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1.2: Definitions and Descriptions of Personality

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    It would seem to make sense that we should begin our study of personality by defining the term. Unfortunately, there is no single definition that fits the variety of theories that have been developed in the field of personality research. Most psychologists agree that the term personality comes from the Latin word persona, a term referring to the masks worn by actors performing ancient Greek plays. Often there were not enough actors available to play all of the roles in a play, so they would wear these masks to let the audience know that they were playing different roles. But are our personalities just masks? Freud certainly considered the unconscious mind to be very important, Cattell considered source traits to be more important than surface traits, and Buddhists consider the natural world (including the self) to be an illusion. Adler believed the best way to examine personality is to look at the person’s style of life, and Rogers felt that the only person who could truly understand you is yourself. What definition could possibly encompass all that?

    Still, we need a working definition as a starting point for discussion. Borrowing loosely from Allport’s definition of personality, personality can be viewed as the dynamic organization within an individual of various psychological factors that determines the person’s characteristic thoughts and behaviors. In simpler terms, a variety of factors blend together to create each person, and as a result of those factors the individual is most likely to think and act in somewhat predictable ways. However, given the complexity of human life, those predictions may prove to be elusive. Theodore Millon (1996, 2004; Millon & Grossman, 2005), a renowned clinician and theorist in the field of personality disorders, has sought a definition of personality broad enough to encompass both normal and abnormal personality. Millon describes the modern view of personality as a complex pattern of psychological characteristics that are deeply embedded, largely unconscious, and resistant to change. These intrinsic and pervasive traits arise from a complex matrix of biological dispositions and experiential learning, and express themselves automatically in nearly every aspect of the individual’s unique pattern of perceiving, feeling, thinking, coping, and behaving (e.g., Millon, 1996).

    Another challenge we face in defining personality is how we approach the question in the first place. Traditionally, there have been two basic approaches to the study of personality: the nomothetic perspective and the idiographic perspective. The nomothetic perspective seeks to identify general rules that pertain to personality as a construct (a working hypothesis or concept used to identify something we can describe but not see, such as IQ or the self). Thus, it can be rather abstract, and often fails to appreciate the uniqueness of individuals. In contrast, the idiographic perspective focuses specifically on the individuality and uniqueness of each person. Although the idiographic approach often seems more appealing to students, especially since it enhances their self-esteem by considering them as individually important, it is difficult for any theory of personality to encompass research that treats only one person at a time. Such a theory would naturally suffer from problems of generalizability, and may be useful for therapists working with one patient or client at a time, but it will not be particularly useful for enhancing our overall understanding of personality in general. It is important to note, however, that many early personality theories were based on individual case studies, and this critique is one that we will see several times in this book.

    As is often the case in psychology, the best approach may be to attempt blending the nomothetic and idiographic perspectives, seeking the generalizability of the nomothetic perspective’s general principles on personality and personality development - while maintaining an appreciation for the idiographic perspective’s recognition of the value of an individual’s unique character. Millon (1996) suggests an integrative approach to defining personality. Not only would an integrative approach combine the nomothetic and idiographic perspectives, it would also help to bring together the two broad traditions of clinical and applied psychology. Clinical psychologists are compelled by the nature of their work with patients, or clients, to try to understand the individual. Thus, they need to follow a more idiographic approach. In contrast, applied psychologists (e.g., experimental psychologists) are more construct-focused, and find the nomothetic approach more appealing and useful for developing generalizable theories on the nature of various aspects of personality. If personality can be defined in a satisfactory way by an integrative approach, then clinicians may benefit more from applied research, and experimental psychologists may see their work more directly applied in clinical settings where it may help people in our society.

    In order to better understand how some of the different disciplines within the field of psychology contribute to our definition of personality, let’s take a brief look at some of the widely recognized factors that come into play:

    Discussion Question: The nomothetic and idiographic perspectives approach personality in very different ways. Do you believe that your personality can be described in a way that might also be used to describe the personalities of other people (maybe your friends), or do you feel it is necessary to describe each person as an individual?

    Psychodynamic Factors

    The very word “psychodynamic” suggests that there are ongoing interactions between different elements of the mind. Sigmund Freud not only offered names for these elements (id, ego, and superego), he proposed different levels of consciousness. Since the unconscious mind was very powerful according to Freud, one of the first and most enduring elements of psychodynamic theory is that we are often unaware of why we think and act the way we do. Add to that the belief that our personality is determined in early childhood, and you can quickly see that psychological problems would be very difficult to treat. Perhaps more importantly, since we are not aware of many of our own thoughts and desires, it would difficult or even impossible for us to choose to change our personality no matter how much we might want to.

