The nature of human personality has long been an interest of philosophers, psychologists, and intellectuals alike who have been, and still continue to be today, puzzled by the wide range of traits and behaviours that characterize human beings. Indeed, if there is one consistent finding that has emerged from the extant research on personality with which every personologist agrees, it is that personality is as diverse and complex as the day is long. That being said, in my exploration of the different personality theories postulated over the years I have encountered some that seem to be, at least in my opinion, better adept at sufficiently explaining human behaviour. I have integrated these different perspectives into my own multi-faceted theory of personality, which I have labelled trait-interactionism.
In developing a theory of personality one must address a number of concomitant topics, namely, motivation, the unconscious, consistency of behaviour, and the ubiquitous debate of nature or nurture. Throughout the essay I will be touching upon these important topics when appropriate.
According to Gordon Allport, personality is not an abstraction or a fictional phenomena but rather an entity that exists within an individual and lies behind specific acts and behaviours. Thus, Allport disagreed with B. F. Skinner's claim that personality was simply a collection of learned environmental responses. Instead, he theorized that traits, which are biological in nature, are the fundamental building blocks of personality and it is the specific pattern of these traits that determines how a person will behave in a situation. That each person confronts and responds to an environmental experience differently is best captured by Allport's statement that, "The same fire that melts the butter hardens the egg" (in Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003, p. 159). Allport's famous definition of personality as, "the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determines his characteristic behaviour and thought", illustrates four important aspects of his theory as well as mine (in Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003, p. 156).
Personality is dynamic. It is constantly changing and adapting but always in ways that are consistent with the overall personality structure. By this Allport meant that a person is not quite the same person as they were before an experience. In fact, many would argue that a rigid, inflexible personality is maladaptive and leads to neurosis. In many ways I am a different person today than I was in the past. Attending university has revolutionized the way I perceive and think about the world, but the basic, fundamental personality traits that characterize me as an individual- namely, introversion, preference for sameness/familiarity, and self-consciousness- have remained stable.
The term "psychophysical" highlights the interaction of both biological and cognitive factors in the expression of personality. This concept is integral to my theory as I believe that personality involves not only behaviour but thoughts (i.e., perceptions, interpretations, expectations) and emotions. Albert Bandura disapproved of taking a reductionist approach to studying personality as he argued that it would eventually lead to psychology being, "reduced to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics, with the final stop in atomic particles"( in Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003, p. 299).
By stating that traits determine one's behaviour, Allport is suggesting that personality is generated from within rather than controlled by external factors, as Skinner would argue. Though it is influenced by the environment to some extent, behaviour is driven by the internal personality structure. Perhaps the most dominant theme running through all of Adler's work is his emphasis on the individual and his/her characteristic behaviour and thought (Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003). According to Allport, no two human beings are alike.
A temperament is the innate, biological aspect of one's personality that determines how he/she perceives and responds to the world. That some infants come out of the womb more reactive than others is evidence that we are not born as blank slates of human nature. Hans Eysenck, a temperament personologist, developed three personality traits, called superfactors, which he believed had clear biological origins and which composed a person's temperament. They were neuroticism (contrasted with emotional stability), extroversion, (contrasted with introversion), and psychoticism. Research has demonstrated that these three traits are highly heritable, exhibited by nonhuman animals, widespread across many cultures, and relatively consistent across the lifespan (Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003). Eysenck took his research a step further by attempting to establish the biological basis of personality.
The ascending reticular activating system (ARAS) in the brain is responsible for excitatory and inhibitory patterns in the cerebral cortex. Eysenck argued that an introvert is characterized by higher levels of cortical excitation or arousal, controlled by the ARAS, than an extrovert. In other words, introverts' threshold for cortical excitation or arousal is lower than that of an extrovert such that the same intensity of environmental stimulation (i.e., music) is experienced stronger by an introvert than an extrovert. Thus, introverts are said to be "stimulus shy" while extroverts are "stimulus weak" or "hungry". The latter is supported by the fact that, on average, extroverts tend to listen to louder music and prefer to be around more people than introverts; facts to which I, an introvert, can attest.
