Personality is one’s characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting. Sigmund Freud, in his psychoanalytic perspective, proposed that childhood sexuality and unconscious motives influenced personality. For Sigmund Freud, conflict between pleasure-seeking biological impulses and social restraints centered on three interacting systems: id, ego, and superego. Freud believed that children develop through psychosexual stages and that people’s later problems are rooted in how they resolve conflicts associated with these stages.
The neo-Freudians agreed with Freud’s basic ideas but placed more emphasis on the consciousmind and on social influences. Today, psychodynamic theorists agree with many of Freud’s views but not his idea that sex is the basis of personality. Contemporary research confirms that, more than most of us realize, our lives are guided by unconscious information processing.
The humanistic perspective emphasized the growth potential of healthy people. Abraham Maslow believed that if basic human needs are met, people will strive to actualize their highest potential. Carl Rogers suggested that being genuine, accepting, and empathic helps others todevelop a positive self-concept.
The trait perspective attempts to describe the predispositions that underlie our actions. Through factor analysis, researchers have isolated five distinct dimensions of personality. People’s specific behaviors vary across situations as their inner dispositions interact with
The social-cognitive perspective emphasizes how internal personal factors combine with the environment to influence behavior. More than other perspectives, it builds from research on learning, cognition, and social behavior. Researchers assess how people’s behaviors and beliefs both affect and are affected by their situations.
Currently, the self is one of Western psychology’s more vigorously researched topics. Studies confirm the benefits of positive self-esteem but also point to the possible hazards of unrealistically high self-esteem. Compared with defensive self-esteem, secure self-esteem depends less on external evaluations and enables us to lose ourselves in relationships and purposes larger than self. Cultures vary in the extent to which they give priority to the nurturing and expression of personal identity or group identity.
Introduction and The Psychoanalytic Perspective
Psychologists consider personality to be an individual’s characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting.
In his private practice, Freud found that nervous disorders often made no neurological sense. Piecing together his patients’ accounts of their lives, he concluded that their disorders had psychological causes. His effort to understand these causes led to his “discovery” of the unconscious. Initially, he thought hypnosis might unlock the door to the unconscious. However, recognizing patients’ uneven capacity for hypnosis, Freud turned to free association, which he believed produced a chain of thoughts in the patient’s unconscious. He called the process (as well as his theory of personality) psychoanalysis.
Freud believed the mind is mostly hidden. Our conscious experience is like the part of the iceberg that floats above the surface. Below the surface is the much larger unconscious, which contains thoughts, wishes, feelings, and memories of which we are largely unaware. Some of these thoughts we store temporarily in a preconscious area from which we can retrieve them into conscious awareness.
Freud believed that personality arises from our efforts to resolve the conflict between our biological impulses and the social restraints against them. He theorized that the conflict centers on three interacting systems: the id, which operates on the pleasure principle; the ego, which functions on the reality principle; and the superego, an internalized set of ideals. The superego’s demands often oppose the id’s, and the ego, as the “executive” part of personality, seeks to reconcile the two.
Freud maintained that children pass through a series of psychosexual stages during which the id’s pleasure-seeking energies focus on distinct pleasure-sensitive areas of the body called erogenous zones. During the oral stage (0–18 months), pleasure centers on the mouth; during the anal stage (18–36 months), it centers on bowel/bladder elimination.
During the critical phallic stage (3–6 years), pleasure centers on the genitals. Boys experience the Oedipus complex, with unconscious sexual desires toward their mother and hatred of their father. They cope with these threatening feelings through identification with their father, thereby incorporating many of his values and developing a sense of what psychologists now call gender identity. Some psychoanalysts in Freud’s era believed that girls experienced a parallel Electra complex. The latency stage (6 years to puberty), in which sexuality is dormant, gives way to the genital stage (puberty on) as sexual interests mature.
In Freud’s view, maladaptive adult behavior results from conflicts unresolved during the oral, anal, and phallic stages. At any point, conflict can lock, or fixate, the person’s pleasure-seeking energiesin that stage.
Defense mechanisms reduce or redirect anxiety in various ways, but always by unconsciously distorting reality. Repression, which underlies the other defense mechanisms, banishes anxiety arousing thoughts, feelings, and memories from consciousness; regression involves retreat to an earlier, more infantile stage of development; and reaction formation makes unacceptable impulses look like their opposites. Projection attributes threatening impulses to others, rationalization offers self-justifying explanations for behavior, displacement diverts impulses to a more acceptable object or person, and denial refuses to believe painful realities.
