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The Discipline of Social Psychology, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The discipline of social psychology investigates the formation and character of personality and the ramifications for social interactions from various diverse perspectives. Perhaps the oldest and most foundational divide in the field is that between the champions of nature and nurture (Shaffer 11). At issue is nothing less than the question of What is human nature: how should human beings be viewed? For the advocates of the “nature” approach, human beings are fundamentally the products of their heredity: the abilities, skills, capacities, and dispositions of any given individual are the result of their heritage, rather than of any sort of cultural and/or familial influences in the social environment in which they were raised (11). As one proponent of the “nature” approach stated: “Nearly all of the misery and nearly all of the happiness in the world are due not to environment… The differences among men are due to differences in the germ cells with which they were born’” (Wiggam, qtd. in Shaffer 11).

Thus, the nature approach argues that the character, the personality, and even one’s success or lack thereof in life, all of these things are the result of the genes that one has inherited from one’s parents. The roots of this idea in modern thinking about human development and psychology go back to the great 17th-century social-political thinker Thomas Hobbes: Thomas Hobbes believed that children are by nature “inherently selfish egoists who must be controlled by society” (Shaffer 10). However, there is another, completely different nature-based perspective, that championed by Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century: innate purity, or “the notion that children are born with an intuitive sense of right and wrong that is often misdirected by society” (10-11).

These two views could not be more diametrically opposed in their implications for child-rearing: following Hobbes, the parent or other caregiver should seek to control the child and instill in them good character by punishing undesirable and selfish behavior and praising desirable and pro-social behavior (Shaffer 11). On the other hand, if one follows Rousseau, then parents should try not to get in their children’s way or hold back their potential: instead, children “should be given the freedom to follow their inherently positive inclinations” (11). And yet, both views have something very important in common: the idea that there is an innate human nature, which indelibly exists and marks the character. Following either one of these theorists, there is an actual inherited human nature which does have a real and substantial influence on the formation and character of personality.

By contrast, the “nurture” approach argues that environment is everything: for the proponent of this approach, it is not the genes one inherits but rather the environment in which is raised that determines the personality (Shaffer 11). The famous behaviorist Watson boasted that he could raise an infant “to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief, and yes, even beggar man and thief,” irrespective of “talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors” (11). Watson’s point was that the capacities and abilities and tendencies of the individual essentially do not matter in themselves: the individual becomes whatever they become, including in terms of their personality, as a result of their environment (11).

This idea is also known as tabula rasa, or the “blank slate”: the idea that the infant’s mind is essentially a blank slate, upon which the influences of the environment are inscribed (Shaffer 11). This perspective was first championed, at least in its modern form, by John Locke: Locke believed that the way in which children were brought up determined their subsequent character and personality, and essentially everything about them (11). This led to an interesting point of convergence between Locke and Hobbes, in that like Hobbes, Locke believed in disciplined child-rearing: in other words, parents should seek to instill good character in their offspring by means of discipline and encouragement, essentially molding them to become responsible, pro-social, mature individuals, with few or no vices or undesirable personality traits or characteristics (11).

Another great divide in social psychology pertains to whether children are active or passive (Shaffer 11). The “active” side of this controversy holds that children are curious, inquisitive, and exert a significant impact on how others respond to them and treat them (11). On the other hand, the “passive” side holds that children are essentially passive, and society molds and melds them in any given direction, and this is what determines their character (11-12). Like nature versus nurture, the influence of this divide will be seen in the consideration of theories of personality.

As Cervone, Caldwell, and Orom explain, personality psychology has traditionally championed a certain perspective on personality, a perspective with two signal features: the first feature is the conception of the person “in terms of behavioral tendencies, or dispositions; a ‘personality variable’ is a construct that describes what people tend to do,” while the second conception pertains to those constructs which may truly be said to be global in nature and character, inasmuch as they may be generalized efficaciously and accurately to the “situation-free attributes of persons” (10). The synthesis of these two conceptions is a heuristic for describing personality in terms of behavioral trends and characteristics displayed by the individual, irrespective of their situation (10).

