Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

11.2: Biology and Personality

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    When talking about the role of biology in behavior, the natural starting point is the genetic makeup of each person. Our specific genetic blueprint is what distinguishes each of us as a unique individual, except for identical twins. However, since humans no longer rely on instinctive behavior, there are no aspects of personality that are specifically determined by genetics. Instead, it is more appropriate to say that our genetic makeup determines ranges within which we might develop, and our environment then determines where we fall within that range. The topics of greatest interest in the biology of personality are those topics that appear to be under a relatively greater influence of genetics than environment. But how do we determine the relative contributions of genetics and environment? Psychologists have relied mostly on twin and adoption studies.

    Twin Studies, Adoption Studies, Family Studies

    Twin studies have a long and interesting history in the field of psychology. Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) studied mental abilities and is recognized as being the first to utilize twin studies. His use of identical twins, in the mid to late 1800s, is generally recognized as the first use of an experimental control group (Diamond, 1977/1997; Jensen, 1998), and the use of identical vs. fraternal twins continues to be recognized as a natural control condition by psychologists and sociobiologists (Kagan, Kearsley, & Zelazo, 1978; Wilson, 1978). Twin studies were also of interest to psychologists in the former Soviet Union (Cole & Maltzman, 1969). While Anna Freud and Melanie Klein were applying psychoanalysis to the study and treatment of children, the American physician and psychologist Arnold Gesell was comparing the achievement of fundamental developmental milestones between twins (Lomax, Kagan, & Rosencrantz, 1978), and Wayne Dennis was conducting an astonishing experiment on a pair of twins. Dennis and his wife raised the twins under conditions of minimal social and sensory stimulation. This research had a noble goal: to understand the basis for the detrimental effects of institutionalized care that was being recognized in overcrowded orphanages. However, one of the twins ended up showing signs of mental retardation (though this was attributed to an early head injury; Lomax, Kagan, & Rosencrantz, 1978). Obviously such an experiment would never be approved today, due to the ethical guidelines and oversight that have become a common part of psychological research, but twin studies done in reasonable and ethical ways continue to be an important part of psychological research.

    What makes identical twins important is that they share 100 percent of their genetic material, whereas fraternal twins (like any other siblings) share an average of 50 percent of their genetic material. By extending this to families, and finally to people who have no biological relationship, we have a continuum of genetic relatedness from complete to none. This allows us to address the issue of heritability, or the degree of individual variance on some measure of behavior or personality that can be attributed to genetics. It is important to remember, however, that heritability is measured in populations (see Kagan, 1994; Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005). It makes no sense to suggest, for example, that a 5-foot tall person is 54 inches tall due to genetics and then grew another 6 inches thanks to good nutrition. Adoption studies add an interesting twist to this research, since adopted children take the genetic contributions of their parents into different environmental situations, making adoption studies a useful tool for comparing the environmental contributions to the genetic contributions. However, these studies remain challenging. For example, intelligence is perhaps the most widely studied trait in terms of whether and how much it is genetic. Some of this research has been very controversial. Sir Francis Galton, who was mentioned above, believed that his research confirmed that certain races were superior to others, and that superior races had an obligation to selectively breed their best individuals for the good of future generations, as had been done (and continues to be done today) with certain breeds of dogs and horses (Galton, 1869/1997). Despite this controversial beginning to the study of genetics and intelligence, the topic has remained widely studied, but elusive nonetheless. Estimates on the heritability of intelligence range from approximately 65 to 85 percent (Gould, 1982; Jensen, 1998). However, at very early ages the genetic and environmental influences are closer to 50-50, decrease with age, and by adulthood the genetic component is almost entirely responsible for the correlation of intelligence between related individuals (Gould, 1982; Jensen, 1998). Further complicating the situation for studying children, when a wider range of extended family members are considered and cultural factors are separated from non-transmissible environmental factors, it appears that genetics, culture, and environment all play roughly equal roles (Boyd & Richerson, 1985). Indeed, culture can have profound effects on intelligence, including our definition of intelligence itself (Sternberg, 2004). Finally, returning to the controversial perspective of Galton and other proponents of the eugenics movement (the belief that superior races and classes should not mix with inferior groups), research today has demonstrated that no legitimate connection can be made between race and intelligence (Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005; also see Loehlin, 1997; Williams & Ceci, 1997), and when it comes to education, IQ isn’t even the best predictor of academic performance (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).

