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Childhood Environmental Unpredictability and Prosocial Behavior in Adults: The Effect of Life-History Strategy and Dark Personalities


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Purpose: Childhood environments have an impact on an individuals' behavior and cognition. We explored the relationship and possible mechanisms between childhood environmental unpredictability (CEU) and prosocial behavior (PSB) in adults. Participants and methods: We recruited Chinese college students (N = 1035) and adopted a questionnaire survey and structural equation modeling. Results: The results showed that CEU negatively predicted PSB in adults. Life-history strategy and dark personality chains mediated this relationship. Higher CEU facilitated faster development of life-history strategies in individuals, and dark personalities, via fast life-history strategies, further influenced PSB in adults. The mediating pathways of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism were significant, while psychopathy was not. Women were more prosocial than men, and there was no sex difference in the influence mechanism of CEU on PSB. Conclusion: This study has practical significance as it emphasizes the importance of shaping a stable childhood environment and that individuals' prosociality can be improved by intervening in the mediation.
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Childhood Environmental Unpredictability and
Prosocial Behavior in Adults: The Effect of
Life-History Strategy and Dark Personalities
Menghao Ren
, Shengqi Zou
, Shuyu Ding
, Daoqun Ding
Department of Psychology, School of Education Science, Hunan Normal University, Changsha, People’s Republic of China;
Cognition and Human
Behavior Key Laboratory of Hunan Province, Hunan Normal University, Changsha, People’s Republic of China;
Department of Education, Shandong
Women’s University, Jinan, People’s Republic of China;
Center for Mind and Brain Sciences, Hunan Normal University, Changsha, People’s Republic of
Correspondence: Daoqun Ding, Department of Psychology, School of Education Science, Hunan Normal University, 36 Lushan Road, Changsha,
Hunan, 410081, People’s Republic of China, Tel +86-731-88872869, Email
Purpose: Childhood environments have an impact on an individuals’ behavior and cognition. We explored the relationship and
possible mechanisms between childhood environmental unpredictability (CEU) and prosocial behavior (PSB) in adults.
Participants and Methods: We recruited Chinese college students (N = 1035) and adopted a questionnaire survey and structural
equation modeling.
Results: The results showed that CEU negatively predicted PSB in adults. Life-history strategy and dark personality chains mediated
this relationship. Higher CEU facilitated faster development of life-history strategies in individuals, and dark personalities, via fast
life-history strategies, further inuenced PSB in adults. The mediating pathways of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism were
signicant, while psychopathy was not. Women were more prosocial than men, and there was no sex difference in the inuence
mechanism of CEU on PSB.
Conclusion: This study has practical signicance as it emphasizes the importance of shaping a stable childhood environment and that
individuals’ prosociality can be improved by intervening in the mediation.
Keywords: childhood environmental unpredictability, prosocial behavior, life-history strategy, dark personality
Childhood environment often shapes individual personality and development and can predict individual behavior in the
Childhood environmental unpredictability (CEU) refers to the temporal or spatial unpredictability of risks,
resources, and threats of violence in the childhood environment.
In nature, it manifests itself in the unpredictability of
food availability and natural enemies in the early years of a species. In human society, it refers to the unpredictability of
childhood resources, residential and upbringing environment.
The measure revolves around how often this unpredict-
ability occurs in childhood. CEU can lead to more aggressive
and overeating behaviors in adults,
cognitive biases.
CEU can also lead to pathological
and dark
personality in adults. CEU is negatively related to
openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness in adults, while neuroticism is positively predicted.
CEU negatively impacts an individual’s behavior and personality.
Social functioning is a key factor in individual behavior and cognition. Prosocial behavior (PSB) generally refers to
all behaviors that meet social expectations and are benecial to others, groups, or society, and is an important factor in
individual social cognition and behavior.
However, most previous studies have focused on the impact of CEU on
individuals’ negative behavior, while few have explored whether CEU negatively affects individuals’ PSBs. Wu et al
found that CEU could signicantly predict adolescents’ PSB. Childhood poverty also predicts less PSB and volunteerism
among adolescents.
In adult studies, only a meta-analysis showed that CEU can negatively predict individuals’ PSB.
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Received: 7 May 2022
Accepted: 5 July 2022
Published: 13 July 2022
Few empirical researchers have examined this relationship in adults. However, PSB plays a very important and positive
role in promoting individuals’ wellbeing and mental health.
Therefore, we examined the relationship between CEU
and PSB in adults and the possible mechanisms behind these individual differences.
Life-History Strategy
According to life-history theory, CEU causes problematic behavior and pathological personality development because it
shapes individuals’ faster life-history strategies.
Faster life-history strategies cause individuals to focus more on the
present rather than the future, and be more self-centered than others.
