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Major Psychological Approaches To The Study Of Personality

Major Psychological Approaches to the Study of Personality

Although theories of personality abound, each of them can be fitted into one of a few major categories. As to why there are so many different theories, Burger (2004)  compares the phenomenon to the old story of the five blind men who encounter the elephant. Each man touches a different part of the elephant and renders a description of the beast based on his own experience. Thus, the man who feels the elephant’s leg describes a tall, round animal. Another, feeling the animal’s ear, says that it is thin and flat. The man holding the trunk refers to a long, slender animal, while those holding the tail and touching the animal’s side render yet different descriptions.  Each of the blind men feels and describes a different part of the elephant’s anatomy, thus rendering a unique perception for each man. Although each man’s description is basically correct, it is nonetheless an incomplete picture of the whole animal. Thus it is with personality theories (the differing parts of the same construct) and the categories into which they fit (the differing approaches to the study of the construct).

The following categorical approaches to the study of personality are used to facilitate the identification of numerous personality theories:

  • The Classic Psychoanalytic Perspective approaches the understanding of individual behavioral differences through asserting that it is the unconscious mind and the experiences of childhood that are responsible for these differences.
  • In the Neo-Freudian and Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspectives, the emphases move toward the conscious efforts that result in individual differences.
  • The Trait, Motive, and Need Perspectives incorporate, first of all, the idea that the study of personality can be reduced to a number of traits – those major features that are stable across time and that give people their unique qualities as individuals. Secondly, motivation is seen as the internal state that results in a condition termed “arousal” that is responsible for behaviors and the directions they take, as well as determining their persistence.  Thirdly, the role of need and how it influences the motivation of behaviors is also included in this category (Huitt, 2001).
  • The Genetic and Evolutionary Perspectives on personality development center around the idea that, although children are not born with integral, fully developed personalities, neither are they the “blank slates” as once thought. It is now a widely held opinion among psychologists that personality, like other genetic traits, is in part a result of biological inheritance. Thus it should not be surprising that, increasingly, the development of personality as an evolutionary phenomenon is also being considered (Burger, 2004).
  • The Behavioral Perspectives are those which encompass the belief that all behaviors are the result of an organism’s interaction with its environment and that only those constructs that can be observed and measured are viable in the study of development.
  • The Humanistic Perspectives emphasize the role of free will and individual experiences in the development of personality.
  • The Cognitive Perspectives deal with individual personality differences as being the result of the way individual people process information.

The Role of Culture in Understanding Personality

Researchers and theorists are becoming progressively more aware that personality develops within the context of culture.  Culture, made up of the behaviors and thinking that people in societal groups learn or create and pass down through the generations, is what differentiates one group from another. Culture encompasses a group’s values and beliefs; its religion,  politics, and economics; its art and technology; and its ways of dressing and cooking,  to name but a few areas (Encarta, 2007).

Interestingly,  culture – although one of the most important concepts in the study of all things human – is often not recognized by those who are immersed in it.  However, cross-cultural researchers are coming to realize that the development of individual personality characteristics is contingent upon the culture in which the individual is absorbed (Ryckman, 2000). Generally, researchers distinguish between two broadly categorized types of cultures: individualistic cultures and collectivist cultures.

An individualist culture is one in which the needs and the successes of the individual are stressed. Traits such as individuality, uniqueness, and competitiveness are emphasized, and independence is valued. Most Northern European countries and the United States are categorized as individualist societies (Burger, 2004).

Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, are those in which the group is considered first and of foremost importance. Membership in a group, such as a family or a tribe,  is of more concern than individuals’ requirements, and cooperation and group success takes precedence over competition. Asian, African, Central American,  and South American countries are, for the most part, considered to have collectivist cultures (Burger, 2004).

As a result, the concepts conceived by Western personality theorists may be perceived quite differently by people from collectivist cultures, and the types of behaviors studied may seem very dissimilar. Whereas personal recognition may be a sought after achievement in Western society, the members of a collectivist society may see the personal recognition in a negative light, due to the notion that group achievement would be preferred over individual achievement in a collectivist society (Burger, 2004).

In terms of personality development, people learn behaviors and thought processes from their cultural milieus, which have unique effects on said development (Markus & Kitayama, 1998). When Western and non-Western cultural groups are contrasted, it is noted that they have differing motivations, concerns, approaches, activities, principles, and notions of mental health and psychopathologies. For instance, Westerners may define success in terms of their internal and comparatively stable characteristics (such as skills and aptitudes) while blaming their failures on external factors (e.g., placing the culpability on someone else). Conversely, non-Westerners may refer to their successes as being the result of exertion or chance and their failures as lack of skills or aptitudes. Thus, while self-criticism is emphasized in non-Western cultures, it is often viewed as pathological in Western cultures (Ryckman, 2000).

As follows, what has been previously understood about personality has generally derived from the Western analyses of individuals as autonomous organisms.  Fortunately for the field of psychology, the current trend is to give increased consideration to cross-cultural studies (Ryckman, 2000).

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