Emotion and Behavior
The experience of emotion facilitates action. It has long been recognized that emotional processing appears to prepare the body for action (Frijda, 1986
; Lang, 1993
; Saami, Mumme, & Campos, 1998
). In fact, to emote means, literally, to prepare for action (Maxwell & Davidson, 2007
). Researchers have theorized that the relationship between emotional experiences and actions involve activation of the motor cortex by limbic structures (Morgenson, Jones, & Yim, 1980
Some investigations have used neuroimaging techniques to document increased activity in motor areas of the brain during emotional processing (Bremner et al., 1999
; Rauch et al., 1996
), and nonhuman studies suggest the emotion-action interface may involve connections between the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC: Devinsky, Morrel, & Vogt, 1995
). In addition, spinal reflexes appear to be enhanced when individuals observe either pleasant or unpleasant affective stimuli (Bonnet, Bradley, Lang, & Requin, 1995
). Most recently, Hajcak et al. (2007)
found that emotionally arousing stimuli, whether of positive or negative valence, increase motor cortex excitability. The authors theorized that there may be individual difference in emotional reactivity that may relate to differences in the amount of activation of the motor cortex areas (Hajcak et al., 2007
Emotion's facilitation of action is fundamentally adaptive. Emotions lead one to focus on one particular set of needs or stimuli, out of all the possible stimuli to which one could conceivably attend. One takes action to meet the need identified by the emotion. Pinker (1997)
makes this point by noting that “Most artificial intelligence researchers believe that freely behaving robots . . . will have to be programmed with something like emotions merely for them to know at every moment what to do next” (p. 374).
Consider an example. The typical experience of negative affect involves feeling anxiety, worry, sadness, fear, vulnerability, and/or anger. When there are important, perhaps in the extreme even survival-threatening problems, the capacity to experience these feelings, and the accompanying focus on the problem at hand (Depue, 1996
; Hajcak et al., 2007
), is adaptive. It leads to problem-solving action. When the threat is removed or minimized, the negative affect recedes. Although the experience of emotional states likely plays a number of roles, our focus here is on their adaptive role in signaling the need for action.
To the degree that emotions facilitate actions to meet needs, it is perhaps generally true that more intense needs tend to be associated with the experience of more intense affective states. The difference between the typical level of fear associated with the experience of combat and that associated with, for example, snow skiing, reflects (albeit imperfectly) the difference in risk in the two situations, and hence differences in the need to alter some aspect of the situation to reduce the risk. We suggest that if the experience of more extreme emotions is likely to be associated with more pronounced needs, it is likely also associated with more unusual, or perhaps extreme, behavioral choices. Intensely negative experiences of fear may propel an individual to take radical steps to alter their current situation, whether through some version of flight or some version of fight. Intensely positive experiences of attraction or of sexual need may propel an individual to take the risky step of approaching someone to try to initiate a romantic relationship.
Thus, the experience of intense emotions may lead one to focus more heavily on one's immediate situation. At times, such as in the examples just given, a focus on the immediate can be fruitful and adaptive. However, there are also times in which an emotion-driven focus on the immediate may not be adaptive, and may in fact be ill-advised or even rash. A focus on one's current anger at one's boss, or one's sense of sexual attraction to a colleague can, in the absence of a co-occurring focus on one's long-term interests and goals, increase the likelihood of rash acts. And, intense emotions do tend to interfere with rational, advantageous decision making (Bechara, 2004
; Dolan, 2007
; Driesbach, 2006
; Shiv, Loewenstein, & Bechara, 2005
), sometimes leading to a reduced focus on one's long-term interests and an increased focus on the immediate (Davidson, 2003
There are three important implications of this line of reasoning for the current proposal. First, emotion's facilitation of a focus on the immediate has a fundamentally adaptive basis: one is oriented to meet one's needs, whether with respect to avoiding immediate threats or pursuing immediately available opportunities. But the second implication is that when one is experiencing emotions very intensely, the loss of available cognitive resources and the interference with rational decision making increases the likelihood that one's actions will be ill-advised or rash. As a result, the likelihood of ill-considered, risky behavior is increased. The third implication is that acts in response to the immediate are likely to be reinforcing, whether involving negative reinforcement such as reduction of, or distraction from, distress (Heatherton & Baumeister, 1991
) or positive reinforcement such as gratification of an urge. Even if such behaviors are associated with risk, or are inconsistent with one's long-term interests, they provide immediate reinforcement.
