Senior Communication Major at Spring Arbor University
Suppose I gave ten different people their own plots of land and building materials and told them to build a house. Those ten houses would all look very different, depending on each person’s plan for the house and how skilled of a builder they were. This would be true even if I gave them all identical building materials. Surely if I gave them all varying building materials, the houses would look even more diverse. Suppose an observer inquired about one of the ten houses, saying, “What made this house the way it is? The building materials, or the way he/she built the house?” Clearly, both contributed to the house. The house could not have been built without the building materials, but it also would not be the way it was unless the builder actually built it. Like the curious observer, psychologists have long attempted to discover what makes people the way they are. This is no easy task, because people are even more complicated than buildings. Psychology theorists and researchers have argued for decades whether nature or nurture is the main driving force in people’s development, and additionally, how much free will people have in their own personalities. Lots of elements play into this, and whole books have been written on personality development. Two essential and inseparable contributing factors to personality are biology and cognitive perception, understanding that personality is not a fixed entity, but develops across the lifespan.
A large part of personality results from genetics. Any parent with multiple children will tell you that children are simply born different. Some are born strong-willed and obstinate, and others more agreeable and sensitive. While genes do not absolutely determine how someone is, they do play a large part in their personality; they are the building materials with which people build their house.
Studies of twins who grew up apart are valuable to help assess the heritability of a trait, or how much a trait is due to genetics. The way twin studies work is if identical twins (who share 100% of their genes, or building materials) are more similar to each other than fraternal twins (who only share 50% of their genes, just like normal siblings), “then this provides evidence that is compatible with a heritability interpretation” (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 166). For example, twin studies have proven that “dominance, height, and the ridge count” on fingertips are all heritable. Additionally, Henderson “reviewed the literature on more than 25,000 pairs of twins” and “found substantial heritability” for both extraversion and neuroticism (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 169).
One of the main theories of depression involving genetics, the diathesis-stress model, asserts that some people have a “preexisting vulnerability, or diathesis” towards depression, but “a stressful life event must occur in order to trigger the depression,” like the death of a family member or job loss (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 419). This theory does not say that biology is the only cause of depression, but rather that it plays a part in people becoming depressed. Returning to the house analogy, brittle building blocks may not be a problem at all until a storm comes. If a person is given more flimsy building blocks than the other builders, and a storm comes, their home may “collapse” into depression because of the genetic tendency towards it. Genetics does not determine personality with finality, but it does provide the building blocks that people have to work with for their house.
Another crucial aspect of personality development is how people choose to perceive the world. Although there is an objective reality, people interpret it so differently. Various people can have the exact same thing happen in their lives and perceive it and respond to it completely differently. As John Milton said in his poem Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…” (Milton, p. 96). Everyone has met those people who seem to be having the worst day of their lives half of the time, complaining incessantly about the smallest misfortunes. Most of us have also met people who are going through cancer treatments or living on the streets, and yet radiate joy and contentment, still serving others despite their intense personal struggles. How can this be?
A large part is how we choose to perceive events in our lives. Cognition is defined by Larsen and Buss as “a general term referring to awareness and thinking, as well as to specific, mental acts such as perceiving, attending to, interpreting, remembering, believing, judging, deciding, and anticipating” (2014, p. 367). One major aspect of cognition is perception, and another is interpretation, or “making sense of, or explaining, various events in the world” – how we make meaning of life events, or the way we view the world (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 368). When two people look at the exact same inkblot, “one person might see a family of butterflies landing on a garden of flowers, and another person, looking at the same inkblot, might see a dog that has been hit by a car, with blood splattered all over the street” (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 368). Another example of how people perceive and interpret things differently is the difference in how people physically perceive pain. Aneseth Petrie studied differences in tolerance for sensory stimulation, and theorized that people who tolerated pain well had a nervous system that “reduced the effects of sensory stimulation,” but those who had a low pain tolerance had a nervous system that “amplified” sensory stimulation (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 373).
Not only do people physically perceive pain differently, but people also interpret events in their lives differently through they way they choose to explain what happens to them. Typically, a pessimistic explanatory style of a negative event, such as a break-up of a romantic relationship, is internal (for example: “My girlfriend broke up with me because I am a loser”), stable or unchanging (for example: “My girlfriend broke up with me because I am not her type physically”), and global (for example: “My girlfriend broke up with me because I am an idiot in all areas of life”) (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 382-383). In contrast, an optimistic explanatory style tends to be more external (for example: “My girlfriend is too busy to have a boyfriend”), unstable (for example: “My girlfriend needs to figure out where she wants to go in life, and then we could get back together”), and specific (for example: “I cheated on my girlfriend one time, so she broke up with me”) (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 382-383). While it is not helpful to lie to yourself about the reason an event occurred, it can be adaptive to choose to interpret things in a specific way that does not make you believe that your entire life is a failure due to one event. Although an optimistic explanatory style is sometimes referred to as optimism, there is a distinction. According to Sanjuan and Magalleres, “optimism reflects an expectation that good things will happen, while positive explanatory style reflects a relatively stable tendency to explain bad events with external, unstable, and specific causes” (2008, p. 714). Longitudinal studies have demonstrated a link between negative explanatory styles and clinical depression, as well as anxiety (Sanjuan & Magalleres, 2008, p. 714). Psychologist Aaron Beck studied how depressed people often explain things in their lives in a cognitive triad: distorting and overblowing negative aspects of themselves, “the world, and the future” (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 419). Clearly, explanatory style has a large impact on personality, as well as the likelihood that one will experience negative emotions.
