Personality Theory

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Date: 2001
Encyclopedia of Sociology
From: Encyclopedia of Sociology(Vol. 3. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 12
Content Level: (Level 5)

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A definition of personality, and there are many such definitions, must precede a treatment of personality theory. One must note at the start that personality is not an entity or a thing. It is a mentalistic construct that serves as an abstract cognitive device for understanding (1) the characteristic ways human beings behave or are inclined to behave; (2) their perceptions of their defining characteristics; and in the view of many, (3) the common (in some cases measured) perception that others have of them. This view of "personality" overlaps to a great extent with William James's view of self ([1890]1952), both psychological and social. Though personologists may at times refer to personality as if it had been reified, this stems less from their intention than from a limitation of the language used. Given this condition, one can only strive to assure as close a correspondence as is possible of the definition of this word with the complex reality it is intended to reflect and capture.

Definitions of personality vary depending on the standpoint—scientific, philosophical, humanistic, or strictly psychological—that one adopts. Personality for our purposes is one or another heuristic enabling social scientists to understand and predict human behavior, both overt and tacit, and individuals' complex responses to the events that sweep over them daily. To speak of individuals' personalities is to allude to all their longstanding, characterological properties that dispose them, given any set of circumstances, to respond in a predictable way. In popular parlance "to really know someone" is to understand that person's self-concept and the idiosyncratic manner in which he or she deals with problems of daily life, whether social, political, or purely intrapsychic. In short, to know someone is to have a knowledge of their personality; but the personality of an individual is not a simple matter to assess. To realize this, one has only to consider that there is a shifting presentation of self as a function of the multifariousPage 2083  |  Top of Article situations in which one can find oneself. The same person with a single personality has a number of personae at his or her disposal for (generally) adaptive use.

It is useful to quote in this context a classic statement by William James:

Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind. To wound any one of these images is to wound him. But as the individuals who carry the images fall naturally into classes, we may practically say that he has as many different social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups. Many a youth who is demure enough before his teachers and parents, swears and swaggers like a pirate among his "tough" young friends. We do not show ourselves to our children as to our club-companions, to our customers as to the laborers we employ, to our own masters and employers as to our intimate friends. ([1890] 1952, chap. X, "The Consciousness of Self," pp. 189–190)

This statement, written in the 1880s, has a modern ring, and clearly presages the later work of, say, Hartshorne and May (1928) and Walter Mischel (1968). Clearly it represents a theory of personality that is relativistic and relational. Relative to the former aspect, it invokes a double perspective. The first is the perspective of individuals as they present themselves very differently and even inconsistently in various contexts to different classes of people. The second is the perception of observers who make judgments about individuals' personalities (or characters) based on the limited sampling of behavior they have witnessed either directly or indirectly. As such, it also presents the notion of self and of personality, though these two terms do not have identical meanings, as much more complex when viewed from within by the individual than when viewed from without by society. Relative to the relational aspect, personality appears to be shaped by the demand characteristics of the social group within which the individual performs. In this Jamesian perspective, personality is the flip side of self, that is, observers' characterizations of others as distinguished from the views that those latter individuals have of themselves. Indeed the everyday language that individuals use to describe themselves (as well as others) has provided the vocabulary (e.g., altruistic, aggressive, nurturant, inquisitive, venturesome) for defining the components of the construct, personality (e.g., Cattell 1964, 1965). Further, the equivalents of these terms, used to personologically distinguish individuals, can be found in most of the world's languages. (This notion has been labeled the "fundamental lexical hypothesis," and is addressed below.)

An individual's identity—understanding of his or her character and typical patterns of behavioral responses to social and other environmental stimuli—is the result not simply of their personal history, but of his or her construal of that history and of the either vivid or tacit memories that form the warp and weft of their self-understanding. It is generally accepted that memories are never absolutely veridical. The fact that false memories are more or less richly interlarded with relatively true memories suggests that personality as viewed from its owner's standpoint is partially self-constructed. William James stated that "False memories are by no means rare occurrences in most of us, and, whenever they occur, they distort the consciousness of the me . . . The most frequent source of false memory is the accounts we give to others of our experiences" ([1890]1952, p. 241). He asserts that this is a source of the errors in testimony that the individual has every intention of making honest. This is confirmed in more recent analyses (e.g., Laurence et al. 1998) that demonstrate that people's characterization's of themselves or others can be compellingly shaped by the situational as well as by intrapsychic demands that subjects experience when they must make judgments about personality. That these dynamics may be at work when individuals are completing even the best-validated and most reliable of personality inventories is reason to draw conclusions from such inventories with caution.


