Personality Psychology Research Paper

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Why does the pop star Madonna challenge religious convention in some of her songs and performances? What gave Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the strength of character to lead the civil rights movement despite such strong opposition and danger to his life? If we survey young people involved in high school leadership positions, can we predict who among them will be the next president of the United States? Questions like these are at the heart of the psychology of personality. Most people are implicit personality theorists (Anderson, Rosenfeld, & Cruikshank, 1994) because they consistently seek to explain why people do what they do. The theories explored in this research-paper are more formal systems for trying to understand the remarkable diversity of human personality. In fact, it is this diversity, or these individual differences in behavior, that drives ongoing thinking and research in this area. The differences compel us to ask why. Plain and simple, these theoretical ideas are interesting, often controversial, and may be what first drew you to the academic study of psychology.

This research-paper surveys the major theoretical perspectives on human personality. In so doing, I discuss the most important theoretical constructs within each perspective, the research methods and evidence marshaled in support of the theory, some related theoretical positions, some applications of the theory, and some comparisons across theories. For each theoretical perspective, I also briefly evaluate the contributions the viewpoint makes using criteria that are generally accepted as helpful when evaluating any theory:

  1. Comprehensiveness: The extent to which a theory explains a broad range of personality phenomena. Sometimes this criterion is also referred to as the explanatory power of a theory. Other things being equal, the more comprehensive theory is preferred.
  2. Parsimony: The simplicity of a theory. When comparing theories with equal explanatory power, the more parsimonious theory is preferred. This principle is sometimes called Occam’s Razor, after the 14th-century English Franciscan monk who popularized the idea.
  3. Usefulness: The degree to which a theory is helpful in the sense of having important practical applications, such as a method of behavior change (i.e., therapeutic strategies).
  4. Heuristic Function: The degree to which a theory guides or influences future research. A theory that generates a good deal of research or stimulates lively theoretical debate serves an important heuristic function in science.
  5. Empirical Validity: The degree to which a theory is supported by scientific research. A subtle but important aspect of a theory’s empirical validity is the ability of the theory to specify the conditions under which it can be shown to be false. This principle, sometimes referred to as the criterion of refutation (or falsifiability), is a lofty and important element in a theory’s empirical validation (Popper, 1959).

Few theories will be strong in every criterion. However, evaluating theories with these standards provides a good indication of the overall value and importance of the perspective.

Freud’s Legacy: The Psychoanalytic Tradition

Freud’s ideas regarding the shaping of our personalities have so much filtered into our belief systems that we may think in Freudian ways without knowing it. Take the idea, for example, that our parents and home life have had a significant impact on the formation of our personalities. This position is so widely accepted today that we may not question it or may not seriously entertain the strength of other personality influences (Cohen, 1999; Hamer & Copeland, 1998; Harris, 1998). Freud is likely the chief architect of this belief, though many of us do not realize it.

Keep in mind, too, when reading this short summary that Freud developed his ideas over the course of many years of thinking and writing. Most scholars (e.g., Gay, 1988) believe that his first important work on personality was Studies on Hysteria, coauthored with Josef Breuer in 1895. Freud worked and wrote until his death in London in 1939. Reflecting on the time span of Freud’s life reveals that his historical context contained many significant events that profoundly affected his theorizing over time. The events leading up to and surrounding the two World Wars, for example, helped shape Freud’s thoughts on the destructive aspects of human nature. Others (Gay, 1988; Sulloway, 1979) have speculated that the Zeitgeist of Victorian Europe as well as the interpersonal dynamics of Freud’s childhood home played a role in his theorizing on the sexual forces in human personality.

Important Theoretical Constructs

Before we consider some specific ideas in Freud’s approach, we need to understand the nature of constructs. Constructs are the building blocks of theories and, by definition, are complex unobservable variables (American Psychological Association [APA], 2007). For instance, anxiety may serve as a construct in a theory. Anxiety itself is a complex idea and is not directly observable; we can observe behaviors associated with anxiety (e.g., increased heart rate, increased perspiration, fidgety behavior, or a verbal report of “I feel anxious”) but we do not directly observe anxiety itself. We infer the existence of constructs from observable behavior. We must infer that someone is anxious by observing their behavior and by listening to their words.

Let’s now explore four overarching ideas that capture the essence of Freud’s work. First, Freud assumed that human nature was characterized by primitive, lawless, biologically based drives of sexuality (Eros) and aggression (Thanatos), the so-called dual instinct aspect of his theory. Present at birth, these instincts are the foundation on which an individual personality is built.

