Published 24 Feb 2017
Puzzling people move all around us. You are one and I am one. Evidence to show that we are single, clearcut individuals is meager; in fact, a large number of studies indicate that each of us alters our personalities and behaves differently, depending upon circumstances. Apparently the same ability holds true regarding ourselves. We do all manner of quite bizarre things that don’t fit together objectively—like the good Christian tax-evader—but these contradictions don’t make us come apart or feel we are two different people—instead, I am just me, all one person. We see all parts of ourselves as fitting together; usually it is the mental patient, ironically, who detects the discrepancies, and they are quite worrisome to him.
Personality theorists fall prey to the desire for unity for its own sake all the time. As one author has pointed out, for example, if a woman is sometimes fiercely independent and sometimes rather docile, the psychologist tends to lump these two behaviors together, concluding, for example, that she is actually quite independent and dominating, but to satisfy this need for domination, sometimes she must “pretend” to be docile (Mischel, 2001). This is pretty tricky reasoning. The point is that personality theorists to oversimplify; at least be aware of this as we discuss personality.Nonetheless, science cannot advance without some organization, and personality theories provide this structure, that is, something psychologists can at least “grab hold of” so they have some framework for discussion and experimentation.
Personality is difficult to define for at least two reasons. For one, personality is differently defined by different theorists. Freud, for example, would have said that personality is made up of behavior patterns resulting from the handling of sexual and aggressive impulses during childhood. Others see the origins of behavior differently. The second difficulty is that personality is the ultimate in complexity and variability. How do we explain Mr. Jones, who is the following: a tax-evader, a shifty business operator during the week, a faithful and apparently sincere churchgoer on Sunday, a dynamo at work and very meek at home?
What is personality? Any definition could give rise to legitimate complaints. But, in order to give the discussion some structure, a definition is needed: personality consists of relatively enduring behavior patterns that result in fairly consistent reactions to a number of different situations.Personality theory attempts to pinpoint specific types of people, determine what is responsible for producing that type of person, and make predictions about their behavior that will hold true most of the time.
A. The Meaning of Personality
Personality is a fascinating area of study, but a difficult concept to define. In this study, we define personality as the organization of an individual’s distinguishing characteristics, attitudes, or habits; it includes the individual’s unique ways of thinking, behaving, or otherwise experiencing the environment. The qualities that make up one’s personality are relatively stable and organized into a totality.
With this definition of personality in mind, we can identify four separate tasks that personality psychologists have addressed (Runyan, 2003).
To analyze individual and group differences. Why are people different from each other? Are members of some groups more similar to each other than other groups? For example, are there personality dimensions that influence the way we experience life events such as the midlife transition?
To understand particular individuals. Students tell us that this is a major reason that they take introductory psychology. They want to find out what makes people—themselves and others— do the things they do.
To study personality processes. There are many personality processes, including altruism and sex-role differences. For example, are masculinity and feminity dimensions of personality that influence behavior in predictable ways?To develop general theories of personality. Theories of personality are unified explanations for the totality of individual behavior.
A. Research Issues in Personality
Psychologists have approached these tasks using a wide variety of research methods (Craik, 2003). Knowledge about people’s personalities can be obtained from their everyday conduct, as is the case in field studies. People also reveal themselves through the products of their imaginations, and this technique is used when personality tests known as projective tests are given to people. A straightforward approach to gathering personality data is to ask people to fill out self-report inventories about their characteristics. With this method, two risks are apparent: People may not be fully aware of what they are like; and if they are, they may wish to cover up some of the flaws they perceive. We gain information of a different sort about personality when we ask others for their impressions of specific people. This technique is known as the use of observer reports in research. Life histories, such as those biographies and autobiographies, and archival material provide a rich source of data on particular individuals for the study of personality. Clinical case histories, on which many of the major theories are based, fall into this category. The most carefully controlled information comes from behavior in laboratory studies of personality. Although control is maximized in laboratory studies, it is sometimes at the expense of naturalistic experiences.
No single source of information about personality is the ideal, correct source. All these methods are important for obtaining information about personality. Published research on personality, however, relies heavily on self-report inventories and laboratory studies with limited samples of people. Between 1998 and 2002, 85% of the research published in major journals used these two methods, and approximately two thirds of the research used under-graduate samples (Craik, 2003). However, there has been a trend in recent years toward greater use of biographical material, sometimes referred to as psychobiography, in the study of personality (Alexander, 2003).
