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The theory of the personality of Ivan Pavlov

The theory of the personality of Ivan Pavlov

January 17, 2022

The Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) He is known above all for being the initiator of the paradigm of classical conditioning, also called "Pavlovian". However, Pavlov and his followers made other significant contributions to psychology, such as their personality typology based on the study of the nervous system.

In this article we will describe the 4 personality types that exist according to Pavlov's theory , as well as the main concepts of this model, the most important of which are related to the basic nervous processes (excitation and inhibition) and their properties, which determine the behavioral differences between human beings.


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Pavlov's personality theory

Pavlov developed his theory of personality through the experiments he carried out in his laboratory. Specifically, this author investigated the learning of reflex responses by conditioning using dogs as experimental subjects; in relation to these animals, Pavlov's studies on salivation are particularly well known.

Unlike other current personality models, among which the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud stands out, Pavlov's does not only focus on the description of psychological differences between individuals, but also tries to explain them through the study of the activity of the nervous system, which gives rise to the temperament , the basis of personality.


This is why Pavlov's proposal on personality is framed in biological theories, which uses constructs related to biology to explain individual differences. The somatic typologies of Kretschmer and Sheldon, the phrenology of Gall or more current models such as those of Eysenck, Gray or Zuckerman are part of the same category.

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Nervous processes and their properties

Pavlov's personality typology is derived from his hypotheses about the basic properties of the nervous system. In this sense it is important to consider two physiological processes, excitation and inhibition , as well as its three main properties: strength, balance and mobility.

Excitatory and inhibitory nervous processes occur independently, although they interact giving rise to different states of cortical activity depending on the degree of predominance of each of them. The definition of these concepts is similar to the one we currently use when talking about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.


Pavlov stated that interindividual differences in behavior are explained by the properties of the processes excitatory and inhibitory of each person (or animal). He spoke of "strength" to refer to the general working capacity of neurons, the "balance" between excitation and inhibition and the "mobility" or speed of these processes.

Strength, balance and mobility would be the most relevant properties, but Pavlov also described the irradiation, or diffusion of the process to other areas of the nervous system, and the concentration of it in a certain region. Later his disciple Vladimir Nebylitsyn added a fourth property: the dynamism or speed of reflex formation.

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The 4 types of nervous system

According to Pavlov, the characteristics of the fundamental nervous processes in a specific person determine the type of activity of his nervous system, and therefore his temperament. These biological traits would form the basis of personality ; interacting with environmental factors would produce differences in behavior between individuals.

The criteria that Pavlov used to make his classification were quite arbitrary. He first divided the dogs into two groups depending on whether his nervous system was strong or weak. Then he separated the forts according to whether they were balanced or not; Finally, he created the categories "strong-balanced-slow" and "strong-balanced-impulsive".

1. Strong and unbalanced

This type of temperament is characterized by lack of balance between the processes of excitation and inhibition ; There is, therefore, a tendency to the appearance of physiological states in which one of the two predominates in a very marked way.

We can relate the strong and unbalanced personality (or impetuous) with the angry temperament of the typology of the humors of Galen, a Greek physician who lived in the second century AD.and in which Pavlov was inspired. In the Pys model of Eysenck, it would be comparable with high levels of extraversion and low emotional stability.

2. Strong, balanced and slow

In this case the neurons have a good working capacity and the balance between excitation and inhibition is adequate, but the speed of initiation and termination of these processes is low. The strong-balanced-slow type corresponds to introversion and emotional stability in the Eysenck model , and with the phlegmatic type of Galen.

3. Strong, balanced and impulsive

Unlike the previous type, in the strong-balanced-impulsive type the speed of the excitation and inhibition processes is high. Following the classification of Galen we would talk about the sanguine temperament and in Eysenck's, these people would have a high degree of extraversion and emotional stability.

4. Weak

The fourth type is equivalent to the phlegmatic temperament of Galen and would present introversion and emotional instability in the Eysenck model. Pavlov defines it simply as a low working capacity of nervous system cells .


Pavlov Classical Conditioning - Sanjeev Sir Pavitracademy DSSSB, TET, CTET, HTET, REET, UPTET (January 2022).


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