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Personality psychology is the scientiﬁc study of the whole person. The goal of personality inquiry is to provide a scientiﬁcally credible account of human individuality. Such an account considers aspects of human nature (how a person is like all other persons), individual diﬀerences between people (how a person is like some other persons), and individual uniqueness (how a person is like no other person). A full account of human individuality, furthermore, must situate a person’s life in the biological, social, cultural, and historical contexts that give that life its meaning. This research paper will present a brief history of the ﬁeld of personality psychology, a review of recurrent issues and controversies that have preoccupied personality psychologists, and a consideration of current and projected future research and theorizing in the ﬁeld.
The roots of personality psychology can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. A pupil of Aristotle, Theophrastus (c. 300 BC) composed character sketches such as ‘the ﬂatterer’ and ‘the penurious man,’ each of which personiﬁed (often in a humorous way) a particular personality trait. The Greek physician Galen (AD 130–200) is often credited with proposing the ﬁrst taxonomy of personality traits, distinguishing among the sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic temperaments. It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, that scientists developed reliable methods for assessing individual diﬀerences in traits. Building on the pioneering work of Francis Galton and Alfred Binet on mental testing and spurred by the mobilization of large military forces in World War I, psychologists began to invent self-report, multi-item tests to assess individual diﬀerences in personality functioning. At about the same time, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and other psychoanalytic theorists oﬀered a strong alternative perspective on human individuality, underscoring the unconscious motivational dynamics that structure human lives and make for neurosis and conﬂict in human aﬀairs.
The psychometricians and the psychoanalysts represented two very diﬀerent intellectual traditions for personality psychology, both rooted in the nineteenth century. In the spirit of natural science inquiry (Naturwissenschaften), the former emphasized the precise quantiﬁcation of common traits, readily assessed through conscious self-reports and manifest in observable behavior across many diﬀerent persons. By contrast, Freud and the psychoanalysts oﬀered a more holistic, clinically informed, and intuitive approach, consistent with the Geistenwissenschaften (human sciences) movement in the nineteenth century, proposing that the person is a complex and uniquely patterned whole. In the ﬁrst authoritative textbook for personality psychology, Gordon Allport (1937) proposed that the two intellectual traditions might be reconciled within a single science of persons. Laying out an ambitious agenda for personality inquiry, Henry Murray (1938) published a landmark volume that drew heavily on the psychoanalytic tradition while proposing new methods for measuring personality traits, needs, and other features of human individuality. The writings of Allport and Murray helped to establish personality psychology as an identiﬁable discipline in the social and behavioral sciences in the 1930s.
1.1 The Development Of Personality Theories
By the mid-1950s, the ﬁeld of personality psychology was dominated by a number of competing grand theories. Each theory oﬀered a comprehensive portrayal of human individuality, specifying fundamental motivations, a structure for understanding individual diﬀerences, principles of personality development, and in some cases a corresponding clinical technique for personality change (e.g., a brand of psychotherapy). Beginning with Hall and Lindzey (1957), personality textbooks typically organized the ﬁeld in terms of these grand theoretical rubrics, each of which oﬀered its own agenda for personality research.
The largest number of theories came out of the psychoanalytic tradition. Freud’s seminal theory, articulated mainly between the years 1895 and 1930, proposed that all human behavior is determined by unconscious forces over which the individual has little control, forces that typically stem from sexual and aggressive drives. Rooted in instinct and early childhood experience, unconscious wishes, urges, and drives seek expression in a social environment that is predicated on the suppression of human urgings. The conﬂicts between internal urges and external constraints make for anxiety, defense, and a panoply of personal adaptations that deﬁne human individuality. Variations on these themes were played out in a number of other psychoanalytic theories, beginning with Jung’s and Adler’s rival approaches. While Jung proposed that individuality stems from each person’s exploration of an evolutionarily rooted collective unconscious, Adler emphasized conscious aspects of human functioning and the prime motives of power and social interest. Around the time of World War II, neo-Freudian theorists like Karen Horney and Eric Fromm sought to link individual development to cultural factors, while Erik Erikson broadened Freud’s psychosexual focus to include psychosocial issues that confront the person across the human lifespan. Moving in a diﬀerent direction, postwar object-relations theorists such as W.R.D.Fairbairn and psychoanalytic self-theorists such as Heinz Kohut redoubled eﬀorts to explore the most primitive intrapsychic factors laid down in the ﬁrst two years of life and played out most importantly in the mother–infant bond.
