Individual Differences

Personality

Integration & Review of 6 Main Theoretical Perspectives on Personality

Last updated:
01 Nov 2003


Overview of personality perspectives' strengths & weaknesses

A rant for integration

Examples of integrating perspectives and concepts

On eclecticism & integral psychology

Exploring topics related to personality

Looking back: Where have we succeeded & where have we failed?

Looking forward: Trends in personality

Develop your own personality theory

Personality & multiplicity

Exploring multiplicity: "The Dice Man" by Luke Rhinehart

Where will it all end: Is personality transformation possible?

References



Overview of personality perspectives' strengths & weaknesses
 

Perspective

Strength

Weakness

Biological

Testable theories with increasing validity & efficacy

Doesn’t grapple with  “personhood” & sense of personal self

Psychoanalytic

Attention to unconscious

Unverifiable?

Sexist?

Dispositional

Good individual assessments techniques; Trait vs. Type approach

May label people on basis of scores; Overly-reliant on self-report instruments

Learning

Scientific analysis & practical application

Overlooks IDs present from birth

Humanistic

Optimistic, growth-oriented

Ignores scientific method

Cognitive

Captures active nature of human thought

Ignores unconscious

A rant for integration

Too often, courses in personality are integrally weak - i.e. students are not challenged back to the reality in which perspectives overlap more than they differ.  After splitting a subject up into pieces, the real test of understanding comes in putting things back together - comparing and contrasting is an important part of summarizing, but integrating is the real task.

Figure 1. The six perspectives on personality are like the parable of the blind men feeling an effort and describing different realities.

The situation is much like that described in the Buddhist parable about the blind men of Indostan and the elephant.  The blind men each touch a different part of the elephant.  The man holding the trunk sees an elephant as snake-like.  The man holding the ear thinks of the elephant as thin and flat.  The man touching the side of the elephant thinks it is wall-like, and so on.

    O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
    For preacher and monk the honored name!
    For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
    Such folk see only one side of a thing.
    - Jainism and Buddhism. Udana 68-69:

Related link: The Elephant in the Black Box: A Parable about Outdoor Education

Examples of integrating perspectives and concepts

Psycho-analytic & Evolutionary Perspectives

For one thing, psycho-analytic and evolutionary perspectives on personality were constructed at similar times, in the late 19th century, courtesy of Freud and Darwin respectively.  But more importantly, they have in common the notion of an unconscious.  In evolutionary terms, we can understand the unconscious as the reptilian and mammalian parts of the brain, deeply seated urges which were successful for homo sapiens' adaptation and survival.  Only in relatively recent evolutionary history did human consciousness, as we know it, evolve to include conscious self-awareness. 

Can you find other similarities between these perspectives?  Consider, for example, that Freud was criticized for overly focusing on the libido as being driven by sexual energy, but the theory of evolution would seem to support that the sexual urge is a critical and fundamental necessity for survival.

Humanistic & Evolutionary Perspectives

It seems rarely considered, but there is an important commonality shared by the humanistic and evolutionary perspectives.  Both perspectives are evolutionary in the broadest sense of the word.  The humanistic perspective tends to focus on the future potential evolution of individual human beings, whereas the evolutionary perspective tends to focus on the past evolution of human beings as a species.  The notion of the human species as involved in a story of unfolding and developing psychological capacity underlies both perspectives.  What other connections can you see?

On eclecticism & integral psychology

“There is no need to choose a single lens for psychology when we can enjoy a kaleidoscope of perspectives.”
- Sandra Scarr (1985, p.511) cited in Carver & Scheier, (2000, p.510)

It can be fun and groovy to dabble in all perspectives.  And it can be helpful.  For example, in post-graduate social work and clinical psychology courses, students are actively encouraged to draw from many perspectives. But be warned of the dangers here - don't hide behind vague statements which give no weight to one theory over another.  This is lame.  The real meaning of eclecticism is not equal inclusion of everything, but rather drawing the best perspective from amongst multiple perspectives as opposed to being hostage to a single perspective or a fence-sitter between all perspectives.

eclectic \Ec*lec"tic\ - 1. Selecting; choosing (what is true or excellent in doctrines, opinions, etc.) from various sources or systems; as, an eclectic philosopher. 2. Consisting, or made up, of what is chosen or selected; as, an eclectic method; an eclectic magazine.