Theories that have been developed to explain the dimensions of personality and the way personality develops are too numerous to describe (see Table Page 2084  |  Top of Article
Table 1

Table 1

Personality Theory

Table 1
Selected Personality and Related Theories, and Their Originators
Adler, Alfred Developed a holistic theory, individual psychology, characterized by teleological, sociobiological, and self-actualizing dynamics. Utilized notion of unconscious, but used a rational, commonsense approach to remediating problems.
Allport, Gordon Theorized that structural elements of personality comprised traits disposing individuals to respond to stimulus fields in predictable patterns. Traits are viewed as both individualizing and nomothetic.
Angyll, Andreas Developed a partial theory that stressed the human's need to serve superordinate group goals, while striving for self-individualization.
Bandura, Albert Developed a social cognitive theory of human development in which the modeling of behavior by important others shapes each person's behavior and character. This theory has a strong teleological emphasis meshed with sense of self-efficacy.
Berne, Eric Posited a phenomenological theory of human personality, transactional analysis, comprising three distinct ego states: parent, adult, and child.
Binswanger, Ludwig An existential psychologist, a disciple of Heidegger, who elaborated a phenomenological approach to the understanding of human behavior, especially in the face of the most difficult aspects of life.
Burrow, Trigant Pioneered view of humans as profoundly social, interactive, personologically shaped by group activity. An early group therapist.
Boss, Medard A Heideggerian whose antitheoretical approach nevertheless limns a view of human nature that is constructivist, but with traces of the psychoanalytic and the phenomenological.
Cattell, Raymond Developed a complex trait theory and psychometric measure (16 PF) through factor-analysis of vernacular trait expressions.
Corsini, Raymond Formulated a developmental theory of personality of Adlerian and Rogerian inspiration, involving a strong genetic component; emphasized formative influence of parental values, educational experiences, and critical stochastological events.
Digman, John (See McDougall, W.)
Dollard, John Developed (with Neal Miller) a theory of personality of behavioral inspiration, constituted largely of evolving habits; drives and stimulus-response connections account for dynamics of changing personality structures.
Erikson, Erik Elaborated a stage-based, life-span model of human development that was psychosocial and psychoanalytic in inspiration. A major focus is on personal identity development.
Eysenck, Hans Fashioned a psychometrically supported model of human personality that is biologically trait-based and hierarchically organized.
Frankl, Viktor Developed a life-span, noninstinctual, teleological model of human development in which the dominant motivational force is the will to meaning, underpinned by values and ideals.
Freud, Sigmund Developed a state-based, conflict theory of personality that is pansexual and deterministic. The central construct is the Oedipal conflict, the resolution of which enables, especially for the male, the full expansion of the psyche.
Horney, Karen Developed a revisionist psychoanalysis that shed its androcentric features; her sociopsychological theory later evolved along Adlerian lines and generated a cogent feminine psychology.
Jackson, Don With J. Haley, P. Watzlawick, J. Beavin, and others at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, formulated a humanistic, systems-oriented approach to understanding human character and behavior.
Janet, Pierre Founder of psychological analysis. Formulated a holistic psychology of the person, including a theory of rapport, the unconscious, and the complexes that drive human behavior. A nineteenth-century empiricist, he developed, inter alia, notions of transference and suggestibility.
Jung, Carl Founder of analytic psychotherapy. Posited a holistic psychology of the person, including a theory of the unconscious and the complexes that drive human behavior.
Kelly, George Developed personal construct theory, a constructivist system of human personality development, predicated on the assumption that individuals construe reality in light of their life history. These construals govern anticipation and realization of events.
Lewin, Kurt Developed a topological psychology predicated on Gestalt psychological principles; this is a psychophysical model for human behavior utilizing geometric constructs to conceptualize personality determinants.
Lowen, Alexander Reichian in inspiration, Lowen developed bioenergetic analysis, predicated on a multifactorial model of human personality, heavily organicist in character. Therapy involves body work.
Maslow, Abraham Fashioned the psychology of being, a model of human nature as self-actualizing, holistic, creative, and joyful. This nomothetic model postulates a hierarchy of psychophysical needs that will sequentially assert themselves, if not impeded.
May, Rollo Developed an existential personology that accents the dynamic. This continental existentialism provided the elements and "givens" for conflicts at the core of personality development.
McDougall, W. The five-factor model of personality has a distinguished lineage: Formulated by W. McDougall and developed by L. Klages, F. Baumgartner, G. Allport, E. Borgatta, D. Fiske, E. Tupes and R. Christal, and J. Digman, among other more recent investigators, it involves a strong heritability component; this model is cross-cultural and statistically and psychometrically generated.
Mead, George Developed social interaction theory, a system of social behaviorism in which individuals symbolically interiorize their roles and status as a function of the interactive perceptions of others.
Miller, Neal (See Dollard, John)
Meyer, Adolf Developed a psychobiological theory of personality, stressing the unity of mind and body, the former a function of the latter. The theory has a strong orientation to the organismic in the genesis of psychopathology.
Murray, Henry Elaborated a comprehensive, holistic theory that stressed motivation, environment, the psychodynamic, the idiographic-nomothetic spectrum, the personal, the life-span history, and specifically the cerebral determinants of one's ever-in-flux personality.
Piaget, Jean Developed a partial theory of personality comprising a seminal model of cognitive development that deliberately made abstraction of emotions and social matrices. The model is characterized by an ineluctably sequenced, linear series of cognitive stages.
Rank, Otto A polymath, he developed a humanistic personology based on minimizing primordial fears (of life and death) and developing one's will, which integrates a person's sense of who he or she is. Influenced Carl Rogers.
Rogers, Carl Developed a theory of human nature characterized by self-actualization and holism; an innate organismic valuing process, if left unimpeded, leads individuals to live fully effloresced, authentic, and healthful lives.
Skinner, Burrhus Developed an operant conditioning theory, which serves as a scientific heuristic for understanding the development of behavioral habits and capabilities of any organism; mistakenly thought by some to deny existence of intrapsychic realities.
Sullivan, Harry Developed an interpersonal theory of personality that focuses on the social situation rather than the person; this theory postulates that individuals' personalities are a reflection of the assessment others make, or are imagined to make, of them.
Wolpe, Joseph Rejecting psychodynamic methodologies, he evolved a theory of personality development that was of Pavlovian inspiration. His theory is of interest principally to psychotherapists.
Page 2085  |  Top of Article

