Personality Theories and Approaches for AP Psychology

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

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Personality Review Questions for AP Psychology

Biological and Evolutionary Personality Theories

To what extent is our personality determined by our heredity? Thousands of years ago, Greek physician and philosopher Hippocrates attributed personality to our biology. About 500 years later, Greek physician Galen claimed that a person's temperament depends on relative quantities of four humors, or fluids, in the body—blood and cheerfulness, phlegm and calmness, black bile and depression, yellow bile and irritability. In about 1800, seeking to relate behavior to observable aspects of physical makeup, Gall and Spurzheim related bumps and depressions on the skull to personality traits in their discredited theory of phrenology, and a half century ago, psychologist and physician William Sheldon related physique to temperament. According to his somatotype theory (which can be classified as a biological type theory), the soft, spherical endomorph is likely to be sociable and affectionate; the hard, muscular mesomorph is likely to be aggressive and courageous; and the linear and fragile ectomorph is likely to be restrained and happy to be alone.

Currently, temperament, an infant's natural disposition to show a particular mood at a particular intensity for a specific period, is generally considered the hereditary component of personality. According to Jerome Kagan, temperament includes sensitivity, activity levels, prevailing mood, irritability, and adaptability. Twin and adoption studies have been revealing the extent to which family resemblance of behavioral traits results from shared genes and the extent to which the resemblance results from shared environments. Heritability estimates suggest a moderate role of genetic influences (about 50%) in explaining individual differences in emotional stability. This indicates that both heredity and environment have about equal roles in determining at least some of our personality characteristics. New behavioral genetics methods may provide better data in the near future.

David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist, attributes the universality of basic personality traits to natural selection because traits such as extraversion and agreeableness ensure physical survival and reproduction of the species.

Psychodynamic/Psychoanalytic Theories

Sigmund Freud

Although Sigmund Freud was a Viennese physician who practiced as a neurologist in the late 1800s and early 1900s, he was unable to account for personality in terms of anatomy. He and other psychoanalysts believed that people have an inborn nature that shapes personality. Practicing in the Victorian era (known for self-control of physical drives), and as a result of treating patients suffering from mental disorders, Freud thought that sexual conflicts hidden from awareness caused many of the problems. He developed a psychoanalytic theory to explain human behavior based on his case studies and self-analysis. Freud compared personality to an energy system, with instinctual drives generating psychic energy to power the mind and press for release directly as sexual activity or aggression, or indirectly. Freud described three levels of the mind: the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. The conscious includes everything of which we are aware at a particular moment. Just below the level of conscious awareness, the preconscious contains thoughts, memories, feelings, and images that we can easily recall. Generally inaccessible to our conscious, the largest part of the mind, the unconscious, teems with wishes, impulses, memories, and feelings. Threatening thoughts or feelings can be repressed or pushed into the unconscious. Glimpses of the unconscious are revealed through slips of the tongue and dreams.

Freud's Personality Systems

Freud also described three major systems of personality: the id, the ego, and the superego. We are born with the unconscious id, which consists of everything psychological that is inherited, and psychic energy that powers all three systems. The id demands immediate gratification of its desires with driving forces, and is guided by the pleasure principle, which reduces tension whenever it rises. The id is driven by instincts to avoid pain and obtain pleasure, and is totally irrational and self centered. The partly conscious and partly unconscious ego mediates between our instinctual needs and the conditions of the surrounding environment in order to maintain our life and see that our species lives on. The ego obeys the reality principle to prevent the discharge of tension, sometimes using restraining forces, until a need can be satisfied appropriately. The last system of our personality to develop is the partly conscious and partly unconscious superego, which is composed of the conscience and the ego-ideal. The conscience punishes us by making us feel guilty, and the ego-ideal rewards us by making us feel proud of ourselves. The ego must check both the id and the superego to govern the personality, as well as engage with the external world. Cartoons sometimes depict a character (ego) with a devil on one shoulder making demands that the character do something impulsive or primitive (id), and with an angel on the other shoulder telling the character to do the right or noble thing (superego); the character decides what to do.

