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Chapter 1: Introduction to Personality Theory & Development

What is Personality1.1

Everybody’s heard the term personality, and most of us can describe our own or our friend’s personality.  What most don’t know, however, is that personality is one of the most theorized and most researched aspects of psychology.

So what is personality?  To understand this concept, you first need to understand the difference between a trait and a state.  A trait is a relatively permanent individual characteristic.  For example, most of know people who are outgoing, friendly, confident, or shy.  When we describe these people, we use these traits to better understand their personality; to better understand who they are.  A state, on the other hand, is a temporary change in one’s personality.  Examples of states might be angry, depressed, fearful, or anxious.  We typically use states to describe a person’s reaction to something.

To make matters more confusing, a trait can also be a state, and visa versa.  The man who has the personality trait of outgoing might be shy at first around new people.  The woman who is typically confident, might exhibit fear or self-doubt when presented with a new stimulus.

The key to understanding the difference is to think about how the person typically is (trait) and how the person has temporarily changed (state) in response to something.  As we progress through personality theory and development, we will focus primarily of traits; the characteristics of a person that makes him or her unique.

Major Personality Theoretical Approaches

Why Study Personality?

If we know a person is confident, or outgoing, or friendly, what do we need to study? Why is it important to research and theorize about personality?1.2

To answer these questions, you need to understand a little about the field of psychology in general. Psychology is the study of thoughts, emotions, and behavior, and their interaction with each other and the world. There are five basic goals of psychology:

1. Describe – The first goal is to observe behavior and describe, often in minute detail, what was observed as objectively as possible

2. Explain – While descriptions come from observable data, psychologists must go beyond what is obvious and explain their observations. In other words, why did the subject do what he or she did?

3. Predict – Once we know what happens, and why it happens, we can begin to speculate what will happen in the future. There’s an old saying, which very often holds true: “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”

4. Control – Once we know what happens, why it happens and what is likely to happen in the future, we can excerpt control over it. In other words, if we know you choose abusive partners because your father was abusive, we can assume you will choose another abusive partner, and can therefore intervene to change this negative behavior.

5. Improve – Not only do psychologists attempt to control behavior, they want to do so in a positive manner, they want to improve a person’s life, not make it worse. This is not always the case, but it should always be the intention.

As you can see, the ultimate goal of psychology is to improve the quality of life through a better understanding of individual differences and similarities. Personality is concerned a great deal with all five of these goals, but we will spend the majority of the text discussing the first three. In other words, personality theory is concerned with observing individual characteristics, understanding how these different characteristics came about, and finally, how they are impacting the individuals quality of life.

We will, however, delve into the last two goals when we discuss personality disorders and treatment later in the text.

Personality Theories

So we’ve defined personality, we understand why it is important to study personality, and we know what our ultimate goal is, but how do we get started? Although the concept of personality seems like a simple one, hundreds and hundreds of years have gone into studying it and we still don’t all agree how it develops or even the important characteristics.

Personality theories are attempts at understanding both the characteristics of our personality characteristics and the way these characteristics develop and impact our life. As we progress through the theories, keep the following questions in mind, as they represent the basic idea behind personality theory and development:

1. What are the basic personality traits?

2. Can individual traits be grouped into categories or clusters?

3. How do these traits develop? What role does biology, environment, and the individual play?

4. What role do states play in an individual’s personality? Why do people respond differently to similar situations?

5. Can we use what we know about personality to make predictions? Can we use assessment devices to determine personality?

6. Can personality be changed? If so, under what circumstances should this be attempted, and how do we go about bringing about change?

If you can answer these questions for each of the theories we discuss, then you will have a solid grasp of introductory personality. So, lets get started…