To the layperson, the term personality is a generic descriptor for an individual's traits. However, personality has a more specific meaning to psychologists. According to Dan McAdams, "Personality psychology is the scientific study of the whole person" (McAdams, 2006, p.12, para.1). While different psychologists and their theories have become well-known enough to be referenced in casual conversation, there is still some confusion among laypeople about personality theory and whether all personality theories are basically the same. That confusion is understandable, because there are different approaches to the study of personality, buy they all purport to give functioning descriptions of the individual. "Personality psychologists develop and validate ways of measuring individual differences, necessitating a quantitative and focused inquiry into single dimensions of human variation together into illuminating personological portraits of the individual case" (McAdams, 2006, p.12, para.1). Therefore, while personality theories should be comprehensive enough to describe all people, they should also be specific-enough to comprehensively describe an individual
Personality psychology was the first real type of psychology, and the man frequently credited as both the father of modern psychology and the father of personality theory is Sigmund Freud. Freud debuted the idea of psychoanalysis, and though this classical theory has faced many challenges, in many ways it remains one of the supporting pillars of modern personality psychology. However, later theorists expanded upon and challenged Freud's work, coming up with their own descriptions of personality psychology. Some of these could be incorporated into existing theories, while others were so revolutionary that they clearly merited a different type of study. For example, Skinner and behaviorism are so distinct from Freudian psychoanalysis that they would not seem like part of the same field if they were not both used to describe the character traits of an individual.
This paper will investigate the six main theoretical approaches to personality theory: classical psychoanalytical, contemporary psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, humanist-existential, narrative, and psychometric/descriptive. To do so, it will focus on the primary works of those who are generally considered to be founders or leaders of each field. However, in doing so, the author acknowledges that the picture of each approach will be incomplete. There is simply not enough time and space to devout a complete overview to each theory. Therefore, while the information on classical psychoanalysis will detail Freud's work, it will not delve into works by Carl Jung or even Anna Freud, who built upon Freud's work, but also challenged some of his preconceived notions. Therefore, while this paper will provide an overview of each theory, they will simply be overviews.
In addition, the paper will attempt to give historical perspective to each of the personality theories. For example, many modern scholars might find Freud's Oedipal complex to be laughable and point to the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse in modern society as a reason to dismiss the rest of his theories by suggesting that Freud missed his opportunity to uncover this phenomenon. However, the reality is that Freud initially suggested that his female patients had actually suffered sexual abuse, but the people of his time were not willing to even consider that possibility, forcing him to examine other alternatives in developing his theories. It is important to understand how historical limitations might impact not only how a theory develops, but also some of the practical information impacting the practice of personality psychology. Simply because an idea is currently seen as antiquated does not mean that it is not an important part of the field of personality psychology.
Classical Psychoanalytical Theory
One simply cannot discuss personality theory without discussing psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud. To many, Freud is psychology and they have little understanding of psychology beyond the idea of Freudian psychoanalysis. There is good reason for this; Freud certainly brought the idea of psychoanalytic therapy and the notion of a talking cure into modern science. However, while it might be accurate to consider Freud the father of modern psychology in many ways, it is also somewhat misleading, because it would certainly be an error to assume that one could recognize Freudian psychoanalysis in many modern psychological theories. Instead, psychoanalysis opened the gateway to personality theory and many modern theorists have gone in directions far away from Freud's initial vision.
The backbone of Freudian psychoanalysis is that much of human behavior is not controlled on a conscious level, but on a subconscious level. Freud breaks the human psyche down into three different levels: the id, the ego, and the superego. These three elements are constructs; they do not have, nor did Freud believe them to have, actual biological representations in the human brain. Instead, they are the descriptors for how different layers of human awareness interact to form motivation. For many, understanding these parts of the psyche are critical to understanding Freud, though Freud himself did not label them until later in his practice.
The id is the most basic level of the human psyche. It is unconscious both disorganized and immoral; in is motive by the desire to avoid pain or displeasure. Furthermore, it is the first part of the psyche to develop; in many ways, babies are simply id. According to Freud, "The id of course knows no judgments of value: no good and evil, no morality. The economic, or, if you prefer, quantitative factor, which is intimately linked to the pleasure principle, dominates all its processes. Instinctual cathexes seeking discharge- that, in our view, is all there is in the id" (Freud, 1989, p. 93, para. 2). Freud seemed to consider the id to be a dark part of the personality, but it is important to keep in mind that he did not label it morally bad, but simply amoral.
The ego is the second part of the psyche to develop. To Freud, the ego is the id modified by the external world (Freud, 1989, p.94, para.1). "The relation to the external world has become the decisive factor for the ego; it has taken on the task of representing the external world to the id- fortunately for the id, which could not escape destruction if, in its blind efforts for the satisfaction of its instincts, it disregarded that supreme external power" (Freud, 1989, p.94, para.1). Therefore, the ego functions as a mediator between a person's subconscious and the external world. "In accomplishing this function, the ego must observe the external world, must lay down an accurate picture of it in the memory-traces of its perceptions, and by its exercise of the function of 'reality testing' must put aside whatever in this picture of the external world is an addition derived from internal sources of excitation" (Freud, 1989, p.94, para.1). However, it would be wrong to view the ego as simply a tool for the id. "The ego controls the approaches to motility under the id's orders; but between a need and an action it has interposed a postponement in the form of the activity of thought, during which it makes use of the mnemic residues of experience. In that way it has dethroned the pleasure principle" (Freud, 1989, p.94, para. 1).
The super ego is the third level of the psyche, and it its function is a little like the angel sitting on someone's shoulder, telling them to behave well. Freud frequently compared the super ego to the internalization of the parental influence on a person. "It is also the vehicle of the ego ideal by which the ego measures itself, which it emulates, and whose demand for even greater perfection it strives to fulfill" (Freud, 1989, p.81, para.2). The super ego's goal is perfection, even when there is an awareness that perfection is impossible. The super ego also seeks to behave in a socially appropriate manner, even when social norms conflict with the base drives of the id. It is from the super ego that human being have morality, because the super ego is the source of feelings of right and wrong, and also for feelings of guilt.
When one views the super ego, with its focus on the external world, and the id, with its focus on fulfilling inner-driven drives and demands, it becomes clear that that the ego has to play a role in the relationship between the id and the super ego. In fact, the ego not only mediates between the id and the outside world, but also between the id and the superego. Therefore, the ego is that part of the psyche that interacts with the outside world, but it may not reflect even a small portion of the actual personality of the subject. The ego is also where human consciousness can be located, though the ego also operates on subconscious levels. The ego looks out for the safety of the person, trying to balance the basic urges of the id with the higher demands of the superego. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Freud frequently depicts the ego as being in conflict. This conflict between the higher demands of the superego…
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