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Personality systems interaction theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Personality system interaction theory is a comprehensive framework that shows how emotions and personality affect cognition and behavior. Specifically, this theory proposes that four cognitive systems underpin the regulation of behavior, motivation, and emotion. First, when individuals feel relaxed, an intuitive system, called extension memory, is activated. This system improves various forms of intuitive decision making, flexibility, creativity, resilience, engagement, and some other key outcomes. Second, when individuals feel anxious, a threat system, called object recognition, is activated instead. This system focuses attention towards immediate needs, often to the detriment of broader values.

Third, when individuals feel dejected, an analytical system, called intention memory is activated. This system forms plans to redress any shortfalls or complications, and these plans sometimes diverge from the core values and preferences of individuals as well as disregard subtle cues in the environment. Finally, if these intentions seem plausible, cheerful feelings arise, and a fourth system, called intuitive behavioral control, is activated. This system executes the intentions, coordinating the corresponding action plans.

Extension memory

Personality systems interaction (PSI) theory was first propounded by Kuhl (2000). According to this model, when individuals feel relaxed, extension memory, a cognitive system that resides in right prefrontal regions of the cortex and the hippocampus (Baumann, Kuhl, & Kazen, 2005), is often activated, called the self facilitation assumption. This system comprises a vast network of self schemas, each representing a recurring context or pattern of physical features, affective states, specific goals, and motor responses. Each schema activates an amalgam of all the responses that individuals have learnt to emit in a similar context. Because the response is derived from the concatenation of events over many occasions, the schemas, in effect, represent the core values of individuals (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005a).

When extension memory is activated, individuals feel motivated to enact behaviors that align with their core values and, in this sense, the system optimizes decision making and intuition (see Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003). Because the schema is activated without the intervention of conscious effort, individuals experience an instinctive inclination to enact the behaviors that coalesce with their core values (Kazen, Baumann, & Kuhl, 2003), manifested as engagement and absorption (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005a). In addition to intuition and engagement, extension memory activates an endless array of features, responses, and states that correspond to a specific context and thus enables individuals to recognize remote associations, ultimately facilitating creativity and flexibility (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005a & Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003).

Indeed, several studies have shown that positive mood states, which are related to extension memory, improve flexibility in cognitive preferences. In a study conducted by Tan, Jones, and Watson (2009), participants needed to detect a specific target. Sometimes, the targets were global patterns, such as a large triangle composed of smaller shapes. On other trials, the targets were local details, such as the small circles embedded within a larger shape.

Prior to each trial, a verbal or pictorial prime was presented. The primes could related to positive, neutral, or negative concepts. If the primes were positive, target detection improved. More specifically, detection of global shapes improved in participants who usually direct their attention more to local details. Similarly, detection of local shapes improved in participants who usually direct their attention more to global patterns. The positive concepts, therefore, tended to improve flexibility.

Furthermore, access to extension memory enhances the capacity of individuals to regulate their emotions, effortlessly and intuitively (Kuhl, 2000;; Koole & Coenen, 2007). That is, when extension memory is activated, feelings of anxiety and dejection dissipate rapidly (for further information, see Intuitive affect regulation)

Emotional regulation

Several studies indicate that extension memory facilitates emotional regulation. Specifically, extension memory is assumed to underpin the self. Exposure to words that activate the self, such as "my", are thus presumed to prime extension memory. These words have been shown to facilitate emotional regulation.

In one study, conducted by Quirin, Bode, and Kuhl (2011), participants were exposed to a threatening movie: a scene in "Silence of the Lambs". Next, some participants completed a task that was intended to activate the self. In particular, on each trial, the word "my" and a noun, such as "my apartment", appeared on the screen for 4 s. Next, an asterisk was flashed on the left or right side. Participants pressed one of two buttons, as rapidly as possible, depending on which side the asterisk appeared. Other participants completed the same task, except the word "my" was replaced with the word "the", reducing activation of the self.

In addition, participants completed an implicit measure of affect, called the IPANAT (see implicit measures of affect), to assess their affect at three times: before the movie, after the movie, and then after the asterisk task. Specifically, a series of nonsense words was presented. Participants indicated the extent to which they felt these words evoked a series of emotions.

