A History of Personality Psychology: Part 1


A History of Personality Psychology: Part 1

Section I: General Chronology and Driving Forces of Personality

The history of personality psychology dates as far back as Ancient Greece. Indeed, philosophers since the 4th Century BCE have been trying to define exactly what it is that makes us us. In 370 BCE, Hippocrates proposed two pillars of temperament: hot/cold and moist/dry, resulting in four humors or combinations of these qualities. The hot and dry combination was referred to as yellow bile, cold and dry as black bile, hot and wet was blood and cold and wet was phlegm. Though much of the work that arose from this theory of the Four Humors was medicinal in nature, it was also hypothesized a patient's personality could be influenced by humoral imbalances.


This categorical way of thinking about personality permeated ancient thinking on the matter. Plato proposed four groupings (artistic, sensible, intuitive, reasoning) and Aristotle hypothesized four factors (iconic i.e. artistic, pistic i.e. common-sense, noetic i.e. intuition and dianoetic i.e. logic) contributed to one’s social order in society.


Aristotle was also one of the first individuals to hypothesize connections between physical aspects of the body and behavior. In the mid to late 18th Century, Franz Gall, a neuroanatomist, fathered the new ‘pseudoscience’ of phrenology, a doctrine that hypothesized correlations between specific brain areas and functions. Gall believed measurements of the skull could reveal something about individuals’ inner thoughts and emotions, an assumption that paved the way for modern neuropsychology. Gall’s work was some of the first to move away from a philosophical explanation of behavior and personality into one rooted in anatomy.


Physiological evidence for such a conjecture arrived in the mid 19th Century with the iconic and fascinating case of Phineas Gage. Gage was a railroad construction worker from New Hampshire when, in 1848, an accident caused a tamping iron to be driven through the side of his face, behind his left eye and all the way through the top of his skull. Miraculously, Gage recovered. Though weakened, he was able to walk and speak. However, the brain damage from the accident resulted in numerous changes in his personality. Though history has distorted the extent of these changes, it is generally agreed that Phineas Gage’s demeanor went from moral and calm to irreverent, impatient and profane. His case is one of the first to provide physical evidence that personality is linked to specific brain regions.


In another conceptualization of personality, Sigmund Freud published The Ego and the Id in 1923. Freud posited that the human psyche consists of three main components: the id, the ego and the superego which control all conscious and unconscious thought and therefore behavior. The id can be thought of as the innate drivers of behavior. It encompasses bodily needs and desires and, according to Freud, drives us to seek out these wants. In other words it is “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality [that] contains everything that is inherited, the instincts, which originate from somatic organization.” The ego can be thought of as the bridge between the id and reality; it is what finds realistic ways to achieve what the id wants and also finds justifications and rationalizations for these desires. Lastly, the superego is the organized component of the psyche and is often referred to as the moral check of the ego. It is responsible for conscience and for regulating the drives of the id and ego by providing a sense of right and wrong.

Carl Jung, a psychiatrist and student of Freud, developed a type-based theory of personality. In his book, Psychological Types, Jung claims individuals fall into different dichotomous personality categories - for example, introversion/extraversion. The typology theory of personality was further popularized by Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers who eventually developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Type theory remains a common conceptualization of personality to this day.


The trend of investigating the personality puzzle from the angle of “what are our underlying drives?” continued into the 1940s and 1950s. Many are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but fail to recognize Maslow proposed that all of human motivation is driven by the necessity of fulfilling these needs in accordance with the principle of self-actualization, which states humans are driven to be the best they can be.  


In the late 1950s, Carl Rogers built off the ideas of Maslow, arguing that yes, we all strive to achieve our greatest potential but we do so in different ways according to our personalities. This line of reasoning leads to a chicken and the egg problem: motivations to do something (like fulfill your human needs) ultimately influence behavior and thereby influence personality (as Maslow believed); but, that personality is simultaneously influencing the way you act upon motivations (as Rogers hypothesized). Ultimately, there is no right answer in terms of which way this circle flows. The puzzle untangling the relationship between personality and behavior persists in modern psychological conversations and continues to inspire research and debate across many fields of study.


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