By far the most well-known work in personality psychology over the past three decades has been the “Big Five” model of personality traits. Traits are broad dimensions of personality, which have been found to be present across cultures and remain remarkably stable after emerging adulthood (i.e., your traits at age 25 highly predict your traits at 50). Personality researchers have reached a general consensus that there are five ‘big’ traits: 1) Extraversion, which refers to the general degree of positivity, approach motivation, and sociability; 2) Neuroticism, which refers to the general degree of negativity, avoidance motivation, and emotional reactivity; 3) Agreeableness, which refers to the tendency to get along, be warm, sympathetic and understanding (the opposite of paranoid hostility); 4) Conscientiousness, which refers to the extent of organized planning, responsibility, and achievement motivation; and 5) Openness, which refers to the desire to experience novelty, connect with new feelings, and learn new things.

Although the ‘Big Five’ represented a significant advance in personality theory, it is clearly a limited framework for personality theory as a whole. Think about it this way, if you know that I am moderately high on extraversion, moderately low on neuroticism, moderately high on agreeableness, high on conscientiousness, and high on openness, do you really know me? Obviously not. Although helpful, our personalities are much more than our trait profile.  

In an article titled A New Big Five, Dan McAdams and Jennifer Pals stated that it is crucial that personality researchers move beyond the success of the “Big Five” trait theory and develop an integrative vision for understanding the whole person. Toward that end, they proposed a new big five for conceptualizing personality as…

" (1) an individual’s unique variation on the general evolutionary design for human nature, expressed as a developing pattern of (2) dispositional traits, (3) characteristic adaptations, and (4) self-defining life narratives, complexly and differentially situated (5) in culture and social context."

In regard to the first domain, they describe the importance of human evolutionary history and the insights from evolutionary psychology in delineating the general architecture of the human mind. For the second domain, they refer to the Big Five traits. Characteristic adaptations, the third domain and focus of this post, refers to the feelings, goals, strategies, values, tendencies and many other aspects of human individuality that reflect the general pattern of responding that individuals exhibit in response to certain situations. Importantly, McAdams and Pals note that “there exists no definitive, Big Five–like list of these kinds of constructs." It is this gap I am seeking to fill here. The fourth domain refers to a person’s self-conscious identity. People construe their lives as stories and these stories regulate behavior and help people connect with and navigate within the larger social and cultural context (e.g., connecting with a political or national identity). The fifth and final domain is the sociocultural context in which personality develops, which refers to the large scale systems of justifications and traditions in which people are immersed.

The Person-Situation Debate, Walter Mischel, and Characteristic Adaptations

A long standing debate in psychology has been whether who we are is the product of our inner personalities or our external situations. Although most psychologists would surely agree in principle that human behavior is, as Kurt Lewin famously described, the function of both the person and the environment, [i.e., B = f(P, E)], psychologists still debate the best way to think about the interaction (or transaction) between the two, and many still argue that one side or the other has been over-emphasized (usually social psychologists emphasize that the force of personality is over-exaggerated, as here). Walter Mischel is a famous psychologist who also questioned the power and validity of personality traits. He has developed a framework, the Cognitive and Affective Personality System theory, that attempts to explain in much more precise detail how people do in fact behave consistently. However, the consistency is situation specific. That is, rather than thinking of Johnny as a “aggressive and defiant”, Mischel points out that Johnny may only be predictably aggressive and defiant in certain situations—say, when a teacher is trying to control him. In other situations, even situations in which other children are aggressive, he may act passively. In this view, people reflect constellations of general rules that relate responses to specific situations.

Since some of the earliest work on personality, researchers and theorists have distinguished between temperament and character (see, e.g., Cloninger's work). Temperament refers to the broad dispositional ‘set points’ that regulate moods and general tendencies. Character refers to the much more idiosyncratic ways of adapting and adjusting to specific environmental stimuli, as well as an individual’s identity. Work on the Big Five trait theory corresponds to the concept of temperament. Mischel’s work on the Cognitive Affective Systems theory corresponds to character, and McAdams and Pal’s work described above, attempts to define places for both, in a biological and social context. In short, personality theorists are making progress nailing down the whole.

Walter Mischel’s work is a step in the right direction for delineating how characteristic adaptations work. But a more detailed analysis of exactly how cognitive and affective variables interact to produce the regularities of responses to specific situations is needed. Moreover, Mischel’s system seems somewhat at odds with trait theory, and does not appear to be systematically grounded in evolutionary theory.

Five Systems of Character Adaptation

Via examining the field of psychology through the meta-lens of the unified theory, I argue that there is a way to more precisely define the “cognitive-affective” systems discussed by Mischel. I posit that there are five systems of adaptation to consider when analyzing how a person will react to a particular situation. Thus, what I propose here is a ‘Big Five’ for characteristic adaptations, which are as follows: 1) the Habit System; 2) the Experiential System; 3) the Relational System; 4) the Defensive System; and 5) the Justification System. These systems develop in this order, with the habit system forming the foundational base, then the experiential system and relationship system first emerging in early interactions with the environment and other people, and finally the justification and defensive systems emerging with language and self-conscious identity. Each system is described in a bit more detail below.

