Some Psychological Perspectives On Traits, Temperament and Personality

To add to the confusion, there are terms like trait, temperament, personality and behavior that overlap with emotions and feelings. There are several thousand words representing traits alone, many of which seem similar but have subtle differences, such as meticulous, careful, or conscientious. Traits are essentially names that describe regularly observed behaviors without attempting to explain them. They are usually determined by a self-report questionnaire that requires describing yourself by checking off relevant adjectives or answering questions about typical behaviors you are conscious of displaying. These responses are then assigned to different clusters of traits and it is this collection of traits that makes up what we refer to as personality. Temperament is somewhere between personality as a whole and a particular trait in terms of its breadth. It refers to the characteristic peculiarities of people as manifested by their reactions. The word derives from the Latin verb temperare (to mix). The noun temper was used by medieval alchemists to refer to a mixture of elements and later led to temperament to describe a mixture of mental traits. There are various theories as to how traits contribute to temperament. One proposes that each of the dimensions of temperament is rooted in a particular emotion that forms the basis for personality characteristics. Thus, being anger prone would favor the development of aggressiveness, and an intense interest would account for the temperament trait of persistence.

Varied attempts to get at the roots of personality and emotional disorders by psychologic characteristics were made in the early 20th century. The most influential was Sigmund Freud's concepts of id and ego and the use of psychoanalysis. Carl Jung questioned the degree of importance Freud assigned to sexual drive, and focused more on distinguishing between two basic means of modulating basic drives; introversion, a preoccupation with one's inner world at the expense of social interactions, and extroversion as a preference for social interplay in living out inner drives or libido. Alfred Adler introduced compensation, a coping strategy in which a person with a feeling of inferiority related to a physical or mental inadequacy would compensate by exaggerating some other behavior. Shortness of stature, for example, could lead to developing a domineering, controlling behavior. Freud's developmental concept of sexual , aggressive, and self-preservative drives in children was subsequently modified by Erik Erikson, who integrated psychological, social, and biological factors. My good friend, the late Hans Eysenck, later reduced everything into just three clusters of traits he called introversion-extroversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism, and attempted to explore the biological roots for each.

While humoral and morphologic theories emphasized heredity, psychological approaches focused on environmental influences. The latest is Richard Dawkins' 1976 The Selfish Gene concept of memes, or contagious attitudes and feelings that are acquired from others. Stay tuned for more.


By Paul Rosch

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