However, this perspective has its limitations, and they are quite significant: defining people in terms of their behaviors is not enough to really capture the full dimensions of personality, the more since plenty of non-persons also have behaviors (Cervone et al.11). And, too, if one attempts to distill considerations of personality out of context and situation, then one is left with a discipline that has become unmoored from the broader superstructure of psychology, since, after all, psychology emphasizes the context in which various actions, behaviors, and tendencies occur or manifest (11). The cognitive approach, the study of the human mind, is the leading contemporary approach: the quest for an understanding of personality architecture (11). This architecture, in turn, guides the individual throughout their social interactions with others, allowing them to “self-regulate their behavior and emotions, to acquire knowledge and skills, and thereby to contribute to the course of their development” (11).

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is the first great theory of personality. As Miller explains, Freud lived and worked at a time when there was but little recourse for the mentally ill (107). Freud himself studied hysteria, “a disorder characterized by such symptoms as paralysis, numbness, squinting, and tremors” (107). Through the use of hypnosis on his patients, Freud discovered that they could “recall important incidents and feelings… that were otherwise inaccessible” (107). From the perspective of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, personality is dynamic: “’a sort of economics of nervous energy’” (qtd. in Miller 110).

This psychic energy has been called the libido, among other things, and much like physical energy, it can change state, but is essentially not subject to destruction (Miller 110). For example, it can be turned into anxiety; it can be manifested into some part of the body physically, causing symptoms such as paralysis, and it can be turned into thoughts and obsessions (110). Freud’s pleasure principle holds that “whenever possible, energy is discharged without delay”, because the individual seeks to reduce pain and ease tension, thereby realizing an advance in pleasure (110).

Overall, Freud believed, the human being is driven by two main types of instincts: Eros, the life instinct, and Thanatos, the death instinct (Shaffer 39). Human beings try to satisfy these urges accordingly. More specifically, Eros, the life-instinct, promotes those things that contribute to the life and well-being of the organism: “breathing, eating, sex, and the fulfillment of all other bodily needs” (39). Thanatos, on the other hand, is what accounts for aggressive interpersonal behavior: things like “arson, fistfights, sadistic aggression, murder, and even masochism” (39). Thus, Eros is seen as the source of positive and life-promoting or –affirming energies, whilst Thanatos may be seen as the source of nihilistic, aggressive energies.

These great energies are filtered through constituent parts of the personality, which together form the whole personality. The first such part of the personality is the id, which serves as the cardinal wellspring of psychic energies, inasmuch as it is the font of the libidinous urges for instant self-gratification (Miller 112). The id is the veritable embodiment of the pleasure principle: it wants gratification of its urges, and it wants not to wait at all (112). It is relatively easy for the id’s energy to be transferred from one stimulant to another, because it is such a malleable structure (112). Thus, the id might be thought of as the dark underbelly of the personality and mind: it is the Pandora’s Box of seething, churning desire that lies underneath the rest of the mind.

The second part of the mind is, of course, the ego, which in Freudian thought develops out of the frustrated id’s inability to manifest that which would lead to the gratification of its desires (Miller 113). The ego forms, then, because the id cannot simply achieve instant gratification: its desires are not always met, therefore the mind has to evolve another way of interacting with the real world. As Miller explains, though, Freud revised this part of his theory very late in life, and held that the two were differentiated from each other, not that the ego arose from the frustration of the id (113). The ego is essentially the mind’s main vehicle of rational, secondary-process thought: the ego can perceive, logically think things through, solve problems, remember things, etc. (113). The ego understands the world in much better detail, and with far more nuance, than the id could ever hope to. The ego is the “executive” part of the mind: it weighs available information, looks at the options, and makes judgment calls (113). As such, the ego is also in what is arguably the most unenviable position in the entire mind: it has to serve “’three tyrannical masters’”, namely the id, the superego, and the external world (113). The ego, then, is a very important and integral part of the mind, inasmuch as it has both a great deal of power and many demands to meet (113-114). The strains of dealing with the external world and the id can result in the ego evolving defense mechanisms to alleviate and ameliorate its own anxieties (114). These defense mechanisms include “repression (denying or forgetting the danger), reaction formation (acting the opposite from the way one feels), projection… regression… and fixation” (114).

