Cloninger’s Temaparements and character traits: room for a behaviorist view?

Today I wish to discuss C. Robert Cloninger’s theory of temperaments and character traits. It is a psycho biological theory based on genetic and neural substrates and mechanisms and in it he proposes for the existence of four temperament traits and three character traits; thus talking about seven personality traits. First the abstract to give you some idea:

In this study, we describe a psychobiological model of the structure and development of personality that accounts for dimensions of both temperament and character. Previous research has confirmed four dimensions of temperament: novelty seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence, and persistence, which are independently heritable, manifest early in life, and involve preconceptual biases in perceptual memory and habit formation. For the first time, we describe three dimensions of character that mature in adulthood and influence personal and social effectiveness by insight learning about self-concepts. Self-concepts vary according to the extent to which a person identifies the self as (1) an autonomous individual, (2) an integral part of humanity, and (3) an integral part of the universe as a whole. Each aspect of self-concept corresponds to one of three character dimensions called self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence, respectively. We also describe the conceptual background and development of a self-report measure of these dimensions, the Temperament and Character Inventory. Data on 300 individuals from the general population support the reliability and structure of these seven personality dimensions. We discuss the implications for studies of information processing, inheritance, development, diagnosis, and treatment

This article provides an excellent in-depth look at the Temperament and character Inventory (TCI) developed by Cloninger and it gives detailed description of all the traits and their sub-scales or facets.

I’ll list them briefly below (in order )(along with their sub scales/ facets)

I) Novelty seeking (NS)

  1. Exploratory excitability (NS1)
  2. Impulsiveness (NS2)
  3. Extravagance (NS3)
  4. Disorderliness (NS4)

II) Harm avoidance (HA)

  1. Anticipatory worry (HA1)
  2. Fear of uncertainty (HA2)
  3. Shyness (HA3)
  4. Fatigability (HA4)

III) Reward dependence (RD)

  1. Sentimentality (RD1)
  2. Openness to warm communication (RD2)
  3. Attachment (RD3
  4. Dependence (RD4)

IV) Persistence (PS)

  1. Eagerness of effort (PS1)
  2. Work hardened (PS2)
  3. Ambitious (PS3)
  4. Perfectionist (PS4)

V) Self-directedness (SD)

  1. Responsibility (SD1)
  2. Purposeful (SD2)
  3. Resourcefulness (SD3)
  4. Self-acceptance (SD4)
  5. Enlightened second nature (SD5)

VI) Cooperativeness (C)

  1. Social acceptance (C1)
  2. Empathy (C2)
  3. Helpfulness (C3)
  4. Compassion (C4)
  5. Pure-hearted conscience (C5)

VII) Self-transcendence (ST)

  1. Self-forgetful (ST1)
  2. Transpersonal identification (ST2)
  3. Spiritual acceptance (ST3)

To me this lacks one more trait and I’m sure Cloninger will identify and add one more in the future (he added the three character traits relatively late).

Now for the meat of the post. My thesis is that these are similar to the Big Eight temperaments that I have discussed in my earlier post and follow the same eight fold developmental/evolutionary pattern. Further , I would claim that each facet of a trait follows the same structure. Most traits have 4 or 5 facets and these are typically related to 5 major ways of reacting/ relating to world around us. It is also my thesis that juts as cloninger had tied the initial three traits to behavioral inhibition, behavioral approach and behavioral maintenance and to the three neurotransmitter systems of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine respectively; the same line of argument can be extended to other facets and new biogenic amine CNS neurotransmitters pathways correlated with each trait.

Harm Avoidance:

Individuals high in HA tend to be cautious, careful,fearful, tense, apprehensive, nervous, timid, doubtful,discouraged, insecure, passive, negativistic, or pessimistic even in situations that do not normally worry other people. These individuals tend to be inhibited and shy in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be low and they feel chronically tired or easily fatigued. As a consequence they need more reassurance and encouragement than most people and are usually sensitive to criticism and punishment. The advantages of of high Harm Avoidance are the greater care and caution in anticipating possible danger, which leads to careful planning when danger is possible. The disadvantages occur when danger is unlikely but still anticipated, such pessimism or inhibition leads to unnecessary worry.

