Posts tagged Openness to experience

The ABCD of Personality Structure

Regular readers of The Mouse Trap would be aware of my ABCD model of psychology whereby all psychological phenomena are explained in terms of Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive and Dynamic/Desire dimensions.

Personality Traits from

Personality Traits from (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The affective dimensions is also related to sensory processes; the behavioral dimension to motor processes; the cognitive dimension to associative processes and the desire/dynamic/motives dimension to social processes.

We are increasingly focusing on brain as a means to study psychological phenomena and thus four major divisions of neurosciences are affective neurosciences, behavioral neurosciences, social neurosciences and cognitive neurosciences.

Now, I have written extensively about personality, especially in relation to emotions, and have written a series of posts about the structure of personality traits and the underlying basic emotions. I have also tangentially touched upon or used ABCD and the fundamental four model while coming up with those previous posts; but today’s post is exclusively focused on the ABCD model and its utility for delineating personality traits.

Before we move onto personality traits, lets refresh our knowledge of brain structure. As per a controversial theory of brain structure, by Paul McLean, brain can be divided into a reptilian brain,a paleomammalian brain/ limbic brain and a neomammilain brain/neocortex; for our purpose the details of the model need not be true. However, one thing that McLean postulated was that older brain regions are in control of newer regions and if newer brain regions malfunction/ do not exercise control the behavior due to older system may get activated. Hughlings Jackson had surmised the same earlier and this is the part I will be focusing on.

Consider an earlier brain part that controls movement; (this may be mostly instinctual responding or impulsive initiation) ; a later brain part may inhibit and lead to better response/ proactive action that is well considered/ planned. I will call these two instances bottom-up effects and top-down effects on movement respectively.

With this in mind lets start a deeper look at the ABCD.

  1. Affective/sensory: This would be related to detecting unexpected stimuli or looking out for expected stimuli.
    1. The bottom up process of detecting incoming stimuli is enhanced by level of arousal. High arousal leads to better detection and low arousal to lesser detection; people may differ in their natural arousal levels and I guess you know where I am going with this-the introversion- eXtraversion dimension.
    2. The top down process of looking out for (potentially harmful) stimuli may lead to worry or anxiety. High Anxiety may help in vigilant detection, while lower anxiety to lapses in detecting harmful stimuli; the natural variation in this may be the trait Emotionally stable-Neuroticism( Emotionality). Anxiety remember was one of the dimensions discovered by Gray as relevant to personality.
  2. Behavioral/Motor:   This would be related to initiating action or responding to stimuli.
    1. The bottom up process here would lead to Impulsivity , another dimension elaborated on by Gray. The personality trait relevant here would be Impulsive Sensation Seeking as defined by Zuckerman.
    2. The top down process here would lead to Inhibition; when that process does not work, the low pole would be disinhibition (which is distinct from impulsivity). In FFM/HEXACO , this trait may be labeled as Conscientiousness and is related to strength of self-regulation.
  3. Drives/Social:  This would be related to interactions with others and the motives behind them – either to help others or the reciprocate a previous help.
    1. The bottom up process here is reactive reciprocation; or aggression in case of deception/defection by the other. The one end of this pole will be characterized by Aggression and hostility while the other pole by nice and reciprocal behavior and this leads us right on to Agreeableness dimension.
    2. The top down or expectation driven process here would be trusting and helping others on the one pole (in hope of reciprocation) and manipulating, hurting or exploiting people on the other. this naturally leads us to Honesty-humility dimension of HEXACO and the opposite pole that I believe is the dark tetrad of sadism, Machiavellianism, narcissism and sadism.
  4. Cognitive/ associative : This would be related to the tendency to make and use broad vis–vis narrow associations while doing information processing.
    1. The bottom up process here could be related to distractibility vis-a-vis focus. Some people may be easily distracted/ form loose associations and this may lead to Openness to experience in them; others may be more closed to new information. I think of this as the encoding process.
    2. The top down process here could be related to imagining novel associations between concepts etc. I would say this is a new dimension called Imagination dimension (Scott Barry Kaufman would be happy to hear:-)) .  At one end would be daydreamers and creative folks , at the other end more pragmatic/ reality oriented folks. I relate this to retrieval process. As this trait may still be evolving, we see psychosis related to this- imaginations/ top down processes overpowering reality orientation. this may also explain the association of creativity and mental illness.


I am happy with this personality structure organization with eight traits, instead of the usual five, that I have come up with. It has a solid theoretical rationale and a lot of thinking has gone into it; of course empirical work will prove whether its true or not and whether it stands the test of time!!