The superego is the last component of personality, and indeed, is the last of the three to emerge (Miller 116). As Miller explains, the superego has two constituent elements: the conscience, and the ego ideal (116). The conscience is essentially created from the prohibitions imposed on the child by their parents: everything that the parents forbid the child to do becomes a part of the child’s conscience, leaving an influence of negative prohibition (116). Thus, the things that the child is forbidden to do may have long-lasting repercussions for the adult; in particular, this part of the superego often internalizes the parents’ edicts and proscriptions to the point that it becomes far more stringent and severe than even the parents themselves, which can lead adults to be much harder on themselves for violating some taboo of their childhood than their parents ever were in punishing them (116).

The ego ideal, on the other hand, is the model for good conduct: just as the conscience proscribes and censures conduct that is considered undesirable, so does the ego ideal hold up certain conduct as praiseworthy and to be followed and admired (Miller 116). Working together, these two parts of the superego are very powerful, and they exert a tremendous influence on the ego and even the id (116). Overall, the superego is in the business of handing out rewards and punishments alike, making demands of the id and the ego and generally trying to impose its will on the personality as a whole (116). The superego also monitors the thoughts of the ego, and may punish the ego for ‘thought-crime’ (116). The superego also serves as “society’s way of achieving order”, and this is hardly surprising, in light of its proprietary and managerial powers with respect to the rest of the mind (116).

Freud has been very influential, to be sure, but his approach is scarcely the only influential and historic view of personality. The great behaviorist Watson believed that personality and behavior were entirely determined by environment (Shaffer 45). In one famous experiment, Watson and Rosalie Raynor demonstrated that young children can be taught to demonstrate fear responses in association with certain stimuli (45). The experiment involved a 9-month-old child named Albert, who was introduced to a gentle white rat (45). Initially, the infant had a very positive reaction to the creature: he played with it, in much the same manner as he had played with a dog and a rabbit (45). Two months later, however, the researchers attempted to instill the fear response. To do this, Watson stood behind the infant whilst the white rat was introduced. Watson struck a steel rod with a hammer to produce a loud and cacophonous noise whenever Albert reached for the tame rodent, with the result that the youngster came to associate the rat with the noise, leading him to fear the rat (45).

Watson was one of the most influential of the behaviorists, but another paradigm, that of cognitivism, focuses on the abilities of the mind to process information, with precipitous ramifications for how the personality is produced and constructed (Keating 57, Miller and Stoeckel 63-69). One of the most important cognitivist thinkers was Jean Piaget, whose stage-developmental theory is a masterpiece of cognitivist thought.

Firstly, in Piaget’s theory new knowledge is classified into schemes (schemata), organized patterns of thought and behavior that guide the individual in the course of their experiences (Shaffer 52). Through the use of schemes, learners can organize new knowledge, placing it into the same category as related, similar knowledge (le François 208). The first types of schemes to develop are behavioral schemes, which are schemes for types of behavior (Shaffer 52). Infants start out by accumulating these behavioral schemes, such as a sucking scheme for nursing, and gradually expand from there (52). Over time, the young infant matures, and begins to acquire symbolic schemes: these allow the young infant to represent and understand things symbolically (52).

The actual process of learning through the use of these schemes is somewhat more complex, however. First of all, the individual learns by means of a process called adaptation, which in turn takes two forms: assimilation, and accommodation (Nevid 353). The process of assimilation is one in which the individual takes new knowledge and fits it to their current schemes, schemes that they have already developed: in other words, when the individual engages in learning by means of assimilation, they are essentially simply expanding on what they already know, without having to fundamentally change their internal schemes for representing, comprehending and understanding the world in which they live (Coon and Mitterer 97). Thus, assimilation is an important process of learning, but is not quite so revolutionary and precipitous as the next kind of learning, accommodation.

