Stability and Malleability of Personality

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Personality refers to those distinct individual differences in characteristic patterns of feeling, thinking, response, and most importantly behaving (Kandler, 2012). Personality focuses on two major areas, one is to do with the understanding of the individual differences in specific personality characteristics such as irritability and sociability while the other centers on getting to know the various parts of a particular individual that operate as a unit giving unique behavioral constructs for that person (Kandler, 2012). Some of the most common personality traits include impulsive, moody, and friendly among others.

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Personality psychology is one of the most explored topics of psychology for a long period of time. Psychologists are normally interested with how the construct develops in terms of whether it is inherent or manufactured (McCrae, 2004). While there is no one single agreed upon definition or observation of what actually personality is, many scientists and psychologists tend to infer that psychology is a quality that arises from within an individual and tends to last for a person’s entire life. Understanding psychology is important as it enables the prediction of how a person would respond to particular stimuli or situation and therefore ideal planning can be done with respect to the same (McCrae, 2004). A number of theories have been put forward to explain different aspects of personality which range from its possible origin, how personality develops, and other aspects such as the distinct threats that can be used to describe personality and the psychodynamic aspects of the same (McCrae, 2004). In this paper, the aspect of whether personality is a malleable or stable characteristic will be analyzed based on the various theories of state and trait of personality.

The traits theories of personality lay their foundation on the view that personality is made up of a number of dispositions that are of a higher variety. These theorists have even gone further to identify the exact traits that would be associated with personality. Psychologist Gordon Allport suggested that there were three major types of personality traits which are the common traits, central traits, and cardinal traits (Mischel & Shoda, 1999). Cardinal traits unlike central and common traits are very dominant on an individual such that they can exhibit a person’s trait. A number of other trait theories exist, but the Big Five theory is the most preferred and acceptable trait theory. According to it, personality is detected by five broad dimensions which are agreeableness, openness, neuroticism, psychoticism, and extroversion. Each trait exists as a continuum that is broad such that an individual’s personality traits lie in the spectrum of a given trait. For instance, one could be highly extroversion, agreeable and conscientious but somewhere between the continuum of the traits of neuroticism and openness. There exist other theories that tend to explain how personality develops and undergoes changes through the life time of an individual. One such theory is that developed by Freud. According to his theory of psychosexual development, children normally undergo a series of stages that enhance their personality development. At each stage, the force that alters all human behavior (which he refers to as libidinal energy) focuses on specific erogenous zones which have the effect of fashioning the behavior of the individual at that state to develop certain characteristics. After a stage is successfully altered, the force normally advances to the next stage and incase of failure, fixations are carried out which may have an impact on the adult personality of the individual affected (McCrae, 2004). According to him therefore, once individuals undergo these alterations they remain part of their characteristic and are expressed throughout their lives. Furthermore, he indicated that personality was determined by the manner in which children were able to adjust to sexual urges with respect to the unconscious forces that tend to alter these specific aspects of their behavior (McCrae, 2004). Personality, according to him, is divided into three main structures and these include the pleasure principle which is connected to the Id mind, the reality principle which controls the ego mind, and the moral component which controls the superego ego aspect of an individual that incorporates the social standards and is able to distinguish right from wrong. All these are arranged in different layers of awareness as below:

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Personality was the result of the interactions or internal conflicts arising from the ego, supergo, and the Id and that those that arose from sexual urges formed the most significant aspect of personality (McCrae, 2004).

Judan also shared the same thoughts about the existence of a force that could shape the personality of an individual. He believed that this unconscious realm existed in two main types, which are the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious (Joseph, 2001). The personal consciousness is the ego and contains one of two attitudes which are extroverted and introverted. Collective consciousness is made up of traces of information that are collectively shared by the human race that are inherited from our ancestors and are formed of four main architypes which include the self, animus, shadow, and the persona. To further explain his philosophy, he stated two dichotomous pairs of cognitive functions which are the rational and irrational forms suggesting that personality could be altered and was therefore not a permanent blueprint on the individual’s behavior (Joseph, 2001). In other words, depending on the ego and the information communally shared at an instance of time, the personality of an individual could be altered to match the requirements of the moment and thus personality was a malleable construct capable of undergoing adjustments with respect to the requirements of the moment (Joseph, 2001).

Erikson, on the other hand, described personality as being determined by the social interactions and hence would vary from time to time depending on the circumstances under which an individual is exposed to. He described the development of the ego identity and how it manifested mainly because of the interactions with their environment. Unlike Freud’s theory, which suggested that personality was stone imprinted and formed the characteristics of man through the majority of his existence, Erikson was of the view that personality continued to grow and develop throughout the life of a person and therefore was malleable and did not behave as a fixed construct. He further suggested that cognitive responses were dictated by how an individual interacted with others and the immediate environment as well as the experiences they had undergone.

Rogers’s Person-centered theory showed that a collection of beliefs about the nature of an individual’s quality and behaviors will form the self-concept, which is the only construct of personality (Helson et al., 2002). He explained that if these beliefs matched our external experiences then a person becomes in congruent with the reality. However, if those ideas about ourselves fail to match the experiences that we may encounter in our reality then one becomes incongruent with the environment. He, therefore, suggested that once an individual had developed these beliefs about oneself it will define their personality according to what their experience would be and therefore as experiences change, so does the personality and cannot be assumed to be stable throughout an individual’s life (Helson et al., 2002).

Maslow’s theory of self-actualization holds that the motives of human beings are organized in a hierarchy of needs and basic needs must be satisfied before secondary ones. Humans also have an innate drive towards the persona growth and self-actualization (Funder, 2001). The process of developing the self-actualization constructs leads to individuals developing an identity, a personality that tends to define who they are for the majority of their lives. Those characteristics that described a self-actualized person are the same ones that are used to define their personality and hence it is stable from the point of formation beyond that of self-actualization.

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From the analysis, it is clear that majority of personality issues are determined by the environment one interacts with and stability or malleability is highly influenced by the same. The environment reinforces those personality attributes that were present in the initial environment of a person. The conditions one is exposed to for a longer period of time will bring consistency on their personality attributes and define their traits. This can help explain personality stability and especially for those individuals who are exposed to a highly autonomous environment from their childhood. Personal attributes that this group of individuals develop when in their childhood is upheld to their adulthood and therefore brings stability to their behavior. On consideration of this and the other theories as discussed in the paper, it is clearer that personality is stable construct as will tend to be formulated in a person’s early life but manifest to the later periods the individuals are exposed to more or less of the same environment. Therefore, personality cannot be said to change from time to time with the exposure to stimuli as suggested by the theory of malleability as this would bring into question the basis of understanding of the whole concept of personality which is that it occurs naturally, but customized according to individuals.

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  1. Funder, D. C. (2001). Personality. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 197-221.
  2. Helson, R., Jones, C., & Kwan, V.S.Y. (2002). Personality change over 40 years of adulthood: Hierarchical linear modeling analysis of two longitudinal samples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(3), 753-766.
  3. Joseph, J. (2001). Separated twins and the genetics of personality differences: A critique. American Journal of Psychology, 114, 1-30.
  4. Kandler, C. (2012). Nature and nurture in personality development: The case of neuroticism and extraversion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(5), 290-296.
  5. McCrae, R. R. (2004). Human nature and culture: A trait perspective. Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 3-14.
  6. Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (1999). Integrating dispositions and processing dynamics within a unified theory of personality: The cognitive-affective personality system. Handbook of personality: Theory and Research, 2, 197-218.
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