I recently came across the All Psych website which I found to be a very good resource for anyone interested in Psychology. I was reading the Personality synopsis section and was struck by the goals of psychology delineated there :
Psychology is the study of thoughts, emotions, and behavior, and their interaction with each other and the world. There are five basic goals of psychology:
1. Describe – The first goal is to observe behavior and describe, often in minute detail, what was observed as objectively as possible
2. Explain – While descriptions come from observable data, psychologists must go beyond what is obvious and explain their observations. In other words, why did the subject do what he or she did?
3. Predict – Once we know what happens, and why it happens, we can begin to speculate what will happen in the future. There’s an old saying, which very often holds true: “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
4. Control – Once we know what happens, why it happens and what is likely to happen in the future, we can excerpt control over it. In other words, if we know you choose abusive partners because your father was abusive, we can assume you will choose another abusive partner, and can therefore intervene to change this negative behavior.
5. Improve – Not only do psychologists attempt to control behavior, they want to do so in a positive manner, they want to improve a person’s life, not make it worse. This is not always the case, but it should always be the intention.
To me the five major goals of psychology follow the five general stages that I usually talk about: The first stage in my analysis of disparate phenomenons begins with it being descriptive and focused on clearly delineating the phenomenon under study and is generally biological. The second stage usually tries to find the impulses or reasons behind the phenomenon and is more related to explaining causes for the phenomenon and is generally related to motivation. The third stage is usually concerned with development of phenomenon such that we can get some basic predictive properties in the mundane real world and is generally related to outward behavior. The fourth stage is usually focussed on how the phenomenon can be kept in check and is generally related to social dimensions (conformity and peer pressures). The fifth stage is usually related to how the phenomenon sort of gets a unique personal flavor and is generally related to individualistic and individuation dimensions.
Now, as an example I will try to make a case that though all the major theoretical approaches in personality psychology make use of all the stages and have as their goal all the five goals as delineated above; some of them are more focussed on one particular goal/ stage and thus are characterized by that goal/ stage.
Let me briefly review the major theoretical approaches to personality psychology below in the light of this framework:
- Trait / Biological approaches to personality: I believe it is fair to group the biological and trait theories under the same group as the major feature of these theories is to outline the number of factors that can be used to describe a personality adequately. They are primarily descriptive in nature. One can argue that biological theories also explain the traits in terms of underlying biological markers; but that is juts begging the question one level down. Why does neurotransmitter system A over activation lead to this observable trait? They just describe the higher trait in terms of a lower biological phenomenon and are very good at descriptive level; but they lack explanatory powers.
- Psycho dynamic/ Psychoanalytical theories: These theories, the most famous being that of Freud, try to explain the personality and are totally obsessed in trying to find reasons for all and sundry observable phenomenon including accidental slips of tongues. these are very good at explanatory levels, but not very good at other levels like predicting personality from childhood experiences or even in adequately describing the personality structure. They are more focussed on dynamics and less on structure.
- Behavioristic/ behavior genetics theories: These theories , the most famous being Skinnerian theories are most concerned with predicting behavior based on past experiences/ learning. These are the S-R or CS-CR theories and operant theories; the primary motivation not being to either describe or to explain personality; but just to predict how a behavior can be predicted given a personality (previous behavioristic learning). Thus the primary focus on the ability to predict phenomenon and applications too limited to situations and traits that can lead to predictability.
- Social learning/ Cognitive theories: These theories like that of Bandura, Beck etc are more concerned with how personality can be ingrained or learned and controlled. Both Bandura’s bobo doll experiments as well as CBT point to the direction and focus of these approaches: what are the right conditions of personality formation and how that process can be controlled either by providing right role models/ environments conducive to social learning or by changing our cognitive schema. The action has moved away from describing or explaining or predicting to controlling how a good and socially acceptable personality can be formed/ learned.
- Existential – Phenomenological theories: These theories, like that of Maslow, are more concerned with how to improve one’s personality. The focus is on flows, self-actualization, self-transcendence or whatever. One has moved away from mere description, analysis, prediction or control to actually thinking about what is a good personality and how to attain it; hence the primary focus on finding meaning; finding full potential and on improvement and positive psychology