Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009


Being a visual sort, I like to put things into graphic form.  So here goes:

What you see here is "poor me" (or "poor you"), at the center of enormous forces.  At top, we have history, society, and culture, which influence us primarily through our learning as mediated by our families, peers, the media, and so on.  At the bottom, we have evolution, genetics, and biology, which influence us by means of our physiology (including neurotransmitters, hormones, etc.)  Some of the specifics most relevant to psychology are instincts, temperaments, and health.  As the nice, thick arrows indicate, these two mighty forces influence us strongly and continuously, from conception to death, and sometimes threaten to tear us apart.

There is, of course, nothing simple about these influences.  If you will notice the thin arrows (a) and (b).  These illustrate some of the more roundabout ways in which biology influences our learning, or society influences our physiology.  The arrow labeled (a) might represent an aggressive temperament leading to a violent response to certain media messages that leads to a misunderstanding of those messages.  Or  (b) might represent being raised with a certain set of nutritional habits that lead to a physiological deficiency  in later life.  There are endless complexities.

I also put in a number of little arrows, marked (c).  These represent accidental influences, physiological or experiential.  Not everything that happens in our environment is part of some great historical or evolutionary movement!  Sometimes, stuff just happens.  You can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time:  Hear some great speaker that changes the direction of your life away from the traditional path, or have a cell hit by stray radiation in just the wrong way.

Last, but not least, there's (d), which represents our own choices, the idea that, beyond society and biology and accident, sometimes my behavior and experience is caused by... me!

Let's start by looking at what some of the theorists of the past have said.

Alfred Adler

Adler said that your lifestyle (personality) is "not merely a mechanical reaction."  This makes Adler considerably different from Freud. For Freud, the things that happened in the past, such as early childhood trauma, determine what you are like in the present. Adler sees motivation as a matter of moving towards the future, rather than being driven, mechanistically, by the past. We are drawn towards our goals, our purposes, our ideals. This is called teleology, and the idea goes all the way back to Aristotle.

Moving things from the past into the future has some dramatic effects. Since the future is not here yet, a teleological approach to motivation takes the necessity out of things. In a traditional mechanistic approach, cause leads to effect: If a, b, and c happen, then x, y, and z must, of necessity, happen. But you don't have to reach your goals or meet your ideals, and they can change along the way. Teleology acknowledges that life is hard and uncertain, but it always has room for change!

A major influence on Adler's thinking was the philosopher Hans Vaihinger, who wrote a book called The Philosophy of "As If." Vaihinger believed that ultimate truth would always be beyond us, but that, for practical purposes, we need to create partial truths. His main interest was science, so he gave as examples such partial truths as protons and electrons, waves of light, gravity as distortion of space, and so on. Contrary to what many of us non-scientists tend to assume, these are not things that anyone has seen or proven to exist: They are useful constructs. They work for the moment, so let us do more science, and hopefully will lead to better, more useful constructs. We use them "as if" they were true. He called these partial truths fictions.

Vaihinger, and Adler, pointed out that we use these fictions in day to day living as well. We behave as if we knew the world would be here tomorrow, as if we were sure what good and bad are all about, as if everything we see is as we see it, and so on. Adler called this fictional finalism. You can understand the phrase most easily if you think about an example: Many people behave as if there were a heaven or a hell in their personal future. Of course, there may be a heaven or a hell, but most of us don't think of this as a proven fact. That makes it a "fiction" in Vaihinger's and Adler's sense of the word. And finalism refers to the teleology of it: The fiction lies in the future, and yet influences our behavior today.

Gordon Allport

One thing that motivates human beings is the tendency to satisfy biological survival needs, which Allport referred to as opportunistic functioning.  He noted that opportunistic functioning can be characterized as reactive, past-oriented, and, of course, biological.

But Allport felt that opportunistic functioning was relatively unimportant for understanding most of human behavior.  Most human behavior, he believed, is motivated by something very different - functioning in a manner expressive of the self - which he called propriate functioning.  Most of what we do in life is a matter of being who we are!  Propriate functioning can be characterized as proactive, future-oriented, and psychological.

