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Psychological Approaches to Understanding Personality

Personality is one part of psychology where there are many conflicting ideas. It is fair to say that there is not one single approach to personality that is considered as accepted. Instead, there are a range of ways that personality can be considered. This paper will describe three of these ways: the psychodynamic approach, the trait approach, and the behavioral approach. After each approach is described and analyzed, the approaches will be assessed with the most convincing and the least convincing identified.

The Psychodynamic Approach

The psychodynamic perspective is based on the idea that personality is based on a conflict between a person's biological drives and the needs of society. This approach to understanding personality is the one taken by Freud. Freud describes personality by focusing on the internal factors that determine an individual's personality. This is explained via the concepts of the id, the ego, and the superego.

According to Freud, everyone is born with a set of common drives. Namely, these are the drives for self-preservation and the drives for reproduction. Freud refers to these basic drives as the id, and notes that the id is selfish and unaware of anything but the basic needs of the individual. Freud also notes that the id is only able to seek instant gratification. In short, the id is a primal part of people that knows no logic or compromise. The next part of the individual is the ego. While the id operates disconnected from the world, the ego operates in reality. It understands the requirements of the real world and has a realistic view. The ego's role is to find the compromise between the needs of the real world and the needs of the id. At the same time, it has to control and manage the ego. Freud likens this to a person riding a horse saying that the ego "is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse" (Freud 1995, p. 636). The final part of an individual that contributes to personality is the superego. This is described as "an internalized representation of the parents' value system" (Seamon & Kenrick 1994, p. 421). This means that the individual internalizes a value system based on what they perceive as being right and wrong. Freud goes on to note that this is really an outgrowth of the id, where the superego develops as a way for the id to gain the love of the parents, which is part of its self-preservation desire.

Freud then goes on to link these parts of an individual by personality, by arguing that personality forms due to conflicts between these unconscious factors and the environment. This includes that personality develops based on the conflicts that a person encounters. For example, if an individual is yelled at every time they speak, their id would suffer. In an attempt to protect the id, the person might develop shyness. In a similar way, if a person's parents are outgoing and extroverted, a person might internalize this as part of their value system by accepting that being outgoing means being loved by the parents. This would then become part of the individual's personality.

One of the other important points about Freud's approach to studying personality is that it is based on personality as being caused by unconscious factors. This means that an individual is not capable of understanding their own personality, since they are unaware of the unconscious factors affecting them. This means that according to Freud, personality cannot be understood by asking an individual to define themselves. Instead, individual behavior must be noted, with the reasons behind the behavior then extrapolated based on the observed behavior.

The Trait Approach

The trait approach to studying personality has been described as "a systematic effort to describe and classify behavioral characteristics" (Seamon & Kenrick 1994, p. 426). This approach to understanding personality was formed after Freud's approach, with psychologists noting that before trying to explain why things differ, it is first necessary to clarify and define the differences. Based on this, the approach is not one that tries to understand why personalities differ, but one that tries simply to describe personalities. It is also worth noting that the trait approach understands personality based on the behaviors that are observed. For example, a person can be observed to be shy, relaxed, or serious. Importantly, this puts the focus on how people appear to be. As an example, an individual might be observed to be calm and stable. However, this may be an appearance only and may not reflect their true emotional state. Therefore, it is worth noting that the trait approach may not necessarily reflect a person's true personality. Instead, it more accurately measures how a person's personality is perceived by others.

The first major study of personality based on trait theory was performed by Raymond Catell. Catell started with a list of 4,000 terms that can be used to describe personality. By removing terms that have the same meaning and terms that suggest the same behaviors, Catell reduced the list to 16 factors that he considered sufficient to describe personality. These factors were (Catell 1965):

1. assertive vs. not assertive

2. conscientious vs. expedient

3. conservative vs. experimenting

4. emotional vs. stable

5. group oriented vs. self-sufficient

6. intelligent vs. unintelligent

7. practical vs. imaginative

8. relaxed vs. tense

9. self-assured vs. apprehensive

10. serious vs. happy-go-lucky

11. shrewd vs. forthright

12. shy vs. venturesome

13. suspicious vs. trusting

14. tender-minded vs. tough-minded

15. undisciplined vs. disciplined

16. unfriendly vs. friendly

Based on this list, psychologists reduced the number of traits even further to produce the "big five" personality traits. These five traits are: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and culture. It is considered that an individual's place on each of these dimensions can be used to define their overall personality.

Seamon and Kenrick (1994) also note that an individual's place on each dimension relates to how other people experience the individual on interacting with them. Extraversion refers to whether an individual seems dominant or submissive. Agreeable refers to whether an individual seems pleasant or distant. Conscientiousness refers to whether a person seems responsible or irresponsible. Emotional stability refers to whether or not a person seems sane. Culture refers to whether a person seems intelligent and informed or ignorant. This shows that the trait theory is largely based on how individuals are perceived.

The Behavioral Approach

The behavioral approach to understanding personality considers how individual experiences and environmental pressures contribute to personality development. With this approach, personality becomes something that is learned through contact with the environment and with other people, rather than something that develops internally.

One behavioral approach to understanding personality is based on Skinner's theory of instrumental conditioning theory. This theory explains how behaviors that have a positive outcome are more likely to occur again. Skinner referred to this process as reinforcement. The opposite also occurs where behaviors that have a negative outcome are less likely to occur again. Skinner referred to this process as punishment. In relation to personality, this means that people begin to behave in ways that generate positive outcomes, while choosing not to behave in ways that generate negative outcomes (Gleitman 1995). For example, if an individual speaks to new people constantly and always receives a positive response, they may become outgoing. If a person speaks to new people constantly and always receives a negative response, they may become timid. As another example, if a person tries new things, succeeds often, and is rewarded with praise, they may become conscientious. If a person tries new things, fails often, and is punished, they may become irresponsible.

Another behavioral approach to understanding personality is based on Bandura's ideas on personality as being socially constructed. Bandura (1986, p. 22) describes the approach saying that, "most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling." This means that individuals observe what other people are doing and the response that other people receive from their actions. This information is then internalized and understood cognitively. The individual then develops their own ideas on how to behave and what they can expect if they behave this way and this influences their choice of behavior. For example, an individual may perceive another person and note that they appear pleasant and friendly. The individual may also note that they are receiving a positive reaction and appear happy. This information is internalized, with the individual deciding that they want to be happy and achieve the same results as the person they are observing. The individual then models the behavior and acts in the same way as the individual. In doing so, the individual has learned to be warm and agreeable.

One of the important points about the behavioral approach is that it explains how observing outward behavior becomes internalized and then becomes a part of the person's personality. Considering Bandura's approach, it is noted that initially the individual is just copying the…[continue]

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