Personality theory

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A theory of personality tries to integrate the psychological knowledge about the individuality of the person and to explain the inner connection of the personality traits . This creates a reference system for psychological diagnostics and for the practical application of personality psychological principles.

Numerous personality theories have been developed in personality psychology and in older character studies . This variety of theories can be confusing, because it shows how preliminary these drafts are, but also how difficult a comprehensive personality theory is. The following are important reasons for this pluralism:

  • the image of man . Every personality theory is based on more or less clear convictions as to what the essential characteristics of the human being are. This includes ideas about the nature and culture of humans as well as philosophical or religious assumptions about humans.
  • the conception of science ( philosophy of science ). A certain conception often follows from the image of man as to whether personality research should look for general principles or whether individual people should do justice to their individuality and their biographical context in life and meaning. These two perspectives, nomothetics and idiography , are often equated with the contrast between an explanatory and an understanding psychology and form a fundamental problem in the scientific conception of psychology. The point of view of the personality researcher has consequences for the theoretical approach and also for the decision which methods are suitable and which are to be rejected, e.g. B. only psychological interviews and biographical interpretations or tests and statistical methods of data analysis.
  • the intentions and scope. The goal can be a comprehensive, systematic and biographical description of the personality, or it can only be about sub-areas that are viewed as particularly important, for example the psychodynamic drive and control processes or self-concepts. Other personality theories are primarily designed to provide empirically easy-to-test and reliable foundations for professional application, for example in personnel psychology or clinical psychology.

Personality theory as a property theory

The property theories of personality psychology do not deal with all individual properties, but with the basic properties that are considered important in each case. Research programs have often emerged with regard to a certain property in order to describe it precisely using various methods and then to explain how this property develops, e.g. B. aggressiveness, anxiety, life satisfaction. This research thus follows on from earlier character studies to grasp character traits and their structure. The modern approach differs, however, through the diverse empirical methods and through the different theoretical understanding in the definition of personality traits. For the more recent property theory, it is fundamental to differentiate between relative characteristic values ​​with regard to situations and points in time, while the earlier character studies assumed fixed properties.

Property theorists such as Gordon Allport and Robert Heiß were less interested in the structure of personality than in its dynamic regulation in the interplay of general dispositions, motives and experiences. Hot dissolved the concept of fixed personality traits, in which he described, based on concepts of depth psychology, how changeable, unstable, contradicting, turning to extremes and broken traits can express themselves. “Person as process” describes this idea of ​​a dynamic system of personality. Other property researchers use the method of factor analysis , i. H. a statistical process to reduce numerous, more or less connected features to the factors on which they are based - how thousands of distinguishable color nuances can be traced back to the three physical dimensions of hue, lightness and saturation. Raymond B. Cattell , Hans Eysenck and Joy Paul Guilford are among the most influential researchers in this direction. The factor analysis methodology is controversial because it makes questionable statistical assumptions; nevertheless, the results deliver at least attempts at order. In addition to factor analysis, many other statistical methods are used today for data reduction and for describing typical feature patterns and processes. (Amelang et al. 2006).

The question of how many basic characteristics of intelligence and personality are to be distinguished has often been investigated . Eysenck dealt with four main personality dimensions, Cattell with up to 21 primary factors. More recently, Costa and McCrae et al. (2005) five basic personality traits that are referred to as the “ Big Five ” (see John et al. 2008). Such numerical determinations have been criticized because they are largely arbitrary and methodologically dubious. Since only questionnaires were used here for self-assessment, the claim that there are five cross-cultural, universal personality traits remains doubtful.

According to property theories, personality is to be seen as the totality of a person's properties. Hardly anything is said about the inner structure or the self as the core of the personality. Rather, the focus is on the constancy and variability of individual behavior as well as psychological diagnostics. All other scientific theories of personality (in contrast to popular theories of everyday psychology ) are dependent on precise concepts of properties. Often, however, these concepts are methodologically not as thoroughly worked out, checked and diagnostically broadly applicable as the research methods of the property theorists mentioned.