Emotion and Risky Behavior
Although the core precipitant of an emotion is a need, and meeting the need often requires some form of action, direct efforts to meet the need triggering an emotional experience are often difficult. Contextual and other factors often preclude immediate action to meet a need; it is particularly true that in the short term needs are often not met. Because individuals cannot always engage promptly in action that addresses the precipitating need, they engage in other actions that perhaps lessen the intensity of their emotional state (Larsen, 2000
) or provide some alternative source of reward. Some of those strategies are adaptive, in the sense that they do not undermine pursuit of longer-term goals (Davidson, 2003
). For example, when distressed, cognitive review of one's situation to evaluate the precipitant of the distress differently or to develop a strategy to address the precipitant at a later time, physical activities such as taking walks or exercising, meditation, “counting one's blessings,” and many other strategies are likely consistent with individuals’ longer-term goals (Linehan, 1993
). For intense attraction or sexual needs, perhaps cognitive mediation to consider whether acting on the need is in one's best long-term interests may often be valuable. Strategies such as these may help one modulate the intensity of one's emotional experience in a way that facilitates one's return to a focus on more long-term considerations (Davidson, 2003
; Larsen, 2000
However, as noted above, intense emotions can undermine rational, advantageous decision making (Bechara, 2004
; Dolan, 2007
; Driesbach, 2006
; Shiv et al., 2005
). It also appears to be true that attempts to regulate negative emotions can impair one's ability to continue self-control behaviors (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000
; Tice & Bratslavsky, 2000
; Tice, Bratslavsky, & Baumeister, 2001
). Thus, it is not surprising that individuals engage in other strategies to manage intense emotions that are ill-considered and maladaptive, in that they work against one's long-term interests. For example, heavy alcohol use may be used to manage emotion. Daily diary studies of alcohol use indicate that individuals drink more on days when they experience anxiety and stress (Swendson et al., 2000
). Indeed, negative affect states have been shown to correlate with a greater frequency of many maladaptive, addictive behaviors, including alcohol and drug abuse (Colder & Chassin, 1997
; Cooper, 1994
; Cooper et al., 2000
; Martin & Sher, 1994
; Peveler & Fairburn, 1990
). This pattern also is true of bulimic behaviors; individuals tend to participate in more binge eating and purging behaviors on days during which they experienced negative emotions (Agras & Telch, 1998
; Smyth et al., 2007
). Emotions such as shame, guilt, anger, depression, loneliness, stress, anxiety, boredom, and rejection are often cited as triggers for binge and purge episodes (Jeppson, Richards, Hardman, & Granley, 2003
). For bulimic women, engaging in binge eating produces a decline in the earlier negative emotion (Smyth et al., 2007
). Because actions like these do appear to reduce negative affect, they are reinforced and thus become more likely in the future.
There is evidence that mild increases in positive affect can improve problem solving skills (Isen 1984
), such as cognitive flexibility (Isen & Daubman, 1984
; Isen, Niedenthal & Cantor, 1992
), verbal fluency (Phillips, MacLean, & Allen, 2002
), and problem solving (Green & Noice, 1988
; Isen, Daubman & Nowicki, 1987
). However, even mild increases in positive affect do have some cost. Increased positive affect appears to interfere with one's orientation toward the pursuit of one's long-term goals, to increase one's distractibility (Dreisbach & Goschke, 2004
), and to make one more optimistic about positive outcomes of a situation (Nygren, Isen, Taylor, & Dulin, 1996
; Wright & Bower, 1992
). These actions may in part reflect the reduced rationality described above.
