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Which personality theory is right?

Which personality theory is right?

To date, each major personality theory has added to our under- standing by providing a sort of lens through which human behav- ior can be viewed. Nevertheless, theories often can’t be fully proved or disproved. We can only ask, “Does the evidence tend to support this theory or disconfirm it?” Yet, although theories are neither true nor false, their implications or predictions may be. The best way to judge a theory, then, is in terms of its usefulness. Does the theory adequately explain behavior? Does it stimulate new research? Does it suggest how to treat psychological disor- ders? Each theory has fared differently in these areas (Cervone & Pervin, 2010).

Trait Theories Traits are very useful for describing and comparing personalities. Many of the personality tests used by clinical psychologists are based on trait theories. However, trait theories tend to have a circular quality. For example, how do we know that a young woman named Carrie has the trait of shyness? Because we fre- quently observe Carrie avoiding conversations with others. And why doesn’t Carrie socialize with others? Because shyness is a trait of her personality. And how do we know she has the trait of shyness? Because we observe that she avoids socializing with oth- ers. And so on.

Psychoanalytic Theory By present standards, psychoanalytic theory seems to exaggerate the impact of sexuality and biological instincts. These distortions were corrected somewhat by the neo-Freudians, but problems remain. One of the most telling criticisms of Freudian theory is that it can explain any psychological event after it has occurred. But beforehand, it offers little help in predicting future behavior. For this reason, many psychoanalytic concepts are difficult or impos- sible to test scientifically (Schick & Vaughn, 1995).

Humanistic Theory A great strength of the humanists is the attention they have given to positive dimensions of personality. As Maslow (1968) put it, “Human nature is not nearly as bad as it has been thought to be. It is as if Freud supplied us with the sick half of psychology, and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.” Despite their contribu- tions, humanists can be criticized for using “fuzzy” concepts that are difficult to measure and study objectively. Even so, humanistic thought has encouraged many people to seek greater self-awareness and personal growth. Also, humanistic concepts have been very useful in counseling and psychotherapy.

Behaviorist and Social Learning Theories Learning theories have provided a good framework for personality research. Of the major perspectives, the behaviorists have made the best effort to rigorously test and verify their ideas. They have, how- ever, been criticized for understating the impact that temperament, emotion, thinking, and subjective experience have on personality. Social learning theory answers some of these criticisms, but it may still understate the importance of private experience.

We currently need all four major perspectives to explain per- sonality. Each provides a sort of lens through which human behavior can be viewed. In many instances, a balanced picture emerges only when each theory is considered. In the final analy- sis, the challenge now facing personality theorists is how to integrate the four major perspectives into a unified, systematic explanation of personality (Mayer, 2005; McAdams, & Pals, 2006). ■ Table 12.3 provides a closing overview of the principal approaches to personality.

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