    Most psychodynamic theorists since Freud have expanded the influences that affect us to include more of the outside world. Those theorists who remained loyal to Freud, typically known as neo-Freudians, emphasized the ego. Since the ego functions primarily in the real world, the individual must take into account the influence of other people involved in their lives. Some theorists who differed significantly from the traditional Freudian perspective, most notably Alfred Adler and Karen Horney, focused much of their theories on cultural influences. Adler believed that social cooperation was essential to the success of each individual (and humanity as a whole), whereas Horney provided an intriguing alternative to Freud’s sexist theories regarding women. Although Horney based her theories regarding women on the cultural standing between men and women in the Victorian era, to a large extent her theory remains relevant today.

    Learning and Cognitive Factors

    As a species, human beings are distinguished by their highly developed brains. Animals with less-developed nervous systems rely primarily on instinctive behavior, but very little on learning. While the study of animals’ instinctive behavior is fascinating, and led to a shared Nobel Prize for the ethologists Nikolaas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch, animal behavior remains distinctly limited compared to the complex learning and cognitive tasks that humans can readily perform (Beck, 1978; Gould, 1982). Indeed, the profound value of our abilities to think and learn may be best reflected in the fact that, according to Tinbergen’s strict definition of instinct (see Beck, 1978), humans appear not to have any instinctive behavior anymore. Yet we have more than made up for it through our ability to learn, and learning theory and behaviorism became dominant forces in the early years of American psychology.

    John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner are among the most famous and influential of American psychologists. Learning about their groundbreaking research on classical and operant conditioning is standard fare in psychology courses. More recently, Albert Bandura has enjoyed similar popularity and respect in the field of social learning theory. Anyone who has children knows full well how eagerly they observe us and mimic our actions and speech. An important aspect of the learning perspective is that our personalities may develop as a result of the rewards and/or punishments we receive from others. Consequently, we should be able to shape an individual’s personality in any way we want. Early behaviorists, like Watson, suggested that they could indeed take any child and raise them to be successful in any career they chose for them. Although most parents and teachers try to be a good influence on children, and to set good examples for them, children are often influenced more by their peers. What children find rewarding may not be what parents and teachers think is rewarding. This is why a social-cognitive approach to learning becomes very important in understanding personality development. Social-cognitive theorists, like Bandura, recognize that children interact with their environment, partly determining for themselves what is rewarding or punishing, and then react to the environment in their own unique way.

    As suggested by the blend of behaviorism and cognition that Bandura and others proposed, there is a close association between behaviorism and the field of cognitive psychology. Although strict behaviorists rejected the study of unobservable cognitive processes, the cognitive field has actually followed the guidelines of behaviorism with regard to a dispassionate and logical observation of the expression of cognitive processes through an individual’s behavior and what they say. Thus, the ability of human beings to think, reason, analyze, anticipate, etc., leads them to act in accordance with their ideas, rather than simply on the basis of traditional behavioral controls: reward, punishment, or associations with unconditional stimuli. The success of the cognitive approach when applied to therapy, such as the techniques developed by Aaron Beck, has helped to establish cognitive theory as one the most respected areas in the study of personality and abnormal psychology.

    Biological Factors

    Although humans may not exhibit instinctive behavior, we are still ultimately a product of our biological makeup, our specific DNA pattern. Our individual DNA pattern is unique, unless we happen to be an identical twin, and it not only provides the basis for our learning and cognitive abilities, it also sets the conditions for certain aspects of our character. Perhaps the most salient of these characteristics is temperament, which can loosely be described as the emotional component of our personality. In addition to temperament, twin studies have shown that all aspects of personality appear to be significantly influenced by our genetic inheritance (Bouchard, 1994; Bouchard & McGue, 1990; Bouchard et al., 1990). Even such complex personality variables as well-being, traditionalism, and religiosity have been found to be highly influenced by our genetic make-up (Tellegen et al., 1988; Waller et al., 1990).

    Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists also emphasize the role of genetics and adaptation over time. Sociobiologists consider how biological factors influence social behavior. For example, they would suggest that men are inclined to prefer multiple sexual partners because men are biologically capable of fathering many children, whereas women would be inclined to favor one successful and established partner, because a woman must physically invest a year or more in each child (a 9-month pregnancy followed by a period of nursing). Similarly, evolutionary psychologists consider how human behavior has been adaptive for our survival. Humans evolved from plant-eating primates, we are not well suited to defend ourselves against large, meat-eating predators. As a group, however, and using our intellect to fashion weapons from sticks and rocks, we were able to survive and flourish over time. Unfortunately, the same adaptive influences that guide the development of each healthy person can, under adverse conditions, lead to dysfunctional behaviors, and consequently, psychological disorders (Millon, 2004).

