Block, Jack - Personality as an Affect Processing System

The Structure of Concern Project compares many theoretical models from many disciplines to the Adizes PAEI model, arguing that they must all be reflecting the same underlying phenomenon. One concern structure model is described below.

Jack Block is a veteran researcher into personality psychology, and his characterization of personality as an affect processing system represents a synthesis over a very long career (Block, 2002). His model of personality contains one dimension that sheds some light onto concern structure issues.

Block argues that more common ground exists between various models of personality than has hitherto been appreciated. The commonalities between personality models can best be brought into focus, he feels, by characterizing personality as an adaptive system. Personality is a system that maintains internal and external equilibrium for us, in an environment that is both dangerous and engaging. The system itself consists of a perceptual apparatus (PA) and a control apparatus (CA) operating in a delicate balance. Block’s project is to explain how each apparatus works, and how they interact.

Anxiety is the central concept in this model. Organisms in an unstressed state take in information from the environment. If they begin to experience some inner tension or anxiety based on some internal destabilization (like growing hunger), they have at their disposal a control apparatus for manifesting this tension as a specific drive towards some goal. Anxiety may also arise due to threatening, chaotic, confusing or rapidly changing perceptual settings. If incoming information is too unstructured, our perceptual apparatus is overwhelmed. So anxiety arises when tensions, rooted in either internal or external processes, rise faster than our capacity to process them. But our coping mechanisms are adaptive. They can adjust themselves to accommodate different levels of stimulation or tension. However, people do vary in their adjustability, or in the character of their control and perceptual apparatuses, and the dimensions of that variance define personality differences.

It should be noted that Block sees perception as an a active process, pointing out that we have an evolutionarily ingrained tendency to seek, articulate, analyze, organize, and simplify our internal representations of perceptual inputs. He calls this activity perceptualizing. Individuals naturally ‘perceptualize’ because in the long term, so doing is evolutionarily adaptive i.e. it enhances long term viability. Thus, converting ‘raw’ input into a perception is just as constructive as the act of converting ‘raw’ tensions into drives. Block truly believes in raw perception, we should emphasize. He views incoming information from the world has having its own proper or ‘autochthonous’ structure, ahead of any perceptual system processing it. Animals need to convert this autochthonous structure into their own internal representations using their perceptual apparatuses, which render the information into forms that are relevant to them.

Two Basic Causes of Anxiety

Anxiety arises when:

1. Percepts of the system are being processed in too slow or fragmented a manner, relative to the rate of the autochthonous structure percepts bring to the organism.

2. Motivational directives (“drives”) are being processed too slowly or haphazardly relative to the rate of increase and inherent structure of the drives.

In other words, if the raw or sensory component overtakes the processing or perceptual component, anxiety increases. In order to reduce anxiety, the rate or structure of processing must change so that the raw throughput can be converted into usable information. There are three elements that define how the perceptual and control subsystems can adjust themselves.

__Articulation or Differentiation __
The relative complexity or rudimentary nature of the behavioral alternatives available to a person.

  • Control Apparatus - high differentiation=many potential actions and recognitions to guide behavior.
  • Perceptual apparatus - high differentiation=capacity for multifaceted, particularized, complex and nuanced appraisals of the environment, versus simplistic, general, categorical appraisals.

__Permeability (Average level of tension control) __
The threshold for reacting to tension/anxiety which characterizes a person's behavior, or their readiness to notice and respond to their surrounding environment.

  • Control Apparatus - Undercontrollers have a permeable control apparatus which transforms tensions into drives immediately, readily, directly, even chaotically. Overcontrollers have an impermeable control apparatus that converts tension to drive slowly, with delay, or not at all. Suppressed tension may be carried over into the next important psychological event.
  • Perceptual apparatus - Underperceptualizers are absorbed in their perceptions of the moment, submerged by the impinging world, stimulus-bound and distractible. Overperceptualizers perceive the world in already familiar ways using schemas that are rigid, set, closed, imposing old structures on new experiences, or filtering out new information.

__Resiliency or elasticity __
This quality is related to permeability, and refers to the range of permeability variation available to the personality system.

  • Control Apparatus - Can you let loose or bear down as needed? Are you able to regulate your own permeability threshold (impulsivity)?
  • Perceptual apparatus – Can you focus and impose structure upon chaotic perceptions as needed, but also relax your preconceptions when needed to see things as they uniquely are?

