5 Ps Formulation: The Dark Side and the Light

Welcome to post number two! We’re exploring another staple of psychological formulation: The 5 Ps. Our star of the screen this week is Anakin Skywalker… whose troubled journey leads him to become one of the most iconic villains of all time, the Sith Lord himself – Darth Vader.

But why? What factors contributed to Anakin’s path to the dark side? Is he just “twisted and evil” as Obi-Wan Kenobi describes him, or are his behaviours understandable in the context of his past experiences? Let’s find out…

What is the 5 Ps Formulation?

The 5 Ps is one of the most commonly used formulations in clinical settings. It allows a structured conceptualisation of an individual’s presenting problems. Unlike the CBT Situational Formulation, the 5 Ps starts to go beyond the “here and now”, to consider what historical factors have contributed to the development of an individual’s difficulties. It also explores what factors keep these difficulties going, as well as outlining an individual’s resilience factors. In addition, it goes further than considering just the individual’s internal experiences (e.g. cycles of thoughts and feelings) and how these contribute to mental health difficulties, to allow consideration of the influence of wider systemic influences.

The “5 Ps” are the titles of the five different sections in this formulation, under which the information is organised. The following definitions of these are based on Johnson and Dallos (2014).

  1. Predisposing Factors: internal or external historical factors which are likely to have increased someone’s vulnerability to developing their current problems, e.g. early life trauma.
  2. Protective Factors: both internal and external resiliency and strengths which help to maintain an individual’s emotional health, e.g. engaging in hobbies such as physical exercise.
  3. Precipitating Factors: the triggers of the current presenting issues, which can be internal or external, e.g. loss of a close family member.
  4. Presenting Issues: a description of the individual’s presenting difficulties, including thoughts, feelings and behaviours, e.g. feeling anxious in crowds and avoiding social gatherings.
  5. Perpetuating Factors: internal and external factors which maintain the presenting issues, e.g. unhelpful coping strategies which feed into maintenance cycles, such as substance misuse.

As you can see, it’s a pretty simple concept for a formulation. It is therefore understandable why it’s so widely used. The 5 Ps structure can be a straightforward way of organising information with the client in the therapy room, as well as a comprehensive approach for team formulations, particularly as it is a template often familiar to many disciplines.

Some formulation models can get a bad rep for focusing solely on more negative presentations and contributing factors. It is viewed that these models can neglect positive factors, such as an individual’s strengths and resilience, which may protect them against the impact of difficult past experiences and/or give them helpful tools to positively manage their mental health difficulties. A strength of the 5 Ps is therefore that it actively makes us consider both of these areas:

  1. the “dark side” of an individual’s past and present, such as past traumas or negative coping mechanisms which may perpetuate their difficulties, and
  2. the “light side” of a person’s protective internal and external factors, such as intelligence or creativity, as well as having a supportive friend or community.

This all helps us to bring balance to the force…. formulation.

What theory underpins the 5Ps?

Despite its wide use, the 5 Ps comes under fire for over-simplifying an individual’s presentation and lacking a theoretical base. There are arguments that the 5 Ps formulation simply lists different factors, rather than considering the theoretical links between them, which helps to conceptualise an individual’s difficulties in more detail.

Some however view that the 5Ps is a Biopsychosocial formulation. Although this sounds like some pseudo-science term from a cheesy 1980s Sci Fi movie, it actually just means that the formulation considers three themes of factors contributing to a person’s presenting difficulties:


e.g. predisposing factors may be genetic family history.


e.g. perpetuating factors may be cycles of negative thinking.


e.g. protective factors may be a supportive friendship group.

Due to this, the 5Ps can potentially provide a framework which has the freedom to draw on range of different factors, including a variety of psychological theories and principles, e.g. attachment theory or systemic approaches. The 5Ps is however commonly associated with the CBT model, in line with Johnstone and Dallos (2014). Therefore, for our example, I will use this Biopsychosocial idea and draw on a range of different underpinning approaches, however coming predominantly from a CBT perspective.