Second, Freud emphasized unconscious determinism when understanding the complexity of personality. Determinism asserts that behavior is not random; it happens for an identifiable reason. The causal agents or determinants that drive behavior are deeply buried within the psyches of individuals, and therefore outside their awareness (i.e., the determinants of behavior are unconscious).

Third, Freud believed the human psyche was characterized by intrapsychic (within the psyche) conflict. The essential nature of the human mind, therefore, is one of dynamic forces in constant battle for ascendancy. One arena of this conflict plays out in the interplay of what Freud saw as the three structures of personality: the id, ego, and superego. The term “structure” is problematic because it implies a physical reality in the same sense that a brain structure (e.g., the hypothalamus) implies a living, physical portion of the brain. The term “agency” or the phrase “set of functions” might better capture the nature of these structures. Present at birth, the most basic of these structures is the id, which contains the dual instincts of Eros and Thanatos. Deriving from the id, the ego and superego develop. The superego corresponds to our set of moral and ethical principles that we have introjected from parents during psychosexual development, whereas the ego serves the complex task of mediating the demands of the id, superego, and reality, no easy psychological task. Thus, the psychological stage is set for the competing struggles among these various psychic agencies and between Eros and Thanatos.

Fourth, the most relevant developmental influences on personality occur in early childhood, particularly during the first five or so years of life, roughly speaking. Early relationships with parents, therefore, take on particular significance. In fact, in highlighting this issue, Freud borrowed a phrase from William Wordsworth’s (1802/2002) poem “My Heart Leaps Up” and asserted “the child is father [parent] of the man [person].” Adult behavior involves playing out dramas that have their origins in this early developmental period. In terms of Freud’s ideas on psychosexual development, by the age of five or six, the child would have passed through the oral, anal, and phallic stages. Lying ahead are the latency period, corresponding roughly to ages six to puberty, and the genital (or adult) stage of development. Successfully navigating these developmental stages gives rise to the development of ego and superego functions, as psychic energy or libido gets redistributed to fuel the psychological functions of ego and superego.

Related Theoretical Approaches

Because Freud’s thinking was so comprehensive and because his personal conviction was so forceful, he stimulated others to revise or extend his thinking. These “spin-off” perspectives diverged from Freud’s original ideas in important ways, but they still emphasized the role of the unconscious in determining behavior and the relative importance of early childhood events in shaping personality.

Carl Gustav Jung (Analytical Psychology) and Alfred Adler (Individual Psychology) were two of Freud’s early adherents who split from him to promulgate their own perspectives. Freud profoundly influenced other important thinkers such as Erik Erikson (1963), Erich Fromm (1973), so-called neoanalytic theoreticians (Erikson’s approach is sometimes called Ego Psychology because of its emphasis on the development of ego function throughout life) as well as object relations theorists. Object relations theorists such as Melanie Klein (1964) and D. W. Winnicott (1965) altered Freud’s original approach by emphasizing the role of relationships with important people (objects), deemphasizing the biological instinctual forces that intrigued Freud, and sometimes highlighting the central role of very early (preverbal) interpersonal relations.

Applications of Psychoanalytic Theory

The most lasting of Freud’s contributions may well be his thoughts on resolving psychological problems by talking through them. This notion of talk therapy as potentially curative is so generally accepted in our culture today that it is easy to forget Freud’s contribution to our understanding of talk therapy. By listening to his neurotic patients, Freud came to believe that the taproot of their symptoms was buried in unconscious conflicts deriving from early childhood experiences. Lasting relief would come only via gaining insight into these dramas and slowly, over a long period of time, working through self-defeating behaviors and feelings. Freud thought the psychoanalyst (a term referring to a psychotherapist with a psychoanalytic orientation) is like an archeologist of the mind (Gay, 1988): The analyst must slowly and meticulously uncover the conflict, utilizing techniques such as dream interpretation, free association, and analysis of the transference with the aim of bringing to light the relic of psychological conflict that is the root of the symptoms. This notion of uncovering the root problem is also widely accepted in our culture today.

Research Methods and Evidence

Freud, as well as many adherents to the psychoanalytic approach, relied on detailed case studies as his preferred method of investigation. In fact, Freud’s theory was built almost exclusively upon a limited number of published case studies as well as his own self-analysis. Although case studies provide a wealth of interesting details and may help generate hypotheses for more controlled investigation, it is scientifically risky to rely on case analyses to uncover cause-effect relationships. The limitations of case studies are well known and include a lack of internal validity, difficulty in making generalizations from the case to the population, and the potential biases of the investigator. Some recent approaches to studying psychoanalytic constructs adopt a more controlled empirical methodology. Some of these investigations are far removed from the central ideas of psychoanalytic theory (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006), whereas others closely parallel it (Epstein, 1994; Westen, 1998).


