WAPLT? 8: Connecting the Polarities to Life

Polarities, Activate!

In the previous posts, I discussed the basic polarities that underlie personality in the bioevolutionary model. In this post, I will explore what activates these polarities. I will address some important questions such as: What influences a person’s perception of pleasure and pain? What determines their tendency towards selfish or altruistic behavior? How do they perceive an active or passive approach to life?

First, it is important to note that personalities are patterns of behavior that function distinctively and sometimes maladaptively in relation to their environment. In order to understand the interplay between person and environment, both must be recognized as dynamic systems that co-evolve. This means that the successive states of the person-environment system are subject to constraints that lie in both the person and the environment (Loevinger 1957). Some environmental constraints are powerful and lead to convergent behavior, such as red stoplights, while environments with poorly defined or minimal constraints can result in divergent and novel behavior (Millon 2011 66-67).

When a person’s behavior is strongly influenced by their individual characteristics rather than environmental factors, their actions may no longer be suitable or proportional to the demands of their surroundings. The individual becomes the driving force behind their interaction with the environment. When the strategies they use to achieve goals, interact with others, and cope with stress are limited and inflexible, and their habitual perceptions, needs, and behaviors only exacerbate existing difficulties, we call this a clinically significant personality pattern. This may be referred to as a personality “disorder,” although this is a broad term that includes a range of behaviors, from normal to subclinical to clinical. It is important to note that personality disorders have no single underlying cause, but are instead influenced by a multitude of factors.

To further understand personality, it is helpful to break it down into domains that reflect different aspects of the individual such as their cognitions and interpersonal conduct. To aid in teaching, we can indeed break down the complex personality system into trait domains that encompass aspects such as the person’s thinking patterns and social behavior. However, these domains cannot actually be isolated and exist only in relation to one another. Personality development results from intricate interactions between various elements within and across these domains. These interactions involve complex feedback loops and trait interactions operating within the person, as well as across biological and psychological levels of organization. These interactions are probabilistic and unique to each individual, forming an organic whole that we call personality. Rather than a mechanistic and reductionist approach, our approach is organismic and dynamic. (Millon 2011 67)

The philosophical implications of the organismic-dynamic approach come to the forefront here. Millon notes that there is a paradox between what we desire from an exposition of personality development and what is actually possible. Scientific theories are simplifications of reality, and this involves making trade-offs between scope and precision. When we adopt a multidomain organismic-contextual model, we aim for a complete explanation of personality development as a whole. However, we must also accept the impossibility of achieving such an explanation given the probabilistic nature of the interactions within the model. (Millon 2011 67)

The guiding metaphor we’ve chosen has a degree of ontological imprecision, which means that it acknowledges the reality of experimental error. This is because the interaction between personality variables often follows a synergistic or nonlinear pattern, rather than being additive. (Millon 2011, 67)

To facilitate learning, it is helpful to distinguish between biogenic and psychogenic factors as separate influences on personality development, even though this distinction is not reflective of reality. In reality, biological and experiential determinants interact and shape each other throughout an individual’s life. This dynamic interplay creates an ongoing spiral, in which each interaction builds on prior ones, generating new potentials and constraints for future experiences and reactions. Development is not a one-way process; it involves a multideterminant transaction in which biogenic potentials and psychogenic influences continuously mold each other in increasingly complex ways. The circular feedback and serial nature of this process defy oversimplification and must be kept in mind when examining the background of personality. (Millon 2011 68)

Biological Factors

The significance of biological factors in shaping the development of personality cannot be disregarded. Anatomic morphology, endocrine physiology, and brain chemistry all play a crucial role. It is important to understand that the central nervous system does not passively respond to external stimuli, but instead maintains a rhythmic activity and actively regulates sensitivity and amplitude. Unlike a machine, the brain actively selects, transforms, and registers objective events in accordance with its distinctive biological characteristics. Therefore, it is impossible to view personality development as a simple result of environmental factors alone. Biological factors play an essential role in shaping personality and must be taken into account in any analysis of personality. (Millon 2011 68)

