Personality Theory: Humanistic and Dispositional Methods


Human behavior and personality are the focus of different studies. In psychology, these two entities can be viewed from a variety of different perspectives. For example, the scholars that study human personality using humanistic theories and those who follow the dispositional approach will emphasize different features of personality and take various points of view for granted.

Gordon Allport

Both humanistic and the dispositional approaches to personality were outlined by a well-known scholar called Gordon Allport. This theorist was born in the United States in 1897. He worked in Europe as a teacher for a while and was lucky to meet Sigmund Freud, who inspired Allport to obtain a Ph.D. in psychology. Allport made an immense contribution to the field of psychology and worked along with some of the most outstanding professionals of this sphere.

Humanistic Approach

Allport first introduced the concept of humanistic psychology in 1930 (Schultz & Schultz, 2005). The humanistic theories of personality are characterized by their focus on the individuals’ values, inclinations, and interests as the most meaningful feature of a personality. What makes the theories of this kind stand out is the fact that they view human personalities as the sources of numerous positive qualities. According to the humanistic understanding of personality, people are naturally predisposed to goodness and virtues (Schultz & Schultz, 2005). Besides, the humanistic approach assumes that people are apt to develop and grow and that self-improvement is the natural desire of any human being.

Dispositional Approach

The dispositional approach to personality is based on the idea that a personality is something a person is born with and has a fixed basic set of qualities that is unique for each individual. When it comes to the dispositional perspective, Allport believed that human personalities were initially determined since the first minutes of life and further shaped by the external impacts and conditions. This perspective views personality as a somewhat stable entity that can predict the possible reactions of an individual to various circumstances. The dispositional approach sees personalities as stable and predictable. Allport explained the uniqueness of human personalities using the concept of personal dispositions that, unlike common features, were different for each individual (Schultz & Schultz, 2005).

The Role of Personality in Affecting Situational Behavior

When the behavioral patterns are studied from the dispositional perspective, the external factors that may influence the behaviors are viewed as errors which reduce the validity of the research (Thomas & Segal, 2006). The dispositional approach is often compared with the situational one that takes into consideration the impacts on the behaviors coming from the outside. This way, the dispositional approach is often viewed as weak and unreliable for the cases when human behaviors are studied in particular situations.

The problem is that in such researches it is very hard to distinguish which behaviors and choices were motived by the situations, and which ones come from within and are dictated by an individual’s personality. Besides, the dispositional approach assumes that the power that determines the causes of the behaviors is generated by a personality (Thomas & Segal, 2006). In other words, in two situations, the behaviors of an individual can be the same, not because of the similarity of the circumstances but because of personal determinants and causal power. The main purpose of the dispositional approach is to identify the similarities and differences between the individuals based on their personality traits and using grouping these traits into several categories (John, Robins & Pervin, 2008).

The humanistic approach to personality assumes that an individual is responsible for their own life and its course because an individual makes conscious choices as to their further development. Besides, in humanistic theories of personality, an individual’s view of the world around them is crucial. A well-known psychologist who followed the humanistic theory, Carl Rogers believed that one’s perspective of the circumstances has a direct impact on their future actions and decisions (Engler, 2013).

This way, trying to determine the causes of one’s behaviors the humanistic psychologist would study a person not only from the point of view of an objective observer but also from the perspective of the individual who performs the behavior. In other words, the humanistic approach includes both subjective and objective points of view. It studies the behavior, its causes, and how it is interpreted by the individual doing this behavior.

Moreover, studying human behaviors humanistic approach sticks to the belief that people are driven by their free will, which distinguishes the theories of this type from those assuming that human behaviors are dictated by uncontrollable desires and instincts. Humanistic theorists name the individuals’ desire to improve and realize themselves as the main motif of all behaviors.

The Personality Characteristics Attributed to Each Theory

The belief that people are originally good is the foundation of the humanistic theories. This way, this approach presents a rather optimistic view of the natural characteristics of human personalities. The humanistic point of view, first of all, assumes that all people are motivated by the desire to improve. It is demonstrated by the hierarchy of needs developed by the humanistic theorist Abraham Maslow.

The hierarchy is schematically depicted in a form of a pyramid compiled of multiple different layers. The very base of the pyramid consists of physiological and safety needs, whereas the upper layers represent higher needs such as the desire for self-actualization. Since humanistic psychologists believe that the individual perceptions of the world around are more important than the actual reality, every behavior deemed immoral or vicious can be studied and identified as one motivated by a positive intention (Heffner, 2015).

