Personality Theories: An Introduction
Dr. C. George Boeree
In Spanish: Teorías de la personalidad: una introducción (translated by Laura Mancini)
Personality psychology, also
known as personology, is the
study of the person, that is,
the whole human individual. Most people, when they think of
personality, are actually thinking of personality differences - types and traits and
the like. This is certainly an important part of personality
psychology, since one of the characteristics of persons is that they
can differ from each other quite a bit. But the main part of
personality psychology addresses the broader issue of "what is it to be
Personality psychologists view their field of study as being at the top
(of course) of a pyramid of other fields in psychology, each more
detailed and precise than the ones above. Practically
speaking, that means that personality psychologists must take into
consideration biology (especially neurology), evolution and genetics,
sensation and perception, motivation and emotion, learning and memory,
developmental psychology, psychopathology, psychotherapy, and whatever
else might fall between the cracks.
Since this is quite an undertaking, personality psychology may also be
seen as the least scientific (and most philosophical) field in
psychology. It is for this reason that most personality courses
in colleges still teach the field in terms of theories. We have dozens and
dozens of theories, each emphasizing different aspects of personhood,
using different methods, sometimes agreeing with other theories,
Like all psychologists - and all scientists - personality psychologists
yearn for a unified theory,
one we can all agree on, one that is firmly rooted in solid scientific
evidence. Unfortunately, that is easier said then done.
People are very hard to study. We are looking at an enormously
organism (one with "mind," whatever that is), embedded in not only a
physical environment, but in a social
one made up of more of these enormously complicated organisms.
Too much is going on for us to easily simplify the situation without
making it totally meaningless by doing so!
We need to take a look at the various research
methods available to us as personality psychologists to
understand where we stand...
There are two broad classes of research methods: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative
methods involve measurements and qualitative methods don't.
Measurement is very important to science because scientists want to get
beyond the purely subjective and to the more objective. If my
dear wife and I are both looking at a man and I say "he's short," she
may say "no, he's not - he's quite tall!" we are stuck with two
subjective opinions. If we take out a tape measure, we can
together measure the man to discover that he is, in fact, 5 foot 8
inches. Since I am 6 foot 2, I might think of him as short.
My wife is 5 foot 2, and she might see him as tall. But there
will be no argument about what the measuring tape says!
(Actually, there won't be any arguing in any case, since my wife is
clearly always correct.)
A patch of color may seem blue to me and green to you. A piece of
music may seem fast to me and slow to you. A person might seem
shy to me and outgoing to you. But if we measure the wavelength
of color, or the rhythm of the music, or find a way to give a number to
shyness-outgoingness, we can agree. We become "objective."
Creating personality tests to
measure personality traits is a common activity of personality
If you take two different forms of measurement - such as a measuring
tape and a weight scale - and we measure the height and weight of a few
hundred of our nearest and dearest friends, we can examine whether the
two measures relate to each other somehow. This is called correlation. And, as you might
expect, people's heights and weights do tend to correlate: The
taller you are, generally speaking the heavier you are. Of
course, there will be some folks who are tall but quite light and some
who are short but quite heavy, and lots of variation in between, but
there will indeed be a modest, but significant, correlation.
You might be able to do the same thing with something involving
personality. For example, you might want to see if people who are
shy are also more intelligent than people who are outgoing. So
develop a way to measure shyness-outgoingness and a way to measure
intelligence (an IQ test!), and measure a few thousand people.
Compare the measures and see if they correlate. In the case of
this example, you would likely find little correlation, despite our
stereotypes. Correlation is a popular technique in psychology,
What correlation can't help you with is finding what causes what.
Does height somehow cause weight? Or is it the
other way around? Does being shy cause you to be smarter, or does
being smarter cause you to be shy? You can't say. It could
be one way or the
other, or in fact there could be some other variable that is the cause
That's where experimentation
comes in. Experiments are the "gold standard" of science, and all
of us personality psychologists wish we had an easier time doing
them. In the prototypical experiment, we actually manipulate one
of the variables (the independent one) and then measure a second
variable (the dependent one).
So, for example, you can measure the degree of rotation of the volume
knob on your radio, and then measure the actually volume of the music
that comes out of the speakers. What you would find, obviously,
is that the further you turn the knob, the louder the volume.
They correlate, but this time, because the knob was actually
manipulated (literally in this case) and the volume measured after, you
know that the rotation of the knob is in some way a cause of the volume.
Taking this idea into the world of personality, we could show people
scary movies that have been rated as to how scary they are. Then
we could measure their anxiety (with an instrument that measures how
sweaty our hands get, for example, or with a simple test where we ask
them to rate how frightened they are). Then we can see if they
correlate. And, of course, they would to some degree. Plus
we now know that the scarier the movie, the more scared we get. A
breakthrough in psychological science!
There are several things that make measurement, correlation, and
experiments difficult for personality psychologists. First, it
isn't always easy to measure the kinds of things we are interested in
in any meaningful way. Even the examples of shyness-easygoingness
and intelligence and anxiety are iffy at best. How well do people
recognize their own anxiety? How well does a sweat-test relate to
Can a paper-and-pencil test really tell you if you are smart or shy?
When we get to some of the most important ideas in personality - ideas
like consciousness, anger, love, motivations, neurosis - the problem
looks at present to be insurmountable.