1 for a partial list). They each have been zealously defended and propagated by their adherents. In spite of the paucity of empirical validation for most of them, this has not assured their demise. Though most of the large-scale, molar theories that are still studied have been developed in the twentieth century, the study of human personality has veered in the second half of the century toward the manageably molecular. The trend to fine, multivariate analyses of human behavior in the established experimentalism of academia has created its own tension with the countervailing movement to holistic conceptualizations of personality. The synthesizing of psychosociological findings with those that are cognitive, affective, and psycho-neuro-endocrinological is a work in progress. At the end of the day, this scientific project has eventuated in scholarly specialization in numerous subdisciplines, which can only, with great difficulty and some contortions, be articulatedPage 2086  |  Top of Article into a unified and coherent theoretical system. The task still needs to be addressed.


It needs to be noted that theorizing about the determinants of human behavior in individuals as well as their social groups has its origins in antiquity and has progressed throughout history. There is a rich vein of philosophical speculation on this subject in the Greco-Roman civilization that was the seedbed of Western culture. Hellenistic thinkers and playwrights bequeathed a rich assortment of treatises and ideas to what would become Euro-American concepts of the nature of personality and its development. The ideas that are most salient for us and that have had the greatest impact on modern Western thought have come from the great Hellenistic thinkers that preceded the era of Roman cultural and military hegemony. Among the pre-Socratics, physiological theories of the development of personality can be traced at least to Empedocles. Later Hippocrates (fourth century B.C.E.) and still later Galen (second century C.E.) (Kagan 1994) postulated that the physical humors of the body are related to temperament. Blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm were linked, as these nouns suggest, to sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic temperaments, respectively. The specifics of this theory are given no credence today, but the principle that personality has physiological determinants (or at least correlates) is very much alive.

Plato and Aristotle proposed powerful models of human psychological development. In Laws, for example, Plato proposed an environmental perspective relative to the problems that are occasioned by parents' overreactions to children's spontaneous and immature behaviors.

The privacy of home life screens from general observation many little incidents, too readily occasioned by a child's pains, pleasures, and passions which are not in keeping with a legislator's recommendations, and tend to bring a medley of incongruities into the characters of our citizens. (Book 7, sec. 788)

He does not exclude a genetic perspective as the following passage from the same work attests.

Now of all wild young things a boy is the most difficult to handle. Just because he more than any other has a fount of intelligence in him that has not yet "run clear," he is the craftiest, most mischievous, and most unruly of brutes. So the creature must be held in check, as we may say, by more than one bridle—in the first place, when once he is out of the mother's and the nurse's hand, by attendants to care for his childish helplessness, and then further, by all the masters who teach him anything. (Book 7, sec. 808)

Plato's student, Aristotle, was a more entrenched environmentalist than Plato. He affirmed the principle of tabula rasa in his treatise "On the Human Mind."

