Posted by Dr. Pradnya Parasher on 7 September, 2021

Traditional American Theories: Trait Theory, Interpersonal Theory & Emergence of Behaviorism

Learning Corner



In the 1930s, two Harvard professors published textbooks that established personality psychology in North America. These two were Gordon Allport and Henry Murray.

Gordon Allport (1897 – 1967)
For Gordon Allport, personality psychology was about explaining and understanding each person’s individual life. Allport believed that every individual has a set of unique personal dispositions. Working with a colleague, Allport compiled an exhaustive list of 18,000 trait terms in English language, reducing them to about 4,500 unique trait dispositions. These terms have formed the basis of later research in personality. Later research proposed that Allport’s list can be further converged to five broad categories, which became the Five Factor Model of Personality or the Big Five.

Henry Murray (1893 – 1988)
Henry Murray was fascinated by the writings of Freud, Jung and Adler. He was trained in medicine and worked for many years in the field of embryology. In the 1920s, he spent a month with Jung in Zurich, and decided to become a psychologist. He joined the Harvard Psychological Clinic in 1927. Murray is most well-known for introducing the Assessment Center approach to studying individuals, which he called the “multi-form method”. Murray is also known for his classification of needs. He developed the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) which consists of a series of pictures in response to which people tell stories that reveal important personality features, especially needs.

During WWII, Murray left Harvard and went to work for the US Army, where he introduced assessment centers for selection of secret agents. After the war, assessment centers became the mainstay for selecting people for higher-level jobs in industry. Although waning in popularity, primarily because they tend to be resource intensive, and because similar predictive validities have been seen with less resource intensive approaches, assessment centers are still used in business for informing hiring or promotion decisions.

After WWII, Murray returned to Harvard. In the early 1960s, he conducted his controversial psychological research with twenty-two Harvard undergraduates to the study the effect of extreme stress on individuals. One of the students in this study was Ted Kaczynski, who would later come to be known as the Unabomber – mailing bombs to University professors. Kaczynski acknowledged that he resented Murray and his research associates, but he did not think the research impacted the later course of his life. Although never proven or acknowledged, there is speculation that Murray’s research was funded by the CIA to study mind control.

Harry Stack Sullivan (1892 – 1949)
While most personality psychologists conceptualized personality in intrapsychic terms – i.e., within a person’s mind, psychoanalysts like Karen Horney and Eric Fromm were integrating the social system and interpersonal aspects into understanding the development of personality. Harry Stack Sullivan, an American psychiatrist, was friends with Horney and Fromm, and also closely associated with sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists. Influenced by their writing, Sullivan developed the Interpersonal Theory of personality and began to apply it in his work with his patients.

Sullivan believed that people are inherently social and need social interaction much the same way as they need food and oxygen. Personality grows out of and is sustained and modified by social interaction. Anxiety arises when a person experiences social rejection – either real or perceived. According to Sullivan, people have a deep need for secure relations with others. Adult personality develops as people learn effective social skills to gain attention, acceptance and approval of others. Mature individuals are sensitive to the needs of others and have overcome their “ego-centrism”.

One measure of interpersonal skills widely used in the workplace is the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation Awareness scales (FIRO). The FIRO-B assesses how people are likely to relate to others at work. It identifies three interpersonal needs – Inclusion, Control and Affection. These three needs are further categorized in terms of “Expressed”, which is the extent to which a person initiates a behavior and “Wanted”, which is the extent to which wants the behavior from others.

George Kelly (1905 – 1967)
George Kelly, a practicing psychotherapist, developed his Personal Construct Theory of personality around the same time as Sullivan’s Interpersonal theory. For Kelly, personality is about how a person thinks about the world. When a person’s thinking changes, her personality will also change. Kelly referred to units of thinking as “constructs”

Self-constructs are thoughts people hold about themselves. Role constructs are thoughts people have about how others expect them to behave. People adopt “roles” or socially appropriate behavior patterns based on their role constructs. As a therapist, Kelly focused on helping people develop better thoughts or “constructs” that would enable them to solve problems of their life. He developed “Fixed Role Therapy” to help individuals become more socially effective.

Faulty ideas about what is expected of them in social situations often causes social problems. Mature individuals perform multiple roles and are thus able to understand and interact appropriately with others in social situations. They also listen to negative feedback from others and adjust their role constructs and behaviors based on that feedback.

Kelly’s theory hinges on thinking or cognition and social interactions, and many of his ideas are also reflected in cognitive social learning theories, that evolved from behaviorism

Emergence of Behaviorism
Behaviorism is study of human “behaviour” as against study of human “nature”. Ivan Pavlov’s work on Classical Conditioning and his famous experiments on dogs in Russia, signaled the emergence of behaviorism. John Watson established the behaviorist approach in America, arguing that psychology was the study of human behavior and that the appropriate goal for psychology is to predict and control behavior. He also argued that the laws of behavior are the same for humans and animals, and this led to the hey-day of animal research in study of (human) psychology.

Behaviorism and learning theories are not technically “personality” theories at all, in fact, they reject traditional study of human personality. While personality psychologists are interested in studying stable structures within Individuals that determine their behaviors, behaviorists reject such study and find it completely unnecessary. Behaviors, they say, are determined and can be understood by study of external environmental factors. Development is acquiring new behaviors or changing old ones through learning.

Behaviorism has contributed significantly to the understanding of human psychology, especially how we learn and change behaviors. Behaviorism is the foundation for modern experimental psychology and continues to dominate modern psychology, as much as the humanistic and social-psychological approaches to studying human nature.

In the next edition, we will zoom in on behaviorists like B. F. Skinner and his experiments with rats, Albert Bandura and his famous “Bobo Doll” experiments, Watson and his experiments with “Little Albert” – many of which will not pass current ethical standards of research with human subjects. We will also look at humanistic psychology and psycho-social traditions, anti-thesis of behaviorism, as reflected in the writings of Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Eric Erikson.

Excerpted from Personality: Theories and Applications, by Hogan & Smither