Outside the psychoanalytic tradition, grand personality theorists came in behaviorist, trait, and humanistic/phenomenological varieties. Seeking to operationalize Freudian concepts in terms amenable to midcentury behaviorism, Neal Miller and James Dollard developed an inﬂuential social learning theory of personality, which was followed by more cognitively based theories oﬀered by Julian Rotter and Albert Bandura. Employing the method of factor analysis of personality trait scales, Raymond B. Cattell and Hans Eysenck conceived of personality in terms of a ﬁnite set of objectively deﬁned traits. Eysenck’s three-trait scheme—highlighting introversion–extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism—proved especially inﬂuential. Finally, a wide range of grand theories were built around a humanistic vision of the person as a more-or-less rational being, endowed with rich conscious experience and motivated to actualize his or her own potential. Included here were Allport’s own theory, the humanistic approaches oﬀered by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, George Kelly’s personal construct theory, and existential personality theories oﬀered by Rollo May, Victor Frankl, and others.
1.2 The Elaboration Of Constructs
Postwar personality psychologists borrowed liberally from the grand theories to identify individualdiﬀerence variables—or ‘constructs’—that could be reliably measured through self-report scales, ratings, behavioral observations, and other techniques, and then used in hypothesis-testing research. Popular constructs of the 1950s and 1960s included anxiety, achievement motivation, authoritarianism, extraversion, ego resiliency, ﬁeld independence, and locus of control. Investigators designed programs of study to examine the antecedents, consequences, and correlates of these individual diﬀerences in personality. Around each construct, then, developed a nomological network of ﬁndings—a body of research that elaborated the construct and deﬁned its role and signiﬁcance in personality functioning. With increasing specialization and the emphasis on discrete constructs, the ﬁeld of personality psychology began to turn away from the grand theories to focus on problems in the measurement of individual diﬀerences. Omnibus personality inventories, such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the California Psychological Inventory (CPI), measured many diﬀerent variables at once. But many postwar researchers preferred to focus on one construct at a time, reﬁning measures and articulating in great detail that construct’s nomological net.
The ﬁeld of personality psychology experienced a crisis in conﬁdence in the late 1960s and 1970s. Some critics lamented the decay of interest in integrative theory and the obsessive focus on constructs over persons. Others, most notably Walter Mischel (1968), argued that personality constructs themselves were not good predictors of behavior. In Mischel’s view, social situations account for vastly more variance in human behavior than do individual diﬀerences in personality traits. What was often called the ‘trait versus situation debate’ preoccupied the ﬁeld in the 1970s and early 1980s. As the debate died down, proponents of both sides seemed to agree that personality theories and research need to explicitly embody interactionism—the idea that behavior is always a function of the interaction of the person (e.g., traits) and the environment (e.g., situations). In the 1980s and 1990s, furthermore, strong evidence was adduced for the eﬃcacy of personality constructs. First, studies increasingly showed that traits do predict general trends in behavior over time and across diﬀerent situations. Second, longitudinal studies showed that individual diﬀerences in traits are often remarkably stable over long periods of time. Third, evidence from behavior genetics, especially studies with twins, showed that most personality traits exhibit at least moderate heritability. And fourth, some consensus in the ﬁeld began to emerge concerning the number and kind of basic personality traits. Based on extensive factor-analytic studies, the popular Big Five conception proposes that traits cluster into ﬁve diﬀerent factors, which may be labeled extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience.
2. Perennial Issues And Controversies
In his ﬁrst textbook, Allport (1937) foresaw a number of issues that were destined to stimulate recurrent debate in the ﬁeld of personality psychology. The one that most preoccupied Allport himself was the tension between nomothetic and idiographic approaches to personality inquiry. While nomothetic approaches seek to establish general laws of behavior that apply across persons, idiographic approaches, as embodied in the case study, focus on the unique or characteristic patterning of an individual person. The vast majority of published research in personality psychology is nomothetic, typically involving the testing of hypotheses about personality constructs and processes. But if the ﬁeld itself is supposed to be concerned with human individuality, Allport argued, then some form of idiographic inquiry must be included. Skeptics have countered that the results of single-case studies cannot be generalized, and thus have little scientiﬁc value. But proponents of idiographic approaches maintain that case studies are often excellent arenas for hypothesis discovery, for applying general theories, and for illuminating complex personality organization. Along with Allport and Murray, Robert White (1952) championed the intensive study of individual lives. Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in idiographic approaches and considerable optimism about integrating them with more conventional nomothetic methods.
