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The Definition of Personality

Some readers may be puzzled by the assertion that there are no qualitative differences between normal and abnormal personality. Surely a hebephrenic schizophrenic or a severely demented individual has a psychological organization qualitatively different from the average person’s. If personality is defined broadly as, for example, “the entire mental organization of a human being at any stage of his development” (Warren & Carmichael, 1930, p. 333, cited in Allport, 1961) this objection is entirely appropriate.

However, in the psychometric tradition of the FFM and of such measures of psychopathology as the MCMI, personality is more narrowly defined in terms of traits, that is, relatively enduring and pervasive dispositions to act, think, and feel in consistent and characteristic ways. The scope of personality traits, however, can also be broadly or narrowly construed. Traditionally, cognitive abilities (which clearly fi t the above definition of traits) are excluded, and in joint analyses, general intelligence forms a sixth factor alongside the five personality factors (McCrae & Costa, 1985). A more difficult discrimination concerns specific psychiatric symptoms, which may also have traitlike qualities. Some individuals experience chronic hallucinations, which dramatically affect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; other people have long-standing paraphilias that are consistent and characteristic.

Yet, most trait psychologists would probably not consider hallucination-proneness or transvestic fetishism to be personality traits. One distinctive feature of personality traits seems to be that they are quasinormally distributed. We can rate all people meaningfully on a scale of 1–10 on traits, such as nervousness and orderliness, but hallucination-proneness and transvestic fetishism appear to be relevant constructs only for a small minority of individuals. In the language of Baumeister and Tice (1988), most people are untraited with respect to these characteristics. By contrast, everyone seems to be traited with respect to the dimensions of the FFM (McCrae, 1993). McCrae and Costa (1999) have proposed a theory of personality-Five-Factor Theory-that locates traits within the “entire mental organization” of the person. Traits are conceived as biologically based basic tendencies that interact with external influences over time to create characteristic adaptations, which include skills, interests, roles, habits, and attitudes. For example, an individual high on the trait of Openness to Aesthetics may learn to play a musical instrument, form a string quartet, and rehearse every Saturday afternoon. Such acquired skills, roles, and habits reflect both the dispositions of the individual and the opportunities presented by the environment.

However, individuals may also develop irrational beliefs, dysfunctional roles, and bad habits—characteristic maladaptations. Much of what we consider personality related psychopathology can be interpreted as characteristic maladaptations, and it is useful to distinguish these acquired problems from the biologically based dispositions that contribute to them. As Harkness and McNulty (2002) have argued, that distinction leads clinicians to realistic expectations for therapeutic change and a focus on relatively tractable problems in living.

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