Many of the theoretical ideas in Freud’s body of work are difficult to investigate empirically. Part of this difficulty resides in the imprecise vocabulary of psychoanalytic constructs. Freud did not offer definitions that would lead to careful scientific investigation of his ideas, nor is the theory structured in a way that lends itself to being falsified. The empirical validity of psychoanalytic theory, therefore, is highly questionable. Indeed some (e.g., Macmillan, 1991) argue that Freud’s thinking and research methodologies are so profoundly flawed that we should no longer teach his ideas in psychology.

Other Freudian ideas that have been systematically investigated with the tools of modern psychological science have been found to be false or open to significant question at best. For example, consider repression, one of the more important constructs in Freud’s thinking. Many scholars (e.g., Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; McNally et al., 2006) have suggested that rather than repress traumatic events, many people are in fact not able to forget them, even though they might want to! Therefore, one of Freud’s central tenets about personality may not hold up very well under the scrutiny of controlled investigation.

We should not be overly harsh, however, when evaluating the totality of Freud’s work and the impact his ideas continue to have on contemporary psychological science in a number of domains (Westen, 1998). When considering his approach in the light of his historical context, it is easier to see that in his mind, Freud (1928/1961) was adopting a scientific approach. In his book The Future of an Illusion, in which he argued that humans should look to science for answers to life’s questions rather than to religion, Freud asserted, “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere” (p. 71). Did Freud make this statement merely to convince readers that he was indeed scientific in his approach? Doubtful. Freud himself believed he was adopting a scientific attitude and methodology in his scholarly work. This claim does not excuse the errors Freud made in aspects of his thinking; it simply offers a more nuanced evaluation of his theoretical contributions.

We may also assess the value of Freud’s theory utilizing other evaluative criteria. For example, psychoanalytic theory has stimulated vast amounts of empirical research, thus fulfilling an important heuristic function. Freud’s theory is also comprehensive and useful, though not parsimonious.

Skinner’s Legacy: The Behavioral Tradition

A vastly different but equally controversial approach to understanding personality is the behavioral tradition articulated in its purest form in the work of B. F. Skinner. Elegant in its parsimony, Skinner’s operant conditioning perspective continues to generate thoughtful debate, important applications, and continued research. Like Freud, Skinner (1948) hoped his way of thinking would eventually hold sway and transform the field of psychology. Indeed, he believed his ideas could be used to change the very fabric of society.

Important Theoretical Constructs

Understanding that a person is a complex organism behaving in lawful ways, the task of the Skinnerian personality psychologist is to discover the general scientific laws that govern and therefore allow prediction of behavior. Skinner’s approach to understanding personality may feel alien because we are so accustomed to looking within the person for the motivations of behavior. However, Skinner (1953, 1974) stridently resisted inner forces as explanations for behavior. Instead, he believed that any presumed internal explanations for behavior were merely explanatory or redundant fictions that one day we would abandon, just as other sciences have abandoned unverifiable causes of events. Any reference to internal states as explanations created intellectual traps, Skinner believed, and therefore should be avoided. Although persons might indeed feel something as they behave, feelings should not be used as causal explanations of behavior. Skinner did not deny the existence of inner states, as is sometimes believed (Debell & Harless, 1992); rather, he rejected using inner states as explanations of behavior.

An example may help clarify this important dimension to Skinner’s thinking. John is a 10-year-old boy who frequently fights with his classmates. Viewing John’s behavior through a psychoanalytic lens would encourage us to invoke internal motives for his behavior. We might posit, for instance, that John’s id is not being adequately restrained by the forces of his ego or superego. Perhaps John has repressed anger toward his father that he displaces onto his classmates so as to get partial gratification of the unconscious hostile impulses he feels toward his father.

To Skinner, John’s behavior can best be understood by looking to important environmental contingencies in the form of reinforcers and punishers. For example, perhaps in his home John is able to get his needs met only if he aggressively asserts himself. Generalizing from his home context to the school environment, John may behave similarly at school to the degree that the same behaviors are reinforced in the school context.

Skinner’s theory is devoid of constructs. What mattered to Skinner were observable environmental events and the behaviors that derive from those events. Such contingencies of reinforcement and punishment are relevant causal factors. Though biological forces and genetic predispositions place constraints on behavior (e.g., you cannot teach a person to fly no matter how much you reinforce approximations of this behavior), Skinner tended to ignore these influences because they cannot be controlled.

