Authentic Conscience: Unpacking Dabrowski’s Third Factor

A couple months ago, I published a post that dug into a question I’d had for a while: given that “authenticity” is important in the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD), what does it mean if someone is authentically a jerk?  The idea of a personality ideal to which one aspires is the guiding light of TPD, so could someone have, effectively, a negative personality ideal?  You can read the post to catch up on the question, if you like; I found it worth thinking through, but upon pondering—and thanks in large part to the great discussion that unfolded on that post—I can now better articulate why a negative personality ideal doesn’t make sense after all.

One of several perceptive comments on that post was by fellow TPD enthusiast AishDos, who astutely tied the question back to what Dabrowski called the third factor.  For those who haven’t heard this a hundred times before: Dabrowski identified three factors of development that constitute a person’s overall developmental potential.  The first factor is our physiological makeup (i.e., nature) and the second factor is our environment and socialization (i.e., nurture).  TPD adds a third factor that emerges from but transcends the first two factors and that “determines the direction, degree, and distance of [a person’s] development” (Dabrowski 2016, p. 39).  Dabrowski also refers to it as “self-determination by a number of autonomous dynamisms” (1996, p.  27).

That’s the type of psychological jargon that makes Dabrowski’s work a challenging read.  Self-determination is indeed central and gets you on the right path; it means you’re choosing something regardless of what your innate impulses or peer pressure dictates.  But if you don’t know what dynamisms are, then it’s not evident that self-determination couldn’t lead a person to become some kind of comic book supervillain, if that’s what s/he really wanted to be.  Hey, I do know what dynamisms are (I even wrote a page to teach novices about them), and I still entertained the idea.


But if you break down the complex ideas packed into TPD’s terminology, you’ll come to see why that can’t happen.  AishDos’s comment on my recent post turned that light bulb on over my head by suggesting a core, concrete element of the otherwise abstract “third factor.”  As he wrote:

The third factor often referred to as an individuals ‘inner drive’ or autonomous thinking distinct from first and second factors. I have found this a confusing term as it alone may overlap with first and second factors. What we may see as new independent thought could very well be just first and second factor tendencies re-adjusted to new external influences.

I have come to understand the following: If first factor is ego-centric; the Second factor is ethno/socio-centric; then I would term the third factor as conscience-centric.

Aha!  I said.  That could well be the simple explanation for why no one’s personality ideal is to be a supervillain.  Indeed, conscience seemed to address the question so well that I was surprised I hadn’t seen it said in any of writing by or about Dabrowski before.

Before we go further, let’s agree on a definition of conscience for this post.  I pulled this one from

Conscience [kon-shuh ns], noun:

1. the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action.

2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.

3. an inhibiting sense of what is prudent.

Yes, based on this definition, I think it can be said that conscience is an essential part of the third factor of development, and there’s a lot that’s Dabrowskian about this definition.  (I bolded some important stuff.  But I’ll come back to that in a moment.)

On the other hand, if the third factor were just conscience, wouldn’t Dabrowski have just said that?  Did he really just love making up impenetrable terminology that much?

To answer that, let’s compare the above definition of conscience to this description of  the third factor from the 1996 edition of Dabrowski’s Multilevelness of Emotional and Instinctive Functions (which is available in PDF form on the 301 packet at

Third factor. A dynamism of conscious choice by which one sets apart both in oneself and in one’s environment those elements which are positive, and therefore considered higher, from those which are negative, and therefore considered lower.  By this process a person denies and rejects inferior demands of the internal as well as of the external milieu, and accepts, affirms and selects positive elements in either milieu. […] Third factor is a dynamism of valuation, i.e. of developing consciously an autonomous hierarchy of values.  One could say that third factor decides upon what subject-object in oneself has uncovered, while inner psychic transformation is the process by which the decision is put to work.  Third factor is the par excellence dynamism of self-directed development. (p. 38)

In the passage above, I used bold-face text to highlight everything that I think is essentially “conscience,” which this passage makes clear is a foundational element, even if I hadn’t seen Dabrowski using the word in his definitions of the third factor.

And then I used orange to highlight everything that expands beyond it.  Conscience, after all, can have a purely second-factor variety: it’s that sense that I learned that these are the rules, and I need to follow the rules.  And that’s not a negative thing.  The first and second factors aren’t bad per se.  Overexcitability is a first factor (i.e. physiological) trait, and we can be proud of our OE; and manners are something we’re taught (i.e. second factor), and I am personally a fan of manners.