As a result, each deed is naturally good. For example, war can be explained as a positive desire for peace, and murder can be characterized as a wish to live in a safe environment. Humanistic theories focus on a personality as a whole instead of studying its parts separately. In this aspect, this approach is close to the dispositional one as it views humans as unique beings entitled to their behaviors and choices.

Allport’s definition of personality states that a personality is “the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristic behavior and thought” (Schultz & Schultz, 2005). This means that any personality has a structure, and according to Allport it consists of the common features and personal dispositions (Schultz & Schultz, 2005). The latter is divided into three main types, such as cardinal, central, and secondary dispositions.

Cardinal dispositions are the features that stand out the most and are noticeable to the observers. Central dispositions are a group of dominant personal characteristics that mainly determine one’s life and behaviors. This group is divided into two subcategories – motivational dispositions (the ones that determine an individual’s actions) and stylistic dispositions (the traits that guide the behaviors). Apart from central dispositions, a personality has secondary ones that are weaker and less reliable than the central dispositions. In this approach, people are viewed as both reactive and proactive beings that do not only respond to the surrounding circumstances but also feel the need to adjust the environments around to fulfill their need for personal growth (Schultz & Schultz, 2005).

The Interpersonal Relational Aspects Associated with the Theories

When it comes to interpersonal interactions, the dispositional approach focuses on the individual traits of particular personalities. For example, emotionality plays a significant role in interpersonal relations and communication. Emotionality stands for one’s ability or disability to recognize and regulate their own emotions. It also represents people’s emotional competency towards others.

Eisenberg, Fabes, Guthrie, and Reiser (2000) maintain that studying interpersonal interactions based on a dispositional approach it is important to remember people’s ways of regulating their emotions. Besides, the authors note that excessive emotionality is as destructive in relationships as a lack of emotional expression. This way, the dispositional approach to interpersonal relations assumes that each person’s behaviors will result from their unique characters and, so will their reactions to the behaviors of the others. Such a complex pattern of reactions, interpretations, and responses is highly confusing for a researcher.

The dispositional approach focuses mainly on viewing an individual’s behaviors as motivated by their personalities, but when an interaction between two or more individuals occurs independent perspective on an individual as a separate entity is driven solely by their own set of features is impossible.

Just like the dispositional approach, humanistic theories of personality undergo a serious challenge when there is a need to study interactions between several individuals. The problem is that the humanistic approach is person-centered, which means that only one individual can be studied at a time, while group behaviors and interactions are disregarded as less important. Humanistic theories, unlike the dispositional approach, tend not to compare humans to one another. Besides, they do not support the idea of similarities and comparisons between human and animal behaviors (this is one of the limitations of these theories because human and animal behaviors are utterly alike in many cases).

Even though interpersonal relations are viewed as a vital part of people’s lives (for example, the need for love and affiliation cannot be fulfilled without social contact), the individuals are seen as ultimately separate. This way, in humanistic theories, the need to belong to a group and interact with others is identified as a need more basic than that for self-actualization and the realization of one’s full potential. In other words, humanistic theories of personality see interpersonal relations as a necessary part of the development of a personality, but as a factor, they are not meaningful enough to bring a person to the very top of the needs hierarchy pyramid.


To sum up, the dispositional approach and humanistic personality theories have several features in common. For example, they both view humans as a whole and study them as responsible for their choices as the carriers of free will. At the same time, when it comes to social interactions, humanistic theories avoid comparisons of personalities whereas the dispositional approach is built on the search for common features of different personalities.

Reference List

Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R., Guthrie, I., & Reiser, M. (2000). Dispositional emotionality and regulation: Their role in predicting quality of social functioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 136-157.

Engler, B. (2013). Personality Theories. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Heffner, C. L. (2015). Humanistic Theory. Web.

John, O., Robins, R., & Pervin, L. (2008). Handbook of personality. New York: Guilford Press.

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2005). Theories of Personality. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Thomas, J., & Segal, D. (2006). Comprehensive Handbook of Personality and Psychopathology Volume 1. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

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PsychologyWriting. "Personality Theory: Humanistic and Dispositional Methods." September 15, 2023.