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Personality is the psychological system that mediates the relationship of the individual with the environment in the service of adaptation. It is the complexity of structures, processes and patterns of aﬀect, cognition and behavior that we call ‘personality’ that conveys to others the sense of unity and distinctiveness that distinguish individuals from one another and that grants to each individual a sense of identity, of wholeness and uniqueness.
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Because the term encompasses a great variety of phenomena it is not surprising that diﬀerent ideas appear in various combinations in the traditional and common usage of the word personality: human being, person, the quality of being a person, the quality or fact of being a particular person, patterns of habits and qualities of any individual as expressed through physical and mental activities, the sum of such properties as impressing or likely to impress others, and what makes an individual conspicuously diﬀerent from others.
Nor is it surprising that, given the complex nature of personality, diﬀerent assumptions, foci, and strategies of research have marked the study of personality since the beginning of the discipline (Allport 1937, Murray 1938, Stagner 1937, Stern 1935).
The resolution of these diﬀerent deﬁnitions and assumptions has considerable implications for the conceptualization and study of adaptation and adaptive behaviors.
1. Common Assumptions Regarding Personality
Before outlining these diﬀerent assumptions, let us ﬁrst consider some areas of commonality in the contemporary ﬁeld. Most investigators in personality psychology share an ‘interactionist view’. In other words, they view personality as an open system that develops and functions through continuous and reciprocal interactions with the environment (Bandura 1986, Hettema 1979, Magnusson and Stattin 1998).
Personality, then, refers to a complexity of psychological structures and processes that operate in concert in these person-situation interactions. The personality system underlies the distinctive patterns of aﬀect, cognition, and behavior that foster coherence in individual conduct and experience over time and across settings. Molar psychological mechanisms, such as the goals, beliefs, and skills through which individuals regulate their experiences and actions, result from the synergism of underlying biological and psychological subsystems. Multiple biological systems, cognitive and aﬀective structures, behavior, and the environment all operate as interacting determinants of what personality is at any moment within a network of reciprocal causation. The relative inﬂuence of one or another personality determinant varies in diﬀerent individuals, and across activities and circumstances. Individual development and functioning are processes of continuous restructuring of the whole system and its subsystems within the boundaries set by biological and social constraints (Caprara and Cervone 2000).
2. Competing Arguments Regarding Personality
Despite the widespread adherence to an interactionist viewpoint, continuing debates in the ﬁeld attest to the fact that many fundamental issues are still pending, with diﬀerent investigators adhering to diﬀerent theoretical and metatheoretical principles and assigning diﬀerent importance to nature, nurture, or the individual in the shaping of their personalities (Cervone 1991). Throughout much of its history, personality psychology has been concerned with individual diﬀerences in observable variations in styles of behavior, aﬀect, and cognition. The variations have been organized according to, and traced back, to simple systems of dispositional constructs.
Dispositional constructs are designed to encompass the variety of phenotypic expressions of individuality and to capture the consistent individual diﬀerences that are observed. Trait constructs have been posited to account for stable patterns of experience and action that people exhibit, and that distinguish them from one another. As diﬀerent traits are diﬀerentially relevant to diﬀerent settings and their expression is diﬀerentially sensitive to social contexts, diﬀerent traits attest to the consistency of personality in various degrees depending upon their generalizability (across individuals), pervasiveness (across situations), and stability (across time). This has led dispositional theorists to conceptualize personality as a hierarchical organization and to focus on high level traits (e.g., extroversion) that organize lower level tendencies (e.g., sociability) which, in turn, supervise lower level behavioral habits (e.g., talkative) (Eysenck 1970).
In the past alternative taxonomies have been in conﬂict with each other. However signiﬁcant consensus recently has been reached on the importance of ﬁve factors (so called Big Five) that are obtained robustly: Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness to Experience. This ﬁve-factor model has become a point of convergence between the psycholexical tradition, mostly concerned with personality description (Goldberg 1993), and the tradition, mostly concerned with the identiﬁcation of the primary structures of personality (McCrae and Costa 1996).
Signiﬁcant diﬀerences are found among ﬁve-factors investigators, who may disagree on the exact nature and conceptual status of the trait variables (see Wiggins 1996). However, far more profound diﬀerences separate those who view traits as the ultimate determinants of personality from those who conclude that clustering descriptors related to habitual behaviors (as resulting from factor analysis) cannot lead too far in understanding either the regularities that explain personality functioning or the uniqueness which distinguishes persons from one another (Bandura 1999). The issue in contention is not whether people have personal dispositions, nor their determinative role in personality functioning, but rather how dispositions are conceptualized and operationalized. Dispositions may correspond to habitual styles of behavior rooted in genotypes, or to self-regulatory structures (as internal standards, aspirations and goals, and eﬃcacy beliefs) resulting from the organization of aﬀect, cognition, and behavior which emerges over the course of life.
