• Systematic research often fails to confirm "personality" as a set of personal traits or characteristics that are consistent over time and situation
    • Remember the copious research literature on question format on "personality tests" too.
  • So...why does it seem to us that we DO have a "personality"?
  • Enter the concept of "the self"
    • An amalgam of biological tendencies, feedback from significant others, social roles we play, experiences, and reflection
  • The "self" and "personality" are two VERY different concepts although at times they make similar predictions
  • Much of our lives consist of periods of stability, which contributes to our stable view of "ourself"
    • The social roles we play (and role transitions), the important others we interact with, even many physical characteristics and propensities
  • The concept "temperament" should be considered with great care
    • It is NOT "biology is destiny" and it is not part of current evolutionary psychological theory
    • It may have roots in biology but only in terms of general tendencies (introversion-extroversion is one of the most studied)
    • It is part of what makes you "feel like you"
  • Symbolic interactionists gave us the concepts of the self, the reflexive self, social identities and situated learning
  • Lev Vygotsky's concept of "private speech" is important here too
  • Developmentalists (e.g.., Freud) and behavioral theorists (e.g., Skinner; D. Bem) take different perspectives on life stages
  • Developmentalists and learning theorists can find common ground if they consider the interplay of life stage and reinforcement

We'll stick with the date for Milestone 2!

SYP 5105-01           FALL 2017



When you complete Manfred Kuhn's "20 statements test" (TST), describing yourself in  20 statements (coming soon)--or less, your responses, as have those from individuals who have completed these statements over the past 50 years, primarily fall into four conceptual groups:

Only the fourth set, "traits," is typically considered in the study of personality. Yet sets (1), (3) and (4) would all be considered under the rubric of "the self."


Intuitively, it probably seems to you that you must have "a personality." Doesn't everyone? Psychologists test for it using a variety of assessment materials. When you go to a job interview, the people you speak with often ask about your personality "strong points" and your personality "weak points." We speak of someone having "a good personality" or a "bad personality." We think of each of us having a "unique personality," largely shaped by our personal history or experiences, such as our family, our schooling, and, more generally, our culture.

The concept of "personality" appears to consist of sets of personal characteristics, traits, or predispositions to respond, such as being honest, confident, adventurous, sensitive, or funny.

The concept "personality" also conveys CONSISTENCY AND STABILITY, in our predispositions to respond across time and situations. Thus, we expect "honest people" to be honest across many tempting situations, "confident people" to have high self-efficacy across many situations that might make others insecure, adventurous people to take risks on a regular basis, and "funny people," well, to see the humor in almost any situation. Most modern social and behavioral scientists think of personality as  largely "nurture," shaped by your envirnoment and personal histories.

This may come as a shock: as defined above, which is a very common way for psychologists to use the term, there is remarkably little evidence that you "have a personality," or such a bundle of consistent "personal traits". And this knowledge is hardly new. In the late 1920s (90 years ago!), psychologists Hartshorn and May studied children's honesty across different tempting situations. Instead of consistent tendencies to respond in a generally honest or dishonest manner, Hartshorn and May discovered instead that the situation was the primary determinant of "honest" behavior, and children were strikingly inconsistent instead. Remember the self-monitoring study cited earlier this semester, where children were more honest in taking only one Halloween candy if they were able to view themselves in a mirror as they did so?

In short, the notion of most "consistent personality traits" has received about as much research support as "the accurate perceiver" or "the accurate eyewitness," that is, very little. These findings are one reason why most psychological clinicians or counselors are required to take at least one graduate social psychology course as part of their  training.

How can this be? And what about all those personality tests circulating out there?

(There is the persistent problem addressing how "personality" is measured. You should rightly be skeptical of "tests" containing hundreds of items, all using the same question format--review Guide 4!)

How can we reconcile the apparent evidence of our senses and the feedback that we receive from others with the notion that we don't "have a personality" as traditionally defined.

In more recent decades, social psychologists have come instead to embrace the concept of "self" much more than that of  "personality." The concept of self is probably a more fruitful line of inquiry and moves us away from "personality tests" that can be strongly influenced by biasing factors, such as format response set issues, social desirability, and even by the sheer number of items (e.g., Coefficient Alpha depends on the number of items in the "test"). "Personality traits" differ from the concept of "the self".

So why do we feel we have a "personality"? For all the reasons below:

We are more likely to view the behavior of others as being determined by their personalities than our own behavior. We view our own behavior as determined by the environment. That is the fundamental attribution error. When we see ourselves on video or listen to ourselves on audio tape, we receive a stronger impression that we ourselves were the causes of our own behavior.


