Neuroendocrine mechanisms underlying behavioral stability: Implications for the evolutionary origin of personality

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Personality traits are behaviors that show limited flexibility over time and across contexts, and thus understanding their origin requires an understanding of what limits behavioral flexibility. Here, I suggest that insight into the evolutionary origin of personality traits requires determining the relative importance of selection and constraint in producing limits to behavioral flexibility. Natural selection as the primary cause of limits to behavioral flexibility assumes that the default state of behavior is one of high flexibility and predicts that personality variation arises through evolution of buffering mechanisms to stabilize behavioral expression, whereas the constraint hypothesis assumes that the default state is one of limited flexibility and predicts that the neuroendocrine components that underlie personality variation are those most constrained in flexibility. Using recent work on the neurobiology of sensitive periods and maternal programming of offspring behavior, I show that some of the most stable aspects of the neuroendocrine system are structural components and maternally induced epigenetic effects. Evidence of numerous constraints to changes in structural features of the neuroendocrine system and far fewer constraints to flexibility of epigenetic systems suggests that structural constraints play a primary role in the origin of behavioral stability and that epigenetic programming may be more important in generating adaptive variation among individuals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)54-74
Number of pages21
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015


  • Behavioral flexibility
  • Developmental constraint
  • Epigenetic programming
  • Ontogeny of behavior
  • Sensitive periods

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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