The neo-Freudians accepted Freud’s basic ideas regarding personality structures, the importance of the unconscious, the shaping of personality in children, and the dynamics of anxiety and defense mechanisms. However, in contrast to Freud, the neo-Freudians generally placed more emphasis on the conscious mind in interpreting experience and coping with the environment, and they argued
that we have more positive motives than sex and aggression. Unlike other neo-Freudians, Carl Jung agreed with Freud that the unconscious exerts a powerful influence. In addition, he suggested that the collective unconscious is a shared, inherited reservoir of memory traces from our species’ history. Contemporary psychodynamic theorists and therapists reject the notion that sex is the basis of personality but agree with Freud that much of our mental life is unconscious, that we struggle with inner conflicts, and that childhood shapes our personalities and attachment styles.
Projective tests provide ambiguous stimuli that are designed to trigger projection of one’s inner dynamics. In the Thematic Apperception Test, people view ambiguous pictures and then make up stories about them. Presumably, their accounts reflect their interests and inner feelings. The Rorschach inkblot test seeks to identify people’s inner feelings and conflicts by analyzing their interpretations of 10 inkblots. Critics question the validity and reliability of the tests. Nonetheless, many clinicians continue to use them.
Critics contend that many of Freud’s specific ideas are contradicted by new research and that his theory offers only after-the-fact explanations. Recent findings question the overriding importance of childhood experiences, the degree of parental influence, the timing of gender-identity formation, the significance of childhood sexuality, and the existence of hidden content in dreams. Many
researchers now believe that repression rarely, if ever, occurs. Nevertheless, Freud drew psychology’s attention to the unconscious and to our struggle to cope with anxiety and sexuality. Today’s psychologists view the unconscious not as seething passions and repressive censoring but as information processing that occurs without our awareness. Research confirms the reality of unconscious
Recent research provides some support for Freud’s idea of defense mechanisms. For example, his idea of projection is what researchers now call the false consensus effect. That we defend against anxiety is also evident in tests of terror-management theory. Findings indicate that thinking about one’s mortality provokes enough anxiety to increase contempt for others and esteem for oneself. Freud also focused attention on the conflict between biological impulses and social restraints. He reminds us of our potential for evil. Unquestionably, his cultural impact has been enormous.
The Humanistic Perspective
According to Maslow, self-actualization is the motivation to fulfill one’s potential, and selftranscendence is the desire to find meaning and purpose beyond the self. It is one of the ultimate psychological needs that arises after basic physical and psychological needs are met and selfesteem is achieved. In his effort to turn psychology’s attention from the baser motives of troubled people to the growth potential of healthy people, who are thought to be basically good, Maslow reflects the humanistic perspective.
Carl Rogers agreed with Maslow that people are basically good and are endowed with selfactualizing tendencies. To nurture growth in others, Rogers advised being genuine, empathic, and accepting (offering unconditional positive regard). In such a climate, people can develop a deeper self-awareness and a more realistic and positive self-concept.
Humanistic psychologists assessed personality through questionnaires on which people reported their self-concept. One questionnaire asked people to compare their actual self with their ideal self. Other humanistic psychologists maintained that we can only understand each person’s unique experience through interviews and intimate conversations.
Critics complain that the perspective’s concepts are vague and subjective. For example, the description of self-actualizing people seems more a reflection of Maslow’s personal values than a scientific description. Critics also argue that the individualism promoted by humanistic psychology may promote self-indulgence, selfishness, and an erosion of moral restraints. A final complaint is that humanistic psychology fails to appreciate the reality of our human capacity for evil. Its naive optimism may lead to apathy about major social problems.
The Trait Perspective
Trait theorists attempt to describe personality in terms of stable and enduring behavior patterns, or dispositions to feel and act. Some theorists use dominant traits and their associated characteristics to describe personality “types.”
One strategy that psychologists have used to identify fundamental traits has been to suggest traits, such as anxiety, that some theories regard as basic. A newer technique is factor analysis, a statistical procedure that identifies clusters of behaviors that tend to appear together. For example, through factor analysis, Hans and Sybil Eysenck reduced normal variations to two or three genetically influenced dimensions, including extraversion–introversion and emotional stability–instability. Brain activity scans suggest that extraverts and introverts differ in their level of arousal, with extraverts seeking stimulation because their normal brain arousal level is relatively low.
Jerome Kagan maintains that, by influencing autonomic nervous system arousal, heredity also affects our temperament and behavioral style, which help define our personality.
Psychologists assess several traits at once by administering personality inventories on which people respond to items designed to measure a wide range of feelings and behaviors. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is the most extensively researched personality inventory. Originally developed to identify emotional disorders, this test is now used for many other screening purposes. The MMPI items were empirically derived—that is, from a large pool of items, the test developers selected those on which particular diagnostic groups differed. The objective scoring of the test does not guarantee its validity. For example, those taking the MMPI for employment screening may give socially desirable responses that create a good impression.
Although people’s traits seem to persist over time, critics of the trait perspective note that human behavior varies widely from situation to situation. Thus, traits are weak predictors of behavior. For example, being conscientious on one occasion is only modestly related to being conscientious on another occasion. Defenders of the trait perspective note that, despite these variations, a person’s average behavior across different situations is fairly consistent. We do have distinct personality traits. Moreover, research suggests that our traits are socially significant; they influence our health, our thinking, and our job performance.
