Chapter 18: Eysenck: Dimensions of Personality

Part 2: Eysenck’s Dimensions of Personality

The Structure of Personality

According to Eysenck, the sixteen primary personality factors identified by Cattell in the 16-PF test were unreliable and could not be replicated.  Eysenck chose instead to focus on higher order factor analysis, and through his work, he identified three “superfactors:” extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism (Eysenck, 1982).  According to Eysenck, higher order factors are similar to types, and they represent combinations of primary personality traits.  Thus, he considered the sixteen factors that Cattell included in the 16-PF as primary factors, whereas extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism were second-order factors (or types).  Actually, even the primary factors are comprised of lower level responses that result in a hierarchical model of personality: specific responses, habitual responses, traits (or factors), and finally, types (or superfactors).  Similarly, g, or general intelligence, is a higher order factor than its component intelligences (e.g., verbal, numerical, memory, visuo-spatial, and reasoning).  Thus, Eysenck’s theory does not contradict that of Cattell, but rather looks at a higher level of personality structure (Eysenck, 1952, 1967, 1970).

Eysenck’s theory focused on temperament—innate, genetically based personality differences. He believed personality is largely governed by biology, and he viewed people as having two specific personality dimensions: extroversion vs. introversion and neuroticism vs. stability. After collaborating with his wife and fellow personality theorist Sybil Eysenck, he added a third dimension to this model: psychoticism vs. socialization. (Boundless, n.d.)

An extravert is commonly described as an outgoing, expressive person, but the technical definition described by Eysenck is more complex.  Extraversion is a combination of sociability, impulsiveness, frivolity, general activity, and overt sexuality. The complex nature of each higher order factor may lead to some of the differences in personality theory.  According to Eysenck, the impulsiveness associated with extraversion is most likely hereditary (a temperamental trait), whereas the sociability aspect of extraversion is more likely to be influenced by one’s environment.  Thus, perhaps, it is not surprising that Eysenck finds support for hereditary influences on personality whereas others, like Cattell, find support for environmental influences. Depending on how one designs their questions and experiments, the component traits within a higher order factor can support different perspectives (Eysenck, 1982).  According to his theory, people high on the trait of extroversion are sociable and outgoing and readily connect with others, whereas people high on the trait of introversion have a higher need to be alone, engage in solitary behaviors, and limit their interactions with others. (Boundless, n.d.)

Neuroticism refers to one’s emotional stability, or lack thereof.  It incorporates mood swings, poor emotional adjustment, feelings of inferiority, a lack of social responsibility, a lack of persistence, issues of trust vs. suspiciousness, social shyness, hypochondria, and the lack of relaxed composure.  Neuroticism raises the intensity of emotional reactions. Since it is a function of the reactivity of the autonomic nervous system, it is an inherited characteristic. Individuals who measure high in neuroticism are more likely to suffer from neuroses, but high neuroticism is not necessarily less desirable than low levels of neuroticism.  For example, aesthetic appreciation and creativity can benefit from an individual being highly emotional. On the clearly negative side, high levels of neuroticism have routinely been found in criminals, perhaps because whenever an individual has antisocial tendencies, a high level of neuroticism enhances their fear/anxiety responses and functions as a powerful, albeit dysfunctional, drive (Eysenck, 1977, 1982; Kendrick, 1981).  In the neuroticism/stability dimension, people high on neuroticism tend to be anxious; they tend to have an overactive sympathetic nervous system with low stress, their bodies and emotional state tend to go into a flight-or-fight reaction. In contrast, people high on stability tend to need more stimulation to activate their flight-or-fight reaction and are therefore considered more emotionally stable. (Boundless, n.d.)  Cattell also studied neuroticism, and his findings were very similar to those of Eysenck (Cattell & Scheier, 1961).

This is a color photography of a person's face. The person has red, yellow, white, blue, and purple paint splattered across their face, and the person is covering much of their face, with the exception of their eyes, with their right hand, which is also covered in paint.
Image Source: Ivanovgood. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Psychoticism was added to Eysenck’s theory well after identifying extraversion and neuroticism, and it is the least clearly defined or heritable of the three superfactors.  It incorporates traits of dominance-leadership, dominance-submission, sensation seeking, and the lack of a superego. Children who score high on a measure of psychoticism tend to have behavior problems and learning difficulties, they become loners, skip school, commit crimes, and are generally disliked by teachers and peers.  Whether as children or as adults, they do not typically benefit from traditional psychotherapies or counseling, as there tends to be a paranoid, suspicious barrier. There is some evidence, however, for successful treatment with intensive behavioral techniques. Interestingly, whether or not these children become criminals as adults seems to depend on how they score on the other two superfactors.  High neuroticism seems to be the factor which makes juvenile delinquency a habit that persists into a life of crime (S. Eysenck, 1997). In the psychoticism/socialization dimension, people who are high on psychoticism tend to be independent thinkers, cold, nonconformist, impulsive, antisocial, and hostile. People who are high on socialization (often referred to as superego control) tend to have high impulse control—they are more altruistic, empathetic, cooperative, and conventional.  (Boundless, n.d.)

The major strength of Eysenck’s model is that he was one of the first to make his approach more quantifiable; it was therefore perceived to be more “legitimate,” as a common criticism of psychological theories is that they are not empirically verifiable. Eysenck proposed that extraversion was caused by variability in cortical arousal, with introverts characteristically having a higher level of activity in this area than extroverts. He also hypothesized that neuroticism was determined by individual differences in the limbic system, the part of the human brain involved in emotion, motivation, and emotional association with memory. Unlike Allport’s and Cattell’s models, however, Eysenck’s theory has been criticized for being too narrow. (Boundless, n.d.)