B. Psychoanalytic Models of Personality
According to psychoanalytic models of personality, people are born with psychic energy that is transformed and redirected during their normal course of development into complex human behavior. In the psychoanalytic view, the human mind is an active agent, with divisions that keep some material from entering conscious experience. We consider in detail psychoanalytic view, the human mind is an active agent, with divisions that keep some material from entering conscious experience. We consider in detail the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and, to a lesser extent, other psychoanalytic perspectives.
Freud’s Psychosexual Theory
Freud developed most of his theory through his studies of his patients, people who sought his help or were referred to him for help for psychological problems. These problems, he believed, were related to the ways that instinctual energy was channeled. For example, patients suffering from hysteria, a disorder in which physical symptoms are present without apparent organic basis, were suspected if allowing their sexual energy to build up without appropriately discharging (Freud, 1977).
According to Freud, there are two sources of instinctual energy that “are the ultimate cause of all activity” (Freud, 1977). One instinct accounts for feelings and behavior related to self-preservation and preservation of the species, including sexual behavior; Freud called this the life instinct (eros). The other instinct, called the death instinct (thanatos), impels the person toward aggression and destruction (Freud, 1977). Most of Freud’s work on personality was concerned with the life instinct. However, Freud’s views in aggression and its place in civilization merit a slight digression.
Primitive people, according to Freud, had no restrictions on the expressions of their instincts. Expression of sexual urges was not restricted by social norms and decorum. Contemporary civilized societies, however, place fairly rigid restrictions on sexual expression. We can only have intercourse in appropriate places and with certain people or we face severe social sanctions. Similarly, civilization limits expression of our aggressive instincts.
Freud felt that aggression was a derivative of the death instinct, and that it could be channeled in two different directions. If directed toward the self, then the individual risks self-destruction. If directed away from the self, aggression is the result. Because of the instinct demands some kind of expression, a decrease in aggression increases the risk of self-destruction (Freud, 1977). Freud’s views on aggression are controversial in a number of respects. For one thing, he tells us that civilization itself is part of our problem.
From a practical point of view, Freud’s notion that aggression is an instinct that demands some kind of release—instead of a form of social behavior that can be increased or decreased through environmental circumstances—is especially controversial. Consider the case of television violence. If Freud’s views are correct, then watching televised violence might actually be a good thing. People could reduce their aggressive instincts through catharsis, on relief of the emotions from viewing the experiences of others.
Perhaps no aspect of everyday life is more common than watching television. In the average American household the television set is on more than 6 hours a day, and the average child between the ages of 2 and 11 watches it for about 3 hours daily. Estimates are that by high school graduation, the average American child will have spent 11,000 hours in the classroom and 15,000 hours watching television. Programs aimed specifically at children, such as Saturday morning cartoons, contain a great deal of violence. The National Institute of Mental Health’s report on television and behavior estimates that children’s weekend programs contain more violence than do prime-time shows (NIMH, 2002). Hundred of studies have examined the relationship between television violence and actual aggression among viewers. In one of these studies, more than 500 children in grades 1 through 5 participated in a short-term longitudinal study.
- Alexander, I. (2003). Personality, psychological assessment, and psychobiography. Journal of Personality, 56, 265-294.
- Craik, F.I.M. (2003). Personality research methods: A Historical perspective. Journal of personality, 54, 18-51.
- Freud, S. (1977). Analysis of a phobia in five year old boy. In A Strachey & J. Strachey (Eds. And Trans.), (Vol. 10,pp. 165-305). New York: Penguin (Penguin Freud Library).
- Mischel, W. (2001). Continuity and change in personality. Amer. Psychol. 34:1012-1018.
- National Institute Mental Health (2002). Television and behavior: Ten years of scientific progress and implications for the eighties: Vol. 6. Summary report (DHHS Publication No. ADM 95-1195). Washington, DC:US Government Printing Office.
- Pervin, L.A. (2005). Personality: Current controversies, issues, and directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 36, 83-114.
- Runyan, W.M. (2003). Progress in psychobiography. Journal of Personality, 56, 295-326.