broad, comprehensive, inclusive; assorted, mingled, mixed; diverse, diversified.

eclecticism - n : making decisions on the basis of what seems best instead of following some single doctrine or style [syn: {eclectic method}]

There are also some efforts to develop sophisticaed "integral psychology".  For example,  Ken Wilber's book "Integral Psychology : Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy" (2000):

The goal of an "integral psychology" is to honor and embrace every legitimate aspect of human consciousness under one roof. This book presents one of the first truly integrative models of consciousness, psychology, and therapy. Drawing on hundreds of sources--Eastern and Western, ancient and modern--Wilber creates a psychological model that includes waves of development, streams of development, states of consciousness, and the self, and follows the course of each from subconscious to self-conscious to superconscious. Included in the book are charts correlating over a hundred psychological and spiritual schools from around the world, including Kabbalah, Vedanta, Plotinus, Teresa of Ávila, Aurobindo, Theosophy, and modern theorists such as Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Jane Loevinger, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Erich Neumann, and Jean Gebser. Integral Psychology is Wilber's most ambitious psychological system to date, and it is already being called a landmark study in human development.

Exploring topics related to personality

Although sometimes studied as single subject, personality is rarely studied on its own.  More typically, researchers are interested to explore possible connections between personality and other aspects of life and behavior.  Here are some examples:

  • Personality & abnormalities e.g., personality disorders in clinical psychology, eccentrics

  • Personality & achievement e.g., achievement motivation, goal setting, career choice

  • Personality & development e.g., age & developmental stages of personality

  • Personality & gender differences e.g., what would a female theory of personality look like?

  • Personality & physical health e.g., compliance with medication, Type A personality, etc.

  • Personality & race, culture & nationality e.g., personality of nations, races & cultures

  • Personality & relationships e.g., group dynamics, marital relations

  • Personality & spirituality e.g., transcendent experiences

Looking back: Where have we succeeded & where have we failed?

We have succeeded in exploring a variety of theory and ideas about psychological uniqueness and similarities that can be characterized as personality. 

We have failed in that so much about human behavior and experience remains unexplained.  Remember the correlations between personality and actual behavior are roughly .3 to .4 at best, i.e., roughly 10 to 20%.

Looking forward: Trends in personality

In the 21st century, it might become as popular to craft a personality as it has been in the 20th century to craft a particular physical look.  Personal development is a growth industry (pun intended!) e.g., personal coaching is increasingly popular, and the promise of "new age" experiences continues to appeal to many

What other trends do you think we might we see?  For example, do you think we will be able to choose the temperament of our babies via genetic engineering?

Here are some possible trends to consider:

  • Personality & culture: Emerging interest in cultural contributions (e.g., Eastern perspectives) to personality in Western cultures

  • Personality & biology: A growing interest in biological contributions to personality, e.g., role of diet on personality

  • Personality & artificial intelligence: e.g., computers are increasingly customized to  personality and via virtual environments provide a myriad of possible ways to explore self

  • Personality & The Big 5: The use of the Big Five Supertraits to organise and understand the universe of traits is being increasingly pursued in research; its dominance looks set to continue

  • Personality & terrorism: Western governments will probably fund research into "terrorist" personality and seek methods of screening and dealing with potential "terrorists"

  • Personality & marketing: In the search for profits, big companies will fund research into how to customize marketing to target particular personalities, e.g., motivating music!

  • Personality & alternative health: Integration between personality and medicine is common in non-Western culture and will become attractive (but not as attractive as pills to pharaceutical companies!)

  • Personality & multiplicity: Are we one or many?  Western culture has adopted a unitary view of self, whereas many other cultures, especially indigenous cultures view self as having multiple parts worth exploring.  In Western culture, now, for example, increasing drug use to alter consciousness can be seen as an example of this ancient view of self.

Develop your own personality theory

Despite all the theory by famous people, at the end of the day, each person operates with some fundamental assumptions about how he/she and others function psychologically.  These assumptions are powerful.  We are all amateur psychologists, constantly wondering what other people are thinking and feeling, and making inferences and hypotheses about the reasons for their behavior.

