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Role of the Unconscious in Personality Theories Compare & Contrast Essay

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Updated: Jul 5th, 2019


In the discussion of how the unconscious mind influences personality, one cannot negate the role of psychoanalysis.

According to Kihlstrom, Beer, and Klein, psychoanalysis refers to the “aspects of Freud’s work and research, including Freudian therapy and the research methodology that he used to develop his theories” (2002, p.68).

In the formulation of the personality of theory, Freud largely depended on case studies conducted on his patients together with direct observations of the behavior of the patients. According to Freud, the human mind is organized into two chief parts: the conscious and unconscious mind.

The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast the role of the unconscious in personality theories using two perspectives of the course. These perspectives are psychoanalytic and social cognitive approaches to the construction of personality.

Before this section, an effort is made to discuss the conscious and unconscious minds in terms of how they help to construct the personality of people.

Functioning of Conscious and Unconscious Mind

Conscious Mind

The conscious mind carries the information that people can comprehend. People can freely and precisely talk about these aspects of their mental processes in a robust and rational way. Part of the conscious mind involves human memory.

However, as Matt (2011) notes, not all information that is held in the conscious memory forms part of people’s consciousness although the information is retrievable easily so that it can be introduced into their awareness (p.81).

From Freud’s theory of personality, this reminiscence is referred to as the normal recall, or simply the preconscious recollection. Freud used the analogy of submerged ice to describe how the human mind is divided.

According to him, the conscious mind constitutes the smallest portion of an individual’s mind. Freud argued that most of the memories and feelings that help to construct the personality of an individual are hidden from the conscious mind (Matt, 2011).

Hence, the many feelings and memories that are displayed in the personality of an individual constitute the province of “the unconscious mind, which he divided into superego, ego, and id” (Matt, 2011, p. 81).

Unconscious Mind

The unconscious mind is the second part of the human mind from the perspective of the Freud’s theory of personality. It acts as the principle storage for all thoughts, memories, and feelings together with urges that exist outside people’s conscious awareness.

With regard to Kihlstrom, Beer, and Klein (2002), most of the contents of unconscious memory are unpleasant and/or unacceptable under normal circumstances (p.73). They include the feeling of conflicts and pain together with anxiety among other things.

In his analysis of Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality, Matt (2011) argues, “unconsciousness continues to influence our behaviors and experiences, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences” (p.43).

Consequently, the unconscious mind is part of the human mind that people have no direct control over in any way.

Unlike the conscious mind, the unconscious mind is a store of instinctual wishes, needs, and actions relating to ghosts and the dead. It is also a store for desires, shocking and upsetting memories, unpleasant emotions, and social ideas, which are not removable from the mind.

The process of action of the unconscious mind is described by the term psychological repression. Recollections and opinions from the earlier periods can be removed from the instantaneous consciousness.

These memories give rise to emotions together with thoughts that people have in their conscious memories. Since the personality of an individual is permanent and that these memories are removable, it is arguable that they do not influence the personality of an individual.

A person does not obtain ideas directly in the unconscious mind for ordinary examination (Fleeson, 2004).

However, emotions and ideas from the unconscious mind can become conscious by use of methods such as analyzing dreams, verbal slips, hypnosis, and free association of people with same interests. These methods are carefully examined and done during psychoanalysis.

Psychotherapy is a process, which aims at inhibiting emotions and ideas into a mindful state for relieving the tolerant person of suffering from recurring untrue thoughts.

According to Freud, the unconscious part of the mind is referred to as the id.It is composed of people’s basic needs and wishes. The id behaves in accordance with a principle known as pleasure principle that prevents pain. Freud also defines ego as a component of the unconscious mind.

He says that ego constitutes the conscious whole character and natural aspects that intervene between the unconscious portion of the mind and reality (Matt, 2011, p.48).

Comparing and Contrasting the Roles of the Unconscious in Personality Theories

Types of Personality Theories

Several theories can be used to explain personalities of individuals. They include behavioral theories, trait theories, social cognitive theories, psychoanalytic theories, and humanistic theories.

In these theories, the term personality is used to refer to “dynamic and organized sets of characteristics possessed by a person that uniquely influence his or her cognitions, emotions, motivations, and behaviors in various situations” (Fleeson, 2004, p.84).

Arguably, the various classifications of theories for personality are based on this definition.

For instance, emotions and motivation give rise to the psychoanalytic theories of personality while the behavioral aspects in the definition of the term personality give rise to the behavioral theories for personality.