Immediately after the threatening movie, implicit positive emotions diminished. However, after the asterisk task, implicit positive emotions increased significantly, but only if participants had been exposed to the word "my" and hence extension memory had been activated (see also intuitive affect regulation).

Neurological underpinnings

Several studies imply that extension memory is primarily underpinned by the right hemisphere (e.g., Craik, Moroz, Moscovitch, Stuss, Winocur, Tulving, & Kapur, 1999). For example, Baumann, Kuhl, and Kazen (2005) showed that clenching the left rather than right fist enhances the capacity of individuals to remember their preferences. Participants were instructed to choose which 9 of 27 clerical activities they would prefer to complete. Subsequently, the experimenter choose another 9 of the 18 activities. Later, individuals were asked to recall which tasks they selected.

Presumably, individuals who can access extension memory are more cognizant of their values and priorities. This awareness should facilitate performance on this task. Clenching the left fist both activates regions in the right hemisphere and improved performance on this activity. Taken together, these findings imply that extension memory might be associated with the right hemisphere.

Object recognition

When individuals experience negative affect, which entails agitation, anxiety, and irritability, extension memory is inhibited (Kuhl, 2000). That is, this state signifies the prospect of a threat-some event that violates their expectations and thus does not conform to an extant schema (Kuhl, Kazen, & Koole, 2006). Extension memory, therefore, might not elicit optimal behavior in this context and is thus inhibited.

Another system, called object recognition, is activated instead, and this system orients attention towards potential threats as well as elicits tendencies to redress these problems (Kuhl, 2000). Because attention is directed towards threats, individuals are more inclined to recognize and anticipate potential complications and adversities (for other benefits of object recognition and drawbacks of excessive emotional regulation, see Koole, Kuhl, Jostmann, & Vohs, 2005).

Neglect of core values

Furthermore, when this system is activated, individuals do not pursue their core values, but merely engage in behaviors that redress impending or existing threats (Kuhl, 2000). That is, they strive to satisfy their immediate needs, not their future values. Because they attempt to circumvent threats rather than pursue enduring values, they become inclined to satisfy the expectations or preferences of another person. Their behavior is guided by the expectations or norms of other individuals, such as colleagues and managers, not their own core inclinations.

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Baumann and Kuhl (2005), participants were instructed to complete a monotonous task. To motivate participants, some of these individuals were informed the task is important and could potentially assist deprived communities. In this condition, the task seemed to align with the core values of participants. Other participants did not receive this information but received a monetary reward if they performed well. In this condition, rather than allude to the core values of participants, rewards were offered to underscore the expectations of the experimenter.

Participants who felt relaxed were more inclined to engage in the task when core values were highlighted. Relaxation enhances access to extension memory, encouraging individuals to pursue core values. In contrast, participants who felt stressed but reported a state orientation-an inability to regulate negative affective states-were more engaged in the task when rewards were offered. These negative affective states activate object recognition, encouraging individuals to pursue the expectations of the experimenter.

Self infiltration

Similarly, when object recognition is activated, and extension memory is inhibited, individuals demonstrate a tendency called self infiltration. That is, rather than select suggestions or behaviors that align with their core values, they often endorse arguments or courses of action they would otherwise reject (Baumann & Kuhl, 2003). That is, when extension memory is inhibited, the behavior and decisions of individuals are not governed by their core, enduring values.

To illustrate, in a typical study (e.g., Baumann & Kuhl, 2003), individuals must choose 9 of 27 clerical activities they would prefer to complete. Subsequently, the experimenter chooses another 9 of the 18 activities. Later, individuals who cannot readily regulate their anxiety, called state orientation, and thus often operate in object recognition could not recall which of the tasks they chose. Individuals who could regulate their anxiety, called action orientation, did not show such a pronounced deficit in memory.

Thus, only when extension memory, not object recognition, is activated, can individuals assess whether or not some course of action aligns with the gamut of their personal preferences, tendencies, and values. This assessment as to whether or not some option aligns with their core values does indeed demand a protracted period of time. In a study conducted by Kazen, Baumann, and Kuhl (2003), participants were instructed to select which of several possible activities would be suitable for a training program. Subsequently, they repeated this task, pressing one of two buttons to indicate which of several activities are most applicable. Individuals who can readily regulate their anxiety, and thus can access extension memory, performed this task more accurately but slowly.

