The issue of what makes each of us unique is what lies behind the field of personality psychology. Psychologists specializing in this area have examined the characteristics exhibited by individuals as well as their unconscious and subconscious motives. This field has a long and distinguished history going back more than a century
The first researcher to delve into the field of personality psychology was Sigmund Freud. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Freud came to believe that our personality was made up of our id (our instinctive behaviors), our ego (which is responsible for our sense of identity and mediates between the unconscious and subconscious), and our superego (which is essentially our conscience and sense of right and wrong). According to Freud, our personalities reflect the manner in which these three components balance each other to reduce “psychic tension.” As Freud saw it, the specific aspects of our personality are a consequence of how, as we developed through our childhoods and adolescence, we moved through five psychosexual stages, which he referred to as oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital.
Working a little after Freud in the first part of the 20th century, Karen Horney believed that personality resulted from childhood efforts to resolve or reduce social anxiety. In her view, the degree to which we satisfy ten “neurotic” needs she had identified prior to becoming adults impacts how we relate to other people in later life. According to Horney, we will either move toward others, move away from them, or be aggressive in our interactions. If we fully develop, we can and will do all three depending on the situation.
Erik Erikson, working in the mid- and late 20th century, challenge the idea that an individual’s personality is entirely determined during their childhood. Instead, he suggested that individuals continue to evolve well into adulthood. Erikson believed that there were eight stages of psychosocial development. Each of these stages presents the individual with a crisis that must be resolved in order for that individual to live a full and meaningful life. Erikson’s stages are as follows:
- Infants: Trust vs. mistrust
- Toddlers: Shame vs. autonomy
- Early childhood: Guilt vs. initiative
- Preadolescence: Inferiority vs. industry
- Adolescence: Role confusion vs. identity
- Early adulthood: Isolation vs. intimacy
- Young adulthood: Stagnation vs. generativity
- Old age: Despair vs. integrity
Types and Traits
In the field of personality psychology, some psychologists focus on what they refer to as micro-level traits, while others take a broader view by categorizing people as types. Traits are defined by all of our characteristics, whether common or unusual. Psychologists still debate exactly how many traits an individual can have.
One of the pioneers of research into traits, Gordon Allport, created a massive catalog of more than 4,000 traits which he organized into three primary categories. Central traits are ones that can be described with one word and that we strongly identify with, such as intelligent, grumpy, or sociable. Secondary traits are ones that we display frequently but not at all times, such as when someone is pleasant with their coworkers but engages in road rage while driving home. Cardinal traits are those traits that near the end of our lives, people come to view as the most significant and typical of the individual.
Competing views about traits in personal psychology were offered by Raymond Cattell and Hans Eysenck. According to Eysenck, the wide array of interaction seen among human beings could be explained by the degree of psychoticism, extroversion, and neuroticism in individuals. Cattell tried to establish a link between our personalities and 16 factors he had defined, including things like warmth, emotional stability, perfectionism, and openness to change.
Carl Jung was the first psychologist to try to examine and categorize individuals as types. Based on four psychological functions that he defined as intuition, sensation, thinking, and feeling, Jung believed people were basically either extroverted or introverted. One personality type, according to his thinking, would be the intuitive introvert, who would live up to the starving artist stereotype. Another example would be the thinking extrovert, who focuses rather rigidly in conversations with others on ideas. In Jung’s opinion, an individual’s personality resulted from a lifelong effort to coalesce and reconcile repressed thoughts, the false front that we present to others, as well as the feminine and masculine sides of our nature.
Following up on the work done by Jung, Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Based on four categories of qualities (thinking vs. feeling, sensing vs. intuition, extroversion vs. introversion, and judging vs. perception), this scale included 16 specific personality types.
The fairly well-known concept of type A and type B personalities was created by a pair of cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman. In this theory, type A personalities are extremely stressful and prone to heart conditions. Type B personalities are more calm and as a consequence more healthy. Later researchers have identified other personality types, such as the type C personality that is extremely stressed on the inside but presents outward calm and the type D personality that is downtrodden and depressed.
- A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality (PDF)
- What Social/Personality Psychology?
- Nothing Personal: The Questionable Myers-Briggs Test
- Type A/B Personality Quiz
- Type A Personalities
- Personality Psychologist: Job Description and Education Information
- Personality Research Says Change in Major Traits Occurs Naturally
- Personality Tests
- Personality Theory and Research
- Personality Theories
- An Introduction to the Five-Factory Model and its Applications (PDF)
- Sigmund Freud Lecture: The Anatomy of the Mental Personality
- Psychology of Personality II
- Sociogenomic Personality Psychology