For most psychopathologists, heredity’s role in personality disorder development is inferred from correlations among traits in members of the same family. However, they also acknowledge that genetic dispositions are substantially modified by environmental factors. This view suggests that heredity is not a fixed constant but a disposition that takes different forms depending on the individual’s upbringing. Hereditary theorists, on the other hand, refer to a body of data implicating genetic factors in a wide range of psychopathologies. They are less likely to emphasize environmental influences, instead emphasizing that these are merely superficial factors that cannot prevent the individual from succumbing to their hereditary inclination. However, evidence suggests that genetically disposed disorders can be aided by psychological therapies and that similar symptomatologies can arise without genetic dispositions. While genetic factors serve as predispositions to certain traits, similarly affected individuals often display important differences in their symptoms and developmental histories. (Millon 2011, 68-69)

To understand how neurological lesions and physiochemical imbalances contribute to pathology, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the structure and function of the brain. However, it’s important to avoid simplistic misconceptions, such as the belief that psychological functions can be localized in specific regions of the brain. In reality, psychological processes are the result of complex and circular feedback properties of brain activity. Psychological concepts like emotion, behavior, and thought represent diverse and complex processes that are grouped together for convenience, but should not be confused with tangible events and properties within the brain. Although certain regions are more involved in specific psychological functions than others, higher processes are the result of interactions between multiple brain areas. For example, the frontal lobes of the cortex coordinate a dynamic pattern of impulses by selectively enhancing receptor sensitivity, comparing impulses from other brain areas, and guiding them along different arrangements and sequences. In this role, the frontal lobes facilitate or inhibit a wide range of psychological functions. (Millon 2011, 69-70)

Interpersonal (Social) Factors

Interpersonal theorists describe dyads and triads as systems of reciprocal influence, with child temperament eliciting counterreactions from others that confirm and accentuate their initial temperamental dispositions (Livesley, Jang, & Vernon, 2003; Papousek & Papousek, 1975). Parents in particular, are influenced by their child’s biological moods and activity levels (Kagan & Saudino, 2001), and tend to reciprocate quickly when infants have a cheerful disposition and easy needs to care for (Osofsky & Danzger, 1974). Conversely, negative behaviors in children may lead to contemptuous parenting (Bishop, Spence, & McDonald, 2003), reinforcing negative patterns. However, strong environmental pressures can reverse innate dispositions, as cheerful children can be crushed by negative parenting, while shy children may become more self-confident in an encouraging family atmosphere (Smith & Pederson, 1988). Overall, innate dispositions are influenced by both biology and environment, and can be significantly shaped by early experiences. (Millon 2011 72) Personality functioning appears to maintain an intrinsic continuity throughout life, although we cannot fully comprehend the reversal of early behavior patterns without considering the historical context preceding them (Henderson et al., 2004; Rothbart & Dewberry, 2002; Rubin, 1993; Tackett & Krueger, 2005).

Studies have demonstrated that an impoverished environment during early life can lead to long-lasting difficulties in adaptation. For instance, animals raised in isolation have been found to have significant deficits in emotional reactivity, social behavior, activity level, curiosity, and learning ability. As adults, these animals display reduced abilities to manipulate their environments, discriminate or abstract important information, develop coping strategies, and deal with stress. (Millon 2011 77)

Early stimulation, whether impoverished or enriched, can have significant effects on an organism’s development. Research indicates that animals reared in an isolated environment during early life tend to be deficient in a variety of traits as adults, such as emotionality, social behavior, curiosity, and learning ability. These deficits can result in an inability to cope with stress and adapt to new environments. Conversely, enriched environments have been found to stimulate changes in brain chemistry and weight, accelerate the maturation of the pituitary adrenal system, and enhance problem-solving abilities. Although the effects of enriched environments on humans are less clear, some theorists have suggested that they may promote the development of higher intellectual abilities and adaptive coping behaviors. (Millon 2011 77-78)