But everything in orange includes the element of self-direction.  Third factor is a conscience that comes not from fear of social sanction or from memorizing rules, but of really thinking things through.  As with the second-factor variety of conscience, you think through your own impulses and you reject them if they’re not good enough; but now you also think through the second-factor rules and other elements of socialization and reject them if they’re not measuring up.

How, though, can you trust yourself not to justify something horrible in your analysis?  Well, because you made (and are probably still making, not yet being at Level V) a sincere effort to look at both yourself and your surroundings objectively, while also trying to envision others’ subjective experiences and understandings.  That’s the process represented by the Level IV dynamism subject-object in oneself, which is the dynamism that places the third factor in control.  And the odds are good that you subject yourself to subject-object because you’ve experienced the Level III dynamism of inferiority toward yourself—a sense that you’re not living up to your own ideal of who you could and should be.  So you start inhibiting those behaviors, qualities, and values in yourself that don’t line up with that ideal, and promoting those that do.

You know, despite his talk of authenticity, Dabrowski was actually big on inhibition.  Remember that in TPD, authenticity, which is also a dynamism, doesn’t just mean following first factor impulses, as I once criticized Wharton School professor Adam Grant for implying.  This is particularly important for overexcitable people, though it’s often left out of the discussion of overexcitability.  OE, after all, is a disintegrating force.  And while it generally gives rise to a positive disintegration, the goal is not to stay disintegrated: Dabrowski was clear that learning to inhibit overexcitability when appropriate is part of reintegrating at a higher level, as is learning how to channel its expression in support of one’s personality ideal.


Dabrowskian authenticity, then, means that you autonomously programmed your conscience through that rigorous practice of subject-object; it wasn’t passively dictated by the first and second factors.

So after much pondering of how I might explain the third factor in a simple but concreteway, and building on the insights of all of you who commented on the hypothetical notion of a negative personality ideal, I think the best way to briefly describe third factor is that it is an authentic and autonomous conscience.  Without conscience—without making yourself an object and others a subject—you could indeed pursue a hostile end, but it couldn’t be a true personality ideal at all, at least not in the language of TPD.  You’d just be a garden-variety psychopath, mucking about at the bottom of Level I, totally failing to look objectively at yourself and envision others subjectively.

And, lo and behold, in preparing for this post, I did finally stumble across the word “conscience” in Dabrowski’s writing on the subject!  There it is, on page 43 of the 2016 re-release of Positive Disintegration:

The third factor appears embryonically in unilevel disintegration, but its principal domain is multilevel disintegration.  Disintegration activities are related to the activities of the third [factor], which judges, approves and disapproves, makes a choice, and confirms certain exterior and interior values.  It is, therefore, an integral and basic part of multilevel disintegration.  It is a sort of active conscience of the budding individual, determining what represents a greater or smaller value in self-education, what is “higher” or “lower,” what does or does not agree with the personality ideal, and what should be the course of internal development.

I know this is a pretty foundational post, probably of interest only to Dabrowski enthusiasts, but I hope to use it as a keystone for some future work, so thanks for the discussion that led to it!  I’d love to continue that discussion, so please do share in the comments: If you’re a novice in TPD, does this make the concept of the third factor clearer for you?  If you’re an expert, do you think it’s closer to essence of what Dabrowski was talking about, or does it miss something?

Image credits: Gellinger, StockSnap, Lockie, and PIRO4D at Pixabay.

5 thoughts on “Authentic Conscience: Unpacking Dabrowski’s Third Factor

  1. It does make the concept clearer for me (whose learning of Dabrowski is solely from you). It is perhaps unsettling that conscience can be “trained”, for example, Barack Obama is right when he says that hatred is not natural, it is trained and learned. The trick then, I think, to developing the third factor would be a skill in identifying and heeding one’s autonomous conscience, separating it from the layers of “voices” that have attempted to train it over the years, and evaluating what has been taught externally vs. what one feels to be true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right, Fred. I do agree conscience can be trained, and for me, just thinking about the notion of a third factor has helped me become more conscious of the influences of the first and second–which is what you refer to as the voices that have trained it over the years, I think. Third factor is all about the evaluation you mention! And “feeling” that it’s true is certainly part of it; and there’s the evaluation of one’s own feelings, too. It’s part of a very complex process.


