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What is a Personality Theory?

(and why would you want to know?

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When I tell people I'm a personality theorist, usually their eyes go flat. After all, it's not like I'm telling them I'm a mailman or a plumber. So what is a personality theory, and why would you want to know? A personality theory is a collection of generalizations. About what? You and me, basically. And about groups of you's and me's. And about all of us as a group.

Why would you want to know this stuff? Because we each make many decisions in life. And because every single decision we make, we make in part based on some kind of an expectation. Some sort of predictable results. From medical decisions to buying a home.

In a way then, we could say that we each subscribe to our own theories as to how people work. Why? Because we each intend to better our odds at everything from landing a new job and getting a promotion to winning the hand of the beautiful young gal who has yet to even notice you're alive.

A personality theory, then, is a group of assumptions about how people work. As individuals. As groups. And as the whole of humanity; as one big group. Moreover, we base these theories mainly on how and what we want to win. Or gain. Or at least, on how and what we want to avoid losing. Or avoid feeling.

Thus, personality theories are collections of ideas used to try to predict things, especially things involving human beings. How and why they do what they do. What they will think or feel.

Where do we get these ideas from anyway?

Often, they filter down to us from some magnum cum laude professor who wrote a stuffy puffy tome filled with far too many meaningless numbers and written in a mystery language. Imagine. Books written about people in words no ordinary person can understand. Sounds a bit dumb, don't you think.

Of course, we normal folks get this high brow stuff only years later, and only if some well meaning soul translates the professor's mystery words into the kind of English, or Spanish, we normally speak to each other. In every day life.

Why would you want to listen to someone else's ideas about life anyway? Basically, for just one reason. As I've said. To improve your odds. At what? At a lot of things. Like getting true love. Getting ahead. Getting your child to listen to you.

Then there's winning your argument. Winning your case. Winning another chance with him.

There's also convincing your professor you deserve the make up exam. And convincing a cop to let you go. And determining if your doctor gives a crap. And determining if your true love is leaving you.

Odds are, you've been in at least a few of these situations. At least once in your life, anyway. Moreover, in all likelihood, when you were, you used your sense of how personality works to try to bias the outcome in your favor. At least, a little.

Then there's the deeper stuff we try to affect. Like trying to help your friend to feel less guilty. And trying to convince yourself the accident was not your fault.

In addition, there are the times wherein we need to find the words to talk to a father, or the right words to tell a friend something painful. Or the times wherein you need to persuade a boss not to fire you. Or a co-worker not to report you.

Even faking a sick call on a Monday requires we consult our sense of human personality so as to plot our course as best we can.

All these things require we have a theory. We just never call these ideas, "personality theories."

Okay. So we all have our own theory of personality. What about the formal theories though, the ten mega thousand word, big thick books that therapists and statisticians have to learn. These folks base their professional techniques on personality theories. What are those theories like?

Basically, we could sort them all into a few simple piles. Even if the theory takes up many volumes.

One way we could do this then would be to divide these theories into just two piles; the ones which focus on how we are all the same, and the ones which focus on how we are each different. Things like gender, age, race, religion, income, ethnicity and so on come into play here.

We could also divide these theories into piles based on how many people they focus on; one person at a time; one group of persons at a time, and humanity as one big group.

Yet another way we could divide these theories would be by how much time they entail. One event. One group of events. Whole lives. And all lives.

Yet one more way we could divide personality theories would be to sort them into piles based on the type of theorist who wrote it. Here, we could divide the theories into the impersonally scientific (trait theories, life insurance charts, behaviorism), the personally scientific (Rogerian, Freudian, Jungian, Eriksonian), the traditionally spiritual (Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Judaism), and the non traditionally spiritual (professional astrology, Greek paganism, Wicca).

And yet one more way to divide these theories would be by who actually uses them. Only professionals. Only lay folks. Or some combination of both.

  • Similarities and differences: gender; age; race; religion; income; ethnicity, and so on.
  • Size of the group: One person; one group of persons; or all persons.
  • Amount of events : One event; one group of events; whole lives; and all lives.
  • Type of theorist: Impersonally scientific theorists; personally scientific theorists; traditional spiritual; and non traditionally spiritual.
  • Who uses the theory: Only professionals, only lay folks, or some combination of both.

By now, you should have begun to recognize things which you, yourself, have embraced. Are you surprised at all at how many personality theories you may have been exposed to? And how many you use in your everyday life?

Like I said, I'm a personality theorist. And I love all this stuff. Even the theories three years olds write.

I also wouldn't be surprised if you loved a lot of this stuff too.



P. S. By the way, the babies you see above? They're a big part of my personality theory. Do they look inviting? Do they make you want to know more? If so, there's a whole lot about them on the site. Please do look around.

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