This is quite the contrast with accommodation, which is indeed a very different process of learning: in learning by means of accommodation, the individual must undertake the considerable cognitive task of changing their mental representations about some part of the world around them (Coon and Mitterer 97). Through accommodation, the individual takes new information, weighs it against their extant, already developed schemes, and comes to the realization that at least one new scheme is required. And the reason for this is simple: at least one new scheme is required, precisely because the new knowledge and information cannot be fit into their extant patterns of thought (Nevid 353-354).

This, then, is how learning occurs in the Piagetian theory. What then of Piaget’s stages? The first of these is the sensorimotor stage, which begins at birth and last until about the age of two years (Weiten 446). As Weiten explains, it is this stage that is marked with the development of sensory and motor functions, gaining new abilities to experience the world and interact with it (446). Over the course of this stage, infants begin to gain some capacity for symbolic thought as well, allowing them to better understand the social and representational world that they inhabit (446-447). This is, of course, a foundational cognitive breakthrough of precipitous importance, with many ramifications: the individual who has achieved this breakthrough is cognizant of the world in new and outstanding ways (446-447).

The second stage of Piaget’s theory is called the preoperational stage, which transpires from about the age of two years to about the age of seven years (Nevid 354-355). This stage is marked by the ready use of words and symbols, and children in this stage are able to symbolically represent the world with ease (355). Children in this stage are very imaginative, but they also engage in a great deal of ‘magical thinking’, viewing the world in ways that seem illogical to adults (Rathus 365-366). And, too, youngsters in this stage are very egocentric: they are incapable of understanding the world from the conceptual point of view of another human being (366).

This is in turn followed by the concrete operational stage, marked by sophisticated thought and representation (Coon and Mitterer 98). Children in this stage understand symbolic thought with even greater sophistication, and can easily form sophisticated mental representations of the world. They understand conservation of quantities, unlike those in the pre-operational stage: they understand that the amount of a given thing does not change based on the form in which it is presented (98-99). Magical thinking also begins to give way to more rational, logical thinking (99). These tendencies are carried forward in the formal operational stage: in this stage, symbolic representation abilities have become so sophisticated that young people can quite easily form mental representations of the world to consider a hypothetical scenario, something that may even have no real connection with reality (Sigelman and Rider 50). Though is more abstract in this stage, and egocentrism gives way to a full ability to understand the world from the perspectives of others (Coon and Mitterer 98-99).

The approaches enjoined by social psychology necessitate a consideration of those factors and forces most foundational to the composition of the whole person: nature versus nurture, activity versus passivity, and the means by which the personality is constructed. Various diverse approaches have argued for a variety of positions on this, from Freud’s view of the tripartite personality with id, ego, and superego to Watson’s extreme behaviorism and Piaget’s developmental stage theory. What all have in common is a consideration of the processes and means by which the person attains a full and developed personality, with presenting tendencies and character traits. In summation, the championing of any one of these perspectives has significant ramifications for how the nature of humanity is to be viewed, and thus how human beings should be understood: whether as products of heredity or environment, or, more likely by far, an intriguing and heady synthesis of the two.

References

Cervone, Daniel, Tracy L. Caldwell, and Heather Orom. “Beyond Person and Situation Effects: Intraindividual Personality Architecture and Its Implications for the Study of Personality and Social Behavior.” Personality and Social Behavior. Ed. Frederick T. Rhodewalt. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. 9-48. Print.

Coon, D., and J. O. Mitterer. Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior. 12th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010. Print.

Keating, S. Curriculum development and evaluation in nursing. 2nd ed. New York: Springer Publishing Company, LLC, 2011. Print.

Le François, G.R. Theories of human learning: What the professor said. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011. Print.

Miller, Patricia H. Theories of Developmental Psychology. 5th ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2011. Print.

Miller, M.A., and P. R. Stoeckel. Client education: Theory and practice. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2011. Print.

Nevid, J. S. Psychology: Concepts and applications. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. Print.

Rathus, S. A. Psychology: Concepts and connections. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.

Shaffer, David R. Social and Personality Development. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009. Print.

Sigelman, C. K., and E. A. Rider. Life-span human development. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011. Print.

Weiten, W. Psychology: Themes and variations. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.

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