In contrast, individuals with low scores on this temperament dimension tend to be carefree, relaxed, daring, courageous, composed, and optimistic even in situations that worry most people. These individuals are described as outgoing, bold, and confident in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be high, and they impress others as dynamic, lively, and vigorous persons. The advantages of low Harm Avoidance are confidence in the face of danger and uncertainty,leading to optimistic and energetic efforts with little or no distress. The disadvantages are related to unresponsiveness to danger, which can lead to reckless optimism.

Form the above it is clear that this is related to Neurotcisim and. This would also be related to anxiety witnessed in clinical situations and requiring treatment. It is instructive to note that Cloninger proposes Serotonin CNS system as a substrate for this trait and that many anti-anxiety drugs actually target serotonin receptors (SSRIS are the best anti anxiety drugs).also as per the model this is involved in behavior inhibition. Let me elaborate that and propose that what is meant by behavior inhibition is learning to avoid the predator. In operant conditioning paradigms this would be learning due to Positive punishment. Learning to inhibit a pre-potent behavior because of punishments.

Novelty Seeking:

Individuals high in Novelty Seeking tend to be quick-tempered, excitable, exploratory, curious, enthusiastic, ardent, easily bored, impulsive, and disorderly The advantages of high Novelty Seeking are enthusiastic and quick engagement with whatever is new and unfamiliar, which leads to exploration of potential rewards. The disadvantages are related to excessive anger and quick disengagement whenever their wishes are frustrated, which leads to inconsistencies in relationships and instability in efforts.

In contrast, individuals low in Novelty Seeking are described as slow tempered, indifferent, uninquisitive, unenthusiastic, umemotional, reflective, thrifty, reserved, tolerant of monotony, systematic, and orderly.

These are classical Impulsiveness related symptoms and can be safely associated with the dopamine system. this trait then is related to conscientiousness and is driven by rewards and reward-related behavior learning. Excess is this trait may result in psychosis and many anti-psychotic drugs act on this dopamine system. This is the traditional behavioral activation system. In operant conditioning terms we can call this learning under positive reinforcement. New behaviors are learned or strength of old behaviors is modified (increased) in the presence of primary reinforces like food, sex,(even money) etc).

Reward dependence:

Individuals who score high in Reward Dependence tend to be tender-hearted, loving and warm, sensitive, dedicated, dependent, and sociable. They seek social contact and are open to communication with other people. Typically, they find people they like everywhere they go. A major advantage of high Reward Dependence is the sensitivity to social cues, which facilitates warm social relations and understanding of others’ feelings. A major disadvantage of high Reward Dependence involves the ease with which other people can influence the dependent person’s views and feelings, possibly leading to loss of objectivity.

Individuals low on the Reward Dependence are often described as practical, tough minded, cold, and socially insensitive. They are content to be alone and rarely initiate open communication with others. They prefer to keep their distance and typically have difficulties in finding something in common with other people. An advantage of low Reward Dependence is that independence from sentimental considerations.

From the above it is clear that this is related to trait Extraversion or sociability and influences how adept, and prone, one is at forming alliances and friends. This has been hypothesized to be related to norepinephrine system and related to behavioral maintenance. In operant conditioning terms , I interpret it as maintaining a behavior despite no real (primary) reinforcement, but just because of secondary reinforcement (social approval, praise, status etc). This is not necessary maladaptive and secondary reinforcement are necessary; but too much dependence on that may lead to depression. Initial anti-depressants all worked on the norepinepherine system and the monoamine theory of depression is still around. I believe that depression is multi-factorial, but the social striving/approval/negotiation is a prime facet underlying the illness.


Individuals high in Persistence tend to be industrious, hard-working, persistent, and stable despite frustration and fatigue. They typically intensify their effort in response to anticipated reward. They are ready to volunteer when there is something to be done, and are eager to start work on any assigned duty. Persistent persons tend to perceive frustration and fatigue as a personal challenge. They do not give up easily and, in fact, tend to work extra hard when criticized or confronted with mistakes in their work. Highly persistent persons tend to be ambitious overachievers
who are willing to make major sacrifices to be a success. A highly persistent individual may tend to be a perfectionist and a workaholic who pushes him/herself far beyond what is necessary to get by.High Persistence is an adaptive behavioral strategy when rewards are intermittent but the contingencies remain stable. However, when the contingencies change rapidly, perseveration becomes maladaptive.