In contrast to Cattell’s sixteen primary factors, Eysenck proposed just three superfactors.  Can a reasonable evaluation of personality be conducted along just three dimensions? If not, do you think these are still the three most essential dimensions?

The Role of Heredity in Personality

Eysenck believed strongly in the inheritance of personality and intelligence.  If it is true that genetics plays a major role in personality, then evolution should provide us with an interesting test: do other primate species demonstrate the same superfactors that we see in humans?  Eysenck examined this question in conjunction with Harry Harlow. After conducting factor analysis on the social behavior of rhesus monkeys, they found three clear behavior factors: affectionate, fearful, and hostile social behavior.  These factors match well with the human factors of extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism, respectively. Of course, there were marked differences between animals, but those differences were characteristic and reliable for each monkey.  Thus, it would appear that the biological basis for personality superfactors can be confirmed in comparative psychological studies (Chamove, Eysenck, & Harlow, 1972).

This is a color image of an adult rhesus monkey holding a baby rhesus monkey. They appear to be outside resting against a stone.
Image Source: RobbieRoss. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Reviews of Eysenck’s overall contribution to the field of behavior genetics have, however, been the subject of debate.  Whereas some praise Eysenck for identifying the significant role that genetic determinants play in personality factors (see Martin & Jardine, 1986), others argue that Eysenck’s own data provide evidence that he overstated the significance of genetics (see Loehlin, 1986).  Indeed, Loehlin suggests that the data in Eysenck’s own publications can be interpreted to suggest that genetics account for about half of the variance in personality factors, which leaves the other half subject to the environment. Still, Loehlin acknowledges Eysenck’s primary role in bringing these issues into the realm of science, and he commends Eysenck for providing his data openly, so that others, like Loehlin, might be able to evaluate and debate those results (Loehlin, 1986).  Eysenck, for his part, acknowledged the points made by Loehlin, and expressed hope that continued research in the future would help to better clarify the role of genetics in determining behavior, intelligence, and personality (Eysenck, 1986).

Personality and Real Life Issues

Although Eysenck’s approach to personality focused on group differences and genetics, he was not without concern for the individual and her or his daily life.  He also challenged the way in which psychologists are pursuing their discipline, and the effect it has on the public’s view of psychology. In 1972, he published Psychology is About People, which included jokes about psychology and psychiatry, as well as topics as diverse as sex, socialism, education, pornography, and behaviorism (Eysenck, 1972).  In Uses and Abuses of Psychology he challenged the stereotypes associated with views on national character, and urged the learning of facts about other cultures (numerous other topics are covered as well; Eysenck, 1953).  In Sense and Nonsense in Psychology he examined such things as hypnosis, lie detectors, telepathy, interpreting dreams, and politics.

Eysenck wrote extensively about sex and personality, and the role that violence and the media may play in distorting sexuality (e.g., Eysenck, 1976; Eysenck & Nias, 1978).  He also wrote about the relationship between personality and criminal behavior (e.g., Eysenck, 1964; Eysenck & Gudjonsson, 1989), and the role that personality and stress play in the lives of people who smoke cigarettes (Eysenck, 1991).  Like Cattell, Jensen, and others, Eysenck was very much caught up in the controversy over racial differences in intelligence testing (see, e.g., Eysenck, 1973a,b, 1995; Eysenck & Kamin, 1981; Pearson, 1991). Eysenck, however, offered something for the average person, two books on how to measure your own I.Q. (Eysenck, 1962, 1966).  Late in his career, Eysenck offered an interesting reflection on his decision to focus most of his career on differences between people, as opposed to the uniqueness of each person:

Gordon Allport and I did not always see eye to eye on theoretical matters.  I remember very well him telling me that he thought every psychologist should write his autobiography at the end of his life, to see the unities that emerged in his conduct over a lengthy period of time.  This idiographic point of view contrasted very much with my own nomothetic one, and at the time I paid little attention to it. Now, half a life-time later, I can see what he was driving at, and can also see the possible importance of such consistencies of behaviour in one’s own life. (pg. 375; Eysenck, 1986)

Eysenck wrote two books that challenged the field of psychology:  Uses and Abuses of Psychology and Sense and Nonsense in Psychology.  What advantages do you think it has for the field when someone of Eysenck’s stature questions the scientific validity of certain areas of study or certain procedures?

Supplemental Materials

Trait Theory-Hans Eysenck

This video [5:35] reviews Eysenck’s dimensions of personality, providing examples of each.



Trait Theory Eysenck’s 3 Factor Model

This video [9:43] begins by describing Eysenck’s views on temperament and the role it plays in personality.  His results from his research on factor analysis are then discussed, exploring the three dimensions he based his theory on.



Hans J. Eysenck, Ph.D. Lifetalk with Roberta Russell on Psychoanalysis

This video [9:00] features a 1995 segment from Lifetalk with Roberta Russell interviewing Hans Eysenck on his thoughts about psychoanalysis.



Text:  Boundless.  (n.d.) Allport’s, Cattell’s, and Eysenck’s Trait Theories of Personality.  Retrieved from  Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.  

Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Claire Codrington.  (2018, June 22). Trait theory-Hans Eysenck.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

NHS Psychology.  (2017, June 17). Trait theory Eysenck’s 3 factor model.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Roberta Russell.  (2009, October 9).  Hans J. Eysenck, Ph.D. Lifetalk with Roberta Russell on psychoanalysis.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.