Stress causes negative emotions – are you NUTS?

Stress has been defined in many ways – one conceptualization that I find powerful and useful is the NUTS framework developed by Dr. Sonia Lupien. As per it, stress results when one or more of the following four ingredients are present in a situation.

NOVELTY Something new you have not experienced before
UNPREDICTABILITY Something you had no way of knowing it would occur
THREAT TO THE EGO Your competence as a person is called into question
SENSE OF CONTROL You feel you have little or no control over the situation
English: Emotions Q-sort

English: Emotions Q-sort (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These conditions need not be aversive for the situation or event to feel stressful. For example, a person who is recently promoted may feel stress because of the new responsibilities that are novel and maybe he has no real option of declining the promotion, so he has little control too in the matter. Or consider the birth of a new born. So both positive and negative life events may lead to stress and maybe its more about how you are appraising stressful event.

If you are appraising a Novel event as a disruption of schedule/ comfort you will probably feel disgust; if you are appraising the same event as an opportunity to explore new stuff, you will most probably feel surprise / wonder. Its also conceivable that those high in the personality trait of Openness to experience may have more positive appraisals.

Similarly, an unpredictable situation may result in sadness if the unpredictability of rewards/ stimuli is attributed to deficits in self. If however, the unpredictability of situation is attributed to luck or external circumstances one may be more at ease and feel joy or happiness (note that ‘hap’ means luck). Its likely that those who are more Extraverted have a more positive appraisal.

A threat to ego or self may lead to feelings of fear and anxiety if the threat is considered unmanageable. On the other hand if the threat is considered manageable, it will result in the emotion of courage and facing the issue rather than running away. Those high in emotional stability (vs Neuroticism) are likely to show more positive appraisals.

Lastly, when one is in a situation that provides little options of control, one may feel anger if one is in a dominating frame of mind and needs control. On the other hand, one may feel love or compassion if one is ready to voluntarily give up control and submit oneself in the service of other. Agreeableness may mediate the relation with positive appraisals.

So as Kelly McGonigal has pointed out stress by itself is not bad; its how you appraise stressful circumstances that may be the key to suffering and wilting or rejoicing and flourishing.

Personality and Motivation

Agreeableness by state
Image via Wikipedia

I have blogged extensively about personality and how it may be related to emotions. A common theme underlying my discussion of personality and emotion has been these traits/states arising as a result of adaptation to basic evolutionary tasks or problems that each living organism/species has to solve. Where there are problems to be solved or tasks to be accomplished or goals to be achieved,  there is also going to be motivations and drive to achieve them and underlying needs that drive that pursuit. Thus motivation and Personality/ emotion are also intricately linked and associated when one uses the underlying basic adaptive problems paradigm.

In my last post I had mentioned that Personality can be discussed in just descriptive terms as in trait theories, the most famous of which is the five factor model of personality or one could look at the underlying processes and mechanism and come up with theories that are grounded in motivational or cognitive terms as to what actually drives the behavior in consistence with the observable traits and behaviors.

I have recently come across an important paper in my view which tried to bridge this gap by explaining the motivational systems (or reaction norms as they call it) underlying the five factor model of personality.

To recall, the five factor model or OCEAN model posits the following five factors:

  1. Neuroticism or sensitivity to negative affect
  2. Conscientiousness or ability to delay gratification and persist with task at hand
  3. Extraversion: propensity to socialize and be more outgoing
  4. Agreeableness: empathetic and cooperativeness
  5. Openness to Experience: Intellect and curiosity etc.

Now, I have elaborated or tried to explain the OCEAN  traits as per my understanding, but Dennissen and Penke looked at how prominent personality researchers have interpreted the traits to arrive at a common motivational framework that is grounded in theory and then they developed a scale in accordance with theory to measure  these motivational  reaction norms – the important difference from tradition FFM message scales being that all statements referred to underlying motivations/ propensities etc and did not refer to specific behaviors in specific situations.  They then subjected their scale to factor analysis that came with a five factor structure that was consistent with FFM and also had predictive validity of similar sorts. They thus conclude that their theoretical framework is on the right track.

There are of course problems with such can interpretation, but I found some of their motivational reaction norms pretty consistent with my basic adaptive problems and basic developmental life tasks paradigm, while some I could find were slightly different or more nuanced interpretations.

Looking at the original data set of 9 personalty researchers from where they derived this framework, some of these I could resolve to my satisfaction.

