Everyone knows what a personality is. It is the visual and social aspect of a person, it is the way a person appears to others, it is something that exists in the absence of other people, moreover, something that is every now and then not visible to others. The definition of personality that I can relate to is the one stating that personality is a consistent set of characteristics that people display over time, and experiences that distinguish individuals from one another.

Psychologists have always been eager to study personality because it is an area of study that deals with a complex human behavior, including emotions, actions, and cognitive processes (Brain, 2000, pp. 30-31). Thus, it has been desired to get understating of why people do certain things or react to certain things in certain ways. This understanding, of course, could solve and prevent many of the interpersonal conflicts.

In my paper I would like to describe two approaches to looking at a personality: the nomothetic and idiographic. The paper will be built in the following manner, to begin with I will provide some insights into the research done to study personality, and then I will discuss thoroughly each of the approaches individually, mentioning what theories they go along with.

For hundreds of years, people have tried to group the immense differences among human beings into simple small units. Today it is common to divide people into personality types based on certain characteristics. For instance, the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates divided individuals into such types as sanguine (cheerful), choleric (moody) and melancholic (depressed). Hippocrates attributed the behavioral differences of people to a prevalence of one of the body fluids (Brain, 2000, pp. 30-31). For example, Hippocrates believed that a person was cheerful if blood was the fluid with a dominant influence in the body, thus it would have a dominant influence on his or her behavior. However, recent theories of personality types have drawn a connection between the body build and temperament, this theory was suggested by Ernst Kretschmer and William Sheldon. Carl Jung, in his turn, classified people as introverts or extroverts. Thus, it can be seen that an individual’s personality is so complex that it is impossible to sort a person into a steadfast category (Carver, Scheier, 2000, p. 53).

It has been proven that personal traits of characters influence the way people behave in different situations. However, research on the consistency of various personality traits has discovered that what people do, think, and feel may differ depending greatly on the specific conditions in which their behavior occurs. Thus, the personalities of people depend strongly on the environment the people are in. For example, people may be honest in one situation and absolutely dishonest in another, they maybe passive at some settings but very aggressive in other. In consequence, most of the theoretical approaches to personality emphasize that it (the personality) should be looked at only in the framework of the environment that the individuals are in (Carver, Scheier, 2000, p. 54).

There are many approaches to personality: psychometric approach, humanistic approach, trait approaches, and many-many others. However, as it has been mentioned about this paper will focus primary on the nomothetic and idiographic approaches to personality. In a nutshell, idiographic approach believes that people have unique personality structures, as a consequence some traits are more important for understanding the organization of some people than others. This approach does not take differences in personalities for granted, considering that a subject of personality can be studied only when it is explored from the inside. For the sake of this research approach, when being analyzed, the personality is looked at from various sides, such as for example detailed background and life history. According to nomothetic approach all people have more or less the same traits of characters. Thus they can be looked at and examined as whole. This approach does not involve attempts to get inside, focusing on receiving a more general picture.

It can be understood that nomothetic approach relies more on the scientific method, and hypothesis testing, thus when researching using this approach scientists conduct quantitative and personality tests, and use other standardized research tools (Burrell, Morgan, 1997, pp. 1-7).

Many psychologists support the model of idiographic approach. For example, Gordon Allport has found over 18,000 separate terms that describe personal characteristics. He considered that it was impossible to analyze the behavior of the population as a whole, because every individual possesses unique dispositions based on life experiences that cannot be effectively studied using standardized tests. It is important to mention two other psychologists that held the same opinion as Gordon Allport, these psychologists are George Kelly and Carl Rodgers. George Kelly is well known for developing a repertory grid technique, while Carl Rodgers has made extensive use of a procedure called the “Q-sort”. The studies conducted by these psychologists concentrated around the fact that each personality is unique and there are a potentially infinite number of variations of human behaviors and attitudes (Carver, Scheier, 2000, pp. 61-62).

As it has been already mentioned, a nomothetic approach studies people in order to find general laws that would apply to all individuals in various different situation. The best example of a nomothetic approach, is a multistore model of memory (Brain, 2000, pp.167-168). This model suggests that every individual possesses general structures such as short-term and long-term memory and does not consider individual differences. The theories that support the above opinion were put forward by Hans Eysenck and James Cattell. Both of these scientists took a nomothetic approach to personality, thus to test the hypothesis Eysenck had on the matter he carried out a series of experiments trying to find insights into the genetics of personality. One of such experiments involved identical and fraternal twins, who were given a series of tests relevant to the concept of neuroticism (Hermans, 2000, pp. 785-786). The conclusion of the experiment was that “”that the factor of neuroticism is not a statistical artifact, but constitutes a biological unit which is inherited as a whole….neurotic predisposition is to a large extent hereditarily determined” (Eysenck, Prell, 1951, p. 402).

In conclusion I would like to say that in my opinion, the main difference between a nomothetic and an idiographic approach is not just a question of what the psychologist wants to discover but also of the methods used. There is a vast amount of these methods: psychometric testing, correlation, experiments, and other quantitative methods – all of these are favored from a nomothetic point of view. On the contrary, idiographic point of view favors informal interviews, case studies, unstructured observation and other qualitative methods. Many would say that nomothetic approach is more useful because we, the people, basically do share the same traits that are simply represented differently with various strength in different people (Hermans, 2000, pp. 786-788). On the other hand, each person represents a new challenge because he or she has an absolutely unique configuration of various mechanisms that is all their own. Consequently, none of the above approaches is better, while both of them should be used depending on the situation.


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