Mind is in a sense potentially whatever is thinkable, although actually it is nothing until it has thought. What it thinks must be in it just as characters may be said to be on a writing-tablet on which as yet nothing stands written. This is exactly what happens with the mind. (Book 3, chap. 4, sec. 430)

That the human personality evolves as a function of the myriad contingencies that befall a person during the course of life has been entrenched since classical times. Plato asserted that

While spoiling of children makes their tempers fretful, peevish and easily upset by mere trifles, severe and unconditional tyranny makes its victims spiritless, servile, and sullen, rendering them unfit for the intercourse of domestic and civic life. (Book 7, sec. 791)


That the human character has dysfunctional and even evil propensities is a nomothetic principle that was propagated in Western thought as a salient dogma of the Christian church. Although widely rejected, it pervaded much of political and social theorizing up to and even beyond the seventeenth century. Its most radical expression was in the homilies of such divines as Jonathan Edwards. The biblical dictum "I was shapen in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psalm 51) founded in part the traditional Christian view that human nature is fundamentally flawed by "original sin." It found expression in various vehicles of social thought and intellectual discussion of that time. The philosophers of the Enlightenment inPage 2087  |  Top of Article Europe repudiated this doctrine, although it continued to be propagated in religious circles and adumbrated in secular writings. The notion that human nature was essentially corrupt persisted in many of the systems of philosophy that flourished in the nineteenth century.

The dominant personality theorists of that period were clinicians with medical training. This professional background reinforced the pathological slant they gave to their descriptions of the human personality. Their theories of human psychological development gave prominence to the causes of deviant behavior rather than to the conditions for normal growth. Models of human personality were larded with dispositions to aggressive and narcissistic behavior. Freud in his more mature writings designated the aggressive instinct as one of the two pillars of his drive theory; the other, of course, was the erotic, a notion conceived in variously narrow and broad terms. His expansive pleasure principle was anticipated in the eighteenth century in the philosophy of Utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham, a member of that school, stated that humans routinely engage in a "felicific calculus" ordained to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Twentieth-century theoreticians, principally university-based experimentalists, have striven to develop personological models focusing on wellness rather than on the pathognomonic. Gordon Allport is one of the outstanding representatives of this movement. Nevertheless the vocabulary, grammar, and notions of dysfunction and pathology continue to be woven into modern trait psychology. For example, Eysenck's three-factor model of personality contains a psychoticism factor and a neuroticism factor, and neuroticism is one of the factors in the influential five-factor model of human personality postulated by William McDougall and most recently associated with the work of Paul T. Costa and Robert R. McCrae.


A contrary movement, often termed "humanistic," is based on the self-actualizing and growth-oriented models of Kurt Goldstein, Otto Rank, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, the cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, and many others in which pathology is conceptualized as a departure from normality rather than a component of it. Rogers, for example, asserted that just as plants are shaped by the directions they must take in seeking sources of light, human beings evolve throughout their life spans by reaching for the emotional and social sustenance that will allow the "organismic valuing process" to shape them into fully effloresced and functioning persons. Intrinsic wickedness and pathology have no place in these models of human nature. And although human nature can be thought of in terms of fundamental human needs, as in Maslow's Psychology of Being, the needs are not directed to destruction of self and others but to the fullest expression of a creative, generous, and joyful life expression. This is clearly in conflict with the psychodynamic models of nineteenth-century psychiatry, among them the Freudian system, which explained the engine of human development in terms of libidinal drives and tension reduction.

Self-disclosure and social transparency is one of the more healthful aspects of this model of the normal personality. O. Hobart Mowrer stated that psychological health depends on conditions that ensure transparency, and he traced its historical roots as far back as the ancient practice of exomologesis, in which a community of believers periodically engaged in collective confession of their violations of community mores, as in the monastic communities of the (Semitic) Essenes. This principle finds its most celebrated expressions in the psychotherapeutic literature. Moritz Benedikt, in the last third of the nineteenth century, and Carl Gustav Jung, in the twentieth, made it central to their therapeutic systems. They emphasized the critical importance for patients of divulging the "pathogenic secrets" that are woven into the fabric of their lives. A modern expression of this burgeoned in the 1960s in the therapeutic community (TC) movement, in locations such as Daytop Village and Phoenix House, where each day began with a morning meeting in which each member of the "family" publicly recounted his or her failures of the preceding day.

