Personality Theories

Theories of personality development vary greatly among different scientific disciplines. With such a variety of schools of psychology and sociology, it is only natural that there are just as many variations of personality theory. Sigmund Freud, the so-called “father of psychoanalysis,” is considered to be the first personality theorist, due to his conjectures that the secrets to the human personality lie latent in the subconscious.

Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, and Karen Horney used some of Freud’s ideas to construct their own theories of personality but opted to de-emphasize the importance of sex that Freud placed at the forefront of his personality theories (and just about all of his theories). Carl Rogers developed a humanist theory of personality which is rooted in the notion that it is human nature to have a healthy personality, until outside influences corrupt it. Alfred Adler believes that personality is shaped by a child’s relationship with their parents and by their “consciously chosen life goals”, rather than by instincts. Behaviorists and stage theorists have their own set of suppositions as well, attributing personality development to phases of maturity.

Part of the reason for this vast array of conjectures is that the subject of personality is applicable to so many types of intellectual pursuits. One of the most common discussions among personality theorists involves the effects of external influences, or social dynamics, upon an individual’s personality. For example, modern group dynamics theorists believe that people’s attitudes and behaviors (the two main essences of personality) are significantly shaped by the reference groups to which they belong. Simply put, people act differently and think differently when they are with other people than they do when they are alone. These deviations raise the question as to whether personality is something that relates to our true self, the “self” we present to others, or a combination of both.

Sigmund Freud believes that we are born with our personalities, which are shaped by the three parts of our psyche known as the id, the ego and the superego. According to Freud, the main function of the ego is to act as a moderator between the id, which functions in a child-like, pleasure seeking manner; and the superego, which acts as the adult voice of reason. In other words, the ego is supposed to keep the individual from giving in to the self-destructive impulses of the id, while at the same time, keeping the superego from exerting so much power that the personality becomes too rigid and the person forgets how to have fun or enjoy the simple pleasures in life.

Developmental theorists such as Abraham Maslow and Erik Erikson believe that our personalities develop differently throughout the phases of our maturity. These theorists are primarily concerned with how people fill their needs and wants and how people who are unable to fill their needs and wants end up reacting. They believe that every person is born with a basic set of needs that must be filled in order to become a happy, well-adjusted adult with a healthy personality.

So, then how are deviant personalities explained? For this we must turn to behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner. Skinner contends that we do not learn simply by “doing,” but by experiencing the results of what we have done (either rewards or punishment, satisfaction or guilt, etc.) Therefore, in Skinner’s view, deviant personalities develop as a result of our experiences with, and responses to, the consequences of our actions.

Of course, no one has been able to prove any of these theories to be entirely correct; and as in most scientific disciplines, for every person that claims one viewpoint is true, there is another claiming that it is not true. Ultimately, there is not one great universal explanation of personality, and there probably never will be – ironically, because it is our differences in personality that allow us to believe in different theories.