The Ego and Its Defenses

Sometimes overwhelmed by threats it is unable to control, the ego becomes flooded with anxiety and takes extreme measures to relieve the pressure so that it can continue functioning. These measures, called defense mechanisms, operate unconsciously and deny, falsify, or distort reality. Defense mechanisms include repression, regression, rationalization, projection, displacement, reaction formation, and sublimation. The most frequently used and most powerful defense mechanism, repression, is the pushing away of threatening thoughts, feelings, and memories into the unconscious mind: unconscious forgetting. Regression is the retreat to an earlier level of development characterized by more immature, pleasurable behavior. Rationalization is offering socially acceptable reasons for our inappropriate behavior: making unconscious excuses. Projection is attributing our own undesirable thoughts, feelings, or actions to others. Displacement is shifting unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or actions from a more threatening person or object to another, less threatening person or object. Displacement is sometimes depicted in cartoons with the boss yelling at an employee, then the employee going home and yelling at the kids, then the kids taking it out on a toy or pet. Reaction formation is acting in a manner exactly opposite to our true feelings. Reaction formation is exemplified by the new mother who really wants to be back at work as a highly paid lawyer, but stays home instead, showering all of her attention on her child. Sublimation is the redirection of unacceptable sexual or aggressive impulses into more socially acceptable behaviors. For example, home from a date with a sexy man she didn't have sex with, Jan plays her flute.

Freud's Theory of Psychosexual Development

For Freud, the first 5 years of life are critical for the formation of personality. In each stage of Freud's theory of psychosexual development, the pleasure center moves to a different area of sensitivity, or erogenous zone, and an unconscious conflict occurs. Freud believed that if the conflict was not resolved well, libido or life energy would become fixated at the pleasure center of that stage and became a permanent part of the adult personality. To help prevent fixation, parents need to be sensitive to the young child's needs in each stage, but not overly indulgent.

  • Freud named stage 1 (0–1 year) the oral stage. During this stage, the infant receives pleasure and nourishment from the mouth and explores the world first by sucking, then later by biting and chewing. Pleasure derived from oral stimulation can lead to adult pleasure in acquiring knowledge or possessions. When the mother weans the child from her breast or the bottle, the conflict develops. If withdrawal causes especially traumatic separation anxiety in the infant, Freud thought it could lead to a fixation; either oral dependent personality, characterized by gullibility, overeating, and passivity; or oral-aggressive personality, characterized by sarcasm and argumentativeness later in life.
  • In stage 2 (1–3 years), the anal stage, the child obtains pleasure from defecation at the anus. When the child is being toilet trained, the conflict develops. Freud claimed that very strict and inflexible methods of toilet training may cause the child to hold back feces and become constipated. Generalized to other aspects of behaving, the anal-retentive personality is marked by compulsive cleanliness, orderliness, stinginess, and stubbornness. Alternately, such toilet training may cause the child to become angry and expel feces at inappropriate times, which may generalize to an anal-expulsive personality marked by disorderliness, messiness, and temper tantrums. If a child is praised extravagantly for bowel movements, the child may acquire the concept that producing feces is important, which can generalize to creativity and productivity.
  • During stage 3 (3–5 years), the phallic stage, the erogenous zone moves to the genital region and stimulation of the genitals becomes a source of pleasure. Masturbation and the fantasy life of the child set the stage for the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex is named after the king of Thebes, Oedipus, who, having been abandoned as an infant, killed his father and married his mother without knowing they were his parents. The edipus complex (called the Electra complex in girls) is a conflict between the child's sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and fear of punishment from the samesex parent. Resolution of the conflict leads to identification with the same-sex parent. The boy represses his sexual desire for his mother because of castration anxiety, fear that his dominant rival—his father—will remove his genitals, and he identifies with his father. Resolution of the Oedipus complex causes the superego to develop and guards against incest and aggression. The girl holds her mother responsible for her castrated condition and experiences penis envy, desire for a protruding sex organ that she wants to share with her father. The girl's Electra complex gets modified, and she identifies with her mother to prevent loss of her mother's love. From ages 6 to 12, Freud theorized that sexual feelings are repressed and sublimated during this latency period. Girls and boys transform the repressed sexual energy into developing social relationships and learning new tasks. If the child does not meet his/her own expectations or those of others, the child can develop into an adult with feelings of inferiority. Until puberty, the child is primarily narcissistic, obtaining pleasure from his/her own body.
  • During adolescence, individuals pass into the final stage of maturity, the genital stage. The adolescent develops warm feelings for others, and sexual attraction, group activities, vocational planning, and intimate relationships develop too. This is a smooth period for those lucky enough to have little libido fixated in earlier stages, especially not during the phallic stage, according to Freud.

