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Approaches To Personality

The trait approach focuses on relatively enduring dispositions that reside within a person. Traits are almost always defined as dimensions on which every person can be compared with other people. Examples include extroversion, neuroticism, and conscientiousness. This dimensional outlook has historically put a premium on high-quality measurement of traits among those who favor the trait approach, giving that approach a strong quantitative and psychometric flavor. The trait position has also put conceptual and empirical emphasis on demonstrating the stability of these dimensions over situations and time, thus buttressing the fundamental notion that they are long-lasting, internal dispositions that people bring to the situations and contexts they encounter through life.

By contrast, the cognitive-behavioral approach historically has focused on contextual, environmental, and situational determinants of behavior, thought, and feeling, deemphasizing within-person dispositions in favor of external explanations. Advocates of this approach have developed within-person constructs to explain behavior (e.g., self-efficacy, self-concept, mastery, coping strategies), but these are usually framed as variables that arise from experience, and generally involve interaction with the external environment, thus preserving the fundamental viewpoint that external factors are key in understanding personality.

The third major outlook is the psychodynamic approach. It derives from the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and his followers, and emphasizes unconscious mental processes as its cardinal theme. This particular approach to personality is aligned more closely with clinical psychology than are the other two positions. Examples of variables that come out of this approach include defense mechanisms and unconscious motives. Together, the trait, cognitive-behavioral, and psychodynamic approaches represent the strongest influences on personality, although others have emerged in recent years, most notably the evolutionary and cross-cultural approaches.

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