November 30, 2015
Continuing from Part 2, this essay will discuss Cloninger’s Psycho-Biological Model of Personality, focusing specifically on Temperament.
As a quick review, Personality is thought to be made of roughly equal parts Temperament (Genetics) and Character (Transpersonal Environment). Cloninger created the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI), to quantify the factors he believed described Human Personality.
Temperament is often defined as an individual’s genetic level of emotional excitability or intensity, and is typically recognized within the first few weeks after birth. Temperament is thought to be the result of ‘Nature’, while Character is thought to be more related to ‘Nurture’.
For today’s essay, we will examine Cloninger’s ‘Temperament’, by dividing it into the components he described.
Cloninger theorized that Temperament was made up of the following 4 Dimensions, each strongly influencing our Personality Development:
He found each of these Dimensions to be separate entities physiologically, which was supported by many studies. Each Dimension was found to be independently genetic (heritable), manifesting early in our lives, thereby creating essential ingredients of our Personality.
These 4 aspects of our Temperament, or ‘typical physiological disposition’, are related to the balance between 3 Neurotransmitters in the brain:
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that activate parts of your brain, so it can do lots of diverse stuff, like make decisions and succeed, learn things and have fun, as well as avoid danger and survive.
You can think of these brain chemicals like the various liquids, that are running through parts of your car.
You need Gasoline to keep the pistons moving towards your destination, Steering Fluid so you can choose which avenues to take, and Brake Fluid to avoid any obstacles or accidents.
In the brain, NorEpinephrine is the physiologic ‘gasoline’, and is responsible for the Temperamental Trait of REWARD DEPENDENCE.
Most of us are cruising through the streets of life, trying to choose the correct roads to accomplish our dreams and goals. Due to life’s many jams, some days we may make little forward progress.
How sensitive we are, to the breadcrumbs we are often rewarded with daily, is a measure of our Reward Dependence. The more we express this Dimension, the more likely we are to feel satisfied with small rewards, as we march towards life’s greater rewards.
NorEpinephrine is the chemical that keeps us happy with life’s smaller rewards, like minimum wage, allowing us to continue to work towards our larger life goals, and favorite destinations.
If you don’t think NorEpinephrine is like gasoline, ask anyone susceptible to anaphylaxis what it feels like to use an Epi-pen (which is like a massive amount of NorEpinephrine, delivered all at once).
I am sure they will describe it like their body ‘flooring it’, or even ‘hitting the Nitro’.
Dopamine (DA) is largely responsible for attention, learning, and pleasure, and Cloninger believed it was responsible physiologically for the Trait of NOVELTY SEEKING. It works kinda like steering fluid, helping you to decide which turns to take, and how fast.
Novelty Seeking is defined as ‘exploratory activity in response to novel stimulation, impulsive decision making, extravagance in approach to reward cues, and quick loss of temper and avoidance of frustration.‘
Examples of ‘High Novelty Seeking’ may include: Substance Abuse, Video Game Addiction, Extreme Dangerous Sports, Ashley Madison, and those people who are, in general, overly distracted by new people, lights, sounds, as well as conflicts and conversations in their immediate environment. People with ADHD are often described as Novelty Seekers.
There is likely a link evolutionarily, as easily distracted people may spot danger more quickly in situations, when the rest of the group is concentrating on a specific task. ADHD people are excellent saber-toothed tiger spotters, and there is evidence they may represent ‘the Hunters’, of our prehistoric populations.
The link between Dopamine and Novelty Seeking, has certainly been demonstrated in multiple studies, focusing on ADHD. Please see my upcoming, ‘Can I Have Your Attention2’, for more information.
We do see a direct physiological correlation in ADHD, where less brain Dopamine causes more Novelty Seeking behaviors.
This relative DEFICIT of Dopamine, in the brains of those with ADHD, is exactly the reason why people with ADHD who are given ‘stimulants’, become calm. Stimulants often directly increase the amount of Dopamine available to the brain. When ‘ADHD brains’ are given more Dopamine, in the form of a pill, the brain experiences Dopamine levels ‘returning to normal’, and the person finds thinking and concentrating become more efficient. Of course ‘normal’ is a relative term, and there are other advantages to ADHD.