In informal social situations, our expressive styles—our animation, manner of speaking, and gestures—are impressively consistent. Moreover, we can judge individual differences in expressiveness in a matter of seconds. Thus, we may form lasting impressions within a few moments of meeting someone.
The Social-Cognitive Perspective
The social-cognitive perspective applies principles of learning, cognition, and social behavior to the understanding of personality. Reciprocal determinism refers to the interacting influences between personality and environmental factors. Interactions between individuals and environments occur when different people choose different environments, when our personalities shape how we interpret and react to events, and when our personalities help create situations to which we react.
In examining our interactions with our environment, social-cognitive psychologists emphasize our sense of personal control, that is, whether we learn to see ourselves as controlling or as being controlled by our environment. People who perceive an internal rather than an external locus of control achieve more in school, enjoy better health, are more independent, and are less depressed.
Moreover, they are better able to delay gratification and cope with various stresses. Self-control predicts good adjustment, better grades, and social success. People who feel helpless and oppressed often perceive control as external and may develop learned helplessness, as noted in Unit 6. However, under conditions of personal freedom and empowerment, people thrive.
Our attributional style, that is, our way of explaining positive and negative events, can reveal how effective or helpless we feel. Students who attribute their poor performance to their lack of ability or to situations beyond their control are more likely to continue to get low grades than are students with a more optimistic attitude that effort and self-discipline can make a difference. Optimists have also been found to outlive pessimists, as well as to have fewer illnesses. Excessive optimism, however, can lead to complacency and can blind us to real risks. People are often most overconfident when most incompetent. It pays to invite others’ assessments of our competence.
The study of personal control and optimism reflects the new interest in positive psychology, the scientific study of optimal human functioning. Although it shares with humanistic psychology an interest in fostering human fulfillment, its origins and methodology are scientific. Positive psychology studies positive emotions, positive character, and positive groups, communities, and cultures.
Social-cognitive researchers observe how people’s behaviors and beliefs both affect and are affected by their situations. They have found that the best way to predict someone’s behavior in a given situation is to observe that person’s behavior pattern in similar situations.
Critics argue that the social-cognitive perspective focuses so much on the situation that it fails to appreciate the importance of the person’s inner traits, emotions, and unconscious motives. Indeed, research indicates that our biologically influenced traits predict behavior at work, love, and play. At the same time, the social-cognitive perspective builds on psychology’s well-established concepts of learning and cognition and reminds us of the power of social situations.
Exploring the Self
The self is one of Western psychology’s most vigorously researched topics. Underlying this research is the assumption that the self, as organizer of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, is pivotal in understanding personality. One example of research on the self is the study of possible selves. It explores people’s visions of the self they dream of becoming. Such possible selves motivate us by laying out specific goals and calling forth the energy to work toward them. Another example is the study of the spotlight effect, which reflects our tendency to overestimate others’ noticing and evaluating our appearance, performance, and blunders.
People who have high self-esteem have fewer sleepless nights; are less conforming; are more persistent at difficult tasks; are less shy, anxious, and lonely; and are just plain happier. Some research shows a destructive effect of low self-esteem. For example, temporarily deflating people’s self-esteem can lead them to disparage others and express greater racial prejudice. Other
researchers suggest that personal problems and failure may cause low self-esteem. Self-esteem reflects reality; thus, feeling good about oneself follows doing well. According to this explanation, the best way to foster self-esteem in children is to help them meet challenges, not reward them despite their failures.
Self-serving bias, our readiness to perceive ourselves favorably, is evident in our tendency to accept more responsibility for good deeds than for bad and for successes than for failures. Most people also see themselves as better than average. Defensive self-esteem is fragile and focuses on sustaining itself, which makes failure and criticism feel threatening. Like low self-esteem, defensive self-esteem correlates with antisocial behavior. In contrast, secure self-esteem is less fragile because it depends less on external evaluations. Feeling accepted for who we are enables us to lose ourselves in relationships and purposes larger than self.
Individualist cultures value personal achievement and fulfillment as well as individual rights and liberties. Relationships are often temporary and casual, and confrontation is acceptable. Individualists tend to define identity in terms of personal traits, and they strive for personal control and individual achievement. Collectivist cultures value group goals and solidarity. Relationships tend to be close and enduring. Maintaining social harmony is important, and duty to family may trump personal career preferences. Collectivists derive their identity from belonging, and one’s life task is to maintain social connections, fit in, and perform one’s role.
In general, people (especially men) in competitive, individualist cultures have more personal freedom, are less geographically bound to their families, enjoy more privacy, and take more pride in personal achievements. Individualism’s benefits can come at the cost of more loneliness, more divorce, more homicide, and more stress-related disease.