Personality Theories Research Paper

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Within psychology, personality refers to the individual’s distinctive and enduring characteristics, including stable patterns of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behavioral tendencies. No other area of psychology covers as much territory as the field of personality does; it is at the intersection of the study of human development, abnormality and deviance, temperament, emotions and thought, learning, social relations, and even the biological foundations of human behavior. Although the traditional focus is on stable individual differences in basic tendencies or dispositions (e.g., extraversion, conscientiousness), recent approaches also emphasize the psychological processes (such as learning, motivation, emotion, and thinking) that underlie them. Increasing attention is also given to the possible biological-genetic roots of these tendencies and processes, and their interactions with social-environmental influences.

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Personality theorists try to answer such questions as: How stable and enduring are particular psychological qualities? What is the role of inheritance in the expression of personality, and what is acquired through experience with the environment? Does what we do and think and feel characteristically depend mostly on the individual or on the situation? How do different types of people interact with different types of situations? Historically, there have been five main approaches to personality that address these questions: the psychodynamic, the behavioral, the phenomenological, the trait and biological, and the social cognitive. All are concerned with uncovering basic, general principles that can account for the wide range of behavior that people are capable of engaging in, and each proposes different units for conceptualizing and studying people. Each approach is considered in turn.

1. Psychodynamic Approaches

The psychodynamic approach to personality was founded by the Viennese physician Sigmund Freud. Rejecting the earlier belief that people’s behavior is under their conscious and rational control, Freud believed that behavior is psychologically determined by underlying unconscious causes and motives. Freud saw patients who displayed strange symptoms that had no discernible physical cause, such as a young woman who appeared to be blind although tests of her vision showed that her eyes and visual system were undamaged. To explain such puzzling cases, Freud proposed an ‘anatomy’ of the mind consisting of three institutions or agencies of mental operation—the id, the ego, and the superego. The id—the primary, instinctual core—obeys the ‘pleasure principle,’ seeking immediate gratification of basic biological sexual and aggressive impulses, regardless of reality considerations. The superego, on the other hand, represents the moral standards of a person’s society, obtained through the internalization of parental values, rules, and characteristics in the course of socialization. The ego mediates between the instinctual demands of the id and the outer world of reality, localizing the appropriate objects for gratification in the environment so that the impulses of the id can be satisfied. It operates by means of logical thinking and rational planning. Its tasks include: (a) the control of unacceptable impulses or desires from the id; (b) the avoidance of pain produced by internal conflict in the efforts to control and master those unacceptable impulses; and (c) the attainment of a harmonious integration among the needs of both the id and the superego.

According to Freud ([1915] 1957), the id, the ego, and the superego are always in dynamic conflict (thus the term psychodynamics). Freud believed that in this conflict, a person’s basic impulses persist and press for discharge, but the people or ‘objects’ at which they are directed, and the manner in which they are expressed, are transformed and disguised unconsciously to make them more acceptable and to reduce conflict and anxiety. When the young child becomes anxious about his or her own impulses (e.g., because of fear that they will lead to parental punishment), attempts are made to repress them or otherwise disguise and redirect them. The main defense mechanism that Freud proposed—repression—massively inhibits threatening impulses or events, making them unconscious. In projection, one’s unacceptable impulses or aspects are attributed to other people.

Modern psychodynamic theories tend to place much less emphasis on biological drives and highlight the individual’s social circumstances and relationships with significant others. Attachment theorists, for example, emphasize the quality and varieties of early mother–child attachment relations and their consequences in the course of development (Ainsworth and Bowlby 1991). Based on experiences in this relationship, the child develops internal working models (mental representations) of others, of the self, and of relationships, which guide subsequent experience and behavior. Children who have positive, gratifying experiences with significant others tend to develop internal working models of others as responsive and giving, and of themselves as worthy of attention; those who have had painful or unsatisfying experiences are likely to develop internal models that reflect those troubled relationships. Early attachment styles may enduringly influence relationships throughout life, including the way one parents one’s own children (Hazan and Shaver 1987; see Attachment Theory: Psychological; Bowlby, John (1907–90)).

Many of the ideas introduced by the psychodynamic approach, notably that much mental activity occurs outside of mental awareness, also are being reconceptualized in light of current theory and findings on how thought and memory work. For example, when cognitive (mental) representations of significant others are activated by a newly encountered person, the feelings and attributes associated with this representation may be applied to that new person in making inferences about him or her (Andersen and Berk 1998). This is consistent with Freud’s concept of transference, said to occur when the patient responds to the therapist as if he or she were the patient’s father, mother, or some other childhood figure. This modern approach, however, views transference in information processing terms rather than as a reflection of the psychosexual impulses and conflicts hypothesized in classical psychodynamic theory (Westen 1998; see Mental Representation of Persons, Psychology of).

