Marvin Zuckerman’s Theory Of Personality

This model serves to classify our way of being and thinking into 5 personality factors.

Marvin Zuckerman’s theory of personality is best known because he introduced the factor called “Sensation Seeking”, which has had a great influence in the field of personality psychology.

Beyond the relevance of the Sensation Seeking dimension, the model itself is an interesting alternative to the Big Five, the prevailing theory, because it is based on the biological factors of personality described by Hans Eysenck.

Life and work of Marvin Zuckerman

Marvin Zuckerman was born in Chicago in 1928. After receiving his doctorate in Clinical Psychology at New York University, he conducted research on anxiety through personality analysis, mainly through psychological tests.

During his studies on sensory deprivation at the University of Delaware, where he worked for more than 20 years, Zuckerman found that some subjects tolerated the experimental situation very well, while others showed very negative reactions to the lack of environmental stimulation.

Based on these results, Zuckerman began to hypothesize about the existence of a basic personality factor related to the search for sensations, which would depend on the optimal level of activation of each individual. Thus, people who need a lot of stimulation to feel comfortable will have a greater tendency to seek sensations.

Zuckerman retired in 2002. He is now 79 years old and continues to write articles and book chapters. In addition, he continues to constantly review and expand his theories about personality.

An alternative theory to the Big Five

Zuckerman’s personality theory emerged as an alternative to the Big Five Personality Factors model, also known as the  “Big Five” and “Ocean,” which was originally developed by McCrae and Costa. This author’s main criticism of the Big Five is the presence of cultural factors, in particular the Openness to experience dimension.

By contrast, Zuckerman’s theory focuses on the biological dimensions of personality. In this sense, the influence of Hans Eysenck’s PEN model is very notable, which defines three main personality factors with a clear biological basis: Psychoticism, Extraversion and Neuroticism.

Zuckerman and his collaborators developed this theory using various psychobiological tests, including the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ) and Zuckerman’s own Sensation Seeking Scale, and subjecting the results to a factor analysis in order to identify the personality dimensions. of higher order.

The 5 personality factors

The work of the Zuckerman team concluded with the detection of a variable number of personality factors, between 3 and 7. They decided that the grouping in 5 dimensions was the most balanced in terms of specificity and parsimoniousness. 

The Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire is used to measure these traits.

1. Impulsivity-Search for sensations

Sensation seeking includes the need to experience new emotions and situations, as well as the tendency to take risks in different areas of life. Impulsivity and the Eysenck psychoticism factor would also be included in this dimension, which has been related to alterations in the levels of testosterone, dopamine and serotonin.

2. Sociability

The Sociability factor is very similar to the Extraversion of the Eysenck model and the Big Five. The items in the Zuckerman questionnaire that weighted in this dimension measure aspects such as liking for interaction in large groups of people or dislike of loneliness.

3. Neuroticism-Anxiety

Zuckerman’s Neuroticism is equivalent to that described by Eysenck, which is related to the activity of  the sympathetic nervous system and to the fight or flight reactions that are triggered by stress. Neurotic people commonly experience feelings of fear, obsessive rumination, indecision, or sensitivity to criticism.

4. Aggression-Hostility

This factor is associated with anger, aggressiveness, impatience, rudeness, and antisocial behavior. It inversely correlates with the Agreeableness dimension of the Big Five Personality Factors model.

5. Activity

People with high Activity scores feel restless when they have nothing to do, have a lot of energy, and tend to be persistent. They also tend to prefer doing activities that are challenging or require a high level of effort.

In Eysenck’s model, this factor is included in Extraversion, which depends on the level of cerebral alertness (or arousal). According to Eysenck, extroverts have chronically low levels of arousal, so they need a greater degree of environmental stimulation than introverts to feel good.

Validity of the Zuckerman model

In general, it is considered that personality models composed of five independent factors, which are common, are quite useful for exploring personality, since they encompass a good number of different facets without exceeding the amount of information.

However, Zuckerman’s model includes factors that overlap each other, according to some reviews. This fact is especially marked in the Activity and Extraversion dimensions; however, the authors defend the separation between the two factors in order to account for sociability and activity level separately.

In any case, the work of Zuckerman’s team has been replicated in different populations and has shown its ability to predict facets such as the search for novelty,  psychopathy, dependence on reward, self-direction, avoidance of harm or cooperativity.

On the other hand, factor analyzes have clearly revealed the existence of the Openness to Experience factor, the absence of which represents the key difference in Zuckerman’s proposal compared to the Big Five. In this model it would be diluted in the rest of the factors, especially Search for sensations.

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