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Date posted: November 30, 2011

There have been a number of theories how personality develops. Theories developed by Erikson, Freud, Kohler and others.

Psychosocial Theories of Personality
Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development
Psychosocial Development

One of the best-known theories of personality in psychology.

According to this theory personality develops in a series of stages. This theory also describes the impact of social experience across the whole lifespan.

One of the main elements of this theory is the development of ego identity.

Ego identity is the conscious sense of self that one develops through social interaction. According to Erikson, ego identity is constantly changing due to new experience and information acquired in daily interactions with others. In addition to ego identity, a sense of competence also motivates behaviors and actions. Each stage is concerned with becoming competent in an area of life. If the stage is handled well, the person will feel a sense of mastery, which he sometimes referred to as ego strength or ego quality.  If the stage is managed poorly, the person will emerge with a sense of inadequacy.

In each stage, people experience a conflict that serves as a turning point in development. In Erikson’s view, these conflicts are centered on either developing a psychological quality or failing to develop that quality. During these times, the potential for personal growth is high, but so is the potential for failure.

Psychosocial Stage 1 – Trust vs. Mistrust

  • The first stage of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development occurs between birth and one year of age and is the most fundamental stage in life.
  • Because an infant is utterly dependent, the development of trust is based on the dependability and quality of the child’s caregivers.
  • If a child successfully develops trust, he or she will feel safe and secure in the world. Caregivers who are inconsistent, emotionally unavailable, or rejecting contribute to feelings of mistrust in the children they care for. Failure to develop trust will result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable. 

Psychosocial Stage 2 – Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

  • The second stage of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development takes place during early childhood and is focused on children developing a greater sense of personal control.
  • Erikson believed that toilet training was a vital part of this process. Erikson believe that learning to control one’s body functions leads to a feeling of control and a sense of independence.
  • Other important events include gaining more control over food choices, toy preferences, and clothing selection.
  • Children who successfully complete this stage feel secure and confident, while those who do not are left with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.

Psychosocial Stage 3 – Initiative vs. Guilt
During the preschool years, children begin to assert their power and control over the world through directing play and other social interaction.

Children who are successful at this stage feel capable and able to lead others. Those who fail to acquire these skills are left with a sense of guilt, self-doubt and lack of initiative.

Psychosocial Stage 4 – Industry vs. Inferiority

  • This stage covers the early school years from approximately age 5 to 11.
  • Through social interactions, children begin to develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments and abilities.
  • Children who are encouraged and commended by parents and teachers develop a feeling of competence and belief in their skills. Those who receive little or no encouragement from parents, teachers or peers will doubt their ability to be successful.

Psychosocial Stage 5 – Identity vs. Confusion

  • During adolescence, children are exploring their independence and developing a sense of self.
  • Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control. Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will insecure and confused about themselves and the future.

Psychosocial Stage 6 – Intimacy vs. Isolation

  • This stage covers the period of early adulthood when people are exploring personal relationships.
  • Erikson believed it was vital that people develop close, committed relationships with other people. Those who are successful at this step will develop relationships that are committed and secure.
  • Remember that each step builds on skills learned in previous steps. Erikson believed that a strong sense of personal identity was important to developing intimate relationships. Studies have demonstrated that those with a poor sense of self tend to have less committed relationships and are more likely to suffer emotional isolation, loneliness, and depression.

Psychosocial Stage 7 – Generativity vs. Stagnation

  • During adulthood, we continue to build our lives, focusing on our career and family.
  • Those who are successful during this phase will feel that they are contributing to the world by being active in their home and community. Those who fail to attain this skill will feel unproductive and uninvolved in the world.

Psychosocial Stage 8 – Integrity vs. Despair

  • This phase occurs during old age and is focused on reflecting back on life.
  • Those who are unsuccessful during this phase will feel that their life has been wasted and will experience many regrets. The individual will be left with feelings of bitterness and despair.
  • Those who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. Successfully completing this phase means looking back with few regrets and a general feeling of satisfaction. These individuals will attain wisdom, even when confronting death.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages Summary Chart Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

Stage Basic Conflict Important Events Outcome
Infancy (birth to 18 months) Trust vs. Mistrust Feeding Children develop a sense of trust when caregivers provide reliabilty, care, and affection. A lack of this will lead to mistrust.
Early Childhood (2 to 3 years) Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt Toilet Training Children need to develop a sense of personal control over physical skills and a sense of independence. Success leads to feelings of autonomy, failure results in feelings of shame and doubt.
Preschool (3 to 5 years) Initiative vs. Guilt Exploration Children need to begin asserting control and power over the environment. Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose. Children who try to exert too much power experience disapproval, resulting in a sense of guilt.
School Age (6 to 11 years) Industry vs. Inferiority School Children need to cope with new social and academic demands. Success leads to a sense of competence, while failure results in feelings of inferiority.
Adolescence (12 to 18 years) Identity vs. Role Confusion Social Relationships Teens needs to develop a sense of self and personal identity. Success leads to an ability to stay true to yourself, while failure leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self.
Yound Adulthood (19 to 40 years) Intimacy vs. Isolation Relationships Young adults need to form intimate, loving relationships with other people. Success leads to strong relationships, while failure results in loneliness and isolation.
Middle Adulthood (40 to 65 years) Generativity vs. Stagnation Work and Parenthood Adults need to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by having children or creating a positive change that benefits other people. Success leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world.
Maturity(65 to death) Ego Integrity vs. Despair Reflection on Life Older adults need to look back on life and feel a sense of fulfillment. Success at this stage leads to feelings of wisdom, while failure results in regret, bitterness, and despair.

