The Personality Analyst

How Personality and Personal Intelligence Shape Our Lives

No Consensus on Judging Personality in the Mid-20th Century

At times, psychologists could not agree on how to judge personality

The mid-20th century was a time of diverse and creative theorizing in the field of personality psychology -- with many competing theories explaining how people's minds worked.  Psychodynamic (Freudian) theory argued that to understand a personality, one should pay attention to inner conflicts such as those between mental defense mechanisms and thought processes.  The mental defenses, such as repression and suppression, blocked threatening memories and fantasies out of consciousness.  To understand a person, psychodynamic psychologists suggested, you need to understand what the person is aware of versus what has been blocked out of consciousness. On the whole, more self-aware people are healthier. 

Certain humanistic theories stressed the empathic understanding of a client's inner world -- the way a person perceived herself and her surroundings -- as the best approach to appreciating her personality. 

Meanwhile, a stimulus-response approach (i.e., learning theories) focused on the behavior that a person emitted (i.e., expressed) rather than on inner personality.  Adherents of these behavioral theories examined a person's environment so as to identify reinforcers of a person's behavior -- for example, a student might misbehave because he craved attention from a teacher, which his misbehavior might regularly bring him.  Such a reinforcer -- the attention -- would cause him to misbehave again.  Follow the reinforcers, these psychologists said, and you would understand the person's behaviors. 

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With so many theoretical approaches in play, the distinction between psychological insight about personality and more common everyday views of a person's psychology was difficult to characterize. (See here for more about this distinction).

Were professional and other psychologically insightful views of personality different than everyday judgments?  Hall and Lindzey's (1978) textbook, Theories of Personality, dominated the academic landscape of personality psychology from the late 1950s through the early 1970s and so it is to that source that I turn for an answer. Hall and Lindzey elaborated two popular uses of the term "personality" at the time. The first, they said, equated the term personality "...to social skill or adroitness." That is, people with good or strong personalities were able to impress others and get along well. In contrast, people with less good or weaker personalities found themselves more frequently butting heads with others and violating conventional rules with little apparent purpose.

The second popular usage Hall and Linzey described, "considers the personality of the individual to consist of the most outstanding or salient impression that he or she creates in others."  Examples of this usage occurred when people said someone had a dominant personality, or a shy personality.

The contrast between these popular definitions and those of the more theoretically-minded psychologists of the time, however, was challenging to characterize. After running through five types of scientific definitions, including, for example, a "biosocial definition" that equated personality with how a person looks to others, and a "biophysical" definition that identified personality with inner brain functioning, the textbook authors threw up their hands in despair and announced:

"...it is our conviction that no substantive definition of personality can be applied with any generality."

That is a surprisingly nihilistic viewpoint.  After revealing their viewpoint, the authors suggested that students of the field ought to accept the fact that each theory of personality employed its own definition of personality (and often emphasized its disagreement with the others):

"...personality is defined by the particular empirical concepts that are a part of the theory of personality employed by the observer."

Given the dozens of theories in the field by 1957, the time of Hall and Lindzey's textbook's first printing, distinguishing between an insightful approach to personality and an everyday approach was quite difficult.  It appeared necessary to make a different discrimination between an insightful approach and an everyday approach separately for each theory, owing to their divergent language and to disagreements among the perspectives. 

Hall and Lindzey did not seem happy with these diverse approaches.  At first glance, the focus of the book consisted of a respectful and authoritative report on a wide range of personality theories popular at the time, including the aforementioned Freudian and Humanistic approaches, trait psychology as developed by Gordon Allport and Raymond Cattell, an early cognitive psychology by George Kelley, and other theories.

Those who carefully read Hall and Lindzey noted that the authoritative presentations of the theories were prefaced and concluded with a critique of each one that was level-headed and also sufficiently skeptical as to call into question the empirical evidence for each theory.  As Hall and Lindzey taught the field of personality psychology from 1957 to the mid-1970s, the field's theories were overly general and poorly specified.  It may not be coincidence that the discipline of personality declined in influence during the same period.  Many psychologists attributed the field's contraction to writings of the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, who argued for a decade or so that personality was not an important variable in predicting life outcomes.  I believe that Hall and Lindzey's text, beloved though it was, was also central to undoing the discipline.  Hall and Lindzey spread reasonable doubt among the field's students as to whether the discipline was sufficiently viable as a scientific enterprise, likely discouraging new students from entering the field.

When the influence of Hall and Lindzey's textbook waned in the early 1970s, the entire field of personality psychology seemed to weaken to the point of near collapse. 

As Hall and Lindzey report, there was no unified approach as to how to judge personality at the time. One might conclude from their textbook that each theoretical perspective had professional insights that might ultimately prove of value.  The psychodynamic psychologist would draw information from indicators of the unconscious such as slips of the tongue, dreams, and free associations of a patient in therapy.  The humanistic psychologist would rely on his or her empathy to understand the therapy client.  The behaviorist would analyze the person's situation to identify reinforcers both positive and negative.  The cognitvely-oriented theorist would look at how a person construed his or her world.  The trait theorist would "read" and interpret traits to describe a person.  And so on, for the remaining theories.  Conceivably, in this way, each theory could develop a scientific approach of merit as methods of research improved in the field -- but these research methods still remained elusive in 1957 when the first edition of the book set the tone for editions to come.

Hall and Lindzey's subtext served to argue that it no longer was enough to theorize, especially in such discrepant ways. The theories now needed to be specified well enough to be tested empirically, and then put to a reasonable test.  Although the various theories made suggestions concerning how to judge personality that seemed plausible, there was no strong empirical evidence that such approaches were much better than a popular everyday approach. 

Hall and Lindzey's work suggested that theorizing was not enough...more serious empirical work would be necessary to find out the best ways to assess others. 

Notes

My claim that scientists attributed some of the decline of personality psychology to the writings of Walter Mischel is based on many sources. See, for example, Kenrick, D. T., & Dantchik, A. (1983). Interactionism, idiographics, and the social psychological invasion of personality.  Journal of Personality, 51, 286-307.  My argument that Hall and Lindzey's text led to a decline in the field of personality psychology also is made in Mayer, J. D. (2005).  A tale of two visions: Can a new view of personality help integrate psychology? American Psychologist, 60, 294-307 (pdf).

The summary and development of Allport's treatments of definitions, and all quotes pertaining to it, are from p. 7. The quote, "...it is our conviction that no substantive definition of personality can be applied with any generality." (and) "...personality is defined by the particular empirical concepts that are a part of the theory of personality employed by the observer." -- are from p. 8.

Hall, C.S. , & Lindzey, G. (1978). Theories of Personality. New York: Wiley.

Copyright © 2010 John D. Mayer

John D. Mayer is Professor of Psychology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of numerous scientific articles, books, and psychological tests.

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