    Another important point is the issue of family studies. Usually, we think of the family as providing genetic similarity, since children inherit their genes from their parents. Second, we tend to think that families provide a common environmental situation for each of their children, particularly in small families. However, this is not always true. In the Russian literature there was a well-known case in which the first-born girl was always treated as the elder sister, even though her younger identical twin was only minutes younger. The result of the differential treatment was that the “older” girl reached most developmental milestones before her sister (Bozhovich, 1969). In a case described by the renowned Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria, identical twins with retarded speech had begun to develop their own autonomous language. Once separated into different classes in nursery school, however, the autonomous language disappeared (Luria, 1969). Thus, the family can have a very dramatic environmental influence, whether intentional or not, that goes against the genetic similarity due to biological relationships or even identical twinship. What then, can we conclude regarding the heritability of personality traits in humans? Certainly genetic factors play an important role, but the complexity of the human organism and its sociocultural environment makes it difficult to draw definite conclusions about exactly how much of an influence our unique genetic profile has on our individual personality. Nonetheless, psychologists have continued to pursue this important question.

    Genetically Determined Dispositions

    Behavior genetics is the term most commonly used to refer to studies on the influence of genetics on behavior. Most of these studies have relied on comparing identical twins to fraternal twins, other siblings, and unrelated individuals, including when possible twins who have been reared apart. These studies are often conducted in European countries that have thorough records of family histories, but one major, longitudinal study ongoing here in the United States has been the Minnesota Twin Family Study conducted at the University of Minnesota since 1983. These various sources of data, in addition to other research procedures, have helped psychologists come to some understanding of the role played by genetics in determining behavior and personality.

    Psychologist Jerome Kagan is well known for his early studies on the nature of temperament. Temperament is perhaps the most salient characteristic of personality. It has been loosely described as the emotional component of our personality, as stable behavioral and emotional reactions that appear early in life and are influenced by genetic factors (Kagan, 1994). Kagan further describes temperamental categories as qualities that (1) vary among individuals, (2) are moderately stable over time and in different situations, (3) are partly determined by genetics, and (4) appear early in life. In part because they were easy to observe, the most popular temperamental qualities that have been studied are activity, irritability, and fearfulness, or as Kagan describes them: watchful inhibition vs. fearless exploration. About 10 percent of children exhibit extreme inhibition to nonthreatening, but unfamiliar, events (Kagan, 1984). Although this behavior can seemingly be altered by parental influence, subtle signs of the behavioral inhibition can be seen as the child grows, and they tend to continue into adulthood. Similarly, with uninhibited children, it is extremely unlikely that they will ever become inhibited children. Further studies on twins have helped to confirm that being inhibited or outgoing is influenced by genetics (Kagan, Kearsley, & Zelazo, 1978). Similar results have also been found with Guatemalan and Chinese children (Kagan, Kearsley, & Zelazo, 1978). As important as our emotional reactions are (see, e.g., the work of Daniel Goleman, 1995, 1998), they still do not necessarily dominate our personality:

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    An even temperament leads to stable behavioral and emotional reactions.

    …it is wise to state explicitly that many differences among children may have little to do with temperament…Our current knowledge indicates that the motivation to perform well in school, the willingness to help a friend, loyalty to family, tolerance toward others, and a host of other motives and beliefs are minimally influenced by temperament. (pg. 77; Kagan, 1994)

