Levels of Analysis and Personality Research
The debate over the degree to which personality in adulthood remains stable or changes is one that has generated numerous studies and theoretical perspectives. Consequently, sorting out the various approaches helps us understand what aspects of personality the various researchers are describing.
Drawing on the work of several theorists and researchers, McAdams (1999) describes three parallel levels of personality structure and function. Each level contains a wide range of personality constructs. McAdams refers to the levels with rather generic names: dispositional traits, personal concerns, and life narrative.
Dispositional traits consist of aspects of personality that are consistent across different contexts and can be compared across a group along a continuum representing high and low degrees of the characteristic. Dispositional traits are the level of personality most people think of first, and they include commonly used descriptors such as shy, talkative, authoritarian, and the like. Personal concerns consist of things that are important to people, their goals, and their major concerns in life. Personal concerns are usually described in motivational, developmental, or strategic terms; they reflect the stage of life a person is in at the time. Life narrative consists of the aspects of personality that pull everything together, those integrative aspects that give a person an identity or sense of self. The creation of an identity is the goal of this level.
In a recent reformulation of McAdams’s model of personality, Karen Hooker (Hooker, 2002;
Hooker & McAdams, 2003) has added three processes that act in tandem with the three structural components of personality proposed by McAdams. These social cognitive processes give personality its dynamic character. In other words, it is more likely that you will see a change in personality when you are examining the dynamic nature of the processes.
For example, acting along with dispositional traits are state processes: transient, short-term changes in emotion, mood, hunger, anxiety, and so on. Personal concerns act in tandem with self-regulatory processes, which include such processes as primary and secondary control (discussed in Chapter 8). Finally, life narratives act jointly with cognitive processes of recounting life narratives or self-narrating, such as the natural interaction that occurs between a storyteller and listener. These processes are central in organizing life stories.
Finally, as one moves from examining dispositional traits to personal concerns to life narrative (and their corresponding processes), it becomes more likely that observable change will take place (McAdams, 1999). In a sense, the level of dispositional traits can be viewed as the "raw stuff” of personality, whereas each successive level must be constructed to a greater extent. In the following sections, we will use McAdams’s levels to organize our discussion of personality in adulthood. Let’s begin with the "raw stuff” and see how dispositional traits are structured in adulthood.
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