Personality Theories, Concepts and Applications

Introduction

Personality is defined as a dynamic system comprised of a set of characteristics possessed by a person. The said set is shaped by various psychological forces and influences an individual’s perception of reality as well as their emotions, behaviors, and cognition. As a subfield, personality theory has a long history dating back to the 19th century. With time, the branch has become diversified, which led to the emergence of various schools of thought. Scientific advancements have also made a tangible contribution to the development of personality psychology, helping to transition from speculations to more objective methods of investigation. This paper seeks to present key concepts from behavioral, interpersonal, and self-psychology theories of personality. Apart from that, the paper explains their validity for assessment and career coaching as well as provides an insight into their relevance for my own life.

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Major Personality Theory Concepts

Behavioral Personality Psychology: Social Learning

Social learning is a concept describing the process of learning social and individual norms through observation and repetition (Bandura, 2014). The concept was put forward by psychologist Alfred Bandura in the 1970s. The researcher drew his theory on the previous findings made by behaviorists, such as classical and operant conditioning. While Bandura agreed with behaviorists to a large extent, he added two more important ideas that transformed how social learning is viewed today. First, he negated the notion of a linear relationship between stimuli and responses, which is the foundation of classical conditioning. Instead, according to Bandura, responses were shaped by certain mediating processes within the “black box” of the human psyche. Second, the psychologist argued that behavior is learned from the environment as a result of the process called “observational learning.”

Bandura (2014) defined the three main stages of social learning, the onset of which starts in early childhood. At first, a child observes so-called models or examples – obviously their parents and other close relatives but also peers and public personalities. A young child cannot yet apply critical thinking to what they see, so they “absorb” without discrimination. After some time, children start imitating the behavior of those who they observe. At this stage, they learn pretty quickly that some actions are rewarded by society while others are seen as non-acceptable. Typically, parents show children how well their behavior fits the norm through punishment or appraisal. Thus, according to Bandura, social conditioning occurs through constant reinforcement. However, the third stage is characterized by the development of individuality in a person. Former children start critically evaluating the behaviors of others, especially given that now they have had enough time to see the consequences of other people’s choices. This implies that Bandura’s concept is not exactly determinist in its nature as it allows for the reinvention of the self.

Like any other theory, Bandura’s concept of social learning has its own set of limitations. For instance, it is criticized for being too loosely structured as it does not offer any kind of unifying principle or pattern. Besides, social learning might be ignoring the biological reality and strictly hormonal responses to stimuli. However, for all its shortcomings, Bandura’s theory has proven to be valid and applicable in many fields. It is evidence-based: the famous Bobo doll experiment showed the mechanisms of aggression in children. As of now, the concept of social learning is applied both in education and the workplace.

Interpersonal Psychology: Self-System

Self-system is one of the fundamental concepts put forward by Harry Stack Sullivan, the father of interpersonal psychology. Sullivan defined so-called dynamisms – traits are characteristics that are not constant but volatile and involved in vigorous activities. According to the researcher, many elements of the human psyche could be presented as dynamism, with the self-system being the most complex and inclusive of all of them. Sullivan defined self-system as a system comprised of consistent behaviors (Stern, Mann, Kantor, & Schlesinger, 2015). The main objective of a healthy self-system is to ensure people’s interpersonal security and protect them from anxiety. The latter was seen by Sullivan as a kind of intra- and interpersonal tension. As opposed to a need, anxiety was considered a vague sensation with no concrete direction. A need would make a person take action, while in the case of anxiety, he or she would merely reel in the feeling of uneasiness. Sullivan argued that each functional self-system had a built-in warning mechanism that would monitor the level of anxiety in a person.