2. Behavioral Approaches

Although many psychologists were intrigued by the insights of Freud and his followers, they were primarily dedicated to developing a more scientific, rigorous approach to personality that would be objectively testable, preferably by laboratory techniques. One of the pioneers in the behavioral approach, the US psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904–90), criticized many motivational concepts as being no more than labels, and even fictions, that were unhelpful for explaining what people actually do. Skinner and other behaviorally oriented psychologists analyzed problematic behaviors (e.g., aggressiveness, bizarre speech patterns, smoking, fear responses) in terms of the observable events and conditions that seem to vary with them. They then tried to discover the external events that strengthened their future likelihood and that maintained or changed the behavior of concern. Behavioral approaches have led to innovations for therapy by attempting to modify problematic behavior not through insight, awareness, or the uncovering of unconscious motivations, but rather by addressing the behavior itself and modifying it directly. Such behavior therapies emphasize the individual’s current maladaptive behaviors (rather than their historical origins) and assume that they can be understood and changed by learning principles that deal with the acquisition and extinction of behavior patterns.

Although the systematic rigor of behavioral approaches was widely appreciated, the relevance of the approach for understanding the complex lives of people under the often unpredictable social conditions of life remained in question. Thus, a number of theorists began to make learning and behavior theories more ‘social,’ not limiting themselves to simple reinforcement principles and increasingly relying on mental or ‘cognitive’ processes in their account of the development of complex social behavior. In Albert Bandura’s (1986) social learning approach, for example, personality is seen as the outcome of social learning processes through which distinctive beliefs, self-efficacy expectations, as well as personal standards that guide characteristic behavior patterns, are acquired. He emphasized that much social learning, from table manners and interpersonal relations to working habits to coping patterns, occurs through observation of the behavior of social models without any direct rewards or reinforcement administered to the learner.

In another direction, the assumption that the ‘laws’ of conditioning are universal and apply broadly has been challenged by convincing evidence that organisms (including humans) seem biologically prepared to learn some associations or pairings more readily than others. Prewired dispositions in the brain seem to make humans distinctively prepared to learn diverse high-level mental activities, from language acquisition to mathematical skills to space perception (Pinker 1997). In yet another direction, technological advances in brain imaging now allow researchers to use methods like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to observe areas within the brain that become activated in the course of mental activity, such as the emotional centers that may be especially important bases for individual differences (Ledoux 1996). Advances in technology have therefore made it possible to objectively study mental events, such as emotions, memories, and attention, going far beyond the early behaviorism that confined itself to overt behavior.

3. Phenomenological Approaches

In the middle of the twentieth century, phenomenological approaches arose, in part, as a humanistic protest against the earlier psychodynamic and behavioristic views. Phenomenologically oriented theorists argued that personality is not merely passively molded by internal motivational or external situational forces that ‘shape’ what the person becomes. Instead, people are active agents in the world and have a measure of control over their environment and their own lives. In this view, people are considered capable of knowing themselves and of being their own best experts. Self-knowledge and self-awareness become the route to discovering one’s personality and genuine self.

Phenomenological approaches to personality (sometimes called self theories, construct theories, and humanistic theories), tend to reject many of the motivational concepts of psychodynamic theories and most of the environmental determinism of behavioral theories. Instead, their focus is on the development of an active ‘self ’: People develop self-concepts and goals that guide their choices and their life course. Understanding personality, as well as the person’s goals and choices, requires attention to how the individual characteristically perceives, thinks, interprets, and experiences or even ‘constructs’ the personal world.

George Kelly’s (1905–67) theory of personal constructs, for example, emphasized people’s subjective perceptions as the determinants of their behavior. Kelly believed that, just like scientists, people generate constructs and hypotheses both about themselves and about how the world works; they use these constructs to anticipate, understand, and control events in their lives. Therefore to understand people, one has to understand their constructs, or personal theories. Problems develop when the constructs people generate don’t work well for them, when they are ‘bad scientists’ and fail to ‘test’ their constructs or hypotheses against the realities of the environment, or when they see themselves as helpless victims of their own personalities or life situations. Kelly’s principle of ‘constructive alternativism’ held that all events in the world, including one’s own behavior and characteristics, can be construed in multiple, alternative ways. While it is not always possible to change these events, one can always construe them differently, thus influencing how one is affected by them and how one reacts to them.