In sum, heightened emotionality appears to be accompanied by a greater likelihood of engaging in ill-considered acts, some of which entail risk. The regular experience of heightened emotionality may increase a person's risk for more frequent engagement in such behaviors, and those behaviors tend to be reinforced, even if they are inconsistent with one's long-term interests.
Urgency and Risky Behaviors
Positive and negative urgency are personality traits that represent individual differences in the tendency to engage in ill-considered, rash action when experiencing intense emotion. The tendency to engage in rash action increases the likelihood of repeated involvement in potentially harmful or risky behaviors (Fischer et al., 2005
) in the following way. Both rash actions spurred by negative emotion, such as yelling at one's boss, and rash actions spurred by a positive mood, such as excessive celebratory drinking, provide immediate reinforcement.
They therefore become more likely in the future: even ill-considered or rash actions become reinforced. Some rash actions involve risk, and those risky behaviors are also reinforced; as a result, one comes to engage in risky behaviors with greater frequency. We believe it is also true that, on each occasion in which this takes place, one has missed an opportunity to engage in a more adaptive response to one's intense emotion; one then has fewer experiences in which adaptive responses to intense emotion are reinforced. The result is an increasing reliance on risky behaviors in response to intense emotions.
In summary, we have provided empirical evidence for the existence of positive and negative urgency, and we have offered a theoretical framework to understand the operation of the trait. We next argue that the facilitative conditions for the emergence of the urgency traits have been identified in brain system, neurotransmitter, and neurogenetic research. Examining evidence relating to urgency at each of these levels is important for two reasons. First, if the theory that there are individual differences in an emotion-based disposition to rash action is correct, there should be identifiable, analogue processes in the brain. Second, to be able to describe an empirically defensible pathway from gene polymorphism to variation in neurotransmitter activity within key brain systems to the emergence of phenotypic personality traits, which themselves influence the likelihood of certain behavioral choices, is to offer something close to an integrated account of the emergence of individual differences in an important category of behavior. One basic goal of psychological inquiry is to provide such accounts. Thus, this analysis of urgency provides one example of the kind of integrative theory that is becoming increasingly possible, given advances in genetic research, neuroscience, and trait theory.
Specifically, our claim is that certain gene polymorphisms make certain patterns of neurotransmitter activity more likely, and that when those patterns occur in certain brain regions, they make it more likely that an individual will develop the urgency traits. As we have argued above, development of the urgency traits makes it more likely that individuals will engage in rash actions when experiencing intense emotion, which makes it more likely that individuals will engage in risky behaviors, which makes it more likely they will come to rely on such behaviors for affect management and thus experience personal harm. Thus, we are describing a series of hypothesized steps from gene to behavior, with presumably moderate effect sizes, at best, at each step. We therefore would not expect to find high levels of association between gene polymorphisms and trait scores.
To describe these facilitative conditions for the urgency traits, we first provide evidence for the operation of a specific brain pathway that is closely tied to emotion-based rash action. We then review evidence that an identified pattern of the functioning of two neurotransmitters in that brain system facilitates rash or ill-considered action. Once we have described that process, we consider gene polymorphisms that may relate to the levels of the relevant neurotransmitters.
Brain Pathways Related to Emotion-Based Action
We begin by describing a specific brain system involved in emotion and action. We then review a theory connecting emotion-based rash action to this brain system and the empirical evidence supporting it. Then, we review evidence that an identified pattern of the functioning of two neurotransmitters in that brain system facilitates rash or ill-considered action. Once we have described that process, we consider gene polymorphisms that may relate to the levels of the relevant neurotransmitters.