Propriate comes from the word proprium, which is Allport’s name for that essential concept, the self.  He defines it as the aspects of your experiencing that you see as most essential (as opposed to incidental or accidental), warm (or “precious,” as opposed to  emotionally cool), and central (as opposed to peripheral). He had reviewed hundreds of definitions for that concept and came to feel that, in order to more scientific, it would be necessary to dispense with the common word self and substitute something else.  For better or worse, the word proprium never caught on.

To get an intuitive feel for what propriate functioning means, think of the last time you wanted to do something or become something because you really felt that doing or becoming that something would be expressive of the things about yourself that you believe to be most important.  Remember the last time you did something to express your self, the last time you told yourself, “that’s really me!”  Doing things in keeping with what you really are, that’s propriate functioning.


The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once compared us with God and, of course, found us lacking. God is traditionally understood as being omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal. We, on the other hand, are abysmally ignorant, pitifully powerless, and all too mortal. Our limitations are clear.

We often wish we could be more like God, or at least like angels. Angels, supposedly, are not as ignorant or powerless as we are, and they are immortal! But, as Mark Twain pointed out, if we were angels, we wouldn't recognize ourselves. Angels do nothing but God's bidding. They can't help it. They simply live out God's plan for them, and for eternity no less!

Tables are more like angels than we are. Tables have a nature, a purpose, an essence, that we have given them. They are there to serve us in a certain way, like angels are there to serve God.

Chipmunks are like this, too. They also have a plan, a blueprint, if you like, in their genetics. They do what their instincts instruct them to do. They seldom require career counseling.

It may be dull to be an angel, or a table, or a chipmunk, but it sure is easy! You could say that their essences come before their existences: What they are comes before what they do.

But, say existentialists, this is not true for us. "Our existences precede our essences," as French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it. I don't know what I'm here for until I've lived my life. My life, who I am, is not determined by God, by the laws of Nature, by my genetics, by my society, not even by my family. They each may provide the raw material for who I am, but it is how I choose to live that makes me what I am. I create myself.

If the scientist is the model of humanity for George Kelly and cognitive psychologists, the artist is the model for existentialists.

You could say that the essence of humanity - the thing that we all share, and makes us distinct from anything else in the world - is our lack of essence, our "no-thing-ness," our freedom. We cannot be captured by a philosophical system or a psychological theory; we cannot be reduced to physical and chemical processes; our futures cannot be predicted with social statistics. Some of us are men, some are women; some are black, some are white; some come from one culture, some from another; some have one imperfection, some another. The "raw materials" differ dramatically, but we all share the task of making ourselves.

Free-will vs determinism

The concept of free will has undergone some hard times lately.  The obvious success of science, and the materialistic, deterministic, reductionistic assumptions that usually accompany it, have made free will seem old-fashioned, associated more with scholastic theologians than modern men and women.  But I find the concept impossible to ignore, much less dispose of.

Let’s begin by saying what free will is, and what it isn’t.  Free will is not the same as freedom of action.  Freedom of action refers to things that prevent a willed action from being realized.  For example, being in prison means you are not free to paint the town red.  Being in a straight jacket means you are not free to wave hello.  Being paralyzed means not being able to move your limbs.  These are not issues of free will.  Free will means being free to try to escape (or not), to try to wave (or not), to try to move your limbs (or not).

Neither is free will the same as political or social freedom (better known as liberty).  Just because you will be executed for taking the local dictator’s name in vain, doesn’t mean you aren’t free to try, or even free to actually do so.  You’ll just wind up paying for the satisfaction.

And one thing free will is certainly not is "willpower". "Willpower" is a mythical power some people claim to have and like tell other people they should have. In reality, it is just a matter of one motive out-weighing another. The runner runs his marathon despite the pain and exhaustion, not because he has some special power, but because he likes to demonstrate his prowess more than he likes being pain-free. The model restricts her diet to salad despite her hunger, not because she has a powerful will, but because she values appearance over satiety. These folks may tell the fat man that he should just use his "willpower" and start dieting and exercising, when in fact he has been doing exactly the same thing that they have been doing. In his case, his desire for food and rest outweigh his desire for health and long life. Telling him to use his "willpower" is like telling a diabetic to start producing insulin.

On the other side of the argument, I need to point out that determinism is not the same thing as fatalism, destiny, or predestination.  Determinism means that the way things are at one moment is the necessary result of the ways things were the moment before.  It means that every effect has its cause, and that nothing, not even the will, is exempt.  It does not mean that the future is already established.