To partially borrow from the late, great George Herbert Mead a century ago, the self is a concept, an image or schema of our persona, and it is both subject and object.  That is, the subjective self acts, "the I" initiates action, it dreams, plans and thinks, akin to Freud's notion of "ego." At the same time, the self is reflexive or an object: a "me;" * we think about our self, plan for our self, and view the self as we do another person (although maybe not as accuratelty). The self is an on-going social construction; it is never finished. We don't think of the self as "being complete" at any particular age.

*Some psychologists call this the "objective self" although the meaning is not quite the same as Mead's.

It is because of the self, or our perception of a unified entity, that we believe that we "have a personality." But, although we view our self as having consistent tendencies to act, the self is not the same kind of construct as a set of personality traits.

What goes into the self?

Because the self is both subject and object it is liable to change as inputs to the self change.

Body image, and our self-evaluation of it, for example, changes enormously over time, from young children to the elderly. Abrupt changes in our physical state impinge on our sense of self. Recall the enormous literature on how physical appearance influences others' perception of us. Why would we be immune to our own perceptions of our own attractiveness? What are your reactions upon watching yourself on video, seeing a photograph, listening to yourself on a tape recorder, or even catching an unexpected glimpse of yourself in a store window? For positive or negative, your response might very well be: "is that me?" We may be startled to realize we have gained or lost weight, our hair has changed color (or maybe has been lost!), or other aspects of aging.

Role discontinuity often occurs in a socially programmed or scripted way as people acquire or discard social roles. Consider the change from high school to college to work roles, from single person to spouse or parent, or from work to retirement. Often these role discontinuities occur at the same time as relocation to a new city, state or country. For example, an individual may, simultaneously, become divorced, take a new job and move to a new location. It is no wonder that high rates of depression and anxiety appear in the first year after divorce! At the same time, we experience an abrupt change in our sense of self. Others may tell us that we are "not ourselves." However, roles typically stay stable for long periods of time, and, as they remain stable, most of the time, so does our "self." Further, changes or role transitions, are often marked by some kind of ritual ceremony, such as graduation, or a wedding, or a briss or christening. These ceremonies help us to demarcate the changes between the old self and the new, and make the transition far less traumatic than it would be otherwise. We "expect" a "new self" during clearly demarcated periods of role transition.

Temperament probably has a strong biological base. Some folks "run at a higher speed" or are more energetic, some are more shy, some are more musical. John Watson was wrong in the 1920s: while we could probably make almost anyone a decent musician, we still don't know how to create a musical genius. Attributes such as excitability thresholds probably are influenced by our genetics.

We must be very careful how to interpret the concept of temperament (see below). Professionals in the field DO NOT mean biology is destiny. Far from it. It is unlikely that your predispositions create a major portion of your life (and some talented musicians become math teachers). However, temperament tends to be stable over time, although it can be altered by social trauma that, for example, raises cortisol levels and other stress hormones, or by pregnancy, or by disease (e.g., thyroid problems). Because you "feel" the same over time, this again lends stability to one's sense of self.

Remember, too, the relatively recent research on "brain plasticity"--as you grow and change, your brain does too (and parts of it don't mature until one's mid-20s).

Feedback from others plays a major role in shaping the self-concept. It may be from significant others: parents, siblings, close friends, teachers, bosses, lovers, spouses, and our own children. Because most of us choose friends and social locations staffed with similar others, and because significant others tend to be in our lives for a long time, continuity in these "reflected appraisals" contributes to a feeling of self-stability. Our demographics such as sex, ethnicity, birth cohort, region, etc. expose people in different categories to different life experiences (that may be stable over time), create social identities for us,* and influence how others perceive and treat us.

*OPTIONAL: see my Encyclopedia entry with Brandon Nzekwe on Social Identity Theory in CANVAS (Module Guide 5).

Our response categories tend to be habitual, maybe even ritual. We drive to work or school the same way at the same time each day, watch our favorite TV program each week, visit the same church, synagogue, or mosque regularly, and see the same people in our neighborhood. No wonder it appears that we have a "stable personality!" After all, what is new?

And, of course, we have memories, that give the thread of continuity to our lives.

Thus, a combination of temperament, roles, feedback from others as well as our own on occasion, social identities, memories, and response categories convince us that we have, further, that we are, a stable combination of "personality traits," conveying a sense of consistency that doesn't objectively exist in many research reports. When these factors change suddenly, through bodily changes, role or situation dislocations, or our environment changes dramatically, then we are "not ourselves." As the situation restabilizes and new responses become habitual, we once again become believers in "personality theory."