    Recently, Thomas Bouchard, Jr. (2004) offered a concise review of the heritability of psychological traits. With regard to the “Big Five” personality traits, they all exhibit heritability in the range of 42 to 57 percent. If one considers the alternative known as the “Big Three,” the range is 44 to 52 percent (Bouchard, 2004). Thus, genetics make a significant contribution to the nature of basic personality, but at the same time there is at least as much of an environmental contribution (though that certainly includes a variety of factors). There is also significant heritability of psychological interests (such as being realistic, artistic, social, etc.), social attitudes, and psychiatric illness (especially schizophrenia; Bouchard, 2004; see also Bouchard, 1994; Bouchard & McGue, 1990; Bouchard et al., 1990; Kety, 1975; Mendlewicz, Fleiss, & Fieve, 1975; Shields, Heston, & Gottesman, 1975). Even such complex personality variables as well-being, traditionalism, religiosity, and criminality have been found to be highly influenced by our genetic make-up (Crowe, 1975; Kagan, 1994; Kessler, 1975; Tellegen et al., 1988; Waller et al., 1990). To put it simply, virtually all psychological factors are significantly influenced by our genetic makeup, but none are specifically determined by genetics. This led Danielle Dick and Richard Rose (2002) to question whether the field of behavior genetics has completed what it can reasonably hope to accomplish. They argue that there is much more to be studied, particularly in the area of gene-environment interactions. In such interactions, individuals experience the same environment in different ways due to their genetic predispositions.

    In Galen’s Prophecy, Kagan (1994) describes the role that he believes the amygdala plays in mediating responses to anxiety-producing stimuli. Eight percent of children demonstrate highly reactive responses to such stimuli, which animal research has shown is associated with increased activity in the amygdala and, consequently, a behavioral inhibition system. As a result, these children either freeze or withdraw from unfamiliar people and situations. In other words, they seem shy and withdrawn. Approximately 18 percent of children demonstrate low reactivity, their amygdala and the behavioral inhibition system are not activated, and they are likely to approach unfamiliar people and situations with curiosity. These simple patterns of behavior can have profound effects on personality. Kagan (1994) has found that high reactive infants, those who become anxious as a result of unfamiliarity, tend to become dour, serious, and fearful as they grow. In contrast, the low reactive infants, those who may respond to unfamiliarity with curiosity and interest, become more joyful and fearless as they grow up. However, these tendencies are by no means guarantees, because the environment plays a significant role. If mothers are firm and set strict limits on the child’s behavior, if they are supportive but do not always hold the child when it is upset (i.e., they hold the child when it needs help, but not when the child does not need help), then a high reactive child has a much better chance of overcoming its tendency to become an anxious and withdrawn person. One explanation, according to Kagan, is that these mothers require their children to meet her socialization demands; they must learn to deal with the uncertainty of unfamiliar situations. As for overprotective parents:

    …It appears that mothers who protect their high reactive infants from frustration and anxiety in the hope of effecting a benevolent outcome seem to exacerbate the infant’s uncertainty and produce the opposite effect. This result is in greater accord with the old-fashioned behavioristic view than with the modern emphasis on the infant’s need for a sensitive parent. (pg. 205; Kagan, 1994)

    In support of Kagan’s studies, Fox and his colleagues have demonstrated a specific gene-environment interaction that predicts behavioral inhibition in children aged 14 and 84 months (young 1 year-olds and 7 year-olds; Fox et al., 2005). Although it is difficult to describe such studies in simple terms, suffice it to say that children with a combination of the short 5-HTT allele (a gene for the molecule that transports the neurotransmitter serotonin) and low social support are at an increased risk for behavioral inhibition. When the children were 1 year old, behavioral inhibition was measured in terms of the latency to approach novel objects and unfamiliar adults, and when the children were 7 years old it was measured in terms of their disconnection from a group of children at play. The short allele of the 5-HTT gene has been associated with increased anxiety, negative emotionality, and relatively strong coupling with the amygdala. Therefore, in the absence of social support, children with the short allele are more likely to experience stress in the presence of novelty and strangers (Fox et al., 2005). Moffitt, Caspi, and Rutter have written an excellent review of how psychologists and other scientists approach this important new field of gene-environment interactions, and in that review they suggest that it is most likely that such interactions are common in psychopathology (Moffitt et al., 2006).

    Discussion Question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Jerome Kagan studied temperament, and found that approximately 10% of children are shy and inhibited and approximately 20 percent of children are curious and adventurous, and these temperaments are most likely to continue into adulthood. Consider the people you know. Have their basic temperaments remained constant throughout their lives? What about you?