A self-system starts to develop in early childhood and comes to be as a person matures. He or she builds a consistent image of the self and, at the same time, decides what their fears and desires are. The older a person becomes, the more rigid and static the self-system grows. Thus, as stated by Sullivan, having a well-organized system is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, if anxiety surpasses the threshold, the system will save a person from engaging in a potentially dangerous activity. On the other hand, many activities with a delayed gratification or not obvious benefits are downright stress-inducing. For instance, opening oneself up to new opportunities such as seeking employment in another field can and does usually make people stressed. Yet, ignoring an opportunity outside one’s comfort zone may mean stagnancy and poor long-term results.

It is abundantly easy to see how a self-system can impede a person’s development. What makes Sullivan’s concept especially relevant is that its author has described typical defense mechanisms and ways to overcome them. The first defense mechanism is dissociation – a usually unconscious activity during which a person refuses to allow something into awareness. These impulses and desires, however, do not simply vanish: they manifest themselves in a person’s fantasies, dreams, and daydreams. Bringing them to one’s attention may help a person understand his or her “hidden” layers of the psyche and reconnect with them. The second defense mechanism is selective inattention, when a person purposefully ignores a particular piece of information. Usually, the reason for that is the information’s potential to undermine a person’s system of beliefs and self-beliefs.

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Self-Psychology: Transference

One of the characteristics of the self-system is its ability to extrapolate beliefs onto other individuals. In the field of self-psychology, there is a concept that describes a similar phenomenon – transference. The origins of the concept date back to Freud and Jung, who founded the school of psychoanalysis. Nowadays, transference is recognized and watched out for by practicing psychologists since it can both impede and advance the process of therapy. In broad terms, transference can be defined as a projection of a person’s own feelings and emotions onto his or her therapist, given that the therapist did not trigger these feelings and emotions directly (Racker, 2018). The most frequently mentioned example of transference is an infatuation with one’s own therapist, including romantic feelings or sexual attraction. However, transference is not limited to them and may also entail rage, anger, and resentment. Binding two concepts together, one may assume that transference is the manifestation of a person’s suppressed emotions past defense mechanisms.

The notion of transference is practically relevant and valuable because it can be used by a therapist for a client’s benefit. Admittedly, at times, transference disrupts a session if a client’s negative emotions are so overwhelming that he or she withdraws from the process altogether. However, a good therapist can use these occasions to address a client’s real issues that he or she might not have spoken about yet. Thus, transference gives valuable clues about a patient’s subconscious. Another example of good use of transference is when it is positive. If, for any reason, a client associates their therapists with feelings of security, joy, and happiness, the therapist can build a better rapport.

The Roles of Heredity and Environment

Today, psychology acknowledges that a variety of factors shape a person’s individuality. While each school of thought emphasizes a particular aspect, none of them is more important than the others. I think that biological psychology is often misunderstood because it appears to be too deterministic in nature. However, this field has promising prospects in answering many of the puzzling questions about human behavior. Biological factors should be taken into account when investigating such mental illnesses as depression or bipolar affective disorder. It has now been established that people who have close relatives suffering from these disorders are at risk of developing them themselves. Apart from anomalies, biology explains such natural phenomena as introversion and extroversion. Recent research has shown that introverts and extroverts are different at the neurological level, which I guess might serve as a relief to those who could not accept certain traits in themselves.

All points are taken into consideration, the nurture part of the nature vs. nurture debate cannot be ignored either. For instance, Monroe, Slavich, and Katholiki (2014) describe the mechanism behind the onset of depression. The researchers state that while bad life events make all people stressed, only some of them develop clinical depression. It is true that every person has natural propensities, but some of them stay silent throughout their life while others are triggered by external factors.

Assessment in Personality Theory

As of now, there is plenty of personality assessment methods whose effectiveness is debatable. These methods are used not only by therapists but also by human resource developers during the employment process. Probably, the most popular personality assessment test is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Developed in the first half of the 20th century, the theory behind the test draws on Jung’s concepts of extraversion, introversion, sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling (Emre, 2018). Myers and Briggs created a system of 16 personality types that are essentially combinations of Jung’s concepts. Some other assessment methods are pretty similar to the one developed by Myers and Briggs. The Big Five test, which is popular with many industries in North America, entails five pairs of characteristics that are the opposites of each other. Based on what side of the spectrum a person is closer to, he or she is assigned a particular trait (Sampaio, Soares, Coutinho, Sousa, & Gonçalves, 2014). Lastly, Keirsey’s temperament sorter simplifies the system created by Myers and Briggs by defining four key groups of personalities: idealists, guardians, artisans, and rationals. It is argued that based on temperament, it is possible to pinpoint a person’s professional leanings and help them choose an appropriate career path.

