Introduction to Personality Theory

Overview of Personality Theory

         From the investigations of Freud during the last decade of the 19th century until the present time, a number of personality theorists have (1) made controlled observations of human behavior and (2) speculated on the meaning of those observations.  Differences in the theories of these men and women are due to more than differences in terminology.  They stem from differences on basic issues concerning the nature of humanity.

What Is Personality?

         The term personality comes from the Latin word persona, meaning the mask people wear or the role they play in life.  However, most psychologists use the term to refer to much more than the face or facade people show to others. Personality can be defined as a pattern of relatively permanent traits and unique characteristics that give both consistency and individuality to human behavior

What is a Theory?

         The term theory is often used quite loosely and incorrectly to imply something other than a useful scientific concept.  Theories are used by scientists to generate research and organize observations.

Theory Defined: A theory is a set of related assumptions that allow scientists to use logical deductive reasoning to formulate testable hypotheses

Theory and Its Relatives :          People often confuse theory with philosophy, speculation, hypothesis, or taxonomy.  Although theory is related to each of these concepts, it is not synonymous with any of them.  Philosophy—the love of wisdom—is a broader term than theory, but one branch of philosophy—epistemology—relates to the nature of knowledge, and theories are used by scientists in pursuit of knowledge.  Theories rely on speculation, but speculation must be based on the controlled observations of scientists.  Science is the branch of study concerned with observation and classification of data and with the verification of general laws.  Theories are practical tools used by scientists to guide research.  A theory is more general than a hypothesis and may generate a multitude of hypotheses, that is, educated guesses.  A taxonomy is a classification system, and classification is necessary to science.  Taxonomies, however, do not generate hypotheses—a necessary criterion of a useful theory.

Why Different Theories?

         Psychologists and other scientists have developed a variety of personality theories because they have differed in their personal background, their philosophical orientation, and the data they chose to observe.  In addition, theories permit individual interpretation of the same observations, and each theorist has had his or her own way of looking at things.

Theorists’ Personalities and Their Theories of Personality

         Because personality theories evolve from a theorist’s personality, psychologists interested in the psychology of science have begun to study the personal traits of leading personality theorists and their possible impact on their scientific theories and research.

What Makes a Theory Useful?

         A useful theory (1) generates research, both descriptive and hypothesis testing; (2) is falsifiable; that is, it must generate research that can either confirm or disconfirm its major tenets;  (3) organizes and explains data into some intelligible framework; (4) guides action; that is, it provides the practitioner with a road map for making day-to-day decisions; (5) is internally consistent and relies on operational definitions that define concepts in terms of specific operations; and (6) is parsimonious, or simple.

Dimensions for a Concept of Humanity

         Personality theorists have had different conceptions of human nature, and the authors of Theories of Personality use six dimensions for comparing these conceptions. The dimensions include: determinism versus free choice, pessimism versus optimism, causality versus teleology, conscious versus unconscious determinants of behavior, biological versus social influences on personality, and uniqueness versus similarities among people.

Research in Personality Theory

         Personality theories, like other theories, are based on systematic research that allows for the prediction of events. In researching human behavior, personality theorists often use various measuring procedures, which must be both reliable and valid.  Reliability refers to a measuring instrument’s consistency and includes test-retest reliability and internal consistency.  Validity refers to the accuracy or truthfulness of test and includes predictive validity and construct validity.


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