Wortman - Psychology Psychology, 5/e   Wortman, Loftus & Weaver
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Chapter 13 - Theories of Personality

Chapter Summary

Personality can be defined as relatively stable and distinctive styles of thought, behavior, and emotional responses that characterize a person’s adaptations to surrounding circumstances. Thus, the concept of personality has been used to explain what causes people to behave differently in the same situation and to explain an individual’s consistency in responding across situations. Personality results from the interplay of biological and environmental factors. Different personality theorists emphasize different aspects of personality and its development. These approaches include: the psychoanalytic approach (emphasizing the role of early childhood experience and the unconscious in determining adult personality), trait theory (emphasizing characteristics of human behavior that distinguish a person and can be objectively measured), the social cognitive approach (emphasizing how the principles of learning and information processing inf luence personality), the humanistic approach (emphasizing one’s subjective experiences and the potential for human growth, creativity, and spontaneity), and the evolutionary/biological approach (emphasizing behavior patterns that may result from physiology, genetic inheritance, and adaptive pressures from humans’ evolutionary past).

CONCEPT I: Psychoanalytic Theories

Sigmund Freud was the founder of the psychoanalytic approach to personality, although other theorists have modified and expanded his concepts. All such theorists believe that powerful unconscious motives exist and that conflict between motives produces anxiety and defense mechanisms.

According to Freud, the unconscious is the major motivating force in human behavior. Although we cannot directly experience the contents of the unconscious, the contents can reveal themselves in unguarded moments through slips of the tongue, accidents, and revealing jokes.

Freud divided the human psyche into three separate but interacting motivational forces: id, ego, and superego. The unconscious id contains the psychic energy and biological drives. The id operates according to the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification and reduction of tension, regardless of circumstances. The ego begins developing soon after birth and helps the innate id to reduce tension realistically. The ego is present in the conscious mind and functions according to the reality principle, seeking rational solutions to satisfy the id’s demands. The superego (or conscience) develops in childhood and represents the moral standards of society as conveyed to the person by his or her parents. The superego functions to prohibit the expression of the id’s instinctive drives. Thus, the id and superego are often in conflict, and it is the ego’s task to mediate this conflict.

When the ego is losing its struggle to reconcile the demands of id, superego, and reality, anxiety develops. Anxiety is a state of psychic distress and its presence signals that an overwhelming id impulse will lead to some kind of harm. When the ego inhibits the id’s harmful demands, the resulting inner conflict is this anxiety.

Anxiety can be reduced by using defense mechanisms. A defense mechanism is a mental strategy that blocks the harmful id impulse while reducing anxiety. Repression is the most basic defense mechanism; it operates by pushing unacceptable id impulses back into the unconscious. All other defense mechanisms involve repression. Denial is the refusal to acknowledge some threat. Regression reduces anxiety by allowing the person to behave as he or she did at an earlier, less conflict-oriented stage of life. In reaction formation, a person replaces an anxiety-producing impulse or feeling (e.g., hate) with its opposite (e.g., love). Projection occurs when a person unknowingly attaches his or her own objectionable attributes to other people. Displacement is the transfer of unacceptable feelings from their appropriate target to a much safer object; and sublimation is a kind of displacement in which forbidden impulses are diverted toward s ocially desirable goals. Rationalization involves attempting to explain failure or shortcomings in nonthreatening ways. When used in moderation, defense mechanisms can have positive outcomes. They are especially useful in dealing with short-term crisis situations. If they endure, however, they may become the person’s only way of handling anxiety and may prevent the development of healthy relationships, thus causing more problems than they solved.

Since Freud believed that early life experiences laid the groundwork for adult personality, he developed an elaborate theory of personality development. Freud argued that, at different stages in a child’s life, the id’s drive for sexual pleasure centers around different body parts, and that adult personality is shaped by the way the child resolves the conflicts between these early sexual urges and the restrictions imposed by society. Failure to resolve a conflict results in fixation, characterized by the symbolic expression of the conflict throughout life.

The stages in normal development are: the oral stage (where anxiety can result from withholding food when hungry), the anal stage (where anxiety can result from inappropriate toilet training), the phallic stage (in which pleasure focuses on masturbation and conflict comes from inadequate resolution of the Oedipus conflict), the latency stage (in which the sexual impulses remain in the background), and finally the genital stage (in which mature love relationships are possible and sexual intercourse provides pleasure). For Freud, adequate personality development might not result in happiness, but would allow the ability to form relationships and be productive. Although society was shocked at Freud’s suggestion of childhood sexuality, Freud believed that sex was one of the most powerful impulses that shaped personality.

Post-Freudian psychoanalytic theorists have tended to give increased emphasis to the ego rather than the id. They have also tended to emphasize the process of social integration in explaining personality development. Other theorists, such as Erikson, have argued for the extension of critical developmental stages throughout life.