Developmental Factors

The research of several groups (Escalona, 1968; Escalona & Heider, 1959; Escalona & Leitch, 1953; Kagan, 1994; LeDoux, 2000; Murphy, 1962; Murphy & Moriarty, 1976; Rothbart, 1986; Rubin, 1993; Thomas & Chess, 1977; Thomas et al., 1963, 1968) has been particularly informative in understanding personality development, including personality pathology. These studies have identified several behavioral dimensions that differentiate infants’ temperament patterns. These dimensions include the regularity of biological functions, initial responses to new situations, sensory alertness to stimuli, adaptability to change, characteristic moods, and intensities of response, distractibility, and persistence (Goldsmith & Gottesman, 1981). While these early patterns persist through childhood, subsequent experiences play a role in reinforcing and intensifying the characteristics that were displayed in infancy (Kagan, 1989). Infants’ initial behaviors transform the environment, which further amplifies these initial behaviors (Kochanska, Murray, & Harlan, 2000). It’s worth noting that this continuity cannot be attributed entirely to innate endowments. Therefore, these early experiences are critical in shaping the development of personality.” (Millon 2011 71)

As children mature, their temperament dispositions can strengthen the likelihood of certain traits becoming dominant (Bates, 1980, 1987; Thomas, Chess, & Korn, 1982). Highly active and responsive children, for example, quickly gain a lot of information about the world around them. However, if they consistently encounter obstacles, their exuberance and energy may result in either personal gratification or painful frustration. If they cannot fulfill their activity needs, they may resort to erratic and maladaptive behavior (Tackett & Krueger, 2005). Temperament also plays a role in psychological variables such as attachment (Belsky & Rovine, 1987) (Millon 2011 71).

Maturation refers to the complex developmental process in which the body’s initial structures gradually transform into specific functional units. This sequence involves different stages of structural differentiation and integration, ultimately resulting in a fully developed adult organism. In the past, it was believed that this process was determined solely by genetic factors, following a predetermined course independent of environmental conditions. However, we now know that the level and sequence of maturation are significantly influenced by various psychosocial and nutritional factors. Thus, maturation is not a fixed or predetermined process, but rather subject to variations that reflect the organism’s environment. (Millon 2011 75)

The study of epigenetics (Hertwig, 1896; Waddington, 1942) examines how chemical reactions orchestrate the turning on and off of certain parts of an organism’s genome during development. Therefore, the DNA of the genome contains potentials that can be activated or deactivated by environmental factors such as diet, stress, and affection. As a result of these flexible epigenomes, organisms can adapt to their experiences by using cellular signals and tags, some of which can be passed down to future generations (Lamb & Jablonka, 2005; Reinberg, Allis, & Jenuwein, 2007; Pembrey, 2002).

The idea that neural development can be influenced by the degree of stimulation is not a new one. In 1815, Spurzheim proposed that the exercise of brain organs could increase their size. In 1895, Ramon y Cajal suggested that cerebral exercise primarily results in the proliferation of neural collaterals, leading to the growth of more extensive and diverse intercortical connections, as neural cells multiply only marginally after birth. For over 50 years, experimental biologists have reported that periodic stimulus activation is necessary for the development and maintenance of neural connections. Bok’s observations in this regard led to the term “stimulogenous fibrillation,” while similar observations in the 1930s resulted in Kappers’ formulation of the concept of neurobiotaxis. Despite some criticism of these concepts, more recent research indicates that neurochemical processes necessary for neural growth and branching are stimulated by stimulation. Extremes of stimulus impoverishment or enrichment may prompt an under- or overdevelopment of neural connections and patterns. (Millon 2011 76)

Returning to the Polarities of Personality

The first stage of development is called existence, and it pertains to the preservation and survival of integrative phenomena, whether it’s a nuclear particle, virus, or human being. Evolutionary mechanisms that are associated with this stage aim to enhance and preserve life. The first mechanism orients individuals towards improving the quality of life, while the second mechanism orients individuals away from actions or environments that decrease the quality of life or endanger existence itself. These two processes are known as existential aims and form a pleasure-pain polarity at the highest level of abstraction. Most people exhibit both processes, but some individuals, like sadists, may be conflicted in terms of existential aims, while others, like schizoids, may have deficits in them. In terms of evolutionary neuropsychological stages, orientation on the pleasure-pain polarity is established during a sensory-attachment developmental stage. The purpose of this stage is to develop and refine an individual’s ability to selectively recognize and differentiate between pain and pleasure signals. (Millon 2011 80)

