Some time ago, my study buddies and I were discussing the diverse nature of psychology as a discipline. Before beginning formal study, many of us had a preconception of psychology as particularly concerning the study of the individual psyche. Despite our course having the quality of an exciting odyssey taking us from the depths of the unconscious through to the crisp peaks of statistical analysis, many of us still thought of ‘real’ psychology as that which focused on us as individual beings. Perhaps this is because each of us cherishes our personal foibles. Bearing this in mind, we may feel less comfortable with approaches which seem to undermine this.
Central to the idea of each of us being unique and special is the concept of personality. It’s almost a universal truth that each of us has a distinct and different personality. We occasionally even say that some people have more of it than others. Used in this lay fashion, the idea of personality seems to make a lot of sense. Clearly, some of us are quiet, some of us loud, some humourous, some brave and so on. It seems to me that the idea of ‘character’ is quite similar to that of personality, as in, “Oooh, that Amy Winehouse is a real character.” When I was at school, the term character also had a particular overtone. It tended to mean something like moral fibre, the ability to withstand difficult circumstances. All fine so far. But what do scientifically trained psychologists mean by personality?
Well, as I recall, the 21st century scientific notion of personality is not so different from the lay one. It is more differentiated, in that personality is thought of as being composed of separate traits (how many there are depends on which theorist one consults). These traits are held to be relatively stable over time and in different situations. They can also be measured using a range of specialized statistical techniques. So, while it isn’t really possible in this model for one individual to have more personality than another, it is possible for them to score less or more on the measurement of one particular aspect of their personality than the next person. To illustrate this approach, many of us have become familiar by osmosis with the late Prof Hans Eysenck’s personality scale. He conceptualized personality as consisting of a blend of characteristics along three axes: introverson-extraversion, neuroticism-stability, and psychoticism.
Freud did not view personality in this way. His work was unscientific in that it was based on case studies rather than the objective evaluation of large numbers of individuals. However, my suspicion (also wholly unscientific) is that as a neurologist, Freud did pave the way for a scientific understanding of personality. But we’ll find out more over the next couple of weeks.
I don’t feel that I can stop here without mentioning social psychology. Interestingly, social psychologists tend to attribute behaviour to circumstance rather than any inherent qualities of personality. Although there is plenty of experimental evidence to support this, I still find the notion unsettling. Are we really grasses bending in the wind of circumstance? Is stability of personality an illusion perpetuated by our unwillingness to place ourselves in a wide range of situations? Wiser people than I struggle to answer these questions. At least one bright aspect of the social psychology approach for me is that it emphasizes our common humanity.