Sunday, May 8, 2011

Introduction to Personality

Introduction to Personality

Without definitive definition, the notion of personality continues to fill psychological literature with extensive research and theory. Personality is the continuous presentation of attributes and distinctions that contribute to variety in human thought and behavior (Feist & Feist, 2009). To enable more accurate understanding of such differences and distinctions, theorists develop explanations and parameters from varied contexts. Psychoanalytic, humanistic/existential, dispositional, and learning theories help psychologists account for how and why people develop such individual and specific characteristics and the significant affect these characteristics have on human development, and the whole of human nature.

Personality Defined

Although no consensus exists on the meaning of personality, there is agreement that its etymology derived from the Latin word persona, which refers to masks worn by Roman actors as they performed Greek dramas. The theatrical masks were worn as part of the role actors sought to project to their audience, or as Feist and Feist (2009) describes, a "false appearance" (p. 3). Psychologists do not consider personalities as superficial masks, but more accurately refer to them as relatively permanent attributes and exclusive distinctions that contribute to the regularity and individuality of human behavior (Feist & Feist, 2009). To accommodate the assorted perspectives of personality, psychologists create theories by which to explain personality from a variety of contexts.

Generally accepted by personality theorists are the notions that traits produce differences in individual's behavior, consistent behavior that remains typical over time and cohesive behavioral responses across a variety of situations (Feist & Feist, 2009). Although some traits are common to groups, or shared by cultures, or even species, patterns of these traits are individual-specific and such variation produces unique and exclusive personalities. Additionally, individuals demonstrate specific characteristics including temperament, physical qualities, perceptual abilities, and intellect (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Theoretical Approaches in the Study of Personality

Psychoanalytic Theory

Psychoanalysis, developed by Sigmund Freud, identified three aspects of psychological functioning: the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious (Feist & Feist, 2009). Freud believed unconscious forces created by early childhood experiences influence behavior, emotions, and attitudes, and he designed psychoanalysis to investigate these repressed and unconscious processes he thought nearly inaccessible to other forms of psychological therapy (Feist & Feist, 2009). By analyzing conflicts through confrontation and clarification Freud sought to bring conscious awareness to the unconscious and repressed effects of early experiences.

Although highly criticized, Freud and psychoanalysis remain one of the most influential psychological perspectives in contemporary psychology (Feist & Feist, 2009). Many psychologists argue psychoanalysis is not a true science as its theories and claims are not falsifiable according to the scientific method of investigation. Additionally, it has been criticized as "phallogocentric" as almost exclusively defines the human psyche from a male point of view (Irigaray, 1990). Regardless of these perspectives, recent science has uncovered significant intersection between Freud's theories and neuroscience, which makes a fascinating and compelling case for the synthesis of the two (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Humanistic/Existential Theory

Humanistic theory is predicated on the belief in the fundamental goodness and inherent worth of humankind. Implied in its roots is the notion that by understanding, accepting, and taking responsibility for one's personal existence, self-actualization is possible. Maslow, Rogers, and May designed their theories as a new approach to understanding personality to improve individual satisfaction (Feist & Feist, 2009). Humanism is reality based, and both its theory and therapy focus on the present, and encourage people to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Humanism implies inherent worth in all individuals, merely by being human, claims personal evolution is the primary goal in life, and is accomplished through self-improvement and self-understanding (Heffner, 1999).

Unlike other personality theories, humanism is often adopted by therapists of other perspectives because its core components are of fundamental human value in helping people to evolve and thrive (Heffner, 1999). Central to criticism of this theory is the lack of definitive approaches to specific issues. As humanism incorporates the theory of free will, studying its effectiveness is difficult (Heffner, 1999). Additionally, humanism seems unable to provide therapy for severe personality disorders and mental health pathologies (Heffner, 1999).

