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What Forces Shape Our Personalities?

What Forces Shape Our Personalities?

Personality makes us not only human but also different from everyone else. Thus, we might think of personality as the “default settings” for our individually unique pat- terns of motives, emotions, and perceptions along with our learned schemas for un- derstanding ourselves and our world (McAdams & Pals, 2006). Personality is also the collective term for the qualities that make us who we are. All of this, in turn, is embed- ded in the context of our culture, social relationships, and developmental level. In other words, virtually every aspect of our being comes together to form our personality (see Figure 10.1.). We can capture this idea in our Core Concept for this section.

Personality is shaped by the combined forces of biological, situ- ational, and mental processes—all embedded in a sociocultural and developmental context.

We can think of personality as the inter- section of all the psychological charac- teristics and processes that make us both human and, at the same time, different from everyone else.

Personality: Theories of the Whole Person

Let’s look at each of these elements of personality, beginning with an overview of the forces of biology and evolution.

Biology, Human Nature, and Personality Put two laboratory rats in a cage and electrify the floor with repeated shocks, and the rats will attack each other. We can see much of the same behavior in humans, who lash out at any convenient target when they feel threatened. Thus, in the early 20th century, the number of lynchings of Blacks in the Southern United States rose and fell in a mirror-image response to the state of the economy—particularly the price of cotton. And in the 1930s, Nazi leader Adolph Hitler placed the blame for Germany’s economic troubles on Jews, against whom he turned Germany into a racist Nazi state that embraced the Holocaust—the systematically orchestrated genocide of all Euro- pean Jews.

These are all examples of what Sigmund Freud called displacement of aggression. Sometimes we call it scapegoating, after the ancient Hebrew ritual of symbolically transferring the sins of the tribe to a goat that was then driven out into the desert to die. Displacement was also what William James was talking about when he suggested that Harvard’s refusal to give Mary Calkins the degree she earned was “enough to make dynamiters of you and all women.” He meant female terrorists who would feel justified in using dynamite to blow up Harvard University, or at least its sexist male administration.

Nothing, of course, can justify mayhem, murder, or genocide—but perhaps we can explain these actions. According to David Barash (2007), human history is the story of those who responded to painful or threatening situations by striking at the nearest tar- get. Those who did so had a clear evolutionary advantage over those who just sat and “took it” because they were less likely to be victims the next time around. They were also more likely to breed and pass along this tendency for aggression and displacement to their descendants.

Displacement of aggression is not the only human characteristic that seems to be built into our biology. As we noted earlier, most people prefer pleasure to pain— often sexual pleasure. The obvious human propensity for sex and aggression fits with Darwin’s idea that we come from a long line of ancestors who were driven to survive and reproduce. Sigmund Freud, picking up this “survival of the fittest” notion, argued that everything we do arises from a sex-based survival “instinct” and an “instinct” for defense and aggression. Other theorists have proposed that personality is based on still other motives that undoubtedly have some basis in biology—particularly social motives. Much like ants and bees, they have pointed out, we humans are “social animals” too.

Which view is right? Modern neuroscience and evolutionary psychology suggest that the search for only a few basic urges behind all human behavior is misguided (McAdams & Pals, 2006). The emerging picture is a far messier one. We (that is, our brains) seem to be collections of “modules,” each adapted to a different purpose— which may be the reason we have so many different motives, each operating by differ- ent rules, as we saw in the previous chapter. Sex, aggression, hunger, affiliation, thirst, and achievement—each is simultaneously a separate module in the brain but also a part of the collective entity we call “personality.”

The Effects of Nurture: Personality and the Environment Biology and evolution can’t explain everything. Even the geneticists grudgingly admit that heredity accounts for only roughly half our characteristics (Robins, 2005). For example, a child whose parents both have schizophrenia, a largely genetically based mental disorder, is likely also to develop schizophrenia only 50 percent of the time. What accounts for the rest of the equation? The rest, broadly speaking, comes from the environment, which molds us according to the principles of behavioral conditioning, cognitive learning, and social psychology.

What environments make the most difference? Many personality theorists empha- size early childhood experiences: From this perspective, your own personality owes much to your parents, not just for their genes but also for the environment they gave you (assuming you were raised by your parents). At the extreme, children who receive essentially no human contact, as in those abandoned to custodial care in the worst of orphanages, emerge as stunted on virtually every measure of physical and mental well- being (Nelson et al., 2007; Spitz, 1946).

There is some dispute over just how persistent the family environment is as we come under the sway of adolescent peer pressures (Harris, 1995). Yet even birth order seems to influence personality throughout our lives, because the environment for each successive child in a family—from the oldest to the youngest—is different. Were you the first child? If so, you are more likely than your later-born siblings to end up in a career that requires use of your intellect and high achievement, says development theo- rist J. Frank Sulloway (1996). Or are you the youngest? Chances are that you are more likely to make people laugh than your more sober older siblings. A specific example underscores the point: In a study of more than 700 brothers who played professional baseball, Sulloway found that younger brothers were far more likely to take chances and risks, such as attempting to steal bases, than were their more conservative first- born siblings. In addition, the younger brothers were also more likely to be successful when they took such risks (Sulloway & Zweigenhaft, 2010). Incidentally, the high- achieving Mary Calkins, as the first-born of five children in her family, fits the pattern. (We should add that no one believes these patterns always hold true; they are merely statistical probabilities that hold on average.)

