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Personality is a central concept in psychological theorizing and empirical research. Much has been written about personality but there still seems to be no commonly accepted and applied deﬁnition (van Heck 1997). One consequence is fragmentation of relevant knowledge, a situation that has been described as follows: ‘Contemporary academic investigation of personality makes little attempt to sustain a consistent, generally applicable view of personality, preferring an eclectic use of heterogeneous data, which are then scrutinized for patterns’ (New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1991, 9: 312). As emphasized by researchers from diﬀerent positions, the fragmentation is detrimental and an obstacle to scientiﬁc progress in personality research. Research in this area needs the formulation of a general, integrated theoretical perspective that can serve as the framework for planning, implementing, and interpreting empirical studies on speciﬁc issues.
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Although diverse, most of the deﬁnitions have an element in common; implicitly or explicitly they regard the total individual, ‘the undivided personality’ (Allport 1924, p. 132), as the target of observation and generalization in theorizing and empirical research. Rather than trying to contribute another semantic deﬁnition of what personality ‘really is,’ the presentation here starts from the view that what can be the target of scientiﬁc analysis in personality research is an active and purposeful organism, functioning and developing as a total, integrated being in interaction with diﬀerent aspects of the environment. With reference to this view, the task for personality research is to contribute knowledge about how and why individuals as a total, integrated organism, think, feel, act, and react in real life.
A full discussion of the implications of this task formulation requires a distinction between three perspectives: a current, a developmental, and an evolutionary perspective. The three perspectives are complimentary. However, most empirical personality research has a current perspective and this research paper is focused accordingly.
Models using a current perspective analyze and explain why individuals functions, in terms of their contemporaneous mental, behavioral, and biological states, independently of the developmental processes that might have led to the present state of aﬀairs.
2. Dynamic Interaction
Dynamic interaction is a basic principle in the functioning of living organisms. Two concepts are central in dynamic interaction: process and reciprocity.
(a) A fundamental starting point for theoretical discussions and empirical research on individual functioning is its character of integrated, dynamic, complex, and adaptive processes. A basic feature of these processes is time. The processes at diﬀerent levels of individual functioning cannot be properly understood by looking at snapshots of states; we need ﬁlms. The importance of introducing time in empirical studies has been demonstrated in several ways. For example, access to advanced techniques for brainimaging has made it possible to investigate the current functioning of the brain while an individual is performing a mental task. This has contributed to new understanding of the interaction of mental acts, biological structures and processes, behavior, and events in the environment.
(b) Reciprocity or bidirectionality in the functioning of operating elements is a characteristic feature of dynamic processes at all levels of the integrated person–environment system, both horizontally among elements and systems functioning at the same level of the organism and vertically between systems functioning at diﬀerent levels. At the cellular level of the individual, the growth, functioning, and death of a particular cell is dependent on its continuous reciprocal exchange of information with neighboring cells. The eﬀective functioning of any subsystem of the body, for example, the coronary system or the immune system, depends on its reciprocal interaction with other bodily systems. The way an individual functions socially in a speciﬁc situation is characterized by continuous reciprocal interaction with other individuals participating in the same situation. The individual’s self-identity and world views are formed and develop in a process of reciprocal interaction with the environment.
3. Classic Interactionism
During the twentieth century a number of prominent researchers have argued, from very diﬀerent viewpoints, for what might be designated classic interactionism: Kantor (1924, 1926) the behaviorist, Murray (1938) in his need-press theory, Murphy (1947) in his biosocial theory, Tolman (1951) focusing on purposive behavior, Sullivan (1953) discussing interpersonal relations, Rotter (1954) in his social learning approach, and Sells (1963) arguing explicitly for an interactionistic position, to mention the most inﬂuential in personality psychology. The central idea expressed by these theorists was summarized in Lewin’s (1936) formula B f(P, E); behavior (B) is a function of the person (P) and the environment (E). The equation reﬂects three common elements of classic interactionism: (a) the focus is on person–environment relations, (b) behavior is regarded as an outcome variable, and (c) behavior cannot be understood and explained without considering the environment, particularly the situation in which behavior occurs. This focus on the interplay of individuals and environments in classic interactionism is also reﬂected in the diﬀerent contextual models which have been presented and are inﬂuential in developmental psychology.
In spite of the very skillful analyses of central issues concerning the individual–environment relations, there is a surprising lack of explicit discussions of interactional processes in the early contributions. The term interaction seldom appears in the writings of the theorists referred to above. Depending on theoretical preference, P and E in the B=f(P, E) equation were more readily addressed than the functional relations between them.
During the 1970s the discussion was enriched by the introduction of mediating cognitive and motivational aspects of individual functioning for understanding person–environment interactions. Summarizing the state of the art of classic interactionism, Endler and Magnusson (1976) emphasized the individual as an active agent in the person–situation interaction process, the role of cognitive and emotional factors in that process, and the importance of the subjective meaning of situations and environments in person–environment interactions (Magnusson 1976).
Empirical research using an interactionistic perspective was almost nonexistent before the 1960s. Such empirical studies as were presented mainly aimed at demonstrating the role of situations in the person– situation interaction. During the 1970s and 1980s, the explicit formulations of a classic interactionist view exerted a twofold impact on personality research. First, the issue of cross-situational consistency inconsistency in individual functioning became a central topic for theoretical debate and empirical analyses (Magnusson and Endler 1977). Second, this debate led to an interest in theoretical taxonomies and empirical analyses of situational characteristics (Magnusson 1981, Forgas and Van Heck 1992).
