By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
The humanist perspective, an approach to personality, emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. According to this perspective, our personality is formed based on how we perceive and interpret the world. Humanistic theories were very popular in psychology in the 1960s and 1970s, in part because they focused on the potential for good in all of us.
Problems with the Humanist Perspective
The humanist perspective has kind of fallen out of favor by researchers since the 1980s, largely due to some fundamental problems with its approach.
First, this approach is often viewed as somewhat naïve in its assumptions about humans’ inherent drive to achieve positive goals. After all, Hitler’s personality was very self-actualized; however, his goals were focused on the pursuit of evil.
Second, these humanist models tend to ignore the role of cultural context. Humanistic models were developed by psychologists in Western cultures where individualistic traits—independence, self-reliance, autonomy—are particularly valued. However, other cultures, including many countries in Asia, South America, and Africa, prioritize very different traits—harmony, cooperation, interdependence. For all cultures, the humanistic models often undervalue the role of social identity.
One approach to personality combines both an emphasis on individual differences between people and the contextual situation in which they are in. This approach is formally called the social-cognitive approach but is often referred to as the person-situation debate.
According to Albert Bandura, a professor at Stanford University, a major influence on personality is the experience we have in the world. He believed that personality is formed in part based on observations about our environment. He also believed that the internal personal factors, such as those highlighted by trait theory, interact with the environment in distinct ways. Bandura referred to this interaction between a person’s distinct preferences and their experiences as reciprocal determinism.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Mischel’s ‘Marshmallow Test’
In psychologist Walter Mischel’s ‘marshmallow test’, small children were brought into a room and sat at a small table with a plate containing a marshmallow right in front of them. Then, they were given a choice. They could eat that marshmallow right then, or wait for 15 minutes and then get two marshmallows to eat.
Mischel believed that the children in the study interpreted the relative costs and benefits of delaying gratification in their own way. This approach therefore stresses not just the role of the person or the situation. Rather, there’s interaction in how each person’s particular traits lead them to think about a particular situation differently and to then act accordingly.
In fact, looking more closely at how the environment shapes personality helps explain why some more recent research calls into question the results of Mischel’s original marshmallow study.
Controversy about the ‘Marshmallow Test’
Some recent attempts to repeat the marshmallow study have found pretty weak results, basically showing that kids’ ability to delay eating the marshmallow is not such a strong predictor of good future outcomes as found in the original study.
What explains the difference? Well, one possibility is that many more kids now attend preschool, where skills in delaying gratification are deliberately taught. Research finds that children tested in the 2000s wait on average one minute longer before eating the marshmallow than those tested in the 1980s, and on average two minutes longer than those tested in the 1960s. This finding means that something assumed to be a ‘relatively stable’ trait of personality is instead something that can be taught.
In fact, another point of controversy about this famous study is whether the marshmallow test reflects cognitive abilities, such as self-control which can be taught, rather than innate and relatively stable differences in personality traits.
Impact of Social Factors
Another new insight has been whether and to what extent the marshmallow test reflects social factors, such as how much trust you place in other people. To test this possibility, researchers in a 2013 study conducted at the University of Rochester divided the kids into two groups. Kids in both groups were given a set of bad art supplies, and were told that if they waited, they would get better materials in a few minutes. A few minutes later, the kids in one group were given, as promised, the better art materials. The kids in the other group, however, were told that the researcher had made a mistake, and in fact, there weren’t any better supplies.
Next, kids in both groups were given a single sticker, and told that if they waited and didn’t use it, they would get better stickers. Once again, kids in one group received the better stickers as promised, and the experimenter once again returned empty-handed for the kids in the other group. In short, the researchers were training the kids to either trust or not trust the adult making promises.
Finally, kids in both groups were put through the standard marshmallow test. Kids who had learned that the researcher was not trust-worthy waited on average for only about three minutes before eating the marshmallow. But kids who had learned the researcher had previously delivered on promises waited on average for 12 minutes. So, kids’ ability to wait may reflect their prior experiences with adults and whether they’ve learned to trust or doubt what they’re promised.
Change in Personalities
These findings all suggest that behaviors assumed to be aspects of a person’s stable personality are instead far more changeable, depending on particular situations and experiences.
So here’s the question asked most often about personality: Can personality change? And the answer from a 2019 paper by an international team of researchers is: Yes, but it’s not easy. They found that personality traits are indeed largely stable, but both major life events and deliberate effort can lead to change. Change is more possible during particular life periods—such as young adulthood—and if people are truly motivated to make such changes. So, yes, personality can change.
Common Questions about Change in Personalities
The social-cognitive approach to personality combines both an emphasis on individual differences between people and the contextual situation in which they are in.
Albert Bandura, a professor at Stanford University, believed that the internal personal factors, such as those highlighted by trait theory, interact with the environment in distinct ways. He referred to this interaction between a person’s distinct preferences and their experiences as reciprocal determinism.
The ‘marshmallow test’ was set up by Walter Mischel. The test is considered one of the most famous studies in psychology.