Carl Rogers (1902–87), another pioneer of the phenomenological approach, proposed two systems: the organism and the self (or self-concept). The organism is the locus of all experience, which includes everything potentially available for awareness. The self is that portion of the perceptual field that is composed of perceptions of characteristics of the ‘I’ or the ‘me.’ It develops from experiences and interactions with the environment, and also shows a tendency towards actualization. Rogers maintained that the central force in the human organism is the tendency to actualize itself—to move constructively in the direction of fulfillment and enhancement. The self may be in opposition or in harmony with the organism. When the self is in opposition or incongruence with the experiences of the organism (e.g., when the self tries to be what others want it to be instead of what it really is), the person may become anxious, defensive, and rigid. However, when the self is open and accepting of all of the organism’s experiences without threat or anxiety, the person is genuinely psychologically adjusted, for the self and the organism are one.

In contemporary work, the ‘self’ is seen as multifaceted and dynamic, consisting of multiple self-concepts that encode different aspects of the person (e.g., self as lover, self as father, the ‘ideal’ self, the ‘actual’ self) and become differentially salient depending on context (Markus and Nurius 1986). According to Higgins (1987) for example, a perceived discrepancy between the mental representation of the person one would ideally like to be (the ideal self) and the representation of who one actually is (the actual self) makes one more vulnerable to feelings of dejection, such as disappointment or dissatisfaction. In contrast, a discrepancy between one’s representation of who one ought to be (the ought self) and the actual self can lead to feelings of agitation such as fear and worry. Motivation for behavior change arises from the conflicts each individual feels among his or her various representations of the self. For instance, upon receiving a low grade on an exam, an undergraduate may subsequently study very hard to relieve the guilt of not living up to what she herself perceives to be her responsibility as an exemplary student. Alternatively, she may re-evaluate her negative interpretation of past events, thinking about all of the good grades she has got in other classes and the myriad of other activities she is involved in.

4. Trait And Biological Approaches

In everyday life, people readily characterize each other in terms of personality characteristics: he or she is friendly, assertive, submissive, conscientious, and so on. The essence of the trait approach, whose fundamental premises date back to the ancient Greeks, is the assumption that behavior is primarily determined by a number of stable, generalized personality traits that express themselves in many contexts. Guided by this assumption, advocates of this approach try to identify and measure individuals’ traits and to discover the most fundamental traits on which people can be compared.

A principal focus of research on traits is on measurement—that is, the development of quantitative ways of finding and describing important stable individual differences. Traits are inferred from questionnaires, ratings, and other reports about the person’s dispositions. Usually, the person’s self-reports (or someone else’s reports about the person) are taken as direct signs of the relevant traits. For example, the more one rates oneself as aggressive, the more one is assumed to have an aggressive disposition. The trait approach recognizes that behavior can vary depending on the situation but has focused on individual differences in the overall response tendency averaged across many situations.

Some consensus has grown among many researchers to focus on five large factors or dimensions of personality that have emerged from statistical analyses of traits. These factors, often referred to as the ‘Big Five,’ comprise openness to new experience, conscientiousness, extraversion (or outgoingness), agreeableness, and neuroticism. Considerable stability has been demonstrated on trait ratings and questionnaires related to the Big Five, particularly during the adult years (McCrae and Costa 1990; see Extraversion; Neuroticism).

In a different direction, the British psychologist Hans Eysenck (1916–97) and his associates have led the way in connecting psychological dispositions to their biological foundations. According to Eysenck, introverts need only a small amount of stimulation to overstimulate their central nervous system (CNS) which then leads them to become withdrawn in their behavior. In extraverts, by contrast, the CNS is not easily stimulated, leading them to seek activities that will increase stimulation levels, for example, by socializing more actively and by seeking activities such as parties. In support of his theory, Eysenck (1971) found that extraverts reported earlier, more frequent, and more varied sexual experiences. In another study, introverts showed greater changes in their brain wave activity in response to low frequency tones (Stelmack and Michmaud-Achron 1985), indicating their lower threshold for stimulation to the CNS.