So, for psychology students it is important to:

  • lay out the guts of one's psychological assumptions on the table,
  • examine one's assumptions & incorporate helpful parts of psychological theory and research, and
  • put it all back together in a way that better equips you to succeed  in the kind of work you hope to do
  • be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your perspective

In this way one's amateur assumptions can be become at least semi-professional, but still be "true to one's self". I agree with Funder (2002) that after considering different perspectives it is probably helpful to adopt the perspective that appeals most, and then work actively to improve it to suit your particular situation and needs that evolve over time.

Related link: Developing a personal philosophy of education.

Personality & multiplicity

Are you one or many?  There is an implicit assumption in most Western psychology that we are united, singular psychology entities, whereas we can also be considered separate, disparate parts.  For example, this is the basis of psycho-analytic theory - e.g., Id, Ego, Superego.  In Western psychology we tend to label persistent experiences of altered consciousness as a disorder (e.g., schizophrenia), rather than a normal aspect of consciousness.

Related link: The Multiplicity of Consciousness and the Emergence of the Self [pdf]

Everyday evidence for multiplicity might include:

  • having an affair
  • saying "he or she does not seem his or self today"
  • "waking up on the wrong side of bed"
  • feeling moody
  • wanting to take risks
  • cross-dressing
  • hobbies & leisure activities
  • bisexuality
  • altered consciousness
  • androgyny
  • fantasies
  • pseudonymns

In modern society, our basic physiological needs are reasonably satisfied, so there is greater opportunity to experience other parts of self.  With huge amounts of information available, modern methods of travel, and so on, the global age serves up a huge platter of possibilities for self-creation.  Completely different and unique lives can be manufactured, including lives of multiple parts.  Indeed, this may even be an adaptive response (e.g., case of Sybil). 

Related link: The "Subtle Sybil" effect.  Read more about Multiple Personality.

So, why not explore multiple aspects of self?  In many respects, the unitary sense of self is a construction or defence against the plurality of consciousness.  It may seem safest to stick with one consciousness, but multiplicity has a way of making its presence felt.  Freud referred to the techniques one use's to keep one's unwanted consciousness away as defense mechanisms.  However, in particular environments, people can feel more comfortable about letting these other urges come through.  And sometimes people characterize these other ways of thinking as a different self. After all, why not explore the labyrinth, since we are all serving a lifetime in the dungeon of self (aka Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, Ch 1).

Related link: The Wilderness of Neural Possibility

Exploring multiplicity: "The Dice Man" by Luke Rhinehart

Luke Rhinehart is the pseudonymn of George Cockroft who wrote a cult bestseller in the 1970's called "The Dice Man".  In the book, Rhinehart is a bored psychiatrist who decides that his life is boring because his dominant self keeps his other urges effectively under control. So, he experiments with giving other aspects of self a chance to be expressed.  He does this by writing down what he might want to do in any given moment, laying out 6 possibilities, then rolling a dice and following the decision that comes up.  Rolling dice becomes an obsession for Rhinehart and he adopts increasingly large, risky and perverse possibilities as the book continues.

During the 1990's there was a resurgence of interest in the novel, and there are many people who practice at some point at least, "dice living".   There are several dice websites, if you want to explore the idea further - go to Multiplicity links.

Where will it all end: Is personality transformation possible?

"at this point in history, the most radical, pervasive, and earth-shaking transformation would occur simply if everybody truly evolved to a mature, rational, and responsible ego, capable of freely participating in the open exchange of mutual self-esteem“
-
Ken Wilber (1981, p. 328)

Personality has been emphasized through this course as defined by that which is psychologically characteristic of a person and reasonably persistent over time and across situations.  But we should also consider the possibility of radical personality transformation, which.  Basically, if sufficient conditions occur (e.g., supportive therapeutic environment and efficacious methodology) then personality characteristics can be reshaped.  As Wilber optimistically points out of above, it may even be possible for radical shifts to occur quite rapidly in the psyche of an entire human culture.


References

Carver, C.S., & Scheier, M.F. (2000). Perspectives on personality (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Engler, B. (2000). Personality theories: An introduction. Houghton Chifflin: Boston, MA.

Rowan, J., & Cooper, M. (1999).  The plural self: Multiplicity in everyday life.  Sage: London.

Ryckman, R.M. (2000). Theories of personality.  Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.