Dispositional Theory

Gordon Allport defines personality as the "dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine a person's behavior and thought" (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 398). Dispositional theory holds an optimistic view of human nature and believes healthy people are consciously motivated, maintain healthy relationships, and relate realistically to their environment (Heffner, 1999). This theory describes personality traits called dispositions and Allport theorized central traits form the fundamental structure of individual personalities and secondary traits contribute to less important characteristics. Allport considers insight and humor inherent in human nature, although dysfunctional mental processes can destroy or alter these intrinsic characteristics. He rejects psychoanalytic theory and behavioral views, as he believes destiny and personality traits are determined by more overt motives and the choices we continue to make.

Dispositional theory has been criticized for being descriptive but not explanatory as there is no discussion of the underlying causes of personality. In Allport's defense, he claimed neither his theory was comprehensive nor did he claim its basis on scientific investigation (Feist & Feist, 2009). Dispositional theory is not considered falsifiable by the scientific community, but it does provide a "stimulating and enlightening approach" to personality (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 396).

Learning Theory

Learning theories address how people learn. Personality from this perspective is an accumulation of learned inclinations during the lifespan (Feist & Feist, 2009). The basic assumption of the learning perspective is that behavior is learned by experiences of interaction with the environment. Learning theories claim personality differences arise from various experiences, and it addresses environmental influences and events that can be measured and scientifically studied (Feist & Feist, 2009). For its ability to be evaluated by scientific methods, learning theories were embraced by the scientific and psychological community.

Learning theorists accounted for a variety of different perspectives on personality. Skinner noted personality as "at best a repertoire of behavior imparted by an organized set of contingencies" (Skinner, 1974, as cited by Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 472). Bandura recognized observational learning enables individuals to learn without performing behavior. His thoughtfully evolved social cognitive theory continues to influence research, and his notion of self-efficacy endures with its far-reaching implications in learning. Rotter and Mischel attempted to blend the forces of reinforcement theory with cognitive learning theory, but some aspects are hypothetical and cannot be tested. Learning theories are criticized for neither accommodating "individual differences, intelligence, genetic factors, nor the whole realm of personality" (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 472).

Factors that may Influence an Individual's Personality Development

Influences on individual personality development include biological, cultural, familial, social, and situational factors that can be conscious or unconscious (Zuckerman, 2004). Biological factors are heritable features such as physical stature, attractiveness, sex, and temperament. Many personality theorists believe personality can be explained by the genetic chromosomal constitution of individuals (Bouchard, 1994). Each individual has a unique neural system whose affect is significant on personality and behavior (Bouchard, 1994).

Cultural factors, although mostly below the threshold of conscious awareness, maintain expected and accepted behaviors and define the range of available experiences, and values. Cultural norms often reinforce specific personality characteristics. Birth order and the personalities of the other family members will influence the development of the child's personality as well as the values exampled by the parents (Zuckerman, 2004). Social interactions and personal and social conflicts create specific environments by which certain characteristics are expressed and provoked and promote change and evolution (Mischel & Shoda, 1995). Additionally, acute stress and chronic situational difficulties such as personal or family illness can permanently alter personality traits (Zuckerman, 2004).


Although the notion of personality has not yet been defined by singular definition, there is consensus that personality has a powerful affect on development and the individuality of humankind's varied character. Theories of personality build their foundations on the somewhat malleable characteristics and traits contrived by biology, situational and social interactions, and individual responses to environmental factors (Mischel & Shoda, 1995). Often theories are based on assumptions and limited perspectives rather than scientifically proven facts, and psychologists are compelled to continually redefine, refute, and discover new parameters by which to understand the distinct masks of individuality by which human nature's character is defined.


Bouchard, T. (1994). Genes, environment, and personality. Science, 264(5166), 1700-1701. doi: 10.1126/science.8209250

Feist, J., & Feist, G. (2009). Theories of personality (7th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Heffner, C. L. (1999). Humanistic theory in personality synopsis at ALLPSYCH Online. Psychology Classroom at AllPsych Online. Retrieved April 19, 2011, from

Irigaray, L. (1990). Speculum de l'autre femme. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: reconceptualizing situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure. Psychological Review, 102(2), 246-268. doi: 10.1037//0033-295X.102.2.246

Zuckerman, M. (2004). The shaping of personality: genes, environments, and chance encounters. Journal of Personality Assessment, 82(1), 11-22. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa8201_3

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