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Contemporary Perspectives

Behavioral and Social-Cognitive Perspectives

Social learning theory emphasizes the interaction between personality, thoughts, behavior, and the environment.

Behaviorists believe personality is determined by one's learning history. Behaviorists like American psychologist B.F. Skinner believed that behavior is shaped by rewards and consequences from outside the self. People tend to increase behaviors that lead to positive consequences and decrease those that lead to negative consequences. Unlike Freud who focused on childhood events, Skinner believed that personality develops throughout life. He asserted that people's behavioral patterns would change based on changes in the environment.

Social learning theorists built on behavioral theory, emphasizing the interplay between thoughts, behavior, and the environment. In the 1970s, psychologist Albert Bandura introduced a social-cognitive theory of personality in which observational learning and cognition (thinking and reasoning) contribute to personality differences. Bandura proposed the concept of reciprocal determinism, in which behavior, the environment, and internal personal factors interact and influence one another simultaneously. For example, from birth, children differ in how they react to surprising events, such as a jack-in-the-box. One child may react with enthusiasm and move toward the toy. This will lead caregivers to provide more high-intensity surprises. Over time, this may lead to a child with an adventurous approach to life. Another child may react with fear and withdrawal. Some parents may respond by trying to prevent exposure to anything loud or new. If parents take this too far, the child will not learn how to manage fear, and may develop an avoidant personality. Other parents of fearful children may respond by coaching children through surprising situations. That will change how children think about events around them, and allow them to develop a bolder personality.

Reciprocal Determinism Model

According to reciprocal determinism, cognitive processes, behaviors, and the environment all simultaneously influence one another. For example, marital conflict (environmental) may lead to withdrawal (behavior). This withdrawal leads to sadness (cognitive) and amplifies marital problems.
Social learning theorist Julian Rotter introduced another cognitive factor thought to affect personality development. The concept of locus of control relates to beliefs about the power a person has over their own life. An external locus of control is the belief that people's outcomes are outside of their control; an internal locus of control is the belief that people control their own outcomes. People with an external locus of control assign outcomes to other people, luck, or chance. People with an internal locus of control believe most outcomes are the direct result of their own efforts. Researchers have found that people with an internal locus of control tend to be healthier, happier, more independent, and more successful at tasks than those with an external locus of control.

Humanistic Perspectives

Humanistic models of personality share an optimistic view of humanity, focusing on free will and a person's potential for growth.

Humanistic models of personality share an optimistic view of humanity, focusing on a person's potential for growth and self-actualization, a person's drive to develop their full potential. Humanistic psychologists embrace the idea of free will, supporting the notion that humans have the freedom and ability to choose their own experiences. Humanistic psychologists focus on the underlying motivations they believe drive personality: self-concept, a person's beliefs about who the self is, and self-esteem, a person's positive feelings about the self.

Abraham Maslow, one of the first humanistic theorists, constructed a hierarchy of needs first presented in a paper published in 1943. He stated that people must first meet their basic needs (physiological, safety, social) before they can achieve higher-level needs such as self-esteem and self-actualization. He introduced this hierarchy after studying how successful people like Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi achieved great levels of success and productivity. Maslow created a list of qualities most self-actualized people possess, including being creative, loving, and confident. He also reported that self-actualized people are likely to experience profound moments of tranquility (called peak experiences) and a strong sense of connection with others.

Maslow's Findings on Self-Actualized People

Self-Actualized Not Self-Actualized
Creative and spontaneous Timid and calculating
Loving of themselves and others Judgmental toward themselves and others
Private, focused on a small number of deep friendships Likely to overshare, focused on having many superficial friendships
Confident, non-conforming, secure in their own opinions Uncertain, want to conform and fit in, easily influenced by others' opinions
Express their own thoughts Agree with others

Humanistic Theorist Abraham Maslow believed that self-actualized people possess several positive characteristics that contribute to their success and happiness.

Carl Rogers is another well-known humanist of the mid-20th century. With a positive view of human nature, Rogers contended people were primarily moral and helpful toward others. He also believed a growth-promoting environment required genuineness, acceptance, and empathy. He encouraged unconditional positive regard, or an unqualified acceptance of the value of others, regardless of their actions or behaviors. People who treat themselves and others with unconditional positive regard express understanding and support, even when people fall short of ideal behavior. Offering unconditional positive regard is a cornerstone of humanistic forms of psychotherapy. It predicts strong relationships between clients and therapists.

Some psychologists view the humanistic approach as overly optimistic about human nature or likely to promote selfishness. However, the core principles of humanistic psychology continue to influence research and therapy. The positive psychology movement, which involves the scientific study of happiness and life purpose, grew out of humanistic theory. Positive psychology was pioneered by American psychologist Martin Seligman and Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. According to Seligman, people experience three kinds of happiness: 1) pleasure and gratification; 2) embodiment of strengths and virtues; and 3) meaning and purpose. Achieving happiness and thinking positively have been shown to boost relationships, satisfaction, and mental and physical health. Czikszentmihalyi's research suggests that people can take active steps to increase their happiness. His research has focused on the benefits of being in a flow state, which involves focused interest in an activity. During a flow state, people become immersed in a rewarding task that offers the right level of challenge.

Biological Influences

Both biological and environmental factors shape personality. Personality traits are heritable and related to differences in brain structure and function, as well as home environment, parenting style, peers, etc.

Psychologists use various research techniques to learn about the genetic and environmental factors that shape personality. Family studies, twin studies, and adoptive studies can be used to compare personality traits of biologically and nonbiologically related family members. A family study explores whether specific traits tend to co-occur within family members living together. Family studies can identify traits that run in families but cannot explain whether genetic or environmental factors best explain why that trait runs in families. For example, a child of outgoing parents may become outgoing because they share genes with their parents. Alternatively, they may be outgoing because their parents talked a lot, modeled outgoing behavior, and arranged frequent social gatherings.

A twin study can help disentangle the influence of biological and environmental factors. Identical twins have almost perfectly identical sets of genes, whereas fraternal twins have about half of their genes in common. For traits with a strong genetic basis, identical twins should be more similar to each other than non-identical twins.

In twin studies, the influence of nature versus nurture is divided into three categories: heritability, shared environmental factors, and non-shared environmental factors. Heritability is a measure of the strength of genetic influences. If a trait is heritable, identical twins will be more likely to possess the trait than non-identical twins. Shared environmental factors refer to environmental factors that family members have in common, such as parenting style, neighborhood safety, and the family's level of wealth. Nonshared environmental factors represent differences in life experiences. Even identical twins will have nonshared environmental factors. They may have different teachers, different friends, or participate in different activities. One twin may experience a traumatic event or health issue that the other does not.

An adoption study compares biologically related people, including twins, who have not been raised together. Genetic influence is supported when an adopted child is more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents. Environmental influence is supported when the adopted child is more like their adoptive parents than their biological parents.

Family, twin, and adoption studies indicate that biology and environmental factors both shape personality traits. A 2015 study combined data from 134 earlier studies to explore the role of genetic factors in personality traits. This study showed that across personality traits, about 60 percent of individual differences can be explained by the environment and about 40 percent can be explained by genetics.

Personality Correlations in Twins

Studies conducted in the 1980s show that identical twins have more strongly correlated (associated) personality traits than do non-identical twins. This indicates that personality traits have a genetic component. More recent research has focused on the mechanisms linking genes to specific personality traits.