    Sociobiology and Evolutionary Influences on Behavior

    Sociobiology is a relatively new field of study that applies evolutionary biology to social behavior (Barash, 1977; Wilson, 1975). Although much of the research underlying sociobiology has been conducted with non-human animals, the value of this research and its applications to understanding human behavior and personality should not be underestimated. Samuel Gosling and his colleagues have demonstrated that a wide variety of other animal species have personality traits similar to those of humans (Gosling, 2001; Gosling & John, 1999; Gosling, Kwan, & John, 2003; Gosling & Vazire, 2002; Jones & Gosling, 2005; Mehta & Gosling, 2006). When the ethologists Nikolaas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch shared the Nobel Prize in 1973 it was the first Nobel Prize awarded for the study of behavior. Sociobiology, a field similar to ethology, has offered valuable new perspectives on human behavior, perspectives on behaviors that do not always seem logical at first. As an aside, sociobiology also allows us to address an exciting variety of human behaviors, including the apparent evolutionary and neurobiological bases for laughter (see Panksepp, 2005).

    The fundamental concept underlying sociobiology is that of inclusive fitness. Inclusive fitness refers to the advantages of behaviors that increase the likelihood of an individual’s genetic survival through the survival of genetically related kin (Barash, 1977; Wilson, 1975). Therefore, in looking at the evolution of human social behavior, we must not consider only the ways in which behaviors contribute to individual survival (which is a traditional Darwinian perspective on survival of the fittest), but rather on how behaviors contribute to the survival of our children, family, and perhaps even our community.

    Sociobiologists have looked at several major topics regarding the evolution of human behavior, but we will only take a brief look at three behaviors: mate selection, parenting, and religion. In Chapter 2 we discussed male/female differences as a matter of fact. This has become commonly accepted in the popular media, and evidence suggests that men and women are inclined to essentialize their differences (Prentice & Miller, 2006). In contrast, Janet Shibley Hyde has provided compelling evidence that men and women are actually much more alike than they are different (Hyde, 1996, 2005; also see Spelke, 2005; Stewart & McDermott, 2004). So which is it? When it comes to mate selection, sociobiology suggests that men and women should be different, because the roles they will need to play in eventual child rearing require them to be different. It is a biological fact that men need to contribute very little to the birth of a child, whereas women become pregnant for nine months and, from an evolutionary perspective, must then breast-feed the child for one or two years. Thus, a man can improve his inclusive fitness by seeking multiple relationships with women in their prime child-bearing years and exhibiting physical characteristics indicative of good reproductive health. Unfortunately, other men are looking for the same women, so competition can become fierce. Women, on the other hand, should be inclined to seek men who have already won those competitions, demonstrating that they can provide and protect resources for their offspring, usually by commanding a territory or a privileged place in society (Barash, 1977; Wilson, 1975, 1978). So it is not uncommon for women to be inclined to marry older men, particularly men who are above them on the socioeconomic scale (Barash, 1977). Women would also be inclined to select men who make some commitment in terms of child rearing (Barash, 1979). So, men who were inclined to make only the minimum commitment necessary to the sexual act did not improve their inclusive fitness, since they were not selected by discriminating females.

    When parenting is discussed in introductory psychology courses, the most common topic is parenting styles and their influence on personality development. In sociobiology, however, the most relevant issues are the survival of the offspring and how taxing it is on the parents to help their offspring survive. We are just beginning to understand some aspects of the biological basis for attachment from the offspring’s perspective (Hofer, 2006), but understanding the attachment of the parent to the offspring remains elusive. Obviously, raising a child requires a considerable amount of effort on the parent’s part, but typically more on the part of the mother. Thus, close social bonding is important, and this may form the basis of love as an added emotional component to sex, as well as the growing love that parents feel for their children (Barash, 1977; Wilson, 1978). Older women are particularly more sensitive to the needs of first-born children, since the child may well represent the only opportunity for the mother to reproduce. Nature is full of well-known examples of female animals vigorously defending their young, even if their own life is endangered (Barash, 1977, 1979). Of peculiar interest is the behavior of grandparents, since a parent is really only successful in reproducing if they eventually become grandparents. Barash (1977) discusses two interesting situations. When a child is born, it is most likely that the mother’s parents come to help. But if a young couple chooses to live with parents, it is most likely the father’s parents. These may simply seem to be cultural artifacts, but they have a basis in biological fitness. Only a mother can be sure that she has made a genetic contribution to a child (at least in the past, when our behaviors were evolving). So, when a woman has a baby, only her parents are sure that they have become grandparents. The man’s parents serve their own interests best if they can watch over the woman, to make sure that she does not stray from her relationship with their son (Barash, 1977). All of this may sound cold and calculating, but it is logical nonetheless, and if we believe in an unconscious mind, then people don’t need to be aware of exactly what they are doing.