In reading this brief outline of Skinner’s (1971) way of viewing personality, it may be apparent that Skinner, like Freud, was a strict determinist. Both Freud and Skinner shared the belief that we are not free to choose our own behavior. Such freedom is more of an illusion than a reality. Unlike Freud, however, Skinner looked to the environment for the determinants of behavior, rather than to internal explanations.

Applications of Behavioral Theory

The applications of Skinner’s perspective are numerous and important. The wide array of behavioral modification strategies is a testimonial to the power of Skinner’s vision (Kazdin, 2000). For instance, Skinner’s ideas have been used to provide behavioral treatment for autistic children; emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children; persons with phobias, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunctions, depression, and other severe mental illnesses; problems with assertiveness; sports-related activities, and so on. As one would expect, all of these approaches target specific behaviors and adopt an empirical approach to evaluating the effectiveness of the intervention.

Research Methods and Evidence

Skinner has been unfairly criticized for viewing humans as “robots” and for dehumanizing them. And yet, his methods of studying behavior argue against this simplistic way of understanding his thinking. A champion of single-subject designs, Skinner was highly concerned with the uniqueness of individuals, an emphasis that is observed in the validation of behavioral treatment approaches.

In general, the behavioral approaches, including those with a cognitive component, rely on well-controlled scientific studies to establish the empirical validity of their propositions and their behavior change interventions. There is strong evidence for the efficacy of behavioral approaches in the domains mentioned (Kazdin, 2000). In fact, the strength of this approach is its hardheaded empirical approach to studying its assertions. If an investigation into a therapeutic strategy does not lend support to the usefulness of the approach, behaviorists will refine the approach and study it further.


If stimulation of debate and research is one measure of a theory’s importance, then, like Freud, Skinner’s view of human personality is extremely important. In addition, there is a great deal of empirical evidence that the mechanisms underscored by Skinner are indeed powerful shapers of personality. It is fair to say therefore that Skinner’s theoretical approach is comprehensive, has empirical validity, and has served an important heuristic function. Perhaps the most notable strength of his thinking, however, is its parsimony.

Despite these strengths, Skinner’s approach is not without its problems. Is it legitimate, for example, to describe personality as a complex collection of behaviors? Doesn’t this conceptualization leave out something central to what it means to be human? Isn’t it too reductionistic? These questions are precisely those that created opposition to his thinking and generated approaches that hoped to recapture the humanity that critics believed was lost. To do so would require again looking inside persons for the motivations of their behavior.

Rogers’ And Maslow’s Legacy: The Humanistic-Phenomenological Tradition

Let’s pause for a moment and briefly consider the historical landscape that led to the humanistic-phenomenological tradition. The psychoanalytic approach is sometimes referred to as the “first force” in personality psychology. The second force is the behavioral tradition most carefully elucidated by Skinner. Behaviorism developed in direct opposition to the Freudian tradition. By the 1950s, both of these forces were firmly established in the intellectual environment of American psychology. But opposition to these two forces began to mount, primarily in the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Like Freud, both of these theorists were clinically oriented (though Maslow’s graduate training was in experimental psychology), but both strongly opposed some of Freud’s and Skinner’s central ideas and assumptions about human behavior. Both Rogers and Maslow, for instance, rejected the determinism inherent in the thinking of Freud and Skinner. Instead, the humanistic approach underscores the freedom of individuals to choose their own pathways in life. In addition, Rogers and Maslow assumed that human nature was either inherently good or at least neutral, thus rejecting Freud’s claim that humans are driven by primitive, self-serving, and animalistic instinctual forces. Finally, Rogers and Maslow emphasized psychological development throughout the lifespan and, in particular, were optimistic that this development could be healthy. In this sense, Rogers and Maslow anticipated the contemporary Positive Psychology movement (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

Important Theoretical Constructs

Rogers’s (1942) first significant book was Counseling and Psychotherapy: New Concepts in Practice, which outlined many of the central features of his theoretical approach. At birth, the organism is the basic psychological reality that, over time, gives rise to more complex personality structures. One of these structures is the self, which roughly corresponds to one’s identity. As the self is exposed to conditions of worth, circumstances in which it is valued for certain behaviors or attitudes and devalued for others, it begins to change in order to conform to the conditions under which it is valued. For example, the developing child might grow up in an environment where the direct expression of anger is prohibited. In early life, whenever the self encounters rejection of angry displays, it learns that it is devalued when anger is expressed. Because all persons possess a need for positive regard, they learn to deny or distort the rejected dimension of self. As development proceeds in this fashion, aspects of the person’s true nature are denied or distorted. Being shaped by conditions of worth creates a person that is in some ways only a shadow of his or her original nature, so to speak. Overcoming these personal limitations is the task of growing up and becoming more fully functioning. Rogers (1957) was confident that given the proper psychological environment in the formality of a therapeutic relationship or in their everyday lives, people could grow and develop into psychologically healthy individuals.

