Various theories of personality advance different explanations of individual differences. In doing so, most theorists invoke three fundamental distinctions: genetic versus environmental influences, conscious versus unconscious behavior, and free will versus determinism. Falling in different places of the spectrum, most theorists were able to develop their unique theories that provide additional insights into human psychology.
Speaking of the genetic-environmental distinction (also known as “nature versus nurture”), behaviorism is the school that most emphasized the impact of the environment. This school represented, for instance, by B. F. Skinner and Hans Eysenck, emphasized behavior, not internal thoughts, and expressed the belief that “the sources of behavior are external (in the environment), not internal (in mind)” (Graham, 2005). Studying the social behavior of humans, Skinner even went as far as reject the impact human make on their environment, preferring to see this connection in the opposite way: as environment shaping the humans. In one of his books, Skinner argued that “it is like an experimental analysis of human behavior that it should strip away the functions previously assigned to autonomous man and transfer them one by one to the controlling environment” (Graham, 2005).
The opposing viewpoint is behavior genetics that is grounded in the belief that genes heavily influence behavior, and therefore causes for behavior should be analyzed relying on a person’s ancestral background. The first scientist who posted this link was Sir Francis Galton who studies this link even before the term ‘genetics’ appeared. Behavioral geneticists believe that behaviors can be reproduced over generations, citing as examples history of mental illness or criminal behavior. My viewpoint is human personality a combination of both nature and nurture. Although one force can take precedence in individual cases (for instance, when a childhood trauma shapes the subsequent behavior patterns), in most cases both will prove essential to analyze.
When it comes to conscious versus unconscious behavior, undoubtedly the best-known school relying on the analysis of unconscious behavior was the psychoanalytic theory stemming from Sigmund Freud. This theorist believed that most critical inner drives of human personality arise from subconscious impulses, often underpinned by sexual desire. This unconscious behavior, according to psychoanalytic theory, surfaces in various impulsive actions that humans do not always understand and interpret correctly, as well as dreams.
On the contrary, behaviorism concentrated on the study of conscious behavior, negating the need to consider internal thoughts and behaviors that were often difficult to analyze and interpret. Thus, these psychologists believed that “behavior can be described and explained without referring to mental events or internal psychological processes” (Graham, 2005). They wanted to study human behavior with methods used by the Russian scholar Ivan Pavlov in his experiments. My perspective is that a successful study will combine the investigation of conscious and unconscious behavior since both of them have to impact on our actions. Naturally, it is easier to study observable intentional behavior, but one should also attempt to explain the subconscious drives.
Finally, in the free will versus determinism, Victor Frankl, who developed his theory after surviving Nazi camps, stands out as one who “believed that the outstanding feature of human beings is their free will” (Butler-Bowdon, n.d.). Frankl developed an approach called logotherapy that emphasizes the so-called “will to meaning” to complement ‘will to pleasure’ developed by psychoanalytic theory and ‘will to power’ professed by Adler. According to Frankl, human effort to become useful to society does matter in determining human actions.
For determinists, in contrast, every human effort is pre-determined by social or biological causes. Examples can be Freudian psychoanalysis that puts human behavior in dependence on physiological factors such as suppressed sexual urges. Karl Marx, in contrast, defines social behavior regarding socioeconomic forces such as class.
In my opinion, the study of free human will have to take precedence before determinism since the mission of psychology is not only to explain human personality, but also to find ways to make human life better. Empowerment of people to handle their lives with more responsibility is therefore very important, although factors determining behaviors other than free will cannot be discounted either.
Thus, psychologists tend to analyze human behavior regarding three fundamental distinctions. However, most significant theorists have found their places on the spectrum, arguing for their positions using factual evidence. The debate between various schools with different perspectives helps researchers to evaluate personality from different viewpoints and arrive at a more thorough understanding of multiple factors.
Brainmeta. (2006, April 12). Personality Theories. Retrieved April 15, 2006, from http://brainmeta.com/personality/
Butler-Bowdon. (n.d.). Man’s Search For Meaning (1959) Viktor E Frankl. Retrieved April 15, 2006, from http://www.butler-bowdon.com/manssearch.htm
Graham, G. (2005). Behaviorism. Retrieved April 15, 2006, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy site at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/behaviorism/
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