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What is Personality? 2 Opposing Theories Explained

Updated on March 15, 2012

Personality refers to the important and relatively stable aspects of an individual’s behaviour that can be both observable and measurable - in the case of external or social behaviour - or internal and unobservable, for example thoughts, dreams, and memories. Most theorists define personality as psychological qualities that contribute to an individual’s enduring and distinctive patterns of feeling, thinking, and behaving. There are many different theories of personality, each with methods of assessment ranging from talk therapy using introspection, to standardised test batteries, each seeking to explain human behaviour in a way that addresses the maladies of the individual on the one hand and the needs of greater society on the other. But radical differences between theories persist and identifying the right approach for a given problem can be a daunting task.

In this article I intend to provide an overview of two very different theories of personality, psychodynamics and behavioursim.


The psychodynamic theory of personality was developed by Sigmund Freud in an attempt to understand neurosis that could not be explained by the prevailing medical establishment. Freud saw the mind as an energy system and proposed that human behaviour could be explained by unconscious forces that exert pressure and create tension within people. According to Freud, behaviour was the outcome of the mind attempting to seek pleasure by releasing tension that had builds up over time due to repressed desires.

Freud forwarded serval models to attempt to explain these unconscious desires. The topographic model asserted that the mind is made up of three levels, the conscious, preconscious, and subconscious. The conscious contains thoughts of which we are aware of at any given time, the preconscious are mental contents of which we could easily become aware should we chose to, and the unconscious refers to thoughts and emotions which we are not and in theory, cannot become aware of because they represent thoughts and desires which would be traumatic to the mind if they were to be brought into awareness.

Freud is also known for the structural model where the mind is made up of three different parts of consciousness, the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is essentially a reservoir of all energy and seeks pleasure whilst avoiding pain. The superego contains the moral aspects of social behaviour and is the internal representation of the limitations of the external world. Whereas the ego seeks to balance the desires of the id and the constraints of the superego, operating on the reality principle which delays gratification and can distinguishing fantasy from reality.

Freud posited that people deal with traumas or unacceptable desires through defence mechanisms, most commonly repression, but additionally denial, projection, isolation, reaction formation, rationalisation, sublimination among others. Freud’s method of assessing patients was termed psychotherapy and involves a psychotherapist listening and talking with patients in the aim of uncovering underlying unconscious causes to their maladies. Psychotherapists often develop close and trusted relationships with their patients due to the intimate nature of the process.


The behaviourist view of personality was a radical departure from other models of the early 20th century in that it shifted focus completely away from what was going on in the mind to only behaviours that could be observed and measured. Behaviorists were determined to anchor the study of human behaviour to that of the physical sciences of biology and physics and forwarded the concept of determinism. According to Cervone and Pervin (2009) determinism “is the belief that an event is caused by or determined by, some prior event, with the cause being something that can be understood according to the basic laws of science” (p373).

The techniques of classical conditioning were developed by Pavlov and involve pairing unconditioned stimuli (which illicit an automatic response) with neutral stimuli (which illicit no response) in the aim of conditioning the subject to begin responding to the neutral stimuli in the same (automatic) way as the unconditioned stimulus. Once this occurred the neutral stimulus became a conditioned stimulus.

B. F. Skinner went further by developing operant conditioning, where an organism’s behaviour is seen as the result of a combination of reward and punishment. Skinner rejected the idea of personality structures instead describing behaviour as simply adaptation to situational forces. Skinner defined operant behaviour as behaviour originating from within the organism without any apparent environmental stimulus but rather the result of a lifetime of rewards and punishments that had shaped behaviour.

Skinner also identified positive and negative reinforcers which are environmental responses following a behaviour that make that behaviour more or less likely to occur again in the future. To assess individual behaviour, methods of behavioural and functional analysis are used. This involves identifying target behaviours, then identifying antecedents and consequences of the behaviours, also known as ABC.

Behaviourists focus on the ability of humans (and other animals) to learn and adapt to their environments, and are noteworthy for their attempt to advance psychology to a respectable scientific field similar to biology and physics. Their over reliance on experiments with animals however, and their total disregard for the mind, have left their theories open to criticism. Behaviourism opens only a limited window into human personality because its adherents attempt to make generalisations about human behaviour from animal behaviour. Humans do share some behaviour with animals, but many we do not. This fact has not limited the impact behaviourism has had on the advertising and educational industries nor does it imply that behavioural techniques don’t work. In regards to changing maladaptive behaviours functional analysis and the ABC (antecedent, behaviour, consequence) methods offer educators a simple to understand series of techniques that in many case will achieve temporary results. The failure of this approach to understand the more complex casual factors to behaviour make it inappropriate as a stand alone solution.

The task of explaining human behaviour is fraught with difficulties as theorists appear caught between the aspirations of philosophy, the requirements science, and the ideology of the day. Psychology however, inches closer to science by the year, perhaps one day being able to offer solutions devoid of utopian idealism, instead based on what humans are rather than what we wish them to be.


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    • powered2020 profile image

      powered2020 6 years ago from New Zealand

      Hi Chris, thanks for your comments and encouragement!

    • Chris Achilleos profile image

      Chris Achilleos 6 years ago

      Very interesting and informative hub :) I have studied personality theories when I was in University. Voted up, interesting and sharing :)

    • powered2020 profile image

      powered2020 6 years ago from New Zealand

      Thank you Ruby, glad you enjoyed it.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 6 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Great food for thought. Thank you!