Maslow shared with Rogers certain fundamental assumptions about personality, but offered unique contributions. Most familiar to many students of psychology is Maslow’s (1999) hierarchy of needs, in which he outlined important developmental aspects of his thinking. The essential idea in the hierarchy is that humans progress through phases or levels of development in which lower, more basic needs must be met before the person can begin to satisfy higher needs in the hierarchy. In order, these needs are physiological, safety and security, belongingness and love, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization. Importantly, the lower the need is in the hierarchy, the more powerful it is, and the higher the need, the weaker but more distinctly human it is. The implication of this model is that people are free to devote time and energy to self-actualization only after more basic needs are satisfied.

A more complete understanding of Maslow’s thought requires attention to the nature of self-actualization. His thoughts on this subject are what make him stand out as a significant personality theorist. His interest in this important dimension of human psychological development began with his doctoral dissertation. Working with Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin, Maslow’s dissertation investigated dominance hierarchies in monkeys. Thus, from early in his career, Maslow was interested in the best a species had to offer, so to speak. Extending this interest to humans, Maslow embarked on a research program in which he studied some of the most important figures in human history. For example, he examined the lives of Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Washington Carver, William James, Harriet Tubman, and others, with the aim of understanding the personal characteristics that set these persons apart from normal, everyday people.

Both Rogers and Maslow, therefore, attempted to illuminate the degree to which humans could overcome challenges and live fulfilling, creative, vibrant lives. Like Freud and Skinner before them, the force of their thinking and personalities stimulated others to follow in their footsteps.

The theoretical and empirical work of Rogers and Maslow influenced other, similar approaches. Most of these approaches have an existential orientation in that they consider fundamental questions about the nature of human existence and suffering and emphasize the role of personal choice in directing one’s own life to create meaning for it. Less optimistic in their orientations, theorists such as Rollo May (1953) and Viktor Frankl (1959) provide variations on the phenomenological themes developed by Rogers and Maslow.

Applications of Humanistic-phenomenological Theory

Rogers provided extensive guidance for applying his theoretical constructs to helping persons with psychological problems. In fact, Rogers’s work on therapeutic interventions revolutionized how therapists have thought about helping troubled persons. In its purest form, Rogers’s belief was that even everyday relationships could be psychologically healing. Whereas psychoanalysis relied heavily on the techniques of doing therapy, the Rogerian approach relied on the person of the therapist as the healing component. Over the course of his writing, Rogers first referred to his therapy as client-centered (to contrast with the psychoanalytic idea of the patient needing the expert help of the analyst) and then later as person-centered, emphasizing even more the egalitarian relationship between the helper and the person being helped.

What is it about the nature of the therapeutic relationship that is healing? Rogers (1957) asserted there were three necessary and sufficient conditions that would inevitably lead to positive therapeutic change. These conditions were that the therapist must (a) show unconditional positive regard (and thus reverse conditions of worth), (b) be congruent or genuine (and thus allow clients to begin to become attuned to their own authenticity), and (c) show empathy toward the client (and thus allow clients to more deeply experience their own feelings). By demonstrating these conditions, Rogers believed clients would begin to move toward a greater understanding of themselves and the possible solutions to existing problems. The role of the therapist is not the expert with answers, but the facilitator to help the client discover his or her own answers. In essence, the goal of Rogerian therapy is for the person to become more self-directing and fully functioning.

Research Methods and Evidence

Unfortunately, Rogers has sometimes been mistakenly regarded as scientifically softheaded in his understanding of personality psychology. This criticism, however, is erroneous. Clearly, some of Rogers’ constructs are ill defined and difficult to study empirically. However, Rogers systematically studied many of his central assertions regarding behavior change in psychotherapy. Utilizing a method known as the Q-sort, Rogers (1961) investigated how self-concept changes over time in counseling. In addition, he was the first to bring audiotape technology into therapy sessions so that these sessions could be recorded and later subject to empirical scrutiny. This practice is still common today. For these efforts and others, in 1956 Rogers was awarded the first Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award by the APA.


