5 Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory: An Integrative Theory of Personality

Personality and Social Psychology


  1. Seymour Epstein PhD

Published Online: 26 SEP 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781118133880.hop205005

Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition

Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition

How to Cite

Epstein, S. 2012. Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory: An Integrative Theory of Personality. Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition. 5:I:5.

Author Information

  1. University of Massachusetts, Department of Psychology, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 SEP 2012


Cognitive-experiential self-theory (CEST) is a global theory of personality that substitutes an adaptive unconscious for the Freudian maladaptive unconscious. The unconscious of CEST is an associative, automatic learning system, mediated by affect that humans share with other higher order animals that have adapted successfully with it over millions of years of evolution. The system is referred to as an experiential system because it adapts by empirically learning from experience. Humans also uniquely process information with a “rational system,” which is a verbal reasoning system. The two systems operate by different rules and attributes. They operate in parallel and are bi-directionally interactive, both simultaneously and sequentially. Although the systems usually operate in harmony and often synergistically, they also may conflict with each other and otherwise interfere with each other's performance.

The influence of the experiential on the rational system can account for the irrationality of humans particularly when attempting to solve interrelationship problems, both interpersonal and intersocietal. According to CEST, despite their remarkable intelligence people often do poorly in solving relationship problems, which fall primarily in the domain of the experiential system, as their experiential processing biases their rational processing.

This chapter demonstrates that CEST has theoretical and research implications for elucidating a wide range of psychological issues, including the nature of intuition, the existence of a global factor of experiential intelligence, psychological sources of physical and emotional well-being, psychobiography, and the meaning of dreams.


  • CEST;
  • cognitive-experiential self-theory;
  • integrative personality theory;
  • adaptive unconscious;
  • dual-process theory