4.1 Genetic Roots Of Personality

The rapidly developing field of behavioral genetics studies the role of inheritance in personality, both in terms of dimensional traits (such as extraversion– introversion) and temperaments (such as general levels of emotionality, sociability, and activity; see Temperament and Human Development). Behavioral genetics most often uses the ‘twin method’ to assess genetic influence, comparing the degree of similarity on trait measures obtained for genetically identical (mono-zygotic) twins as opposed to twins that are fraternal (dyzygotic) and are only 50 percent similar genetically. To the degree that genetic factors affect a trait, it follows that identical twins must be more similar than fraternal twins with regard to that trait. Estimates of genetic influence vary across studies and measurement strategies. For example, they tend to be higher for selfreports of personality than for observational studies (Miles and Carey 1997). Nevertheless, the general conclusion that identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins has received considerable support, and indicates an important role of heritability in personality (Plomin et al. 1997).

Even highly heritable dispositions, however, can be constrained and limited in their full expression, as when a person’s growth and ultimate height are affected by nutrition, disease, or development. Environmental influences also can change the hard wiring of the brain—the neuronal structures themselves—and thus produce stable changes within the person at the organic level. For example, stress can shrink the size of the hippocampus, a brain structure basic for higher order mental functions (Sapolsky 1996). Thus, although the social environment cannot affect the structure of DNA (barring biochemical or radiation exposure), it can influence their expression, the brain, and the person’s personality.

Unquestionably, one’s genetic endowment has extensive influence on one’s life and personality development. Just as noteworthy, however, the same findings also point to the importance of experiences and the environment for personality (Plomin et al. 1997). The expressions of genetic influences and the situations and events the person experiences are in continuous interaction, and it may be this interplay that is most important in personality development.

5. Social Cognitive Approaches

In the 1960s, a ‘cognitive revolution’ took place in psychology, as attention turned from behavior to the person’s mental (cognitive) processes and structures. Although behavioral approaches had asserted that stimuli control behavior, evidence accumulated to suggest that the perceivers’ mental representations and cognitive transformations of stimuli can determine and even reverse their impact. Such transformations were illustrated in research on the determinants of people’s ability to forgo gratifying their immediate impulses for the sake of more highly desired but temporally distant goals. This kind of ‘willpower’ has been studied extensively in the delay of gratification paradigm, in which preschoolers are faced with the dilemma of being able to have a small, less desired reward now (e.g., one little pretzel or marshmallow) or having to wait instead for a larger, more desired reward (e.g., two little pretzels or two marshmallows). The number of seconds that preschoolers are able to delay predicts a variety of positive developmental outcomes, including their SAT scores and their social competence in adolescence (Mischel et al. 1989; see Self-regulation in Childhood; Self-regulation in Adulthood). The duration of delay time itself depends importantly on how the children represent rewards mentally and selectively attend to different features of the situation. For example, if the young child focuses cognitively on the consummatory qualities of the reward objects, such as the pretzel’s salty, crunchy taste, he or she tends to be able to wait only a short time. By thinking about the stick pretzels as little logs or about the marshmallows as puffy clouds, however, the child may be able to wait much longer for the reward. These results indicate that what is in the children’s heads— not what is physically in front of them—determines their ability to delay.

Concurrent with the cognitive revolution, questions arose about cross-situational traits and psychodynamics as basic units of personality. Walter Mischel (1968) in particular showed that what people do characteristically depends importantly on the situation and context. For example, the person who seems conscientious about work may show a very different pattern with family. These findings indicated that broad trait scores and projective psychodynamic methods do not accurately predict what a given person will do in different kinds of situations and fail to explain the seeming inconsistency or variability that was observed within individuals across those situations.

The social cognitive approach to personality emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as an attempt to understand both the stable ways in which the person cognitively processes social information and the ways in which the person’s behavior varies with regard to the situation. In this approach, the basic ‘units’ of personality are conceptualized as a set of five relatively stable person variables (Mischel and Shoda 1995): the individual’s encodings or construals (of self, other people, situations); expectancies and beliefs (about outcomes and one’s own self-efficacy); subjective goals and values; competencies (for the construction and generation of social behavior) and self-regulatory strategies and plans in the pursuit of goals; and their affects (feelings, emotions, and affective responses). Furthermore, clues about the person’s underlying qualities may be seen in when and where a type of behavior is manifested, not only in its overall frequency. If so, the patterns of situation–behavior relationships shown by a person might be a possible key to individuality and personality coherence, rather than a source of error to be eliminated systematically.