The limbic system, or as Eysenck referred to it as, the visceral brain, regulates emotional expression and controls autonomic responses such as heart beat and blood pressure. Neurotics, Eysenck postulated, are characterized by higher levels of autonomic activity, controlled by the limbic system, than emotionally stable people. The Seinfeld character George Costanza is the epitome of a neurotic. He is anxious, insecure, self-conscious, and self-loathing, and overreacts to even the slightest inconvenience. The English idioms "Don't make a mountain out of a molehill" and "Don't cry over spilled milk" are clearly statements by which neurotics do not live.
Eysenck had difficulty explaining the biological underpinnings of the trait psychotisicm. However, because it was included to make distinctions between abnormal people, psychoticism did not play a major role in Eysenck's research on the personality structure of normal, healthy people. Thus in my theory, temperament, which is the core of our personality and remains relatively stable throughout our lives, consists of extroversion/introversion and neuroticism/emotional stability.
Eysenck's superfactors are what Raymond Cattell would classify as constitutional source traits, which are genetically determined and differ from environmentally moulded traits, which develop from experience. Eysenck believed that the former were not influenced by early experience and did not arise from learning, a point with which I take issue. Like Cattell, I believe that early experiences can exert a strong effect on personality traits, including those that are largely biological. The environment can serve to reinforce or weaken certain personality traits through the principles of operant conditioning and observational learning. For example, aggression, which I believe has a strong biological basis, can be influenced by one's environment. Let's suppose, for arguments sake, you have two boys who are both equally predisposed to aggression but who grow up in completely different environments. The one boy, who lives in a poorer neighbourhood in which violence is quite prevalent, is more likely to consistently behave aggressively than the other boy who lives in a peaceful, middle-class neighbourhood. Although both boys have a tendency to respond to provocation with aggression, the environment in which the first boy grew up reinforced or strengthened that tendency such that it manifests into aggression more in him than in the other boy. Cattell estimated that one third of personality is biological and the remaining two thirds is environmental (Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003); others have claimed that as much as 75% of personality is hereditary. Such estimates have proven to be difficult to scientifically validate, however. Clearly, though, both biology and the environment contribute to the development of personality.
Other personality traits, such as the Big Five's conscientiousness, openness to experience, and agreeableness, as well as many of Cattell's factors such as superego strength and self-sufficiency fall within the category of environmentally moulded traits. The list of personality describing terms is infinite, as Allport discovered when he reviewed a dictionary and found 18,000 of them. Based on research using factory analysis, Cattell and Eysenck proposed that traits that were highly correlated with each other were likely influenced by an underlying general factor or source trait; the exact number of which was open to interpretation. Cattell's theory included 16 factors which he believed accounted for the diversity of human personality. Eysenck proposed that the personality structure consisted of three superfactors which formed a hierarchal structure in which higher order traits are correlated with a cluster of subordinate traits. For example, traits such as sociable, lively, active, and sensation-seeking are highly correlated with the general factor extroversion. In my theory, an individual's personality structure consists of a temperament and five to ten personality traits. The nature of the latter traits depends heavily on learning and experience.
Is personality consistent? In the strictest literal sense of the word, no. If personality was consistent across every situation than one could, given the appropriate personal and environmental factors, predict human behaviour, which we know is next to impossible. I think that it is more fruitful to view personality as a predisposition or a tendency to interpret and respond to the environment in a certain way. Allport and Eysenck stressed the fact that traits, though biological, are not deterministic; they merely provide a range of possible behaviours. The environment determines the extent to which a particular trait is expressed. This is where the social cognitive theory comes in to play, to which we now turn.
Proposed by Albert Bandura, the theory of reciprocal determinism posits that behaviour is the outcome of the ongoing interaction between personal factors, such as traits, perceptions, and expectations, and situational factors, such as social settings, people, and rewards and punishments. According to social-cognitive theory, learning plays an important role in personality, specifically observational or vicarious learning. Mischel and Bandura criticized traditional personality theories for overemphasizing the importance of personal variables while deemphasizing the importance of situational variables. Neither theorist studied traditional personal variables such as traits or unconscious wishes and desires. Instead, they focused on internal, cognitive processes, such as perceptions of the self and the world and expectations, and their effects on behaviour. In my opinion, the unconscious is simply that which we cannot understand, a position similarly held by Adler and Kelly who believed that only experiences compatible with one's personality can be experienced consciously (Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003). I disagree, however, with Mischel and Bandura's contention that only cognitive, and not biological, variables interact with the environment to produce behaviour. Personality traits predispose people to interpret and construe the world in a certain way which influences their behaviour. I like to think my theory is a compromise between the two perspectives- trait and social-cognitive- in that I have emphasized the importance of both cognitive and biological variables in determining behaviour.