  2. There are things I aspire to but have no idea how to do because nobody talks about it. In Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull the aristocratic revolutionary hero goes into a working class district at night and talks to a group of men standing around a fire. The all already know him and welcome him. In a remarkebly similar scene in The People’s Train by Thomas Keneally the Bolshevik revolutionary sneaks into the rail yards of Nizhny Tagil and the rail workers are glad to see him and let him in their shed. I seem to remember James Meek’s <The People's Act of Love having a similar scene but I don’t remember the specifics. Every time I read something like that I always wanted to hear how they got to that position. How did they begin their revolutionary careers, what happened, what did they do and how did they come to be respected, trusted, even loved by these people?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is THE question, if you ask me. Both within the Left and more broadly for anyone who wants to have a positive impact within a community on the level of “human catalyst.” This is what I want to spend my time with DSA working on, and this is what I’ll be talking about more broadly in this blog going forward.

      Which is not to say I have anything close to an answer yet. I don’t. But I think it’s a good conversation to have. I have what I hope are some constructive critiques of various movements as well as some positive examples to study.

      I’ve even been pondering the idea of starting a little webzine with other authors, interviews, debate pieces, relevant book reviews, things like that. (The title, if I did? Third Factor. Naturally!)


  3. A thought: socialist revolution as positive disintegration scaled up to a society-wide level.

    If that is the case we could see ourselves not just as human catalysts but also as human solvents.

    It also raises the question of the underlying driving force of a society. We all know what happens when capitalism comes to town but socialism doesn’t have equivilent forces behind it. On one hand that’s good – socialism can be whatever we make of it. But are there potential problems with that? For example a society where nothing happens seemingly naturally or as if by magic but has to be discussed, decided, planned and implemented could put a much greater cognitive load on its citizens.

    There is also a question about the causes of positive disintegration – if people grew up in a better society where second factor influences were largely unambiguously good, would fewer people have the impetus to go through positive disintegration? Is a certain level of unpleasantness necessary, like the grain of sand that makes the pearl?

    Back to the subject of what personality traits socialists need, since socialism involves all people and all aspects of society, there should be a role for almost all personality types (except the ones we’re directly fighting against) to do something useful. I think part of the decline of Bolshevik Russia was down to Lenin and Trotsky positioning internationalism as directly opposed to Stalin’s Socialism in One Country. It mean crucial infrastructure decayed while waiting for the world revolution and engineers who wanted to build things had no choice but to side with Stalin. They should have sent their firebrand revolutionaries abroad to stir things up while leaving the engineers at home working on power stations and railways. Since these things use different people and resources there would have been no harm in doing both at the same time. So even if someone doesn’t have the stereotypical charismatic revolutionary personality type, we still need people to work on the Left’s drone warfare programme. Wait, was that supposed to be a secret? But we can still talk about the weaponised rhinoceros…right? 😉

    On the other hand maybe socialists do need to think differently in some fundamental ways to what are normally considered virtues. The classical and Christian virtues were invented by slave- and serf-owning aristocrats who were probably quite eager on remaining that way. So no behaviour that could threaten their power would ever become a virtue. Solidarity is never one of their virtues. When you look at what is – humility, prudence, temperence…while we’re throwing all out efforts into an insanely ambitious scheme with a high chance of catastrophic failure. Sort of a political and philosophical banzai charge.

    There are debates about where the Left’s morals and ethics diverge from the mainstream in some suprising places. Emi Koyama makes a very convincing case that survivorship, recovery and positivity are a neoliberal method to return traumatised people to being profitable workers and consumers as quickly as possible and isolate and punish those who don’t recover quickly enough. instead she claims value in negativity, fragility and victimhood.
    I was very close to agreeing with her, then I remembered that we don’t have that luxury. Patching up the wounds and charging back into battle is part of our job. We knew the risks when we chose this life.

    A related subject to TPD is posttraumatic growth. The Wikipedia article actually says that the toughest characters who are the least affected by trauma experience the least growth because it is the struggle with trauma that is the stimulus for growth. That reminds me of my favourite line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Faith says “I don’t want to hug and cry and learn and grow.” It appeals to the defiance in me – SPIT OUT THE GRAIN OF SAND. REFUSE THE PEARL.

    You’ve probably already seen this, but now Emotional OE has been divided into two categories: emotional sensitivity and empathy. The video also contains an interesting discussion on whether gifted children can be born already at Level 3 or higher.


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