That we know more than we can tell and that we know more than we are aware that we know has been postulated since the pre-Socratics of Hellenistic Greece. Johann Christian Reil's seminal work, "Rhapsodien," published in 1803, describes the phenomenon of multiple personalities, and a complex topographical model of the human psyche. ItPage 2088  |  Top of Article is rarely questioned as we approach the twenty-first century that our behavior is influenced and our personality shaped by information that is sedimented in the organism, to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, but which exists at a subsymbolic level and cannot in every instance be consciously accessed. The somatic-marker hypothesis of Antonio Damasio (1994; see chap. 8, pp. 165–201) is a recent expression of this position, which has profound implications for our conceptualization of what "personality" is and how it is shaped.


It is self-evident to the psychologist that one cannot treat the construct of personality without grounding it in a scientific developmental psychology. This is true even of those theories that are simply descriptive rather than causal-explanatory. Persons are not born with personalities, although Thomas and Chess (1980), for example, have demonstrated in their widely cited New York Longitudinal Study that temperamental traits, constituents of some models of personality, are strongly influenced by hereditary factors. Personalities develop from infancy to adulthood and, indeed, across the life span. If the developmental psychology on which a personality theory is based is seriously flawed, then it is highly probable that that personality theory, itself, is also flawed. Ausubel et al. (1980) have reviewed a large number of developmental theories and their derivative personality theories. These theories range from the preformationist and quaintly theological to the most social and educationist systems that have flourished in the humanist climate of late-twentieth-century Western thought. They are, it must be emphasized, of unequal value. It flows from this that as the prevailing models of developmental psychology have evolved in the light of empirical research, personality theories have also had to evolve. For example, in the measure that the psychosexual stage theory of human development proposed by Freud a hundred years ago has been superseded and, arguably, discredited, to that extent has Freudian personality theory become superannuated. This can be stated of a number of personality theories whose value to scholars is now largely of a historical character. It is useful to add at this point that a theory of developmental psychology is a theory of personality as long as it provides an integrative and broad-scale view of the way human beings develop socially, psychically, and characterologically.


Holism, a much-used term of Greek etymology, characterizes an approach to understanding human personality that integrates all aspects of the person and, more recently, the social matrix in which it has been shaped and finds expression. Human psychology that attempts to explain behavior by appeal to only one "faculty" or one dimension of the human organism, that restricts itself to, say, simply rationalist or neuroendocrinological processes without understanding the systemic character of personality, has largely fallen into disfavor. Jan Christian Smuts, Alfred Adler, and Kurt Goldstein were early proponents of an integrative and holistic approach to the study of human beings, integrating organicist as well as social dimensions in a comprehensive view of personality and its determinants. Abandonment of fragmentary models has increased the appeal of Maturana and Varela's work (1980). Situated in a constructivist tradition, this work is not only biological but also profoundly social-psychological in its conceptualization of the human person. For example, these researchers' concept of "autopoiesis" is that the integrity and unity of the organism is generated from within, even as it interacts with and accommodates its surroundings. Every person is a self-organizing entity. The feed-forward mechanisms of which modern constructivists speak indicate that knowledge is to a great extent the construction of schemas involving the total organism. In this respect even the human's immunological system is part of a larger knowing system. The congruence between this vision and the self-actualizing models of Goldstein, Maslow, and Rogers is obvious. Unidimensional systems have evolved toward multidimensionality. Personologists have increasingly pursued the goal of formulating integrative models of human experience.

"Holism," as an approach to understanding human personality, can now be characterized more broadly as biopsychosocial. The knowledge that individuals have of themselves, whether tacit or conscious, is not simply intrapsychically determined. That knowledge is a function of what theyPage 2089  |  Top of Article have been told they are by those who are most meaningful to them. The principle of Harry Stack Sullivan that our self-concept is the image that we see reflected in the eyes of those who are making appraisals of us had its antecedents in the concept of the "looking-glass" self, developed by Charles Horton Cooley, George Herbert Mead, and James Mark Baldwin at the beginning of the twentieth century. A broadly systemic view of the development of the human person has come into focus, and it is profoundly sociologized.


