The Unified Theory of Personality*
A child is born with a very basic neural network. This framework is just enough to disseminate the newfound world. The environment etches itself into the child’s mind, dendrites linking simple shapes and ideas. Genes the parents gave the child in some way effects how it develops. The simple network the brain starts with is granted in part by genetics, and determines how effectively the child adds new information, and how well the brain develops to receive this information. This becomes important in later childhood, as language and social norms begin to take hold. After a point, the neural wiring the child was born with has less and less of an effect on its total development. The new neurons are much more plentiful and dense now, downplaying the role of the initial framework. Nature helps create the foundation of personality in such a way, while the surrounding environment and interaction with others does more to shape the personality of an individual in later childhood.
The worn and misused psychobabble term aside, self-actualization refers to an innate desire of all sentient systems to grow, adapt, and operate better over time. Organisms must adapt over time to survive, individually and as a species. Humans are no exception to this; we seek to better ourselves to increase our chances for survival, and to a live a richer, fuller, more comfortable life. A desire to develop is the first step in the path to growth. Some sort of plan to follow is a necessity. This involves outlining a method to reach this goal. Part of this planning process includes being aware of the forces that shape personality. Effective growth must take into account external forces that cause us to react in the ways that we do. We must either change or otherwise control the forces, or invent some way to deal with them in a different manner. If someone were unaware of the outside forces acting upon them, they would be less able to work with or around them. Without adequate feedback regarding progress and the success of this change, one is much like a helmsman steering the ship without a rudder. Generally, with the drive for adaptation comes the willingness to appraise obstacles to adjustment more objectively. Also, another frame of reference certainly helps. Individuals cannot view themselves without their life experiences getting in the way. An outside observer can be useful in helping to reshape the person. Understandably, this whole process is continuous, never-ending, and is usually very subtle. We all change over time, even if we are unaware of or do not desire it.
Of the personality theorists discussed, B. F. Skinner’s approach makes the most sense. His methodology is effective, solid, and true. It is repeatable and measurable. This allows application of the techniques to almost anyone. Much of the aversion to Skinner and behaviorism is an unwillingness to be lumped with animals. It reminds us of our own mortality, how fragile we are. We would like to think that we are somehow above or better than animals. Accepting that we, too, are animals is an important step in applying his ideas; we discover that the way behaviorism works is very effective on humans just the same. Skinner’s ideas regarding a schedule of reinforcement, his approach to correcting errors - as opposed to simply pointing them out - and the premise that punishment never works make this methodology highly useful. Understandably, we prefer a more intimate and warm approach to growth, and to some Skinner’s method seems to be a bit too cold and sterile.
To promote growth and make it more applicable to humans, the ideas of a more personable theorist are used. Roger’s idea that our life experience is an ever-changing form adds a sense of wonder and mystery to life. We seek to become the best person we are capable of becoming. His emphasis on the real and ideal self is worth noting. Throughout our lives, we see ourselves in a certain way, and imagine ourselves to be a certain way. In many cases, the misery we endure is caused by our own reaction to the realization that we are less like our ideal selves than we would like to be. Often times, one of the greatest obstacles to growth is setting reasonable limits. Manufacturing an ideal self that is well beyond our capabilities is unrealistic and can be counter-productive, in that it promotes unattainable goals and unhappiness at never attaining them.
To combat these disparate ideas, we have another theorist who adds much to the arsenal. George Kelly posits that anyone who is in control of their thoughts can alter the way they see the world. Cognitive therapy is an extremely effective tool for personal growth. By choosing the thoughts we have in our minds, we create the mindset we desire for the situation. Negative thoughts beget negative attitudes about activities and events. Focusing on the positive tends to yield a more positive outlook. While it is convenient and desirable to be content in life, it is also unrealistic to believe that all thoughts must be good all the time. Believing that we have more control over our thoughts allows us to overcome negative events that would undermine our positive mindset.
Combining the ideas of Skinner, Rogers and Kelly creates a powerful plan for modifying behavior. Skinner’s ideas permit a schedule of sorts, Rogers sets limits and reasonable goals to accomplish, and Kelly helps us focus on the thoughts and perceptions that we can alter to reach our fullest potential.
Personality growth is not as simple as reading this essay. It takes several great leaps of insight and introspection to be able to approach the self as a malleable, changeable object. Denying the permanence of our beings is one important step in this process. Other hurdles include dismantling culture-bound ideas regarding the self and our unique place within our understood society. Full realization of our place in the universe involves looking beyond our own surroundings. Without a change in perspective, we cannot hope to address issues that we face. In Freud’s view, it is the goal of each person to strengthen the ego, which is to control the id and interact with the superego. The superego is a fiction society creates in the minds of its participants; each meme has value that is not intrinsically linked to its culture of origin. The cultural norms that interfere with the development of an individual should be rejected. Strengthening the ego drives the mind further and further away from other minds, it isolates and poisons. Inflating pride and individuality causes the person to become disconnected; they become caught up in their wants and desires, their particular way of viewing the world. While it is important to keep the ego intact, it is maladaptive to convince oneself that they are perfect. Admitting that we are not ideal is a crucial step in enacting personality change.
Another concept that was not specifically defined by these theorists is memetics, or the study of memes. Like genes, memes endeavor to survive, adapt, and duplicate. Unlike genes, however, successful memes are not necessarily adaptive. Memes act like viruses, in that they can use the host to replicate, and they can often be very maladaptive and malicious. These memes reside in our minds, creating a reality tunnel - a framework of preconceptions and biases that define the way we perceive the world.
Memes can even define our moods. A preconceived notion can be held about an upcoming event, a family reunion, for example. Perhaps the last reunion was a lot of fun, and the participants in the current one bring high hopes for the same. But imagine if a certain relative showed up that diminished the festive air. The mere prospect of this person reappearing may be the downfall of the reunion. If a person (or people) predicts – based on observation or not – that they will not enjoy the reunion for the appearance of the offending relative, this may ruin the potential for merriment. Children often share their dislike for school, sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. Regardless of the basis, the way they perceive school determines in some degree how they feel and act at school. A student that enjoys school is probably more apt for learning than one who loathes school and wishes to avoid the experience.
Suppose an individual wished to focus on the way they see the world, so as to learn to view it in an manner that grants them the most enjoyment and fulfillment, while still being well-grounded in reality. A critical examination of their inner workings is necessary. Here the ideas of Jung regarding personality types would come in handy; a thorough look at what makes the person unique. After this initial assessment, a plan is outlined, some aspect of the personality that can be altered to better adapt to situations. Usually it will be a change of a meme. Maladaptive or non-adaptive memes can be replaced with more functional, adaptive memes. Cognizant of the meme in question, the individual toys with the logic of the worldview, tries to explain why the meme is maladaptive. Upon encountering a thought pattern consistent with that meme, the individual recalls the logic of altering the meme, and corrects the faulty line of reasoning. Perhaps the movement towards growth is reward enough, if not, then a simple reinforcement pattern can be employed. Over time, the maladaptive meme is unraveled, replaced by one that is more suitable to the person. Thus, a person has altered their real self to fall in line with their ideal self, a true act of self-actualization.
*This was an essay I wrote in a psych class. Pardon the psychobabble and any run on sentences. I got a 100 on it, so it was good where it needed to be.