    Religion has been a profound influence throughout the history of the human species. It has been suggested that children naturally seek a divine explanation for the existence of a world they cannot comprehend (Kelemen, 2004). According to sociobiologist E. O. Wilson:

    The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature…It is one of the universals of social behavior, taking recognizable form in every society from hunter-gatherer band to socialist republics…At Shanidar, Iraq, sixty thousand years ago, Neanderthal people decorated a grave with seven species of flowers having medicinal and economic value, perhaps to honor a shaman. Since that time, according to the anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace, mankind has produced on the order of 100 thousand religions. (pg. 169; Wilson, 1978).

    But what evolutionary advantage might religion serve? This question is difficult to answer, in part because religion appears to be unique to the human species. Many of the principles of sociobiology were determined by working with lower animals, especially the social insects. Without other species to use for comparison, it is not easy to understand our own species. According to Wilson, the best avenue for understanding the advantage conferred by religion to inclusive fitness is the ability to conform to the expectations of society. Humans seem to seek indoctrination. As we became more intelligent, more capable of making individual choices, perhaps we evolved the behavioral predispositions necessary to continue remaining within our tribe. As a result, the rules and rituals that developed to codify this behavior enhance the survival of our group, and it is this group-selection that sociobiologists recognize as the evolutionary advantage resulting from religion (Boyd & Richerson, 1985; Wilson, 1975, 1978). This is not unlike the role ascribed to religion by Sigmund Freud, except that sociobiologists propose an underlying genetic basis, whereas Freud proposed an underlying psychodynamic basis.

    One of the most common negative reactions to sociobiology is resistance to the idea that we are still animals being driven by our genes and evolution. The simple logic provided by sociobiologists, and the clear parallels between human behavior and the behavior of other animals is not enough to sway the minds of some people. Culture definitely plays a significant role in our lives, gene-culture co-evolution may underlie human cooperation and altruism (Henrich, et al., 2006), and separating genetics from culture on a topic such as mate selection is difficult (Buss, 2003; Miller, Putcha-Bhagavatula, & Pedersen, 2002). But is culture something different than evolution? Richard Dawkins, in his profound book The Selfish Gene (1976), has proposed that the human mind has evolved to a point where it can create self-replicating units of culture, which he called memes. Memes can be transmitted from person to person, and they can evolve faster than genes. Thus, human culture has been able to outpace genetic evolution, creating many of the challenges we face today when we try to separate culture from genetics in order to understand complex human behaviors. As examples, let us consider two potential memes: belief in God, and belief in life after death. As mentioned above, children appear to be inclined to believe in a supernatural creator of the world that they, as children, simply cannot understand. And religion is a cultural universal. Not every religion, however, believes in life after death, and even fewer believe in heaven or hell. So religion appears to be a very successful meme, whereas belief in life after death is somewhat less successful, but successful enough to still be prevalent. One of the most fascinating aspects of memes is that they may actually increase the likelihood that you can have a very long lasting effect on the world. As Dawkins points out, Queen Elizabeth II of England is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror, but the odds are very low that she has even a single gene descended from him. So, immortality cannot really be achieved through reproduction:

    But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today…but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus, and Marconi are still going strong. (pg. 214; Dawkins, 1976)

    discussion Question \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    According to Richard Dawkins, the true path to immortality is found through cultural contributions to society, by virtue of cultural units he called memes. What memes do you think are important in your life and in your community? Has that changed during your life and, if so, why?

