What is Personality?

What Is Personality?

Psychologists differ among themselves as to the meaning of personality. Most agree that the word “personality” originated from the Latin persona, which referred to a theatrical mask worn by Roman actors in Greek dramas.

Although no single definition is acceptable to all personality theorists, we can say that personality is a pattern of relatively permanent traits and unique characteristics that give both consistency and individuality to a person’s behavior. Traits contribute to individual differences in behavior, consistency of behavior over time, and stability of behavior across situations. Traits may be unique, common to some group, or shared by the entire species, but their pattern is different for each individual. Thus each person, though like others in some ways, has a unique personality. Characteristics are unique qualities of an individual that include such attributes as temperament, physique, and intelligence.


Theory Defined

A scientific theory is a set of related assumptions that allows scientists to use logical deductive reasoning to formulate testable hypotheses. This definition needs further explanation.

First, a theory is a set of assumptions.

Second, a theory is a set of related assumptions. Isolated assumptions can neither generate meaningful hypotheses nor possess internal consistency—two criteria of a useful theory.

A third key word in the definition is assumptions. The components of a theory are not proven facts in the sense that their validity has been absolutely established. They are, however, accepted as if they were true. This is a practical step, taken so that scientists can conduct useful research, the results of which continue to build and reshape the original theory.

Fourth, logical deductive reasoning is used by the researcher to formulate hypotheses. The tenets of a theory must be stated with sufficient precision and logical consistency to permit scientists to deduce clearly stated hypotheses.

The final part of the definition includes the qualifier testable. Unless a hypothesis can be tested in some way, it is worthless. The hypothesis need not be tested immediately, but it must suggest the possibility that scientists in the future might develop the necessary means to test it.

Philosophy deals with what ought to be or what should be; theory does not. Theory deals with broad sets of if-then statements, but the goodness or badness of the outcomes of these statements is beyond the realm of theory.

Second, theories rely on speculation, but they are much more than mere armchair speculation. They do not flow forth from the mind of a great thinker isolated from empirical observations. They are closely tied to empirically gathered data and to science.

Although theory is a narrower concept than philosophy, it is a broader term than hypothesis. A good theory is capable of generating many hypotheses. A hypothesis is an educated guess or prediction specific enough for its validity to be tested through the use of the scientific method. A theory is too general to lend itself to direct verification, but a single comprehensive theory is capable of generating thousands of hypotheses. Hypotheses, then, are more specific than the theories that give them birth. The offspring, however, should not be confused with the parent.

A taxonomy is a classification of things according to their natural relationships. Taxonomies are essential to the development of a science because without classification of data science could not grow. Mere classification, however, does not constitute a theory. However, taxonomies can evolve into theories when they begin to generate testable hypotheses and to explain research findings.

All theories are a reflection of their authors’ personal backgrounds, childhood experiences, philosophy of life, interpersonal relationships, and unique manner of looking at the world. In other words, the psychology of science examines how scientists’ personalities, cognitive processes, developmental histories, and social experience affect the kind of science they conduct and the theories they create.


What Makes a Theory Useful?

First, a theory generates a number of hypotheses that can be investigated through research, thus yielding research data.

Second, a useful theory organizes research data into a meaningful structure and provides an explanation for the results of scientific research.

Therefore, we have evaluated each of the theories presented in this book on the basis of six criteria: A useful theory (1) generates research, (2) is falsifiable, (3) organizes data, (4) guides action, (5) is internally consistent, and (6) is parsimonious.


Dimensions for a Concept of Humanity

Personality theories differ on basic issues concerning the nature of humanity. Each personality theory reflects its author’s assumptions about humanity. These assumptions rest on several broad dimensions that separate the various personality theorists. We use six of these dimensions as a framework for viewing each theorist’s concept of humanity.

The first dimension is determinism versus free choice. Are people’s behaviors determined by forces over which they have no control, or can people choose to be what they wish to be? Can behavior be partially free and partially determined at the same time?

A second issue is one of pessimism versus optimism. Are people doomed to live miserable, conflicted, and troubled lives, or can they change and grow into psychologically healthy, happy, fully functioning human beings?

A third dimension for viewing a theorist’s concept of humanity is causality versus teleology. Briefly, causality holds that behavior is a function of past experiences, whereas teleology is an explanation of behavior in terms of future goals or purposes.

A fourth consideration that divides personality theorists is their attitude toward conscious versus unconscious determinants of behavior. Are people ordinarily aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it, or do unconscious forces impinge on them and drive them to act without awareness of these underlying forces?

The fifth question is one of biological versus social influences on personality. Are people mostly creatures of biology, or are their personalities shaped largely by their social relationships?

A sixth issue is uniqueness versus similarities. Is the salient feature of people their individuality, or is it their common characteristics? Should the study of personality concentrate on those traits that make people alike, or should it look at those traits that make people different?

Theories and Research

Psychologists, like other scientists, try to be systematic so that their predictions will be consistent and accurate. To improve their ability to predict, personality psychologists have developed a number of assessment techniques, including personality inventories. Much of the research reported in the remaining chapters of this book has relied on various assessment procedures, which purport to measure different dimensions of personality. For these instruments to be useful they must be both reliable and valid. The reliability of a measuring instrument is the extent to which it yields consistent results.

Personality inventories may be reliable and yet lack validity or accuracy. Validity is the degree to which an instrument measures what it is supposed to measure. Personality psychologists are primarily concerned with two types of validity—construct validity and predictive validity. Construct validity is the extent to which an instrument measures some hypothetical construct. Constructs such as extraversion, aggressiveness, intelligence, and emotional stability have no physical existence; they are hypothetical constructs that should relate to observable behavior. Three important types of construct validity are convergent validity, divergent validity, and discriminant validity. A measuring instrument has convergent construct validity to the extent that scores on that instrument correlate highly (converge) with scores on a variety of valid measures of that same construct.

A second dimension of validity is predictive validity, or the extent that a test predicts some future behavior.

Subpages (1): Behavioral Theories