Psychoanalytic Theories of Personality

Includes  theories by Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud.

The Conscious and Unconscious Mind

The psychoanalytic view holds that there are inner forces outside of your awareness that are directing your behavior.

According to Freud, the mind can be divided into two main parts:

  1. The conscious mind includes everything that we are aware of. This is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about rationally. A part of this includes our memory, which is not always part of consciousness but can be retrieved easily at any time and brought into our awareness. Freud called this ordinary memory the preconscious.
  2. The unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences.

The Id, Ego and Superego

The Structural Model of Personality
According to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, personality is composed of three elements. These three elements of personality–known as the id, the ego and the superego–work together to create complex human behaviors.

The Id
The id is the only component of personality present from birth.

This aspect of personality is entirely unconscious and includes of the instinctive and primitive behaviors. According to Freud, the id is the source of all psychic energy, making it the primary component of personality.

The id is driven by the pleasure principle (In Freud’;s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the pleasure principle is the driving force of the id that seeks immediate gratification of all needs, wants, and urges. In other words, the pleasure principle strives to fulfill our most basic and primitive urges, including hunger, thirst, anger, and sex. When these needs are not met, the result is a state of anxiety or tension.) , which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state anxiety or tension. For example, an increase in hunger or thirst should produce an immediate attempt to eat or drink. The id is very important early in life, because it ensures that an infant’s needs are met. If the infant is hungry or uncomfortable, he or she will cry until the demands of the id are met.

However, immediately satisfying these needs is not always realistic or even possible. If we were ruled entirely by the pleasure principle, we might find ourselves grabbing things we want out of other people’s hands to satisfy our own cravings. This sort of behavior would be both disruptive and socially unacceptable. According to Freud, the id tries to resolve the tension created by the pleasure principle through the primary process (In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the primary process works to resolve tension created by the pleasure principle. Rather than act on dangerous or unacceptable urges, the id forms a mental image of a desired object to substitute for an urge in order to diffuse tension and anxiety.), which involves forming a mental image of the desired object as a way of satisfying the need.

The Ego
The ego is the component of personality that is responsible for dealing with reality. According to Freud, the ego develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world. The ego functions in both the conscious(the conscience is the part of the superego that includes information about things that are viewed as bad by parents and society. These behaviors are often forbidden and lead to bad consequences, punishments, or feelings of guilt and remorse.), preconscious(the preconscious mind is part of the conscious mind and includes our memory. These memories are not conscious, but we can retrieve them to conscious awareness at any time.), and unconscious(the unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences.) mind.

The ego operates based on the reality principle(it strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The reality principle weighs the costs and benefits of an action before deciding to act upon or abandon an impulse.), which strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The reality principle weighs the costs and benefits of an action before deciding to act upon or abandon impulses. In many cases, the id’s impulses can be satisfied through a process of delayed gratification–the ego will eventually allow the behavior, but only in the appropriate time and place.

The ego also discharges tension created by unmet impulses through the secondary process(it discharges the tension between the ego and the id that is caused by unmet urges or needs. The secondary process functions through the ego’s action of looking for an object in the real world that matches the mental image created by the id’s primary process.), in which the ego tries to find an object in the real world that matches the mental image created by the id’s primary process.

The Superego
The last component of personality to develop is the superego. The superego is the aspect of personality that holds all of our internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from both parents and society–our sense of right and wrong. The superego provides guidelines for making judgments. According to Freud, the superego begins to emerge at around age five.

There are two parts of the superego:

  1. The ego ideal  includes the rules and standards for good behaviors. These behaviors include those that are approved of by parental and other authority figures. Obeying these rules leads to feelings of pride, value, and accomplishment
  2. The conscience includes information about things that are viewed as bad by parents and society. These behaviors are often forbidden and lead to bad consequences, punishments, or feelings of guilt and remorse.

The superego acts to perfect and civilize our behavior. It works to suppress all unacceptable urges of the id and struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards rather that upon realistic principles. The superego is present in the conscious, preconscious and unconscious.

The Interaction of the Id, Ego and Superego
With so many competing forces, it is easy to see how conflict might arise between the id, ego and superego. Freud used the term ego strength (is the ability of the ego to effectively deal with the demands of the id, the superego, and reality. Those with little ego strength may feel torn between these competing demands, while those with too much ego strength can become too unyielding and rigid. Ego strength helps us maintain emotional stability and cope with internal and external stress.)to refer to the ego’s ability to function despite these dueling forces. A person with good ego strength is able to effectively manage these pressures, while those with too much or too little ego strength can become too unyielding or too disrupting.