Both Carl Jung and Alfred Adler broke with Freud over disagreements about psychoanalytic theory. Jung objected to Freud’s pessimistic view of the unconscious. To Jung, the unconscious was the source of creativity. He argued that our unconscious also contains the collected memories of the human race, which are reflected in the same way across cultures--in their myths, religion, art, and dreams. Jung saw personality development as a life-long process of striving to reconcile opposing urges. Adler believed that the great human motivation is striving for superiority. Because children are powerless, they experience the inferiority complex. Hence, early social relationships are of primary importance in Adler’s theory.

Karen Horney believed that children feel basic anxiety when their parents are indifferent to them. The basic hostility, or resentment, that develops is repressed and later expresses itself in one of three modes of social interaction: moving toward others (looking for approval), moving against others (finding security in dominating others), or moving away from others (becoming withdrawn). All these self-protective modes produce interpersonal problems.

Erik Erikson agreed with Freud that childhood conflicts and their resolutions are important determinants of later behavior, but he thought the conflicts were social, not sexual, in nature. He also believed that development proceeds throughout adolescence and adulthood, with different fundamental challenges being encountered at each new stage of life.

Ego psychology, a psychoanalytic approach emphasizing the role of the ego and represented by the work of Heinz Hartmann, focuses on the ego’s own autonomy and independence. Object relations theory merges this ego emphasis and the emphasis on social interaction in focusing upon the infant’s social attachments. For example, Margaret Mahler believed that the separation-individuation process that children experience as they separate from their mothers will be repeated throughout life. Heinz Kohut emphasized the child’s development of a sense of vigor and his or her sense of being in control as two critical determinants of personality development.

Freud’s theory has been criticized on several grounds. First, the theory is based on a small atypical sample. Samples have been largely White, upper middle-class, and affluent. Second, the theory may be untestable, since almost any behavior could be taken as support for the theory. Third, Freud’s theory shows a strong gender bias.

This bias is illustrated in how Freud theorized about the Oedipal conflict. According to Freud, boys undergo a more intense Oedipal conflict than girls do because only boys experience castration anxiety (fear of castration for one’s Oedipal impulses). Consequently, boys develop a stronger identification with their same-sex parent than girls do. Hence, Freud reasoned boys would develop a stronger superego. Other psychoanalytic theorists, most notably Karen Horney, have objected to this conclusion. Nevertheless, Freud’s theory of personality has been quite influential.

CONCEPT II: Trait Theories

Whereas psychoanalytic theory deals with how personality develops, trait theories are concerned with the components of personality.

Traits are relatively enduring ways in which one individual differs from another. Trait theorists argue that personality traits are stable over time; personality traits are consistent over situations; and individual differences are the result of differences in strength and combination of traits in a given person.

Gordon Allport identified terms used to describe people which he believed could be grouped into central traits. These central traits characterize each person’s personality. Allport argued that each individual had a unique personality, regardless of any general traits shared with others. Thus, he is sometimes referred to as an idiographic theorist, a theorist who focuses on the unique cluster of characteristics that distinguish each person from others.

In contrast, Raymond Cattell is considered a nomothetic theorist because he focused on finding the general, all-encompassing laws of personality. Cattell viewed the study of personality traits as a science, and thought these traits could be classified. He used factor analysis, a mathematical technique, to identify 16 primary or source traits which describe each person’s personality.

Hans Eysenck’s nomothetic approach involved standardized tests and statistical tools to support his theory that the traits in personality can be reduced to three major dimensions: neuroticism versus emotional stability, introversion versus extroversion, and psychoticism. He believed that differences in brain activity underlie these dimensions. In support of this view, alcohol, which lowers cortical arousal, has been found to make introverts more extroverted. Similarly, amphetamines, which increase cortical arousal, have been found to make extroverts more introverted.

There is an emerging consensus that there are five major dimensions of personality: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.

Trait theories have been criticized in four ways. First, they do not provide a theory of development. Second, they rely too heavily on statistical analyses and interpretations. Third, they exaggerate the consistency of human behavior. Fourth, they lead to circular reasoning in which traits describe behavior and behavior defines traits. Thus, trait theories are better at describing than explaining behavior.

CONCEPT III: Social Cognitive Theories

Social cognitive theories emphasize the active, conscious aspects of personality and suggest that individuals interpret events differently due to their memories, beliefs, and expectations.

One form of social cognitive theory stresses observational learning, or learning by watching others. Social cognitive theories also stress that our behavior is shaped by our expectations, which are continually revised through observational learning. Albert Bandura believes that when people believe they can deal effectively with their situations, a characteristic he calls self-efficacy, they are more likely to try new tasks.

Offering a social cognitive theory to account for how personality styles or expectations are maintained over time, Nancy Cantor has identified three basic elements of personality functioning that distinguish individuals from one another: schemas (organized sets of knowledge), tasks (the goals we set for ourselves), and strategies (the techniques and procedures we use to work on our life tasks). Other social cognitive theorists emphasize self-schemas, the set of knowledge about the self that guides perception and interpretation of information in a social setting.