Accordingly, they are more inclined to allocate
resources to themselves to ensure their reproduction in their current environment, rather than directing resources to
others, resulting in lower prosociality.
Moreover, faster life-history strategies can also lead to more aggressive
risk-taking behavior,
and impulsiveness,
further indicating from the side that faster life-history strategies can predict
lower prosociality. Therefore, we propose that life-history strategy may play a mediating role between CEU and PSB.
Dark Personalities
As aforementioned, individuals’ lower prosociality because of life-history strategies is multifaceted; hence, this macro
perspective seems limited in explaining the relationship between CEU and PSB. Dark personalities have received
considerable attention recently, and many studies have taken dark personalities as synonymous with fast life-history
Dark personality traits are complex and varied.
In this study, we adopted the Dark Tetrad, that includes
Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism.
Similarly, studies have found a positive predictive relationship
between CEU and dark personalities.
Therefore, we believe that dark personalities may further explain how fast life-
history strategies inuence PSBs. That is, CEU affects individuals’ PSB via dark personality traits, as fast life-history
strategies and dark personalities play a chain mediation role.
The relationship between dark personality traits and PSB may be complex. Dark personalities have been considered
negative and antisocial since their inception.
Dark personalities tend to predict less PSB,
greater unethical
and less honesty and humility.
Dark personalities as fast life strategies also predict higher levels of
Therefore, we believe that dark personalities can negatively predict PSB.
Regarding specic components, psychopathy is often indicated by impulsiveness, violence, and dishonesty,
sadists often derive pleasure from seeing others hurt and abused.
Psychopathy and sadism are more effective predictors
of aggression.
These components may negatively predict PSB.
Although Machiavellianism is also “dark”
with this characteristic pay considerable attention to their own interests and may use any means to obtain them.
PSBs tend to be motivated by altruism and egoism,
people with Machiavellianism tend to engage in deceptive behavior
disguised as prosocial, if helping others is benecial to their own interests.
Extant studies also show that there is both
a positive and negative correlation between Machiavellianism and PSB.
Therefore, some uncertainty surrounds the
relationship between Machiavellianism and PSB, which we further explored. Konrath et al
found that the relationship
between narcissism and PSB depends on the type of PSB. Narcissists pay more attention to the rewards that can be
secured for themselves in a situation
and tend to engage in PSB in public because this improves their image and
satises their vanity.
In other situations, they are selsh or negative.
We explored the relationship between
narcissism and PSB from the perspective of traits.
Interestingly, there are similar sex differences in both life-history strategies and dark personalities. Men’s life-history
strategies are generally faster than those of women,
and men have higher levels of dark personality traits than do
That is, because men have faster life-history strategies and higher levels of dark personality, will men have
lower prosocial levels than women? If the above-mentioned chain mediation effects hold, will the sex differences in life-
history strategies and dark personalities cause sex differences in the chain mediation effects? These problems are
discussed here.
Accordingly, this study explored the relationship between CEU and PSB in adults, hypothesizing that life-history
strategies and dark personalities have chain mediation effects. We further believe that there may be sex differences that
require further validation. We used a questionnaire and built structural equation models to test these hypotheses.
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Materials and Methods
Chinese college students (N = 1213) completed an online questionnaire. In the questionnaire, we set up three attention-
check items. A total of 178 participants failed one or more items and were thus excluded from the sample, leaving 1035
participants (595 women, M
= 22.45 ± 2.687 years). All participants read and signed the informed consent form and
received remuneration (about 6 RMB) after completing the questionnaire. This study was approved by the ethics
committee of our afliated institution and complied with the Declaration of Helsinki.
Materials and Procedure
Childhood Environment
The revised CEU questionnaire was used = 0.860).
Six items = 0.846) were used to measure parental behavior and
emotional unpredictability (eg “Whether my parents discipline me when I am naughty depends on his/her mood”)
and three
items = 0.636) measured the unpredictability of residential environments (eg “Things were often chaotic in my house”).
Response options ranged from 1 (completely disagree) to 7 (completely agree). A higher score indicated higher CEU.
Ellis et al
noted that individuals’ CEU and childhood environmental harshness (CEH) may affect their life-history
strategies. As the object of this study is CEU, CEH was controlled. CEH was measured through four items = 0.895; eg
“My family usually had enough money for things when I was growing up”).
Response options ranged from 1
(completely disagree) to 7 (completely agree). To enhance understanding, we made reverse-coded the scores. Higher
scores indicated higher CEH.
Life-History Strategy
The 20-item = 0.851) Mini-K was used to measure individuals’ life-history strategies (eg “I avoid taking risks”).
Response options ranged from 1 (completely disagree) to 7 (completely agree). To enhance understanding, we made
reverse-coded the scores. Higher scores indicated faster life-history strategies.
