Today I want to approach the question of emotions and personality from an existential lens. In my last post I alluded to the existential givens and you can read more about them here [pdf].

English: Emotions associated with sadness

English: Emotions associated with sadness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To recap, here are the contradictions or tensions that these existential givens give rise to:

This paper considers four existential challenges:
1) Life (and death). We are alive but we will die, and we live a world that both supports and negates life.
2) Meaning (and absurdity). We have a conscious capacity and desire for
meaning, but we live in a confusing and sometimes chaotic world that offers many meaning systems and also denies meaning.
3) Freedom (and determinism). We are free and determined, and we live in a world that allows and constricts our freedom.
4) Community (and aloneness). Human desire and capacity for authentic relatedness are countered by inauthenticity, alienation and loneliness.
For the personalty traits I will be referring to Cloninger’s temperament traits. For the emotions I will be referring to the eight Rasaas framework.
Consider Death (and life). The mere thought of death causes fear, while you need courage to live despite knowing that one day you will eventually die. Navigating this existential given, leads to the emergence of polar emotions of fear and courage. This also leads to existential as well as normal anxiety. This system has a neural basis as in the Avoid system, which may be associated with Serotonin system.  Also sensitivity to this given, results in the personality trait of Harm Avoidance. To recap:

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.

Consider on the other hand, Freedom (and determinism). The possibility of being free agents leads to wonder, surprise and novel behavior; while the possibility of being determined, at the other hand, fills us with disgust. This leads to polarity of Disgust-Surprise. Its my assertion that this state is associated with schizophrenic psychosis. This system has a neural basis in the Approach system, which may be associated with Dopamine system. Also sensitivity towards this given results in personality trait of Novelty Seeking. To recap:

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.

Now consider Loneliness (and community). While existential loneliness give rise to rage against the universe, the sense of community is made possible and engenders feelings of love. Thus the emotional polarities relevant here are Anger-Love. Its again my thesis that this is associated with bipolar sensitivity. This system has a neural basis in the Attach system, which may be associated with Norepinephrine system. The personality trait associated will be Reward Dependence. To recap:


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.

Lastly consider absurdity (and meaning). When confronted with the absurdity of life, the pointlessness of it all, our natural reaction is to become sad and depressed. On the other hand, if one is able to find or bestow meaning to one’s everyday acts, one lives with joy in his or her heart. This leads to polar emotions of Sadness and Joy and failure to navigate this existential given properly results in depression. The system associated with this may be called the Achieve system (all achievements being steps to endow life with essence). The personalty system associated here is Persistence. To recap:

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.

So my latest thinking based on different strands, ranging from existential strands to evolutionary considerations, seems to indicate that there are four basic emotional polarities and four basic temperaments.

These are summarized below:

  1. Harm Avoidance: Fear-Courage
  2. Novelty Seeking: Disgust-Surprise
  3. Reward Dependence: Anger-Love
  4. Persistence: Sadness-Joy

Of course, this leaves the question of what happens to the 3 (extended to 4 by me) character traits listed by Cloninger in his TCI. That and four new polar emotions family is the subject of a new post!!

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