It is a commonplace notion of modern psychology that nomothetic models of the person have in the past been formulated by Caucasian males who unreflectively based them on male psychological norms. If, as Nietzsche said, all theory is autobiographical, it would follow that theories of personality developed by males reflect in part their personal and culturally circumscribed experiences. Sigmund Freud's, Lawrence Kohlberg's, and Erik Erikson's theories of moral development and evolution of human identity have been identified, among others, as based on male norms. Deviations from this male template have been considered abnormal. Karen Horney was among the first to repudiate psychoanalytic assertions that women were endowed with a moral sense inferior to that of males because they could not as children resolve the "Oedipal conflict" in the univocal sense that boys could. Feminists, including Inge K. Broverman, Pat Chesler, Carol Gilligan, and Carolyn Z. Enns have detailed the distortions implicit in characterizations of the typical female personality as submissive, conformist, masochistic, depression-prone, and so forth. The internalization of social roles by both men and women inevitably results in personality profiles that reflect those roles. The argument is made that establishing a template for normality that derives from a culture-circumscribed social role for men necessarily casts the typical feminine personality in the realm of the deficient, at least to the extent that it is laden with the deficits of the roles in which women have been socialized.

Whether there are universal, that is, nomothetic psychological differences between men and women arising from genetic determinants of gender-related behavior is an empirical question that is still being studied by behavioral geneticists. If indeed there is no significant difference in the psychological development of the two sexes independent of fluid, relativistic cultural variables, it would not seem to matter which sex one used as the nomothetic template for healthy human development. The focus of analysis would necessarily shift to the socially constructed roles that are imposed on females. Assessing women as inferior by virtue of their possession of personality traits they have internalized in a society that has prescribed them would seem patently unjust.


Just as there are no two Coke bottles and no two newly minted pennies that are perfectly identical, a fortiori there are no two humans beings who are truly identical. Reminded that the preponderance of the human genome endows each of us with characteristics that are universal, we must also acknowledge that there are at least 20,000 genes, called "polymorphic genes," that come in many varieties, that get randomly assorted at conception, and that endow us in part with our individuality. The genes that define us as human are called "monomorphic genes." They account for the fact that we all look recognizably human and normally act so. Whatever nomothetic principles have been truly (or purportedly) established relative to the psychobiological and behavioral properties of the human, they derive, by definition, from these genes.

Behavioral geneticists such as Robert Plomin and Thomas Bouchard (among other researchers in this field) have established the contribution of heredity to personality. For example, Bouchard has done well-regarded studies on twins reared apart that have shed light on the heritability of personality traits. Although his findings and those of other behavioral geneticists have excited controversy and negative comment, there is a convergence of evidence to show that indeed some of the variance one finds in certain personality traits is of genetic origin. But one needs to recognize that the controversy is fraught as much with ideological and political concerns as with strictly scientific ones, and the values embedded in these conflicting opinions can tilt arguments in one direction as well as another. The flashpoint, par excellence, forPage 2090  |  Top of Article this controversy is the position taken on the personality trait "intelligence," a construct referring to certain adaptive and creative human capabilities. That these capabilities are still imperfectly understood ensures that the various constructs purported to define them are even more imperfectly formulated. Psychometricians are placed at an even further remove from these nebulous realities when they attempt to measure them, often by paper-and-pencil instruments.

The power of environment to shape or mis-shape personality is incontestable. Attachment Theory, associated with the work of John Bowlby, among others, offers a cogent explanation of the conditions for healthful psychological development. This theory has an affinity with the principles evolved by such ethologists as Tinbergen, Lorenz, Hinde, and other students of the social life of animals. Failure to develop a strong infant–primary caregiver bond during the period of primary socialization (that is, between the appearance of the first social smile at several weeks of age and the appearance of stranger anxiety at, say, six to eight months of age) is thought to lay the groundwork for developmental psychopathy—and the rupture of this bond in the first years of life, is thought to lay the groundwork for later affective disorders. A related perspective is that of Object-Relations theorists, whose views on "mothering" and its influence on development are more (human) relational and less instinct- or drive-based than the classical psychoanalytic model.

Although the influence of childhood experiences, both positive and negative, on adult personality is not in dispute, the partial reversibility of these effects is asserted by Michael Rutter, Jerome Kagan, and others. The variables at issue, for example, bonding in infancy to a primary caregiver and stimulus deprivation in toddlerhood are, after all, continuous and complex. The strength and duration of the variables, and their interaction with genetic variables of an idiographic and often unknown character, produce personality effects that are not predictable with any accuracy. The principle of neoteny, that is, the slowing of developmental rates and the retention of plasticity and developmental capabilities well into adulthood, is at issue here. Humans enjoy a relatively long period of growth from infancy to adulthood, a period in which earlier psychological deformity can be mitigated, if not entirely undone. In the wake of a traumatic infancy and childhood, prolonged immaturity provides humans with the affordances of redemption.