Articulation, permeability and elasticity together are used to modulate the conversion of tensions into drives, and autochthonous or raw information into percepts. Note that some tensions are inherently difficult to convert into goal-focused drives (e.g. dread), and some information streams have inherently low levels of autochthonous assimilability (i.e. they are complex or turbulent). By holding some of the elements of these two systems constant and varying other ones, we can begin to see how articulation/differentiation, permeability and resilience/elasticity come together to adjust the activity of the perception and control subsystems.

Example 1: Consider these interactions of the perceptual apparatus (PA) and the control apparatus (CA) when the autochthonous assimilability (AA) of environmental information is either low or high.

1. Under Low AA: As drive is increased, PA goes from normal permeability to a more impermeable state. In other words, when urgency mounts, there is less tolerance of ambiguity, and a narrowing of perceptions to drive-relevant categories.
2. Under High AA: As drive is increased, PA permeability does not change much. The registered percept is known to be reliable, and continues to guide behavior.

Summary – When drive is high (CA is active), the PA activity increases as AA decreases. If AA is already high, PA activity is not modulated by increased levels of drive.

Example 2: Holding tension constant, the following relationships between perception and control emerge.

1. Holding Tension High: As AA and PA effectiveness diminish, CA slides from state of normal permeability to state of relative impermeability, i.e. as the external situation becomes confusing, tension is contained by constraining its behavioral expression.
2. Holding Tension Low: PA effectiveness may diminish and AA may be low, but CA doesn't change much.

Summary - the CA operates to control tension when it is high, and the AA situation is incoherent or unstructured. Otherwise the CA is not modulated by low AA levels.

The perceptual apparatus and control apparatus interact in other ways as well. For example, if the elasticity of one apparatus is exceeded, the other may come into play, to allow the personality to adapt to a situation. Elasticity is thus a resource, providing ways of adaptively responding to internally or externally arising challenges, thus reducing anxiety.

Permeability is also a resource for adaptation, but its value is often determined by situation. For example, during initial explorations into a new territory, people would be best off with highly permeable personality systems, in order to respond to cues more sensitively and to take more risks. In a settled, orderly, stratified society, where risk-taking might more often do damage rather than good, lower levels of permeability and reactivity can be more adaptive.

Among the three elements of apparatus flexibility and adjustability, the element of permeability sheds most light on the structure of concern. Below, each style of concern is listed, in PAEI order, with the associated values for the permeability of the perceptual and control subsystems described.

P – Impermeable PA, Permeable CA
Producers tend to be Overperceptualizers and Undercontrollers. They impose structure upon their perceptions of the world, and do not always pay attention to the idiosyncrasies of every case if they seem irrelevant to their purposes. They are also impulsive, focusing their tensions onto targets and generating drive very easily. This is an affect-processing style optimized for short-term responsiveness, crisis intervention and short-term, rapid-cycle productivity.

A – Impermeable PA, Impermeable CA
Administrators tend to be Overperceptualizers and Overcontrollers. They view the world in terms of ready-made and carefully constructed schemas, and do not welcome deviations from those schemas. They are not impulsive, but rather are risk-averse. Inner tensions are more likely to result in exploratory behavior to further perceptualize until suitable targets for suitable actions are found. Delays are better tolerated than impulsiveness is. This affect-processing style is optimized for managing linear systems of dependencies, where the cost of error is very high, and where the attainment of reward depends upon preserving some kind of steady state, with responses measured over time.

E – Permeable PA, Permeable CA
Entrepreneurs tend to be Underperceptualizers and Undercontrollers. They tend to submerge themselves in experience and are easily distracted by novel stimuli. They are also impulsive and very comfortable with risk. Entrepreneurs seek out situations with low autochthonous assimilability/high uncertainty (opportunity), and respond impulsively to patterns in that uncertainty that are vaguely appropriate targets for drives (opportunities). Working in this zone of unknowns can reduce the permeability of their systems, giving them intense focus while the opportunity still beckons. Once they have done the work and the situation starts to become structured, reliable and assimilated, their interest in that environment will dwindle. They will seek out less structured environments in order to be aroused into a less permeable state by the low autochthonous assimilability of their surroundings. They thrive on radical exploration.

I – Permeable PA, Impermeable CA
Integrators are very sensitive to social cues, even quite minute ones, and they find them hard to ignore. Other tasks may be placed on hold while they settle interpretations of what was just said or done. This kind of sensitivity and sensory capture suggest low levels of perceptualization. However, Integrators are also tactful and diplomatic. They can resolve conflicts well. That means that they can expose themselves to distressing social situations, be very attuned to them, and yet not react impulsively or immediately to these powerful stimuli. This delay between tension and drive results from a relatively impermeable control apparatus.

1. Block, J. (2002). Personality as an Affect-Processing System: Towards an integrative theory. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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