NPA personality theory
A.M. Benis, Sc.D., M.D.
The NPA model
Here is the NPA theory of personality in a nutshell:
The theory was developed on the basis of concepts put forth over fifty years ago by German-American psychiatrist Karen Horney. According to the theory, there are three major, genetically determined, character traits that form the basis of personality. The traits are sanguinity (N), perfectionism (P) and aggression (A). The traits are multifaceted, or in formal terms "dependent on pleiotropic genes".
Sanguinity (N) is the trait of sociability. Individuals with the trait tend to be prone to flushing, blushing, tearfulness, and they smile easily in social circumstances. In the extreme, it is a "search for glory", and individuals may display vanity, exhibitionism and show overt narcissistic behavior. Individuals having trait N are called "sanguine" types and sometimes, appropriately, "narcissistic" types.
Aggression (A) is the well-known trait of competitiveness, often physical in nature. Individuals having the A trait (but lacking the N trait) tend to be inhibited in sociability and in flushing, blushing, tearfulness and smiling. In the extreme, the trait is a "search for power", and individuals may display physical confrontation, pugnacity and show overtly sadistic behavior. Individuals with the trait of aggression instinctively form "pecking orders". Individuals having trait A but lacking trait N are called "non-sanguine" types.
Perfectionism (P) is a trait that may or may not be present in a given individual. It may be thought of as modulating the traits N and A. Individuals having the P trait tend to value order, neatness and symmetry, and may be prone to repetitive mannerisms. In the extreme, the trait may be the cause of obsessive-compulsive or autistic-like behavior that may overwhelm other character traits. Individuals lacking trait P are called "non-perfectionistic".
Traits A and N are associated with rage reactions, namely the classic "aggressive-vindictive rage" (A rage) associated with pallor in individuals of light skin color, and the florid "narcissistic rage" (N rage) associated with sanguinity. The P trait is not associated with a rage reaction.
The traits A and N form the basis of human ambition, namely the desire to achieve power and glory, respectively.
An important result is that the model produces a limited number of discrete character types, according to how the three traits are assorted, and whether the traits are present, absent, or incompletely expressed. This produces three main categories of character types: 1) Dominant types, 2) Passive Aggressive types and 3) Borderline types.
Considering the case where all three traits are either absent or fully expressed, we obtain what we call "Dominant types":
NP sanguine perfectionistic
NA sanguine aggressive
NPA sanguine perfectionistic aggressive
PA non-sanguine perfectionistic aggressive
A non-sanguine aggressive
Note that there are four sanguine types and two non-sanguine types, as well as four aggressive types and two non-aggressive types.
Passive Aggressive types
If trait A is incompletely expressed, we obtain the category of Passive Aggressive types. The term "Passive Aggressive" here simply means that the trait of aggression is partially inhibited. We append one minus sign (–) or two minus signs (=) to the letter A, according to whether trait A is only partially or profoundly inhibited:
NA– NA= sanguine passive aggressive
NPA– NPA= sanguine perfectionistic passive aggressive
PA– PA= non-sanguine perfectionistic passive aggressive
A– A= non-sanguine passive aggressive
Passive Aggressive types may be prone to submissive behavior. For purposes of identification, we call the A= types "compliant types" and the A– types "non-compliant types". In dominant-submissive relationships, non-compliant types can play either the dominant or submissive role, depending on the partner, while compliant types will always seek to play the submissive role.
Borderline types are those in whom neither trait N nor trait A is fully expressed. These would include the non-sanguine Passive Aggressive types (A– and PA–), as well as the non-aggressive types (N– and N–P).
As with trait A, we append one minus sign (–) or two minus signs (=) to the letter N, according to whether the trait is only partially or profoundly inhibited:
In individuals having just a single trait (either N or A) that is profoundly suppressed (like PA= or N=), then the affected individual would be severely compromised or mentally ill, and the NPA model merges with one of mental illness, in particular, with schizophrenia. That is, it is not possible for a socially well-adjusted individual to lack function of both genetic traits N and A.
The model predicts infertility in parents of certain combinations of NPA types, namely in those couples who, because of their particular genetic types, are prone to conceive non-viable progeny totally lacking both traits N and A. Thus, a fetus lacking expression of both traits N and A would not survive intrauterine life (appearing as miscarriage or stillbirth) or would "fail to thrive" in early infancy. Infertility on this basis could be partial or complete, depending on the exact NPA genotypes of the parents.
The basis of infertility inherent in the NPA model was found to be the same as that of the classic Dobzhansky-Muller model of hybrid inviability based on two interacting "complementary genes".
Genetics and complexities
The NPA character traits are discrete traits that are genetically determined, much like an individual's gender (male or female) is genetically determined. But there are many other aspects, both genetic and environmental, that impinge on personality, or how one behaves in social circumstances. Among these are basic drives (hunger, thirst, sex, territoriality), cognition (thinking, learning, reasoning, intelligence), temperament (the natural activity or excitability of an individual), as well as other less clearly defined human traits, like empathy and altruism. Environmental variables like nurture, culture and the individual's real-life situation provide another overlay of complexity. Our model implies that the male-female dichotomy and the NPA genetic traits would be more basic than these other aspects of personality, hence that other approaches to personality that ignore the three primary genetic traits are deficient.
