Comparing the Main Theories of Personality Development

There are a number of distinct theoretical strands in the study of personality development. Most theorists break development down into specific stages which are typically progressive, this means that you must pass through one stage before you can get to the next. There are some exceptions, for example in Erikson’s psychosocial personality development theory and Freud’s theory of psycho-sexual personality development, a person can fail to complete one stage but still be able to continue through other stages. The failure to complete one of the stages, however, will result in difficulties later in life according to the theories, and may be seen as leading to the diversity and uniqueness of each individual personality. Personality development theories are dominated by Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who provided the foundation for the study of personality development.

Below I outline some of the main theories of personality development and would advise that you check out other sources for a more comprehensive explanation of the theorists and their theories. There are a wealth of websites devoted to these theories and many who argue or critique them. I have tried to point you to one of the easiest to follow and best to use.

Freud and Sexual Development in Personality Development

Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is the most well-known and popular of the theorists. He believed that personality is developed in a predetermined sequence, successful completion resulting in a healthy personality and failure in an unhealthy personality. His theory is controversial because of its focus on sexual development, each of the stages is based on a particular erogenous zone, unsuccessful completion of a stage in childhood leads to the adult becoming fixated on that particular erogenous zone and over-indulging or under-indulgence in adulthood. The oral stage is the first at birth to about eighteen months where the infant is focused on oral pleasures and too much or too little gratification leads to a preoccupation for the adult with oral activities like smoking, drinking or over-eating. This leads to a personality that is too dependent on others or someone who fights these urges and becomes aggressive and pessimistic. The anal stage follows where the focus is on eliminating and retaining faeces as a result of societal pressures to control anal stimulation. This can result in anally fixated personalities who are obsessed with cleanliness, perfectionist and controlling or anal retentive types. The opposite result is messy and disorganized anal expulsive types. The phallic stage from age three to six is the next stage where the pleasure zone switches to the genitals and oedipal conflicts emerge in which the boy unconsciously desires his mother and sees his father as a rival. A castration anxiety emerges from the boy’s fear that his father will castrate him the successful completion of this stage leads to the boy identifying with his father, developing masculine traits and repressing his feelings for his mother. Becoming fixated at this stage leads to sexual deviances and weak or confused sexual identity, according to Freud. From age six to puberty the latency stage develops in which sexual urges are repressed and children learn to interact and play with their same-sex peers. At the genital stage in puberty these sexual urges are re-awakened but directed onto the opposite sex peers and the primary focus of pleasure is the genitals.

Freud’s theory was complex, psycho-sexual development sets the groundwork for how our personalities develop, but it was only one of five parts to his overall theory of personality. He believed that different driving forces develop during these stages which play an important role in how we interact with the world. Freud developed a structural model of the psyche which contained the id, ego and superego. The id is what we are born with and is based on pleasure and immediate gratification. The ego develops over the three years after birth and is based on reality with an understanding that other people have needs and that we can’t be selfish. By age five the superego develops which is our moral side or conscience and deals with the ethical restraints of society. In a healthy individual the ego is strong and is able to balance the id and superego, in someone where the id is dominant impulses and gratification dominate the person and in someone with a dominant superego the individual is driven by rigid morals, judgmental and unbending. In addition Freud believed that we are driven by our unconscious, the largest part of us, issues that cause us severe anxiety are buried in the unconscious and impact on us dramatically. The conscious stores everything we are aware of but is a small part of who we really are. The subconscious is the part of our psyche that we can access if necessary but we are not always aware of it. For more information and an in-depth look at Freud’s theories a good starting point is

Adler’s Theory Involves a Conscious Striving Towards Goals

Alfred Adler is another influential theorist of personality development. He broke with Freud, believing that Freud was overly focused on the sexual and that people are also driven by their social situation. Adler believed that all important values and problems derive from social interaction and he viewed people as mostly conscious rather than unconscious as Freud maintained. He referred to our inner private logic which tells us what to do and provided a real alternative to Freud’s more pessimistic view of humans being controlled by unconscious forces. For Adler, how the person creatively directs the drives is more important than merely focusing on these drives or impulses. He provided a holistic and all-encompassing view of being human.