In conceiving of personality as a hierarchical architecture in which basic traits are at the origins of any other individual disposition or behavior, most convinced advocates of traits as genotypes of personality derive their arguments from genetic, longitudinal, and cross-cultural studies. Genetic studies have found a consistent component of heritability for each of the Big Five (Lohelin 1992), longitudinal studies have shown a signiﬁcant stability of the same traits over the life span (Costa and McCrae 1997), and cross-cultural studies have shown that the multiple descriptors used to describe personality in diﬀerent cultures can be traced back to few common dimensions broadly overlapping with the Big Five (De Raad 1998). Trait psychologist converge with evolutionary psychologist in viewing adaptation as largely predetermined by the basic dispositional equipment of the species selected through generations. According to this view adaptive behaviors (in mating, ﬁghting, solving problems, and coping with adversities) largely reﬂect the inﬂuence of evolved mechanisms whose nature and functioning has been determined over the eons through processes of natural selection (Buss 1997).
On the other hand, in conceiving of personality as an open, dynamic, unifying and integrating system, social cognitive and motivational theorists (Cervone and Shoda 1999) point to the emerging properties of the mind and focus on the processes and mechanisms conducive to knowledge structures which enable personality to function as a proactive self-regulatory system. Thus, they contest the generalizability to individuals of correlational ﬁndings derived from studying populations, and thus leaving large portions of variability unexplained. Rather, they focus on the construction of personality as an integrative and coherent system as it takes place over the course of life, on the processes that enable the system to function proactively with the environment and on the structures that orchestrate these processes. Ultimately they emphasize the ﬂow of reciprocal determination among biological, psychological and social factors which sustain the whole construction, and from which the agentic properties of personality derive. In this view of personality, ‘adaptation’ is eminently relational and contextual. Adaptive behaviors are not ascribed to any preformed, endogenous dispositions, but to psychological systems which themselves develop through dynamic interactions with the social environment. These systems enable the person to cope in a ﬂexible, innovative manner with the diverse challenges of life.
3. Personality As A Self-Regulatory System
Personality can be viewed as both a construction and an agentic system. Over time, people gradually construct a sense of self through their interactions with the social world. People’s capacity for forethought, performance control, and self-reﬂection contributes to their ability to regulate their own experiences and actions. Self-regulatory capacities enable people to contribute proactively to the course of their development. Personality, then, reveals itself as a construction endowed with agentic properties. These properties enable people to exert a broad inﬂuence on their environment and their own psychological and physical selves (Caprara and Cervone 2000).
Agentic personality functioning involves a number of distinct processes. People select the environments they encounter and thereby create opportunities for themselves, guide their behavior purposively, appraise their circumstances, and chose levels of mental and physical challenge that match their perceived capabilities. Person-situation transactions underscore the fact that personality functioning is not reactive but proactive. Individuals do not only react to the environments, but actively contribute to their transformation and creation. Individuals’ distinctive ways of functioning reﬂect more than the unfolding of a genetic blueprint or the interactions which have taken place between the organism and the environment over the course of development. They also reﬂect individuals’ active role in shaping their own personality.
Thus, one should look at adaptation as a dynamic, proactive process. People do not ‘adapt’ merely by altering themselves to ﬁt environmental constraints and pressures. They select and transform environments in order to actualize their full potentials and maximize their own well being. Adaptation relies more on individuals’ capacities to devise strategies and to implement tactics able to match successfully the requirements and aﬀordances of multiple situations, than on ﬁxed pattern of responses. The capacity to expand knowledge of one selves and of situations is no less important than the capacity to master such knowledge with the ﬂexibility that is required by the variety and continuous change of person-situation transactions.
Over the course of life, people acquire competencies, knowledge about themselves and the social world, and standards for evaluating the worth of own actions. Self-reﬂective and self-directive processes enable individuals to meet environmental opportunities and constraints as well as to maintain personally valued courses of action in the relative absence of tangible rewards or social support. While people show a striking ability to adapt their behavior to physical, interpersonal, and social circumstances, and also to select and create the circumstances that best ﬁt with their purposes and abilities, successful adjustment across the life span corresponds to the best allocation of personal and social resources within the set of temporally bound opportunities and constraints.
Thus selection, optimization, and compensation have been regarded as main strategies which attest the property of personality to capitalize upon experience in the achievement of higher levels of functioning and well-being. People must select life goals, activities, and pathways that are managable; they must optimize the allocation of internal and external resources that are made available to them; they must develop strategies to compensate for lacks or losses of goal relevant means (Baltes 1997).
As people are causal agents who actively contribute to the course of their life in selecting and transforming the environment they encounters, adaptive behaviors are those behaviors that promote the conditions for the full expression of individual capacities and potentials. As individuals course of life is closely interdependent with the course of life of others, ultimately adaptive behaviors are those behaviors that serve for both the betterment of individual and collective welfare.
Future research should focus on psychological processes and social capacities that can strengthen people’s capacity to adapt to a rapidly changing world. To this aim theories and ﬁndings are mostly needed to enable people to expand their knowledge and skills, to achieve greater emotional adjustment, and thus to fully realize their potentials.
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