Personality

What is personality? In a way your personality is the person you are, or appear to be – both to yourself and to other people. In other words, it is all of those things about you that make you an individual in society. If we want to try to understand personality in any depth, the waters rapidly become very muddy. Philosophers and doctors have been pondering the problem of what personality is since the beginning of civilization. The ancient Greeks used to think that people varied depending on which type of body fluid was predominant in their bodies – either black or yellow bile, blood or phlegm (mucus). Black bile caused a melancholic temperament (the word ‘melancholic’ being derived from ‘darkbiled’) and yellow bile resulted in a choleric or angry personality. The predominance of blood led to a sanguine or warm-hearted person; whereas a phlegmatic person, listless and slow, produced an excess of phlegm. A balanced personality required a balance of these body fluids, or ‘humours’. The idea that people’s personalities can be categorized or labelled has persisted from the ancient Greeks to the present day, and just about everyone (including psychologists) have their own idea of which categories are useful or ‘real’. However, it is plain to see that very few people fit squarely into one category or another – most show features of several different personality types. For example, someone might be shy and retiring – in extreme cases features of the schizoid personality – yet at the same time they might be exceptionally clean, punctilious and meticulous -features which when excessive are characteristic of the obsessional personality.

Personality traits

To try to resolve this problem the trait theory of personality has been developed. This sees people as having a certain number of measurable characteristics – for example thoughtfulness, or sociability, but each individual has a particular amount of each trait or characteristic.

One person may be very thoughtful and occasionally sociable, whereas another may be unreflective and never sociable. If many such traits are measured, each person is found to have an individual ‘personality profile’ on the whole test. Several systems for testing people in this way have been developed and they come closer to real life than the older method of putting people into ‘pigeon-holes’. Of course, there is a problem with trait theory. Who decides what traits to measure? This has led researchers into a maze of ever more complicated statistical tests to see which traits are the most important that is, which vary most from person to person. One technique, called factor analysis, depends on numerous individual responses to many varied questions (such as ‘Do you believe in life insurance?’). It correlates which responses tend to occur together in individuals (such as believing in life insurance and checking that the door is locked before you go to bed at night); and then collects all the various factors to-gether to make a single scale.

The technique of factor analysis was used principally by Professor Eysenck in 1916 to produce his model of personality and, interestingly, it looks at first sight like the system of the ancient Greeks.

Rather than putting people in one of the four categories formed by a cross, Eysenck gave each individual a score on each of the two axes of the cross. One scale is called extraversion/introversion, borrowed from the psychotherapist Carl G. Jung (1875-1961); the other scale is called stable/unstable. In brief, very sociable and outgoing people score highly on extraversion.

Very neurotic, nervous people score highly on instability. Professor Eysenck’s scale has proved very popular and many researchers throughout the world use it for all sorts of purposes, such as testing the suitability of prospective employees. It is also the basis of a theory of the organic basis of personality. But there are problems with Eysenck’s method. Second, several people have raised the question: how lasting are these personality characteristics and can they change?

The specificity theory of personality

The approaches described so far see the adult personality as fixed no matter what the situation or circumstances.

However, one school of psychology claims that the ways people behave depend on the situations they are in. For example, leadership qualities may appear in someone when he or she is placed in a familiar situation as the manager or commander, but the same person would be helpless to lead the group under novel or unfamiliar circumstances. This is 95 ‘ fw called specificity theory because its proponents believe that personality is specific to the social situation one is in at the time.

More recently some psychologists have concentrated on another idea, involving how people relate to each other, called the social skills model. This proposes that the way people interact depends on their social skill – in other words, on their ability to get what they want or need from others. This skill is made up of individual components such as the use of eye contact or body posture, and it can be learned – so it is possible to teach people to behave differently and more appropriately in certain situations. One example of the social skills model is assertiveness training, in which people who are very submissive are taught to stand up for their rights.

In fact the truth, as always, probably lies somewhere between these two ideas. Some aspects of personality are probably pre-programmed by genes, and therefore inherited, whereas others are learned; so some are unchangeable whereas others can be altered. One particularly important type of trait has been called the type A personality. If you are the sort of person who sets yourself deadlines, if you are always rushing about and you are very ambitious, then you might be described as having a type A personality. The interest in the type A personality comes from the statistical correlations that show such people have a higher than average incidence of cardiovascular disorders and other stress-related illnesses, compared to nontype A people.

The As seem to seek out stress, and they suffer the consequences. To forge a definite link between the two is not possible, however; it does not follow that if you have a type A personality you will definitely suffer from stress-related disorders. Statistically, though, your risks are slightly higher.

What makes a personality?

The setting and circumstances, the background, the personality, speech, reactions, emotions and so on must fit together, otherwise the character will seem to be incongruous and lifeless.

In real life the situation is the same. Your personality develops during childhood and adolescence, usually in a way that can be understood. There is no break in your sense of identity as a person at any point; the result is that, although you may have been a very different sort of person as a child, you still recognize that child as yourself. This is what psychologists mean by personality development. However, to understand what makes you an individual it is necessary to go right back to your genetic origins; geneticists now know that part of what makes you an individual is programmed into your genes. Nevertheless, several studies have shown the importance of the genetic endowment, as a basis on which modifications can be made by learning and experience. One way of demonstrating the genetic influence is to study pairs of identical and nonidentical twins. Identical twins have all their genes in common, while nonidentical twins share only half. Usually both types of twins are brought up in the same way, in the same family. It turns out that the personalities of identical twins are more similar to each other, whereas those of nonidentical twins are much less similar, and the only satisfactory explanation is to acknowledge that there is a genetic influence on personality. Another way is to consider people who are not twins but are brothers and sisters. They also have personalities which are £ more similar to each other than they are to unrelated people. This happens even when the siblings have been brought up separately, which removes from the calculation the influence of similarity of environment during the formative childhood years of upbringing.

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