The mode of genetic transmission of the NPA traits has not yet been verified. In some archetypal families, traits N and A appeared to be transmitted as Mendelian recessive, while trait P appeared to be Mendelian dominant. This leads to the important insight that the genetic loci for traits N and A likely code for inhibitors of the traits. For trait A, the model implies that whatever the complexity of the many possible genes that permit the expression and modulation of the trait of aggression, it is a single genetic locus (the A locus of the NPA model) that permits inhibition of the final common pathway to expression of the A trait and A rage, permitting the occurrence of the non-aggressive N and NP types of the model. For trait N, the model implies that whatever the complexity of the genes that permit the expression and modulation of the trait of sanguinity, it is a single genetic locus (the N locus) that permits inhibition of the final common pathway to expression of the N trait and N rage, permitting the occurrence of the non-sanguine A and PA types.
However, the exact genetic basis of the traits is not important with regard to understanding the model. Experience in other areas of genetics provides a guarantee that the fine details of the expression of the NPA traits will turn out to be complex.
Implications of having a genetically determined character profile
From the point of view of the individual there are important implications of being somewhat constrained by genetically determined personality traits, but "genetic determinism" is not one of them. Humans are cognitive beings, and we do have an element of free will: although we cannot change our gender or our genetically determined character type, we can certainly modify our behavior. For some discussion of the possible implications of the NPA model, see our book: NPA Theory of Personality (reference below).
The terminology dealing with personality and behavioral disorders -- including that used by Karen Horney -- has always been highly pejorative, an important issue that has not been addressed by the psychiatric community. Our approach regarding the descriptions of the character types was intentionally to use hyperbolic language and to the label the descriptions as "caricatures". Please do not be quick to be offended if some aspects of behavior are described as "passive aggressive", or "submissive", or "narcissistic", and so forth. The terms do not necessarily imply any kind of extreme behavior. No character type is presented as "better" than any other, and there are successes and failures, saints and sinners, in all of the categories of the NPA model.
If, as we posit, the NPA traits are genetically determined, then it should be possible to determine their geographical distributions. Geographically, the N and A traits are partially "entangled" in the sense that if one of the traits is absent, then the other must be present. As a start, we have estimated the geographical distribution of the different NPA types from available sources (see our habitancy map).
We define a particular habitancy as a subpopulation having a certain distribution of NPA types. For ease of communication we define the following habitancies:
Polymorphic –– no tendency to any particular NPA character type
Sublime –– tending to N type (sanguine)
Punctilious –– ... NP type (sanguine)
Corybantic –– ... NA type (sanguine)
Demonstrative –– ... NPA type (sanguine)
Authoritarian –– ... PA type (non-sanguine)
Militant –– ... A type (non-sanguine)
Introspective –– ... NPA– type (sanguine)
Acquiescent –– ... NA– type (sanguine)
The Authoritarian and Militant habitancies have mainly non-sanguine types; the other habitancies have a preponderance of sanguine types. Examples:
Polymorphic: USA, UK, Australia, South Africa
Sublime: Polynesian Islands, East Africa, Mongolia, areas of southern Asia
Punctilious: Northern Italy, Switzerland, Germany, areas of Scandinavia and China, Korea, Taiwan, indigenous Yucatan & Arctic, USA Midwest
Corybantic: Brazil, Argentina, West Africa, indigenous tribes in New Guinea & Australia, Melanesia
Demonstrative: Southern Italy, France, Colombia, Northern Iran
Authoritarian: Western Russia, Eastern Europe, Serbia, Saudi Arabia
Militant: areas of Mideast: Yemen: Arab region of Iraq
Introspective/Acquiescent: Finland, Scotland, New Zealand, Tasmania
The NPA model has the advantage of having at its disposal well-established quantitative techniques for the analysis of populations obeying the laws of Mendelian genetics. In particular, we have applied the Hardy-Weinberg approach to the various habitancies: 1) to estimate relative prevalences of the NPA phenotypes on the basis of assumed gene frequencies, and 2) to estimate the frequency of the occurrence of non-viable progeny inherent in the NPA model (Dobzhansky-Muller infertility). For details, see ourBook reference below.
The NPA personality test
If you are interested in the theory and have not yet delved much into the NPA model, then we would encourage you to take the NPA test before reading the character caricatures.
Note that "personality tests" are not hard science, as there is a myriad of factors that can influence how a particular individual answers the questions. Such tests are used because more scientific tests are not yet available. However, the results of such a test may provide insight into an individual's personality traits. In addition, the results for subjects reporting behavioral disorders may be used to generate hypotheses that could eventually be subject to genetic testing. You can help by submitting your test and indicating any condition that you have that might be relevant. A drop-down list of common conditions (not all of them diseases) is included at the bottom of the test sheet.
Can you identify the eight individuals, and their NPA character types, in the photo lineup at the head of this page? (See answers at bottom)
Sites and Files
Benis A.M. A theory of personality traits leads to a genetic model for borderline types and schizophrenia. Speculations in Science & Technology 1990;13(3):167-75.
Benis A.M. and Hobgood D.K. Dopamine receptor DRD3 codes for trait aggression as Mendelian recessive. Medical Hypotheses 2011;77(6):1108-10.
Benis A.M. Survey of personality traits of perfectionism and inhibition of aggression in Australian Aborigines by use of internet sources, 2016. [unpublished pdf file]
Benis A.M. (2008, 2017). NPA Theory of Personality. Second edition. Originally published as: Toward Self & Sanity: On the genetic origins of the human character, Psychological Dimensions Press, New York,1985.
Answer to photo quiz:
Marilyn Monroe, N / Benjamin Netanyahu, PA / Maria Callas, NA / Abraham Lincoln, NP / Vladimir Putin, A / Mikhail Gorbachev, NPA / Prince Charles, NPA– / Jane Fonda, NA–