Personal Applications

During this course, I found that the social learning model best describes my life experiences. I think that I can identify all three stages described by Bandura, even though I may not remember many childhood events. I believe that since birth, I was ingrained with a particular set of beliefs characteristic of the older generation. I cannot say that my parents were particularly stern; however, they would always toe the line and follow the rules to the T, even if they did not make much practical sense.

As a child, I would sometimes be unruly and try to push the limits. For that, I would often be told off, which reinforced the idea of authority that could not be questioned. Thus, after encoding others’ behaviors, I started doing what they were doing, i.e., reproducing social norms. However, now that I am more mature, I can tell a sensical rule from a nonsensical one. I feel like I have grown so much as a person: I can think independently and take control of my own life. Surely, I am not completely free of social conditioning, yet, I am self-reflective enough to stop myself from doing something entirely out of societal pressure.

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Career Applications

Personality psychology is used in career coaching for a good reason. Now that the world offers so many opportunities, people often feel lost or at a crossroads, unsure about what career path to pursue. If previously, career development was pretty much linear and predictable, today, many people consider branching out or changing fields. I am convinced that the right application of personality psychology can help me and other people to find their calling. For me, self-exploration was a valuable tool to discover my real “why.” Obviously, employment is a means of survival as it provides us with the necessary resources to meet our most basic needs. Still, there are higher planes that a person can reach once they have figured out their leanings and become honest about their intentions.

Psychology attracts people of different worldviews, life paths, and personalities. I think personality theory has helped me to figure out why exactly I am drawn to this field. I guess the assessment method that has been the most eye-opening in this regard is Keirsey’s temperament sorter. According to the test, I am an idealist who values people and ideas. It seems consistent with my views on modern psychology: I am convinced that it should follow a greater goal and serve humanity. Now that I have figured out my “why,” I hope to be more purposeful in my pursuit of knowledge and mastery.

Conclusion

Personality psychology is a subfield of psychology that explores personality and its variation in individuals. The main objective of this branch is to show how different people’s personalities are due to a variety of factors such as genetics, upbringing, and environment. The areas of focus within personality psychology include the creation of a coherent picture of an individual’s psyche and a description of their major psychological processes. Some theories within the subfield pay more regard to investigate psychological differences, while others seek to define similarities between individuals. The concepts that stood out the most to me during this course are self-system, transference, and social learning. I identify the most with the concept of social learning as I can locate all the stages described by Bandura in my own life. Personality assessment methods were quite compelling – I found them applicable to career coaching and development, my own included.

References

Bandura, A. (2014). Social cognitive theory of moral thought and action. In Handbook of moral behavior and development (pp. 69-128). Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Psychology Press.

Emre, M. (2018). The personality brokers: The strange history of Myers-Briggs and the birth of personality testing. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Monroe, S. M., Slavich, G. M., & Georgiades, K. (2014). The social environment and depression: The roles of life stress. In I. H. Gotlib & C. L. Hammen (Eds.), Handbook of depression (pp. 296-314). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Racker, H. (2018). Transference and countertransference. Routledge.

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Sampaio, A., Soares, J. M., Coutinho, J., Sousa, N., & Gonçalves, Ó. F. (2014). The Big Five default brain: functional evidence. Brain Structure and Function, 219(6), 1913-1922.

Stern, D. B., Mann, C., Kantor, S., & Schlesinger, G. (2015). Pioneers of interpersonal psychoanalysis. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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