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Biological Theory of Personality

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Biological Theory of Personality

Have you ever wondered why you are the way you are?

Specifically, why is your personality the way it is? There are many probable answers, but if you ask a biological psychologist, they would say that you behave the way you do because of your genes.

  • We will first look at what biological theories of personality are.
  • What are the different types of biological theories of personality development?
  • What is Han Eysenck’s PEN model?

Definition of the Biological Theories of Personality

The argument of nature vs. nurture seems as old as time. Do our personalities come from genetic coding, or are they the result of the influence of the people around us? While many can argue that it’s a combination of both nature and nurture, others focus more on the nature side of personality. Biological theories of personality are a group of theories that argue for the nature (or biological) side of this ongoing debate.

Nature vs. nurture: An ongoing debate where one side argues that we are born a specific way (nature), while the other side argues that we are influenced to become who we are (nurture).

Your little brother is super annoying. You think it's most likely due to how your parents have raised him, but sometimes you wonder if it's just part of his genetic coding. It could be both! If you decide that it's due to his upbringing, you're siding with the nurture side of the debate. If you decide that it's due to genetics or biological factors, you're siding with the nature side of the debate.

When looking through the biological lens when it comes to personality, just remember that we are trying to view the person as they are. Biological theories of personality do not look at external factors (e.g., the influence of others around them), but rather at internal factors (e.g., genetics) to explain why our personalities are the way they are.

These theories try to observe how someone became who they are through genetics, neuroscience, DNA, and other internal factors.

Biological Theories of Personality Development

There are several different ways that our biology can impact our personality throughout our lives. It's about much more than just our genetics! Hormones, traumatic events, neurotransmitters, and other factors can impact and alter our personalities. Some of the biological bases of personality include:

  • Genetic Factors/DNA

    Anxiety disorders or tendencies towards anxiety can be passed down in a family. There is no specific gene for anxiety. Several different genes seem to play a role in anxious dispositions.

  • Brain Structures

    An ongoing study that is being done on Cattell’s "Big 5" personality traits model shows that people who measure higher in conscientiousness tend to have larger lateral prefrontal cortexes than those who are low in conscientiousness. The lateral prefrontal cortex is a brain structure that plays a role in our organization and behavior.

  • Hormone Secretions

    The hormone testosterone (present in males and females but more so in males) is vital for its impact on our sociability, aggression, and sexuality.

Biology can shape our personalities as we age and progress through the different phases of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Biological theories of personality development want to look at the consistent and inconsistent aspects of our personalities over time as they relate to biological causes or factors.

It would seem that our personalities tend to remain consistent, despite environmental influences. This is an argument in favor of nature over nurture (or biological causes over environmental ones). If a baby is quiet and prefers to play by itself, they will develop into an adult that also prefers quiet and alone time.

Biological Theories of Personality in Psychology

There are many biological theories for personality, but for this article, we will look at the following psychologists and their theories: Jeffrey Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory, and Hans Eysenck's Three-Factor Model of Personality (PEN model).

Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory

Jeffrey Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory is based on the notion that we use three types of biologically-driven responses when faced with stress or fear. It posits that everyone has a specific response method when faced with certain stimuli. These individual reactions can underlie personality traits for anxiety and impulsivity.

The three responses that people use when faced with stress or fear are called the fight, flight, or freeze response. This process explains that the person will either fight (face the stimuli head-on), fly (run away from the stimuli), or freeze (not react to stimuli) in stressful or fear-inducing situations. How one instinctively reacts can correspond with personality traits linked to anxiety, overthinking, impulsivity, and worrying.

Mark, Andrew, and Greyson are currently on a hike in the Appalachian mountains. They see signs warning of bear dens nearby. They overlook the signs because it is winter time and they know that it is hibernation season. As they continue to walk, they suddenly hear loud rustling in the bushes nearby. A large bear pops out scaring the three boys. Mark runs away screaming, while Jake is frozen in fear, and Greyson is trying to get his pepper spray out. Based on their reactions, Mark chose flight, Jake chose freeze, and Greyson chose to fight.

In North America, there are around 11 brown bear attacks reported annually, with most surviving the encounter. National parks that have bear residents suggest that the best way to survive an attack is to stay calm and collected. You do not want to run away screaming, as this can cause the bear to attack. If you do encounter one, you should back away slowly with your arms raised. If the bear does charge, lay down in a fetal position and cover your head with your arms. Bear spray does work, but it is not 100 percent effective.

How would you react?

Jeffrey Gray also introduced two behavioral systems that coincided with neurobiological processes.

Gray's Behavioral Inhibition System

Gray theorized that our responses to situations we associate with negativity can be predicted, because our brain recalls previous reactions to the same event or environment. The behavioral inhibition system is a neurobiological system that can predict our response to specific stimuli, because of earlier experiences that we viewed as negative.

Angelica discovered that she was highly allergic to shellfish after trying it for the first time. Now, whenever she sees shellfish, she gets anxious, as she recalls her trip to Urgent Care for treatment.

