Three Fundamental Dimensions of Personality

The descriptive taxonomies associated with the proponents of the "Big 5" are in contrast to those theories concerned with developing causal models of individual differences. Much of the recent consensus around the Big 5 has been on the number of dimensions useful in the description of individual differences rather than in any causal basis for these purported structures. Descriptive taxonomists suggest that before it is possible to develop causal explanations it is necessary to agree on the fundamental dimensions to be explained. Causal theorists, on the other hand, have focused on biological explanations of the "Even Bigger 3" and have emphasized the relationships of biological mechanisms of emotional reactivity with dimensions of stable individual differences. These theorists have suggested that problems of taxonomy can best be solved in terms of underlying mechanisms.

Most biologically based theorists have asked what particular structure, neural pathway, transmitter, or hormone is associated with a particular individual difference in affect, cognition, or behavior. Much of this theorizing has been at the level of the conceptual nervous system (cns) rather than actually describing the Central Nervous System (CNS). That is, broad brush behavioral systems have been described and linked, sometimes closely, sometimes loosely to known physiological structures and transmitters. To the biologically oriented radical trait theorists, taxonomies should be developed in terms of cns or CNS biological systems rather than phenotypic behaviors. Individual differences in the functioning of these systems are believed to cause differential sensitivities to environmental cues, leading to differential affective and cognitive states. Traits refer to the probabilities of being in a particular state, or to the latency to achieve a state following a specific environmental elicitor. Although it is not necessary to know the specifics of a neural system to test the implications of a conceptual system, by limiting theorizing to known neural architectures, personality theories become more constrained.

Most experimental and theoretical statements concerning the biological substrates of personality are directly or indirectly related to the theories of Hans Eysenck, whose theory of the biological basis of introversion-extraversion, neuroticism-stability, and socialization-psychoticism (H. Eysenck 1990) has evolved from taxonomic work (H. Eysenck 1947) to a proposed biological model (H. Eysenck 1967) that has been the basis of a variety of suggested modifications (Cloninger 1987; Gray 1972, 1981, 1991, 1994). In broad strokes, Eysenck's theory and subsequent modifications (1990, 1991a) are theories of approach and reward, inhibition and punishment, and aggression and flight. All three constructs have been, of course, fundamental concerns for many years and have been the basis for descriptive as well as non-biological theories of motivation and learning (Atkinson 1960; Dollard & Miller 1950). Approach and withdrawal are behavioral characteristics of amoebae, insects, and human infants (Schneirla 1959). Unifying recent biological work is an emphasis on these three interrelated biological and behavioral systems as sources of individual differences in affective reactions and interpersonal behavior. Although differing in the particular mechanisms proposed at the level of the CNS, these models show striking agreement at the behavioral and conceptual (cns) level.

Adapted from Revelle, W. (1995). Personality Processes, Annual Review of Psychology,46.


Instigation of Behavior
Inhibition of Behavior

Atkinson Approach Motivation
Need for achievement
joy of success
Avoidance Motivation
Fear of Failure
Pain of Failure
BarrattAction Oriented Anxiety
CloningerBehavioral Activation
Novelty Seeking
Behavioral Inhibition
Harm Avoidance
Behavioral Maintenance
reward dependence
Depue Behavioral Facilitation Mania
Positive emotionality
Behavioral Inhibition
Dollard and MillerApproachAvoidance
EysenckActivation Extraversion/Positive AffectInhibition Neuroticism
Negative Affect
Psychoticism Anger
FowlesBehavioral-Activation Impulsivity/Positive AffectAversive Behavioral-Inhibition Non-specific Arousal
Gray Behavioral-Activation Impulsivity
Positive Affect
Behavioral-Inhibition Anxiety
Negative Affect
Fight/Flight Aggression

Kagan Behavioral-Inhibition
Positive Affect
Negative Affect
Tellegen Positive Affectivity
positive affect
Negative Affectivity
negative affect
Thayer Approach
Energetic Arousal
Tense Arousal
Watson and ClarkApproach
Positive Affectivity
Negative Affectivity
Positive Affect
NeuroticismPsychoticism Impulsivity Sensation Seeking aggresion anger

Selected references:

Atkinson, JW. (1974). Strength of motivation and efficiency of performance. In JW Atkinson & JO Raynor (Eds.), Motivation and Achievement (pp. 117-42). New York: Winston (Halsted /Wiley).