    Evolutionary Psychology

    The field of evolutionary psychology is a direct application of sociobiology to psychology, and appears to have begun with the publication of The Adapted Mind (Barkow et al., 1992). In this landmark book, a collection of authors were brought together with the purpose of addressing three major premises: (1) that there is a universal human nature, but that it is based on evolved psychological mechanisms as opposed to culture, (2) that these psychological mechanisms were adaptations constructed by natural selection, and (3) that these adaptations fit the way of life of our ancient ancestors, and may not fit our modern circumstances. Similar to the sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists examine how evolution shaped human behavior and cognition in ways that helped individuals to pass on their genes to future generations, covering topics such as cooperation, mate preference, parental care, the development of language and perceptual abilities, the individual need to belong, helping and altruism, and the universality of emotions (Barkow et al., 1992; Buss, 1999; Larsen & Buss, 2005).

    One of the best known psychologists studying evolutionary phenomena is David Buss, and he has paid particular attention to how we choose and attempt to keep our mates. In The Evolution of Desire, Buss (2003) describes how biological differences between males and females leads to different mating strategies, and that this should lead to inevitable conflict. Thus, according to Buss, conflict in a marriage is the norm, not the result of choosing the wrong person. As a result of this conflict, and for a variety of reasons underlying it, the possibility always exists that a man or woman in a marriage (or other committed relationship) will engage in other sexual relationships outside of the marriage. In order to defend against this potential loss of a committed mate, it was an advantage for people to evolve the emotion of jealousy. In The Dangerous Passion, Buss (2000b) argues that jealousy is just as important as love and sex. Passion is necessary for us to have motivation (consider Jung’s description of the shadow archetype). But with jealousy:

    …Jealousy can keep a couple committed or drive a man to savagely beat his wife. An attraction to a neighbor’s spouse can generate intoxicating sexual euphoria while destroying two marriages. (pg. 2; Buss, 2000b)

    Indeed, the competition that accompanied the desire to obtain and hold onto a mate in our distant past was so intense that we also evolved the psychological mechanisms necessary to kill people. Although this psychological mechanism may be maladaptive in our society today, its effectiveness in the prehistoric past remains hidden just below the surface of our minds. As a result, it can come out suddenly, explaining why the majority of murderers seem to be normal individuals until the day they kill someone (often someone they know and care about; Buss, 2005).

    We have a tendency to think of things such as marital conflict, marital infidelity, jealousy, and murder as abnormal situations. Evolutionary psychologists suggest instead that such behaviors are the result of natural adaptations. However, as noted above, these adaptations were appropriate for our ancient ancestors, and may not fit within our society today (murder is illegal). Yet, these behaviors and emotions are common, suggesting that we can’t simply dismiss them. Since evolution typically takes a very long time, it is hard to say whether different adaptations will occur in the future of our species, given the cultural changes that have occurred through history. Perhaps the best we can hope for now is a continued development of our understanding of personality, through a variety of theoretical perspectives.

    Connections Across Cultures: The Somatic Psychology of Wilhelm Reich

    Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a respected student and colleague of Sigmund Freud, a political activist, and eventually a convicted criminal in the United States whose books and journals were burned by the American government. But he left behind a legacy of focusing on the body and mind as deeply interrelated. In Germany in the 1930s, Reich devoted extraordinary effort to programs addressing sex education, sex hygiene, access to birth control, etc. He gave up his psychoanalytic practice, because he felt that sex education programs had the potential to be more helpful to more people by preventing sexual and psychological difficulties. Despite the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s, many of these issues still plague society today. Reich’s description of the phases involved in the experience of an organism (first studied in the 1920s and 1930s) anticipated the famous research of Masters and Johnson (1966), and incorporated a psychoanalytic view of mindsets occurring during sexual activity (Reich, 1973). His work on somatic psychology relates to physical approaches to psychotherapy that continue today. These contributions and controversies earned Reich a place in the marvelous history of the study of mental illness entitled Masters of the Mind (Millon, 2004).