    Discussion Question: Some research suggests that personality is largely determined by genetics. Do you see similarities in your personality as compared to your parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, etc.? Do you think that your environment, things like your community, your friends, television, movies, the Internet, etc., are more influential than your biological inheritance from your parents?

    Inherent Drives

    Freud believed that we are motivated primarily by psychosexual impulses, and secondarily by our tendency toward aggression. Certainly it is necessary to procreate for the species to survive, and elements of aggression are necessary for us to get what we need and to protect ourselves. But this is a particularly dark and somewhat animalistic view of humanity. The humanistic psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow believed in a positive view of people, they proposed that each of us contains an inherent drive to be the best that we can be, and to accomplish all that we are capable of accomplishing. Rogers and Maslow called this drive self-actualization. Interestingly, this concept is actually thousands of years old, and having spent time in China, Rogers was well aware of Buddhist and Yogic perspectives on the self.

    Somewhat related to the humanistic concept of self-actualization, is the existential perspective. Existential theorists, like Rollo May, believe that individuals can be truly happy only when they find some meaning in life. In Eastern philosophical perspectives, coming from Yoga and Buddhism, meaning in life is found by realizing that life is an illusion, that within each of us is the essence of one universal spirit. Indeed, Yoga means “union,” referring to union with God. Thus, we have meaning within us, but the illusion of our life is what distracts us from realizing it.

    Discussion Question: Do you feel that you are driven to accomplish something great, or to find some particular meaning in life? Do you believe that there might be pathways to guide you, particularly spiritual or religious pathways?

    Sociocultural Influences

    Culture can broadly be defined as “everything that people have, think, and do as members of a society” (Ferraro, 2006a), and appears to be as old as the Homo genus itself (the genus of which we, as Homo sapiens, are the current representatives; Haviland et al., 2005). Culture has also been described as the memory of a society (see Triandis & Suh, 2002). Culture is both learned and shared by members of a society, and it is what the makes the behavior of an individual understandable to other members of that culture. Everything we do is influenced by culture, from the food we eat to the nature of our personal relationships, and it varies dramatically from group to group. What makes life understandable and predictable within one group may be incomprehensible to another. Despite differences in detail, however, there are a number of cultural universals, those aspects of culture that have been identified in every cultural group that has been examined historically or ethnographically (Murdock, 1945; see also Ferraro, 2006a). Therefore, if we truly want to understand personality theory, we need to know something about the sociocultural factors that may be the same, or that may differ, between groups.

    In 1999, Stanley Sue proposed that psychology has systematically avoided the study of cross-cultural factors in psychological research. This was not because psychologists themselves are biased, but rather, it was due to an inherent bias in the nature of psychological research (for commentaries see also Tebes, 2000; Guyll & Madon, 2000; and Sue, 2000). Although some may disagree with the arguments set forth in Sue’s initial study, it is clear that the vast majority of research has been conducted here in America, primarily by American college professors studying American psychology students. And the history of our country clearly identifies most of those individuals, both the professors and the students, as White, middle- to upper-class men. The same year, Lee et al. (1999) brought together a collection of multicultural perspectives on personality, with the individual chapters written by a very diverse group of authors. In both the preface and their introductory chapter, the editors emphasize that neither human nature nor personality can be separated from culture. And yet, as suggested by Sue (1999), they acknowledge the general lack of cross-cultural or multicultural research in the field of personality. Times have begun to change, however. In 2002, the American Psychological Association (APA) adopted a policy entitled “Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists (which is available online at The year 2002 also saw a chapter in the prestigious Annual Review of Psychology on how culture influences the development of personality (Triandis & Suh, 2002). In a fascinating article on whether psychology actually matters in our lives, former APA president and renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo (2004) identified the work of Kenneth and Mamie Clark on prejudice and discrimination, which was presented to the United States Supreme Court during the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, KS case (which led to the end of school segregation in America) as one of the most significant impacts on American life that psychology has contributed to directly (see also Benjamin & Crouse, 2002; Keppel, 2002; Pickren & Tomes, 2002). Finally, an examination of American Psychologist (the principle journal of APA) and Psychological Science (the principle journal of the American Psychological Society) since the year 2000 reveals studies demonstrating the importance of cross-cultural research in many areas of psychology (see Table \(\PageIndex{1}\)). So, although personality theorists, and the field of psychology in general, have been somewhat slow to address cross-cultural and diversity issues, in more recent years psychologists appear to be rapidly gaining a greater appreciation of the importance of studying human diversity in all its forms.