There are extensive connections among polymodal sensory systems, the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and its medial sector (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VM PFC: Bechara, 2005
), and other areas of the prefrontal cortex (PFC: Barbas, 2007
). The amygdala appears to be heavily involved in the experience of negative affect; more broadly, it is thought to play a role in directing attention to emotionally salient stimuli, particularly stressful or disturbing stimuli (Davidson, 2003
). The OFC appears to be involved in the modulation of emotion-based reactivity (Davidson, 2003
). The nature of the connections among these regions suggests reciprocal influences between the amygdala and the OFC/VM PFC (with influences from other areas of the PFC) in processing emotion-laden experiences and preparing for action (Barbas, 2007
; Bechara, Tranel & Damasio, 2000
; Ghashghaei & Barbas, 2002
; LeDoux, 2000
; Lewis & Todd, 2007
). Both the OFC and the amygdala receive direct projections from neurons in sensory areas (Barbas, 2007
). The OFC also receives both direct projections from the amygdala and indirect projections from the amygdala through the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC, which is also responsive to emotionally significant stimuli: LeDoux, 1995
; Lewis & Todd, 2005
), and it has projections back to the amygdala. The OFC receives projections from the lateral PFC as well.
This pattern of connections is consistent with reciprocal influences between these brain regions that has been described as vertical integration and appears to reflect both “top down” and “bottom up” processing (Lewis & Todd, 2007
). Concerning “bottom up” processing, the amygdala appears to provide information about the emotional significance of sensory input, thereby influencing activity in the OFC. Thus, the emotional significance of events influences subsequent cortical activity (one engages in cognitive processing about that which is emotionally important). At the same time, projections from the amygdala to the striatum, the nucleus accumbens, and the ventral tegmental area enhance the activation of both limbic and cortical structures, thus contributing further to both action and emotional experience (Cardinal, Parkinson, Hall, & Everitt, 2002
). In short, “upward” pathways from the amygdala to higher level cortical areas help orient one to what is important and help one prepare possible behavioral responses.
Concerning “top down” processes, the OFC appears to exhibit a regulating effect on the amygdala and the brain stem (Bechara, 2005
; Ghashghaei & Barbas, 2002
; Hariri, Drabant, & Weinberger, 2006
; Lewis & Todd, 2007
). The OFC can interrupt the direct connection between emotion and response: OFC activity overrides emotional responses, apparently by providing information and a bias toward long-term, goal-directed behavior (Lewis & Todd, 2007
To summarize this reciprocal relationship: the amygdala appears to harness cortical activity according to the emotional meaning of stimuli, and the cortex initiates and modulates amygdala responses based on perceptions of expected outcomes of possible actions (Barbas, 2007
; Bechara, 2005
; Cardinal et al., 2002
; Lewis & Todd, 2007
). The result is attention to important stimuli together with a capacity to respond in ways consistent with one's long-term goals.
At times, the experience of intense emotion, and its accompanying potential actions, is inconsistent with one's long-term goals. The OFC, perhaps particularly the left VM PFC, provides a biasing signal to avoid immediate reward, and thus maintain one's pursuit of one's longer-term goals. Davidson (2003)
refers to this process as affect-guided planning and anticipation: with healthy left VM PFC functioning, one gains access to the emotion associated with anticipated outcomes consistent with one's long-term goals. The ability to do so is, Davidson argues, the hallmark of adaptive, emotion-based decision making. At times, long-term affect-guided planning is difficult: the experience of intense emotions unrelated to one's long-term interests may disrupt processing with regard to those interests (Gray, 1999
; Preston, Buchanan, Stansfield, & Bechara, 2007
). But healthy functioning of the left VM PFC helps one maintain an affective connection to one's longer-term goals, and thus plan accordingly.
Activation of the left VM PFC appears to facilitate two processes simultaneously. The first of those is that it maintains representations of behavioral reinforcement contingencies in working memory; thus maintaining awareness of the consequences of prospective actions (Thorpe, Rolls, & Madison, 1983
). The second is that it inhibits amygdalar activity (Davidson, 1998
), thus shortening the time course of the experience of negative affect and attention to stressful stimuli.