    Raised on a farm, Reich was interested in animal husbandry, and conducted extensive studies of animal sexual behavior. As a young child, he witnessed one of the family’s maids having intercourse with her boyfriend. When he asked the maid if he could “play” the lover, she obliged. When he was 12 years old, he caught his mother having an affair with one of his tutors. In a classic example of the Oedipus complex, he considered using the information to blackmail his mother into allowing him to have sexual intercourse with her! Instead, he turned again to one of the family maids. He then told his father, whom Reich had witnessed beating his mother in the past, and shortly thereafter his mother committed suicide. For the rest of his life, Reich was tormented by the thought that he may have been responsible for his mother’s death. His father died when Reich was 17 years old, and Reich took over the family farm until it was destroyed in World War I.

    While attending medical school at the University of Vienna, Reich joined the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, where he began studying with Sigmund Freud. Reich and Freud were deeply impressed with one another. Reich eventually held several important positions in Freud’s training clinic, including Director of the Seminar for Psychoanalytic Therapy, and his work on character analysis was widely respected. Indeed, Reich was so involved with the society, Freud, and the clinic that many people thought of him as “Freud’s pet” (Higgins, 1973; Sharaf, 1983).

    However, Reich fell out of favor with the psychoanalytic society. In 1930, he moved to Germany, joined the communist party, and became active in a variety of sex education and sex hygiene programs. But the communists opposed progressive sex education, because they hoped to gain the favor of the Catholic Church, in opposition to the growing threat of the Nazis. Reich stepped right into this dangerous controversy, often relating one particular story of how moved he was when a young pregnant girl sought his help, help she had not received from the Hitler Youth (Sharaf, 1983). In 1933, he published The Mass Psychology of Fascism, a book subsequently banned by the Nazis (Reich, 1933/1970). Eventually, Reich was excluded from both the Communist Party and the psychoanalytic society.

    Reich left Germany for Denmark, and then moved to Norway, where his life and work began to take a strange turn. He became convinced that he had discovered a primordial cosmic energy, orgone energy, which provided the underlying energy for all life. He believed that orgone energy streams created hurricanes and galaxies. He built orgone energy accumulators, and began studying how it might be used for such diverse goals as treating cancer and controlling the weather. He was compelled to leave Norway, and in 1939 moved to the United States. Eventually, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sought an injunction in federal court to put an end to Reich’s work on orgone energy. Reich refused to appear in court, and the injunction was issued in default (see Greenfield, 1974). Reich was accused and found guilty of criminal contempt, and sentenced to two years in federal prison. The FDA destroyed much of Reich’s equipment, and burned tons of his papers and books. In 1957, Reich suffered a heart attack and died in the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

    Somatic Psychology

    Reich’s psychoanalytic work emphasized three important topics: the intimate relationship between body and mind, the character of the individual, and the value of precise diagnosis. By the 1920s, Freud and his colleagues had stopped paying much attention to the concept of libido. In contrast, Reich became more and more interested in this sexual energy, which he associated directly with sexual activity. While working with his patients, Reich was impressed by their descriptions of feeling an “emptiness” in their genitals. This was an especially interesting point regarding women, since Reich himself considered the sexual inhibition experienced by many women as something appropriate to their development. However, as Reich pursued these ideas, he began to question the completeness and accuracy of Freud’s theories. Reich developed what became known as the orgasm theory, and he proposed the concept of orgastic potency:

    Orgastic potency is the capacity to surrender to the streaming of biological energy, free of any inhibitions; the capacity to discharge completely the dammed-up sexual excitation through involuntary, pleasurable convulsions of the body… (pg. 29; Reich, 1973)

    Reich considered the ability to enjoy sexual release as a critical aspect of normal and healthy personal development. This perspective demands a direct link between the body and the mind, since only through physical satisfaction can psychological and emotional satisfaction be achieved. When discussing neurotic symptoms, he described orgastic impotence as the “somatic core of the neurosis…” (Reich, 1933/1972). To further emphasize the point, Reich did not merely consider the ability to have meaningful sexual relations as important, he believed that they needed regular satisfaction:

