A novel scheme for describing personality was introduced in 1987 by Dr. Robert Cloninger, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis.   like Dr. Cloninger’s new approach, and so do my patients.  It doesn’t involve negative labels, like “hysteric” or “paranoid.”  Rather it deals with dimensions of personality. It’s simple to understand, fun to work with, and it seems to make sense. It is called the the Tridimentional Personality Theory.

IAccording to the tridimensional theory, the important differences between all of our personalities may be accounted for by three key qualities, or dimensions: harm avoidance, novelty seeking, and reward dependence.”Harm avoidance” refers to the urge to escape from unpleasant experiences.  People low in harm avoidance tend to be carefree, confident, relaxed, optimistic, uninhibited, outgoing, and energetic.  Those who are high in harm avoidance, on the other hand, tend to be timid, inhibited, apprehensive, tense, shy, easily fatigued, and pessimistic about the future.

“Novelty seeking” describes a capacity to be exhilarated by new experiences.  Everyone likes excitement now and then, but people who score high in this dimension live for it.  They are impulsive, fickle, quick-tempered, extravagant, and disorderly risk-takers.  Daredevils fit here. Those who are low in novelty seeking are reflective, loyal, stoic, slow-tempered and orderly.  They’re good scouts.

“Reward dependence” refers to the need to be reinforced by approval from others.  Those on the low end of this personality dimension tend to be detached, emotionally cool, practical, and tough-minded.  People high in reward dependence are sympathetic, eager-to-help, and sentimental.  They’re people pleasers.

Consider some of the combinations.  A person who is low in harm avoidance, high in novelty seeking, and low in reward dependence is fearless, impulsive, explorative, and doesn’t care what people think.  In the extreme this is the criminal personality type.  Think Charlie Manson.  If reward dependence is changed from low to high while the other two factors stay the same, then a person is impulsive and explorative, but also emotionally vulnerable. He or she craves activity and excitement, but needs positive feedback.  This is the attention-seeking, dramatic, gullible individual, perhaps an example would be Marilyn Monroe.  Each of the combinations of Cloninger’s traits corresponds to a recognizable character.

OCD sufferers, according to the Tridimensional theory, are high in harm avoidance, low in novelty seeking, and high in reward dependence. Recent studies from the Universities of Iowa and Toronto have confirmed the strong correlation of OCD to high harm avoidance and low novelty seeking.  There is suggestive evidence tying OCD to high reward dependence.  OCD sufferers are timid, sentimental, good scout, people-pleasers.  That fits a surprisingly large number of my OCD patients. I must admit that it suits me to a tee, as well.