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 What is a person
Submitted By DavidvdW | Added on: 2010 April 18 | Total Visits: 20556 | Printable version

What is a person?

An introduction to 4 major schools of psychological thinking

Sue Randall
Freelance writer Sue Randall of briefly describes the basics of the psychoanalytic, humanist, systems theory and cognitive behavioural theory schools of psychological thinking. This article is a good place for a layman to get the basics of the theoretical viewpoints from which many psychotherapists proceed in their work.

The answer to the question ‘What is a person?’ depends largely on who you ask. In this article we will have a look at some of the answers which psychologists might give. There are many different branches within psychology, and people will answer differently based on what school of thought they follow. We will look at ideas from four of the main branches.


Modern western psychology started with the psychodynamic or psychoanalytic approach, which began with the work of Sigmund Freud in Europe in the late 1800s. Many psychologists today still use a psychoanalytic approach, although Freud’s theory has been added to and changed along the way.

Although Freud tried to explain what makes people tick psychologically, he believed that everything is rooted in the body. He analysed how children learn to relate to their basic body functions like bladder and bowels, sexual desires, and aggression (self-protection).

He also described the personality as having three parts to it: the id, superego and ego. The id is the animal side of us and is driven by instincts. These instincts are sexual and aggressive and we aren’t even fully aware of them. The opposite side of the personality is the superego, which is like the voice of conscience, the part of us that always wants to be nice towards others. The superego develops from having parents (or other adults) tell us how to behave when we are children.

The ego—the ‘self’—comes between the id and superego. The ego has to balance the silent, powerful urges of the id against the nagging voice of the superego. When people came to Freud for help with their psychological problems, he helped them to strengthen their egos.

In his view, problems come from having either an id that is too powerful or a superego that is too controlling. If the id is too powerful, the person’s behaviour is antisocial—too aggressive or sexual, and inconsiderate of the needs of others. If the superego is too controlling, the person just blocks all sexual and aggressive urges out of her awareness, and ends up with a psychosomatic illness or depression.

The ego can also be seen as the adult part of the personality, while the id is the child and the superego is the parent.

Modern psychoanalysts still use Freud’s concepts, but today the theories are a lot more sophisticated and research-based. One of the most popular modern psychoanalytic schools is object relations, which looks at the relationship between mother and baby. Children see their mothers as being made up of both a good mother (who gives them what they need) and a bad mother (who frustrates and deprives them), and all of our later relationships in life are influenced by this dual perception. ‘Transitional objects’ like dolls and teddy bears are also important in helping a baby relate to the outside world. These toys are separate from the child’s self, but they are reliable and constant and can be manipulated by the child.


This branch of psychology believes that all human beings are good at heart. Humanism developed partly as a critical response to Freud’s work, which was seen as pessimistic because of its emphasis on bodily instincts. Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow were two of the founders of humanism and both of them lived in America during the 1900s.

Humanists believe that like a flower, any child will grow into a positive, healthy adult as long as her parents give her what she needs emotionally—just as a plant will grow if it has sun, water and soil. To make sure that their child blossoms, parents must give unconditional love. This teaches the child that she is valuable and loved as a human being even when she makes mistakes or behaves badly at times.

Humanistic psychologists believe that whatever a person thinks she is, is true. If you think you’re bright, sexy or sociable, then these things become true of you. So, too, if you think the world is a terrible place that is full of nasty people, this will shape your actual experience of life. If you trust that the world is full of wonderful adventures, that will become your reality.

This emphasis on the person’s inner world is also known as existentialism. However, true existential psychologists are not quite as optimistic as the humanists. They are more concerned with how we make meaning or fail to do so, and they believe that we have to apply quite a lot of effort and courage to create meaningful lives. They don’t see the unfolding of positive potential as an automatic thing, something which will happen as long as there are no obstacles in our way. They assume that there will be obstacles and that we may have to work quite hard to get around these. Both humanists and existentialists put a lot of emphasis on free will and personal choice.

Rogers was the first humanist to suggest the idea of ‘self-concept’. He also said that anxiety comes from having life experiences that don’t fit comfortably with our self-concept. Mental health means having a self-concept that fits well with most of our life experiences, without requiring us to do mental gymnastics every time something unexpected happens.