Theories of personality development range on a continuum from the most rigidly preformationist at one end to the most malleable and environmentally sensitive at the other. Historically, Western psychology has been shifting toward the latter. In his remarkable work, Centuries of Childhood (1962), Philippe Ariès has demonstrated the long tradition of viewing children as miniature adults, homunculi, so to speak. The homuncular theory in its most primitive form postulated that the human organism, a little man (i.e., homunculus), contained in the semen of the male, is deposited in the uterus of the mother. It is presumedly organically and morphologically complete. It merely needs to be nurtured to a mature status. The term has been extended as we know to embrace the postulate that not only the organic features of the mature human reside in the neonate but also the psychological features.

Children are, in this view, born with preformed characters and the cognitive structures of adults. To quote Ausubel et al.,

The basic human properties and behavioral capacities—personality, values, and motives; perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and social reaction tendencies—are not conceived as undergoing qualitative differentiation and transformation over the life-span but are presumed to exist preformed at birth. (1980 p. 15).

Vestiges of homuncularism remain in the work of twentieth-century personality theorists who attribute to infants and older children cognitions and emotions that, in a univocal sense, can only be the product of adult mentation. Confusing infantile sexuality with adult sexuality, as in classical psychoanalysis, is an example of this (cf., e.g., Thomas and Chess 1980, chap. IV, for a broader look at this issue). Among the more important of these innate schemas are the "racial unconscious" of Carl Gustav Jung and the "phylogenetic unconscious" of Sigmund Freud. They both have important implications for personological features and specific behaviors that are predicated on them.Page 2091  |  Top of Article It is widely recognized that the younger the organism, the more plastic it is in terms of acquiring and altering the learnings and adaptations it needs in order to thrive. Early-twentieth-century theories of human development postulated rigid and clearly delineated stages. These stages are no longer considered to have the rigid boundaries they were once supposed to have. In the earlier stage models it was presumed, but never demonstrated, that personality structure was established and firmly set by the age of, say, six or seven. In this view, the principal features of the personality did not change; they were only elaborated. This prescientific homuncularism has yielded to lifespan developmental models.

There exists a countervailing point of view. Research has revealed the profound and subtle possibilities for change in the human personality that exist throughout the maturational process. Critical to this process of differentiation are education and other environmental factors, not excluding the benign and nurturant conditions that need to prevail during infancy in the home. Relevant to this orientation to human development is, again, the principle of neoten. The slowing of humans' development from infancy to adulthood, has afforded humans the opportunity for evolving the complex and diverse personalities that, in the view of these theorists, is the hallmark of this species.


That the psychologist as scientist has, in the past, inclined to a nomothetic and deterministic understanding of human beings is understandable. After all, it is difficult to build a science on the idiographic. Nevertheless, the concern of rank-and-file persons not to see themselves simply as one of billions of "knock-off's" from a universal template is also understandable. This may underlie some of the concern about cloning. "If there are clones about, how will you know who people really are?" ask some. Though there is a misconception about the phenomenon of cloning that underlies that question (after all, identical twins meet the definition of clones, and we come to know who they are), it indicates the concern about personal identity found in Western society. More specifically, the need to be an individual and to be different (but not too different) from everyone else is evident in many Western and Westernized cultures. This plays out in the theorizing of personologists who have developed personality theories that give emphasis to the environmental factors that impinge on individuals in all phases of their lives, and that individuate them. It is this diversity in personal histories that accounts to a large extent for the uniqueness of each person. That members of the same family who have similar histories still mature to adulthood with very different personality profiles attests to the interaction of genetic factors with education, not excluding stochastic events that may have powerful formative impact on development.


The study of personality has addressed the question of what dynamics operate in all human beings to shape their behavior throughout the life span. This question assumes that there are some species-wide principles governing the development of human traits from conception to demise. It also addresses the question of what factors effect the individuation of human beings such that no one person is like any other person though they all share the same monomorphic genic substrate. Social scientists will recognize the ancient dichotomy for conceptualizing the relative contributions of nature as distinguished from life experiences. The code for this derives from Shakespeare's characterization of Caliban in The Tempest. Prospero refers to him as "a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick." The expressions "nomothetic" and "idiographic" also refer to this dual factor—to wit, the universal principles governing the set "human beings" vis-à-vis relative principles governing the development of individuals within the set. In reality these are not true dichotomies except insofar as we wish to logically make them so. As in other conceptual polarities, explaining the emergence of a human being into adulthood admits of varying theoretical frameworks. A comparable perspective is reflected in the anthropological and linguistic distinctions between the etic (that is, the most general, often universal, frame for analyzing cultural behavior) and the emic frame (which examines social subsets of the species). An example of the former is Francis Galton's hypothesis, recently labeled "fundamental lexical hypothesis (cf. Goldberg 1990, p.Page 2092  |  Top of Article 1216), which affirms that the world's languages all contain terms describing similar personality traits, albeit traits that, although they have the same meaning, are valued differently, and present themselves with varying intensity and frequencies. An example of the latter is the principle (inherent in most multicultural perspectives on personality development) that the geohistorical background of any distinct society profoundly shapes the ideals of human behavior, morals, and social conduct, which get incarnated as "personality" in the majority of its members. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis goes even further and states that the very structure of the language that a cultural subset of the human race speaks affects the character of their ideation and the consequent conduct of the group's affairs. But earlier, Nietzsche affirmed that "philosophers within the domain of the Ural-Altaic languages" look into the world differently and take different paths than "Indo-Germans and Moslems: the spell of grammatical functions is in the last resort the spell of physiological value judgments and racial conditions" ([1885]1952, p. 472)

