Life Span Development and Personality

Freud and unconscious conflict, Pavlov and learning, Darwin and natural selection; all of these great men of science developed theories to explain the world around us and within us. They did not, however, develop these theories outside the context of their surroundings, their upbringing, or their own personalities. President-elect Barack Obama will soon become the first African-American President of the United States of America. Current world events dictate that his presidency will be the stuff of great novels when it is complete. However, Barack Obama should not be considered outside the context of his own psychological and developmental growth, his own personality, and his own path towards self-actualization. 

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Which makes more music, a violin or the violinist? The answer is neither because without one or the other the music could not exist at all. The same concept can be applied to the nature vs. nurture controversy. Is our personality more a product of our genetically inherited traits or our environmentally learned characteristics? The answer is neither because without one the other could not exist. The question is not about how much, but simply how genetics and our environment interact to create the unique individuals that we see around us. Robinson (2004) explains it this way, “Behavior is orchestrated by an interplay between inherited and environmental influences acting on the same substrate, the genome” (p. 397). Robinson goes on to explain that DNA is both inherited and environmentally responsive, meaning that our DNA affects our environment and vice versa. In the case of Barack Obama, his mother is white and his father is black. His mother and father are both highly educated people. Obama’s moral development follows a rocky path along cultural norms, geographical limitations, and issues of cultural conformity. He grew up in places like Indonesia and Hawaii. He attended the most prestigious primary schools and universities that our country has to offer. He coined the phrase, “There is no Black America; White America; there is the United States of America” (Obama, 2004, p. 225). Notwithstanding, much of the available data seems to show that genetics and peer influences are highly implicated in social development. Conversely, parental involvement, exemplified in his mother’s enduring authoritative attachment style, is by his own confession a major influence on his life, even today. His mother insisted on him getting up very early in the morning every day to learn English while he was overseas. At the same time, young Barack always understood why it was important for him to learn English. His mother sets standards, enforced those standards, but was always careful to explain her standards. President-elect Obama exemplifies the complexity of the discussion over nature vs. nurture. You could no sooner count the grains of sand in the sea than devise a strategy to draw the line between his genetically inherited traits and his environmentally learned traits. The sum of its parts could never equal the whole.      

Personality traits include both observed behavioral tendencies and the inferred underlying personality characteristics that created the behavior (Kowalski & Westen, 2005). Likewise, the underlying mechanism of temperament, or characteristics which are present from early childhood and which have a strong biological foundation, pervade any discussion of traits (Strelau, 1987). Eysenck’s theory of personality goes as far as to say that traits can be grouped together into types. He hypothesized that three main groups constitute the entirety of observable tendencies: extroversion/introversion, neuroticism/emotional stability, and psychoticism/empathic. On the other hand, the five-factor model includes five main groups: neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. Regardless of which model more accurately describes the full spectrum of human personality, both theories would seek to explain Barack Obama in terms of traits. President-elect Obama would undoubtedly score high on extroversion, low on neuroticism, and low on psychoticism according to Eysenck’s personality theory. Furthermore, he would probably score high on openness, according to the five-factor model, because of his cosmopolitan upbringing. Eysenck’s theory of personality seems to try to explain personality in terms of temperament; whereas, the five-factor model centers more on learned characteristics. 

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It is the humanistic approach to behavior that best frames Barack Obama’s current and future achievements and actions. In summary, Obama’s great struggle has been to integrate his father’s race and national background with his mother’s ethnicity and small-town upbringing. Within this turmoil, Mr. Obama had to find meaning for his own life. He also had to find a way to be true to himself while still continuing to be a result of his inheritance and upbringing. Existentialism, a branch of the humanistic approach, proposes that we must all form our own identity and a set of values to govern our lives, we must self-actualize. To say it plainly, we must become ourselves. Additionally, self-actualized people tend to respond in a more extreme manner when confronted with social stimuli (Goldman & Olczak, 1978). This is due in part to the moral grounding that acts as a foundation for their lives. In the case of Mr. Obama, when faced with a racially degenerative language he reacted with shock and bewilderment, rather than passivity. He even once cursed a teacher repeatedly for his use of racially charged language. It is this drive towards self-actualization that most accurately depicts the behavior and actions of Barack Obama.                               

In conclusion, Mr. Obama’s path to self-actualization, when viewed within the context of the nature vs. nurture controversy, becomes a complex interplay between temperament, genetics, learned behaviors, and social influences. Moreover, the main determinants of Mr. Obama’s character are his mother’s authoritative attachment style, his tendency towards extroversion, the absence of neuroticism, his openness to diverse cultures and peoples, and his deep-seated moral values. It would be imprudent to view Barack Obama’s presidency outside the context of where he came from, who he is, and where he is going.     


Goldman, J. A., & Olczak, P. V. (1978). Self-actualization and impression formation. Journal of Personality46(3), 414. Retrieved December 18, 2008, from EBSCOhost database.

Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2005). Psychology (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Obama, B. (2004). Dreams from my father: A story of race and inheritance (2nd Ed). New York, NY: Random House. 

Robinson, G. E. (2004). Beyond nature and nurture. Science304(5669), 397-399. Retrieved December 18, 2008, from EBSCOhost database. 

Strelau, J. (1987). The concept of temperament in personality research. European Journal of Personality1(2), 107-117. Retrieved December 18, 2008, from EBSCOhost database. 

Paper Topic

  • Select a famous individual from the 20th or 21st centuries. Be sure to obtain faculty approval for your selection prior to beginning this assignment. Conduct research concerning the background of your selected individual to determine what forces have impacted his or her life from the viewpoint of developmental psychology.
  • Based on your research, prepare a 1,050 to 1,400-word paper in which you address the following items:
    • Distinguish between the influences of heredity and environment on his/her psychological development. Be sure to specify which area of psychological development (moral, emotional, etc.). What family issues and/or social support systems may have influenced their developmental growth and adjustment? Select two different theories of personality and apply them to your selected figure, and answer the following question: How does each theory differ in terms of how it explains the individual’s unique patterns or traits?Explain which theoretical approach you believe best explains the individual’s behaviors and achievements. Make sure to explain why you made this choice.
  • Use a minimum of three sources. Be sure to properly cite your reference(s) in your paper, and be prepared to discuss your paper in class.

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