    …I maintain that every person who has succeeded in preserving a certain amount of naturalness knows that those who are psychically ill need but one thing - complete and repeated sexual gratification… (pp. 23; Reich, 1973)

    Reich’s most widely respected work within the psychoanalytic community centered on character analysis, in which he emphasized character armoring and character resistance. Both of these constructs can be viewed as defense mechanisms, but they are deep and secondary fragmentations of the ego. Thus, they define the very character of the patient, and must be removed before traditional psychoanalysis can be effective. In keeping with the term somatic psychology, Reich addressed the physical manifestation of character armoring as muscular armor. Individuals who are actively character armoring demonstrate what Reich described as a chronic, frozen, muscular-like bearing. He believed that the visible muscular rigidity was the natural consequence of inhibiting aggression, and that it could be understood on the basis of only one principle: “the armoring of the periphery of the biopsychic system” (Reich, 1933/1972). In other words, the body physically responds to what the mind is doing; if the mind is defending itself, the body prepares to defend itself. This muscular tension is by no means easy to remove. If the analyst tries to get the patient to relax, the muscular tension is replaced by restlessness. Based on his theories, Reich described two basic types of character: the genital character and the neurotic character. The genital character refers to individuals who are relatively healthy in terms of their psychological development, and their capacity to enjoy life is uninhibited. The neurotic character is governed by rigid armor of both body and mind.

    Many psychologists and a variety of practitioners in other areas have made the connection between body and mind an important part of their studies and their lifestyle. For example, we often “talk” with our hands (Goldin-Meadow, 2006), forced stereotypic movement leads to stereotypic thoughts about others (Mussweiler, 2006), young infants integrate their body movement and their attention (Robertson, Bacher, & Huntington, 2001), physical movement is more important than visual information for effective navigation (Ruddle & Lessels, 2006), and members of different cultures actually perceive the physical environment in different ways (Miyamoto, Nisbett, & Masuda, 2006). Yoga has become very popular in the United States, particularly the physical aspect of Hatha Yoga, and Yoga practitioners talk about understanding and respecting the body (e.g., Scaravelli, 1991; Stewart, 1994). This is particularly true as we age, since “we all die sooner or later, but what we must do is not allow the body to degenerate while living” (Scaravelli, 1991).

    Reich referred to a “genetic differentiation of character types” and the “genetic-dynamic theory of the character” long before other psychologists were talking about the heritability of personality or gene-environment interactions. Reich went on to say that the social and economic/political factors that play such an important cultural role in personality development would not be as influential as they are if not for the likelihood that they “must first have impinged upon and changed human needs before these transformed drives and needs could begin to have an effect as historical factors” (Reich, 1932/1972). This sounds very much like sociobiology: the selection of behaviors, behaviors that are determined genetically, as adaptable to the relevant human condition. If indeed this idea does reflect the same basic premise as sociobiology, then Reich was thinking about a new field of research into human behavior that was still over 40 years in the future. In his discussion of muscular armor, Reich referred to three primary emotions that influence human behavior: sexuality, anxiety, and anger or hate (Reich, 1932/1972). Gotama Buddha (who most people think of as the Buddha) described three root causes of human suffering: desire, delusion, and hatred. What is sexuality but the greatest desire in human life? According to sociobiologists, particularly Dawkins (1976), life is about ensuring the propagation of individual genes, and in our case that means sexual reproduction. In addition, both Reich and the Buddha acknowledged hatred as key, and Buddhists typically see hatred as the antithesis of desire. Thus, Wilhelm Reich, once regarded as Freud’s “pet,” had incorporated both ancient Eastern philosophies and the as-yet unknown field of sociobiology into a cohesive theory of human character, while still in his mid-thirties. One can only imagine what he might have accomplished had he not pursued the odd theory of orgone energy, which led to his being ostracized and, ultimately, to the federal prison where he died.

    Discussion question \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Wilhelm Reich believed that an active and uninhibited sexual life was essential for healthy development. He also believed that one’s ability to experience that healthy sexuality, their orgastic potency, was in important measure of psychological health. Do you agree with this perspective, and do you think society agrees with this perspective?

    This page titled 11.2: Biology and Personality is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.