So What is the Third Factor, Anyway?

Jessie Mannisto / March 8, 2021

You asked. We answered. What is this thing we named our magazine after, and what are the first and second factors? And why is this concept from Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration so much more important than his more well-known construct of overexcitability?

According to the theory of positive disintegration, the third factor arises in the course of an increasingly conscious, self-determined, autonomous and authentic development. Its beginnings may be traced to the early vague recognition of the variety of levels in oneself to the formation and growth of inner conflicts and the gradual unfolding of the process of positive disintegration.

—Dabrowski, 1973

It’s a question we get a lot from our readers: “What is this third factor thing that your magazine’s named after?”  As we celebrate our reboot and seek to introduce this idea to a new audience, it’s about time we finally get the answer written down.

If you’ve poked around here enough, you’ll have heard of Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD).  You don’t need to study it to get something out of our magazine; indeed, my goal in creating Third Factor was to get Dabrowski’s ideas in front of people who could use them, even if they had no desire to sit down and study theory.  Those ideas concern a certain unusual life path that Dabrowski has described better than anyone else I’ve read—one that had something to do with active intellects, deep emotions, and vibrant imaginations.

Some of Dabrowski’s basic insights, however, are packaged quite nicely into his unique terminology.  And one of those is this thing he referred to as the third factor.  Other constructs from Dabrowski’s work are more well-known and easier to for people to recognize and relate to; overexcitability tops the list here.  (OE is, of course, what we’re getting at with our focus on active intellects, deep emotions, and vibrant imaginations.)  If you simply celebrate overexcitability, however, you risk giving people pats on the back for something that can be unhealthy, or even (forgive me) for behaving rather badly.  Taking OE out of the context of his theory leads people to miss Dabrowski’s most important ideas, which are all about mental health, values, and being a decent, high-functioning human being.

The third factor, then, is something that’s important in harnessing and channeling overexcitability.  More than any other concept from TPD, the third factor underlies what we aim to cultivate through this magazine.  

Defining the Third Factor

Having got all that necessary background out of the way, defining the third factor is simple.  The full term Dabrowski uses is the third factor of development.  And factors of development are what they sound like: they’re the forces that shape our character.

So what are the first two factors?  You’ll know them better as nature and nurture.  The first factor of development is all that you were born with: your genetic endowment and the traits and physiological sensitivities that emerge from it. (Overexcitability is part of the first factor.)  The second factor is your environment, including the influence of your parents, peers, and society in telling you who you should be, what you should value, and how you should act.

The third factor of development, then, is something above and beyond the first two—something that transcends nature and nurture. Of course it must emerge out of them, as Dabrowski noted; in his 1970 book, he stated that the third factor “arises and grows as a result of both positive endowment (especially the ability for inner psychic transformation) and positive environmental influences.” Nevertheless, Dabrowski argued, the first and second factors understood on their own “would not adequately account for the whole developmental context in which this dynamism arises.” (In TPD, dynamisms are forces that shape our personalities; we’ve got a basic primer on them here.  The third factor is a dynamism.)

A Self-Made Conscience

But what is it, this lofty third influence on our character?  Just defining it doesn’t really tell you much, does it?

Ah, yes.  That’s kind of why I figured it was worth exploring in a long-term, multi-voice format like a magazine.

But if you’re new to this, I can get you started.  In a nutshell, I like to describe the third factor as authentic conscience.  I can’t take credit for the term, nor did I get it from Dabrowski.  It was a reader of my early work who suggested it, and I think he hit the nail on the head.  It is conscience, yes, but it’s a conscience that you developed autonomously.  (In TPD, autonomy is another dynamism.)  Without this qualifier, “conscience” could simply be a manifestation of the second factor—i.e., those social rules you were taught and internalized.

Through the process of sorting out your values and developing your own authentic conscience, you shape who you are.

The process of developing this authentic conscience is a major part of Dabrowskian development.  It’s also the underlying theme of Third Factor, the magazine.  As Dabrowski himself put it, “The processes of affirmation, negation and choice are of fundamental significance in the operation of the third factor.” (1973) Through the process of sorting out your values and developing your own authentic conscience, you shape who you are.  Dabrowski went so far as to assert that, through the third factor, you can even change things about yourself that you don’t like, offering the example of an introvert who becomes more extraverted or vice versa.

Choosing Your Best Self

The fact is, this sort of way of being—being “overexcitable,” or “highly sensitive,” or “an orchid”—is a challenge.  You get the sense that you experience both the highs and the lows of life more intensely than others do.  You seem to think more or further than others about the implications of what you think and do.

This can be a good thing.  It can also be a bad thing.

Dabrowski said that the third factor “consists in a selective attitude with regard to the properties of one’s own character and temperament, as well as, to environmental influences.”  And this, he said, paves the way toward the personality ideal—that best possible self. This wasn’t just a feel-good mantra, either: he spent his career working with patients who were struggling with disintegrations. This is what he took away from his years of experience.

Or, as he put it in one of his more poetic turns, we are becoming, rather than ready-made. (1973)

We are becoming, rather than ready-made.

Kazimierz Dabrowski

So that’s what the third factor is.  As for the proper noun Third Factor, that’s a magazine and a community dedicated to the process of working out that authentic conscience.  The path Dabrowski described is not a common one, so we hope to create a place where you’ll find some company as you walk it.

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