David Buss is an evolutionary psychologist, author and educator. He is credited as being one of the founding fathers of evolutionary psychology. Buss is most well-known for his work on human sexuality and mating strategies, but has also done extensive work in the areas of personality and individual differences, social emotions, intimate partner violence, stalking, and murder. He is also one of the most highly cited psychologists in the world.
David Buss’s Childhood
David M. Buss was born on April 14, 1953, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Both of his parents were well-educated, with his mother, Edith Buss, having earned a Masters degree in special education. His father, Arnold Buss, was a distinguished professor of psychology at several universities and is now professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin.
Despite the academic focus of his parents, Buss actually showed little interest in education during his high school years. At age 17, he dropped out of school to work the night shift at a truck stop, pumping gas. After a few altercations at his workplace, Buss decided to return to school so he could find a better way to earn a living. He began taking night classes and eventually obtained his high school diploma.
After completing his high school education, Buss pursued an undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Although his GPA did not meet the university’s minimum entrance requirements, he secured his spot by winning a random lottery. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1976.
Buss later earned his Ph.D in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. His emphasis was on personality psychology but at one point during his studies, he considered switching to a more practical area of psychology, given the limited job opportunities that were available in academia. Encouraged by one of his mentors, however, he decided to continue pursuing his original interest.
Buss’ first exposure to evolutionary theory came during his freshman year at the University of Texas. From the outset, he was “mesmerized” by the explanations it provided. His interest in evolution increased during his graduate studies and he often read books about the theory in his spare time. For his dissertation, he was interested in exploring the topic of “evolution and personality” but given that the faculty at the time had limited knowledge of evolutionary biology, he eventually chose another topic instead.
After completing graduate studies, Buss was offered a position at Harvard University as an assistant professor of psychology. He was promoted to associate professor in 1985, before moving to the University of Michigan where he assumed a similar role. In 1991, he was promoted to the rank of professor. Buss’ final move came in 1996, when he joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has remained ever since.
Act Frequency Theory
The act frequency approach (AFA) to personality traits was first introduced by David Buss and Kenneth Craik in 1980. In contrast to what other theorists previously proposed, Buss and Craik argued that personality traits should not be viewed as internal structures that cause behavior. In other words, they should not be viewed as explanations for why people act the way they do.
According to Buss and Craik, personality traits are merely descriptive categories or labels that summarize general trends in behavior. They indicate the frequency with which certain acts have been performed in the past. Against this background, personality traits are nothing more than ‘act frequencies.’ Saying that someone is aggressive simply means that the individual has demonstrated several aggressive acts over a specified period of time.
Buss and Craik suggested that the act frequency approach be used to investigate the structure of personality traits. They demonstrated how this can be done by asking a group of college students to list acts that they believe are representative of certain traits, such as dominance. They then asked a different group of subjects to rate how typical these acts are for each trait in question.
Based on the responses obtained, a set of 100 acts were selected for each trait and used as the basis of measurement tools. Trait levels could then be determined by asking individuals to indicate the frequency with which they engaged in each act associated with that trait. This approach allowed for trait levels (measured as act frequencies) to be easily compared within and across individuals.
Sexual Strategies Theory
Sexual strategies theory (SST) was proposed by David Buss and David Schmitt in 1993 to explain sex differences in mate selection. The theory was based on a large cross-cultural study of over 10,000 participants from 37 different cultural groups. SST suggests that men and women choose from a range of mating strategies, both short-term and long-term, depending on the context, and that these strategies have been shaped by our evolutionary history.
Long-term mating strategies involve a high degree of investment of both time and resources, while short term mating strategies typically involve fleeting sexual encounters. Although males and females engage in both forms of mating, men are said to devote more of their efforts to short-term strategies, whereas women are more likely to pursue long-term strategies.
According to Buss and Schmitt, men and women evolved distinct strategies because they face different adaptive challenges associated with mating and reproduction. For example, as women have to bear the burdens and costs of carrying a child for nine months and then nursing that child after birth, they are by nature more invested in each reproductive act than males. During those nine months, even if a woman had sex with several other partners, she could only produce one child; whereas a man could produce several children in the same time period by mating with many different women.
Throughout history, the reproductive gains from short-term mating were much higher for men than women. From an evolutionary perspective, men maximized their reproductive advantage by having as many children as possible. Women, on the other hand, maximized their reproductive advantage by carefully selecting a mate that would boost their offsprings’ chances of survival (eg., one with adequate resources and ‘good genes’ that they could pass on to their children).
Despite the suggestion that women are more likely to pursue long-term partners, Buss and Schmitt identified several situations in which they may benefit from short-term mating. For example, this form of mating could allow women to obtain valuable resources for themselves and their children, provide insurance against loss of a stable partner, or give them an opportunity to judge how suitable a mate would be in the long-term. According to SST, however, even when women pursue short-term strategies, their primary goal is not to obtain a large number of mates, but to find mates of superior genetic quality.