    As mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this chapter, one of the primary goals of this book is to incorporate different cultural perspectives into our study of personality theory, to take more of a global perspective than has traditionally been done. Why is this important? It is actually very easy to point out the answer to that question. The United States of America has less than 300 million people. India has nearly 1 billion people, and China has over 1 billion people. So, two Asian countries alone have nearly 7 times as many people as the United States. How can we claim to be studying personality if we haven’t taken into account the vast majority of people in the world? Of course, we haven’t entirely ignored these two particular countries, because two of the most famous personality theorists spent time in these countries when they were young. Carl Jung spent time in India, and his theories were clearly influenced by ancient Vedic philosophy, and Carl Rogers spent time in China while studying to be a minister. So it is possible to draw connections between Yoga, Buddhism, psychodynamic theory, and humanistic psychology. Sometimes this will involve looking at differences between cultures, and other times we will focus on similarities. At the end of the book I hope you will appreciate not only the diversity of personality and personality theory, but also the connections that tie all of us together.

    Discussion Question: Do you notice cultural differences around you every day, or do you live in a small community where everyone is very much the same? What sort of challenges do you face as a result of cultural differences, either because you deal with them daily or because you have little opportunity to experience them?

    Some Basic Questions Common to All Areas of Personality Theory

    In addition to the broad perspectives described above, there are a number of philosophical questions that help to bring the nature of personality into perspective. Thinking about how these questions are answered by each theory can help us to compare and contrast the different theories.

    Is our personality inherited, or are we products of our environment? This is the classic debate on nature vs. nurture. Are we born with a given temperament, with a genetically determined style of interacting with others, certain abilities, with various behavioral patterns that we cannot even control? Or are we shaped by our experiences, by learning, thinking, and relating to others? Many psychologists today find this debate amusing, because no matter what area of psychology you study, the answer is typically both! We are born with a certain range of possibilities determined by our DNA. We can be a certain height, have a certain IQ, be shy or outgoing, we might be Black, Asian, White or Hispanic, etc. because of who we are genetically. However, the environment can have a profound effect on how our genetic make-up is realized. For example, an abused child may become shy and withdrawn, even though genetically they were inclined to be more outgoing. A child whose mother abused alcohol during the pregnancy may suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, the leading cause of preventable mental retardation, even though the child was genetically endowed with the possibility of being a genius. So the best perspective may be that our genetic make-up provides a range of possibilities for our life, and the environment in which we grow determines where exactly we fall within that range.

    Are we unique, or are there common types of personality? Many students want to believe that they are special and truly unique, and they tend to reject theories that try to categorize individuals. However, if personality theories were unique to each person, we could never possibly cover all of the theories! Also, as unique as you may be, aren’t many people, like your friends, similar to you? In order to understand and compare people, personality theorists need to consider that there are common aspects of personality. It is up to each of us to decide whether we are still willing to find what is unique and special about each separate person.

    Which is more important, the past, present, or future? Many theorists, particularly psychodynamic theorists, consider personality to be largely determined at an early age. Similarly, those who believe strongly in the genetic determination of personality would consider many factors set even before birth. But what prospects for growth does this allow, can people change or choose a new direction in their life? Cognitive and behavioral theorists focus on specific thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are influencing our daily lives, whereas existential theorists search for meaning in our lives. Other theorists, such as the humanists and those who favor the spiritually-oriented perspectives we will examine, consider the future to be primary in our goals and aspirations. Self-actualization is something we can work toward. Indeed, it may be an inherent drive.

    Do we have free will, or is our behavior determined? Although this question seems similar to the previous one, it refers more to whether we consciously choose the path we take in life as compared to whether our behavior is specifically determined by factors beyond our control. We already mentioned the possibility of genetic factors above, but there might also be unconscious factors and stimuli in our environment. Certainly humans rely on learning for much of what we do in life, so why not for developing our personalities? Though some students don’t want to think of themselves as simply products of reinforcement and punishment (i.e., operant conditioning) or the associations formed during classical conditioning (anyone have a phobia?), what about the richness of observational learning? Still, exercising our will and making sound choices seems far more dignified to many people. Is it possible to develop our will, to help us make better choices and follow through on them? Yes, according to William James, America’s foremost psychologist. James considered our will to be of great importance, and he included chapters on the will in two classic books: Psychology: Briefer Course,published in 1892 and Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, which was published in 1899. James not only thought about the importance of the will, he recommended exercising it. In Talks to Teachers…, he sets forth the following responsibility for teachers of psychology:

