A new theory on how personality develops suggests personality reflects how we have used our innate abilities and environmental experiences to satisfy our basic needs.
In an article in Psychological Review, Dr. Carol Dweck, a Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, explains how personalities develop and how life experiences influence personality development.
Dweck proposes that our personalities develop around basic needs. The three basic psychological needs we develop include the need to predict our world, the need to build competence to act on our world, and, because we are social beings, the need for acceptance from others.
She also shows how new needs emerge later from combinations of these basic needs and how personalities may evolve over time.
Infants arrive highly prepared to meet these needs; they are brilliant, voracious learners on the lookout for need-relevant information. Then, as infants try to meet their needs, something important happens. They start building beliefs about their world and their role in it: Is the world good or bad, safe or dangerous? Can I act on my world to meet my needs?
Dweck explains that these beliefs, plus the emotions and action tendencies that are stored with them, are termed “BEATs.” They represent the accumulated experiences people have had trying to meet their needs, and they play a key role in personality — both the invisible and the visible parts of personality.
The invisible part of personality consists of the needs and BEATs. They form the basis of personality and they drive and guide the visible part. The visible part happens when the needs and BEATs create the actual goals people pursue in the world — what people actually do.
For example, some people are conscientious, actively pursuing achievement and showing self-discipline and perseverance. That’s the visible part. Everyone has a need for competence, but how people pursue competence — whether they do so in a conscientious manner — will depend on their BEATs (the invisible part, such as their beliefs).
Research shows that some people hold the belief that their abilities are simply fixed traits. When they are confronted with a challenging task, they may choose an easier one instead because the challenging task carries a risk. That is it could expose their fixed ability as deficient, it could undermine their sense of competence.
However, other people believe that their abilities can be developed. They are more likely to welcome the challenging task and stick to it in the face of setbacks in order to develop their competence. They display the hallmarks of conscientiousness.
In other words, underlying BEATs can have a pronounced effect on the visible “personality” people display as they pursue their goals.
Temperament can also be important. Consider the following: if children are shy or fearful it can make certain needs (such as the need for predictability) stronger than others and it can affect the way they react to things that happen to them. As a result, innate characteristics can mold the BEATs they develop and carry forward.
According to Dweck, the theory describes how our personality develops around our motivations (our needs and goals) and is not simply about traits we’re born with. The theory also reveals the invisible parts of personality and shows how we can identify and address important BEATs (particularly beliefs) to promote personality change.
In short, like large, classic theories of the last century, the current theory brings together our motivations, our personality, and our development within one framework and helps shed light on processes that contribute to well-being and human growth.