Dispositional and Evolutionary Theories of Personality

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 5
Words: 1125
Reading time:
4 min
Study level: Bachelor


Human personality is one of the most fertile fields for investigation. Huge interest in this field is determined by its importance in everyday life. Personality psychology history is rich with prominent contributors. They develop theories that help us to understand the phenomena of personality. The complexity of human nature makes it impossible to create a single adequate theory of personality (Ryckman, 2012, p.1). Instead, we can find strong points in a number of existing methods that stimulate new researchers. The diversity of personality theories that evolved in Western psychological science during the last centuries determines numerous points of view on the definition of personality. Both dispositional and evolutionary theories of personality have taken the rightful place in personality psychology and attract much interest and constructive criticism.

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In contrast to other theories used to explain personality, dispositional theories deal with the uniqueness of a person’s disposition for different types of behavior. Dispositional theories can be divided into type theories and trait theories. Type theories divide people into categories according to their body type or temperament. The weak point of such theories lies in the impossibility of assigning an individual to one specific category. A person can be choleric and melancholic at the same time. Trait theories state that people have various features that create a unique pattern of behavior.

The father of trait theories, Gordan Allport, defines personality as “the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristic behavior as thought” (Allport, 1961, p.28). He saw personality as “striving toward unity and as continually evolving and changing” (Ryckman, 2012, p. 189). Allport believed that, though outward influences have an effect, the behavior of a person is determined by his/her personal perception of these influences.

Allport divided the traits into three groups. Cardinal traits are the ruling ones, e.g. an authoritarian personality. The traces of such characteristics can be viewed in almost every act of a person. This disposition is very rare. Central traits, e.g. kindness, stubbornness, appear in the determined spectrum of situations. They are the most typical for individuals. Secondary traits, e.g. preferences in food or clothes, can be seen only in particular circumstances. They are necessary for showing a full image of human complexity.

Dispositional theories view a personality as a complex unity of distinct characteristics caused by individual traits and environmental conditions. On the contrary, evolutionary theories see personality as a unity of qualities predetermined by a person’s hereditary past.

The evolutionary approach to personality relies on the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution of species was created and developed by Charles Darwin. This approach is based on the studying of natural selection, as the primary factor in the development of particular qualities of an individual. Evolutionary theories tend to explain how selection stimulates the development of characteristics and types of behavior that help the species to exist for many generations. Traits are developed in terms of adaptation and selection, in order to provide reproduction and survival. Evolutionary theories explain social abilities as the ones which help a person to survive. Possessing certain social skills helps an individual to occupy a place in the social hierarchy and secure the satisfaction of basic natural needs.

Evolutionary theories point to the similarity between the social behavior of humans and animals, accentuating their common forms. The human mind is explained as a group of information-processing mechanisms. These mechanisms were created by natural selection for resolving adaptive issues. The same view on mind development applies to animals. People and animals are believed to have the same needs and no difference in mortality. The only difference lies in the way how humans satisfy their needs. These ideas prove the idea of an evolutionary-based nature of human personality. It is supposed that personality has an inborn nature, as it is inherited from ancestry. Such an approach proclaims social inequality is inherent.

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Dispositional personality theories have made a great contribution to the science of human psychology. This approach presented a fresh view on personality and defined it as something that is always in the state of developing and changing. A new point of view gave ground for numerous discussions and investigations. The weakness of these theories lies in the limited nature of models based on them. Though several methods of personality assessment have been developed on the basis of the dispositional approach, it does not address the study into the behavior of characters with non-typical behavior or mental disorders. Allport’s theory is comprehensive but fails to meet the parsimony criteria, as it “has too few concepts to account for the phenomena within its domain” (Ryckman, 2012, p. 204).

Evolutionary personality theories proved to be rather influential in organizing knowledge. But they still have some prominent weaknesses. This approach doesn’t give any guidelines that can be used in practice. The theory explains how different qualities are predetermined by the instincts for survival and reproduction, but it doesn’t give any practical advice on how to use this knowledge, in order to raise children or treat mental disorders. Therefore, it presents very little practical usefulness.

Each theory is responsible for the development of a variety of personality tests. The dispositional approach to personality gave birth to the Big Five personality traits, a five-factor model used for personality assessment.

The model assumes that the personality includes five standard and relatively independent characteristics or dispositions. Openness to experience means curiosity and the prevalence of a creative approach to activities over routine. Conscientiousness reflects self-discipline and a high level of responsibility. Extraversion is expressed in a strong will for interaction with people and mastering social skills. Agreeableness is the ability to be compassionate and friendly. Neuroticism means low emotional stability. Subjective well-being is associated with all Big Five factors, in particular, low neuroticism and high conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and openness (Bastian, Haslam, & Whelan, 2008, p. 40).

The empirical method of research is used in personality tests based on the Big Five. The results are deduced with the help of interviews, self-descriptive sentence questioner data, and observations. The most common-used measures of the Big Five are NEO-PI-R, Big Five Inventory, and Hogan Personality Inventory. The Big Five traits model is used to predict a person’s future behavioral schemes. Therefore, it can show possible job performance rates and help in assessing candidates for a position.


Every definition of personality presented in the scientific literature is supported by experimental research and theoretical grounds. The variety of personality theories is predetermined by the complexity of the subject. Familiarity with dispositional and evolutionary theories broadens the understanding of personality and creates a ground for new investigations. The Big Five personality traits model is a perfect example of using a successful theory on practice and embodying its numerous achievements in life.


Allport, G. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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Bastian, B., Haslam, N., & Whelan, J. (2008). Big Five trait associations between values and subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(1), 40-42.

Ryckman, R. M. (2012). Theories of personality (10th ed.). Wadsworth, OH: Cengage Learning.