Personality: From the theories of yesterday to the research of today

Prior to the 1980s personality theory was dominated by what are called armchair theories.  These were the grand theories described by founding psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung as well as those described by founding psychologists such as William James and Abraham Maslow.  Such theories were formed in a study; in the mind of one person.  This is especially true of the psychoanalytic theorists who fabricated whole systems of personality from insight and experience.  Though Freud and his early protégés were profoundly insightful and thoroughly experienced, their theories were necessarily partial.  Furthermore, they bore the stamp of the culture in which they were formed.  By the 1980s an alternative theory of personality gained ascendency….this was trait theory.  Trait theories had much earlier precedents, starting with the work of Hans Eysenck, Raymond Cattell, and Gordon Allport.  These trait theorists, rather than thinking up a personality theory, looked to the dictionary.  Using what is called the lexical model, these trait theorists sought out human nature in English adjectives.  Based on the assumption that important things are given names, these theorists thought that important traits are given names.  In this way, thousands of adjectives were factor analyzed, which essentially means that they were grouped together so that like terms went with like terms; for example, hard-working, diligent and industrious all found their way to a trait named conscientiousness.  Though these forays had started in the 1930s, it was in the 1980s that this work was practically consolidated by Costa and McCrae in the five factor theory of personality.  By common consensus, the five factors are as follows: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. 

With this advance over earlier personality theories, personality was better described. On the other hand, personality was not better explained.  Explanations of personality still relied on old grand theories because trait theory was only descriptive.  Trait theory and the five factor model only told what, it did not tell why.  In other words, trait theory did not tell why personality differed or why traits varied.  Grand theories remained the only sources of information on this point.  This was unfortunate because the explanations of grand theories were based on speculation and brazen leaps of logic.  While someone like Freud could faithfully observe and describe personality, he could not find out its origins.  Nineteenth century methods and simple thought were inadequate to the task.  Convincing explanations as to the nature of personality did not come until the 1990s with the reluctant application of evolutionary psychology to personality.  Personality variation came to be viewed as strategic.  The easiest way to understand this is by analogy.  Think of a capitalist economy: Businesses are set up to serve the community.  When there is a town with no restaurant, the savvy entrepreneur quickly establishes one, and with predictable success. Being the only game in town, the restaurant does well. Encouraged by success, another person opens a second restaurant; then still another person opens a third restaurant.  All three might do well, but this process cannot continue forever.  There are only so many people in the community, with only so much money to spend on dinner.  Perhaps a fourth is opened up, but fails because there is not enough business to gain a foothold.  So, eventually an optimum number of restaurants remains.  The savvy entrepreneur then would be wise to open a different type of business; after all, the community needs dry cleaners, movie theaters, hardware stores, clothing stores and grocery stores.  Eventually what you get is a range of businesses, all of which saturate the market.  So the community carries what it can support of each type of business.  The diversity that we see in personality arose from much the same process.  Consequently, there is a balance of leaders and followers, outgoing and shy, bold and timid.  Similar distributions are routinely observed in animal populations.

Dr. Steven C. Hertler
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