(For an introduction to CBT and situational formulation – see my last post here)

Anakin Skywalker’s 5 Ps Formulation

So, lets be real… if Anakin had his own 5 Ps that summed up his slippery slope to the dark side, it would be more like Pod-Racing, Padowan, Padmé, Palpatine & Planet-destroying-death-star… but we’re going to stick with our psychology terms for the sake of learning stuff. Before writing this, I “had” to rewatch the entire Star Wars saga in chronological order for “blog research”… and I would thoroughly recommend this as an excellent way to spend your time in lockdown. However, don’t worry, if you’re here for the psychology more than the Sci Fi – having watched the Star Wars films is not necessary for understanding this formulation! For those who would find it helpful, here’s a brief reminder of who Anakin is and some of the key life events we will consider.

Now we’re all caught up… let us crack on. For context, our formulation aims to take place when Anakin has just transformed into Darth Vader, focusing on his “presenting difficulties” at this point. (For the Star Wars fans among us, this is of course the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.)

“I find your lack of faith in the prequel triology disturbing…”

So here it is – our understanding of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader using the 5 Ps formulation:

Predisposing Factors

First we consider what things happened in Anakin’s early years which may have made him vulnerable to his difficulties. We consider the quality and quantity of past stressors, as well as the impact these may have had on Anakin’s view of himself, others and the world:

Feeling a lack of control/power due to Anakin and his mother being slaves. They were not able leave their slaver (Watto) or make decisions about their own lives. Anakin also had his self-worth measured in the price he was sold as a slave. It is also likely he felt different to others and an ‘outcast’ due to these living circumstances.

Deprived of age-appropriate opportunities for learning, creativity and socialising. Not at school and working in a workshop from a young age.

Frequent experience of loss and being alone:

  • Separation from mother – his “safe base” – at young age. Leaves with a man he has just met to to train as a warrior with the Jedi council (some may say “cult”?!), which prohibits relationships and enforces suppression of negative emotions.
  • Absent father
  • Padmé (close friend at the time) leaving just after he left home
  • Leaving C3PO (droid/friend) behind
  • Death of “adoptive” father figure (Qui-Gon Jinn)

Exposed to potential and actual danger/trauma from a young age, meaning constant activation of his ‘threat’ or ‘fight or flight’ system. He learns that others and the world are dangerous and he has to be on high alert to protect himself and his loved ones:

  • Emotional abuse from slaver (Watto) e.g. shouting at him.
  • Extreme living conditions – exposed to non-age appropriate activites e.g. gambling; “fast and dangerous” pod-racing.
  • Received death threats as a child from rival pod-racer (Sebulba)
  • Frequent natural dangers in home town e.g. sandstorms.
  • “Adoptive” father figure (Qui-Gon Jinn) exposed him to dangerous situations e.g. lightsaber battles and shoot outs.
  • Witnessed lots of violence and killing is normalised.
  • Wider context: political unrest. Aware of wider danger of the Empire killing people and causing suffering.

High expectations and pressure placed on Anakin by his role models (Jedi Council) of him being the ‘Chosen One’ who should bring balance to the force.

“Be a good boy and go train to be a warrior in Liam Neeson’s weird cult. Bye forever son!”

Protective Factors

We also want to consider the positive characteristics, strengths and factors which build confidence and resilience, protecting Anakin from his difficulties and emotional distress worsening:

  • Intelligence
  • Good pilot – “only human” who can pod-race.
  • Quick reactions.
  • Practical skills (builds robots).
  • Skilled fighter/Jedi knight.
  • Physically fit.
  • Engages in meditation practices to manage emotions.
  • Secure attachment with mother as young child.
  • Mum openly loving and giving praise e.g. “I’m so proud of you”.
  • Seeks and builds relationships.
  • Padmé (now his wife) provides a positive and loving relationship – he confides in her about his difficulties and she gives him emotional support, advice and validation.
  • Confident and brave.
  • Strong sense of self/identity in context of slavery , e.g. “I’m a person and my name is Anakin”.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi as a teacher encouraging positive “CBT-style” thought challenging – “you are focusing on the negative, be mindful”.
  • Has adults who strive to provide and care for him, in the absence of his mother: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan –“you’re the closest thing I have to a father“.
  • Cares strongly for his family.
“Chicks dig the rat tail and no one can tell me otherwise…”