Maslow also put a lot of emphasis on the healthy personality and the process of ‘actualising’ the self. Self-actualisation means we fulfil our positive potential as a unique human being. Self-actualisers don’t hold back from exploring life and themselves out of fear that others may think poorly of them, or that everything will go wrong. Maslow said that ‘it’s as if Freud supplied us with the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.’

Systems theory

Systems theory looks at how the parts of something fit together into a functioning whole. With regard to the study of a person or personality, this means

  • how the person fits into the bigger picture—including his family, work environment, community, country and global village;
  • how the parts of the personality fit together—including thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and perceptions, behaviour, education, and memory.

Because of its focus on parts, the systems approach does not have a unifying theory of personality. There is some discussion about the nervous system, which includes the brain and the nerves which run throughout our bodies and spinal cord. Behaviour is another important component and is more abstract. These things happen inside the person. The other half of the equation is those things that happen outside of the person. Examples include cultural influences and expectations, and settings which cause us to behave or respond in specific ways—such as a shopping mall, highway, place of worship or workplace.

When dealing with personality issues, systems psychology is more useful as an applied treatment approach than as a theory. Systems therapy treats the family (or a couple) rather than the individual. For example, a girl with anorexia will be treated by a systems therapist via repeated family therapy sessions, perhaps with a few extra sessions for the girl alone. The therapist will help the family—and the ‘identified patient’—to find out what hidden family dynamics may be pushing the child into a sick role and keeping her there. Possibly, one or both parents feel unconsciously threatened by her developing sexuality and her approaching adulthood. At some level, she may be responding to these parental insecurities by starving her body so that its development is stunted. (This particular scenario would also imply a psychoanalytic slant.)

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behaviour therapy is a fairly new branch of psychology that looks at both thought (cognition) and behaviour. Like systems theory, it does not offer a clear or unifying view of personality, but sees this as a complex field with lots of separate process that all need to be understood and then brought together. Personality is thus an umbrella term for patterns of interaction between a person and his or her environment. Personality can also be seen as a consistent tendency to react or think in a certain way, across varying situations and settings.

In CBT, a person is seen as a complex constellation of thinking, feeling and acting. To change a person (ourselves), we have to work with all three of these aspects. Many CBT techniques, such as rational-emotive therapy, look at how feelings and thoughts are inextricably wound up together. Change the one and you will change the other, and then the behaviour will also change. And behaviour, in the CBT context, means not only the things that we do in the outside world but also the ‘behaviour’ that happens inside our own heads!

CBT puts a lot of emphasis on our ability to learn and therefore to change ourselves, which means that personality is not seen as a fixed thing. Albert Bandura was a pioneer in the CBT field, and he developed a theory about social learning. In this model the person is an information-seeking entity who finds and processes data from the environment. Much of what we learn is indirect, because we observe each other all the time, and based on this we form ideas about which actions will achieve what outcomes. We may then change our own thoughts and behaviour accordingly.

A trend in social cognitive psychology is to view personality as a combination of knowledge (a stable structure) and process (change). The ability to create a sense of meaning is seen as important, and this depends on fluid processes and appraisals rather than static knowledge.

One of the main therapeutic tasks of CBT is to help people think more positively about themselves and their abilities—which Bandura calls self-efficacy. These days you often hear people telling each other to ‘think positively’ and ‘expect success’, and this optimistic outlook is at the heart of CBT.


 ‘Albert Bandura’ 1925 - present. By Dr C G Boeree, http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/bandura.html Accessed 1 Feb 2010

Cervone, D. (2004) The architecture of personality. Psychological Review, 111(1), 183-204

http://www.thepersonalitysystem.org/Systems%20Framework%20in%20Focus/pfasysframeandsystheory.htm Accessed 1 Feb 2010

Kobasa, S.C. & Maddi, S.R. (1977) Existential personality theories. In R.J. Corsini (Ed.), Current personality theories (pp 243-276). Itasca, Illinois: F.E. Peacock Publishers.

Maddi, S.R. (1989) Personality theories: a comparative analysis (5th ed.). California: Brooks/Cole

Maslow, A.H. (1968) Towards a Psychology of Being; New York: Van Nostrand

Strauss, A. (1977) Sociological theories of personality. In R.J. Corsini (Ed.), Current personality theories (pp 277-290). Itasca, Illinois: F.E. Peacock Publishers.

Weiten, W. (1989) Psychology: Themes and variations. California: Brooks/Cole

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