 Thus, "the self" is not simply another word for "personality." The construct of personality is considered to be:

Once "established," personality is considered relatively permanent. We even used to think it was "solidified" in one's teens. However, recent research on brain development indicates that the areas of the brain involved with judgment and response inhibition do not mature until the mid-20s.

The self, or more accurately, the collection  of selves many social psychologists believe comprise most of us, is:

As our circumstances change, and our initiatives change, so too does the self.
In a living person, a "self" is always unfinished.

By the way, this treatise on the self really shouldn't make anyone feel insecure. As individuals, each of us is a self with a high degree of choice. We forge our opinions, beliefs, and values, often choose our friends, our educations, and our careers. We create ourselves--our many selves.

The self is, to a large degree, created from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, so the symbolic interactionists tell us. Research indicates that even the perceptions of the emotions we feel, or our bodily sensations such as hunger, are influenced by cognitive labels from other people. For example, if an experimenter makes your religion or ethnicity salient ("oh, by the way, our studies find that Catholics just don't tolerate pain well..."), not only do you claim that you find electric shocks less painful, but you actually rate the shocks as less painful to yourself. Lev Vygotsky's theories are also consistent with this vision of the self.

Ways we may learn "ourselves"

Of course, the very fact that we believe we have a personality is going to have consequences. If you believe that, for example, you are an honest person, making this characteristic salient will make you uncomfortable if you behave dishonestly.


The symbolic interactionist approach began over a century ago, largely at the University of Chicago. Philosopher George Herbert Mead was strongly impressed by the works of Ivan Pavlov and John Watson, and he styled himself a "social behaviorist."  What did this mean?  Certainly the theoretical approach that Mead formulated was only surfacely related to stimuli and responses. But what Mead did do was to generally reject Freud's work on id, ego, superego and unconscious impulses and conflicts. For Mead, not only were people not bundles of unconscious impulses, we weren't even "created internally." Rather, people are symbolic creatures, consciously searching for meaning and the self is a  social creation. Language and symbol use are crucial. (The "social learning" approach cited in DMC is basically a symbolic interactionist approach rather than the use of models as in Bandura's "social learning theory.". Also check out readings on role identities.)

Symbolic interactionists are basically gestaltists, interested more in patterns and meaning than in molecular behaviors. Terms such as script and schema indicate the SI theorist's interest in interrelated sequences of behavior. Mead put great stock in the "generalized other" (basically society and society's dictates, which you might suspect carries some similarity to the concept of superego) as well as the significant others in our immediate environment whom we love and on whom we rely.

We owe the SI theorists for the original concept of the self that is in use today. Additional terms include the looking-glass self and reflected appraisals, the "I" (self as active subjective) versus the "me" (the reflexive self as object), and how role-taking and empathy affect self-objectivity. We have a multiplicity of selves, and a hierarchy of selves and identities. Notice how this perspective very neatly dovetails with Bem's self-perception theory approach1 and how Vygotsky's work may identify the mechanisms of internalization (e.g., private speech). Both the sociological symbolic interactionists and the "rabid behaviorist" take remarkably similar "outside-in" perspectives on self-knowledge.

1This was before Darryl Bem got into "Ghostbusters"-like "paranormal" research.

Rather than being pathological or abnormal, we change among our different selves typically speedily and with ease. For example, consider the different role and situation "situated" identities  that we assume (parent at a doctor's office; parent with a neighborhood parent or child's teacher) and the discrepancies among our actual, our "ideal," and our "ought" selves. Health researchers call these multiple selves "buffers"--you are one person at work, another with your family, a third with your friends, a fourth at your house of religious worship. Since most of the time, at least some of these spheres function well, this multitude of selves helps keep us mentally and physically healthy.

We owe the SI theorists an intellectual and mental health debt for emphasizing the impact of significant others and how these change over the life cycle. As you move from one life stage to another, as you acquire new roles and discard old ones, so you acquire new significant others. You may lose close friends as you change and you lose family members and other loved ones through death or even dispute. All these gains and losses influence the self. At the least, your reflected appraisals will change.

Greater self-awareness can promote more honest or "civilized" behavior (it causes lots of impression management attempts). By the way, creating self-awareness is not terribly difficult, recall that a simple mirror will do it.