Attention to specific details not broad concepts

Object recognition is also likely to promote a focus on concrete, specific details rather than intangible and broad concepts. That is, when individuals experience negative affective states, they perceive the immediate context as threatening. To uncover, minimize, and redress the source of this threat, individuals must focus their attention on specific details--features in the environment that could provoke difficulties. Because attention is directed towards only key information, individuals reflect upon specific and concrete details rather than broad and intangible concepts (Derryberry & Reed, 1997).

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Derryberry and Reed (1997), participants were presented with a large letter composed of smaller letters, such as a large F composed of smaller Ts. When anxiety was elevated, participants could more rapidly identify the smaller rather than larger letters.

Attention to circumscribed features not vast networks

Similarly, object recognition enables individuals to disentangle features and objects from their surroundings. As a consequence, in contrast to extension memory, object recognition undermines the capacity of individuals to recognize the relationships and connections between concepts or stimuli.

For example, in a study conducted by Baumann and Kuhl (2002), participants received sets of three words, such as goat, pass, and green. On some but not all trials, the three words were associated with a fourth term, such as mountain. Participants were asked to specify whether they felt these sets of three words did relate to a fourth term--that is, were coherent or incoherent--utilizing their intuition only. That is, they were dissuaded from deliberating attempt to identify the fourth term. In addition, participants evaluated their ongoing mood states. Negative affective states tended to compromise their ability on this task (Baumann & Kuhl, 2002). This finding indicates that object recognition prevents individuals from recognizing remote associations between concepts. In contrast, extension memory facilitates this ability.

This property of object recognition could explain the problems that arise when feedback is too frequent. As a consequence of advances in information technology, individuals can access regular feedback after each decision they reach. In industry, for example, managers can receive incessant updates on the prices of competitors, which can then affect their own decisions and behaviors. Likewise, they can receive continuous updates on product demand, which can also influence their policies and processes.

Nevertheless, as Lurie and Swaminathan (2009) showed, when feedback or information is too frequent, the decisions of individuals often deteriorate. Specifically, this problem surfaces when the feedback varies rapidly over time--and is susceptible to subtle factors in the environment. In these contexts, decisions were too dependent on the most recent data, disregarding past information or underlying trends.

Presumably, rapid variations in data, feedback, or information diverge from expectations. Such divergence activates object recognition (Kuhl, 2000). When object recognition is activated, individuals focus their attention on their more immediate environment only.

Flexibility in attention and behavior

When object recognition is activated, individuals tend to direct their attention to a limited range of cues. That is, object recognition coincides with negative, arousing emotions, such as anxiety and agitation (Kuhl, 2000). Many studies show that such emotional states improve memory of key features in events but not peripheral information (e.g., Burke, Heuer, & Reisberg, 1992;; Christianson & Loftus, 1987, 1991 & Safer, Christianson, Autry, & Osterlund, 1998 & Wessel & Merckelbach, 1997). Thus, a more confined range of cues or information is considered.

Similarly, these negative affective states also elicit the dominant response of individuals. That is, when individuals experience these emotions, they are more likely to emit their most potent or natural response to stimuli rather than consider alternatives that might be more suitable (Hull, 1943, Zajonc, 1955).

Neurological underpinnings

Object recognition might correspond to circuits in the right hemisphere, including the aymgdala. Specifically, object recognition seems to underpin the identification and interpretation of potential threats as well as the responses to these events (Kuhl, 2000). This vigilance to threat is assumed to be underpinned by the amygdala and related structures in the right hemisphere (Cohen & Shaver, 2004;;Compton, 2003;; Mogg & Bradley, 1999;; Wittling, 1997). In particular, evidence of this propositions has emanated from a variety of procedures, including dichotic listening tasks, event related brain potentials, and functional magnetic resonance (e.g., Asbjornsen, Hugdahl, & Bryden, 1992 & Compton, Banich, Mohanty, Milham, Herrington, Miller, et al., 2003 & Compton, Wilson, & Wolf, 2004 & Fox, 2002).