There have been zealous partisans of theories explaining human behavior that have, for reasons ideological as much as scientific, conceptualized personality into sets of dichotomies, in which they have emphasized one polarity rather than another. This antipodal schema has been with us since antiquity. The motifs of heroism and cowardice, of altruism and selfishness, of loyalty and betrayal, of candor and duplicity, of anguish and ecstatic joy, among other descriptors of the human experience that can play out in all human lives, received their finest expression in the works of such tragedians as Sophocles and Shakespeare. On the other hand, the uniqueness of each person and the passion for establishing one's personal identity is no less prominent in the great literature of the West. One has only to review, for example, the plays of Tennessee Williams, the great oeuvre of Cervantes, the vast range of characters in the novels of Balzac or Dickens, or in, say, Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, to grasp the diversity that artists have displayed in limning the contours of these distinct personalities, to which readers have been able to resonate.

That human personality evolves and becomes different as an individual proceeds through a series of life stages would seem to be self-evident. This view presumes, of course, that the construct "stage" is grounded in something real in human development. There are a number of complications to this view. First, the scope for change gets narrowed in the measure that variance in personality factors is explained by genetic factors. Obversely, the scope for change gets broadened in the measure that it is explained by education and other experience. Obviously, stage theory is less plausible, or less coercive in its implications, in the measure that personality development is fluidly malleable and educationally structured. The opposite seems true if biologically prestructured. But there is a second-order level for explaining personality change in a genetic perspective. One can accept a measure of predetermination in the psychoneurological substrate for personality, but it is not illogical to allow room in this model for a series of hardwired developmental periods. The model of Arnold Gesell, for example, though predeterministic, allows for qualitative stage-based shifts in the cognitive, psycho-motoric, interpersonal, and affective preferences and capabilities of the person.

As Piaget noted, whether or not one "sees" human development progressing from infancy to adulthood in stages is a function of how finegrained and molecular one makes one's analysis. It is a question of scale. Standing inches from a pointillist painting, say, by Seurat, one sees only a multitude of tiny dots of pigment. It is only in distancing oneself so that the entire painting or large sections of it come into focus that the transitions from beach to sea to boats to trees to bathers become apparent. The phases of the panorama stand out as one macroscopically scans the canvas. It is difficult (but not impossible) to discern the shape of a galaxy when one is part of it.

As the analysis of personality development has assumed a more scientific, microscopic focus, there has been a tendency for the stage-based theories to fall into disrepute. This may account for the decline in popularity of the schemas developed by Freud, Erikson, Piaget, Sullivan, and Kohlberg, for example. Though these conceptualizations of human personality development continue to enjoy widespread support in part, if not in whole, they are partially in eclipse by virtue of advances in the newer human sciences. Cognitive science, psychoneurology, endocrinology, and social andPage 2093  |  Top of Article developmental psychology, among other disciplines, have inevitably superannuated all these grand systems to a greater or lesser degree.


On entering the twenty-first century, the Zeitgeist will favor, it appears, theories of personality that are life-span developmental, less instinct-driven but more persons-relational, constructivist, process-oriented and dynamic, that is, Heraclitean, holistic, teleonomic, evolutionary, genetics-based, gender-equal, emic, sociological, and idiographic. Clearly, personality theories that predate World War II are not, by and large, consistent with these descriptors. It appears that the era of the grand systems is past. Personology will reconcile itself to more modest paradigms for describing, explaining, and predicting human behavior.

Students who wish to follow the development of this discipline are urged to regularly consult the Annual Review of Psychology, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the European Journal of Personality, Developmental Psychology, and other respected periodicals that publish articles in this domain. An excellent and more detailed analysis of many of the issues raised above can be found in Theories of Personality by Hall, et al. (1998, chap.1, 15).


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3404400266