The notion that everything exists in an environment is fundamental. However, for a surviving particle or a living creature, this is just the beginning. After coming into existence, the integrated structure must maintain its existence through energy and information exchanges with its environment. This second phase of evolution is termed the modes of adaptation, which comprise a passive orientation to ecological accommodation in one’s environmental niche and an active orientation to ecological modification and intervention in one’s surroundings. The modes of adaptation differ from the first phase of evolution in that they focus on the endurance of what has come to exist. During the sensorimotor-autonomy stage of neuropsychological development, children typically progress from a relatively passive style of accommodation to a more active style of modifying their physical and social environment.

The accommodating-modifying polarity stems from the expansion of the systems concept. In the existence phase, the system is mainly intraorganismic. However, in the adaptation phase, the systems concept expands to the logical progression from person to person-in-context. Some individuals, those of an active orientation, operate as genuine agencies and modify their environments according to their desires, fitting an active-organism model. Others seek to accommodate whatever is offered and prefer to find new, more hospitable venues when current ones become problematic, fitting a passive-organism model. (Millon 2011 80-81)

While organisms are adapted to their environments, their existence is necessarily limited. To ensure their continuation, organisms employ patterns of replicatory strategies, which can be classified into r- or self-propagating strategies and K- or other-nurturing strategies. The former is characterized by individually oriented actions that are perceived as egotistic, insensitive, and uncaring, while the latter is characterized by nurturant-oriented actions that are seen as affiliative, protective, and solicitous. The self-other polarity is not unidimensional, and some personality disorders, such as the compulsive and negativistic personalities, exhibit conflicts on this polarity. An individual’s orientation toward self and others evolves during the ‘pubertal-gender identity’ stage.

The self-other bipolarity, like the passive-active polarity, arises from an expansion of the systems concept. While the adaptation phase occurs contemporaneously within an environment, replication occurs longitudinally over time. The goal of the organism is to survive or continue, and survival across time means reproducing and employing strategies for doing so.

According to Millon (1990), the ability to think beyond the present, to synthesize diverse elements, to represent events symbolically, and to anticipate outcomes represents a significant leap in evolution’s potential for adaptation and change. The neuropsychological stage associated with these capacities is called intracortical-integration. Abstract processing enables the creation of unanticipated possibilities and novel constructions that are not limited by the constraints of the real and present.

In some ways, the cognitive capacity to sort, re-compose, coordinate, and arrange symbolic representations of experience into new configurations is similar to the random processes of recombinant replication, although more intentional and focused. Genetic replication is limited by the finite potentials inherent in parental genes, while internalized experiences recombined through cognitive processes are infinite. The use of cognitive abstractions gives rise to adaptive competencies that can be applied to a wide range of ecological circumstances, enabling humans to adapt to changing environments resulting from far-reaching symbolic and technological creativity.

The abstract mind mirrors outer realities but transforms them into subjective modes of phenomenological reality. Cognitive abstractions transform past and future events into constructions that can be experienced in the present, giving humans the ability to encompass the totality of the cosmos, its origins, nature, and evolution. The many visions that humans have of life’s indeterminate future, where no reality yet exists, are especially impressive. (Millon, 2011, pp. 81-82)

Limits of Taxonomy

To effectively classify the complexities of human development, it’s important to understand the limitations of any taxonomy system. The author argues that a taxonomy based on evolutionary phases and neuropsychological stages is more comprehensive and grounded than those based on psychosexual or cognitive processes. These alternative systems fail to capture the full scope of human development and lack connection to the deeper laws of evolutionary progression.

However, it’s important to note that individuals differ in their degree of constraints at each level of organization, both biologically and socioculturally. Additionally, the four developmental stages described in the following section are not exclusionary, but rather demarcate peak periods of development when certain processes and tasks are central. The concept of sensitive periods acknowledges that these stages overlap and continue throughout life. 