Dark Personality
The Short Dark Tetrad (SD4) was used to measure individuals’ dark personality traits.
Twenty-eight items were
measured, of which seven measured Machiavellianism = 0.902, eg “It’s not wise to let people know your secrets”),
seven measured narcissism = 0.903, eg “I have some exceptional qualities”), seven measured psychopathy = 0.901,
eg “People often say I’m out of control”), and seven measured sadism = 0.856, eg “I enjoy watching violent sports”).
Response options ranged from 1 (completely disagree) to 7 (completely agree). Higher scores indicated a higher degree
of dark personality traits.
The revised version of the Prosocial Tendencies Measure (PTM) was used to measure participants’ PSB.
items covering six dimensions of PSB were measured: public (4 items, α=0.853; eg “I can help others best when people
are watching me”), anonymous (5 items, α=0.921, eg “I prefer to donate money anonymously”), altruistic (4 items,
α=0.874, eg “I often help others, even if I don’t get any benet from it.”), compliant (5 items, α=0.892, eg “I never
hesitate to help others when they ask for it”), emotional (5 items, α=0.907, eg “Emotional situations make me want to
help needy others”), and dire (3 items, α=0.800, eg “I tend to help people who are in a real crisis or need”). Response
options ranged from 1 (completely disagree) to 5 (completely agree). Higher scores indicated a higher degree of PSB.
Data Analysis
Descriptive statistics and internal consistency tests were performed using SPSS 25. CEU, Mini-K, SD4, and PTM were
packaged using the item-balance method,
and control variables (age, sex, and CEH) were included. The structural
equation models were established using Mplus 8.3 (see Figure 1A and B). Model 1 was used to test the main effect and
Model 2 was used to test the chain indirect effects. The t of the measurement models reached the standard (Model 1:
= 97.534, df = 26, RMSEA = 0.052, CFI = 0.978, TLI = 0.970, SRMR = 0.039; Model 2: χ
= 1042.699, df = 349,
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RMSEA = 0.044, CFI = 0.958, TLI = 0.951, SRMR = 0.044). Factor loadings |λ| of the measurement models ranged
0.401–0.936. Bootstrap estimation (5000 samples) was used to verify the mediation model.
Preliminary Analysis
Table 1 presents the results of the descriptive statistics. CEU was signicantly negatively correlated with PSB (r= −0.321,
p< 0.001) and associated with faster life-history strategies (r= 0.309, p< 0.001). Faster life-history strategies were
signicantly associated with dark personalities (Machiavellianism: r= 0.306, p< 0.001; narcissism: r= 0.255, p< 0.001;
psychopathy: r= 0.305, p< 0.001; sadism: r= 0.345, p< 0.001) and PSB (r= −0.317, p< 0.001). Dark personalities were
signicantly negatively correlated with PSB (Machiavellianism: r= −0.333, p< 0.001; narcissism: r= −0.354, p< 0.001;
psychopathy: r= −0.342, p< 0.001; sadism: r= −0.442, p< 0.001). CEU was signicantly positively correlated with
narcissism (r= 0.317, p< 0.001), psychopathy (r= 0.284, p< 0.001), and sadism (r= 0.239, p< 0.001) but signicantly
negatively correlated with Machiavellianism (r= −0.252, p< 0.001), which indicates the need for further analysis.
The Main Effect Analysis
Model 1 conformed to the standard (see Figure 2A;χ
= 183.459, df = 82, RMSEA = 0.035, CFI = 0.983, TLI = 0.978,
SRMR = 0.035). CEU signicantly negatively predicted PSB = −0.262, p< 0.001) in adults after controlling for sex,
age and CEH. The mechanism of this relationship requires verication.
Figure 1 Theoretical model diagrams of Models 1 and 2. (A) Model 1. The main effect model; (B) Model 2. The mediation model.
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Table 1 The Results of Descriptive Statistics
M(SD) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1. CEU 3.612 (0.945)
2. CEH 4.491 (1.282) 0.289***
3. Life-history strategy 3.342 (0.662) 0.309*** 0.312***
4. Machiavellianism 4.669 (1.157) 0.252*** 0.176*** 0.306***
5. Narcissism 3.965 (1.075) 0.317*** 0.209*** 0.255*** 0.010
6. Psychopathy 3.111 (1.018) 0.284*** 0.198*** 0.305*** 0.232*** 0.259***
7. Sadism 3.489 (1.172) 0.239*** 0.274*** 0.345*** 0.210*** 0.220*** 0.422***
8. PSB 5.104 (0.738) 0.321*** 0.270*** 0.317*** 0.333*** 0.354*** 0.342*** 0.442***
9. Sex (Men = 1; Women = 2) 0.185*** 0.128*** 0.135*** 0.090** 0.154*** 0.606*** 0.208*** 0.166***
10. Age (years old) 22.45 (2.687) 0.121*** 0.098** 0.123*** 0.028 0.157*** 0.093** 0.008 0.130*** 0.086**
Notes: **p< 0.01, ***p< 0.001.