The demarcation from philosophical, only intellectual reflections, from religious convictions and from everyday psychological speculative concepts of personality can be difficult. Scientific personality theories should refer to empirically testable statements. This applies to objectifying behavioral observations, but hardly to statements that are only based on internal experience ( introspection ) and self-assessment, i.e. only linguistically, e.g. B. in interviews or questionnaires. Scientific theories are also not expected to have any fundamental or moral assessments, even if they are deviant (deviant) social behavior or psychopathological symptoms.

The following classification takes into account different personality theories. They differ in the basic assumptions, whereby often only a certain area of ​​the personality or a functional principle is considered important or only a certain methodology is used. For this reason, these theories are each limited to a section of phenomena, findings and properties and restricted to correspondingly narrow psychological areas of application. - The property theories are fundamental to all others, because they structure the diversity of individual differences in terms of relatively persistent properties, e.g. B. intelligence or temperament.

Personality theory as type theory

The more recent personality psychology sees properties as theoretical dimensions on which every person has a certain (possibly changing) position or expression. In contrast, the concept of type was often used in character studies. This means a pattern of related features, although not all of these features that belong to the defined (ideal) type have to appear in every case. Since there are suitable statistical methods, such similarities and typical features can be better investigated. The method of typing makes fewer requirements than dimensional measurement and is more clear. So today many clinical pictures are to be understood more as a type, e.g. B. in psychiatry the depressive or the compulsive personality , or in psychology the authoritarian personality or the creative personality.

Psychodynamic personality theories

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) did not develop a systematic theory of personality, but his insights gained from psychotherapeutic experience and his theory of neurosis influenced many psychologists. Early childhood, especially the parental caregivers and the first experiences of child sexuality, should have a formative influence. Freud assumed three developmental phases (oral, anal, genital), and in each phase psychological undesirable developments are possible, which then determine personality formation, e.g. B. oral and anal character fixation. Lasting consequences can result from a failure in individual development of the Oedipus complex or the electra complex . This means that typical relationship problems and conflicts, e.g. B. due to the affection of the son for the mother and the resulting competition with the father (and in a figurative sense also with other authorities) meant. The largely unconscious instinctual needs of the “id” in dynamic interaction with the two other entities “I” and “superego” result in a psychological dynamic that can be more or less conflictual or adapted to the living conditions. How the recurring needs are controlled and the associated feelings of fear are processed ( defense mechanisms ) shape the personality traits.

The primary methodology is the psychoanalytic process, i. H. the awareness and reliving of those dynamically unconscious events in the course of psychotherapy, whereby the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams, symptoms and failures occupies an important place.

From the tradition of Freud's psychoanalysis , numerous directions and new theories have emerged, which, however, remain convinced of the important role of largely unconscious forces and processing methods and are therefore summarized as psychodynamic ("depth psychological") orientation: u. a. the complex psychology of Carl Gustav Jung , Alfred Adler's analytical psychology, the more socio-psychological and socio-critical psychology of Erich Fromm , the theory of identity development ( Erik H. Erikson ) and psychoanalytic self-theories, etc. a. by Heinz Kohut (see also character types ).

Learning theory and behavioral concepts

The individual differences develop on the basis of the human learning history according to the general laws of learning . Behaviors are acquired according to the principle of conditioning, the principle of operant learning, and the principle of learning through observation. From a behavioral point of view (behaviorism), therefore, the objectively observable behavior and the learning of new behaviors are of particular interest and not a theory of the “inner” personality. Numerous important terms and explanatory hypotheses originate from this behavioral research and have been adopted in personality theories.

