MCAT Content / Personality / Theories Of Personality

Theories of Personality

Topic: Personality

Research into what determines personality has branched into several different approaches and major theories including the psychoanalytic, humanistic, trait, social cognitive, biological, and behaviorist perspectives.

A great deal of modern personality psychology is influenced by, and attempts to answer, the following five philosophical questions about what really determines personality:

1. Freedom versus determinism: How much, if any, of an individual’s personality is under their conscious control?

2. Heredity versus environment: Do internal (biological) or external (environmental) influences play a larger role in determining personality?

3. Uniqueness versus universality: Are individuals generally more alike (similar to each other) or different (unique) in nature?

4. Active versus reactive: Is human behavior passively shaped by environmental factors, or are humans more active in this role?

5. Optimistic versus pessimistic: Are humans integral in the changing of their own personalities (for instance, can they learn and change through human interaction and intervention)?

Research into what determines personality has branched into several different approaches and major theories including the psychoanalytic, humanistic, trait, social cognitive, biological, and behaviorist perspectives.

• Psychoanalytic theory: Originating with Sigmund Freud, psychoanalytic (or psychodynamic) theory posits that human behavior is the result of the interaction among various components of the mind (the id, ego, and superego) and that we act to reduce the unconscious conflicts (called drives or forces) between these components. Freud also posited that personality develops according to a series of psychosexual developmental stages.

Humanistic perspective: Argues that an individual’s subjective free will is the most important determinant of behavior. Humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers believed that people strive to become self-actualized—the “best version” of themselves or “ideal self”. The gap between the “ideal” self and the real self can cause discomfort and lead to defensive behaviors – this gap is called incongruence.

Trait perspective: Believe personality can be conceptualized as a set of common traits, or characteristic ways of behaving, that every individual exhibits to some degree. In this view, such personality traits are different from person to person but within an individual are stable over time and place.

Social cognitive perspective: Emphasizes cognitive processes, such as thinking and judging, in the development of personality. These cognitive processes contribute to learned behaviors that are central to one’s personality. By observing an admired role model, an individual may choose to adopt and emphasize particular traits and behaviors.

Biological perspective: Approaches focus on the role of genetics and the brain in shaping personality. Related to this, evolutionary theories explore how variation in individual personality variance may be rooted in natural selection.

Behaviorist perspective (aka learning perspective): Regard an individuals’ actions as ultimately being responses to external stimuli, driven by outcomes. A traditional behaviorist perspective sees outcomes, and not cognition, as the drive behind an individual’s choices and behaviors. Social learning theory believes that personality and behavior are determined by an individual’s cognition about the world around them.

• The Big Five model of personality traits is based on a 16-point model originally created by Raymond Cattle. The Big Five model distills personality traits down to 5 major traits: openness to experience, contentiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. This model was developed for use in psychology and sociology research, to study the effect of personality on specific behaviors measured in research studies. These personality traits are quantified using a survey.

With any of these theories, it is important to keep in mind that the culture in which we live is one of the most important environmental factors that shapes our personalities. Western ideas about personality are not necessarily applicable to other cultures, and there is evidence that the strength of personality traits varies across cultures


Practice Questions


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Key Points

• Modern personality psychology is heavily influenced by these early philosophical roots and attempts to identify which components—such as free will, heredity, or universality—are most influential in shaping human personality.

• There are many approaches to the modern psychological study of personality, including the psychoanalytic, humanistic, trait, social cognitive, biological, and behaviorist perspective.

• Sigmund Freud ‘s psychoanalytic theory of personality argues that human behavior is the result of the interactions among three component parts of the mind: the id, ego, and superego.The biological perspective on personality focuses on why or how personality traits manifest through biology and investigates the links between personality, DNA, and processes in the brain.

• Humanistic theory argues that an individual’s subjective free will is the most important determinant of behavior

• Trait theorists believe personality can be conceptualized as a set of common traits, or characteristic ways of behaving, that every individual exhibits to some degree. In this view, such personality traits are different from person to person but within an individual are stable over time and place.

• Social cognitive perspective emphasizes cognitive processes, such as thinking and judging, in the development of personality. These cognitive processes contribute to learned behaviors that are central to one’s personality.

• Biological perspective approaches focus on the role of genetics and the brain in shaping personality.

• Behaviorist perspective regard an individuals’ actions as ultimately being responses to external stimuli.

The Big Five model distills personality into 5 measurable traits for research purposes


Key Terms

determinism: in philosophy, theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes

pessimism: a negative or depressed mental attitude in which an undesirable outcome

psychoanalytic theory: the theory of personality organization and the dynamics of personality development

humanistic perspective : an approach to psychology that emphasizes empathy and stresses the good in human behavior

incongruence: the gap between the “real” and “ideal” self that can cause discomfort

behaviorist perspective: concerned with how environmental factors affect observable behavior

big five model: quantifies personality traits of openness to new experiences, contentiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism



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