Precipitating Factors

Next is to consider what internal or external events triggered the onset of Anakin’s presenting problems. You can see this clearly in the films where Anakin starts to experience extreme distress and have difficulty managing his emotions after a series of stressors. It seemed that prior to this, he was able to manage his difficulties by drawing on his protective strengths, however these triggers overwhelmed his ability to cope:

  • Mum kidnapped and tortured by Sand People.
  • Mum dies – Anakin finds her but it is too late to save her. Another loss accompanied by feeling powerless and that things were out of his control. He therefore has to be “all powerful” to ensure won’t happen again.
  • Dreams indicating that Padmé (his wife) will die – becomes obsessive about preventing a further loss.
  • Not being given the rank of “Jedi Master” by the Jedi Council. Told to stay behind when other Jedi go on a mission. Feeling inadequate, not trusted and not understood. Feeling rejected, different from others and outcast from the group.
“Son, I think it’s finally time to tell you about my summer fling with Darth Plagueis the Wise…”

Presenting Problems

Overall, the main presenting issue is arguably Anakin turning into a Sith Lord and using the dark side of the force to build an “evil empire” dictatorship type thing… but breaking it down psychologically, his presenting problems may look a bit like this:

  • Anxiety/Fear
  • Anger
  • Sadness/emptiness/loss
  • Risk-taking, impulsive behaviour and poor decision-making
  • “Narcissistic” personality traits/arrogance
  • Guilt, shame & self-criticism e.g. about killing women/children (sand people); not saving his mother; not being a good Jedi as he ‘gave in’ to anger.
  • Emotionally/physically abusive towards those close to him (e.g. pregnant wife, Padmé and adoptive father figure Obi-Wan Kenobi)
  • Extreme violence towards others, even those unarmed and vulnerable (e.g. children).
  • Lack of remorse for many of his violent acts.

Perpetuating Factors

The perpetuating factors are likely to have had the strongest impact on Anakin. There was such a wide range things which perpetuated his presenting difficulties, meaning that he was unable to utilise his protective factors to mitigate against his challenges. There is often some overlap between the ‘Presenting Factors’ and ‘Perpetuating factors’, however for perpetuating factors we are looking at the things which keep the presenting difficulties going, such as thinking patterns or behaviours which lead to negative consequences. To organise these a bit clearer, I’ve organised them into CBT categories of ‘thoughts and emotions’, ‘physiology’ ‘behaviour’ and ‘environment’. This is the same as those used in the situational formulation in my previous post. We can think about these sorts of situational cycles when describing perpetuating factors (e.g. vicious cycles of thoughts/feelings/behaviours).

Thoughts and feelings:

  • Anakin’s suspiciousness and paranoia around others trying to betray him or undermine his ‘power’ leads to him engaging in “black and white thinking” e.g. saying to Obi-wan “if you’re not with me, you’re my enemy”. This leads to further isolation.
  • When Anakin is denied the rank of Jedi Master, to avoid painful feelings of inadequacy, he rationalises this as Obi-Wan (his teacher) being “jealous” of his power. e.g. “I’m ahead of him”. This perpetuates his arrogant/narcissistic presentation, contributing further to poor decision-making and interpersonal difficulties e.g. Padmé feeling distant from him.
  • Anakin thinks about emotions in line with Jedi teachings, which say to suppress negative emotions, e.g. not to feel emotions of fear/anger/loss. This leads to Anakin not being able to process these complex emotions, seeming to lead to complicated grief about losing his mum. He bottles up these feelings until they become impossible to manage and “burst out” in negative ways, such as violence towards others.

Physiology/body sensations:

  • Anakin is likely to be experiencing continued activation of his ‘fight or flight‘ system, due to ongoing feelings of anxiety and anger. This will likely cause difficult physiological symptoms such as feeling hot, heart-racing, muscles being tensed – all of which will cause him to be on constant high alert to potential threat and being ready to fight. Due to this ongoing heightened physiological state, Anakin is often in an “emotional reasoning” mindset and is unable to engage in rational thinking. He therefore does not have the capacity to see perspectives of others, or entertain the possibility he may be in the wrong. This further perpetuates poor decision-making and pushing others away.
  • Poor sleep and nightmares about his mum and Padmé also cause ongoing anxiety about loss.