Intention memory

When individuals feel they might not be able to execute the actions that are needed to fulfill their aspirations, they experience a sense of impending loss, manifested as dejection (Higgins, 1987). Because individuals recognize their extant schemas cannot achieve these unfulfilled aspirations, extension memory is inhibited and, instead, another cognitive system, called intention memory is activated (Jostmann & Koole, 2006). This system evolved to formulate and store plans that individuals can pursue to achieve their unfulfilled aspirations (Goschke & Kuhl, 1993).

These plans represent abstract sequences of actions, devoid of rich contextual features, to ensure they can be generalized to a diversity of situations, thus accommodating a range of possible contingencies. Hence, when intention memory is activated, individuals rely on abstract codes, such as logical rules and verbal labels (Goschke & Kuhl, 1993), becoming less sensitive to sensory and perceptual information (Kuhl, 2000). Because their plans are characterized by logical or verbal operations, their behavior is less sensitive to subtle variations in the environment, compromising their capacity to adapt flexibly (cf. Hayes et al., 1999).

Dejection and memory of intentions

Several lines of evidence verify the proposition that dejection activates intention memory. This association between dejection and intention memory is called the volitional inhibition assumption. Specifically, research indicates that depression facilitates the memory of intentions to act.

In a study undertaken by Kuhl and Helle (1986), participants were instructed to clean a table, but were interrupted with another task, which assessed their memory, before they could commence. When this design is applied, depressed individuals tend to show superior memory of the task that had not been completed--but impaired memory on the completed or ongoing tasks (Kuhl & Helle, 1986;; see also Johnson, Petzel, Hartney, & Morgan, 1983).

Zeigarnik effect

According to PSI theory, intentions that have yet to be executed often persist in an active state. That is, all the representations that relate to these intentions, such as words or concepts, are highly accessible in long term memory. This property is consistent with the Zeigarnik effect.

The Zeigarnik effect was first discovered by Bluma Zeigarnik in 1927 (for reviews, see Heckhausen, 1991 & Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982). Specifically, Zeigarnik discovered that individuals remember interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. Presumably, when a task is incomplete, the intention to complete this goal remains activated. In contrast, when a task is completed, the intention to complete this goal can then be released or might even be inhibited (Liberman & Forster, 2000).

To confirm this perspective, many studies have shown that unfulfilled goals increase the accessibility of related intentions (e.g., Liberman, Forster, & Higgins, 2007 & Marsh, Hicks, & Bink, 1998 & Marsh, Hicks, & Bryan, 1999). In these studies, strings of letters are often presented, and participants must decide which of these strings are words, called a lexical decision task. Participants recognize words more rapidly if these terms relate to tasks they have not completed. Interestingly, participants recognize words less rapidly if these terms relate to tasks they have completed, indicating these intentions might be inhibited.

For example, in a study conducted by Forster, Liberman, and Higgins (2005), a series of words appeared on a screen. Some of the participants were instructed to search for the term aggression. Other participants were not instructed to complete this activity. In addition, at various times, participants completed a lexical decision task. For this task, some of the words were related to aggression. If they had yet to uncover the term aggression in the other task, participants recognized terms that related to aggression especially rapidly. If they had uncovered the term aggression, they recognized terms that related to aggression more slowly than did participants who were never instructed to seek this word.

The accessibility of these words that relate to aggression is unrelated to semantic priming per se. That is, as Higgins (1996) emphasized, the effects of semantic priming diminish with time but are not dependent upon whether some goal is fulfilled.

Denzler, Forster, and Liberman (2009) showed how the symbolic fulfilment of goals can also reduce the accessibility of corresponding words. In their study, participants were informed about a transgression, which promoted feelings of aggression towards this perpetrator. In other words, this information activated the goal to aggress towards a specific person.

Participants who were permitted to stab a voodoo doll representing this person were, subsequently, slower at recognizing words that relate to aggression. The voodoo doll had, presumably, enabled individuals to fulfill the goal, albeit symbolically. In contrast, punching a bag did not affect accessibility to words that relate to aggression. That is, punching a bag does not, even symbolically, fulfill the goal to aggress towards a specific person.

