Funder, D.C. (1997). The personality puzzle. NY: Norton. (pp. 1-2)
You may already have been told that psychology is not what you think it is. Some psychology professors delight in conveying this surprising news to their students on the first day of the term. Maybe you expect psychology to be about what people are thinking and feeling under the surface, these professors expound, maybe you think it's about sexuality, and dreams, and creativity, and aggression, and consciousness, and how people are different from one another, and interesting things like that. Wrong, they say. Psychology is about the precise manipulation of independent variables for the furtherance of compelling theoretical accounts of well-specified phenomena, such as how many milliseconds it takes to find a circle in a field of squares. If that makes psychology boring, well, that's just too bad. Science does not have to be interesting to be valuable.
Fortunately, most personality psychologists do not talk that way. This is because the study of personality comes pretty close to being what nonpsychologists intuitively expect psychology to be. The most common image that people have of psychologists, of course, is as clinical practitioners. Most personality psychologists are not practitioners, but their field of research comes closer to clinical concerns than any of the other areas of research in psychology. More important, personality psychologists have no excuse for being boring, because their field of study includes everything that makes psychology interesting.
The Goal of Personality Psychology
Personality refers to individuals' characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms -- hidden or not -- behind those patterns. This definition means that among their colleagues in other subfields of psychology, those psychologists who study personality have a unique mandate: to explain whole persons. I am not claiming that personality psychologists always succeed at this job. But that is what they're supposed to be doing -- putting the pieces of the puzzle contributed by the various other subfields of psychology, as well as by their own research, back into an integrated view of whole, functioning individuals in their social context.
There is only one problem with this mission. It is impossible. In fact, this interesting mission is the source of personality psychology's biggest difficulty. If you try to understand everything about a person all at once you will immediately find yourself completely overwhelmed and your mind, instead of broadening, will be in danger of going blank.