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Social Sci LibreTexts

11.4: Personality Theory in Real Life

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  • An Evolutionary Perspective on the Development of Pathological Personality Patterns

    In the Appendix, there is a brief presentation of Theodore Millon’s alternative classification scheme for personality disorders, as compared to the DSM-IV (Millon, 1996; Millon & Grossman, 2005). This perspective is based on Millon’s belief that personality disorders represent patterns of thought and behavior that are adaptive, albeit under abnormal conditions, and therefore have been selected for through the process of evolution. Millon believes that it is necessary for psychology to draw upon related fields of science in order to strengthen the entire discipline:

    Much of psychology as a whole remains adrift, divorced from broader spheres of scientific knowledge, isolated from deeper and more fundamental, if not universal, principles…we have failed to draw on the rich possibilities that may be found in both historic and adjacent realms of scholarly pursuit. (pg. 333; Millon & Grossman, 2005)

    Millon and Grossman acknowledge the contributions of sociobiology to our understanding of human behavior, and they offer a sociobiological perspective on personality. Personality, they argue, can be thought of as the distinctive style of adaptive functioning that an individual exhibits as they relate to their typical range of environments. Personality development is healthy when the individual encounters average or relatively normal environments and is effective in adapting to them. Personality disorders arise when the individual relies on maladaptive functioning that can be traced to psychic deficiencies, trait imbalances, or internal conflicts that occur when relating to their environment. In other words, when individuals adapt to abnormal environments (e.g., an abusive home), their personality style may then prove to be maladaptive in situations outside of their typical environment.

    Millon proposes that every person, indeed every organism, must accomplish four basic goals, each of which has two polarities: they must exist (seek pleasure and avoid pain), they must adapt (respond actively or remain passive), they must reproduce (focus on self or focus on others), and they must deal with unexpected or abstract situations (rely on thinking or react to feelings). These four demands correspond to four neurodevelopmental stages: sensory attachment associated with life enhancement (seeking pleasure) or life preservation (avoiding pain), sensorimotor autonomy associated with modifying the environment (active) or accommodating to the environment (passive), pubertal genital identity associated with propagating oneself (self-oriented) or nurturing children (other-oriented), and finally intracortical integration associated with intellect (thinking-oriented) or emotion (feeling-oriented). It should be clear that these stages cover the range of development from birth to young adulthood. In contrast to theories that focus on critical points in development as key times when psychological problems occur:

    …the quality or kind of stimulation the youngster experiences is often of greater importance. The impact of parental harshness or inconsistency, of sibling rivalry or social failure, is more than a matter of stimulus volume and timing. Different dimensions of experience take precedence as the meaning conveyed by the source of stimulation becomes clear to the growing child. (pg. 361; Millon & Grossman, 2005)

    While it is difficult to clearly define what constitutes normal vs. abnormal personalities, in simple terms individuals who are relatively normal are able to shift between and balance the demands of each of these polarities as appropriate to the situations they encounter. When examining individuals with pathological personality patterns (a term preferred by Millon & Grossman, since personality disorder implies a medical condition that might be cured), their behavioral constraints arise primarily from within themselves, due to the abnormal conditions in which they developed. The traits associated with these abnormal personality patterns take on an inner momentum and autonomy, so they are expressed regardless of the external situation. In other words, individuals with pathological personality patterns are not able to appropriately adapt their behaviors to different situations in which they find themselves.

    The following is a description of one abnormal personality type, the self-defeating (masochistic) personality:

    This disorder stems largely from a reversal of the pain-pleasure polarity. These persons interpret events and engage in relationships in a manner that is not only at variance with this deeply rooted polarity but is contrary to the associations these life-promoting emotions usually acquire through learning. To the self-defeating personality, pain may be a preferred experience, tolerantly accepted if not encouraged in intimate relationships. It is often intensified by purposeful self-denial, and blame acceptance may be aggravated by acts that engender difficulties as well as by thoughts that exaggerate past misfortunes and anticipate future ones. (pp. 376-377; Millon & Grossman, 2005)

    As strange as this condition seems, how might it arise? How does a person develop an adaptive strategy that seeks pain, and how can such a strategy actually be adaptive? Imagine an abused child, whose only source of love is the parents who abuse them! In such a terrible situation, the best strategy for the child to adapt might be to reverse the pleasure-pain polarity. This is clearly an extreme response, but one that might make the child’s world easier to endure and less likely to create further abuse. However, when the child grows up and moves on to other relationships, the deeply embedded characteristics of this pathological personality pattern make healthy relationships all but impossible. An important point to make here is that the term adaptive is not always synonymous with our ideas of good psychological health. Adaptation can only be considered within its particular context. And that is exactly the consideration that Millon proposes in his evolutionary perspective on personality development. Each person develops adaptively to their own environment, and as a result they establish persistent characteristics (personality patterns) along the polarities of pain-pleasure, active-passive, self-other, and thinking-feeling. Whether these adaptations are healthy or unhealthy is a matter to be determined after the fact. However, by recognizing how they develop, as psychologists we can attempt to educate others on how to avoid causing these conditions.