When reward contingencies are stable, individuals low in Persistence are viewed as indolent, inactive, unreliable, unstable and erratic on the basis of both self-reports and interviewer ratings. They rarely intensify their effort even in response to anticipated reward. These persons rarely volunteer for anything they do not have to do, and typically go slow in starting work, even if it is easy to do. They tend to give up easily when faced with frustration, criticism, obstacles, and fatigue. These persons are usually satisfied with their current accomplishments, rarely strive for bigger and better things, and are frequently described as underachievers who could probably accomplish for than they actually do, but do not push themselves harder than it is necessary to get by. Low scorers manifest a low level of perseverance and repetitive behaviors even in response to intermittent reward. Low Persistence is an adaptive strategy when reward contingencies change rapidly and may be maladaptive when rewards are infrequent but occur in the long run.

By some stretch of imagination one can relate this to being empathetic or agreeable. (volunteering etc) and thus to agreeableness. One way this could be related to parental investment is that those who do not care for their kids have children that give up easily and are frustrated easily; thus the same mechanism may lie both parental care behavior and persistent behavior in the kid. This behavior/trait I propose may be related to epinepherine CNS system. This is related to behavior persistence; in opernat conditioning terms this is behavior persistence despite no primary or even secondary reinforcement. Of course extinction will eventually happen in absence of reward, but factors like time/ no. of trials taken to archive extinction may be a factor here. Although, behavior is not reinforced at all still it is persisted with and maybe even different related variations tried to get the desired reward. Stimulants as a class of drug may be acting on this pathway, stimulating individuals to engage in behavior despite no reinforcement.


Highly self-directed persons are described as mature, strong, self-sufficient, responsible, reliable, goaloriented, constructive, and well-integrated individuals when they have the opportunity for personal leadership. They have good self-esteem and self-reliance. The most distinctive characteristics of self-directed individuals is that they are effective, able to adapt their behavior in accord with individualy chosen, voluntary goals. When a self-directed individual is required to follow the orders of others in authority, they may be viewed as rebellious trouble maker because they challenge the goals and values of those in authority.

In contrast, individuals who are low in Self-Directedness are described as immature, weak, fragile, blaming, destructive, ineffective, irresponsible, unreliable, and poorly integrated when they are not conforming to the direction of a mature leader. They are frequently described by clinicians as immature or having a personality disorder. They seem to be lacking an internal organizational principle, which renders them unable to define, set, and pursue meaningful goals. Instead, they experience numerous minor, short term, frequently mutually exclusive motives, none of which can develop to the point of long lasting personal significance and realization.

To me the above looks very much like the Rebelliousness/ conformity facet of Openness or intellect. The core idea being whether one has archived ego-integrity and good habits. I propose that histamine or melatonin may be the mono amine CNS system involved here, though phenuylethylamine(PEA) also seems a good target, so do tyrosine and other trace amines. Whatever be the neurotransmitter system involved, the operant conditioning phenomenon would be learning to engage in behavior despite +ve punishment. thus, the ability to go against the grain, convention, or social expectations and be true to oneself. This behavior can be called learning under -ve reinforcement i.e engaging in a behavior despite there being troubling things around, in the hope that they would be taken away on successful new behavior. I would also relate this to behavioral reportaire of the individual. People high on this trait would show greater behavioral variability during extinction trials and come up with novel and insightful problem solving behaviors.

That is it for now; I hope to back up these claims, and extend this to the rest of the 3 traits too in the near future. Some things I am toying with is either classical conditioning and avoidance learning on these higher levels; or behavior remembering (as opposed to learning) at these higher levels. Also other neurotransmitter systems like gluatamete, glycine, GABA and aspartate may be active at the higher levels. Also neuro peptides too are broadly classified in five groups so they too may have some role here. Keep guessing and do contribute to the theory if you can!!

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