Well-known approaches based on learning theory come from u. a. by John B. Watson and by Burrhus Frederic Skinner , who also emphasized interdependence ("behavior control"), e.g. B. in the interaction between students and teachers. Newer learning theoretical approaches u. a. by Albert Bandura , Walter Mischel , Frederick Kanfer u. a. take greater account of the cognitive and social conditions of learning as well as the possibilities of self-control ( self-management therapy ). The theory of individual learning and unlearning of behavior forms the scientific basis of behavior modification and behavior therapy of inappropriate or disruptive behavior.

Biographically oriented personality theories

The directions of biographical personality research follow the tradition of historical and literary biography and character studies. However, they rely on newer psychological methods, which mainly include standardized interviews and tests. So developed Henry A. Murray the Thematic Apperception TAT to win additional information for a biography. The TAT consists of a series of images, on which various typical everyday scenes with different people are shown. From the fantasy stories made up for this purpose, Murray tried to open up the individually important topics and conflicts. Hans Thomae and colleagues developed an extensive program of biographically oriented personality research to capture the “individual in his or her world”, but with standardized terms and methods in order to be able to compare the psychologically significant topics and the forms of individual engagement with life's tasks. The biographical investigations require methodologically thorough psychological interpretations (Fahrenberg 2002). The process of finding one's identity can be deduced from the narrative (narrative) representations in autobiographies (McAdams 2006).

Similar to the biographical orientation are the more recent idiographic approaches, which focus on the individual and aim to describe the changing and relatively constant behavior in different situations over time as precisely as possible (see Differential Psychology ). If test data, measurements and statistical methods are also used in this individual-centered approach, this type of individual case study differs fundamentally from the original term idiographic. In the humanities, this means a holistic, understanding and interpretive description of the special or unique, in contrast to scientific research that aims at general laws.

Interactionist Personality Theories

Many recent theories of personality expand the theories of traits in various ways. Some concepts of personality psychology are called interactionist theories because they give the greatest importance to the mutual influencing and shaping of personality and situation ( interactionism ). Such relationships are not excluded from other personality theories, but at least the older learning theory approaches see the most important behavioral conditions in the respective stimulus conditions (situations), and the older property theories mainly pay attention to the relatively fixed personality traits.

The psychoanalytic approaches and research results of social psychology have also contributed to this interactionist emphasis (Herkner 1996). On the one hand, certain life situations provoke, e.g. B. partners or tasks, individual behavioral reactions, on the other hand, individuals prefer certain situations, they create social relationships and actively change their environment. Personality research has been concerned for a disproportionately long time with the general question of wanting to describe statistically the relative proportions of personality, situation and interrelationship (Kenrick and Funder 1988; Funder 2006). The self-assessments used in questionnaires are not sufficient, as it actually depends on the current interaction in real life situations. Describing these dependencies precisely is very difficult and can hardly be realized in practical diagnostics.

Cognitive personality theories and self theories

George A. Kelly ’s influential theory of personal constructs belongs to this group of personality theories . The personal constructs of a person designate - in contrast to the explanatory hypotheses of the scientists - individual schemes for capturing the world. People go to understand other people or the events in the world like scientists do, they interpret their perceptions, they develop assumptions and test them against their recurring experiences. The system of personal constructs is subject to continuous change through new experiences. Personality can be understood as the totality of personal constructs, including a central construct about the self. The view taken by Carl Rogers in the context of psychotherapy is also based primarily on the concepts that a person makes of himself, of other people and of his environment. Both authors developed special procedures to explore these concepts in more detail. In this way, important caregivers and oneself are compared precisely in order to work out the psychologically important constructs in individual cases (role construct repertoire), or by defining certain characteristics according to their degree of application to oneself (as a current self-image or as a desired image) get ranked.

These personality theories are sometimes referred to as phenomenological, but their research instruments and their application to psychotherapy are fundamentally different from philosophical phenomenology . These American authors also differ significantly from the phenomenological-psychological descriptions (see Ludwig Klages , Philipp Lersch ), despite some similarities in the style of describing psychological phenomena based on subjectivity.

