Personality has been defined as a set of psychological characteristics that differentiate one person from another. Personality starts developing soon after birth and continues throughout life. Many psychologists believe that personality is determined by early childhood development involving both experiences and growth environment.
Personality involves a set of constant and consistent traits that make each individual unique (Mischel, 1999). The study of personality development is quite complex and various theories have been developed towards this subject. While the theories have some differences, they all agree that personality is determined by early childhood development. This paper looks at the various theories of personality development and how early childhood growth contributes towards an individual’s personality.
Psychoanalytic Theory of Psychosexual Development
This theory was proposed by Sigmund Freud who argued that human behavior is determined by unconscious urges. He suggested that human personality is composed of three distinct parts: The id, ego and superego (Bem, 2002). He argued that each human being contains a fixed amount of libidinal energy. This energy creates an internal imbalance that is reduced by releasing this energy thus giving rise to pleasure. According to Freud, at childbirth personality is only composed of id, and all libidinal energy is directed towards it (Engler, 2006). The id enables human beings to meet their most basic needs and operates fully unconsciously. Freud further reported that the id operates under the pleasure principle, seeking satisfaction without any considerations to the prevailing situation or the needs of others (Engler, 2006).
As the child grows and has more interaction with the world, the ego begins manifesting itself. The ego’s main task is to manage the id and ensuring its impulsive desires are kept in check. During the initial stages of ego’s development, its only purpose is to ensure the needs of the id are being met. The ego operates under the reality principle; it constrains the id according to rationality and the reality of the surrounding environment (Dicaprio, 1983).
The last to develop is the superego. According to Nye (1981) the super ego begins to develop at the age of six or seven. The super ego develops due to lessons and constrains placed on children by their parents. The superego is mainly linked to guilt as it serves to restrain the basic impulses of the id. The superego is also irrational striving to fulfill societal values and principles as taught to the child without any regards to the well-being of the individual. The ego thus serves to balance the needs of the superego and the id with consideration to the restrictions imposed by the world (Hall & Lindzey, 1978).
Freud also argued that a child’s needs and desires are connected to various erogenous zones. He identified three erogenous zones; the mouth, the anus and the genital region. Freud reported that fixation or frustration in any of these stages will determine the future personality of the child. The oral stage begins soon after birth when the child is being breast fed (Rogers, 1961). A child who is not breastfed on demand or was weaned early will be frustrated. The characteristics linked with this individual involve suspicion, envy, sarcasm and pessimism. A child who was overindulged will be fixated and will develop several characteristic. These characteristics include; optimism, gullibility and excessive admiration of other people (Leach, 1997).
The anal stage begins at around age two, when the child is being taught how to use the toilet. This stage entails a conflict between the id (deriving pleasure) and the superego (meeting the wishes of the parents) (Leach, 1997). A child whose parents are lenient will be derive pleasure in expulsion and thus will develop an anal expulsive character. The individual is likely to be more careless, defiant, messy, reckless and carefree as an adult. On the other hand, a child may develop an anal retentive character as a result of being reprimanded about unsuccessful toilet training experiences. This individual is likely to be more neat, careful, orderly, stingy and passive-aggressive as an adult (Lerner, 2002). The phallic and genital stages occur later in life after the early childhood phase.
This theory was proposed by Erik Erikson and has become one of the most recognized theories in developmental psychology. He identified eight stages through which human beings undergo through from infancy to adulthood. Each stage is described by a crisis which an individual is required to solve in order to successfully proceed to the next stage (Gross, 1987). Three of these stages are very important and take place in early childhood while the rest occur during early to late adulthood.
The first stage is that of hope, taking place immediately after birth until the child attains one year of age. This stage deals mainly with how a child’s basic needs and desires are being satisfied by the primary care givers (Ryckman, 2004). At infancy, an individual mainly relies on the parents for food and comfort. During this time, the child’s view of the world solely depends on the interactions between the child and the parents. A child exposed to warmth, constant affection and dependability, the child will develop a trustful attitude towards the world. If the child is however neglected, he/she will develop an attitude of mistrust and will generally view people as undependable (Ryckman, 2004).
The second stage is that of will and takes place between the second and third year. The crisis involved in this stage is that of autonomy versus shame and doubt (Hart, Atkins & Fegley, 2003). During this stage, the child begins developing motor skill and control over bodily functions. The child at this stage is still very dependent on parental security in order to affirm their will. Parents who are patient and offer encouragement will cultivate autonomy in the individual. Parents who are restrictive and hinder self-sufficiency in the child will lead to the child to develop doubts about their own capabilities of solving life problems (Bem, 2002).
The third stage that takes place in early childhood is purpose. This stage involves the conflict of initiative versus guilt. During this stage, the child aims to improve upon autonomy by learning basic principles of science. During this stage, a child endeavors to undertake actions in order to fulfill a purpose. A child learns how to speak and count with ease, tie his shoe and even button up shirts. At this stage a child also begins experiencing guilt (Hart et al., 2003). This guilt however may arise even when it should not logically exist such as when actions undertaken by the child do not yield the expected results. According to Ryckman (2004), this stage is mainly entails attaining a sense of judgment.