So important are environmental influences that personality psychologist Walter Mischel (2003) has suggested that they usually overwhelm all other effects—including any inborn traits. Just think how often during the day you simply respond to environmental dictates, from the ringing of your alarm clock to the commands of red traffic lights to the inquiry, “How are you?” So, is Mischel right? We will examine this issue, better known as the person– situation controversy, in the Critical Thinking Applied section at the end of the chapter.

The Effects of Nature: Dispositions and Mental Processes Important as the environment is, we still must pass our experiences through a series of internal mental “filters” that represent core elements of personality. Suppose, for example, that you are an outgoing person—an extravert—who prefers to be with other people than to be more solitary. Your sister, however, prefers to spend more time alone practicing music and painting with watercolors. She would be classified as an introvert. You will interpret your experiences from your extraverted point of view. Party time! The introvert–extravert dimension exemplifies the descriptive approach to personality, focusing on an individual’s relatively stable personality characteristics or dispositions. Others that we might call process theories go beyond description to explain personality in terms of the internal personality processes we have been studying throughout this text: motivation, perception, learning, and development, as well as conscious and unconscious processes. For a complete explanation of personality, we seem to need both the disposi- tional theories and process theories that we will encounter later in the chapter.

Social and Cultural Contributions to Personality According to cross-cultural psychologist Juris Draguns (1979), the very concept of personality theory is a Western (Euro-American) invention. So it is not surprising that the most comprehensive and influential theories of personality were created by people trained in the framework of the Western social sciences, with a built-in bias toward individualism and a unique “self” (Guisinger & Blatt, 1994; Segall et al., 1999). Other cultures, however, address the problem of differences among people in their own ways. Most of these non-Western perspectives have originated in religion (Walsh, 1984). Hindus, for example, see personality as a union of opposing characteristics (Murphy & Murphy, 1968). The Chinese concept of complementary opposite forces, yin and yang, provides another variation on this same theme.

disposition Relatively stable personality pattern, including temperaments, traits, and personality types.

personality process The internal working of the personality, involving motivation, emotion, perception, and learning, as well as unconscious processes.

But what about the inverse problem? What influence does culture have on personal- ity? We will see that, in a few respects, personality is much the same across cultures. That is, we can describe people all over the world in terms of just a few basic personality traits. For instance, people everywhere vary in their level of anxiety and in their tendency to be outgoing or introverted. But there are also components of personality on which cultures themselves exert huge differences. One example involves individualism versus collectiv- ism. People in the United States and other Western countries tend to emphasize individual- ism, which rewards those who stand out from the crowd because of such characteristics as talent, intelligence, or athletic ability. In contrast, people in the more group-oriented cultures of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East emphasize collectivism, which rewards people for fitting in with the group and promoting social harmony.

And within any culture, be it individualistic or collectivistic, social relationships have an enormous impact on personality—as we have noted in neglected children and in those forced to grow up in “tough” neighborhoods. To a large extent, who you are is determined by those with whom you interacted while growing up, including not just your parents but also your siblings, classmates, teachers, and anyone else with whom you had spent time interacting. Thus, your personality is, in part, a creation of other people—so, in the final section of this chapter, we will look more closely at just how these social and cultural factors shape our personalities. An interesting new issue to consider is the impact on you of your Facebook friends and contacts, with some of whom you may never have “face time.”

Cross-Cultural Differences in Shyness The interplay of culture and environmental learning is revealed when we examine differences in shyness between Asians and Israe- lis. Research has shown that in the United States, about 40 percent of adults considered themselves to be shy people (in 1970 to 1980), but that figure rose to about 60 percent among Asian-Americans and dropped to about 25 percent among Jewish-Americans (Zimbardo, 1977). Similar disparities were found when Chinese and Israelis were surveyed in their home countries.

Why such a striking difference in this universal trait of shyness? Interviews with parents, teachers, coaches, and children uncovered a simple causal factor: How each culture dealt with a child’s successes and failures. In many Asian cultures, when a child or anyone tries a task and succeeds, who gets the credit? Answer: the grandparents, parents, teachers, coaches, and perhaps even Buddha get some credit in that belief sys- tem. But what if that child fails at a task, who gets the blame? Answer: All blame is heaped on the child. The resulting behavioral style becomes one of low risk tak- ing, cautiousness, and minimizing personal visibility in general; in short, becoming a shy person. “A nail that sticks out will soon be hammered down” is a theme in those cultures that promotes modest reserve.

In Israel, the child who fails at an assigned task is greeted by everyone else fully ready to take the blame—for not feeding him enough, for not giving her sufficient training, for the unfairness of the competition, and more. But should the child succeed, the heavens open with endless praise. (The Yiddish term is kvelling, or making much ado, sometimes about nothing.) Thus, Israeli children are encouraged to take risks, to put both feet forward, to be outgoing because—their culture teaches them—there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s a recipe for antishyness, to be sure (Carducci & Zimbardo, 1995; Pines & Zimbardo, 1978)

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