The Habit System corresponds to the basic levels of implicit mental processing and consists of sensori-motor reflexes, fixed action patterns, and procedural memories. Habitual responses are automatically initiated upon the presence of specific environmental cues and are shaped based on associations and consequences. Whereas consciousness awareness is activated in response to unexpected changes, routine actions conversely become engrained in the habit system, and one can characterize the habit system as that which involves doing without thinking. (See here for a recent popular book on the power of habits

In terms of thinking about people, the habit system corresponds to looking at an individual’s patterns like a behaviorist and thinking about daily routines, general activity levels, patterns of eating, sleeping, substance use, sexual activity and exercise, and stimuli or triggers that evoke particular kinds of response patterns. The habit system is especially important to consider when conceptualizing addictive behavior patterns (e.g., drinking, smoking, or gambling) that a client  wants to alter. Indeed, many, if not most of the actions that people consciously wish they did not engage in will have a strong habitual component to them.

The Experiential System refers to the nonverbal feelings, images, and sensory aspects of mental life. Examples of experiential phenomena include seeing red, being hungry, and feeling angry. The experiential system connects our perceptions, motivations, and emotions into a behavioral guidance system. For example, hunger activates a template to approach food. The individual will then search the perceptual field and if food is perceived and a pathway to acquire it realized, the individual will feel positive, energizing affect. If, however, the pathway is blocked, the emotional response is one of frustration. In addition, the experiential system also includes fantasy and remembered images, as it includes the capacity to simulate objects, events, and actions in one's imagination.

Because emotions play a key organizing role in the experiential system, it is probably most useful to focus first on emotions when analyzing the functioning of the experiential system in contexts like psychotherapy. As delineated by work done by emotion focused therapists, questions for the psychotherapist to consider when conceptualizing about the experiential system include: What is the range of emotional expression and experiencing? Are there emotional states that dominate an individual’s experience, as is the case in depressive and anxiety disorders? Are certain emotions are restricted, warded off, over-regulated, or inhibited? What are primary and adaptive emotional responses and which are secondary and maladaptive?

The Relational System refers to the social motivations and feelings states, along with internal working models and self-other schema that guide people in their social exchanges and relationships. The foundation for the human relationship system is built in the original bond with caretakers and delineated by attachment theory. The unified theory posits that the relational system is organized around the concept of relational value, which is the extent to which we are valued by important others. Humans are generally motivated to seek and approach high relational value (i.e., they desire being loved, admired, and respected. Likewise, they seek to avoid loss of relational value (being rejected, criticized, or ostracized). In addition, people navigate relational value on three relational process dimensions of Power, Love, and Freedom (see a blog here about how this frame helps understand the personality disorders).

The Defensive System refers to the ways in which individuals manage their actions, feelings and thoughts, and shift the focus of conscious attention to maintain a state of psychic equilibrium. In more everyday terms, the defensive system can be thought of in terms of how people cope with distressing thoughts and experiences. In many regards, the defensive system is the most diffuse of the characteristic adaptational systems, as it refers more to the interrelationships between the domains and the strategies utilized to maintain mental harmony and coherence. This is not to say that the defensive system cannot be identified or studied. Psychodynamically oriented clinicians and theorists have long documented mechanisms of defensive process. From the perspective of the unified theory, the Freudian and Rogerian filters provide a framework to understand how people inhibit threatening material from emerging into self-consciousness and work to maintain desired social impressions. Closely related to psychodynamic conceptions of defense, academic psychologists have experimentally examined defensive processes under the guise of cognitive dissonance, and have documented the enormous tendencies to arrange one’s beliefs and actions in such a way as to maintain a justifiable narrative of the self.

The Justification System refers to the language-based beliefs and values that an individual uses to legitimize actions and develop a meaningful worldview. We can think about the Justification System in two ways. One is how it provides the language-based interpretations people make and the expectations they have of their environment and their ability to influence it. These are the semantic elements were characterized by Beck as automatic thoughts, which are the immediate self-talk an individual engages in during an activity or moment of reflection. Some important constructs in the social cognitive literature relating to these kinds of justifications include pessimism and optimism, self-efficacy, and an internal versus external locus of control. The other lens that is useful is the broader and deeper lens of existential and narrative therapists who focus on the guiding justification narratives that people have regarding who they are, what their purpose is, and why they are doing what they are doing in. This is the level of identity and life narrative that is so central to personality that McAdams and Pals characterize it as a fully separate component of personality.

In many ways, the justification system is the most important component to conceptualizing adults in psychotherapy. One reason for this is because in the vast majority of cases of adult psychotherapy, the justification system is the most direct window into the personality structure. That is, although therapists can observe appearance and mannerisms in the consulting room, we usually get to observe only a very small slice of the patient’s behavioral repertoire. And although we can certainly obtain clues and patients can verbally share their experiential world, we can never know that subjective experience directly. Of course, as therapists, even we don’t get full access to the justification system, only to the portion of the justification system that is not privately filtered by the client. This is in large part why the quality of the therapeutic relationship is so important. The better the relationship and the more accurate the empathy, the less the filtering between the public and the private justification systems there will be. It is in the crucible of a strong therapeutic holding environment that the filters can be reduced or removed and an authentic dialogue about what the client truly believes and feels can occur.

The astute reader will note that as I described each of these domains of adaptation, I alluded to various approaches in psychotherapy. In the next post, I will explain how this approach to the five systems of adaptation corresponds to major approaches in psychotherapy, thus building bridges between personality, social, and professional psychology.

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