Because negative affect stimulates autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity, which provides support for action in response to distress, prolonged negative affect leads to prolonged ANS arousal (Davidson, 2000
). Perhaps a greater duration of ANS arousal increases the likelihood of affect-triggered action. Activity in the amygdala appears to facilitate this process. And activation of the left VM PFC, in turn, appears to provide some inhibition to amygdalar activity and hence to this state of affairs.
There is a great deal of behavioral evidence in support of this model. For example, damage to the OFC, and perhaps damage specifically to the VM PFC, results in affective lability and rash action. In card-playing tasks characterized by uncertainty concerning the experience of rewards and penalties, normal controls begin to develop skin conductance responses (SCR's), indicative of arousal and affective responding, in anticipation of card choices that may be punishing. Individuals with PFC damage, and with OFC damage in particular, do not; they do not appear to have the normal anticipatory affective response to potential punishment (Bechara, 2004
; Bechara, Tranel, Damasio, & Damasio, 1996
; Cardinal et al., 2002
). Interestingly, normal individuals develop anticipatory SCR when pondering a choice that turned out to be risky, before they knew explicitly that it was a risky choice, whereas OFC-damaged patients do not develop anticipatory SCR's, even when they eventually can articulate which choices are risky (Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio, 1997
). Thus, OFC damage appears to impair affective anticipation of potential risk to one's actions.
Bechara, Damasio, Damasio, and Anderson (1994)
described OFC-damaged individuals as oblivious to the future consequences of their actions, but sensitive to immediate reinforcement and punishment. Thus, their actions tend to be guided by immediate consequences only. These patients had otherwise retained their intellectual capacities, including abstract reasoning skills. They could even describe possible future consequences in realistic language. They appeared simply to lack the anticipatory affect that others have; thus perhaps lacking the affect-guided anticipation described by Davidson (2003)
Interestingly, the case of Phineas Gage is relevant here. As is well known, after a tamping iron spiked through his face, skull, and brain, he underwent a personality transformation. He became affectively labile, irreverent, rash in his actions, and undependable; in stark contrast to his previous personality. Damasio, Grabowski, Frank, Galaburda, and Damasio (1994)
applied modern neuroimaging techniques to his skull, in order to estimate the location of his lesion. The lesion appeared to have been in his PFC, including his OFC, causing defects in decision making and the processing of emotion. Perhaps Gage's behavior changes may thus be an example of the effects of lesions in the brain system that facilitates disruptions in affect-guided planning.
In addition to the experimental evidence cited above, and the dramatic case example of Phineas Gage, there are other examples of rash action accompanying lesions in the PFC. For instance, Spinella (2007)
found that PFC lesions led to dyscontrolled sexual behavior. To anticipate the following discussion, it seems to us that low levels of affect-guided planning appear analogous to high levels of the urgency traits.
Although studies of the effects of lesions in the OFC, and more specifically in the VM PFC, are crucial for understanding the potential role of this brain region in emotion-based rash action, it is more relevant to our trait claim to note that there are individual differences in activity in these brain areas. In a recent fMRI investigation of reactive aggression, Lotze, Veit, Anders, and Birbaumer (2007)
found that VM PFC activation correlated positively with SCR during observation of a suffering opponent, apparently associated with compassion for that opponent. This finding is consistent with the view that VM PFC activity contributes to an affective connection with the consequences of one's actions. But there were individual differences in VM PFC activity. In particular, individuals scoring high in psychopathy showed little VM PFC activation: they appeared not to be disturbed by the suffering of the opponent.