  • Ongoing impulsivity/risk-taking, e.g. impulsively running at Count Dooku and having his arm cut off. This perpetuates feelings of being a failure and not “good-enough”. An additional consequence of this behaviour is the biological side of physical pain and adapting to his disability/prosthetic arm, which could potentially have had a negative impact on his emotional state.
  • Difficulty sleeping and eating likely to have poor impact on mood.
  • Keeping relationship with Padmé a secret, further withdrawing from Obi-wan and other Jedi – feeling “different” from the others.

Systemic/environmental factors:

  • Feeling ‘undermined’ by teacher/father figure Obi-Wan. e.g. “he’s over-critical, he doesn’t listen, he doesn’t understand – it’s not fair”. Additionally, experiencing a lack of praise and appreciation from the Jedi council – contributing to feeling not good/powerful enough.
  • Continually told by the Jedi council that he should not feel negative emotions, such as fear and anger. This invalidates his feelings and implies that he is a failure if he does experience these.
  • The prophecy of Anakin being the ‘Chosen One’ fuels both his arrogance/narcissism, as well as his notions of inadequacy (feeling that he is not the powerful Jedi that his role models expected/wanted him to be).
  • Attachment/possession is forbidden for Jedi. This means Anakin is ordered not to build close relationships, which can lead to either further isolation or potential guilt when he does have relationships.
  • Palpatine “grooming” Anakin to turn to the Dark side: Palpatine is seen to intentionally encourage Anakin’s belief that he is more powerful than the other Jedi, which turns Anakin against those whom he has a somewhat positive and protective relationship with e.g. Obi-Wan. Palpatine also takes advantage of Anakin’s fear of loss, presenting the Dark Side as the only solution to keeping his loved ones safe.
  • Ongoing wider context of there being an intergalactic war, perpetuating the likelihood of Anakin being constantly in the ‘fight or flight‘ threat system, as there is an increased chance that his loved ones will die. This contributes further to the idea he needs to be “all powerful” to ensure him and others are safe.
“FINALLY. A father figure who will emotionally support me in a healthy way…”

Phew… so that’s it! A very full formulation trying to understand the motivations of one of cinema’s favourite and most complex villains. We know Darth Vader was consumed by the dark side of the force for years and did terrible acts as part of leading the Empire. As our favourite little green Jedi once said:

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side”


However, from our formulation, we think the path to the dark side would be more accurately described as:

  • the need to feel all powerful, in order to cope with the fear of losing those close to you, as well as to avoid feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy. This can be understood in light of past trauma, adversity and loss (growing up in a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” will do that to you…);
  • being in an environment lacking emotional support and validation (this means you Jedi…);
  • having a negative/manipulative relationship with an older man in a position of power (classic Palpatine);
  • and the chronic exposure to danger through living in war zone (it’s literally called Star ‘Wars’…).

(But perhaps that doesn’t have the same ring to it as the classic quote….)

Nevertheless, perhaps we can agree that Darth Vader wasn’t born “twisted and evil”? I think we can all understand how in this systemic context and exposure to these stressors, perhaps anyone may fall down the wrong path to the dark side?

“Don’t get me wrong Dad, I’m not happy that you sent troops to incinerate my aunt and uncle, froze my best friend in carbonite and chopped off my left hand…. but I’m mostly pissed that you didn’t tell me Leia was my sister…”

And a final thought… although Anakin’s strong attachments to his wife and family played a part in his turning to the dark side, we also know that in the end, these attachments were also a protective factor which enabled him to save his son, Luke Skywalker, and overthrow (literally) the evil Emperor! Better late than never eh, Darth….

That’s all folks!

Clapper-board clip art (met afbeeldingen) | Filmfeestje, Bioscoop ...

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back with another famous formation soon… but until then I would love for you to stay in touch!

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Which star of the silver screen would you like to see a formulation for in the future?

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Check out a related post!

Longitudinal CBT Formulation: The “Mad” Queen

29th June 2020

Disclaimer: All Star Wars image rights belong to Disney. Images and reference to the original films are used in this blog post in the understanding that it falls under ‘fair use’. This is due to the images and reference to the films being used in the context of a commentary/critique of the original material for educational purposes. To my knowledge, the use of images in this post do not deny the owner of income and they are not being used in this context for monetary gain of the user.

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