Four Stages of Neuropsychological Development and Evolutionary Phase Theory

This section discusses the four overlapping stages of neuropsychological development and their roots in the evolutionary phase theory. (Millon 2011 82) During the first year of life, an infant’s development is dominated by sensory processes, which are crucial in allowing them to make sense of their environment and differentiate between pleasurable and painful stimuli. This period is often referred to as the attachment phase, as infants are completely reliant on others for survival and require protection, nourishment, and stimulation. An evolutionary theory of personality development can help explain these themes, as adult humans have the cognitive ability to anticipate future threats and rewards, whereas infants do not. Therefore, evolutionary mechanisms orient infants towards life-enhancing activities or experiences that bring pleasure, and away from life-threatening ones that cause pain. At this stage, pleasure and pain serve as universal existential aims that help maintain life. However, some pathological patterns may arise due to genetic factors, early experiences, or their interaction, leading to aberrations in the orientation towards pleasure or pain. For example, deficits in both painful and pleasurable drives may be involved in the schizoid pattern, while a reversed or conflicted pleasure-pain orientation may be associated with masochistic or sadistic disorders. (Millon 2011 83)

During the early neonatal period, the infant is undifferentiated, with diffuse and unfocused perceptions. The infant’s orientation is towards broad and undifferentiated sensations, with the distinction between pleasure and pain becoming increasingly important. While Freud emphasized the importance of the mouth region as a significant receptor system, the infant’s sensory capacities for making meaningful distinctions are more diverse. Through oral and other tactile contacts, the infant develops a sense of the environment that elicits pleasurable or painful responses.

According to neuropsychological and evolutionary theories, the amount and quality of tactile stimulation the neonate receives significantly influence the infant’s development. Precocities or retardations in development can result from the level of stimulation received. The quality and patterning of this stimulation may lead the infant to experience inchoate feelings against the background of pleasure-pain, forming the prototypes of later-evolving emotions such as fear, joy, sadness, and anger.

The neonate initially perceives objects and persons simply as stimuli without differentiation. How does this indiscriminate perception become refined into specific attachments? The newborn is entirely dependent on others to avoid pain and satisfy pleasurable needs. When separated from the womb, the neonate loses the physical attachment to the mother’s body and the associated protection and nurturance. To survive and develop, the infant must seek out other sources of attachment that provide nourishment and stimulation (Bowlby, 1982; Gewirtz, 1963; Hinde, 1982; Lamb, Thompson, Gardner, & Estes, 1985; Ribble, 1943; Spitz, 1965). Attachment behaviors can be seen as an attempt to regain the unity lost at birth that protected and enhanced life. Recent research suggests that although initial attachments change across developmental stages, they remain significant throughout the lifespan (e.g., Sroufe & Fleeson, 1986). Regardless of whether the infant’s world is conceptualized as a buzz or a blank slate, the child must learn to differentiate objects or venues that promote nourishment, preservation, and stimulation from those that diminish, frustrate, or threaten them. These initial relationships, or internal representational models (e.g., Crittenden, 2000), seem to be “preprogrammed” by evolution and provide a framework for future relationships.

In the first year of life, the infant becomes increasingly independent and engages in actions that are not dependent on parental support. As the child develops this autonomy, they become capable of understanding the attitudes and feelings conveyed by environmental stimuli. The child begins to distinguish between good-natured roughhousing and harsh treatment, which were previously indistinguishable. In this sensorimotor-autonomy stage, the child learns to adapt actively to their environment and modify their ecological niche, rather than passively accommodating to it. This active adaptation is a disposition towards taking the initiative in shaping life events, whereas the passive adaptation is a disposition towards being quiescent, placid, unassertive, and reactive. The earlier sensory-attachment stage was characterized by the child’s passivity and dependence on parental figures to meet existential needs. The development of autonomous capacities allows the child to explore and modify their environment, or to become fearful and dependent on their caretakers. Children with a “secure base” will explore their environments without fear of losing their attachment figure, while those without such a base will remain passive and dependent, leading to decreased sociocognitive competence. Overall, the child’s orientation towards the environment is strongly influenced by their attachments. (Millon 2011 85)

During the ages of 11 to 15, hormonal changes associated with puberty unsettle the psychological state that has been carefully constructed in preceding years. These changes are preparatory for the emergence of sexual- and gender-related characteristics that lead to the development of strong sexual impulses and adult-like features of anatomy, voice, and bearing. Erratic moods, changing self-images, new urges, hopeful expectancies, and a growing physical and social awkwardness all upset the relative stability of an earlier age. Despite the disruptions of adolescence, this stage of growth is a preparatory phase for independence from parental direction and the genesis of distinct gender roles based on the psychological equivalent of the r- and K-strategies, self (male) and other (female) orientations.

