Fissure in the Field

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Different personality psychologists focus on dif ferent levels of analysis. And there is a gap within the field that has not yet been successfully bridged. It is the gap betwee the human nature level of analysis and the analysis of group and individual dif ferences. Many psychologists have theorized about what human nature is like in general. However, when doing research, psychologists most often focus on individual and group differences in personality . As a consequence, there is a fissure between th grand theories of personality and contemporary research in personality .

Grand Theories of Personality

Most of the grand theories of personality primarily address the human nature level of analysis. That is, these theories attempt to provide a universal account of the fundamental psychological processes and characteristics of our species. Sigmund Freud (1915/1957), for example, emphasized universal instincts of sex and aggression; a universal psychic structure of the id, ego, and superego; and universal stages of psy-chosexual development (oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital). Statements about the universal core of human nature typically lie at the center of all such grand theories of personality.

Many of the textbooks used in teaching college courses in personality psychology are structured around grand theories. Such books have been criticized, however , because many of those theories are of historical interest. Only portions of them have stood the test of time and inform personality research today . Although the grand theories are an important part of the history of personality psychology , there is also a lot of interesting personality research going on today that is not directly relevant to the grand theories.

Contemporary Research in Personality

Most of the empirical research in contemporary personality addresses the ways in which individuals and groups dif fer. For example, the extensive research literature on extraversion and introversion, on anxiety and neuroticism, and on self-esteem all focuses on the ways in which people dif fer from one another. The extensive research on masculinity, femininity, and androgyny deals with the psychological ways in which men and women dif fer, as well as the ways in which they acquire sex-typed social roles and behavior patterns. Research on cultures shows that one major dimension of difference concerns the degree to which individuals endorse a collectivistic or an individualistic attitude, with Eastern cultures tending to be more collectivistic and Western cultures more individualistic.

One way to examine personality psychology might be to pick a dozen or so current research topics and explore what psychologists have learned about each. For example, a lot of research has been done on self-esteem—what it is, how it develops, how people maintain high self-esteem, and how it functions in relationships. There are a lot of interesting topics in contemporary personality psychology—for example, shyness, aggression, trust, dominance, hypnotic susceptibility, depression, intelligence, attributional style, goal setting, anxiety, temperament, sex roles, Type A behavior, self-monitoring, extraversion, sensation seeking, agreeableness, impulsivity , sociopathic tendencies, morality, locus of control, personality and occupational choice, optimism, creativity, leadership, prejudice, and narcissism.

A course that just surveys current topics in personality research seems unsatisfactory. It would be like going to an auction and bidding on everything—soon you would have too much and would be overwhelmed. Just picking topics to cover would not result in any sense of the connection among the aspects of personality . Indeed, the field of per sonality has been criticized for containing too many independent areas of investigation, with no sense of the whole person behind the separate topics of investigation. What holds personality together as a coherent field would be missing in such an approach

You have probably heard the ancient legend of the three blind men who were presented with an elephant. They tried to figure out what the whole elephant was like The first blind man approached cautiously; walking up to the elephant and putting hi hands and then arms around the animal' s leg, he proclaimed, "Why , the whole elephant is much like a tree, slender and tall." The second man grasped the trunk of the elephant and exclaimed, "No, the whole elephant is more like a lar ge snake." The third blind man grasped the ear of the elephant and stated, "Y ou are both wrong; the whole elephant more closely resembles a fan." The three blind men proceeded to ar gue with one another, each insisting that his opinion of the whole elephant was the correct one. In a sense, each blind man had a piece of the truth, yet each failed to recognize that his perceptions of the elephant captured only a narrow part of the truth. Each failed to grasp the whole elephant. Working together, however, the blind men could have assembled a reasonable understanding of the whole elephant.

The topic of personality is like the elephant, and personality psychologists are somewhat like the blind men who take only one perspective at a time. Psychologists often approach the topic of personality from one perspective. For example, some psychologists study the biological aspects of personality . Others study ways that culture promotes personality differences between people and between groups. Still other psychologists study how various aspects of the mind interact and work together to produce personality. And others study relationships among people and believe that social interaction is where personality manifests its most important ef fects. Each of these perspectives on personality captures elements of truth, yet each specialty area alone is inadequate to describe the entire realm of human personality—the whole elephant, so to speak.

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