Another difficulty is the problem of control.
experiments, especially, you need to control all the irrelevant
variables in order to see whether the independent variable actually
affects the dependent variable. But there are millions of
variables impacting us at every moment. Even our whole history as
a person is right there, influencing the outcome. No sterile lab
will ever control those!
Even if you could control many of the variables - the psychological
version of a sterile lab - could you now generalize beyond that
situation? People act differently in a lab than at home.
They act differently when they are being observed than when they do in
private. Experiments are actually social situations, and they are
different from other social situations. Realism might be the
answer, but how does one accomplish realism at the same time as one
Then there's the problem of samples.
a chemist works with a certain rock, he or she can be pretty
confident that other samples of the same rock will respond similarly to
any chemicals applied. Even a biologist observing a rat can feel
pretty comfortable that this rat is similar to most rats (although that
has been debated!). This is certainly not true for people.
In psychology, we often use college freshmen as subjects for our
research. They are convenient - easily available, easy to coax
into participation (with promises of "points"), passive,
docile.... But whatever results you get with college freshmen,
can you generalize them to people in factories? to people on the
other side of the world? to people 100 years ago or 100 years in
the future? Can you even generalize to college seniors?
This problem transcends the issues for quantitative methods to
qualitative methods as well.
What about qualitative
methods, then? Qualitative methods basically involve careful
observation of people, followed by careful description, followed by
careful analysis. The problem with qualitative methods is
clear: How can we be certain that the researcher is indeed being
careful? Or, indeed, that the researcher is even being
honest? Only by replicating the studies.
There are as many qualitative methods as there are quantitative
methods. In some, the researcher actually introspects - looks into his own
experiences - for evidence. This sounds weak, but in fact it is
ultimately the only way for a researcher to directly access the kinds
of things that go on in the privacy of his or her own mind! This
method is common among existential psychologists.
Other researchers observe
people "in the wild," sort of like ethologists watch birds or chimps or
lions, and describe their behavior. The good thing here is that
it is certainly easier to replicate observations than
introspections. Anthropologists typically rely on this method, as
do many sociologists.
One of the most common qualitative method in personality is the interview. We ask questions,
sometimes prearranged ones, sometimes by the seat of our pants, of a
variety of people who have had a certain experience (such as being
abducted by a UFO) or fall into a certain category (such as being
diagnosed as having schizophrenia). The case study is a version of this that
focusses on gaining a rather complete understanding of a single
individual, and is the basis for a great deal of personality theory.
Ultimately, science is just careful observation plus careful
thinking. So we personality psychologists do the best we can with
our research methods. That does leave us to consider the business
of careful thinking, though, and there are a couple of particulars
there to consider as well.
First, we must always be on guard against ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism
is (for our purposes) the tendency we all have to see things from the
perspective of our own culture. We are born into our culture, and
most of us never truly leave it. We learn it so young and so
thoroughly that it becomes "second nature."
Freud, for example, was born in 1856 in Moravia (part of what is now
the Czech Republic). His culture - central European, German
speaking, Victorian era, Jewish... - was quite different from our own
(whatever that might be). One thing his culture taught was that
sex was a very bad thing, an animal thing, a sinful thing.
Masturbation was thought to lead to criminality, retardation, and
mental illness. Women who were capable of orgasms were assumed to
be nymphomaniacs, unlikely to make good wives and mothers, and possibly
destined for prostitution.
Freud is to be respected in that he was able to rise above his cultural
attitudes about sex and suggest that sexuality - even female sexuality
- was a natural (if animalistic) aspect of being human, and that
one's sexuality could lead to debilitating psychological
disorders. On the other hand, he didn't quite see the possibility
of a new western culture - our own - wherein sexuality was not only
accepted as normal but as something we should all be actively engaged
in at every opportunity.
A second thing to be on guard against is egocentrism. Again, for our
purposes, we are talking about the tendency to see our experiences, our
lives, as being the standard for all people. Freud was very close
to his mother. She was 20 when she had him, while his father was
40. She stayed home to raise him, while his father was working
the usual 16 hour days of the time. Little Freud was a child
genius who could talk about adult matters by the time he was
five. He was, as his mother once put it, her "golden Siggy."
These circumstances are unusual, even for his time and place.
Yet, as he developed his theory, he took it for granted that the
mother-son connection was at the center of psychology for one and
all! That, of course, was a mistake: egocentrism.
Last, we need to be on guard against dogmatism.
dogma is a set of ideas that the person who holds those ideas will
not permit to be criticized. Do you have evidence against my
beliefs? I don't want to hear them. Do you notice some
logical flaws in my arguments? They are irrelevant. Dogmas
are common in the worlds of religion and politics, but they have
absolutely no place in science! Science should always be open to
new evidence and criticism. Science isn't "Truth;" it is just a
movement in that general direction. When someone claims they have
"Truth," science comes to a grinding halt.
Well, sadly, Freud was guilty of dogmatism. He became so attached
to his ideas that he refused to accept disagreement from his
"disciples." (Notice the religious term here!) Some, like
Jung and Adler, would eventually go on to develop their own
theories. If only Freud had not been dogmatic, if only he had
open to new ideas and new evidence and allowed his theory to evolve
openly, we might all be "Freudians" today - and "Freudian" would mean
something quite different and much grander.
Enough of this beating around the bush. Let's get started.
Where should we start? At the beginning, of course. And
that would be the great master himself, Sigmund Freud.
© Copyright 2007, C. George Boeree