Allow me to use a personal example to illustrate reciprocal determinism. A friend of mine, whom we'll call Allan, is what most would consider an introvert. He is shy, quiet, reserved, and generally prefers solitary activities such as reading. There are certain situations, however, in which Allan is more apt to be outgoing, sociable, and even somewhat boisterous. When Allan is around his close friends and has had a few drinks he seems to "open" up. The interaction of personal factors, such as Allan's expectation that alcohol "loosens" him up, and environmental factors, such as Allan's friends around whom he feels comfortable being and who cheer him on (positive reinforcement), results in Allan behaving more gregariously than he normally does. However, if Allan were to find himself in novel social situation in which he knew very few people, such as a classroom on the first day of school, his introverted tendency would likely result in him being more shy and conservative.
Now that I have established the foundation of the personality structure, I must address an important topic relating to human behaviour. That is, what motivates us to behave the way we do?
I share an opinion similar to that of Allport's on this matter in that I believe that, although humans are essentially animals and as such driven by the same biological instincts as our evolutionary ancestors, there is more to human motivation than the satisfaction of primitive, bodily needs. Because survival for humans today is much easier than it was in the past, we have an abundance of "free" energy that can be diverted to socially productive behaviours, such as relationships, occupations, education, and art. Allport referred to this as the "Principle of organizing energy level", whereby energy no longer needed for basic adaptation can be used instead for setting and attaining long-term personal goals (Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003). Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs supports this position, as an individual who has failed to satisfy their most basic survival needs cannot move on to more important personal and social needs such as belongingness, love, and esteem. I also believe that within each individual is a drive for self-enhancement or improvement and a yearning to maximize one's potential as a human being. Alfred Adler called it social interest, an innate need to develop a perfect society. Allport called it propriate striving whereby people create long term goals that give meaning to life and Carl Rogers described it as actualization, a tendency to seek experiences that will enhance the quality of life (Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003).
Whether this need to grow and develop as a human being is innate or acquired is open for debate. The only conceivable way of determining the answer to such a question is to completely remove humans from society and observe how they behave without societal restrictions and regulations. Freud would predict that humans would act on their innate, animalistic impulses and behave sexually promiscuous and aggressive. For Maslow, giving complete freedom, humans would create a peaceful, loving, and functional society conducive to individual growth and development (Hergenhahn, Olson, & Cramer, 2003). I find myself on the fence on this matter. While I acknowledge that survival is a strong instinct that has been genetically endowed to us by our evolutionary ancestors, for whom it served an important purpose, history shows us that some human beings have engaged in acts of pure selfless, and in some cases even dangerous, altruism. How can evolutionary and psychoanalytical theories explain the motives behind these actions?
My concept of human personality incorporates many different perspectives into one, integrative theory, which I have termed Trait-Interactionisim. The label emphasizes the importance of two prominent theories of personality: trait and social-cognitive theories. In its most rudimentary form, I like to think my personality theory is based on the work of Gordon Allport, who believed that personality is guided by traits which are psychophysical structures that exist within an individual. I then expanded on this notion that personality is embedded within the central nervous system by including the work of Hans Eysenck, who attempted to pinpoint the exact neurological structures in the brain that were responsible for personality. I then combined the trait theories with the social-cognitive theory, which emphasizes the importance of internal perceptions and expectations about the world that influence our behaviour. The most significant theory to have emerged from this perspective is reciprocal determinism, which purports that aspects of the individual interact with aspects of the environment to create behaviour. In a nut shell, my theory conceptualizes human personality as the interaction of biological, cognitive, and environmental variables at any given time.