It is thus possible that individuals high in psychopathy have reduced VM PFC functioning, and hence lack an affective connection to the consequences of their actions. Other studies have also documented similar OFC functioning deficits among psychopaths (Blair et al., 2006
; Mitchell, Colledge, Leonard, & Blair, 2002
). Integrative analyses of these data have suggested that the deficit underlying psychopathy involves the integrated functioning of the amygdala and the medial OFC (Blair, 2007
; Mitchell et al., 2002
). Perhaps psychopaths tend to act on their immediate affects and urges in ways not modulated by an emotional connection with the implications of their actions for themselves and others; indeed, this description is quite close to the original one provided by Cleckley (1976
Of particular importance for the present argument is that a consensus view of psychopathy (determined empirically, based on both expert ratings and research findings) based on the FFM describes psychopaths as being high on the neuroticism trait of impulsiveness, which is an analogue of negative urgency (Lynam & Widiger, 2007
). Psychopaths do experience intense emotions associated with gratifying their needs, but they lack an affective connection to the consequences of their actions and hence the long-term implications of those actions for themselves. As a result, they act in ill-advised ways. Thus, demonstrations of associations between the OFC/VM PFC-amygdala system and psychopathy is quite consistent with our claim of an association between this system and the urgency traits.
More generally, it appears to be the case that patterns of neurotransmitter activity may help explain individual differences in activity within this brain system. Both bottom-up and top-down interactions between the amygdala and the OFC appear to occur through the use of neuromodulators, such as 5HT and DA (Lewis & Todd, 2007
). Therefore, to describe a mechanism by which individual differences in the activity of this system operate, and hence possibly contribute to the emergence of individual differences in urgency, we next consider key, relevant aspects of neurotransmitter functioning.
The Possible Role of Gene Polymorphisms
It appears to be the case that one contributor to variability in 5HT and DA levels is gene polymorphisms. The action of the neurotransmitters is influenced, in part, by variation among individuals in at least four target genes: the serotonin transporter gene (5HTTLPR) and dopamine receptors genes DRD2, DRD3, and DRD4. The 5HTTLPR gene is triallelic. It has one short allele, s,
and two long alleles, Lg
(Beitchman et al., 2006
). The s
and the Lg
alleles tend to be relatively low-expressing (they are present less often), and they are associated with lower brain levels of 5HT (Beitchman et al., 2006
; Hu et al., 2006
; Hu et al., 2005
; Lakatos et al., 2003
). The a1
allele on the D2 dopamine receptor gene is associated with a reduced number of DA receptors, and hence more brain DA (Noble, 2003
). Similarly, the 7-repeat allele on the D4 receptor gene and the a1
alleles on the D3 receptor gene are all associated with higher levels of emotional reactivity and emotion-based rash action (Auerbach, Faroy, Ebstein, Kahana, & Levine, 2001
; Lakatos et al., 2003
; Munafó et al., 2003
; Oniszczenko & Dragan, 2005
Researchers have attempted to understand the behavioral expression of these polymorphisms in different ways; some emphasize behaviors such as impulsive (but not planned) aggression and others focus on disorders such as alcohol dependence (Davidson et al., 2000
; Noble, 2003
). From our point of view, each of these putative behavioral phenotypes can occur as an expression of emotion-based rash action. It therefore seems possible that these gene polymorphisms, perhaps through their influence on neurotransmitter levels, contribute to individual differences in the urgency traits.
In summary, there appears to be relatively well-developed evidence that brain connections between the left OFC/VM PFC and the amygdala contribute to the inhibition of actions in response to immediate, affectively felt needs, when those actions conflict with individuals’ long-term interests and goals. It appears that low levels of 5HT and resulting high levels of DA in this pathway may reduce this useful function, resulting in higher rates of rash actions in response to current emotions. It may be the case that the presence of certain alleles in the 5HT transporter gene and in three DA receptor genes contributes to low 5HT and high DA levels.