Let’s run through some arguments for free will, followed by the determinist’s responses.  Since the free willist is making a claim, and an exceptional one at that, the burden of proof is on him or her.

First, there is the experience argument.  I experience something within myself that I understand as making choices, and that those choices are not determined by anything other than myself.

The determinist will respond that you are simply not aware of the causes of your decisions, and have labeled that ignorance “free will.”  There were no doubt neurons firing and chemicals sailing across synapses and so forth, all very deterministically resulting in my choice of the danish.

The free willist might suggest that belief is a crucial part of free will.  If you were to set me up with the danish and the muffin, knowing that I tend to choose danishes, you might very well say the end result was determined.  But if I knew you were trying to prove your point, I would simply choose the muffin instead, or neither.

The determinist would simply say that this extra tidbit of knowledge -- that I am trying to fool you -- has replaced your usual causal factors.  Instead, you are reacting, quite mechanically, to a threat to your beliefs.

Maybe so, says the free willist.  But you must admit that I can be awfully random at times.  I can suddenly jump out of my chair and scream “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” at the top of my lungs.  Let’s see you predict something like that!

The determinist would respond that indeterminism is far from free will.  If that’s all there is to free will, then a roulette wheel is better at it than you are.

But I am unpredictable, says the free willist.

The determinist would point out that that is merely a practical problem, not a philosophical one.  The fact that I cannot pin point the precise location and velocity, say, of all the particles in the universe, doesn’t mean that you aren’t determined by them.  In fact, even if that were theoretically impossible (as suggested by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle), it only means I can’t predict, not that you have free will!

The free willist may point out that, without free will, morality has no meaning.  All the best things about people -- generosity, bravery, compassion -- have no meaning.  If we are as determined as falling bricks, then Adolph Hitler could no more be blamed for his evil actions than Mother Teresa could be praised for her good ones.  What then of our world?

Simple, says the determinist.  We will have to live without morality.  Many people are already moral relativists, or even moral nihilists.  Our societies can get along just fine with laws and judicial processes and prisons using nothing more than tradition, majority self-interest, reciprocity, and the rule of cover-your-ass.  Maybe that’s all morality has ever been!

Another argument a free willist can make is that we have this unique ability to stop and think about a decision-making situation.  We can exit the stream of cause-and-effect for a moment.  We pause before the high-calorie meal to consider the advisability of diving in.  Animals rarely do this:  If a hungry lion has an antelope before her, she eats.  And we can postpone the decision as long as we like.  Even if the actual choice we make at some particular moment in time is determined, the length of time we wait for that moment to arrive is not.

Or is it? says the determinist.  What caused you to wait exactly one minute before choosing?  Or what caused you to stop your pausing and jump into things at just that moment?  Besides, isn’t this pause just a matter of two forces of equal strength short-circuiting the normal processes?

Jean-Paul Sartre came up with an interesting free will argument.  He said that we can ignore something real and we can pretend something unreal.  For example, I could imagine that there is no danish before me -- something I often need to do in the service of dieting.  Or I can see the poppy seeds in the muffins as maggots. This imagination is a powerful thing!  But the determinist would just say that imagination is just one more neurological mechanism, explainable by deterministic principles.

I must point out that, although the free willist has not exactly won any arguments so far, the determinist has put himself in a somewhat more defensive position.  Some of that “burden of proof” is moving over to the determinist side.  For example, he has claimed that imagination is something physical.  That is a claim that we need not just accept:  We can challenge him to demonstrate the validity of the claim.

Another possible foundation for free will is creativity.  I can create a new option.  I am not stuck with the cheese danish or the poppy seed muffin.  I can throw them both and choose a bag of cheesy puffs.  Or I can literally create a new concoction:  Get out my mixing bowls and bake something no one has ever seen before, such as a poppy seed danish or a cheese muffin.  Or I can get out my blender and make a muffin and danish slurpy.

Of course, the determinist, becoming rather tiresome by now, would just say that creativity is just a word we use to label unconscious neural events that surprise even us -- an accident.  If someone steps on your danish and muffin by accident, no one would think to call the  wad on the bottom of his shoe a new creation!

(Of course, the determinist is claiming now that creativity is mechanical -- something he could be challenged to defend.)