Like the psychoanalytic and behavioral traditions, the perspectives of Rogers and Maslow are significant. Rogers’s theory is more carefully articulated and developed than Maslow’s, but both viewpoints are comprehensive, internally consistent, and have stimulated a good deal of research and debate. Neither is very parsimonious. It is fair to criticize them on the basis of not clearly operationalizing important constructs. Like Freud, both these theorists did not specify the conditions under which their ideas could be proved false. It is much easier to explain behavior after the fact, rather than predict how behavior might unfold in the future.

Contributions Of Cognitive Theorists

Cognitive approaches to understanding personality are in some ways similar to the behavioral tradition because they share a commitment to the empirical validation of ideas. If fact, some of the theorists in this tradition, such as Albert Bandura, are paragons of careful scientific analysis. The important contrast with the radical behavioral approach of Skinner (1990) is that cognitions are internal events that are seen as causal explanations of behavior, something that Skinner rejected throughout his entire career (Skinner, 1990).

Important Theoretical Constructs

Let’s start our consideration of this set of theories with a perspective that is in some ways difficult to categorize. The Personal Construct Theory of George Kelly (1955) was an important precursor to other cognitive theories. In a nutshell (keep in mind that Kelly’s 1955 tome had 1,200 pages!), Kelly asserted that people are like scientists who possess a set of personal constructs or cognitive frameworks that they use to interpret their experiences. Personal Construct Theory has one foot in the cognitive tradition and one in the subjective experiences or interpretations of the phenomenological viewpoint. These personal constructs both derive from past experience and guide a person’s interpretation of ongoing experience. One’s belief system or set of personal constructs is what is most important, not the particular events of one’s life. For instance, if a child loses a parent, the child might develop a system of constructs that construes relationships as always ending in hurt or loss.

This type of belief system will have an obvious impact on how this developing person behaves in future relationships. On the other hand, the child might grow into an adult who values every moment of his or her relationships due to the knowledge of the potential brevity of relationships. In either scenario, the events are the same; the child’s system of personal constructs is what shapes personality.

Albert Bandura (1977) also recognized the power of beliefs in shaping personality. Whereas Skinner was a strict environmental determinist, Bandura adopted a position he called reciprocal determinism. Bandura understood that behavior is shaped by environmental factors. He also recognized that behavior impacts the environment and that internal characteristics of the person, such as emotional states or beliefs, also affect behavior. These forces (environment, behavior, and internal person variables) reciprocally determine one another.

Bandura asserted that because people are thinking, information-processing organisms, they can learn by observing the behavior of others and can modify their own behavior by vicariously experiencing the consequences that others experience. If you are a student in a classroom and observe that another student is ridiculed by the professor for asking a question, your probability of asking a question in that class is diminished. The unpleasant consequence of ridicule did not happen directly to you, but your own behavior was modified as a result of your observations of the other person, the so-called model. Bandura (1977) labeled this type of learning “observational learning,” and it was a central construct in the initial conceptualization of his theory known as social learning theory. Bandura showed that a person could learn something (create an internal representation of a behavior) without ever actually performing the behavior. He demonstrated this principle in his now-famous Bobo doll study (Bandura, 1965).

Over time, Bandura (1986, 2006) more clearly outlined the set of cognitive processes that allow for persons to be self-regulators of their own behavior, which led to a shift from describing his theory as social learning to a social cognitive perspective. In more recent years, Bandura (1997) carefully explicated an important cognitive system known as self-efficacy, the belief that one can carry out behaviors that will lead to desired outcomes. Self-efficacy beliefs are important causal factors in driving behavior in a variety of domains (e.g., academic, health, athletic), something that has important implications for behavioral change applications.

Applications of Cognitive Theory

A variety of applications grow out of theories within the cognitive domain. Though not comprehensive theories in their own right, many scholars have taken the fundamental principles of the cognitive approach and applied them to systems for helping people.

Aaron Beck’s (1976) well-known cognitive approach to treating depression and other problematic emotional states is a significant application of these ideas. Donald Meichenbaum’s (1993) Stress Inoculation training is another application for helping people develop effective strategies for dealing with stressful situations. In addition, Albert Ellis (1995) offered his Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy as a powerful means of changing behavior via the alteration of irrational belief systems.


As in the behavioral approach, those in the cognitive arena have relied on systematic investigation of their claims via well-controlled scientific studies. In addition, both Bandura and Kelly offered comprehensive, empirically sound theoretical perspectives. Though not parsimonious, these theorists attempted to strip their perspectives of unnecessary constructs, though their final solutions are complex. Bandura’s approach has received more widespread attention and has therefore served an important heuristic function.