Although men are said to have a greater desire than women for a large number of mates, they may also choose to pursue long-term mating for several reasons. For example, this form of mating might allow a man to: (1) monopolize a woman’s reproductive resources for the entire course of her life, (2) ensure the genetic quality of his children, and (3) benefit from division of labor and from long-term alliances with his partner’s relatives.
According to SST, even though males and females both engage in long-term mating depending on the context, they differ in terms of what they look for in a long-term partner. For example, men are said to place a high value on youth and physical attractiveness since these signal fertility. Women, on the other hand, look for indicators that the man will be both willing and able to provide for her and her children (eg., social and financial status, maturity, ambition, kindness and generosity).
In addition to describing gender differences in mating strategies, SST also attempts to explain individual differences in mating preferences. Among males, for example, status and prestige were identified as factors that predict mating strategies. In ancient cultures, men with higher status and prestige often had many wives. Similarly today, men of higher social ranking are more likely to have a larger number of mates and rely more on short-term strategies than their lower ranking counterparts. The same holds true for men who have a high degree of intelligence, ambition, popularity, maturity, athleticism, strength, self-esteem, and physical attractiveness.
Among women, there is some evidence that female mating strategies shift over the course of the lifespan, with short-term mating being more common during adolescence. Women raised in father-absent households have also been found to be more likely to engage in short-term strategies, especially if a step-father had been present in the home.
Other factors that influence whether an individual will pursue his or her preferred mating strategy include opportunity, personality traits, the male to female ratio in the available mating pool, cultural norms, parental influence, and changes in life circumstances (eg., divorce).
Strategic Interference Theory
Strategic interference theory (SIT) is another evolution-based theory proposed by Buss. The theory suggests that feelings of distress are adaptive mechanisms which evolved over time to signal when someone or something is impeding our preferred behavioral strategies, desires or goals. Negative emotions such as anger, fear, jealousy, depression, and anxiety are believed to serve four adaptive functions. They:
- Focus our attention on the source of the interference while screening out less relevant information
- Prompt us to store the relevant information in memory for future reference
- Motivate us to reduce or eliminate the source of the interference
- Stimulate memory recall and subsequent action to avoid or prevent further interference
Although negative emotions are unpleasant, SIT claims that they are necessary and adaptive, having been selected by evolutionary processes to increase our ancestors’ chances of survival. They can be compared to a wake-up call that helps individuals to quickly recognize when a problem exists and stirs them to action to rectify the problem.
One major source of strategic interference noted by Buss is the difference in mating strategies between men and women. As noted above, women tend to seek out long-term relationships with a committed partner, whereas men are more driven to pursue short-term relationships and casual sex. These two preferred strategies simultaneously interfere with one another, resulting in feelings of distress.
Given that men and women generally have different mating goals, strategic interference of these goals result in different patterns of emotional response. For example, women display greater distress than men when their partners (1) desire sex more quickly and frequently than they would like, and (2) become emotionally invested in another person. Men, on the other hand, become more distressed than women when their mates delay sex and when they engage in sexual infidelity.
Error Management Theory
Error Management Theory was developed by Buss to explain how humans think and make decisions in moments of uncertainty. The theory predicts that when we are unsure of the best decision to make in a given situation, we will likely choose the option that minimizes the cost of error.
Buss cites an example of walking through the woods and suddenly hearing a rustling in the fallen leaves on the path ahead. Unsure of whether the rustling was caused by a poisonous snake or just the wind, you must now decide whether to continue on the path or make a short detour around it. In this situation, Buss suggests that you would likely assume that a snake was up ahead and therefore take a detour. If you were wrong about the snake, the cost of your error would be minimal—a simple detour. On the other hand, if you incorrectly assumed the rustling was caused by the wind, the cost to you would be much greater. Indeed, such a decision could cost you your life!
Buss attributes the tendency to err on the side of caution to our evolutionary history. Throughout the ages, our ancestors would have had to face numerous situations such as the one described above. Buss contends that an “adaptive bias” developed over time, making us more likely to choose the least costly option(s) when faced with uncertainty.
Homicide Adaptation Theory
Homicide adaptation theory (HAT) is an attempt by David Buss and Joshua Duntley to explain, from an evolutionary perspective, why people commit murder. In short, the theory proposes that humans evolved several psychological mechanisms for killing, each of which helped our ancestors solve specific adaptive problems in the past. These psychological mechanisms consist of ingrained thought patterns, as well as deep-seated emotions that motivate a person to kill.
Historically, killing served numerous adaptive functions such as ensuring the removal of rivals, increasing access to much needed resources, insuring against exploitation and injury, and preventing one’s own premature death. Today, the evolved psychological adaptations for killing result in homicidal thoughts and, occasionally, homicidal behavior when humans are faced with situations similar to those that were reliably solved by homicide in our ancestral past.
In simpler terms, HAT suggests that all humans are born with an instinct to kill under certain circumstances. Unlike other theories that suggest homicide is triggered by external factors, Buss and Duntley propose that it is essentially a part of our nature.