Barratt, ES. (in press). Impulsivity: integrating cognitive, behavioral, biological, and environmental data. In W McCown & M Shure (Eds.), The impulsive client: Theory, research, and treatment Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Buss, DM. (Ed.) (1990). Special Issue: Biological foundations of personality: evolution, behavioral genetics, and psychophysiology. J. Pers., 58.

Cloninger, CR. (1987). A systematic method for clinical description and classification of personality variants - a proposal. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry, 44, 573-88.

Clark, LA., & Watson, D. (1991). Tripartite model of anxiety and depression: psychometric evidence and taxonomic implications. J. Abnorm. Psychol., 100, 316-36.

Clark, LA., Watson, D., & Mineka, S. (1994). Temperament, personality, and the mood and anxiety disorders. J. Abnorm. Psychol., 103, 103-16.

Depue, RA., & Iacono, WG. (1989). Neuro-behavioral aspects of affective-disorders. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 40, 457-92.

Depue, RA., Luciana, M., Arbisi, P., Collins, P., & Leon, A. (1994). Dopamine and the structure of personality: Relation of agonist-induced dopamine activity to positive emotionality. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol.

Dollard, J., & Miller, N. (1950). Personality and psychotherapy: an analysis in terms of learning, thinking and culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Eysenck, HJ. (1991). Dimensions of personality: 16: 5 or 3? criteria for a taxonomic paradigm. Personality and Individual Differences, 12, 773-90.

Eysenck, HJ. (1991b). Dimensions of personality: the biosocial approach to personality. In J Strelau & A Angleitner (Eds.), Explorations in temperament: international perspectives on theory and measurement (pp. 87-103). London: Plenum.

Gale, A., & Eysenck, MW. (Eds.). (1992). Handbook of individual differences: Biological perspectives. Chichester: Wiley.

Gray, JA. (1972). The psychophysiological basis of introversion-extraversion: a modification of Eysenck's theory. In VD Nebylitsyn & JA Gray (Eds.), The biological basis of individual behavior New York: Academic.

Gray, JA. (1981). A critique of Eysenck's theory of personality. In HJ Eysenck (Ed.), A model for personality, Berlin: Springer

Gray, JA. (1982). Neuropsychological Theory of Anxiety: An investigation of the septal-hippocampal system. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gray, JA. (1990). Psychobiological aspects of relationships between emotions and cognition [Special issue]. Cognition and Emotion, 4.

Gray, JA. (1991). The neuropsychology of temperament. In J Strelau & A Angleitner (Eds.), Explorations in temperament: international perspectives on theory and measurement (pp. 105-28). London: Plenum.

Gray, JA. (1994). Framework for a taxonomy of psychiatric disorder. In SHM van Goozen, NE van de Poll, & J Sergeant (Eds.), Emotions: Essays on emotion theory (pp. 29-59). Hillsdale, N. J.: Erlbaum.

Gray, J.A., & McNaughton, N. (2000). The Neuropsychology of anxiety: an enquiry into the functions of the septo-hippocampal system. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Revelle, W. (1995). Personality Processes, Annual Review of Psychology.

Revelle, W. (in press) The contribution of reinforcement sensitivity theory to personality theory. To appear in P. Corr (Ed.) Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of Personality. Cambridge University Press. (pdf of the draft)

Revelle, W., Anderson, KJ., & Humphreys, MS. (1987). Empirical tests and theoretical extensions of arousal based theories of personality. In J Strelau & HJ Eysenck (Eds.), Personality Dimensions and arousal. London: Plenum.

Schneirla, T. (1959). An evolutionary and developmental theory of biphasic processes underlying approach and withdrawal. In M Jones (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 27-58). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Smillie, L.D., Pickering, A.D. and Jackson, C.J. (2006) The new reinforcement sensitivity theory: implications for personality measurement. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 320-335. (abstract)

Zuckerman, M. (1991). Psychobiology of personality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zuckerman, M. (1994). Impulsive unsocialized sensation seeking: The biological foundations of a basic dimension of personality. In JE Bates & TD Wachs (Eds.), Temperament: Individual differences at the interface of biology and behavior (pp. 219-55). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Prepared as part of The Personality Project
Last revised February 18, 2007