Verbal representation of intentions

The intention superiority effect shows that intentions are stored as verbal representations in memory. That is, the various verbal concepts that relate to any intention are highly active. If individuals form the intention to eat healthy food, for example, any concepts or words that are related to healthy food are activated in memory.

This intention superiority effect was first demonstrated by Goschle and Kuhl (1993) and replicated by Marsh, Hicks, and Bryan (1999). In a typical study, participants need to learn a series of scripted actions, such as brushing their hair. After learning these scripts, they are informed they will need to perform some of these actions. Furthermore, they merely observe the other actions.

Before they execute these scripts, participants might receive a lexical decision task. They have to decide, as rapidly as possible, whether or not various items are legitimate words. Participants recognized words very rapidly if these terms corresponded to the script they would need to perform later. In other words, intentions to perform, rather than observe, some act activated terms and concepts that correspond to this sequence of behaviors.

Many researchers have uncovered a similar pattern of findings (e.g., Marsh, Hicks, & Bink, 1998 & Marsh, Hicks, & Bryan, 1999 & Marsh, Hicks, & Watson, 2002). These findings apply whether the task to assess the salience of these concepts involves lexical decision (e.g., Marsh, Hicks, & Bryan, 1999) or recognition (e.g., Goschle & Kuhl, 1993). (for further information, see Intention superiority effect)

Intuitive behavioral control

Intentions are not implemented, but retained, until the appropriate conditions manifest. Specifically, individuals will implement intentions only if they are sufficiently confident they can fulfill their goals, manifested as positive affect. Hence, when positive affect rises, intention memory is inhibited and, instead, a system that implements rather than formulates intentions is activated--called the volitional facilitation assumption (Kuhl, 2000). This system, called intuitive behavioral control, converts the intentions to motor programs and executes these programs (Kuhl, 2000).

Many studies reveal that positive affect is indeed associated with the implementation of motor programs and not the formation of intentions. As indirect evidence, for example, physical activities do indeed foster positive moods (e.g., Sexton, Sogaard, & Olstad, 2001).

Evidence of the volitional facilitation assumption

The Stroop interference task has been used to substantiate the volitional facilitation assumption--the proposition that positive affect enhances the capacity of individuals to execute their intentions (Kazen & Kuhl, 2005;; Kuhl & Kazen, 1999). In these studies participants completed a typical Stroop task, in which participants must name the color of print in which various words appear. Response times are prolonged when the word represents a different hue to this color.

To complete this task, from the perspective of PSI theory, individuals must generate and maintain a challenging intention in memory--the intention to name the color of ink rather than read the word. In addition, individuals must execute this intention--that is couple this intention with the intuitive behavioral control. According to PSI theory, positive affect should facilitate the execution of this intention.

Consistent with this proposition, positive words that related to achievement, and thus evoked positive affect, curbed the Stroop interference effect. Participants could name colors as rapidly, and sometimes more rapidly, when the words reflected an incongruent hue (Kuhl & Kazen, 2005).

Factors that activate the systems

Extension memory

Extension memory is more likely to be activated when individuals experience do not experience negative mood states. The following models present some theories that explain the determinants of these negative mood states:

Tripartite model of security

Regulatory focus theory

In addition, extension memory might be activated after individuals clench the left, rather than right, fist for several seconds. After individuals squeeze their left hand for a minute or so, they can more readily remember which of 27 tasks they previously chose to complete (Baumann, Kuhl, & Kazen, 2005). The left fist, when clenched, might activate brain regions in the right side that underpin extension memory. Extension memory represents the core values of individuals and thus, when activated, improves the capacity of individuals to remember their preferences (Baumann et al., 2005).

Intention memory

Intention memory is more likely to be activated when individuals do not experience positive mood states. The following models present some theories that explain the determinants of these positive mood states:

Regulatory mode

Furthermore, intention memory might be activated after individuals clench the right, rather than left, fist for several seconds. That is, after individuals squeeze their right hand for a minute or so, they are more likely to remain persistent and determined (Schiff, Guirguis, Kenwood, & Herman, 1998). The right hand, when clenched, might activate brain regions in the left side that underpin intention memory. These regions foster the need to achieve difficult goals (Kuhl & Kazen, 1999).


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