During adolescence, the r- and K-strategies take on a criterial role in the selection of behaviors and goals from a universe of implicit alternatives, reflecting an orientation toward self and an orientation toward others. The male is typically described as more dominant, imperial, and acquisitive, while the female is more communal, nurturant, and deferent. These self and other constructs are crucial to the development of the personality system, as recognized by both attachment theory and the evolutionary model presented here. From an attachment perspective, these constructs represent the foundation of interpersonal relationships, made possible by cognitive developments. As relationships become more significant, the individual’s orientation towards self and others become increasingly important, and positive or negative models of each can be developed. (Millon 2011, 87)

The process of developing a gender identity is not solely about fulfilling sexual desires. Rather, it is a process of refining the adolescent’s previously unclear sense of self. The most effective way to achieve this is through the reflection of admiration from a loved one. The feedback received from real and imagined romantic relationships helps teenagers to redefine and understand their gender identity. This process also assists in developing a new self-concept that includes relationships with peers of both genders, rather than just with parents or siblings. (Millon 2011 88)

During the intracortical-integration stage, which corresponds with the fourth phase of the evolutionary progression, the individual’s thinking and feeling abilities come to maturity. This peak period of neurological development usually occurs between ages 4 and 18, and the degree of intrapsychic and contextual stimulation during this time has a significant impact on the level of maturation of these functions. While the focus in the earlier stages was on the child’s existential aims, modes of adaptation, and gender identification, in this stage the focus shifts to the individual as a being-in-time.

At the start of this stage, the child must acquire abstract cognitive and emotional capacities to transcend the concrete reality of the present and project the self into different future possibilities based on their own style of action or adaptation. These capacities are multifaceted and may have a significant impact on the personality system if they fail to integrate into coherent structures, as is the case with more severe personality disorders like borderline and schizotypal. Thus, it is crucial to understand what capacities unfold during this stage and the consequences of differences in the quality and intensity of relevant experiences. (Millon 2011 89)

As children mature, their neural cells form progressively more complex connections, which enable them to differentiate and arrange the objects of the physical world. These higher-order connections do not form into structures capable of adult-level planning until the children have fully developed their basic sensorimotor skills and pubertal maturation. With these capacities as a base, children learn to symbolize concrete objects as their verbal skills unfold. They can manipulate and coordinate these symbols as well as tangible events. They are able to recall past events and anticipate future ones, without needing to make direct reference to the concrete world. As increasingly complex cortical connections are established, they can formulate higher conceptual abstractions, enabling them to transfer, associate, and coordinate these symbols into ideas of finer differentiation, greater intricacy, and broader integration. Internal representations of reality, constructed through symbolic thought, become the primary elements of the representational world. During this period, there is a fusion between the capacities to think and to feel, which is especially significant. (Millon 89-90)

As children master the inner world of symbols, they can create consistency and continuity in their lives, providing an internal anchor that gives a sense of sameness and stability to an otherwise fluid environment. They are no longer buffeted by changing events, but rather have a nucleus of cognitions that serves as a base. As they grow, their capacity to organize and integrate their world increases, and one configuration becomes more differentiated and begins to predominate. From their experiences with others and their reactions to the child, an image or representation of self-as-object emerges. This sense of individual identity as distinct from others becomes the dominant source of stimuli that guides the youngster’s thoughts and feelings. External events no longer have the power they once exerted; the child now has an ever-present and stable sphere of internal representations, transformed by rational and emotional reflections, that governs their course of action and initiates behaviors. (Millon 2011, 90)

3 responses to “WAPLT? 8: Connecting the Polarities to Life”

  1. […] Connecting the Polarities to Life […]


  2. […] personalities. These personalities experience both ends of the pain-pleasure and the self-other polarities, which sets them apart from emotionally extreme and interpersonally imbalanced personality spectra. […]


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