Behavioral hypotheses hold that people’s qualities emanate from their relations with the surroundings.

In advancing their argumentations, behaviorists study the various measurable and observable behaviors of people to explain the nature of personality portrayed by individuals (Matt, 2011).

Behavioral theorists such as John Watson reject various theories that suggest that personality of individuals is a function of feelings and the thoughts that form part of the conscious and unconscious mind.

Trait theory argues that the personality of individuals comprises various broad traits. In the context of discussions of this theory, traits refer to characteristics, which are stable within an individual, which guide the course of actions of such persons.

One of such theories is the five-factor theory (Matt, 2011).The origin of personality characteristics is a major concern to biological personality theorists. This group of theorists argues that personality originates from the genetic characteristics of an individual.

In fact, according to Kihlstrom, Beer, and Klein (2002), “researches on heritability suggest a link between genetics and personality traits…” (p.73). Examination of these links drives research in biological personality.

Apart from the two main paradigms of personality theory considered in this paper, another important group of theories that attempt to explain personality comprises the humanistic theory.

This theory pays incredible attention to the significance of the free will of people together with the individual experience in fostering the development of personality. Central to the discussion of the humanistic theories is the concept of self-actualization.

This concept emphasizes that personal growth is an important aspect that influences or motivates the behavior of people (Matt, 2011).

Behavior is an important aspect that affects the personality of an individual from the perspective of social cognitive and psychoanalytic personality and theoretical paradigms. Abraham Maslow is one of the well-known advocates of humanist personality theory.

Since the purpose of this paper is limited to the discussion of roles of the unconscious mind in personality theories from only two perspectives, the remaining part of the paper considers psychoanalytic and social cognitive perspectives only.

Roles of Unconscious Mind in the Social Cognitive Theory of Personality

From the perspective of psychoanalytic and social cognitive theories of personality, consciousness forms the phenomenal substance, which helps to guide the mental functioning in the life of a human being.

It forms the foundation in which contextualization of events, construction of courses of action, and even planning of various actions are made (Bandura, 1995). Arguably, after the environmental learning experience, a mental effort is not required to perform various tasks.

Rather, the unconscious mind functions as the constant reminder of the appropriate course of action whenever one encounters a situation requiring actions that have been executed before in response to a given environmental stimuli.

The manner in which one responds to certain stimuli through a given set of behavioral actions that are peculiar to a particular individual constitutes the personality of such an individual (Bandura, 1995).

From the perspective of social cognitive theories, the responses to certain environmental stimuli in automated ways are attributable to the information stored in the unconscious mind of an individual.

The main challenges of social cognitive theorists are to develop an explanation of how these cognitions are developed.

Addressing the above challenges constitutes the main points of departure on the role of unconscious from the perspective of social cognitive and psychoanalytic theorists.

For instance, while the psychoanalytic perspective holds that some characteristics of an individual that constitute the personality of him or her are owed to the functioning of the unconscious mind, the social cognitive paradigm argues that “consciousness cannot be reduced to an epiphenomenon of the output of a mental process realized mechanically at unconscious lower levels” (Bandura, 1999, p.7).

From the basis of this assertion, social cognitive theory emphasizes that it is important for a distinction to be drawn between functional properties of the brain of a person and the physical processes for thoughts that are deployed by the given individual.

While a psychoanalytic subscriber would incline to the position that the human unconscious mind is responsible for reactions involving negative experiences, the social cognitive theoretical paradigm maintains that people’s unconscious mind is essentially generative, proactive, and creative, apart from being self-reflective or reactive (Bandura, 1999, p.3).

This argument implies that practices leading to cognitions that are held within the unconscious mind are not only developing behaviors but also determinative manipulations.

The unconscious mind is viewed from the perspective of social cognitive as the storage of information that must be activated to help in reacting towards the determination of the required course of action.

Additionally, socials cognitive theorists emphasize that, in the expression of the personality of individuals, people must actuate certain brain processes so that selected intentions can be realized. These intentions define the personality of a given individual.

Hence, for the expression of the characteristics of a person that make him or her unique from other people, certain schemas within the unconscious mind must be excited.

Such schemas are made up of socially cognized and/or generated experiences. The central argument here is that the memories stored in the unconscious mind are acquired from the environment.

The social cognitive theory on personality holds that people display certain behaviors due to four main key factors: rewards, cues, drives, and responses (Bandura, 1999).

