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Many approaches to psychology explain behaviour in terms of individual characteristics such as personality

The very essence of the definition of psychology as 'the science of behaviour' means that there are inevitably a number of different approaches to explaining behaviour. For example, behaviour can be seen to be determined mainly by an individual's personality or even biology, or as the result of social pressure e.g. from family, culture, peer pressure, society etc. The basic dictionary definition of behaviour is 'a generic term covering acts, activities, responses, reactions, movements, processes, operations etc. (Reber & Reber, 2001). Examples of behaviour studied by psychologists include criminal/deviant behaviour, conformity, obedience, and helping behaviour. Particularly during the post World War II period there was a resurgence and heightened interest in explaining extreme forms of behaviour (such as strict obedience). The major controversy regarding the explanation of behaviour centres around the issue of whether behaviour can be explained mainly by social pressure or whether it is influenced more on an individual level i.e. by one's personality traits.

One of the earliest explanations of criminal/deviant behaviour had its roots in physiology/biology. Sheldon (1942) argued that there are 3 main body types, endomorphic, ectomorphic and mesomorphic; with mesomorphics (because of their physique) more likely to engage in criminal activity. Physical/biological explanations of behaviour were soon replaced by personality explanations. The argument being that individuals with particular types of personality traits behave in a consistent manner. One well-known established theory of personality and behaviour was provided by Eysenck (1947). He proposed that personality can be described by 3 dimensions: extraversion-Introversion (sociable to reserved), neuroticism-stable (irritable to calm and even-tempered), and psychotocism (insensitivity). This he argued has a biological basis, thus the trait is stable. Extraversion-introversion was said to be based upon levels of Cortisol, with extraverts less aroused than introverts, hence the need to seek higher levels of stimulation than introverts. The neuroticism-stable dimension has its roots in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), with neurotics ANS reacting more quickly and strongly than those with the stable trait. For example Furnham (1982) found that extraverts always search more stimulating environments than introverts. More recently the 'big five' theory of personality has gained popularity; it attempts to encompass all personality types in to 5 categories - openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism (Costa & McCrae, 1993). Personality is used as an explanation for behaviour, the proposition is that these traits are stable factors (possibly based in biology) which play a major role in determining how one behaves e.g. the extravert is always sociable and out-going whereas the introvert is reserved and prefers peace and quiet.

The main ways in which behaviour is affected by social pressure (direct and indirect) is manifested through conformity to norms and obedience. For example, in the Asch (1951) studies participants behaviour (in terms of their responses) was clearly influenced by the pressure to conform to group norms since the information they received was simple and unambiguous. Although the above studies clearly demonstrate how social pressure can undoubtedly influence behaviour, it could possibly be the case that certain personality types are more prone to conform to norms and obey orders than others. People with the personality type which includes a variable of 'authoritarian submission' which is a 'submissive, uncritical attitude towards idealized moral authorities of the in-group' (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson & Sanford, 1950, p. 228) have been found to display higher levels of obedience than those without this particular personality trait (Elms & Milgram, 1966). Haas (1966) found that people with higher levels of the personality variable hostility were less inclined to be obedient than those with lower levels of hostility. Conformity levels themselves have been found to vary with particular types of personality traits. Those that are more likely to conform tend to lack in ego-strength, are submissive, inhibited and lacking in insight, whereas personality characteristics which predict non-conformity include, intellectual effectiveness, leadership ability, efficiency and lack of pretension (Crutchfield, 1954).

As such, it appears that neither of the two opposing approaches to explaining behaviour provide a unique and full explanation. Individually, there is no doubt that both personality and social pressure have a huge influence on one's behaviour. A more plausible approach would be to take an interactionist perspective, where behaviour is seen as the result of an interaction between personality traits and the situation. For example, an introvert may be reserved and shy at a social event with strangers but sociable at the same event when in the presence of friends; or someone with a strong personality may not be so easily influenced by social pressure than someone who is very suggestible. So, it is not as simple as social pressure accounting for all types of behaviour. Societies are governed by norms, so there will always be pressure upon individuals to conform, however the strength and particular personality traits and characteristics of an individual may play a pivotal role in the extent to which their behaviour can be explained by social pressure.

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