Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Integral Personality Theory

In the first paper for our personality models class, we were asked to define personality. Uh, yeah, in only three pages? Not even remotely possible, so this is my response. I didn't even really touch on levels and lines, just a look at the quadrants and how that applies to personality theory.

Integral Personality Theory

How someone defines personality depends in large part on what aspect of the person one is measuring. Consequently, there is very little agreement on what personality is. Theories of Personality: Understanding Persons defines the issue this way:

Personality may be defined as the underlying causes within the person of individual behavior and experience. Personality psychologists do not all agree about what these underlying causes are, as the many theories in this text suggest. They offer a variety of answers to three fundamental questions. (Cloninger, 2008, p. 2)

As the quote suggests, it’s the underlying causes that creates the problem with definitions. Like the blind men describing the elephant, each theory presents a different approach. Yet, a meta-theory might be able to unite the various theories into one scheme that honors all the different points of view. Fortunately, such a theory exists. Understanding and applying an integral approach to personality psychology allows therapists to see the depth and complexity of the person sitting in the consulting room.

In 2000, Ken Wilber published his long-awaited Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Consciousness, Therapy (Wilber, 2000), proposing that most psychological theories are true but partial; he then proceeds to categorize them in a novel way. In an earlier work, Wilber (1995) had discovered that most major theories could be classified as either dealing with individuals or collectives and, further, that they could be also reduced to those looking at subjective experience or objective reality. The result is a four-quadrant model (graph included following references) that allows all theories to be categorized as objective-individual (behavioral), objective-collective (social), subjective-collective (cultural), and subjective-individual (intentional). Within each of the quadrants, development proceeds through lines of development in a fairly standard organic stage model (development is not entirely linear overall, but has within each quadrant linear stages that transcend and include previous stages).

Beginning with the behavior quadrant, one finds personality models that can be measured objectively, the most notable among these is the behaviorism model of Watson, Skinner, and Bandura, among many others. Despite a relative rejection of consciousness and subjective experience, behaviorism has been a remarkably successful theory, especially as it is combined with cognitive theory. Other approaches in this quadrant include neuroscience and neuropsychology, which generally view personality as a by-product of neuronal function. Theories within this perspective tend to reject other theories that take subjective experience into account.

The social quadrant tends not to offer too much insight into human personality, although it is possible to make generalizations based on the social, ecological, and physical environmental models represented. It is important to take this perspective into account however. Jurgen Habermas has perhaps been the most influential philosopher to work with this perspective (“Jurgen Habermas”, 2007). Systems theory, which is one of the currently dominant paradignms from this quadrant, has become an important element in the subpersonality theories of Richard Schwartz (Schwartz, 1995) and Hal and Sidra Stone (Stone & Stone, 1989)—in fact, no one quadrant can be separated out from the influence of the others.

Moving into the cultural quadrant, one finds the social-cognitive theory of Albert Bandura (Krapp, 2005), and the worldview theories of Jean Gebser (Gebser, 1985) and Clare Graves (Graves, 2005), which are based largely in value systems. How people create and express values has a large impact on personality, a reality therapists should never ignore. Another major figure in this quadrant is Thomas Kuhn, whose philosophy of paradigms suggests that science is guided less by rules and truth than by cultural values (“Thomas Kuhn”, 2004, 6.3). George Kelly’s role construct theory (Cloninger, 2008, p. 372) also falls into this perspective of culturally created personality traits, although it also takes into account biology (the behavioral quadrant) and cognition (the intentional quadrant). One might also reference Jurgen Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality as a method of constructing social and cultural values (“Jurgen Habermas”, 2007, 3.1).

Finally, the intentional quadrant is the perspective most commonly associated with psychology in general and personality in particular. This is the perspective most therapists expect to be working with in counseling. Here one finds the psychoanalytic theory of Freud, the attachment theory of Bowlby, the cognitive development of Piaget, the moral development of Kohlberg, and the majority of well-known theories from Adler to Jung to Winnicott. Even some contemporary neuroscientists are interested in the subjective experience of consciousness one finds in this quadrant, mostly notably Francisco Varela and his notion of the embodied mind (Varela & Shear, 1999).

To further complicate things, one must also take into account the structures of consciousness—the proximal self (the “I” of awareness), the distal self (the “me and mine” of awareness), and the overall self (both of these and any other subpersonalities that may be present) (Wilber, 2000, p. 33). How a person looks at his or her self shapes how the personality is defined. “I am” statements (self as subject) about personality are likely to be slightly different than statements about “me” (self as object), even if only qualitatively different.

So where does this leave personality theory and its definition? An integral model suggests that each of these approaches has something to offer, at least a partial piece of the truth. At best, we can outline the paths research might follow in trying to create a more integral and integrated definition. Therapists can, however, recognize that each of the four quadrants has a role to play in how personality develops, how it is described, and how the client experiences its dynamics. The more one understands the genuine complexity of personality, the less likely therapists are to reduce their clients to a collection of symptoms or DSM criteria.


Cloninger, S. (2008). Theories of personality: Understanding persons (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Gebser, J. (1985). The ever-present origin. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Graves, C. (2005). The never ending quest. (C. C. Cowan & N. Todorovic, Eds.). Santa Barbara, CA: ECLET Publishing.

Jurgen Habermas. (2007). In Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University (Ed.), Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved May 18, 2009, from

Krapp, K. (Ed.). (2005) Psychologists and their theories for students. Detroit: Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Schwartz, R. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Stone, H., & Stone, S. (1989). Embracing our selves. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Thomas Kuhn. (2004). In Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University (Ed.), Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved May 18, 2009, from

Varela, F., & Shear, J. (Eds.). (1999). The view from within: First-person approaches to the study of consciousness. Bowling Green, OH: Imprint Academic.

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, ecology, spirituality: The spirit of evolution (1st ed.). Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Wilber, K. (2000). Integral psychology. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

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