This behavioral system is associated with personality traits that involve carefulness, trust, anxiety, and emotionality.

Gray's Behavioral Activation System

In contrast, Gray's behavioral activation system suggests that our brain/body is predisposed to pursuing and achieving goals due to our mind's positive association. The behavioral activation system is a neurobiological system that promotes motivation and encourages the pursuit of goals based on experiences that we view as positive.

Sammy creates a goal for each month through the year. This started as a way for her to deal with procrastinating, but over time, it became a habit. She enjoyed the feeling of completing her monthly goal, which motivates her to continue setting goals every month.

This behavioral system is associated with personality traits that involve self-consciousness, self-discipline, and dutifulness.

Hans Eysenck's Biological Theory of Personality

Hans Eysenck was a German psychologist known for his PEN model. It is one of the major biological theories of personality. The PEN model is based on three personality traits that Eysenck believed correlated with the activation of our limbic system and reticular formation. Both are structures of the brain and they each play a key role in brain and body function. The limbic system focuses on emotion, behavior, and memory, while the reticular formation focuses on arousal and consciousness.

The Limbic System: Located in the brain, it is involved with responses that shape our behavior and emotion. It specifically controls behaviors that the brain views as vital to survival such as eating, and responses to danger (think back to Gray's Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response).

The Reticular Formation: Located in the brain, it is a complex group of neurons that help with functions related to consciousness and arousal.

The three personality traits for the PEN model are Psychoticism, Extraversion, and Neuroticism. Eysenck referred to these three traits as super-traits.

When referring to Eysenck’s PEN model, please keep in mind that it includes a range of possible scores for each trait. Whether one scores high or low for that specific personality, it is not a 100 percent accurate portrayal of that person.

Psychoticism and Normality

The P in PEN stands for Psychoticism. If someone scores high in psychoticism, their personality would reflect someone more likely to ignore social norms, as they are not motivated by incentives. People in this category are also more likely to disregard authority and rules set by others. However, Eysenck also noted that people in this category are very creative and like to think outside the box.

If someone scores low in psychoticism, their personality would reflect someone who is sensitive, empathetic, and more likely to follow the rules set by others. People who score low in psychoticism are also more likely to avoid conflict as they prefer peaceful environments.

Personality traits linked to Psychoticism (High):

  • Aggressive

  • Cold

  • Impersonal

Please keep in mind that if someone scores high in psychoticism, this does not mean they are psychotic. Having personality traits linked to psychoticism is not the same as experiencing psychosis or other symptoms typical of a psychotic disorder. The term "psychotic" means something different here!

Extraversion and Introversion

The E in PEN stands for Extraversion. If someone scores high in extroversion, they have a personality that is more sociable and outgoing. Extroverts enjoy environments where they can be social and have attention. If someone scores low in this category, they have a quieter personality that prefers an environment with smaller crowds and activities that they can do alone. (This does not mean they are lonely or reclusive, however.)

Personality traits linked to Extroversion (High)

  • Carefree

  • Sociable

  • Lively

Neuroticism and Stability

In Eysenck’s PEN model, N stands for Neuroticism. If someone scores high in neuroticism, they have a personality that is oriented towards the self and are more likely to experience stress and anxiety. A low score would indicate they have a calm personality and are more laid back. They will also be better at handling stress and anxiety.

Personality traits linked to Neuroticism (High)

  • Tense

  • Anxious

  • Moody

Biological Theory of Personality - Key takeaways

  • Biological theories of personality try to answer how or why our personalities are created via biological means. These theories also try to discover the relationship between personality development, our DNA, and our mental processes.

  • These theories follow how these biological bases shape our personalities as we age and progress through the different phases of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

  • Biological theories of personality development want to look at the consistencies and changes in personality over time, as it relates to biological means.

  • The PEN model is based on three personality traits that Eysenck believed correlated with the activation of our limbic system and reticular formation.

  • The three personality traits for the PEN model are Psychoticism, Extraversion, and Neuroticism; Eysenck referred to these three traits as super-traits.

Frequently Asked Questions about Biological Theory of Personality

Biological theories of personality do not look at external factors (e.g. the influence of others), but rather at internal factors (e.g. genetics), to explain why personalities are the way they are.

Our biological components can affect our personality through genetics and mental processes. 

There are many theories of personality, but we will break them down into the following subsets: 

  • Biological theories of personality 
  • Cognitive theories of personality 
  • Psychodynamic theories of personality 
  • Trait theories of personality 
  • Social-cognitive theories of personality 
  • Behavioral theories of personality 
  • Humanistic theories of personality 

Biological factors of personality can include the following: 

  • Genetics 
  • DNA 
  • Mental processes 
  • Hormonal secretions 

An example of a biological theory is Hans Eysenck's Three-Factor Model of Personality (PEN Model). 


The PEN model is based on three personality traits that Eysenck believed correlated with the activation of our limbic system, and reticular formation.

Final Biological Theory of Personality Quiz

Question

What is the biological theory of personality? 

