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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: January 2011

5 - Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory and personality


Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (RST) is composed of two main components: (a) a state description of neural systems and associated, relatively short-term, emotions and behaviours; and (b) a trait description of longer-term dispositions to such emotions and behaviours. McNaughton and Corr (chapter 2) outlined the state level of description; this chapter explores the trait level of description and takes a more general view of the problems posed by the revised Gray and McNaughton (2000) theory.

‘Top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches to personality

The standard biological approach to personality adopts the well-established procedure from biology: first describe (taxonomy) and then explain (theorize about form of taxonomy; e.g., evolution). As noted by Gray (1972a, p. 372), ‘The study of personality is the attempt (a) to discover consistent patterns of individual differences and (b) to account for the form taken by these patterns.’ This ‘top-down’ approach has considerable merit and many empirical successes to its name. But it cannot be applied in a simple one-step fashion. Even within species and genera, taxonomy ((a) above) is not independent of causal theories ((b) above) – findings in molecular biology can alter taxonomy based on superficial description. With the study of personality it is a moot point whether the underlying variation in sensitivity of causal brain systems – which must control the psychological phenomena we classify under ‘personality’ – correspond in any obvious fashion to the manifest aspects of personality (i.e., factors, traits, facets, etc.).

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