Abbreviations: M, mean; SD, standard deviation; CEU, childhood environmental unpredictability; CEH, childhood environmental harshness; PSB, prosocial behavior.
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The Mediation Analysis
Model 2 had a good t (see Figure 2B;χ
= 1305.166, df = 497, RMSEA = 0.048, CFI = 0.947, TLI = 0.938, SRMR = 0.051).
CEU signicantly negatively predicted PSB = −0.346, p< 0.001) and signicantly predicted faster life-history strategies =
0.246, p< 0.001) in adults. Faster life-history strategies predicted higher levels of dark personalities (Machiavellianism: β =
0.469, p< 0.001; narcissism: β = 0.233, p< 0.001; psychopathy: β = 0.257, p< 0.001; sadism: β = 0.320, p< 0.001) but not PSB
= 0.052, p= 0.309). Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism signicantly negatively predicted PSB (Machiavellianism: β =
−0.449, p< 0.001; narcissism: β = −0.207, p< 0.001; sadism: β = −0.293, p< 0.001) but psychopathy was not signicant =
−0.041, p= 0.377). CEU signicantly positively predicted narcissism = 0.237, p< 0.001), psychopathy = 0.093, p= 0.005),
and sadism = 0.086, p= 0.020), but Machiavellianism was negatively predicted = −0.519, p< 0.001).
The results of the mediation analysis showed that the indirect effects mediated by life-history strategies and dark
personalities and the pathways of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism were all signicant and negative (see
Table 2). However, the pathway mediated by psychopathy was not signicant.
To further test whether the above main effect and chain mediation effects were stable across different types of PSBs,
we incorporated all types of PSBs into the model and established Models 3 and 4 respectively (controlled for sex, age,
and CEH; see Figure 3A and B). Models 3 (χ
= 851.905, df = 517, RMSEA = 0.025, CFI = 0.984, TLI = 0.982, SRMR =
0.021) and 4 (χ
= 2305.517, df = 1127, RMSEA = 0.032, CFI = 0.964, TLI = 0.959, SRMR = 0.038) t well. In Model 3
(see Figure 3A), CEU could signicantly and negatively predict all types of PSBs (public: β = −0.251, p< 0.001;
anonymous: β = −0.240, p< 0.001; altruistic: β = −0.116, p= 0.002; compliant: β = −0.157, p< 0.001; emotional: β =
−0.152, p< 0.001; dire: β = −0.162, p< 0.001). In Model 4 (see Figure 3B), the results of the chain mediation analysis
are illustrated in Table 2.
Figure 2 The structural equation model diagrams of Models 1 and 2. (A) Model 1. The main effect model; (B) Model 2. The mediation model.
Notes: *p< 0.05, **p< 0.01, ***p< 0.001. Model 1 and Model 2 controlled for sex, age, and CEH.
Abbreviation: CEH, childhood environmental harshness.
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Sex Differences
An independent sample t-test showed that women were more prosocial than men. Men had faster life-history strategies
and higher levels of dark personalities (t-test results see Supplementary Material Table S1). Model 1 (Men: χ
= 151.615,
df = 72, RMSEA = 0.050, CFI = 0.970, TLI = 0.962, SRMR = 0.047; Women: χ
= 137.526, df = 72, RMSEA = 0.039,
Table 2 The Results of Chain Mediation Analysis (5000 Bootstrap Samples)
Pathways Estimate SE 95% CI
Lower Upper
CEU Life-history strategy Machiavellianism PSB 0.052 0.011 0.076 0.033
CEU Life-history strategy Narcissism PSB 0.012 0.003 0.019 0.007
CEU Life-history strategy Psychopathy PSB 0.003 0.003 0.010 0.003
CEU Life-history strategy Sadism PSB 0.023 0.006 0.037 0.015
CEU Life-history strategy Machiavellianism Public 0.047 0.011 0.074 0.029
CEU Life-history strategy Narcissism Public 0.020 0.005 0.032 0.011
CEU Life-history strategy Psychopathy Public 0.009 0.004 0.019 0.003
CEU Life-history strategy Sadism PSB 0.016 0.005 0.028 0.008
CEU Life-history strategy Machiavellianism Anonymous 0.044 0.010 0.067 0.027
CEU Life-history strategy Narcissism Anonymous 0.007 0.003 0.014 0.003
CEU Life-history strategy Psychopathy Anonymous 0.001 0.003 0.008 0.005
CEU Life-history strategy Sadism Anonymous 0.016 0.005 0.028 0.009
CEU Life-history strategy Machiavellianism Altruistic 0.035 0.009 0.057 0.022