According to Freud, the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the id, the ego, and the superego.

Trait Theory of Personality
The trait theory suggests that individual personalities are composed broad dispositions. A trait can be thought of as a relatively stable characteristic that causes individuals to behave in certain ways.

The trait approach to personality is focused on differences between individuals. The combination and interaction of various traits forms a personality that is unique to each individual. Trait theory is focused on identifying and measuring these individual personality characteristics.

Gordon Allport’s Trait Theory
In 1936, psychologist Gordon Allport found that one English-language dictionary alone contained more than 4,000 words describing different personality traits. He categorized these traits into three levels:

  • Cardinal Traits: Traits that dominate an individual’s whole life, often to the point that the person becomes known specifically for these traits. People with such personalities often become so known for these traits that their names are often synonymous with these qualities. Allport suggested that cardinal traits are rare and tend to develop later in life.
  • Central Traits: These are the general characteristics that form the basic foundations of personality. These central traits, while not as dominating as cardinal traits, are the major characteristics you might use to describe another person. Terms such as intelligent, honest, shy and anxious are considered central traits.
  • Secondary Traits: These are the traits that are sometimes related to attitudes or preferences and often appear only in certain situations or under specific circumstances. Some examples would be getting anxious when speaking to a group or impatient while waiting in line. 

Raymond Cattell’s Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire
Raymond Cattell reduced the number of main personality traits from Allport’s initial list of over 4,000 down to 171, mostly by eliminating uncommon traits and combining common characteristics. According to Cattell, these 16 traits are the source of all human personality. He also developed one of the most widely used personality assessments known as the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF). 

Eysenck’s Three Dimensions of Personality
British psychologist Hans Eysenck developed a model of personality based upon just three universal trails:

  1. Introversion/Extraversion:
    Introversion involves directing attention on inner experiences, while extraversion relates to focusing attention outward on other people and the environment. So, a person high in introversion might be quiet and reserved, while an individual high in extraversion might be sociable and outgoing.
  2. Neuroticism/Emotional Stability:
    This dimension of Eysenck’s trait theory is related to moodiness versus even-temperedness. Neuroticism refers to an individual’s tendency to become upset or emotional, while stability refers to the tendency to remain emotionally constant.
  3. Psychoticism:
    Later, after studying individuals suffering from mental illness, Eysenck added a personality dimension he called psychoticism to his trait theory. Individuals who are high on this trait tend to have difficulty dealing with reality and may be antisocial, hostile, non-empathetic and manipulative. 

The Five-Factor Theory of Personality
Unlike Cattell Eysenck focused on too few traits. As a result, a new trait theory often referred to as the “Big Five” theory emerged. This five-factor model of personality represents five core traits that interact to form human personality.

  1. Extraversion
  2. Agreeableness
  3. Conscientiousness
  4. Neuroticism
  5. Openness

Assessing the Trait Approach to Personality
While most agree that people can be described based upon their personality traits, theorists continue to debate the number of basic traits that make up human personality. While trait theory has objectivity that some personality theories lack (such as Freud’s psychoanalytic theory), it also has weaknesses. Some of the most common criticisms of trait theory center on the fact that traits are often poor predictors of behavior. While an individual may score high on assessments of a specific trait, he or she may not always behave that way in every situation. Another problem is that trait theories do not address how or why individual differences in personality develop or emerge.

Five-factor model of personality

The “Big Five” Personality Dimensions
Personality researchers have proposed that there are five basic dimensions of personality. Evidence of this theory has been growing over the past 50 years, beginning with the research of D. W. Fiske (1949) and later expanded upon by other researchers including Norman (1967), Smith (1967), Goldberg (1981), and McCrae & Costa (1987).

The “big five” are broad categories of personality traits. While there is a significant body of literature supporting this five-factor model of personality, researchers don’t always agree on the exact labels for each dimension. However, these five categories are usually described as follows:

  1. Extraversion: This trait includes characteristics such as excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and high amounts of emotional expressiveness.
  2. Agreeableness: This personality dimension includes attributes such as trust, altruism, kindness, affection, and other prosocial behaviors.
  3. Conscientiousness: Common features of this dimension include high levels of thoughtfulness, with good impulse control and goal-directed behaviors. Those high in conscientiousness tend to be organized and mindful of details.
  4. Neuroticism: Individuals high in this trait tend to experience emotional instability, anxiety, moodiness, irritability, and sadness.
  5. Openness: This trait features characteristics such as imagination and insight, and those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.

These dimensions represent broad areas of personality. Research has demonstrated that these groupings of characteristics tend to occur together in many people. For example, individuals who are sociable tend to be talkative. However, these traits do not always occur together. Personality is a complex and varied and each person may display behaviors across several of these dimensions.

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