There are five general perspectives, or schools of thought, on personality: psychodynamic, trait, life-span, social learning/behavioral, and humanistic/existential. Summary explanations are provided here regarding each of the five perspectives. Psychodynamic is used here as a blanket term to include any theory that stresses the role of the unconscious in analyzing personality. Generally, the major focus of such theories is on emotions and psychological conflict.
The psychoanalytic theories of Freud and the analytical theories of Carl Jung through the neo-psychoanalytic, including social- and individual psychological theories, respectively, within the works of Karen Honey and Alfred Adler, are included in this category. According to psychoanalytic theories, unconscious thoughts from time to time threaten to overcome the effort to restrain them. When repression cannot be maintained, defense mechanisms arise. Examples of defense mechanisms include repression, reaction, sublimation, projection, regression, rationalization, displacement, fantasy formation, denial, and introjection.
Sometimes the temporary (non-neurotic and non-psychotic) use of a defense mechanism is appropriate to the circumstances or necessary to resolve a source of anxiety, at least temporarily. Adler’s principle that human beings know more than they understand is philosophically similar to Jung’s approach discussed below. According to Adler, self-realization is the primary goal in life. The trait approach to personality classifies people in terms of the levels of characteristics they possess. Trait theorists generally believe that everyone possesses all traits but that each is exhibited in individuals in varying degrees from very low to very high.
The trait theory most commonly referred to in current literature is the Big Five. Many trait theorists refer to three aspects of behavior as temperaments—activity level, mood or sociability, and emotional responsiveness. Those three temperaments are said to be the key elements of extraversion and neuroticism. Advocates of the Big Five model attempt to classify all major sources of individual differences. Temperaments are said to be primarily biologically determined and related to pre-conceptual learning tasks.
Character dimensions are thought to develop in adulthood and relate to conceptual learning. Situationist trait theorists are in philosophical accord with social learning theorists who say, for example, that one individual may be each and all of hostile, independent, dependent, passive, aggressive, warm, and otherwise. The characteristic or trait exhibited at any particular point in time is not random but dependent on stimuli. Although other theorists, some mentioned above, view personality development as a life-long affair, Erich Erikson is typically categorized as a key life-span theorist.
He argues an epigenetic principle—that each stage of development is governed by genetic factors but that whether or not development occurs depends upon environmental influence. He views personality development as a series of crises forcing change. The cognitive/social learning approach to the study of personality recognizes the importance of thoughts and perceptions. The cognitive approach focuses on the ways in which people know their environment and themselves. It is concerned with understanding how people perceive, learn, think, make decisions, and solve problems.
The pure cognitive approach seeks to explain all aspects of personality in terms of cognitive processes. These theories also hold that behavior, or the outward demonstration of personality, is goal-directed toward self-enhancement pursuant to the individual’s perceptions. Emotions facilitate behavior. Perceptions and behavior are consonant with the individual’s self-concept. Gordon Allport (originally in the trait theory category) is often classified with the humanist school, because his approach is eclectic and deals with the whole person as a unique individual.
The humanistic/existential perspective of personality is distinguished by a major focus on personal meaning. The approach stresses the spiritual dimension of personality with attention to the individual’s assessment of meaning and purpose of life. From a humanistic point of view, psychoanalytic theory and behavioral theory present a limited and demeaning image of human nature. Humanists stress that each individual actively constructs a personality rather than being subject to unconscious effects of genetics or the past.