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Answer

Biological theories of personality hold the belief, or view, that our personalities are formed largely by biological processes.  

Show question

Question

What are the biological factors of personality? 

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Answer

Biological factors of personality are internal components that affect how our personality is formed. Genetics is one example.

Show question

Question

What is an example of a biological theory of personality? 


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Answer

Hans Eysenck's PEN model.

Show question

Question

What does the P stand for in the PEN model? 

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Answer

The P in PEN stands for Psychoticism.

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Question

What does the E stand for in the PEN model? 

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Answer

The E in PEN stands for Extraversion.

Show question

Question

What does the N in the PEN model stand for? 

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Answer

In Eysenck’s PEN model, N stands for Neuroticism.

Show question

Question

Which psychologist created the PEN model? 

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Answer

Hans Eysenck 

Show question

Question

Provide examples of personality traits linked to Neuroticism. 

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Answer

Tense 

Anxious 

Moody

Show question

Question

Provide examples of personality traits linked to Extraversion. 

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Answer

Carefree 

Sociable 

Lively

Show question

Question

Provide examples of personality traits linked to Psychoticism. 

Show answer

Answer

Aggressive

Cold

Impersonal  

Show question

Question

Define "Behavioral Activation System".

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Answer

A neurobiological system (i.e. a mental process) that promotes motivation and encourages the pursuit of goals based on experiences that we associate with positivity. 

Show question

Question

Define "Behavioral Inhibition System".

Show answer

Answer

A neurobiological system (i.e. a mental process) that can predict our response to specific stimuli because of earlier experiences that we associated with negativity.

Show question

Question

What is the "Fight, Flight, or Freeze" response? 

Show answer

Answer

The three different types of reactions that take place when a person is introduced to certain stimuli. These three responses are part of Gray's Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory. 

Show question

Question

Who postulated the "Fight, Flight, or Freeze" response? 

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Answer

Jeffrey Gray

Show question

Question

Eysenck's PEN model is also known as:

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Answer

The Three-Factor Model of Personality

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Question

The debate of "Nature versus Nurture" is ongoing in the realm of psychology. Which camp would biological physiologists fall under? 

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Answer

Biological psychologists would argue for the "Nature" side. 

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What do biological theories of personality do NOT look at? 

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Answer

Biological theories of personality do not look at external factors. 

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Question

Biological theories of personality use internal factors (e.g., genetics) to help explain why our personalities are the way they are. 

Show answer

Answer

True

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Question

True or False: Can anxiety disorders, or tendencies toward anxiety, be passed down genetically? 

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Is there a specific gene linked to anxiety? 

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Answer

No

Show question

Question

How does the hormone testosterone impact our personality? 

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Answer

Testosterone impacts our aggression 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: 

An ongoing study that is being done on Cattell’s "Big 5" personality traits model shows that people who measure higher in conscientiousness tend to have ______ lateral prefrontal cortexes than those who are low in conscientiousness. 

Show answer

Answer

"larger"

Show question

Question

True or False: Despite environmental influences, our personalities tend to remain consistent. 

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

If a child is quiet, are they more likely or less likely to be quiet as an adult? 

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Answer

They are more likely. 

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Question

What does the limbic system do? 

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Answer

It is involved with responses that shape our behavior and emotion. 

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Question

Sasha hates following rules and shows a clear disregard for those she views as an authority. 

If Sasha took a P.E.N assessment, in which area would she score high based on the description given above? 

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Answer

Sasha would score high in Psychoticism

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Question

Alex is very outgoing and enjoys meeting new people. 

If Alex took a P.E.N assessment, in which area would he score high based on the description given above? 

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Answer

Alex would score high in Extroversion

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Question

Alice is an overthinker and because of that, she often deals with stress and anxiety. 

If Alice took a P.E.N assessment, in which area would she score high based on the description given above?

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Answer

Alice would score high in Neuroticism

Show question

Question

Using Eysenck’s PEN model, which of the following pairs are correctly matched? 

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Answer

Psychoticism and Normality 

Show question

Question

Using Eysenck’s PEN model, which of the following pairs are correctly matched?  

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Answer

Extraversion and Introversion

Show question

Question

Using Eysenck’s PEN model, which of the following pairs are correctly matched?   

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Answer

Neuroticism and Stability

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The three personality traits for the PEN model are  Psychoticism, Extraversion, and Neuroticism.

Eysenck referred to these three traits as what? 

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Answer

Eysenck referred to these three traits as super-traits

Show question

Question

What is the P.E.N model based on? 

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Answer

The PEN model is based on three personality traits that Eysenck believed correlated with the activation of our limbic system and reticular formation. 

Show question

Question

What is Jeffrey Gray’s "Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory"  based on? 

Show answer

Answer

Jeffrey Gray’s "Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory" is based on the notion that there are three types of mental processes we use in the face of stimuli.

Show question

Question

True or False: 

Biological theories of personality development want to look at the consistent and inconsistent aspects of our personalities over time as they relate to biological causes or factors. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

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