Prior to the nineteenth century and even early into the twentieth century, the behavioral and social sciences were dominated by "biology is destiny" theories of "personality." The ancient Greek philosophers discussed personal tendencies in terms of "bodily humours." Western and Asian astrologers cited the influence of time of the year--or even the very year--of one's birth as bestowing personality traits. Freud's theories of unconscious clashes among ego, id and superego, the physical, the rational, and societal demands, quickly spread among scholars worldwide. It faced initial popular rejection in Europe.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, three important streams of thought challenged each other. The first, Social Darwinism, was a somewhat misstated version of Darwin's theories of evolution. The "most fit" were seen as the most likely to survive and dominate society. Each human behavior was viewed in terms of how it contributed to the "fittest" of the "human race." These streams of thought led some to conclusions that we now find ludicrous. For example, the disease cholera, an infection spread through poor sanitation, was recharacterized as "proof" that the lower classes were less fit (no surprise: sanitation facilities were far better in wealthier neighborhoods, and the disease less prevalent.) Educated women were characterized as thin and pale, leached by their studies, and contrasted with the supposedly sturdier and more fertile peasant farm girls. Indeed, arguments were made to keep women from studying math, which was supposed to render us infertile. (Forget your contraceptives, just study calculus...)

Of course, these important themes emerged in theories of personality and behavior. Ross and McDougal, early social psychologists viewed human social behavior as dominated by instincts--they categorized dozens of them, including humor. Even philosophers such as George Herbert Mead, or early sociologists such as Emile Durkheim believed that biology determined someone's occupation, or differentiated social classes.

Yet a second important paradigm was emerging that came to dominate twentieth century thought on personality: Pavlov in Russia and Watson in the U.S. felt that in the stimulus-response linkage, they had discovered the equivalent of the cell in biology or the atom in physics. From the stimulus-response or behaviorist perspective, the person was a tabula rosa or blank slate. S-R connections were all. Radical in its perspective, behaviorists proposed that occupational destination was a matter of conditioning; the social class differences that exist occurred because of childhood and adult socialization. Cultural differences, often previously defined as biologically based, were redefined as a matter of learning. It was not too much of a hop or a skip to define any sex differences as determined by learning experiences and reinforcement contingencies.

Both biological and behavioral views of humanity remained determinist, influenced on the one hand by biological inheritance or hormones and on the other by reinforcement schema. Concepts such as originality, creativity, or "free will" appeared delegated to philosophers, or even non-existent.

The third, or developmental paradigm, grew out of Freud's work, as well as research by Jean Piaget in Switzerland, Lev Vygotsky in Russia, and Erickson in the United States.  Biology was still present, grounding the individual in biological stages of development. Biology determined what was possible at particular ages.  For example, one developmental joke has it that you can toilet-train an infant starting at age one, but that the process takes a year and a half. On the other hand, if you begin toilet-training at age two, you are done in six months. Their point was that the child had to have physical control over excretory bodily functions in order for toilet training to succeed.

Developmentalists accept the influence of cultural factors and personal socialization histories. Most propose an interaction type of approach: stage of development interacts with environment to not only produce behavior, but wishes, motivations, and internal conflicts. For example, suppose one's parents have a lackadaisical attitude toward feeding and meals. The family snacks constantly and meals appear at unscheduled, irregular intervals. This situation might prove disasterous for young infants, who wail and worry as they wait to be fed. On the other, this "sloppy" family might have next to no effect on a school age child, who faces a whole new set of challenges in mastering the academic and social material of school.

By the mid-1970s, the dominant paradigm was clearly behaviorist. Behavior (perhaps with a bit of developmental modification) was seen as totally shaped by environmental circumstances. Any hint of biological differences was viewed as racist, sexist--and inaccurate.

Then what happened?

DNA happened. Studying the genome happened. Gigantic steps forward in genetic research happened. Pharmaceutical advances in the treatment of schizophrenia, depression and mania happened. Cloning happened. Brain neuroplasticity happened. We could actually begin to locate genes for alcoholism. Emotional dysfunction, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or agoraphobia, or psychosis, such as bipolar depression, came to some extent under pharmaceutical influence. Prozac became a household word. So did premenstrual (or erectile) dysfunction. Through MRIs we learned the brain matured much later than we originally thought.

Then what happened to social psychology textbooks?

