Personality theories attempt to explain individual personalities and differences among them. Studies in this field attempt to construct a coherent picture of individuals and why they differ. Personality is a dynamic and structured or organized characteristic of an individual that influences his or her set of behaviors, motivations, and cognitions in different situations. However, a consensus has not been reached on the exact definition of personality in psychology. (Ryckman 04)
There are a number of classical personality theories today that explain personality. Some of these theories have sub-theories or extensions developed by a number of researchers. Some renowned theories in the field of psychology explaining personality include:
- Trait theories
- Type theories
- Social cognitive theories
- Behaviorist theories
- Psychoanalytic theories
- Humanistic theories
- Biopsychological theories (Ryckman 04)
The above theories take different approaches to explain personality. However, in my opinion, a hybrid of these classical theories paints a clearer or more vivid picture of an individual personality. The trait theory indicates that people have regular or consistent patterns of perceiving, thinking about, or relating to the environment and the individual self. These patterns are exhibited in a wide range of situations and contexts. Proponents of the trait theories have three basic assumptions listed below:
- Traits or individual characters are relatively stable over time.
- Different individuals have different traits. Citing my own example, I can say that I am relatively reserved compared to my friends.
- Personal traits have a major impact on behavior. (Hjelle and Ziegler 92)
The traits theories have three to five wide dimensions. The most widely observed dimensions in this category are extraversion and introversion. This broad term means outgoing and reversed or physical stimulation oriented and physical oriented stimulation averse. In contrast to this branding of a person’s character as either A or B, the type theory states that individuals have different traits, but they come in different levels and degrees. I tend to agree with this position. This is because even though I consider myself reserved, it is not entirely. I may also consider myself to be relatively outgoing. Therefore, following this line of argument, I am introverted and outgoing at the same time, but the degree of the introvert trait is higher than the extrovert one.
Trait theorist Lewis Goldberg proposed the big five model that explains traits in five levels; openness and experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (Bradberry 07) For instance, the openness v. experience approaches state that some individuals tend to be independent and imaginative while others are conforming and independent. The Big Five, in broad terms, classify people as either organized and careful or disorganized and careless, fun-loving and sociable or retiring and reserved, softhearted and helpful or ruthless and uncooperative, calm and secure or insecure and anxious. (Hjelle and Ziegler 92)
The traits theory, such as the Big Five model, in my opinion, gives extensive coverage on the subject of personality. It is, for instance, almost impossible to point out a range of personal traits not covered in this model. The question that arises at this juncture is whether individuals have a line of uniform traits. For instance, if you take the openness v. experience and extravert v. introvert approaches, is it possible to find an imaginative and independent person who is also somber and reserved. In my opinion, individuals will most likely assume a uniform set of traits following the Big Five model. (Bradberry 07)
This means that an individual who is open and extroverted will also be organized, careful, sociable, affectionate, softhearted, helpful, calm, and secure. On the other hand, an individual who relies on experience and is an introvert will most likely tend to be impulsive, retiring, reserved, suspicious, uncooperative, anxious, and insecure. It will seem natural that a sociable and helpful person will also be softhearted and helpful. It is not commonplace to find an open, imaginative and independent person who is also somber and reserved.
As indicated earlier, the type theories state that people have different traits but come at different levels. For instance, there are two types of personalities; extrovert and introvert, but there are different degrees of these. This represents two extremes, with many people in the middle. Behavioral theorists argue that individual personality is determined by the interaction of the individual and his or her environment and people.
They strongly reject other approaches that suggest that internal thoughts and feelings dictate personality. (Engler 06) Classical humanistic theorists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow believed that individuals have free will and are actively involved in determining their behavior. They believe that subjective experiences determine how an individual behaves as opposed to definite determinants.
According to Maslow, individuals tend to work towards self-actualization. Individuals, therefore, show a trend in the dimensions of their traits. The key dimensions Maslow pointed out are awareness, reality, problem-centered, democratic, and acceptance. An individual is active and imaginative, and his or her behavior or personality will be influenced by other people, current perceptions, and encounters. For instance, though I consider myself reserved, I also believe myself to be a leader. To achieve my goal of leading others, the reserved trait will be an obstacle. This fact influences me to adjust my reserved character to fit my aspirations to be a leader. Therefore it is fair to say that the current perceptions and encounters mold my character so as to meet my needs.
Psychodynamic theories, whose main proponent is Sigmund Freud, emphasize the impact of childhood experiences and the unconscious mind. According to Freud, there are three personality components, namely the ego, superego, and id. These components are responsible for all needs (id), ideals, and morals (superego). The ego component acts as a moderating factor between reality, id, and superego. Another set of theories explaining personality is biological theories. These theories suggest that genetics dictate what sought of personality an individual has. They suggest that genetics, which is also hereditary, are directly responsible for a person’s behavior. For instance, according to their research, introverts have high cortical arousal, which makes them avoid stimulation. The opposite is true of extroverts. (Engler 06)
In my opinion, no single theory explains personality and everything that pertains to it. A hybrid of these theories creates a clearer picture of the issue in question. However, it is possible to find individuals whose one model can exhaustively be used to explain their character. The majority of people have dynamic personalities and therefore call for a dynamic set of models to explain their personality..
Bradberry, Travis. (2007) The Personality Code: New York: Putnam.
Engler, Barbara (2006). Personality Theories: Houghton Mifflin.
Hjelle, L. and D. Ziegler (1992). Personality: Basic Assumptions, Research and Applications. New York: McGraw Hill.
Ryckman, R. (2004). Theories of Personality: Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.