Types, Traits, And The Biological Underpinnings Of Personality

Type and trait approaches to understanding personality have a long and distinguished history. Although I have saved this area of personality psychology for the latter part of the chapter, this approach is in some ways the oldest perspective in the study of personality. Early typologies of personality can be traced back thousands of years to the Greek physician Hippocrates. He maintained that the human body consisted of four humors or biochemical systems known as blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Several hundred years later, the 2nd-century Roman physician Galen asserted that an imbalance in these humors would create personality types corresponding to sanguine (cheerful), melancholic (sad), choleric (angry and hostile), and phlegmatic (apathetic; Kagan, 1994). Thus, a personality system was born.

Interestingly, modern techniques of neuroscience have borne out some of the observations of these ancient physicians. In fact, developments in our understanding of the biological and genetic underpinnings of personality, along with advances in statistical techniques, have led to a resurgence in this way of understanding personality. More than the other viewpoints we have examined, this group of perspectives underscores the ways nature and nurture work together to create individual differences in personality.

Important Theoretical Constructs

The two dominant constructs in this area are traits and types. A trait is an enduring personality characteristic, which is presumed to have some stability and will explain various dimensions of behavior. Using traits, we slice personality into component parts and use them as explanations for individual differences. For example, if one student frequently speaks up in class but another remains silent, we might attribute this behavioral difference to the relative strength of the trait of extraversion in these two persons, with a high degree in the former and a low one in the latter. Traits are therefore continuous variables that vary in amount from person to person.

A type is a general category used to describe a person. Rather than slicing personality into component parts, types sort people into groups. Utilizing the example above and adopting a type approach, we might conclude that the former student corresponds to the category of extravert, whereas the latter person is an introvert. Types are therefore discontinuous variables; one is either an extravert or an introvert, but not both. One of the most well-known typologies of personality is the Type A, Type B distinction, first described by Freidman and Rosenman (1974), two cardiologists who observed that certain behavior patterns seemed to predict heart disease. Following their intuitions, they empirically investigated their hunches by studying a group of middle-aged men over an eight-year period and uncovered the link between traits such as impatience, hostility, driven competitiveness, and heart disease. Further studies highlighted the importance of hostility as the toxic dimension in the Type A pattern (Friedman & Booth-Kewley, 1987; Greenglass & Julkunen, 1991).

Raymond Cattell (1952, 1965) was a groundbreaking trait theorist who utilized the statistical technique of factor analysis to investigate the dominant traits in human personality. Referring to these traits as factors, Cattell believed that 16 source traits could best account for individual differences in personality. The 16 Personality Factor questionnaire, or 16 PF for short, was the instrument Cattell developed for assessing these factors.

To his credit, Cattell recognized that more than just questionnaire data should be used in understanding the uniqueness of a person. To supplement questionnaire or Q-data, Cattell argued that psychologists should also obtain L-data, or information gathered from the person’s life. For example, L-data might be derived from school records, job histories, social history, and so on. T-data or test data correspond to information gathered from real-life or experimentally contrived situations in which the person’s behavior can be observed. For instance, you can observe someone’s behavior in a variety of naturally occurring social situations or, if you are a psychological researcher, in a situation that is part of a psychological study. Cattell’s selection of the term T- or test-data is confusing (Funder, 2004) because most persons think of questionnaires as “tests,” but T-data should be seen as distinct from Q-data.

As it turns out, I have oversimplified the distinction between traits and types, as can be seen in the work of Hans Eysenck (1967), an influential scholar who has intertwined the ideas of types, traits, and the underlying biological mechanisms that shape personality. Believing that the major aspects of personality are largely genetically determined, Eysenck updated our understanding of personality types. He believed that types are continuous variables along which people differ, though most people possess an average amount of the type dimension. Utilizing the factor analytic approach, Eysenck (1967) believed that three types account for the greatest degree of individual differences in personality. These types are Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Psychoticism, which are measured using the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire. Eysenck also claimed that these basic personality dimensions are undergirded by inherited differences in nervous system reactivity, the details of which go beyond the scope of this research-paper.

At present, the most dominant contemporary theory in the trait tradition strikes a balance between the 16 factors in Cattell’s model and the 3 in Eysenck’s. McCrae and Costa (1987) are the primary architects of the perspective known as the Big Five Theory or the Five Robust Factors, though their work built on the foundation of Norman (1963). Like other trait theorists before them, McCrae and Costa utilized a factor analytic approach and asserted that five dimensions capture the essence of human personality: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Big Five theorists avow that these “supertraits” are independent of one another and can describe personality across cultures, though there may be differences in relative strength across cultures, as well as sex differences within cultures (Paunonen, 2003).