CEU Life-history strategy Narcissism Altruistic 0.008 0.003 0.016 0.004
CEU Life-history strategy Psychopathy Altruistic 0.003 0.003 0.011 0.003
CEU Life-history strategy Sadism Altruistic 0.015 0.005 0.025 0.007
CEU Life-history strategy Machiavellianism Compliant 0.018 0.006 0.032 0.009
CEU Life-history strategy Narcissism Compliant 0.006 0.002 0.012 0.003
CEU Life-history strategy Psychopathy Compliant 0.000 0.003 0.006 0.007
CEU Life-history strategy Sadism Compliant 0.019 0.005 0.031 0.011
CEU Life-history strategy Machiavellianism Emotional 0.040 0.009 0.062 0.025
CEU Life-history strategy Narcissism Emotional 0.008 0.003 0.014 0.004
CEU Life-history strategy Psychopathy Emotional 0.001 0.003 0.008 0.005
CEU Life-history strategy Sadism Emotional 0.014 0.004 0.025 0.007
CEU Life-history strategy Machiavellianism Dire 0.026 0.008 0.045 0.014
CEU Life-history strategy Narcissism Dire 0.003 0.002 0.009 0.001
CEU Life-history strategy Psychopathy Dire 0.002 0.003 0.004 0.009
CEU Life-history strategy Sadism Dire 0.011 0.004 0.021 0.005
Abbreviations: CEU, childhood environmental unpredictability; PSB, prosocial behavior.
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Figure 3 The structural equation model diagrams of Models 3 and 4. (A) Model 3. The main effect model includes all types of PSBs; (B) Model 4. The mediation model
includes all types of PSBs.
Notes: *p< 0.05, **p< 0.01, ***p< 0.001. Model 3 and Model 4 controlled for sex, age, and CEH.
Abbreviations: PSB, prosocial behavior; CEH, childhood environmental harshness.
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CFI = 0.979, TLI = 0.974, SRMR = 0.040), Model 2 (Men: χ
= 911.833, df = 376, RMSEA = 0.057, CFI = 0.925, TLI =
0.913, SRMR = 0.059; Women: χ
= 974.403, df = 376, RMSEA = 0.052, CFI = 0.931, TLI = 0.920, SRMR = 0.063),
Model 3 (Men: χ
= 778.986, df = 492, RMSEA = 0.036, CFI = 0.969, TLI = 0.965, SRMR = 0.032; Women: χ
840.095, df = 492, RMSEA = 0.034, CFI = 0.971, TLI = 0.966, SRMR = 0.030) and Model 4 (Men: χ
= 1926.991, df =
1091, RMSEA = 0.042, CFI = 0.940, TLI = 0.933, SRMR = 0.044; Women: χ
= 2102.453, df = 1091, RMSEA = 0.039,
CFI = 0.942, TLI = 0.935, SRMR = 0.050) t the data well for both men and women. Multigroup analysis showed strict
invariance of measurement models of Models 1, 2, 3 and 4 (see Supplementary Material Tables S2S5). Models t for
the freely estimated path coefcients (Model 1: χ
= 309.014, df = 164, RMSEA = 0.041, CFI = 0.975, TLI = 0.972,
SRMR = 0.048; Model 2: χ
= 1981.181, df = 794, RMSEA = 0.054, CFI = 0.925, TLI = 0.918, SRMR = 0.063; Model
3: χ
= 1678.929, df = 1040, RMSEA = 0.034, CFI = 0.970, TLI = 0.967, SRMR = 0.034; Model 4: χ
= 4163.169, df =
2259, RMSEA = 0.040, CFI = 0.940, TLI = 0.935, SRMR = 0.048) and constrained path coefcients (Model 1: χ
314.231, df = 169, RMSEA = 0.041, CFI = 0.975, TLI = 0.973, SRMR = 0.050; Model 2: χ
= 2014.302, df = 823,
RMSEA = 0.053, CFI = 0.924, TLI = 0.920, SRMR = 0.066; Model 3: χ
= 1697.131, df = 1054, RMSEA = 0.034, CFI =
0.970, TLI = 0.968, SRMR = 0.036; Model 4: χ
= 4276.908, df = 2324, RMSEA = 0.040, CFI = 0.938, TLI = 0.935,
SRMR = 0.053) had no signicant differences (Model 1: Δχ
= 5.217, Δdf = 5, ΔCFI = 0, ΔTLI = 0.001; Model 2: Δχ
33.121, Δdf = 29, ΔCFI = −0.001, ΔTLI = 0.002; Model 3: Δχ
= 18.202, Δdf = 14, ΔCFI = 0, ΔTLI = 0.001; Model 4:
= 113.739, Δdf = 65, ΔCFI = −0.002, ΔTLI = 0). No sex differences were observed in the main or chain mediation
As indicated, CEU tends to have serious negative impacts on individuals. We examined whether individual differences in
PSB in adults are related to CEU. Data were collected from Chinese college student participants through a questionnaire
survey, and a structural equation model was adopted. Results indicated that CEU negatively predicted PSB. Life-history
strategies and dark personalities mediated this relationship. The mediating pathways of Machiavellianism, narcissism,
and sadism were signicant; however, psychopathy was not.