Adler believed that the need for relationships is present in people from the very beginning. Where affection is denied the child turns in on himself and becomes narcissistic and self-loving. He also believed that our basic driving force is derived from feelings of inferiority, we are driven to move from inferiority to superiority or towards perfection. This is innate and determines all individual development and growth. We are each of us striving to overcome something that hampers us from becoming what we want to become. Where an individual cannot overcome feelings of inferiority she develops an inferiority complex where the inferiority feelings are heightened or intensified and can come to be domineering or lean too much on others. The inferiority complex leads to goals that are not based on our innate reason, we may leave the tasks of live unresolved in order not to experience failure or we may focus on goals of domineering over others rather than goals of superiority. This theory posited that chance memories do not exist, that we consciously choose what we remember or forget in order to further our endeavors. Adler firmly believed, unlike Freud, that we are geared to the future rather than shaped by the past. We are driven by our expectations and looked to the future rather than the past to explain our behavior. This website is a good place to begin to look for a more detailed explanation of Adler and his theories

Fromm Combines Psychological Insight with Social Theory

Erich Fromm, drawing on diverse sources such as Freud and Marx, recognizes that humans are social beings whose beliefs and motivations are deeply inscribed by the societies and cultures of which they are part. His theory is a blend of Freudian and Marxist beliefs, where people are determined by both biology as Freud thought and social and economic systems as Marx believed. Fromm added the idea of freedom, he held that people transcend the determinism of Freud and Marx and he makes freedom the central characteristic of human nature. But freedom is difficult so we try to escape from it. Fromm describes three ways in which we escape from freedom:

1. Authoritarianism. People can seek to avoid freedom by fusing with other and becoming part of an authoritarian system. They do this in two ways by submitting oneself to the power of others through passive compliance or by becoming an authority oneself. There are extremes such as masochism and sadism, both feel compelled to play their separate roles, so that even the sadist, with all his apparent power over the masochist, is not free to choose his actions.
2. Destructiveness. Some individuals respond to pain by striking out against the world and if a person’s desire to destroy is blocked by circumstances, he or she may redirect it inward. The most obvious kind of self-destructiveness is, of course, suicide. But we can also include many illnesses, drug addiction, alcoholism, even the joys of passive entertainment.
3. Automaton conformity. People also hide in our mass culture. This is the social chameleon, taking on the coloring of his surroundings so that he no longer feels alone but experiences a split between his genuine feelings and the colors he shows the world.

In fact, since humanity’s “true nature” is freedom, any of these escapes from freedom alienates us from ourselves.

There are other elements to Fromm’s theory, the type of families and where one comes in the family influences one’s personality. In addition social factors very important in developing personality and Fromm posited five different personality types that arise from social factors. Fromm argues that human needs are more complex than Freud defined and that they go beyond basic physiological needs. He suggests that this can be expressed in one simple statement “the human being needs to find an answer to his existence”. Fromm’s personality types have a positive and a negative side, relatedness and narcissism, creativity and destruction, rootedness and schizophrenia, identity and conformity and a frame or orientation and rationalization.

Fromm brings other theories together and is distinctive because of his interest in economics and culture as roots of personality. One’s personality is to a considerable extent a reflection of such issues as social class, minority status, education, vocation, religious and philosophical background, and so forth. For further information try

Other theories of note include Piaget’s theory of cognitive development in children and Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. A theorist to look at is Karen Horney who developed a theory of inner conflicts controlled through neurosis. Skinner is also worthy of a mention, his theory revolves around learning and how our personality is formed through conditioned responses to stimuli.

In conclusion theories of personality development abound and it can be difficult to rate one over the other. It could be argued that each have a value and that a good understanding of a variety of theories will provide a more rounded appreciation of the complex nature of personality and how it develops.