In case an individual is motivated for learning a given behavior, he or she uses the observation technique to learn the behavior. This behavior defines the personality of the individual once its schemas are developed in the unconscious memory.

Once a person observes behavior, it is solidified through learning. Therefore, the individual does not have to put any effort mentally to recall it and/or display it in a phenotypic manner.

In this perspective, the personality of an individual is a function of the learned behaviors from the environment.

Roles of Unconscious Mind in the Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality

As argued before, social cognitive theory emphasizes that the personality of an individual is constructed by the social experiences through learning of behaviors from the environment.

Once these behaviors are fully learnt, the unconscious memory serves the purpose of automatically retrieving the memories that call into action the appropriate behaviors once stimuli, which demands reaction by a certain behavior, is experienced (Bandura, 1995).

This purpose of the unconscious mind is opposed to the purpose of the unconscious mind in the formation of the personality of an individual from the perspective of psychoanalysis as stipulated and discussed by Sigmund Freud.

Freud believed that one of the amicable mechanisms of uncovering the personality of his patients was through the free association with them. According to Matt (2011), patients were requested to describe what appeared in their minds whenever a discussion of certain topics was initiated.

Additionally, Freud also conducted scrutiny of dreams of people in the attempt to establish a link between the unconscious mind and the personality of his patients.

Via an intensive analysis of the preconscious mind together with the unconscious mind of patients, Freudian school of thought implies that the personality of an individual is possible to evaluate.

Consequently, a psychotherapeutic treatment of mental ailments can be conducted. Based on this psychoanalytic approach to personality, it means people have no control over their personality.

Rather, it is controlled by the unconscious mind, which under the normal functioning of a person, is difficult to unveil.

This argument perhaps explains why the Freudian approach to the determination of personality of an individual over dwells on the analysis of dreams as opposed to social cognitive perspective.

While dreaming, an individual is not under control of his or her thinking process (Fleeson, 2004).

However, in the dreams, an individual reminiscences situations, which are encountered in real life by attempting to respond to them depending on the acquired experience on some of the effective means of tackling such situations.

This argument underlines the significance of considering socio-cognitive theoretical perspective in the determination of the roles of the unconscious mind against the psychoanalytic perspective.

This case is significant since it is arguable that the dreams discussed by Freud as proactive means of determining the role of the unconscious mind in the construction of personality have the possibilities of being based on the information acquired through social interactions between the dreamer and other people within the environment.

Social cognitive theory of personality provides an account of the personality of people based on the cognitions acquired by their interaction processes.

Psychoanalysis approach argues, “The unconscious is the storehouse of instinctual desires, needs, psychic actions, and a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, and traumatic memories” (Kihlstrom, Beer & Klein, 2002, p.74).

The unconscious mind is also the storage of painful emotions. Social cognitive theorists criticize this assertion by arguing that the psychoanalytic approach to personality emphasizes the negative experiences of an individual in influencing his or her personality.

The issue that remains is to know the roles of the unconscious mind in influencing positive personality traits that are expressed by people.

Seeking a response to this query gives rise to other theoretical paradigms of explaining how the personality of an individual is constructed such as the behavioral theories and humanistic theoretical paradigms.


People’s actions and behaviors are attributable to several factors. Such factors include cultural beliefs and processes of social interactions. From the psychological perspective, people’s behaviors are also influenced by the conscious and unconscious mind.

Psychoanalytic theorists advance this school of thought by contending that people have inner forces, which act outside their cognitions. Such forces influence the manner in which people behave.

As discussed in the paper, this school of thought is attributed to Sigmund Freud, who is regarded as the origin of psychotherapy. The arguments raised by Sigmund Freud were criticized, with people considering them strange.

Hence, they attracted much debates about their applicability in real life situations. They also give rise to alternative paradigms of theorizing the personality of people.

However, Freud’s work continues to influence a number of disciplines that are concerned with the studies of human behaviors such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology among others.

Reference List

Bandura, A. (1995). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1999). A social cognitive theory of personality. New York: Guilford Publications.

Fleeson, W. (2004). Moving personality beyond the person-situation debate: The challenge and the opportunity of within-person variability. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2), 83–87.

Kihlstrom, J., Beer, S., & Klein, B. (2002). Self and identity as memory. New York: Guilford Press.

Matt, F. (2011). The Foundation of Unconscious: Schelling, Freud and the Birth of the Modern Psyche. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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