Personality and Individual Differences

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This essay will use Freud’s psychodynamic theory (Freud’s theory) and social learning theory (Bandura’s theory) to explain individual differences in the display of stress coping and display of aggression which have been accounted for at the level of gender. It will try to establish if men and women differ in terms of expressed emotionality: stress responses and aggression. This paper aims to illustrate how the psychodynamic and social learning theories of personality can interpret the difference between males and females responses to stress and level of aggression. Two recent studies were used to explain it: “Gender Roles and Coping with Work Stress” by Irene Gianakos and “The two worlds of aggression for men and women” by Kathryn Graham and Samantha Wells.

What is gender? It is not easy to explain what a gender is as there are lots of different definitions out there and it is very difficult to present a single definition of a gender that would suit everyone. Fist of all it is important to understand gender as different from sexuality. The term “gender” is often used interchangeably with the term “sex” (male or female biology), or “sexual orientation” and “sexual identity”. Sexuality relates to both biological and physical differences showing that males differ from females and the culture constructs differences in gender. So differences between two genders, associated with men and women by society, do not have unnecessary biological component. “Gender refers to the social roles, responsibilities and behavior assigned to men and women in a certain society and culture. It is socially constructed, and gender roles are dynamic and can change over time. It does not refer to the biological differences between men and women” (UN).

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This essay looks into two individual differences: aggression and stress responses. It is not easy to define the aggression. Once one person may think that pushing, shoving or striking is where aggression starts for someone else things like threatening speech, verbal insults or facial expression may be seen as aggressive (Hogg and Vaughan, 2005). That is why there is no shortage of social psychological definitions of aggression. In their book, Hogg and Vaughan (2005) mention some of them: “behaviour that result in personal injury or destruction of property (Bandura, 1973), behaviour intended to harm another of the same species (Scherer, Abeles and Fisher, 1975), behaviour directed towards the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment (Baron, 1977), the intentional infliction of some form of harm on others (Baron and Byrne, 2000) or behaviour directed towards another individual carried out with the proximate (immediate) intent to cause harm (Anderson and Huesmann, 2003).”

Before explaining the difference between male and female in aggressive behaviour it needs to be stressed that most of the knowledge and understanding of aggressive behaviour has been gained through studying aggressive males only (Crick and Dodge, 1994; Robins, 1986). According to Crick and colleagues (1999) most of those studies were also based on “forms of aggression that are more characteristic for males than for females (e.g. physical forms of aggression)”.

This is the reason why the stereotype of non aggressive female was developed (Bjorkvist and Niemela, 1992). But recent study has changed this stereotype and found that both males and females are equally aggressive. And as two types of aggression can be distinguish: “relational and physical, a relation form of aggression has been identified that has been shown to be more characteristic of females that the physical forms of aggression that have captured most of the previous research” (Crick, 1999).

Graham and Wells (2001) carried out a research that confirmed this thesis: “the evidence shows a clear trend for men to be more likely than women to be physically aggressive, especially in terms of violent crimes such as homicides whilst women may be equally aggressive or even more aggressive in nonphysical aggression, especially indirect aggression”. In “The two worlds of aggression for men and women” they try to “assess differences in the nature of aggressive experiences for men and women, including not only differences related to the gender combination of participants but also differences related to the role of alcohol; the social context; the relationship between participants; number, age, and role of participants; nature of aggressive acts; emotional impact of aggression; and putative cause of the aggressive incident”.

Stress is the process by which we observe and react to certain events, called “stressors”, that we consider as threatening or challenging (Myers, 2003). “Psychologist World” explains that stress includes both distress, which is the result of negative events (e. g. death of a family member), and eustress, which is the result of positive events (e. g. winning the lottery). It does not matter if it is a distress or eustress: stress is additive. For example, if someone really close to you dies and you win the lottery, one event does not cancel the other and both events are extremely stressful. People have different ways of responding to stress, like adaptation or psychological coping such as stress management, anxiety or depression. Over the long term of time, distress can lead to health problems. To avoid this, people must manage their stress.

Both females and males responses to stress are different. Most often women respond to stress with feelings like nervousness, crying or lack of energy once men respond to stress by having trouble sleeping and experiencing feelings of anger and irritability (American Psychological Association). Citing Hamann and Canli, (2004) Wang and his colleagues (2007) claim that “individual differences in stress reactivity have been proposed as a potentially important risk factor for gender-specific health problems in men and women, in addition to genetic, socio-cultural, hormonal and developmental factors”. There are several causes of stress. People may be affected by home stressors, for example injury or illness of a family member, moving house, separation or divorce from partner or pregnancy or birth of a new baby. Other causes of stress are fear, uncertainty or lack of sleep and work related causes of stress: change of job, working overtime or on holidays, sexual harassment or excessive work pressure.

