Cultural Context of Personality Theory & Research

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  • 0:03 Origins of Scientific Ideas
  • 0:37 Sigmund Freud and Personality
  • 1:51 B.F. Skinner and Personality
  • 3:20 Abraham Maslow and Personality
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson explores the cultural backgrounds of leading personality theorists in psychology. Putting context to the work of Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, and Abraham Maslow allows us to gain a better understand of the inspiration behind it.

Origins of Scientific Ideas

In this lesson, we extend this question to the social sciences. Do these ideas just appear in the minds of brilliant researchers or does something in the scientist's life guide them? Psychology is subject to the same cultural and personal influences that impact other fields of scientific investigation, perhaps more so as both the researcher and the human subject are enmeshed in culture. Let's explore three leading personality theorists as examples.

Sigmund Freud and Personality

Sigmund Freud was a psychologist who founded psychoanalytic theory in the late 1800s, focusing on the unconscious mind and what he called psychosexual development. In many ways, this is no surprise given that Victorian society in Austria practiced an extreme form of sexual morality. However, as with many societies with intense sexual repression, human sexuality seemed almost an obsession of the population. Not only did Freud's contemporaries in psychological research investigate human sexuality and practices they saw as perverse, but many tried to link sexual behaviors to other behaviors, such as criminality and hysteria, blaming the abnormalities on sexual dysfunction.

At the same time, scientific study in all areas grew immensely. Darwin's theory of evolution, relatively new at that time, was widely applied to explain behavior as a result of biological drives. Thus, Freud's interest in developmental stages of the mind, in conjunction with the body and subconscious forces from our prehistoric past, find context in the intellectual movements of the day.

B. F. Skinner and Personality

B.F. Skinner, best known for his work with operant conditioning, posited that a person's actions and expression of their personality result from conditioning through reinforcement, both positive and negative.

Living through WWI and WWII, the society of his time witnessed the horrors of modern warfare. In the aftermath of these events, the desire for a utopian future where societies worked for the good of one another pervaded literature and other artistic forms of expression. Skinner even wrote his own novel entitled Walden Two, published in 1948. It was based on a dinner conversation about returning WWII soldiers and whether they should try to perpetuate normalcy in a society disrupted by the war or experiment with ways of making a new society. In this novel, Skinner describes many features of the psychology research and experimentation that became a cornerstone of his work.

As the science of the day turned away from the dark period of the World Wars, the space age loomed near. New technologies like the microwave and television ushered in an optimism toward the future and the potential for such utopias to actually exist. Skinner believed that the negative aspects of human behavior, those impulses that worked against the collective good, could be trained out of a person, while positive and pro-social behaviors could be encouraged by the use of reward and punishment. As such, he conducted behavioral experiments aimed to achieve those goals.

Abraham Maslow and Personality

Our final example is the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, who introduced the concept of the hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy of needs was a system that details stages of a person's well-being based on whether the needs at a particular level are met and how much someone could develop if certain needs are neglected.

Heirarchy of Needs

This illustration demonstrates this hierarchy as a pyramid that indicates how a person can rarely focus on the achievement of his or her higher needs if the lower levels are neglected.

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