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1.3: Personality as a Discipline within the Field of Psychology

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    As difficult as it may be to define personality, it is important to know something about it. Personality is probably the most important field in psychology. Understanding who we are as individuals, and why we think certain thoughts and do certain things is the starting point for addressing clinical issues, abnormal psychology, and health psychology, it is the ultimate goal of studying human development, and it is the point from which we begin to address social psychology. Without an appreciation of the individual, without concern for each person, these other areas of psychology become little more than academic subjects.

    Personality as a Common Thread in the History of Psychology

    Most historians identify the starting point of the modern field of psychology with the experimental psychologists, particularly the establishment of Wilhelm Wundt’s laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879. Personality theorists, however, were not far behind. Freud, Adler, and Jung were all beginning to work in the field of psychiatry (they were medical doctors) in the late 1800s as well. If one wants to put an official date on the start of modern personality theory, it would most likely be 1900, the year in which Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900/1995).” Since Freud’s theories were based on his work with patients, this date is also the beginning of a relationship between personality theory, abnormal psychology, and psychotherapy, a relationship that continues today. Early psychodynamic theorists were also influential in developmental psychology and school psychology. Freud began his theory of personality with a proposed series of developmental stages: the five psychosexual stages. Erik Erikson, another well known psychodynamic theorist, is probably better known as a developmental psychologist for his eight-stage theory of psychosocial crises. Adler considered the early years of childhood so important that he felt parents and teachers should have access to training and counseling in the schools. With the endorsement of the minister of education, Adler and his colleagues established child guidance centers in many public schools.

    As psychodynamic theory dominated the European scene in the early 1900s, America was largely influenced by behaviorism. Behavioral theorists also considered personality within their domain, suggesting that personality is learned. John B. Watson boasted that he could use behavioral principles to direct any child into any given career path. B.F. Skinner constructed an advanced version of his famous “Skinner Box,” which was typically used to train rats or pigeons, to raise and care for children during the early years of life. As behaviorism continued to develop, social learning theorists focused on a rich mixture of imitation, observation of the rewards and punishment experienced by others, expectations, and personal assessment of the value of potential rewards and punishers.

    Against this backdrop of psychodynamic theory and behaviorism, Rogers and Maslow became the leading advocates of a new and openly positive view of human development, referred to most commonly as humanistic psychology. This new field emphasized self-actualization, though self-actualization itself does not appear to have been a new concept. It closely resembles the enlightenment described by Yoga and Buddhism (each of which is thousands of years old), though Yoga and Buddhism ultimately reject the existence of the self. Is there a relationship between Eastern philosophical perspectives and humanistic psychology? Rogers had traveled throughout Asia, particularly in China, and Maslow had studied with renowned psychodynamic theorists who were fascinated by Buddhism (such as Horney), so both were well acquainted with the basics of Eastern philosophical thought.

    Closely related to the behavioral perspectives, cognitive theories of personality are also prominent in psychology. Today, the use of non-invasive brain imaging techniques (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging), which function in real time, have made the study of cognitive processes one of the most exciting areas of psychological research. Studying cognition is hardly new, however, since the earliest studies of consciousness can be traced to William James in the late 1800s. Still, what James was able to study over 100 years ago is completely different than what modern cognitive neuroscientists are able to study today. Nonetheless, if we can find something in common between the studies of over a century ago and the research of today, perhaps we will really begin to understand the complexity and diversity of personality.

    Positive Psychology and Spirituality: New Directions in the Field of Personality

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Young children enjoy helping even younger children. Positive psychology encourages us all to study and promote such behavior.

    In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of APA and author of What You Can Change & What You Can’t (1994), urged psychologists to rediscover the forgotten mission of psychology: to build human strength and nurture genius. Seligman called this new area Positive Psychology (for thorough overviews see Compton, 2005 or Peterson, 2006). In 2000, American Psychologist published a special edition on happiness, excellence, and optimal human functioning (American Psychologist, Vol. 55, Number 1, 2000; with an introduction by Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). The general goal of positive psychology is to find ways in which psychological research can help people to be happier, and to lead more fulfilling lives. Positive psychology can also serve as a focus for psychologists to become more appreciative of not only human nature, but also of the potential for the field of psychology itself to benefit all people (Sheldon & King, 2001). Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) offers a sampling of the wide range of interest in positive psychology that exists today.

    Closely related to positive psychology is the concept of resilience. Many individuals face difficult or traumatic challenges in life, and yet some manage to maintain stability in their lives in spite of these unfortunate circumstances. How exactly these individuals maintain stability and a positive direction in their lives is not always clear, and there may be a variety of different ways that individuals respond to such extreme stress (Bonanno, 2004, 2005a; Masten, 2001; for commentary on the first article see also Bonanno, 2005b; Kelley, 2005; Linley & Joseph, 2005; Litz, 2005; Maddi, 2005; Roisman, 2005). Among the important factors, particularly for our perspective here, is the ability to maintain positive emotions and to pursue self-enhancement (Bonanno, 2004, 2005; Masten, 2001). Throughout history, a variety of cultures have given rise to spiritual pursuits that help to guide the development of individuals in positive directions. We will cover some of these spiritual paths in the last section of this book, taking just a brief look here at the relationship between spirituality, positive psychology, and personality.

