwinism than were females and that social Darwinism beliefs tended to subside with age.

"It is rather unquestionable that Darwinian beliefs make up a vision of social life that is unfavorable for building a cooperative, helpful, and relatively egalitarian society," conclude the researchers. "It is not a pro-democratic inclination."

A full interview with Dr. Piotr Radkiewicz discussing this research can be found here: Inside the mind of a social Darwinist