This article provides the first test of an adaptationist ‘common calibration’ theory to explain the origins of trait covariation, which holds that (i) personality traits are often facultatively calibrated in response to cues that ancestrally predicted the reproductive payoffs of different trait levels and (ii) distinct traits that are calibrated on the basis of common input cues will exhibit consistent patterns of covariation. This theory is applied to explain the covariation within a ‘personality syndrome’ encompassing various interpersonal trait dimensions (e.g. extraversion, emotionality and attachment styles). Specifically, it is hypothesized that these traits are inter-correlated because each is calibrated in response to relative bargaining power (RBP)—a joint function of one's ability to benefit others and harm others. Path analyses from a correlational study compellingly supported this theoretical model: Objective and self-perceived measures of RBP-enhancing phenotypic features (physical attractiveness and physical strength) influenced an internal regulatory variable indexing RBP (i.e. self-perceived RBP), which in turn had robust effects on each of the focal personality traits. Moreover, in support of the theory's core postulate, controlling for self-perceived RBP greatly reduced the covariation within the interpersonal syndrome. These novel findings illustrate the promise of an evolutionary psychological approach to elucidating trait covariation. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.