La Rocque (2009) writes: “women are more likely to voice their stress than men and that they react to different types of stressors. While women are more stressed by time constraints, meeting others’ expectations, and family-related issues, men are more affected by work-related stressors and financial difficulties”. Irene Gianakos (2000) carried out a research that “examined the relationship between gender roles and styles of coping with work-related stress”. In her study she found that there were no gender differences among individuals reported use of “escape-related” coping mechanisms.

Both aggression and stress have a huge effect on individual and society. This is why they have played an important role in many theories of human behaviour, for example psychodynamic theory (Freud, 1930) and social learning theory (Bandura and Walters, 1963; Bandura, 1986).

Psychodynamic theory is a “dynamic model of the self which concentrates in particular on emotions and drives” (Bowker, 1997). Freud’s theory states that “aggression is an innate personality characteristic common to all humans and that behavior is motivated by sexual drives” (Smith, 1999). In his psychodynamic theory he “proposed that human aggression stems from an innate “Death Instinct”, Thanatos, which is in opposition to a “Life Instinct”, Eros. Thanatos is initially directed at self destruction, but later in development it becomes redirected outwards at others” to prevent the self-destruction of the individual (Hogg and Vaughan, 2005; Smith, 1999).

According to authors the notion of Thanatos was developed by Freud as a response to the First World War and its scale of destruction that heavily influenced the researcher. Both Thanatos and its aggressive urge and Eros and its sexual urge are built up from bodily tensions that need to be expressed and freed. Hogg and Vaughan (2005) state that this is “a one factory theory: aggression builds up naturally and must be released”. Later theorists known as “neo-Freudians” revised Freud’s ideas and introduced aggression as more rational process. They claimed that primitive survival instincts that are basic to all animal species are released by people in a healthy way (Hartmann, Kris and Loewenstein, 1949).

Another personality theory used in this essay is the social learning theory. People’s personality is visible in their behaviour. Individual differences come into being from people’s behaviour and their thoughts, beliefs, related emotions or physiological responses. Both thoughts and behaviour are products of learning and are influenced by the social context they are situated in. According to Smith (1999) social learning theory is “one of the most popular theories of aggression and one of the most radical and well-documented approaches to aggression”.

Bandura (1973) carried out some classic experiments (e. g. Bobo doll experiment, 1961) dealing with how children learn how to behave aggressively based on operant conditioning (rewards and punishments) and modeling. He believed that individuals do not actually inherit violent tendencies, but they “modeled” them. People learn which persons or groups are appropriate targets for aggression, what actions by others either justify or require aggressive retaliation and what situations or contexts are ones in which aggression is appropriate or inappropriate.

The social learning theory also explains how children acquire their gender identity based on the influence of other people, particularly their parents (Science aid). In 1961 Bandura observed that boys copied agressiveness from another male, but did not imitate the behaviour from a female.

Moving to stress and stress coping. According to the professor of psychology Stevan Hobfoll (1988) “the place of psychodynamic theory in the study of stress has not been well delineated”. He discussed possible implications of psychodynamic theory for stress theory in his book, “The ecology of stress”. He wrote that “psychodynamic theory suggests that loss of loved objects in adulthood, or loss of emotional states linked to desired loved objects (e. g. security) leads to anxiety.

This is because subconscious fears of loosing a principal love object (especially mother) are reawakened. In 1905, Freud had proposed that “anxiety in children is originally nothing other than an expression of the fact that they are feeling the loss of the person they love”. He linked this with the neurotic anxiety of adults and their fears that their needs would go unmet. Psychodynamic theory explains that loss of loved objects produces anxiety in childhood. In adulthood, loss of valued objects or circumstances acts to reawaken these subconscious feelings. This may help to explain why loss of resources is so particularly stressful. It also helps to explain why social support has been viewed as a primary resource during stressful circumstances”.

Whereas, talking about stress, social learning theory “suggests that addictive behaviour is self regulated and goal directed, the goal being to acquire the effects for a preferred substance and self-medication for dealing with stress (e. g. drinking alcohol after a very stressful day) may reflect on effort to self-regulate” (Chan et al., 2004). People learn how to react on stress by observing and imitating. For example, a girl can see her friend being very much stressed and drinking alcohol, taking drugs or having sex with a stranger. After “releasing” her stress (with help of alcohol, drugs or sex), she seems perfectly fine. The girl who is observing that behaviour may learn that this is a right thing to do when she feels stressed. Or a boy learning how to cope with stress by observing his father drinking at home after a stressful day at work.

Thinking about strengths and weaknesses of psychodynamic theory and social learning theory explaining gender differences in aggression and stress reactions first thing that needs to be said is that no formula will work with all women and with all men in all situations. Like so much of life, trying to explain how would males and females behave in different situations starts with an understanding of who they are as individuals.


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