In other personality theories, too, the concept of self is at the center. The self is the innermost core of the personality or the central instance of the entire consciousness and action, of value orientation and responsibility. Psychological theories of the self, e.g. Sometimes differentiate between unconscious and conscious parts, try to open up many human perspectives: self-realization, maturation, creativity, search for meaning, spirituality, etc. a. (see transpersonal psychology )

The ambiguous term self and the lack of demarcation from I , person , and subject have provoked critical objections. Most authors do not explain whether a metaphysical part in the sense of an immortal soul principle is also meant. If “I” are to judge my “self”, this task can be circular, i. H. act like a cycle. Who is the subject here? Psychologically, it is more useful to distinguish between individual self-concepts . Every person has developed a multitude of such self-concepts, assessments and evaluations, about their own appearance, health, temperament, talent and interests, etc. a. ( Mummendey 1995). This is not objective knowledge, as it is a question of self-assessments, even if they include feedback from other people. They are subjective theories about yourself. Nevertheless, they form an essential part of the biographically oriented personality theories, which aim to capture people in their personal meaning and value and beyond that, the entire personality and living environment of the individual.

The information processing approach is also stimulated by the primary interest in cognitive processes. However, the theoretical designs rely on experimental methods and computer simulations rather than on the self-assessments of the individual. Various suggestions come from general psychology to attribute individual behavior differences to the different processing of information. So are u. a. The current perceptions, memory contents, conscious declarative knowledge about facts and largely unconscious procedural knowledge about rules, processes, if-then connections meant, as well as processes of judgment as well as expectations and evaluations. This also includes the areas of individual knowledge, e.g. B. about situations and connections, about causes and effects. The models developed in this research area define and link behavioral dispositions, tasks and reaction options and thus describe how individual differences in such processing processes could arise. It still seems unclear to what extent these rational constructions can provide a more in-depth explanation of certain personality traits and how the correspondence with everyday behavior can be tested appropriately. Practical methods of personality diagnostics are still lacking.

In addition to these cognitively and self-theoretically oriented personality theories, further directions are to be mentioned, which are methodologically and practically even less elaborated. These include a. and communicative-action theory ( Jürgen Habermas ) and similar concepts (Krampen 2000) as well as perspectives of systems theory in psychology.

Biopsychological personality theories

Biopsychological theories of personality are based on the conviction that all personality traits as well as other psychological functions (perception, cognition, needs and emotions) have a biological basis in the structure and function of the brain . Even if the current research methods are still inadequate, this research program, which also includes the genetic basis, will be retained. The empirical studies are predominantly correlation studies, i. H. systematic connections between psychological and physiological variables are sought. In addition, the neuropsychological findings of patients and increasingly also imaging methods provide important information during experimental investigations. The physiological measurements concern not only central nervous processes, but also many functions of the sensory system , motor system , the vegetative-endocrine control of body functions and biochemical-immunological variables ( constitution ). The studies are increasingly being extended to include genetic differences. (see neuropsychology , psychophysiology , behavioral genetics ).

The best-known biopsychological personality theory comes from Hans Jürgen Eysenck . He assumed that the expression of the extraversion has a biological basis in the different excitability or inhibition of cortical systems of the brain. The expression of the emotionality is supposed to be related to the degree of the vegetative (autonomous) instability of the vegetative system, which has its biological basis in general in an instability of the limbic system. Both hypotheses have stimulated extensive research, but empirical testing is methodologically difficult. a. because of the possible interaction of both dispositions in a certain test condition or behavioral situation. Meta-analyzes , which summarize many individual studies, provided very critical balances. The findings are contradicting and disproved with regard to the emotionality (Amelang 2006; Fahrenberg and Myrtek 2005). The research interest has shifted to the field of neuroendocrine and biochemical personality research (see Henning and Netter 2005) and currently also to behavioral genetic studies. How reliable such findings are can only be determined here on the basis of systematic repeat studies and meta-analyzes.