Neuroticism is interpreted as sensitivity to social rejection/exclusion. I have problems with this interpretation in that focuses too much on social dimension, while to me it is general sensitivity to threat/stress.  In their paper they do discuss this:

As can be seen in Table 1, almost all theorists link neuroticism to individual differences in affect regulation, conceptualizing this factor as differences in the ability to handle stress (Buss, 1991), facilitation of performance under pressure (Hogan, 1996), affect regulation (McAdams, 1992; van Lieshout, 2000), and affect intensity. These conceptualizations all regard neuroticism as the sensitivity of a domain-general system to respond to environmental threats. Various studies have also linked neuroticism to individual differences in general differential reactivity to negative events or stressors.
I like the above interpretation of Neuroticism as it is consistent with the adaptive problem of avoiding Foes. However, the authors  chose this interpretation over the above:

By comparison, other conceptualizations treat neuroticismas a trait that is especially activated in situations in which people’s social relationships are threatened. For example, Matthews (2004) pointed out that ‘‘individual differences in human anxiety revolve primarily around social fears such as being criticized or rejected, rather than physical threats” (p. 260, italics added). Support for this conceptualization comes from research by Bolger and colleagues (1989), who found that interpersonal stressors were more important in causing negative mood than non-social ones, such as transportation problems or work overload. Similarly, Denissen and Penke (in press) found that neuroticism was particularly correlated with the intensity of people’s negative reactions to social threats.

Conscientiousness did not have many interpretations:

All theorists listed in Table 1 agree that conscientiousness is involved in task-related behaviors. Speci?cally, McAdams (1992) conceptualizes this factor as involved in work-related behaviors, MacDonald (1995) as the monitoring of non-attainment of goals, van Lieshout (2000) as executive regulation in the performance domain, Ashton and Lee (2001) as the intensity of engagement in task-related behaviors, Buss (1991) as the capacity for reliable work and enduring commitment, and Hogan (1996) as trustworthiness and dependability. Holmes (2002) and Nettle (2006) are arguably most successful in capturing the positive aspects of both poles of the conscientiousness continuum by describing it as the promotion of immediate vs. distant goal striving. This conceptualization nicely maps onto lifespan-theoretical insights regarding individual differences in the tenacity of goal pursuit  (Brandtstädter,Wentura, & Rothermund, 1999). In the current paper, we adopt the view of these various authors that conscientiousness can be plausibly conceptualized as differences in the tenacity of goal pursuit.

To me the goal pursuit tenacity bodes well for adaptive problem of finding Food or exploring.

Extraversion seems to have multiple interpretations, all to my eyes equally valid.:

In Table 1, three clusters of conceptualizations of extraversion emerge. First, van Lieshout (2000) conceptualizes this factor as re?ecting a person’s activation vs. inhibition of impulses, which is somewhat similar to MacDonald’s (1995, 1998) notion of extraversion as re?ecting individual differences in behavioral approach. Both views are consistent with Lucas, Diener, Grob, Suh, and Shao (2000), who hypothesized that extraversion is positively associated with the sensitivity of individuals’ reward system. Because these authors view positive affect as a proxy of the activity of the general reward system, this hypothesis can also account for the high correlations between extraversion and individual differences in positive affect (Watson & Clark, 1997), even when controlling for social activity (Watson, Clark, McIntyre, & Hamaker, 1992).
A second cluster of explanations of the extraversion factor is the notion that this trait is involved in people’s hierarchical proclivity (Buss, 1991), leadership potential (Hogan, 1996), or disposition to wield power (McAdams, 1992). In addition, the disposition for dominance vs. submission in accessing resources is one of the two social dimensions that can be mapped onto extraversion in Holmes’ (2002) model. However, a problem with this account is that differences in dominance seem to be confounded by differences in competitive resources such as physical prowess, mental ability, material wealth, and social alliances, which depend not only on extraversion but also on other personality factors, such as general problem-solving ability and persistence in reaching goals.
Third, extraversion has been linked to the motivational predisposition to experience social interactions as rewarding (Ashton & Lee, 2001; McCrae & Costa, 1987). Insofar as this predisposition motivates people to seek out the company of others, this view is consistent with Holmes’ (2002) second possible conceptualization of extraversion as tapping into people’s level of assertiveness vs. passivity in initiating social contacts. In an empirical study, Ashton, Lee, and Paunonen (2002) presented evidence for this position, showing that a ‘‘tendency to engage and enjoy social attention” (p. 246) correlates very highly (.74) with traditional extraversion measures. Ashton et al. (2002) reasoned that extraversion can be adaptive because it is correlated with people’s ‘‘social attention-holding power” (Gilbert, 1989), allowing for the exertion of group in?uence and the attraction of possible mates (Campbell, Simpson, Stewart, & Manning, 2003; Nettle, 2005, 2006). In the current paper, we take this latter explanation as a plausible conceptualization of extraversion, though other explanations (e.g., as differences in general reward sensitivity) might also be consistent with the empirical evidence.

