Personality theories in the West evolved in a way similar to the evolution of other cultural products like religion. Although thinkers about the human mind may have evaluated many important ideas over the centuries, personality theory in the West are products of just the recent centuries. Starting with Freud (1940), a medical doctor living in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, psychoanalytic thought represented the first systematic ideas about personality. Later other neo-Freudians like Adler and Jung would differ from Freud in some essential ways and develop their own conceptions of personality. Overall, modern science has discounted many of Freudís conclusions. Nevertheless psychoanalysis was heuristic in inspiring and producing much research, for example in social psychology the seminal work on the Authoritarian personality. From the origin of psychoanalysis the evolution of personality theory followed a dialectical process that in turn produced the different perspectives of humanistic, behavioral, social-cognitive and personality trait perspectives (Lewis, 2008).
8.1.1 Freudís contributions.
Freud was a profound thinker, and although his theories find less scientific acceptance today, the concepts he proposed continue to influence conceptions about human personality. He started his personal medical practice by helping neurotic patients. The method he used was free association during which he asked his patients to speak or associate anything that came to their minds. Freud hoped thereby to produce chains of thought that would eventually reveal the patientís unconscious dynamics that he believed originated in early childhood. This process of unraveling unconscious dynamics Freud called psychoanalysis. Freud likened the human mind to an iceberg with the conscious mind only occupying a small area above the water, and the large proportion of the mind being below the water line and unconscious. Freud was also a determinist who believed that unconscious behavior is never accidental, that all that we do in life, our choice of work, our selection of mates, our career paths, all have their roots in powerful impulses of unresolved conflicts stemming from psychosexual stages of development. Few researchers today give much credence to Freudís psychosexual stage theories, but other psychoanalytic concepts have retained explanatory power.
For Freud human personality evolved out of the conflict between biologically based pleasure seeking and our efforts to restrain these impulses and make them socially acceptable. Our basic motivations for behavior grew out of the conflict between a primitive hardwired instinct of sex affirming life and creativity named the Libidos and the destructive and aggressive instinct for death called the Thanatos. Conflicts centered on components of personality, one being the Id considered the repository of unconscious energy seeking to satisfy basic drives based on the pleasure principle. For example, at birth a baby is largely motivated by the Id and demands the immediate attention of the mother with respect to basic needs like feeding. As the child develops he/she becomes conscious of the surrounding world and of the necessity to delay gratification. In colliding with social reality the childís desire to gratify the Id continues, but within the framework of the reality principle. The child learns to moderate the desire for immediate satisfaction replacing it with the hope of long-term pleasure and to avoid painful consequences. As a result the second component of personality structure called the Ego emerges from the necessity that the child faces social reality and delays the demands of the Id. The ego based on the reality principle develops through childrearing efforts of parents and later by the sociocultural environment. Parents also encourage values and morals in childrearing and the Superego develops out of this parent-child relationship with the child internalizing values of right and wrong. A healthy personality according to Freud is one that finds a balance between these competing demands. For example people with a weak Superego are unbalanced and might evolve into psychopaths with little regard for the welfare of others.
There is little reason to discuss Freudís psychosexual stages as they have no scientific basis and is rejected by the contemporary scientific community. However, Freudís psychoanalytic theory also produced the concept of defense mechanisms that appears to have great face validity in understanding both behavior and human interaction. Many people lose the war between the pleasure demanding Id and the conscience of the Superego and as a result experience unpleasant anxiety. To control anxiety people develop defense mechanisms that function either to reduce or redirect anxiety by distorting some aspect of reality. The most basic defense mechanism is repression where anxiety producing thoughts are simply banished from the mind. Regression is where the individual in response to anxiety returns to the behavior of a more infantile stage using conduct that was at that time successful in achieving objectives. In reaction formation the ego switches the unacceptable thought or impulse to the exact opposite so instead of the unacceptable schema that "I hate my parents" it becomes "I love my parents". Projection distorts reality by attributing the unacceptable impulses of the individual to other people. For example a Caucasian may think Asians are deceitful in an effort to mask his own deceitful behavior. Rationalizations are part and parcel of most peopleís life as this defense mechanism seeks to reduce anxiety by proposing good reasons for behavior rather than the real reasons. Displacement is the diversion of unacceptable thoughts like hostile impulses toward a more psychologically acceptable target. So instead of expressing anger at parents the child might express anger toward safer targets like a pet. Finally, sublimation is the change of unacceptable impulses into motivations that serve socially valued objectives. It was thought by Freud to explain creative activity and other cultural achievements as a substitute for sexuality.
Psychoanalysts that followed Freud such as Adler and Jung accepted many of the basic ideas of Freud. The basic personality structure of Id, Ego, and Superego made sense to most neo-Freudians as did the importance of unconscious motivation, the significance of childhood in personality development and the roles of anxiety and defense mechanisms. However, Fromm viewed the Ego as more of a mediator between the pleasure and reality principles, and placed more emphasis on conscious motivation. Erikson in turn emphasized the importance of psychosocial stages and deemphasized the role of sexuality in human development. Heuristic research motivated by psychoanalytic concepts included the concept of unconscious motivation measured in the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), and the Rorschach Inkblot Test. However, overall the research inspired by psychoanalysis lacked in both reliability and validity (Peterson, 1978). More importantly recent research has contradicted many of Freudís ideas and conceptions. For example, Kagan (1989) noted that despite the lower levels of sexual repression in our libertine modern society (that was thought by Freud to cause psychological disorders) the expected frequency of disorders have not diminished suggesting that other variables are at play in psychological dysfunction. On the other hand the ideas of unconscious motivation appear to have validity (Kihlstrom, 1990) since we are limited in the access to the information in our minds, although now the unconscious is thought of as cognitive schemas that process stimuli and control our perceptions.