The fundamental assumption that behavioral dispositions always have a neurobiological basis is rarely questioned. In the course of the changing age structure of the population, interest in the processes of physical maturation and aging, in gerontology and related research areas has increased. In the meantime, evolutionary biology has also led to an evolutionary psychology that asks about the importance of certain intelligence and personality traits for human evolution (Buss 2005). Only recently has differential psychology been expanded to include the cognitive performance and personality traits of higher living beings, especially the psychology of domestic animals and primates (see Uher and Asendorpf 2008).

Development-oriented personality theories

Human psychogenesis leads to event-dependent and structural changes in personality over the entire lifespan. Erik H. Erikson describes in the step model of psychosocial development which stages a person goes through in the course of his life. Each stage is connected with special developmental tasks or life crises, which are mastered anew through the adaptive qualities of the personality. Almost regardless of age, after Jean Piaget's stages of cognitive development have been traversed, the patterns of personal meaning structures remain largely stable from young adulthood. In the model of ego development , Jane Loevinger describes the stages of development associated with personal maturity and increasing differentiation, growing organizational complexity and the increasing ability of unconscious personality to integrate. The capacities of structural personality changes relate to the fundamental unit of meaningful development potentials.

Comparison of personality theories and scientific trends

Numerous assessment criteria for personality theories are suggested in the psychological literature. In contrast to the formation of theories in the natural sciences, it is not a matter of a structure of exact terms and empirically tested derivations from general laws, but of theoretical drafts that try to grasp an extraordinarily extensive and difficult area. Therefore it is mainly about the understandable definition of the basic terms, practically applicable methods, the prediction of behavior in certain situations and in general the scientific benefit in certain professional tasks.

When comparing personality theories more precisely, in addition to the general perspectives mentioned in the introduction or basic preliminary decisions, many content and methodological aspects must be taken into account (cf.Asendorpf 2007; Carver and Scheier 2004; Fisseni 1998; Pervin et al. 2005):

  • a fundamental interest rather in the structure of personality or
  • in the process of change (also with regard to psychotherapy and pedagogy);
  • Interest also in deviant behavior and psychopathology;
  • preferred methods, for example self-assessments, questionnaires, interviews or objective methods such as standardized tests, behavioral observations, measurements;
  • preferred methods of statistical analysis (or rejection of such methods at all).

Are still being analyzed too little the personality theories underlying human images . “The image of man is one of those personality factors that influence the way scientists work. (…) We must therefore always ask ourselves whether a given interpretation represents a necessary conclusion from the data material, or whether this interpretation expresses the researcher's idea of ​​man ”(Pervin, 1981, p. 479).

The history of personality research also reflects more general social developments and the change in human images. The relationships between personality researchers and their personality theories have hardly been investigated (Fahrenberg 2004). In the textbooks of personality psychology there are at most a few references to be found. Most personality theorists do not express themselves more precisely about their own point of view, although preliminary philosophical, religious and epistemological decisions will undoubtedly have consequences for the formation of theories. The possible connections become clear in the practical fields of psychology when personality theories or images of man act as models for professional action - referential personality (Tapu, 2001, p. 14).


A comprehensive, integrative theory that unites the various perspectives is not in sight. Personality theories with a broad validity claim have not been developed in recent times. In many cases, research that has become more modest concentrates on a selected personality trait or on a definable sub-question that is either theoretically or practically particularly important or for the new, e.g. B. neuroscientific and behavioral genetic methods are available. So the focus of interest has changed. Instead of dealing with personality theories or dealing with general questions such as the inheritance-environment problem or the interactionism controversy, research tasks in differential psychology currently predominate, i. H. comparatively simpler and more application-oriented approaches. It is about the optimal strategies of diagnostics (assessment), how certain theoretical constructs can be captured appropriately and in a decision-oriented manner or how changes are to be described appropriately, e.g. B. in probation control ( evaluation ) of psychological and educational interventions or support programs.


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