I am most sympathetic to second and third interpretations as they directly relate to the problem of Making Friends and Alliances.

Agreeableness is interpreted in two ways:

In Table 1, two clusters of conceptual interpretations for agreeableness can be discerned (the conceptualization by Ashton & Lee, 2001, is directed at a rotational variant of this factor and will not be considered here). First of all, several theorists regard agreeableness as fostering intimate relationships, conceptualizing it as enjoyment of other people’s company (Hogan, 1996), facilitation of intimate family relationships and parental investment (MacDonald, 1995), or dispositional love (McAdams, 1992). This conceptualization is consistent with the hypothesized social nature of personality traits. However, Hogan’s (1996) notion of enjoyment of other people’s company is dif?cult to differentiate from sociability, a key feature of extraversion. In addition, MacDonald’s (1995) emphasis on the facilitation of intimate family relationships and parental investment is not consistent with ?ndings by Graziano, Jensen-Campbell, and Hair (1996) that the effects of agreeableness on reactions to interpersonal con?ict with non-kin individuals do not consistently differ from reactions to con?icts with kin.
A second cluster of conceptualizations of agreeableness focuses on this factor’s role in human cooperative behavior, with Buss (1991) relating it to people’s willingness to cooperate, Holmes (2002) to acting cooperative vs. competitive, Nettle (2006) to empathy and trust vs. self-interest, and van Lieshout (2000) to the coordination vs. opposition of joint interests. This conceptualization is consistent with game-theoretical research on reputations of cooperation vs. competition in resource dilemma’s (Rasmusen, 2006) and with research by van Lange and colleagues (van Lange, 1999; van Lange, De Bruin, Otten, & Joireman, 1997) regarding the existence of individual differences in social value orientation. Finally, Koole, Jager, van den Berg, Vlek, and Hofstee (2001) showed that agreeableness is related to altruistic behavior when playing a variant of the public goods game. Consistent with this evidence, we propose that agreeableness can be plausibly conceptualized as individual differences in this tendency to display altruistic behavior.

To me the first interpretation of empathy and prenatal investment and intimate family relations is consistent with the adaptive problems of having and caring for Kids. The second interpretation of altruistic behavior and cooperativenes is equally acceptable as presumably this builds on primitive kin-non-kin concerns and parental investment propensities.

The last factor Openness to Experience I have elsewhere reinterpreted as conformity/rebelliousness. The authors find following interpretations:

As can be seen in Table 1, several clusters of conceptualizations exist for the openness to experience factor. All conceptualizations converge in their conceptualization of this trait as involving a high level of cognitive activity, as indicated by having a broad, deep, and permeable consciousness (McCrae & Costa, 1997), a high propensity for innovation and solving problems (Buss, 1991; Hogan, 1996), engagement in the intellectual and creative domain (McAdams & Pals, 2006; Nettle, 2006; van Lieshout, 2000), processing incomplete information (Holmes, 2002), and intrinsically motivated curiosity facilitating the development of cognitive competence (MacDonald, 1995). In trying to make sense of this factor, however, openness should be distinguished from psychometric intelligence, which is correlated with openness but not identical to it (McCrae & Costa, 1987; also see Penke et al., 2007a).
A parallel distinction was made by Ackerman (1996), who noted the difference between maximum and typical levels of intelligence: whereas the former is identical to operationalizations of psychometric intelligence, the latter has been shown to correlate very highly with openness to experience (Goff & Ackerman, 1992). This conceptualization is almost identical to Cacioppo and colleagues’ (1996) construct of need for cognition, which they de?ned as ‘‘a stable individual difference in people’s tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive activity” (p. 198). Empirically, this view is supported by Berzonsky and Sullivan (1992), who found a correlation of .78 between need for cognition and the NEO-PI-R openness to ideas scale (though the correlation with other openness facets was lower). Accordingly, we propose that openness can be plausibly conceptualized as differences in the reward value of engaging in cognitive activity.

The need for cognition may be driven by the evolutionary task of identifying kin from non-kin.
To me this looks promising and in the expected direction. I’ll be watching research from this group more keenly henceforth and keep you guys posted.

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DENISSEN, J., & PENKE, L. (2008). Motivational individual reaction norms underlying the Five-Factor model of personality: First steps towards a theory-based conceptual framework Journal of Research in Personality, 42 (5), 1285-1302 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2008.04.002

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