Another important aspect of cognitive perception and interpretation is how people view their locus of control. Psychologists used to study this in a general sense, but now they believe it is more effective to study it as it relates to specific areas of life, such as marriage, health, and academics (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 379-380). Some people think that if you work hard enough, you can make marriage work. Others view marriage as being left up to luck – you try your hardest and hope it works out, but ultimately, some marriages fail with no one at fault. There are some negative consequences associated with having a very high internal locus of control (such as anxiety in those who truly lack opportunities, like those in impoverished countries, and people who have a terminal illness they cannot do anything about); however, generally people with a high internal locus of control tend to be less obese later in life, have higher credit ratings, and complete Bachelor’s degrees in less time (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 379).
Sometimes the way we choose to perceive events in our lives is driven by our desire to protect ourselves from some kind of pain. Sigmund Freud, a notable psychologist for many reasons, first developed the idea of defense mechanisms that people use to help reduce their anxiety about events in their lives. A few examples of kinds of defense mechanisms are denial (“insisting that things are not the way they seem”), rationalization (“generating acceptable reasons for outcomes that might otherwise appear socially unacceptable”), and projection (projecting “our own unacceptable qualities on others”) (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 279-280). People can choose to perceive things one way in order to prevent themselves from seeing reality, because it might be painful. Defensive pessimism is another way people do this. Before a test, for example, a student might say to their friends, “There is no way that this test can go well; I am going to epically fail.” That way, if they do fail, it will not be as difficult for them to handle because they have already mentally prepared themselves (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 450).
Viewing personality as partially dependent on explanatory style is hopeful, people can be taught to explain events in their life differently, which overtime can help create a more health explanatory style. A person’s explanatory style is typically consistent over time, but it is not fixed in stone. This means that parents can even help their children to explain the events in their lives in a healthy way. Some people are born with an inborn ability to be optimistic, but you can also teach skill that to some extent. How people choose to interpret the events in their lives is a large part of why they are the way they are; it relates to their part of building the house that is their personality.
In addition to understanding biology and cognitive perception as integral in the development of personality, it is essential to acknowledge that personality, though it is relatively stable, develops across the entire lifespan. This contradicts Freud’s perspective, that our personalities are determined by elementary school (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 308). Erikson taught that there are eight stages of development that every person goes through, from infancy until old age, and that in each phase, there is a “psychosocial crisis” that needs to be resolved (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 309). These include “mistrust vs. trust” in infancy, “shame and doubt vs. autonomy” in toddlerhood, “guilt vs. initiative” in young childhood, “inferiority vs. industry” in elementary school, “role confusion vs. identity” in adolescence, “isolation vs. intimacy” as a young adult, “stagnation vs. generativity” in middle adulthood, and finally, “despair vs. integrity” in late adulthood (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 309). Consistent with Freud’s psychosexual stage model of development, Erikson “maintained the notion of fixation, meaning that if the crisis was not successfully and adaptively resolved, then personality development could become arrested and the person would continue to be preoccupied by that crisis in development” (Larsen & Buss, 2014, p. 310). Considering the idea of personality developing throughout the lifespan, it is reasonable to say that in the personality analogy of the house, people continue to remodel and reorganize their house, even potentially tearing down and rebuilding sections of it, throughout their lifetime.
Two essential contributing factors to personality development are biology and cognitive perception, and personality develops across the lifespan. Continuing with the analogy of a house as a person’s personality, biology provides people the building blocks for their house. These building blocks are unique for every person. However, each person can take those building blocks, and through the way they choose to view the world, construct their house differently. We are given the building materials; we build the house. Relating to but concurrently transcending the scope of personality research, the essential question to consider when pondering biology and cognitive perception is: are people basically good or evil? Evolutionary psychologists propose that everything humans do is motivated by a desire to procreate for the survival of their genes, therefore ultimately selfish – leading to the conclusion that humans are basically evil. Psychologists who focus on the potential for self-actualization, or who believe humans are born as a blank slate or tabula rasa, tend to have an optimistic and hopeful view of humanity that suggests humans are basically good. Ultimately, it comes down to your worldview. According to a Christian worldview, humans are created by God as good and reflect His image, but are born with a sinful nature. Therefore people are essentially bad because of their sin, until they decide to follow Jesus Christ and accept His atoning death and resurrection for their sins. Jesus Christ offers unending grace, forgiveness, and righteousness, making humans “good” again. Considering this perspective, while studying personality is certainly helpful and worthwhile, it does not and cannot go the distance to explain everything about humanity.
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Image from http://www.slideshare.net/yousuf12/personality-14032589.