Just as humans developed adaptations to kill, they also developed adaptations to defend against being killed. These defenses increase the costs of homicidal behavior since the aggressor risks being injured or killed himself. Anti-homicide adaptations therefore serve as a deterrent for would-be killers. Without these defensive strategies, Buss and Duntley suggest that homicide rates around the world would be much higher.
Applications of Buss’ Theories
Buss’s theories help to explain many of the issues surrounding intimate relationships. For example, conflicts regarding levels of commitment, sexual desire, sexual expression and fidelity may be accounted for by sex differences in mating strategies. Strategic interference theory explains why men and women experience different patterns of jealousy and anger in relationships, and homicide adaptation theory can help to explain the cause of domestic violence between partners and toward individuals who threaten an existing relationship.
The insights derived from Buss’ sexual strategies theory can also help to enhance mutual understanding in relationships, and potentially assist in overcoming relationship conflicts. Additionally, individuals may infer from Buss’ theory how they can enhance their attractiveness to members of the opposite sex, as well as how they can retain existing mates.
Buss and Craik’s act frequency approach has been applied by other researchers to the study of various personality traits, including the Big Five traits. Using this method, researchers have been able to identify prototypical acts associated with several personality characteristics, and have used these as the basis for designing measurement instruments.
Criticisms of Buss’ Theories
The act frequency approach to personality traits has often been criticized for being strictly descriptive, as opposed to explanatory. By focusing only on the frequency of acts, the approach neglects the many other factors that influence whether or not, and how often, these acts are performed. These include the external context, as well as internal motivational states. As such, the AFA is said to contribute very little to the understanding of personality processes and differences.
Other critics contend that the AFA introduces nothing new to the study of personality, since similar procedures were already being used for constructing psychometric scales. Furthermore, these critics argue that because the AFA does not include rigorous procedures for establishing validity, measurement tools based on this approach are psychometrically unsound.
In the case of the sexual strategies theory, Buss himself acknowledged that while the theory accounts for sex differences in mating, it is quite limited in its ability to explain sexual commonalities between men and women. Another criticism of the theory is that it largely ignores the influence of learning and social factors on sexuality, attributing sexual behavior primarily to inherent biological differences.
Buss’s view of humans as possessing a biological propensity to kill is also not without its critics. This negative view of human nature stands in sharp contrast to the more positive view of humans promoted by advocates of the positive psychology movement. In addition, Buss’ suggestion that homicide results from instincts inherited from our ancestors has been described as an oversimplification of a very complex behavior.
David Buss’s Books, Awards and Accomplishments
Buss has written and published over 300 research-based articles and has authored, co-authored and edited several books. His books include:
- The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill, 2005
- The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex, 2000
- The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, 1994
- Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, 1999
- He is also the co-author of the following titles:
- Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge, 2009
- Personality Psychology: Domains of Knowledge about Human Behavior, 2002
Throughout his career, Buss has earned numerous awards and accomplishments, some of which are listed below:
- Association for Psychological Science (APS) Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement, 2017
- Distinguished Fellow, New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology, 2002–2003
- American Psychological Association (APA) Distinguished Scientist Lecturer Award, 2001
- University of Texas President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award, 2001
- Robert W. Hamilton Book Award, 1999
- Elected as Fellow of the American Psychological Association, 1996
- APA G. Stanley Hall Lectureship, 1990
- APA Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology, 1988
Buss is a member of several professional organizations, including the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, where he served as president from 2005 to 2007. He has also served on the editorial board of several scientific journals, including the Journal of Research in Personality, the Journal of Sex Research, American Psychologist, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, as well as the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Pschology. In 2013, he was rated as one of the 30 most influential psychologists alive, and in 2014, as one of the most eminent psychologists of the modern era..
Buss currently spends much of his time lecturing in the United States and abroad, as well as collaborating with others on cross-cultural research projects. His recreational interests include skiing, tennis, squash and disc golf. He describes himself as an “avid movie consumer and a voracious reader.”
Block, J. (1989). Critique of the act frequency approach to personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(2), 234-245.
Buss, David M. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/buss-david-m-1953
Buss, D. M. (n.d.). Evolutionary theories in psychology. Retrieved from https://openpress.usask.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/evolutionary-theories-in-psychology/
Buss, D. M. (2018). David M. Buss curriculum vitae. Retrieved from
Buss, D. M. (2016). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind (5th ed.). New York: Routledge.
Buss: Evolutionary theory of personality. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.coursehero.com/file/36237405/PSYC341-BussJ-SkinnerJ-Banduradocx/
Hampson, S. E. (1988). The construction of personality: An introduction (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
Hill, S. E., & Buss, D. M. (2008). Evolution and subjective well-being. In M. Eid & R. J. Larsen (Eds.), The science of subjective well-being (pp. 62-79). New York: The Guilford Press.
Homicide adaptation theory. (2012) In V.S. Ramachandran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.
Schmitt, D. P. (2005). Fundamentals of human mating strategies. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The handbook of evolutionary psychology (pp. 258-291). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.