    Table \(PageIndex{1}\): Selection of Books and Articles Related to Positive

    Psychology Published Since the Year 2000

    Books on Positive Psychology Compton, 2005; Snyder & Lopez, 2005
    Human Strengths and Virtues Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003; Fowers, 2005
    Happiness and Well-Being Cloninger, 2004; Hampson, 2008; Hsee et al., 2008; Huppert, 2009; Inglehart et al., 2008; Molden et al., 2009; Seligman, 2002; Siegel, 2007
    Articles on Academic Excellence and Creativity Lubinski & Benbow, 2000; Simonton, 2000; Winner, 2000
    Cognition and Motivation Baltes & Staudinger, 2000; Lyubomirsky, 2001; Peterson, 2000
    Coping Folkman & Moskowitz; 2000; Vaillant, 2000
    Economics Diener, 2000; Diener & Seligman, 2004; Myers, 2000; Smith et al., 2005
    Emotions, Happiness, Well-Being Dolan & White, 2007; Ekman et al., 2005; Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002; Fredrickson & Losada, 2005; Kesebir & Diener, 2008; Kim & Moen, 2001; Napier & Jost, 2008; Oishi et al., 2007; Robinson et al., 2004; Weiss et al., 2008
    Enjoying a Good Life Bauer & McAdams, 2004a,b; Bauer et al., 2005a,b; Schneider, 2001
    Evolution Buss, 2000a; Massimini & Fave, 2000
    Physical Health Cohen & Pressman, 2006; Ray, 2004; Salovey et al., 2000; Taylor et al., 2000
    Relationships Myers, 2000
    Self-Determination Ryan & Deci, 2000; Schwartz, 2000
    Therapeutic Intervention Ahmed & Boisvert, 2006; Joseph & Linley, 2006; Seligman et al., 2005
    Youth Development Larson, 2000

    It appears that spirituality is an essential attribute of human nature. It has been recognized for some time that religious ritual is a cultural universal (Murdock, 1945; see also Ferraro, 2006a). More than simply a cultural universal, however, spirituality appears to be a natural consequence of child development. Deborah Kelemen (2004) brought together a number of different theories, and was able to demonstrate that young children, around

    the age of 5 years old, have both the ability and the inclination to explain the world around them in terms of an intentional act by a supernatural being. Thus, Kelemen suggests that young children are what she calls “intuitive theists.” Surprisingly, this tendency appears to continue into adulthood, since even college students studying evolution exhibit a tendency to think of evolution as a purposeful agent itself, an agent that guides further evolution according to a thoughtful plan (Kelemen, 2004).

    The relationship between psychology and religious/spiritual pursuits has a long and interesting history. One of William James’ most famous books is The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (James, 1902/1987), and around the turn of the century in 1900 psychologists of the day actually used religion in the popular press to help engender respect for the new field of psychology (Pickren, 2000). Since the more recent turn of the century there have been a number of books and articles published connecting psychology, spirituality, religion, and psychotherapy (see Table \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Thus, a topic that was viewed as important at the beginning of the field of psychology, but was then pushed aside as unscientific, is once again become an area of interest and importance. Although spirituality is certainly not synonymous with positive psychology, it does appear to be an important factor in positive psychology.

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Selection of Recent Books and Articles

    Relating Spirituality to Psychology
    Books on psychology seen through the eyes of faith Myers & Jeeves, 2003
    Relationships between meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism and psychology Brantley, 2003; Dockett et al., 2003; Helminiak, 2005; McQuaid & Carmona, 2004
    Spiritual counseling from a variety of perspectives Brach, 2003; Brazier, 1995; Mruk & Hartzell, 2003; Richards & Bergin, 2000, 2004, 2005; Sperry & Shafranske, 2005; Weiner et al., 2005; Williams et al., 2007
    Multicultural clinical assessment Dana, 2000; Suzuki et al., 2001
    Articles on the religious roots of individualism vs. collectivism Burston, 2001; Lynch, 2001; Lynch Jr., 2001; Margolis, 2001; Sampson, 2000
    Childhood Development of Faith Kelemen, 2004
    Shamanism Krippner, 2002
    The relationships between spirituality, religion, and health Ginges et al., 2009; Hill & Pargament, 2003; Kier & Davenport, 2004; McCormick, 2004; Miller & Thoresen, 2003; Miller & Thoresen, 2004; Powell et al., 2003; Rayburn, 2004; Richmond, 2004; Seeman et al., 2003; Seybold & Hill, 2001; Wallace & Shapiro, 2006

    Numerous studies have shown that individuals who are actively spiritual have higher levels of well-being and fewer serious problems in their lives (see Compton, 2005; Myers, 2000; Seligman, 2002; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). The recently published Handbook of Positive Psychology has two chapters devoted specifically to spiritual pursuits and their benefits (Pargament & Mahoney, 2005; Shapiro et al., 2005). Peterson and Seligman (2004) have identified spirituality as one of the twenty-four specific character strengths that have consistently emerged across history and culture. Indeed, they believe that spirituality “is the most human of the character strengths as well as the most sublime…People with this strength have a theory about the ultimate meaning of life that shapes their conduct and provides comfort to them” (pg. 533; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). In the last section of this book we will examine a number of spiritual approaches to life, each of which suggests a path for positive development. Despite being associated with very different religions, which range from 1,400 years old to perhaps more than 5,000 years old, these spiritual paths have much in common. Perhaps this should not be surprising, as it may help to explain the inherent nature of children to be “intuitive theists” and the universality of religious ritual in human culture.

    Discussion Question: Do you believe that psychology should work to develop itself as a field that focuses on helping people to develop in positive ways? Can spirituality or religion be helpful, or might they present more problems?

    This page titled 1.3: Personality as a Discipline within the Field of Psychology 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.