Evidence for the existence and meaningfulness of the stable situation–behavior relations predicted by the social cognitive approach came from an extensive observational study conducted in a residential summer camp setting for children (Shoda et al. 1994). In this study, children’s behavior was recorded specifically in relation to five camp-relevant situations (e.g., being teased, threatened, or provoked by peers; being praised by an adult). The children’s social behavior was observed on selected dimensions (e.g., aggression, withdrawal, friendly behavior) as it occurred in relation to each of the intepersonal situations. The individuals’ situation-behavior, ‘if … then …’ personality ‘signatures’ (e.g., if situation X, then they do A, but if situation Y, then they do B) were found to be both distinctive and stable. For example, one child was consistently more verbally aggressive than others when warned by an adult, but showed less aggression than others on average when approached positively by a peer. In contrast, another child was most verbally aggressive when approached positively by peers, but not particularly aggressive when warned by an adult. To account for such findings, a cognitive-affective personality system (CAPS) theory has been proposed (Mischel and Shoda 1995). In this theory, the individual is characterized not only by the particular subset of goals, ways of encoding the world, and selfregulatory competencies that may be potentially accessible to him or her, but also by the distinctive and stable organization of relationships among the person variables available in the personality system— i.e., the person’s distinctive ‘network.’ When a person encounters a particular situation, the CAPS network is sensitive to particular features of situations, which become encoded and activate situation-relevant cognitions and affects (thoughts and feelings) within the system. These units, in turn, make other cognitions and affects accessible while inhibiting others. The organization of relations within the person’s network remains relatively stable and invariant across situations. However, as the individual moves across situations that contain different psychological features, different mediating units and their characteristic interrelationships become activated in relation to these psychological conditions.

Thus the person’s unique ‘network’—which is distinctive both in the types of mediating units available within the system as well as in the relationships among these units—guides and constrains the activation of the specific cognitions, affects, and potential behaviors

when an individual processes situational features. It constitutes the basic structure of personality and reflects and underlies the individual’s uniqueness. When the ifs posed by the situation change, so do the thens generated by the personality system, but the relationship between them is stable. This type of system is intrinsically interactionist, and has been shown to generate both overall mean differences in a given behavior as well as the specific if … then … profiles that are a person’s behavioral ‘signature.’

To illustrate such a system in action, suppose a person is especially sensitive to rejection and is disposed to expect it, to look for it, and to react intensely to it (Downey and Feldman 1996). Such ‘rejection sensitive’ people may see even innocent or ambiguous behavior from a significant other as intentional rejection, triggering such thoughts as ‘she doesn’t love me,’ which activate further thoughts and feelings of rejection and potential betrayal and abandonment. In turn, the person’s scripts for coercive or controlling behaviors may become activated, leading to angry or hostile and even abusive reactions. Over time such hostility is likely to lead to actual rejection even when there was none before, further strengthening the cycle that characterizes this personality type. Thus, the defining if … then … profile of rejection sensitivity—its behavioral signature—may include both being more prone than others to anger, disapproval, and coerciveness in certain types of situations in intimate relationships, as well as being more supportive, caring, and romantic than most people in other situations (e.g., in initial encounters with potential partners who are not yet committed to them). This example illustrates how the personality system remains stable, although the surface behaviors it generates change in relation to the situation. As in a musical piece, the notes played at any moment change, but they do so in an organized pattern that reflects the structure of the composition.

6. Future Directions: Toward A Cumulative Science Of Personality

Historically, the field of personality has been characterized by many alternative approaches and conceptions of personality which competed against each other. Different approaches and theorists claimed to offer a comprehensive, unitary view of personality, to the exclusion of alternative viewpoints or approaches. However, the different approaches at least in part asked different questions, usually dealing only with selected aspects of the diverse phenomena subsumed under the construct of personality.

Personality psychologists are increasingly recognizing the importance of multiple approaches to understanding the person and many are trying to find ways to integrate them within a broader theoretical framework. Current psychodynamic approaches are beginning to incorporate insights from research on memory to test the fundamental tenets of psychodynamic theory. Similarly, some behavioral approaches are integrating findings on social learning and cognitive processes, aided by current technology to assess interactions between biological variables and learning. The phenomenological approach, with its emphasis on the person’s subjective internal reality, continues to inform work on self-conceptions and how these influence the individual’s choices and life course. Trait approaches are beginning to specify the boundary conditions within which traits will be selectively activated and visible in behavior. Finally, cognitivesocial approaches are incorporating the contributions of cognitive science and social psychology into the same framework used to understand the individual’s characteristic cognitive-affective processes and dynamics. If these trends continue, personality psychology may be evolving into a more unified field that addresses the distinctive characteristics that people have and the psychological processes that underlie them, conceptualized within one overarching theoretical framework.


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