Eysenck’s Trait Theory

Hans J Eysenck is somewhat difficult to identify or classify as to whether he is a learning theorist or behaviourist. He supports a model of personality characterised by types and traits because he firmly believes that the most fundamental personality
characteristics are inherited. His equally strong belief that both heredity and environment determine behaviour supports his active verbal support of learning theory and the behaviour therapies. Eysenck shares with Cattell the view of people as creatures with lasting and measurable qualities.

From the beginning of his career, Eysenck was certain that most personality theories are too complicated and too loosely formulated. He has attempted to derive conceptions of behaviour that are simple and can be used to its maximum in proper working order, and as a result, his system is characterised by a very small number of major dimensions that have a very thorough empirical definition. At the same time, his conceptions reflect his study and absorption of the thought of many different figures in our intellectual history wherein we have stalwarts like Hippocrates, Galen, Kretschmer, Jung, Pavlov, Hull, Spearman, and Thurstone.

H.J. Eysenck proposed that personality could be reduced into two broad dimensions. These dimensions are Neuroticism and Extraversion-Introversion dimensions.

According to Eysenck, these are biologically and genetically based and each dimension subsumes under it a number of specific traits. He drew a scale with one end having a normal dimension and at another extreme having the Neuroticism dimension. In between the person could have in varying degrees many traits which are part of these dimensions. Let us take up neuroticism as the first dimension and see the traits under the same.


Neuroticism is the name Eysenck gave to a dimension that had persons who tend to be quite “nervous.” These people tend to suffer more frequently from a variety of “nervous disorders”, hence the name of the dimension. But it does not mean that
people who score high on the neuroticism scale are necessarily suffering from neurotic disorders, but it only shows that such persons are relatively more susceptible to develop neurotic problems as compared to normal persons.

Eysenck was convinced that this dimension of normality, neuroticism, etc were true temperaments and they were genetically determined and physiologically supported dimension of personality. He, therefore, tried to find possible explanations in the realm of physiological research. Eysenck hypothesized that some people have a more responsive sympathetic nervous system than others. Some people remain very calm during emergencies, while some persons feel considerable fear or other emotions.

Some are terrified by even very minor incident while for some even major accidents do not disturb them. Eysenck suggested that the former group had a problem of sympathetic hyperactivity, which made them vulnerable to develop neurotic disorders.
Perhaps the most “archetypal” neurotic symptom is the panic attack. Eysenck explained panic attacks as something like the positive feedback you get when you place a microphone too close to a speaker. The small sounds entering the mike get
amplified and come out of the speaker, and go into the mike, get amplified again, and come out of the speaker again, and so on, round and round until you get the famous squeal that we all love to produce when we were kids. (Lead guitarists like to do this too to make some of their long, wailing sounds.)

Well, the panic attack follows the same pattern: You are mildly frightened by something, as for example, crossing a bridge. This gets your sympathetic nervous system activated, causing you to become more nervous, and so more susceptible to stimulation, which gets your system even more in an uproar, which makes you more nervous and more susceptible. You could say that the neurotic person is responding more to his or her own panic than to the original object of fear!


His second dimension is extraversion-introversion. By this, he means something very similar to what Jung meant by the same terms, and something very similar to our common sense understanding of them, that is Shy, quiet people “versus” out-going,
loud people. This dimension, too, is found in everyone, but the physiological explanation is a bit more complex. According to Eysenck, extraversion-introversion is a matter of the balance of “inhibition” and “excitation” in the brain itself. Excitation is the brain waking itself up, getting into an alert, learning state.

Inhibition is the brain calming itself down, either in the usual sense of relaxing and going to sleep or in the sense of protecting itself in the case of overwhelming stimulation.

Thus someone who is extraverted, he hypothesized, has good, strong inhibition: When confronted by traumatic stimulation — such as a car crash — the extravert’s brain inhibits itself, which means that it becomes “numb,” you might say, to the trauma, and therefore will remember very little of what happened. After the car crash, the extravert might feel as if he had “blanked out” during the event, and may ask others to fill them in on what happened. Because they don’t feel the full mental impact of the crash, they may be ready to go back to driving the very next day.

The introvert, on the other hand, has poor or weak inhibition: When trauma, such as the car crash, hits them, their brains don’t protect them fast enough, don’t in any way shut down. Instead, they are highly alert and learn well, and so remember everything that happened. They might even report that they saw the whole crash “in slow motion!” They are very unlikely to want to drive anytime soon after the crash, and may even stop driving altogether.

Neuroticism and extraversion-introversion

Another thing Eysenck looked into was the interaction of the two dimensions and what that might mean in regard to various psychological problems. He found, for example, that people with phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder tended to be
quite introverted, whereas people with conversion disorders (e.g. hysterical paralysis) or dissociative disorders (e.g. amnesia) tended to be more extraverted.

Here are his explanation: Highly neurotic people over-respond to fearful stimuli; If they are introverts, they will learn to avoid the situations that cause panic very quickly and very thoroughly, even to the point of becoming panicky at small symbols of those situations — they will develop phobias. Other introverts will learn (quickly and thoroughly) particular behaviours that hold off their panic — such as checking things many times over or washing their hands again and again.

Highly neurotic extraverts, on the other hand, are good at ignoring and forgetting the things that overwhelm them. They engage in classic defence mechanisms, such as denial and repression. They can conveniently forget a painful weekend, for
example, or even “forget” their ability to feel and use their legs.


Eysenck recognised a third factor which he labelled as psychotic. Like neuroticism, the high psychotic trait does not mean that a person is psychotic but only that one exhibits some qualities commonly found among psychotics, and that one is more susceptible to becoming psychotic. Psychotic people include a certain recklessness, a disregard for common sense or conventions, and a degree of inappropriate emotional expression. It is the dimension that separates those people who end up in
institutions from the rest.

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