During this stage, it is common to observe aggressive behavior and risk-taking behaviors. Aggressive behaviors arise due to frustration arising from being able to successfully undertake a task (Gross, 1987). A child whose care-takers are supportive and also help in guiding them towards realistic choices, while be independent and initiative while undertaking tasks. A child who is neglected and lacks support or is overly protected from carrying out independent activities will lack initiative and will generally accept things as they are. The child is also likely to experience guilt about their desires and will abstain from activities that are generally meant to assert independence (Gross, 1987).
Social-Learning theories/ Behaviorist Theories
Freud’s theory on personality development was highly criticized mainly because it relied solely on sexuality. As a result, various psychologists endeavored to put forth theories that could be scientifically proven. Dollard and Miller proposed a theory of personality development mainly based on learning. They argued that each individual is born with a set of natural needs that include water, oxygen, food and warmth. During early life this needs had to be provided but as people grow they can perform the necessary actions to attain them.
When young, individuals are driven into action in response to basic drives (Shiner & Caspi, 2003). If a given stimulus takes place repeatedly when a basic drive is functioning, then that stimulus may result into a behavior (secondary drive). One example is anxiety that may develop if a child is neglected or lacks the basic need of security. An important issue in this theory is reinforcement. According to the two theorists, reinforcement involves all activities that decrease the response level (Dicaprio, 1983). An individual will always repeat the response that minimizes primary drives.
According to the two theorists, personality is mainly based on learning experiences. It is made up of habits that develop from early childhood to adulthood. Unlike Freud’s theory, Dollard and Miller argue that personality is subject to change depending on future experiences. Their theory can also be tested by comparing similarities and difference between individuals who have had similar life experiences.
Another behaviorist theory was proposed by F. Skinner who believed that personality is as a result of interactions between an individual and the environment (Nye, 1981). Skinner believed that during early childhood, children simply replace responses in order to achieve a satisfactory reaction. Once a response is reinforced, the child is very use the same response for an identical situation. This theory argues that children develop two basic notions that determine their future personality.
The first notion is that of generalization whereby a child learns to produce responses to a range of similar situations (Nye, 1981). The second notion is that of discrimination whereby a child learns when it is appropriate to respond to a situation and when it is not (Nye, 1981). According to skinner, these responses are reinforced through general reinforcements such as parental approval.
Social Cognitive Theories
Cognitive theories hold that personality is dependent on cognitive process. Bandura presented a theory of social learning which he argued that individuals learn mainly because of the effects of reinforcement. His theory has three main elements: behavior, the environment, and self-efficacy (Emde & Hewitt, 2001). Bandura argued that reinforcements determined whether a response was carried out and not whether it was learned.
According to Bandura, individual responses to a given circumstance may differ due to different previous experiences in similar circumstances (Engler, 2006). Bandura carried out an experiment in which he showed a group of young children a video of a teenager beating up a doll. When these children entered the playroom full of toys and hammers, they began beating up the dolls (Lerner, 2002). According to Bandura, the child saw an older child carrying out an activity without being reprimanded. They then entered an environment with the same dolls and tools. Since they were able to carry out what the boy in the video was doing, they responded in the same manner.
Many studies carried out in modern times have stressed on the importance of hereditary factors in determining the personality of an individual. Basic traits such as emotional tone and temperament are mainly determined by hereditary factors (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2000). These theories hold that traits are consistent, unique and largely influence an individual’s behavior. Some hereditary factors influencing personality act as a result of the environment.
Child who are born with learning difficulties or poor mental capabilities may become shy due to how others perceive them and as a result how they see themselves (Emde & Hewitt, 2001). A child who is often ridiculed or humiliated because of his/her inadequacy may become violent in order to compensate or may become shy due to diminished self esteem. Children especially girls who have big bodies in a culture where slenderness is considered attractive may feel inferior or ugly and as a result develop a personality that always seek attention or hides away.
Personality is as a set of psychological characteristics that differentiate one person from another. According to many theorists, a child personality has three main elements: temperament, character and environment. Temperament is a set of hereditary traits that determines how a child views the world. It forms the basis through which a child learns and interacts with the world and how the child will develop future personality traits. According to Freud, the id, ego and superego form the child’s temperament. Other theorist believe mental and physical characteristic, unique to each individual form the hereditary basis of a child personality.
The second component that most theorists agree on is the environment. A child responds according to the surrounding environment and as a result develops a distinct personality. The most important aspect of the environment is parental care as a child usually interacts a lot with the parents during early childhood. The final component is character and it involves behavioral and cognitive patterns that a child learns during the course of development. Character determines how a child responds to various situations and it continues to develop throughout life. Character is mainly determined during early childhood and while it evolves, people rarely deviate from their initial childhood character.
Most of the theories proposed have several differences. One of the biggest arguments about personality development is the effect of nature versus nurture. Arguments about whether people are unique or similar at birth have also been presented. While the basic tenets of personality i.e. temperament, environment and character are widely accepted, it can be seen that this subject is a diverse one requiring more exploration. Personality develops throughout an individual’s lifetime but it is during early childhood that an individual’s personality is determined.
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