The results conrmed our hypothesis—CEU shapes fast life-history strategies in adults, and dark personalities affect
PSBs via fast life-history strategies. The chain mediation mediated by Machiavellianism negatively predicted PSB,
suggesting that this kind of personality was more negative. The indirect effect of narcissism was minimal. Under the
concept of the Dark Tetrad, narcissism emphasizes the dimension of narcissistic admiration,
which can encourage
individuals to generate positive motivations,
contributing to this smaller indirect effect. In our initial hypothesis,
psychopathy and sadism were the most negative; however, only the sadism-mediated indirect effects were signicant.
Perhaps under the inuence of collectivism, the self-regulation of Chinese people is stronger; they consider group
interests above personal interests. Although psychopathy is destructive and can facilitate antisocial personality disorder,
owing to the implicit code of conduct in China, it is less likely to directly cause destructive behavior.
Therefore, such
destructive personality traits cannot directly predict PSB.
Another paradoxical result is the relationship between CEU and Machiavellianism. Our results are negative, in
contrast to a previous study.
Although the chain indirect effect was negative and consistent with the hypothesis, it
produced a suppressing effect.
Wen and Ye
believed that when the suppressing effect occurs, greater attention
should be paid to the mediated indirect effect rather than the direct effect, and mediation should be explained in a broader
sense. Therefore, the chain indirect effect mediated by Machiavellianism was established in this study. We were more
concerned with the hypothesis of chain mediation, whereby CEU leads to faster life-history strategies that shape higher
levels of dark personality traits, which inuences individuals’ PSB. This suppressing effect also indicates that
Machiavellianism has both positive and negative aspects.
Thus, it is signicant to clarify the relationship between
CEU and Machiavellianism. There may be some moderating variables between CEU and Machiavellianism, which affect
the relationship between them. Future research could use a more comprehensive Machiavellianism measurement method.
In Model 2, life history strategies (the fast-slow continuum) were unable to signicantly predict PSB. A central
assumption of the life-history theory is trade-offs.
This study initially emphasized the trade-off between current and
future reproduction, suggesting that individuals’ faster life-history strategies would direct resources toward themselves,
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thus ensuring that individuals have sufcient resources for current reproduction.
Such resource orientation is not
conducive to individuals’ PSB. Accordingly, this study hypothesized that the faster life-history strategies would predict
less PSB. However, the life history theory is multi-dimensional,
for example, it’s still existed the trade-off between
parenting and mating. From this perspective, faster life-history strategies will make individuals work harder for mating,
and the behavior of developing afnity directs resources towards others, which is prosocial.
The differences between
these trade-offs may prevent the fast-slow continuum from signicantly predicting PSB in the mediation model. This
nding is intriguing and ts well with the recent debate on life-history theory in psychology that psychometrics quanties
life-history theory as a single-dimensional fast-slow continuum, ignoring its multi-dimensional nature.
In future
studies, we believe that new measurement tools to specify multiple dimensions of the life-history theory should be
developed, not only single-dimensional fast-slow continuum. Alternatively, more specic variables of the life-history
theory could be investigated, like the dark personalities proposed in this study, that make the life-history theory more
specic, as opposed to using the macro fast-slow continuum to explain individuals’ behaviors.
In Model 3, CEU’s predictions for all types of PSBs were consistent with the ndings in Model 1, indicating that the main
effect was stable in all types of PSBs. In Model 4, for anonymous, altruistic, compliant, and emotional PSBs, the chain
mediation analysis results were consistent with Model 2. The pathways of the four dark personalities were all signicant
regarding public PSB, possibly because such public behavior is more associated with reputation and thus has a larger effect
size on this type of PSB. Correspondingly, the effect sizes of these dark personalities on the altruistic PSB were smaller than
that of other types, indicating that these dark personalities are less associated with behaviors that do not benet them, and tend
to be more self-centered than altruistic.
In addition, narcissism cannot signicantly predict dire, that also veries that
narcissism has diverse effects on different PSBs.
This may be because in a dire situation, narcissists may not weigh up
whether or not this behavior will bring them credit, and therefore this cannot be signicantly predicted in the model.