    But let us now close in a little more closely on this matter of the education of the will. Your task is to build up a character in your pupils; and a character, as I have so often said, consists in an organized set of habits of reaction. Now of what do such habits of reaction themselves consist? They consist of tendencies to act characteristically when certain ideas possess us, and to refrain characteristically when possessed by other ideas.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sampling of Cross-Cultural Research in Select

    Psychology Journals Since the Year 2000

    Attachment Chao, 2001; Gjerde, 2001; Kondo-Ikemura, 2001; Posada & Jacobs, 2001; Rothbaum et al., 2000; Rothbaum et al., 2001; van Ijzendoorn & Sagi, 2001
    Child Development Callaghan et al., 2005; Goldin-Meadow & Saltzman, 2000; Lal, 2002
    Cognitive Dissonance Kitayama et al., 2004
    Cognition and Creativity Antonio et al., 2004; German & Barrett, 2005; Hong et al., 2000; Leung et al., 2008; Norenzayan & Nisbett, 2000; Tomasello, 2000
    Conflict and Perceptions of Safety Eidelson & Eidelson, 2003; Graham, 2006; Juvonen et al., 2006; Van Vugt et al., 2007
    Cooperation Wong & Hong, 2005
    Cultural Research and Cultural Competency in Psychotherapy Goldston et al., 2008; Heine & Norenzayan, 2006; Leong, 2007; Matsumoto & Yoo, 2006; Smith et al., 2006; Sue, 2003; Vasquez, 2007; Whaley & Davis, 2007
    Education Tucker & Herman, 2002
    Emotion Elfenbein & Ambady, 2003; Frijda & Sundararajan, 2007; Hejmadi et al., 2000; Tsai, 2007
    Globalization, Nationality, Race Relations Arnett, 2002; Heine et al., 2008; Henry & Hardin, 2006; Inglehart et al., 2008; McCrae & Terracciano, 2006; Sue, 2004; Tropp & Pettigrew, 2005
    Family Dynamics Dudley-Grant, 2001; Halpern, 2001; Kameguchi & Murphy-Shigematsu, 2001; Kaslow, 2001
    Goal-Seeking Behavior Elliot et al., 2001; Markus et al., 2006
    Intelligence Daley et al., 2003; Sternberg, 2004
    Learning Gurung, 2003; Li, 2003; Li, 2005; McBride-Chang & Treiman, 2003; Tweed & Lehman, 2002; Tweed & Lehman, 2003
    Memory Cohen & Gunz, 2002; Fivush & Nelson, 2004
    Neural Substrates of Attention Hedden et al., 2008
    Perception and Spatial Representation Bar-Haim et al., 2006; Cohen & Gunz, 2002; Dobel et al., 2007; Feng et al., 2007; Ji et al., 2001; Kitayama et al., 2003; Leung & Cogen, 2007; Maass & Russo, 2003; Miyamoto et al., 2006
    Self, Self-esteem, Social Perspective Perunovic & Heller, 2007; Wang, 2006a,b; Wu & Keysar, 2007; Yamagishi et al., 2008; Yamaguchi et al., 2007
    Stress Responses Taylor et al., 2007

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Brief Comparison of Factors Influencing Personality

    Psychodynamic Factors Emphasis is on the unconscious mind, interactions between elements of the mind, early childhood experiences, stages of development, defense mechanisms, etc.
    Learning and Cognitive Factors Emphasis is on environmental stimuli and/or thought patterns that predictably influence behavior; focus is on observable behavior or identifiable thoughts.
    Biological Factors Emphasis is on genetic factors, which set ranges within which the individual may develop. This approach does not ignore the environment, but genetic factors (e.g., inborn traits and temperament) may cause different environmental influences to be experienced in similar ways, or conversely, may cause similar environmental influences to be experienced in different ways.
    Inherent Drives Humanistic psychologists focus on self-actualization; existentialists and spiritually-oriented psychologists focus on the search for meaning in one’s life.
    Sociocultural Influences Cross-cultural and multicultural psychologists remind us that all of the above categories must be considered in terms of the rich diversity that is the human experience. Addresses both the differences between and the similarities among groups of people around the world.

    This page titled 1.2: Definitions and Descriptions of Personality is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.