What happened to most initially was that chapters on socialization totally vanished from social psychology textbooks. Rather than trying to confront or integrate information from these surges in understanding physiology with the older learning theory paradigms, textbooks sidestepped the issues entirely. Thus, while most continued to incorporate chapters on social cognitive learning, and some of the research on development, a generation of research on our own psychological biochemistry and behavior was largely ignored except for some "sociobiologists" or "psychobiologists" who adapted these findings for their own agendas. We see some of this research re-emerging now under the heading of "evolutionary psychology".

Temperament is a concept with a long history, but it was reintroduced by Jerome Kagan and other developmental behavioral scientists in the late 1980s. Temperament describes consistent propensities to respond that probably have some biological basis. For example, for several years, psychologists have suspected that characteristics such as introversion or extroversion reflect biological tendencies concerning the person's comfort with different levels of social stimulation (and informational input more generally), extroverts desiring more and introverts less of it. Students of sex and gender find that on the average boys "run at a slightly higher speed" than girls, and have higher basal metabolism rates or rates of physical activity.

What are we to make of all this?

But is temperament "personality?" Probably not as most social or behavioral scientists use the term. Temperament certainly contributes to "a view of your personality" and it probably contributes to an overview of you to yourself as a consistent, holistic entity. However, temperaments refers more to the style in which you behave and not to your behavior itself. Having a particular temperament probably will not make you more honest, motivated, industrious, humorous or any of dozens of traits that describe consistent behavior.

In its place, temperament contributes to how we and others view others and particular talents we may have. But it is a very different construct from those used by Social Darwinists a century ago to explain social differences in stratification or group differences, such as gender roles.


These themes will re-emerge at we look more at socialization in Guide Six. This section introduces you to learning theories and developmental theories and does a quick comparison between them.


Learning or reinforcement theories center around observable stimuli and responses. All learning theories incorporate (1) some form of association or contiguity (events that happen together are linked together; for symbolic interactionists, events with similar meaning are linked together) and (2) motivation or drive state. Unlike the active organism seeking meaning, older learning theory versions tended to view people as passive or reactors. Newer learning theories are much more cognitive and see individuals as constructing, integrating and using information. Guide Six will explore learning theories in more detail.


Developmentalists believe stages of development are often keyed to some type of biological maturity (reinforcement theorists often don't believe this).Stages influence how your "personality" and sense of self develop. For example, according to this view, children neglected as infants would have considerable difficulties trusting others later. We should resolve conflicts at earlier stages or they continue into adulthood. Freud was a developmentalist. Kohlberg was a developmentalist who described moral judgments: he believed we progress through six stages (but a symbolic interactionist would say we learn moral rules). Other developmentalists include Vygotsky to some degree, Piaget, and Kagan.

More recent developmentalists (Erikson; Levinson; Katz) describe the entire life-course, including aging. The "midlife crisis" popularizes part of some recent developmental theories. [Alas, the "midlife crisis" looks like many whining baby-boomers (birth cohort or generation effect) who turned 40 just when social scientists studied them so it is a very culturally specific, not universal life stage]. The general principle of lifetime socialization and self-development appears valid. High divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s showed us that "old dogs" do learn "new tricks": housewives assumed new roles as students and workers that changed them forever. Ex-husbands learned domestic skills and often started mid-life families. Information technology use is quickly growing among senior "Babyboomers" (especially on social media!)

For a symbolic interactionist, the self is a social construction process that evolves as our lives change. SI theorists have a very easy time with the idea of lifetime socialization. As roles and situations change, so do you. Terms coined include: professional socialization, situated learning and apprenticeships, anticipatory socialization or adult socialization. We acquire and discard roles during the life course.


How development proceeds Fixed sequential stages; generally none can be skipped. Earlier stages should be completed before later ones. No fixed stages. 
Behavior results from exposure (imitation) and reinforcement contingencies. Learned from others, but in no particular order.
Completing life tasks and challenges successfully at each stage Skipping stages or having conflicts at one stage create problems at later stages, even during adulthood. Problems that seem linked to a particular stage are just habits that were once rewarded and are high on the habit hierarchy.
What determines stages? Biology, somewhat, and organism's capacity for physical bodily control which can be linked to age. Maturational factors such as physical control or linguistic development can influence what you are capable of learning at a particular age.
Importance of environment Environment can cause problems with "normal development;" can speed or slow development. Environment essentially all-important for what is learned.

What both seem to miss: causes and consequences of emotion.

Which do you believe? Or, which combination of theories do you believe? Your answers probably influence how you relate as a therapist, an instructor, a parent, practitioner, scholar, or a partner.

Coming next: types of learning theories and the dog performance video.

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Susan Carol Losh October 1 2017

Fire fighter doggie