Critics (including neo-analysts, who were psychoanalysts that disagreed with parts of Freud's theory and developed their own), now discount most of this theory. Some neo-analysts, also called neo-Freudians, were Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Karen Horney.

Carl Jung's Analytic Theory of Personality

A contemporary and colleague of Freud, Carl Jung rejected Freud's sex theory. The son of a Swiss pastor, Jung became a psychiatrist. Jung believed that personality is shaped by the cumulative experiences of past generations extending back to our evolutionary past. He studied mythology, religion, ancient symbols and rituals, customs and beliefs of different societies, dreams, and symptoms of mentally ill patients in his search to understand the development of personality. According to Jung's analytic theory of personality, the psyche— or whole personality—consists of interacting systems including the ego, the personal unconscious with its complexes; the collective unconscious with its archetypes, attitudes, and functions; and the self. The ego is the conscious mind, responsible for our feeling of identity and continuity.

The personal unconscious is similar to Freud's preconscious and unconscious, a storehouse of all our own past memories, hidden instincts, and urges unique to us. It contains complexes, which are groups of associated, emotional, unconscious thoughts that significantly influence our attitudes, and associations that act as driving forces. The collective unconscious is the powerful and influential system of the psyche that contains universal memories and ideas that all people have inherited from our ancestors over the course of evolution. The inherited memories are archetypes or common themes found in all cultures, religions, and literature, both ancient and modern. Jung's attitude of extraversion orients the person toward the external, objective world, whereas the attitude of introversion orients the person toward the inner, subjective world.

Jung believed that the goal of personality development was to become individuated to realize the self. Individuation is the psychological process by which a person becomes an individual, a unified whole, including conscious and unconscious processes. The self is the middle of personality surrounded by all of the other systems of personality. A person who is individuated is complete, like the mandala of yin and yang, a circle that symbolizes the self with all the opposing forces in harmony.

Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology

Another contemporary of Freud, Alfred Adler, was also a Viennese psychiatrist. While Freud emphasized sex, and Jung emphasized ancestral thought patterns, Adler emphasized social interest as the primary determinant of behavior. He made consciousness the center of personality in his individual or ego theory of personality. Adler's self is a personalized, subjective system that interprets and makes meaning from our experiences, trying to fulfill our unique style of life, the system principle by which the individual personality functions. Our creative self constructs our personality out of the raw material of heredity and experience. Adler believed that people strive for superiority to be altruistic, cooperative, creative, unique, aware, and interested in social welfare. He thought that we all try to compensate for inferiority complexes based on what we see as physical, intellectual, or social inadequacies. Social interest is the inevitable compensation for all of our natural weaknesses. Adler thought that birth order was an important factor controlling personality. He hypothesized that the oldest child (who is prepared for the appearance of a rival) is likely to develop into a responsible, protective person; the middle child is likely to be ambitious and well adjusted; and the youngest child is likely to be spoiled.

Karen Horney's Psychoanalytic Theory

Although she never studied with Freud, Karen Horney is also considered a neo-Freudian. She brought a feminist perspective to psychoanalytic theory and sharply attacked the male bias she saw in Freud's work. Her counterpart to Freud's penis envy in females was the male's womb envy or desire to procreate. She thought that males and females both are envious of attributes of the other sex, but that women were more envious of men's societal status than their penises. Horney proposed that youngsters feel helpless and threatened, and learn to cope by showing affection or hostility toward others, or by withdrawing from relationships. Adults who use all three strategies are healthy, whereas according to her theory, using only one strategy leads to mental illness.

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