So, how about differentiating between causes and reasons?  When I get myself a Big Mac, is it cause-and-effect determinism that led me there?  Did the growling in my stomach force me into my car, the sight of the golden arches make me jerk my steering wheel in their direction?  Or did I notice my appetite and conceive a plan:  Look through my repertoire of gastronomic delights, I decide on a Big Mac, drive purposefully to the golden arches, and order what I want?  Was I, in other words, “pushed from behind” by causes, or did I follow my reasons?

This is Aristotle's teleology and Adler's fictional finalism and Allport's propriate functioning.  Instead of reacting to stimuli, we project a future situation which we take as a goal.  The connection between cause-and-effect is one of necessity.  There is nothing necessary about purposes.  They can be accomplished - or not.

But the determinist would respond with the same argument he made with imagination and creativity:  Your perceptions and cognitions and emotions, your past experiences, inevitably lead to your projecting that goal and working toward it.  It only appears to you to be free of necessity.  But note how quickly we give up our goals when other, more powerfully supported forces push in upon us.

One last try for free will:  I suggest that, as we develop from babies into adults, we separate from the world.  Our causal processes become increasingly independent of the causal processes outside of us, especially in the mental realm.  A gap develops that allows us to be influenced by outside situations, but not determined by them.  This gap is like a large river:  The man on the opposite bank can wave and jump and yell all he wants -- he cannot directly affect us.  But we can listen to him or interpret his semaphore signals.  We can treat his antics as information to add to all the information we have gathered over our lives, and use that information to guide our decisions -- influenced, but not caused.

The baby begins life nearly as intimately connected with his or her world as in the womb.  As we develop from babies into adults, we gradually separate ourselves from the world.  Our interior causal processes - especially mental processes - become increasingly independent of the causal processes outside of us.  A gap develops that allows us to be influenced by outside situations, but not necessarily determined by them.

By the end of life, some of us are nearly impervious to what others think about us, can rise above nearly any threat or seductive promise, can ignore nearly any kind of urge or pain.  We are still determined -  but little in our immediate situation is more than information we utilize in making our decisions.  In one sense, we are still determined -- determined by that developing person we are, determined by our selves.  But nothing else in our present circumstances, or even in our past going way back to some time in childhood when that gap was first fully realized, is more than information to utilize in making free decisions.

This gap is like a large river:  The man on the opposite bank can wave and jump and yell all he wants -- he cannot directly affect us.  But we can listen to him or interpret his semaphore signals.  We can treat his antics as information to add to all the information we have gathered over our lives, and use that information to influence our decisions -- influence, but not cause.

I know very well that the determinist can respond to this idea as well.  But now he is as much on the defensive as the free willist has ever been.  In fact, the undecided listener may begin to conclude that it is the deterministic stance -- nothing is free! -- that is the more extreme, less reasonable one.

The argument of free will versus determinism is in some measure a false one.  Both sides have been reduced to straw men (easily destroyed arguments) by oversimplification.  As I mentioned at the start, free will has never meant freedom to ignore the laws of nature, and determinism does not mean everything is predictable.  Perhaps the best thing we can do to get past the stalemate is to develop a new concept that points to the complexity of the person and his or her interaction with the world.  Instead of free will versus determinism, maybe we should adopt Albert Bandura's preferred term:  Self-determination.

As a middle-aged man, I have dozens of years of experiences - my childhood, my cultural inheritance, the books I've read, conversations with friends, my own thoughts - that have made me who I am today.  All this is on top of my unique genetics and other physical realities of who I am.  The things that happen to me now are  experienced through this mass of uniqueness, and my responses depend, not only on my present situation, but on all that I am.  This may not be "free will" in the absolute sense, but it is certainly self-determination.

It should never be forgotten, however, that this freedom is extremely limited! Biology, society, and circumstances are far, far more powerful.

If we possess this (limited) freedom, we also posses a (limited) responsibility for our actions.  For most adults, it can be legitimately claimed that who we are includes basic moral concepts and a rational respect for law conveyed to us by our parents and others.  These things are a part of who we are, and are available to us when we make a choice to behave one way or another.  We are therefore culpable if we disregard these moral and legal concepts.  This dovetails nicely into the legal tradition that asks whether or not a person actually knows right from wrong, and whether the person has the maturity or the cognitive wherewithall to choose right over wrong.

In other words, we don't have to be "above" the natural world in order to have a degree of freedom within that world.