What this essentially means is that a person with ADHD may appear hyperactive if they do not have enough ‘stimulant’ in their brain, OR if they have too much. It is important to find the ‘Goldilocks amount’ of ADHD medication, allowing their mind’s to experience more functional levels of Novelty Seeking.
The last Temperamental tendency that Cloninger believed was related to a specific brain chemical; is Serotonin (5 HT). His link between this Neurotransmitter, and HARM AVOIDANCE, again agrees with many aspects of the data we have about brain Serotonin. This chemical likely plays a role as the ‘brakes’ of our nervous system, helping us to avoid accidents and pain.
Serotonin has been found to be strongly associated with Depression and Anxiety. It has also been implicated in aggression and suicide. One study that examined individuals who had completed suicide, found there was less Serotonin in their Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) compared to either depressed people, or the general population.
There is significant evidence that Serotonin plays a key role in how well we handle stressful life events, as well as the probability that these events lead to depression or anxiety.
Genetic longitudinal studies have uncovered a moderating effect of the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene on stressful life events in predicting depression. Specifically, depression seems especially likely to follow stressful life events, but even more so for people with one or two short alleles of the 5-HTT gene. Serotonin may help to regulate other neurotransmitter systems, and decreased serotonin activity may “permit” these systems to act in unusual and erratic ways.
Cloninger drew a direct association between these 3 specific chemicals, and aspects of our Personality.
REWARD DEPENDENCE = NorEpinephrine
NOVELTY SEEKING = Dopamine
HARM AVOIDANCE = Serotonin
PERSISTENCE = No Specific NeuroChemical
You may notice a 4th variable, which is the most recent addition to the theory, called Persistence.
Persistence was found to be an independent factor, separate from the other 3. It was not found to be represented by any specific neurochemical, or perhaps not yet.
Persistence is defined as the ability to persevere in spite of fatigue or frustration. I believe many people that read Simon Says Stuff likely have pretty good Persistence by now, based on some of the terrible puns you have had to endure. Sometimes I think I may belong in a Punitentiary. Lol.
It is very cool to discover that Cloninger’s research found that Persistence, like the other Temperamental traits, was highly heritable, or genetic. If people in your family are pretty good at facing adversity, chances are you are as well. Unfortunately, it is also possible that the reverse is true.
Persistence itself can be broken down into several subscales, which include:
Eagerness Of Effort
It can be measured in units of time, if we understand it to mean the amount of time a person is able to remain invested in any given task. As an example, ‘if a cab driver works an 8 hour shift, their persistence is 8 hours. This isn’t a relation to how hard one works, as this is a reference to force. If person A is a hard worker and Person B is not, this is a reference to effort, not persistence’.
We can see aspects of the Temperamental traits of Persistence when we look at children. Those kids who are able to handle difficult piano lessons, usually have higher levels of it. With that concept in mind, it may be true that the kids who are able to demonstrate Persistence in their piano lessons, are the same ones able to tolerate or ignore, the bully at their school.
Cloninger compared his description of Persistence to other models that describe Personality and found it to be significantly associated with Conscientiousness, and Self Transcendence. It is negatively correlated with Psychoticism.
Cloninger later stated that his Temperamental Model for Personality had several limitations. The first being the inability to diagnose people with clinical disorders or diseases, because factors were described as ‘Continuous Measures’. Additional aspects of Personality are often considered by Psychologists and Psychiatrists who are interested in making clinical diagnoses.
He also believed that Genetics, or Temperament, does not tell us enough about what it means to be human. It does not take into account aspects of learning, as well as the quality of our relationships. The Model was therefore revised to include Non Temperamental Factors, which he described as Character.
In the next essay in this series, we will cover the second domain of Personality Variables that Cloninger developed, which focuses on specific Character Traits.
See you then!
Simon Trepel, MD
Simon Trepel, MD FRCPC, is a practicing Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, in Winnipeg, Canada. He is an Assistant Professor, at the University Of Manitoba, in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Co-founder of the GDAAY Clinic. He is, more importantly, the proud Father of 2 beautiful Daughters. He writes in his spare time about things he knows something about, and occasionally about things he doesn’t; like Yoga, and Italian flavored coffees. He is still working on his personality.
Check out his Blog, called Simon Says Psych Stuff, at