The results regarding sex differences were consistent with previous studies: men’s life-history strategies tend to be
faster than those of women, and dark personality traits are higher. Contrary to our hypothesis, there were no sex
differences in the measurement models, the main effect, and the chain mediation effect. Although there were quantitative
differences in the results (including life-history strategies, dark personality, and PSB), this did not change effect size and
the mediating mechanism, so there was no qualitative difference.
This study lls empirical gaps in the relationship between CEU and PSB in adults, and the ndings have practical
signicance. The results emphasize the importance of shaping a stable childhood environment, which can improve the
prosociality of individuals’ behavior in adults and have implications for childhood education. Further, studies have found that
life-history strategies and personality can also be corrected through acquired experience.
Therefore, interventions can be
used to improve the prosociality of adults with higher CEU to conform to societal expectations, particularly in collectivistic
countries. Although prosociality can be improved through childhood education and acquired intervention, the role of faster
life-history strategies and dark personality traits was not denied. Regardless of the speed of life-history strategies and the level
of dark personality traits, this may not negatively impact individuals, but is conducive to adaptive survival.
This study has some limitations. First, PSBs are affected by social desirability.
Individuals’ PSBs may differ across
situations, and some biases would be caused only by measuring them. Future research should adopt eld experiments to
verify our results. Second, we established a structural equation model using cross-sectional data and found its mechanism.
However, this cannot prove causality, and future studies can further verify these ndings using longitudinal data or
experimental methods. Third, although the Dark Tetrad measures multiple personality variables, it is impossible to
accurately measure all aspects of the variables. Future studies can adopt more accurate tools to verify controversial
personality variables. Fourth, cultural differences affect PSB.
This study is the result of a survey conducted in
Eastern collectivist countries; therefore, cross-cultural comparisons could yield interesting ndings. Fifth, individuals
with higher levels of dark personality traits may exhibit recall bias; the subjective recall of their childhood may differ
from those of individuals with a normal personality, affecting the results. Future studies could verify and supplement this
study by adopting some objective indicators. Sixth, self-control and impulsivity tend to be associated with less PSB,
while CEU
and the faster life-history strategy
were also associated with lower levels of self-control. So
could self-control further explain the relationship between CEU and PSB? Future research can explore this perspective.
Finally, the participants were college students, and thus, whether the ndings extend to other ages requires verication.
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This study found that CEU negatively predicts PSB in adults. Life-history strategy and dark personality chains mediated
this relationship, and there was no sex difference in the inuence mechanism of CEU on PSB. The results show that
childhood environment predicts prosociality in adults, which indirectly indicates the importance of childhood education.
Additionally, prosociality in adults may be improved with interventions that focus on life-history strategies and dark
personality traits.
CEU, childhood environmental unpredictability; PSB, prosocial behavior; CEH, childhood environmental harshness;
SD4, Short Dark Tetrad; PTM, Prosocial Tendencies Measure.
Data Sharing Statement
The measurement materials, results, data, and Mplus codes for this paper have been deposited in the Open Science
Framework (OSF) repository ( For peer review:
Ethics Approval and Informed Consent
This study was approved by the Ethics Committee of Hunan Normal University and complied with the Declaration of
Helsinki. All participants read and signed the informed consent form and received remuneration (about 6 RMB) after
completing the questionnaire.
Thanks to all those who contributed to this study.
This study was supported by National Social Science Foundation of China (19BSH127).
The authors report no conicts of interest in this study.
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Being able to control oneself in emotionally upsetting situations is essential for good relationship functioning. According to life history theory, childhood exposure to harshness and unpredictability should forecast diminished emotional control and lower relationship quality. We examined this in three studies. In Studies 1 and 2, greater childhood unpredictability (frequent financial, residential, and familial changes), but not harshness (low SES), was associated with lower emotional control in adolescents (N = 1041) and adults (N = 327). These effects were stronger during the participants' reproductive years. Moreover, in Study 2, greater childhood unpredictability was indirectly associated with lower relationship quality through lower emotional control. In study 3, we leveraged the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (N = 160). Greater early-life unpredictability (ages 0-4) prospectively predicted lower relationship quality at age 32 via lower emotional control at the same age. This relation was serially mediated by less supportive observed early maternal care (ages 1.5-3.5) and insecure attachment representations (ages 19 and 26). Early unpredictability also predicted greater observed emotional distress during conflict interactions with romantic partners (ages 19-36). These findings point to the role of emotional control in mediating the effects of unpredictable childhood environments on relationship functioning in adulthood.