Although the social cognitive learning approach has been becoming more popular and influential, they do not explain why people tend to show consistent behavior in widely varying situations. Furthermore, they do not prove that the way we think about ourselves determines our behavior; perhaps behavior determines the way we think about ourselves. Finally, social cognitive theories tend to neglect emotions.

CONCEPT IV: Humanistic Theories

The humanistic approach to personality stresses the individual’s unique perception of the world and suggests that all people are free to fulfill their own potential. Humanistic approaches contradict the theories which hold that our behavior is determined by forces beyond our control.

From his practices as a psychotherapist, Carl Rogers came to believe that all humans strive toward self-actualization, the fulfillment of their capabilities and potential. He found, however, that his clients had trouble doing this due to conditional positive regard, the withholding of love and praise unless an individual conforms to parental or social standards. In order to gain praise from others, people incorporates into themselves conditions of worth, strong ideals held about which thoughts and behaviors will bring positive regard and so are desirable and "good." Rogers believed children will become healthy and fully functioning (open, undefensive, realistic, creative, self-determining, and have underlying confidence in themselves) if the conditions of worth they experience are few and reasonable. If not, their self-actualization will be blocked.

Abraham Maslow believed that a person’s primary motivation was self-actualization, but a hierarchy of needs must first be satisfied. This hierarchy is a series of needs that all people have. At the bottom of this hierarchy are the fundamental needs of satisfying physical requirements and acquiring safety. Next are the psychological needs for love and belonging and for self-esteem. Finally, if these needs are satisfied, one can attend to the highest need, self-actualization. Unlike Rogers, Maslow used an analysis of healthy people, both historical figures and present-day people, to develop his ideas.

Don McAdams’s theory of psychobiography combines humanistic theory with Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. McAdams believes that one’s understanding of one’s identity is the key to personality. We are motivated to strive for self-coherence, a view of ourselves as integrated and having a purpose. McAdams argues that our identity develops as we mature and becomes our life story, which can be analyzed in much the same way as a work of literature. The theorist’s job, then, is to collect life stories and analyze them for common and individual themes.

Critics of humanistic theories argue that they are too simple and unscientific. They also fail to offer an explicit theory of development, and are sometimes criticized for being romantically naive. They have contributed to the study of personality by refocusing attention on the self and by providing a positive, optimistic view of the human condition. Although humanistic theory assigns great importance to the possibility of change, past behavior remains an excellent predictor of future behavior (Theme 1).

CONCEPT V: Biological Approaches

Galen, an early Roman physician, held that the four main body fluids (phlegm, black bile, blood, and yellow bile) were related to the four main personality characteristics (phlegmatic, melancholic, sanguine, and choleric). Accordingly, personality problems could be corrected by correcting imbalances in the four main body fluids. This could be accomplished by diet and bathing. Therefore, this early theory formed the basis for a biological theory of personality.

Modern evolutionary approaches argue that to understand the human mind, one must consider the adaptive problems humans faced in our evolutionary past. Successful adaptation is measured by reproductive success, the ability of individuals to reproduce and thereby pass their traits on to the next generation. Current theories recognize that evolutionary factors may influence behavior at different levels: the level of historical context (humans faced the pressure of natural selection over thousands of generations), the level of the ontogenetic context (developmental experiences may predispose individuals to certain kinds of behavior), and the level of the immediate situational inputs (which may modify behavior as well).

Behavioral genetics models suggest that personality comes from genetic contributions, shared environmental influences, and nonshared environmental influences.

Critics of the biological approaches charge that the evolutionary approach involves circular reasoning. Traits found common to all or most people are thought to be adaptive. However, we know these traits are adaptive only because of their being widespread. In addition, past criticisms charging that biological approaches minimize the role of the environment and propose a fatalistic determinism may have been accurate at that time. However, these criticisms are less true of biological approaches today.

CONCEPT VI: Integrating Different Approaches to Personality

Human personality is complex and can therefore be viewed from several different perspectives. Although most psychologists take an eclectic approach to personality, even those who prefer different approaches may share several concepts. These major themes that personality theories all address are: the source and degree of conflict in the personality, the importance of external influences, the importance of continuity and consistency, and the emphasis on self-fulfillment as a goal for personality development.

CONCEPT VII: Personality and Health: Are Some People More "Illness-Prone"?

Type A personality is a label for people who display an excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, hostility, and impatience. Type B personality is a label for people who are calmer and more relaxed than Type A personalities. People with a Type A personality are twice as likely to develop some form of coronary heart disease compared to Type B personalities. The risks of Type A personality were equal to or greater than the risks of high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, or smoking. However, failure to replicate these findings has called their validity into question. Now researchers believe that hostility is the critical factor that predisposes a Type A personality to health risks. Current research provides evidence of some links between psychology and health: chronic illness is associated with being depressed and hostile; recovery from life-threatening illness or serious surgery is influenced by the psychological makeup o f the patient; aspects of personality evident during childhood are related to longevity; and the hostile Type A personality is at increased risk for disease.

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