Taken together, these findings suggest that facilitative conditions for the emergence of individual differences in urgency can be identified at the neurogenetic, neurotransmitter, and brain system levels. It is possible that gene polymorphisms contribute to low 5HT and high DA in the OFC – amygdala pathway, which undermine affect-guided planning and lead to actions not in one's long-term interests. Thus, characteristically low 5HT and high DA levels in this brain region may contribute to formation of the urgency traits. To date, though, no studies have tested relations among the gene polymorphisms, the neurotransmitter activity in this brain system, and measures of the urgency traits. Doing so constitutes an important next step in validation this proposition.
Having considered facilitative conditions for the emergence of urgency at the neurobiological level, we next describe how individual differences in urgency are likely to emerge in development. We first argue that aspects of temperament anticipate the emergence of the urgency traits. We then apply person-environment transaction theory to describe the likely stability of urgency tendencies from temperament to personality. We then consider urgency in adolescence; we suggest the likelihood that there is a developmentally limited spike in urgency during the adolescent years.
Temperament Anticipating Urgency
Temperament has been defined as “individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation assumed to have a constitutional basis” (Rothbart, Ahadi, & Evans, 2000a
, p. 123), and early temperament is thought to provide the substrate of subsequently emerging personality (Caspi, 1998
; Eisenberg, Fabes, Guthrie, & Reiser, 2000
). The dimensions identified by temperament researchers are thought to provide a basis, presumably in interaction with the environment, for the development of specific personality traits.
Investigations of infant temperament consistently find positive associations between emotionality and positive anticipation/approach behaviors, including tendencies to engage in rash or ill-advised behaviors (Rothbart et al., 2000a
). Behavioral studies find that rash behavior and low inhibitory control are related to both indicators of positive affectivity (smiling and laughter) and negative affectivity (anger/frustration and aggression: Rothbart, Derryberry, & Hershey, 2000b
; Rothbart, Derryberry, & Posner, 1994
; Rothbart, Ziaie, & O'Boyle, 1992
). For example, infants’ positive affectivity and rates of approach behavior have been shown to relate to subsequent rash actions, higher anger, frustration, and aggression (Rothbart et al., 2000b
). The same authors also found that proneness to anger at 10 months of age predicted subsequent high activity, positive anticipation, anger/frustration, high-intensity pleasure, rash behavior, and aggression. Thus, from infancy, high levels of emotionality tend to be associated with high levels of ill-considered, rash action.
Relatedly, infants differ in their ability to modify the intensity and duration of an emotion; some children are better at using behavioral strategies, such as gaze aversion, self-soothing, or proximity seeking to a caregiver in order to modify an emotional experience. It appears that infants are born with varying predispositions to adaptively and effectively use emotion regulation strategies to some extent (Buss & Goldsmith, 1998
). These characteristics may be precursors to later individual differences in emotional lability and emotion regulation skills. Together, this constellation of individual differences in reactivity appears to anticipate the later emergence of positive and negative urgency.
At present, we have not yet tested an empirical model describing the specific developmental process by which temperament leads to urgency. There is no identified, developmental sequence from one factor of temperament to the urgency traits, nor is such a one-to-one association either likely or necessary for the theory of urgency. However, most temperament models emphasize both emotionality and the capacity for behavioral regulation (Eisenberg et al., 2000
; Rothbart et al., 2000a
), the latter of which can perhaps be considered a disposition not to engage in rash action. There is some lack of certainty as to how the two dimensions are related in infants and children. Possibilities considered by researchers are (a) emotionality and behavioral regulation are so highly correlated that one tends not to find independent effects of each, (b) each provides additive behavioral prediction over the other among infants and children, or (c) the two interact as well (Eisenberg et al., 1995
; Eisenberg et al., 2000
; Rothbart et al., 2000a
; Rothbart & Bates, 1998
). There is some, albeit limited, evidence for additive and interactive effects (Eisenberg et al., 2000
One possible developmental model is that emotionality and behavioral regulation (Eisenberg et al., 2000
) constitute separable, temperamental facilitative conditions for the emergence of the personality traits of positive and negative urgency. Perhaps individuals high on both temperament dimensions are more likely to develop the traits than are others. There are, of course, many other possibilities. We next consider the likely stability from temperament to personality, from the perspective of person-environment transaction theory.