I have outlined the dominant perspectives in the type and trait domain. All these approaches owe a debt, however, to Gordon Allport (1937), who years ago attempted to document the range of trait vocabulary used in describing personality. More complex than developing a taxonomy of traits, Allport’s (1938, 1955) contributions should not be forgotten, although they are less influential today.

Applications of Trait and Biological Theory

Compared to other perspectives we have examined, the type and trait approaches are relatively silent regarding applications that may lead to behavior change. Because most types and traits are seen as having an important genetic and biological component, behavioral change is difficult, though not impossible. A frequently used metaphor in this tradition is to declare that personality is akin to plaster, not granite. It is difficult to alter, though not impossible. Adopting a similar viewpoint, Kagan (1994) argued that certain personality characteristics are largely inherited, although “biology is not destiny.” For example, if a child is born with a genetic predisposition to be introverted, parents can take steps to help this child deal more effectively with novel or potentially intimidating situations. Through these experiences, the child may learn to be bolder when encountering situations that might cause him or her to withdraw. At the same time, although biology is not destiny, it does place parameters on the range of behavioral change that is possible (Kagan, 1994).

Research Methods and Evidence

Type and trait theorists have adopted a strong empirical tradition, often relying on a procedure known as factor analysis (Cattell, 1952). As a data-reduction strategy, factor analysis is a powerful statistical procedure that seeks to find broader, underlying structures (factors) that can account for a greater number of more specific characteristics. Although this approach is used widely in a number of psychological studies, both inside and outside the personality psychology domain, it is not without its critics. Skeptics argue, for instance, that factor analysis suffers from the “garbage in, garbage out” problem. A factor solution can be only as good as the data that are originally entered into the factor analytic study. If garbage goes in at the start, it is inevitable that garbage comes out at the end, albeit rearranged and more neatly packaged. In addition, the results of a factor analytic study merely uncover the underlying factors; they do not identify or name those factors. The naming of the factors is left to the informed but subjective opinion of the investigator.


A great deal of empirical evidence has been garnered in support of the type and trait tradition. The scholars in this arena should be applauded for their painstaking efforts to find empirical support for their claims. Moreover, these approaches tend to be comprehensive in their scope. More parsimonious than Freud, these theories lack the simplicity found in the behavioral tradition. A relative weakness is their lack of specificity regarding mechanisms of personality change, although advances in biochemical interventions (e.g., psychotropic medications) may be a burgeoning avenue for the study of behavioral or personality change.

One final evaluative comment is important and is something that may have already occurred to you. Each of the perspectives we have considered in this section (Cattell, Eysenck, McCrae, and Costa) all claim to have found the basic elements of personality, and all have used a strong empirical approach to developing their theories. Yet each theorist has arrived at a different number and set of basic elements, although there is some overlap in their thinking (e.g., extraversion). The resolution of this conundrum will depend on further empirical work.


The field of personality psychology is one of the most stimulating areas in psychology. It weaves together aspects of individual differences and commonalities. It draws our attention to the power of nurture…and to the hidden authority of our unique genetic code. It compels us to consider important developmental questions such as the continuity and discontinuity of our identities. All of the perspectives presented in this research-paper are in a sense competing for superiority in their explanatory power. Yet none of them is dominant as an overarching explanatory system the way philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (1970) envisioned. The ongoing intellectual and empirical debate regarding which approach is best remains undecided, with no particular perspective emerging as the paradigm to follow. In part, this lack of resolution makes this field dynamic and exhilarating!

I would like to end this research-paper with two compelling questions. The first is, “Why do many of these theories persist in the absence of solid empirical evidence?” This question has been raised by Monte (1999), who provided an insightful answer. These theories persist, Monte argued, because they deal with the important questions of human existence, the so-called “big potato” questions. They ask us to think about questions such as What makes us human? What distinguishes one person from another? To what extent are we free to choose our own destinies? Is there hope for a world marked by peace? These questions and others like them are extremely difficult to answer, but they compel personality psychologists to continue to probe for solutions.

The second question is, “Do these theories really capture what it means to be a person?” As I noted at the outset of this research-paper, we are all implicit personality theorists who are constantly sizing up people and wondering what makes them tick. When we formalize our thinking into explicit, testable theories, do we really capture the essence of individual lives? Is there something inevitably missing when we attempt to do so? As Monte (1999) observed, the person in a scientifically verifiable theory may not be the person who sits across from you in your favorite coffee shop. Herein lays a central problem in the formal theories of personality psychology. At the same time, this fundamental quandary creates ambiguities and gray areas, the very stuff that ignites continued thought and investigation.


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