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Life history theory has become a prominent framework in the evolutionary social sciences, and the concept of trade-offs, the cornerstone of life history theory in studies on non-human taxa, has likewise been widely adopted. Yet, human life history research often assumes trade-offs without demonstrating them. This is not surprising given the practical difficulties in measuring trade-offs in long-lived animals, like humans. Four main methods are used to demonstrate trade-offs: phenotypic correlations, experimental manipulations, genetic correlations and correlated responses to selection. Here, I discuss challenges with these methods along with potential solutions. For example, individual heterogeneity within a population in quality or access to resources can mask underling trade-offs, and this can be accounted for by careful experimental manipulation or proper statistical treatment of observational data. In general, trade-offs have proven more difficult than expected to measure, and evidence across species is mixed, but strong evidence exists in some cases. I use the key trade-off between reproduction and survival to exemplify methods, challenges and solutions, and review the mixed evidence for a cost of reproduction in humans. I conclude by providing directions for future research. Promising avenues are opening thanks to recent advances in quantitative genetic and genomic methods coupled with the availability of high-quality large-scale datasets on humans from different populations, allowing the study of the evolutionary implications of life history trade-offs in humans.
This review synthesizes recent research on consumer self-control, self-regulation, and wellbeing using a perspective rooted in evolutionary theorizing—the notion of Life History Strategies (LHSs), derived from Life History Theory. We discuss both correlational and experimental research that has informed our understanding about how individual differences in LHSs may shape the ‘self-regulatory toolkit’ and how this, in turn, affects downstream consequences for consumer health and wellbeing. We also offer a counterpoint to the prevailing notion that fast LHSs mostly have negative, and slow LHSs positive consequences and we highlight promising future avenues to boost fast LHS consumers’ self-control.
Cognitive style is a major component of individuals' life history and everyday life. However, individual variations in cognitive styles are not well understood from an evolutionary functional perspective. Through two studies, we investigated how childhood unpredictability might be related to deliberate or intuitive cognitive styles. Study 1, in which we surveyed 301 undergraduate students, revealed that lower childhood unpredictability was a predictor of slower life-history strategies, and such strategies in turn predicted higher self-reported deliberate cognitive style. In Study 2 (N = 269), we experimentally manipulated mortality cues and subsequently assessed participants' deliberate responses by using the Cognitive Reflection Test. The results indicated that individuals who experienced higher childhood unpredictability, relative to those who had low childhood unpredictability, displayed a smaller proportion of deliberate responses when exposed to mortality cues but not when exposed to control cues. These results imply that childhood unpredictability might predispose individuals to specific cognitive styles that serve distinct adaptive functions. This is manifested as both long-term propensities in life-history development and short-term behavioral tendencies in threatening situations.
Research has begun to investigate subclinical levels of sadism including “everyday sadism:” an enjoyment of cruelty in normal, everyday situations. Thus far, subclinical sadism has been conceptualized as inherently antisocial, as with Internet trolls. We examined a potentially prosocial manifestation of sadism: self-identified sadists in the BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism) community who cause pain only to consenting partners. A total of 532 BDSM practitioners and non-practitioners completed measures of everyday sadism with consent explicit, non-consent explicit, or consent ambiguous, and known correlates of everyday sadism (empathy, HEXACO traits, and Dark Triad traits). Across both samples and all conditions, everyday sadism correlated negatively with affective empathy, agreeableness, and honesty-humility, and positively with Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. These results support the validity of the measure of everyday sadism among BDSM practitioners. Psychopathy uniquely predicted everyday sadism among BDSM practitioners when non-consent was explicit. BDSM sadists differed significantly from non-sadistic BDSM tops only on the physical subscale of everyday sadism and only when consent was explicit. These findings suggest that most BDSM sadists are not everyday sadists, and that BDSM sadism might represent a prosocial manifestation of subclinical sadism, but that BDSM sadists with high levels of psychopathy might be everyday sadists.
The immune system's response to threat is to amass protective white blood cells. We investigated (N = 234) individual differences in white blood cell (WBC) through the lens of life history theory by examining individual differences in (self-reported) childhood threats (i.e., unpredictability and harshness), life history speed, and the Dark Triad traits (i.e., Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy). People with adverse childhood conditions had faster life history strategies and higher Dark Triad traits, and were more prone to be inflamed (i.e., sexually transmitted infections). In addition, men reported more childhood harshness, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and a faster life history strategy and a higher WBC count than women did. Moreover, we revealed, through structural equation models, that the effects of childhood adversity on adult WBC count were mediated by narcissism especially in women. Results are discussed in terms of the mechanism underlying the association between childhood environments and physiological health.
If people enjoy giving, then why do they not always give? This study examines whether self-control influences prosocial behavior among 316 young children. For this purpose, we experimentally elicited self-control, altruism, and cognitive skills. In line with previous studies, we find that the majority of children, like adults, tend to give away some of their endowments. Our main finding is that self-control is significantly associated with altruism. Using children's participation time to our game as an instrument, we show that self-control depletion leads to significantly lower altruism among children.