There is evidence for considerable stability of individual differences described by temperament and personality models across the life span (Caspi & Roberts, 2001
; Kagan, 2003
; Roberts & DelVecchio, 2000
). The concept of person-environment transactions offers a fruitful perspective for understanding this stability (Caspi, 1993
; Caspi & Roberts, 2001
; Smith, Williams, Cyders, & Kelley, 2006
; Widiger & Smith, in press
Authors have identified three forms of person-environment transactions: evocative, reactive, and selective. First, individuals of different temperaments tend to evoke different reactions from others. Friendly individuals tend to elicit friendly responses, and hostile individuals tend to elicit hostile responses (Ghaed & Gallo, 2006
). In either case, one's initial temperament or personality bias tends to be confirmed by what one elicits from others: friendly responses from others reinforce one's friendliness, and hostile responses from others seem to confirm the basis for one's hostility. Second, individuals of different temperaments react to the same event differently from each other, and in fact appear to learn different things, even when they experience the same event (Caspi, 1993
; Smith et al., 2006
). Individuals high in negative affectivity are likely to perceive more events as stressful and anxiety-provoking than are even-tempered individuals, and are thus more likely to come to anticipate stressful events in the future. Again, one's initial bias appears to be confirmed by what one perceives.
Third, as individuals get older and come to have more control over their lives, they tend to select environments that are comfortable for their temperament and personality. For example, individual differences in sensation seeking influence career choices (Nicholson, Soane, Fenton-O'Creevy, & Willman, 2005
). By choosing environments that “fit” their personalities, individuals choose environments in which actions based on their personalities are more likely to be reinforced. Researchers have contended that these processes contribute to the stability of personality: individuals’ perspectives tend to be confirmed and reinforced (Caspi & Roberts, 2001
Possible Pathways for the Development of the Urgency Traits
One can see the likelihood that a temperamental disposition toward emotionality and poor behavioral regulation might well lead to an increasing predilection for emotion-based rash action over time. Emotional, poor-regulated children appear to engage in more ill-considered behavior, and they evoke more negative, controlling behavior from adults and others (Ge, Conger, & Elder, 1996
; Ge, Lorenz, & Conger, 1994
; O'Connor, Deater-Deckard, & Fulker, 1998
). They are more likely to react with strong emotions and accompanying decreased behavioral control to the negative behavior they experience from others (Rothbart, 1989
). Thus, a combination of evocative and reactive person-environment transactions likely contributes to the emergence of stable propensities toward emotion-based rash action.
It may also be true that individual differences in emotionality and behavioral regulation affect the degree to which individuals learn adaptive emotion regulation strategies. If one is born with a predisposition to experience emotional states in unusually intense ways (Larsen, Billings, & Cutler, 1996
), one would tend to experience more occasions in which one is less able to take full advantage of one's cognitive resources than would other individuals (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000
; Tice et al., 2001
). As a result, one might have more difficulty than others in learning to respond adaptively to a given affective change.
For these reasons, we believe the literature on early temperament together with the developmental personality literature on person-environment transactions describes a plausible pathway for the emergence of individual differences in emotion-based disposition toward rash action. Having outlined this pathway, we want to emphasize the caveat that there are substantial limits to the stability of individual differences. In Kagan's (1994
classic research on the stability of reactivity in infants, he found that only one-third of the highly reactive infants become very fearful and later earn the label inhibited, and only one-third of the low-reactive infants later earn the label uninhibited. This finding helps clarify the limits on the developmental stability of personologic individual differences; the findings suggest stability should not be understood deterministically (Kagan, 2003
), but rather probabilistically.