A forerunner to the ‘trait versus situation debate’ of the 1970s was Allport’s identiﬁcation of the problem of generality versus speciﬁcity in behavior. To what extent is a person’s behavior generally consistent across situations, as opposed to being speciﬁc to the vagaries of particular situations themselves? Mischel (1968) argued that Allport and most other personality psychologists overplayed the generality idea, expecting their constructs to predict general trends in behavior across many diﬀerent situations. In Mischel’s (1968) view, the empirical data were much more supportive of a speciﬁcity position. Although trait constructs have regained their currency in recent years, many personality psychologists have retained a healthy skepticism about cross-situational generality, and some have proposed that some personality constructs themselves need to be deﬁned in contingent, situational terms.
A third issue concerns measurement. The most popular personality measures have always been self-report questionnaires. But many critics have argued that such measures are unable to assess especially subtle, implicit, or unconscious aspects of human individuality. As an alternative, some have championed projective techniques, wherein the person responds freely to ambiguous cues (e.g., inkblots, story scenes). For example, David McClelland (1961) built a highly successful research program around the assessment of achievement motivation in imaginative stories told to picture cues (the Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT). Others, most notably Jack Block (1971), reﬁned Q-sort rating procedures that bypassed self-report for the evaluations of expert judges. While a plethora of measurement techniques may be seen in the ﬁeld today, the self-report questionnaire, nonetheless, remains the coin of the realm.
A fourth controversy is the often-observed disconnect between grand personality theories and construct-based personality research. While some argue that a good deal of personality research has been directly or indirectly inspired by the grand theories, others contend that the grand theories should be dismissed as historical artifacts. The controversy is especially acute with respect to psychoanalytic theories. Many Freudian ideas, for example, have proven resistant to empirical scrutiny (e.g., the Oedipus complex) or have been jettisoned as outdated or just plain wrong (e.g., the death instinct). By contrast, some ideas that have traditionally been associated with psychoanalytic approaches have become incorporated into mainstream psychological research. Of most importance in this regard is the now generally accepted notion that a good deal of human information processing occurs in an automatic, implicit, and nonconscious manner. Thus, while psychoanalytic theories have exerted a strong impact on Western thinking more generally, their current and future status in personality psychology appears ambiguous at best.
3. Current And Future Trends
The wide range of research and theorizing that currently characterizes the ﬁeld of personality psychology may be organized into three diﬀerent levels or arenas of human individuality: dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, and integrative stories. The ﬁrst domain considers individuality from the standpoint of general, cross-situational tendencies; the second examines more situationally and contextually grounded aspects of persons; and the third encompasses eﬀorts to understand individuality in the more idiographic sense of how the person understands his or her life in toto.
3.1 Dispositional Traits
Dispositional traits are those relatively general and nonconditional aspects of human individuality that go by such names as ‘extraversion,’ ‘friendliness,’ ‘depressiveness,’ and ‘conscientiousness.’ Each trait is viewed as a bipolar, linear dimension upon which individuals can be said to diﬀer. For example, research has shown that people scoring at the high end of the extraversion trait are viewed by others as especially sociable and fun-loving, typically attend more social events, are more sexually active, and report higher levels of positive aﬀect in everyday life, compared to people scoring at the low (introverted) end of the trait (e.g., Eysenck 1967). Evidence for the predictive eﬃcacy of trait scores is growing, with the strongest data coming for aspects of extraversion (sometimes reconceptualized as positive aﬀectivity) and neuroticism (sometimes reconceptualized as negative aﬀectivity).
Psychophysiological experiments have begun to document possible linkages between neural systems and individual diﬀerences in traits. For example, Jeﬀrey Gray and others have suggested that individual diﬀerences in extraversion positive-aﬀectivity may be linked to a behavioral activation system in the brain, responsible for motivating behavior aimed at achieving goals and obtaining positive emotional rewards. These kinds of advances, along with growing evidence for longitudinal consistency and heritability of broad traits, help to underscore the ﬁeld’s conviction that dispositional traits are fundamental to a scientiﬁc account of human individuality (see McCrae and Costa 1990, Wiggins 1996).