4. Modern Holistic Interactionism
A modern interactionistic view considers the way an individual and the integrated person–environment system function in a holistic perspective. Within this framework, individual functioning can be described and analyzed in terms of complex, dynamic, and adaptive processes involving mental, biological, and behavioral aspects of the individual and diﬀerent aspects of the environment (Magnusson 1999, Magnusson and Torestad 1993).
The two basic concepts of interactionism are central in this perspective: process, implying the time perspective, and reciprocity among operating elements and systems. At each level, the totality derives its characteristic features and properties from the interaction of the elements involved, not from the dynamic eﬀect of each isolated part on the totality. Each aspect of the structures and processes that are operating in the individual (perceptions, plans, values, goals, motives, biological factors, conduct, etc.), as well as each aspect of the environment, takes on psychological meaning from its role in the total functioning of the individual. A certain element or system derives its signiﬁcance, not from its structure, but from its role in the system of which it forms a part.
In three inter-related ways this view is an extension of classic interactionism. First, behavior is not regarded as an outcome variable, that is, as the result of the processes. It is a certain aspect of individual functioning and an integrated part of the total dynamic, adaptive interaction process. Second, interactional processes are not restricted to the interplay between the individual and the environment. Dynamic, adaptive interaction is also a basic principle for the processes within the individual, in which mental, biological, and behavioral factors are involved. Third, the character of these individual-bound processes is important in the individual’s continuous interaction with the environment. Besides being inﬂuenced by characteristics of the environment, these processes have an impact on the person–environment interaction processes.
A heated issue for debate during the 1970s and 1980s was the ‘existence’ and role of personality traits. Much of the debate reﬂected a misunderstanding of the interactionistic view as in conﬂict with the trait concept. There is no contradiction between the analysis and description of individual functioning at the trait level and an interactionistic view: the essential argument concerns the trait concept’s explanatory contribution to understanding individual functioning in speciﬁc situations and across situations. It is a matter of level of analysis. What Allport (1937) deﬁned as ‘bona ﬁde structures in each personality that account for the consistency of its behavior’ (p. 37) form an essential basis for understanding coherence in the individual’s interaction with situations of diﬀerent character and for coherent continuity in the individual’s interaction with the environment over time. Mischel and Shoda (1995) recently contributed to the discussion on this issue by analyzing traits in terms of processing dispositions with reference to social, cognitive, and biological models.
A holistic view of individual functioning has ancient roots. Yet it is also very modern and in line with developments in other disciplines concerned with dynamic, complex processes. In recent decades it has derived substantive content from research on both cognitive and noncognitive factors and on structures and processes of the brain and the physiological system. In fact, a holistic view is inherent in the rapid development of research in the interface of mental, biological, and behavioral aspects of individual functioning. Cognitive neuroscience is one of the most dynamic areas of relevance for understanding the way individuals think, feel, act, and react in real life.
5. Methodological Implications
At a general theoretical level, the holistic–interactionistic perspective in personality research is being increasingly accepted. However, little empirical research has been performed and interpreted with explicit reference to this perspective (Endler and Parker 1992). In their review of recent personality research, Endler and Speer (1998) concluded: ‘… the general research methodologies employed in the personality area have not changed a great deal since the 1960’s’ (p. 667). This tradition has been dominated by the application of statistical models and methods for the study of relations among variables across individuals at group level; the focus is on variables.
The formulation of a holistic interactionistic theoretical framework has led to the development and application of models and methods in which the individual is the organizational unit, a theoretical approach which is designated the person approach. In a person approach, individual functioning is studied empirically in terms of patterns of operating factors at the level that is relevant for the speciﬁc study. The development of adequate methods for the application of a person approach has been fostered by the presentation of modern models for dynamic, complex processes, particularly general systems theory. In other disciplines the formulation of such models has contributed to impressive progress.
6. Modern Interactionism As A General Theoretical Framework
As a result of the rapid development of research on mental and biological aspects of individual functioning and the contributions from modern models for dynamic, complex processes, the modern holistic, interactionistic view now oﬀers a stable platform for further scientiﬁc progress, enabling personality research to fall into step with recent developments in other disciplines in the life sciences.
A holistic view serves two inter-related general purposes: (a) as a common conceptual space for eﬀective communication among researchers concerned with very diﬀerent problems, and (b) as a theoretical framework for the planning, implementation, and interpretation of speciﬁc empirical studies. No single researcher can be an expert on all problems at all levels of individual functioning and development. Researchers in cognition and antisocial behavior are concerned with diﬀerent problems and may apply diﬀerent methods for observation and data treatment. A common theoretical framework enables them to communicate and gain from each other’s empirical work more eﬀectively. Thus, the modern holistic interactionistic perspective forms the basis for a synthesis of knowledge, gained from empirical studies. At the same time the following implications of a modern interactionistic frame of reference should be kept in mind. First, it does not imply that speciﬁc mental, behavioral, and biological aspects of individual functioning cannot or should not be the object of empirical research. Second, it does not oﬀer a hypothesis or an explanation for all problems. Within the holistic framework general principles for scientiﬁc investigation are applicable: the Newtonian model did not answer every question about the structure and functioning of the physical world but it did serve the two purposes summarized above.
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