Personality Psychology Research Paper

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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.



1. History

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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