Increasingly, research on personality traits has become subsumed within the Big Five framework. While most of this research focuses on individual diﬀerences among well-functioning adults, recent eﬀorts have also been made to reconﬁgure psychopathology in terms of (extreme) scores on personality traits. Individual diﬀerences in infant and childhood temperament, assumed to be strongly driven by genetic diﬀerences, have also been conceptually linked to the ﬁve-factor taxonomy. And some theorists have speculated about how individual diﬀerences in Big Five traits reﬂect varying strategies for solving fundamental social tasks that humans have perennially faced over the course of evolution. The integration of trait psychology with evolutionary theory would appear to be a promising direction for the future.
3.2 Characteristic Adaptations
Despite substantial progress in trait research in recent years, there would appear to be considerably more to personality than traits. While traits are useful for predicting and understanding consistent, cross situational diﬀerences in people, they are less eﬀective in the explanation of more particular, contextually anchored behavior. Accordingly, personality psychologists have proposed a host of motivational, developmental, and strategic constructs that are contextualized in time, place, or social role. These include particular motives and goals (e.g., the power motive), life tasks (e.g., the intimacy life task), relational styles (e.g., secure attachment style), defense mechanisms (e.g., projection), coping strategies (e.g., emotionfocused coping), values (e.g., dogmatism), developmental issues (e.g., generativity), self-schemas (e.g., possible selves, self-with-other representations), and the like, all of which may be grouped under the generic rubric of characteristic adaptations. If traits sketch an outline of human individuality, characteristic adaptations begin to ﬁll in some of the details. More contingent and delimited than dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations speak to what a person wants or fears, often during particular periods in life or within particular domains of action, and what life methods the person may use to get what is wanted or to avoid getting what is not wanted at a particular time, in particular places, and/or with respect to particular roles.
While trait approaches have their historical roots in the grand factor theories oﬀered by Eysenck and Cattell, studies of characteristic adaptations connect more readily to theories emphasizing human cognition, motivation, and development. In that they address especially concrete issues that can be observed in everyday adaptation to stress and challenge, moreover, characteristic adaptations speak a language that is compatible with the concerns of many clinicians. They also appear to shed light on proximal personality processes by specifying what cognitions or emotional states may give rise to particular behaviors. Recent years have witnessed considerable progress in the study of a wide range of characteristic adaptations (Pervin and John 1999), but the ﬁeld has yet to oﬀer a comprehensive framework, akin to the Big Five, for organizing these far-ﬂung constructs and research programs. In a general sense, though, most adaptations link directly or indirectly to the two great domains of social life—love and work—or what David Bakan termed ‘communion’ and ‘agency.’
3.3 Integrative Stories
Since the time of Allport, some personality psychologists have maintained that while conventional personality constructs such as traits and characteristic adaptations are useful for predicting behavior and accounting for individual diﬀerences, they are unable to account for the integrative nature of personality functioning and the sense of a person’s wholeness. Broader concepts such as self, ego, and character structure have often been invoked to refer to this integrative, holistic quality. For example, Jane Loevinger (1976) proposed that the ego is the master synthesizer of subjective experience, and she developed a rigorous program of research to operationalize stages of ego development through the coding of sentence-completion tests. More recently, a number of theorists and researchers have proposed that people synthesize their own experience into personal stories and that such internalized and evolving narratives of the self-provide human lives with unity, purpose, and meaning. Silvan Tomkins, Dan McAdams (2001), and Hubert Hermans have all developed narrative theories of personality that attempt to account for human individuality in terms of the diﬀerent kinds of life stories that people construct. This movement recalls Allport’s emphasis on the idiographic, and the study of lives tradition championed by White and others. But it adds a more nuanced understanding of the psycholiterary aspects of social life, especially under conditions of cultural modernity and postmodernity, and it proposes agendas for nomothetic research whereby individual diﬀerences in life narrative form and content can be operationalized and subjected to hypothesis-testing research.
In sum, current research and theorizing in personality psychology suggest that personality itself may be viewed as a patterning of dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, and integrative life stories, evolving over time and complexly situated in a cultural and historical milieu.
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