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Sullivan: Interpersonal Theory

Psychology of Personality

Lecture, Chapter 8


Overview of Interpersonal Theory

•Personality is developed only within a social context; without other people, humans would have no personality.

•Interpersonal relations developed throughout life’s stages, the most crucial of which is preadolescence, shape personality.

•Healthy personalities classify the ability to experience both intimacy and lust in a relationship with another person.


Sullivan’s Life

•Timothy Sullivan was the only child, with 2 older brothers dying within their 1st year of life, in a poor Irish Catholic family in Norwich, New York.

•Timothy had very few friends as a child but developed a very intimate relationship with another boy who was intellectually keen and social inept, as was Timothy.

•Timothy worked with large numbers of schizophrenic patients after WWI, where he served as an officer.

•Timothy became acquainted with several professional colleagues in both psychiatry and social science, such as Horney, Fromm, and Mead, who influenced his thinking.

•Timothy was known to be uncomfortable with his sexuality, never married, and adopted a son who was likely a former patient.



•Sullivan believed that personality is a type of energy system involving action in the form of a) tension or b) energy transformations

    •One type of tension results from general and zonal (arising from a particular area of the body) needs.

    •Anxiety is the 2nd type of tension, characterized by disunity and inconsistency in its emergence

•Sullivan called euphoria the state of complete lack of tension.



•disjunctive dynamism: malevolence

•isolating dynamism: lust

•conjunctive dynamism: intimacy and self-system


•People defend themselves from threats to their self-regard from interpersonal tensions through security operations.


–Selective inattention



•Images of self and others that may be accurate or distorted, according to various needs and anxieties, are personifications.

•bad-mother, good-mother dichotomous personification.

•Me personifications

•Eidetic personifications


Levels of Cognition

•Prototaxic level

•Parataxic level

•Syntaxic level


Stages of Development

•Sullivan believed that personality can change at any time through interpersonal interactions but is most likely to change during stage transition.

•Infancy, ages 0-2

•Childhood, ages 2-6

•Juvenile era, ages 6-8.5

•Preadolescence, ages 8.5-13

•Early adolescence, ages 13-15

•Late adolescence, ages 15-18

•Adulthood, 18+


Psychological Disorders

•Understood only within the context of a person’s social environment.

•Everyone has psychological problems to differing degrees.

•Interested in schizophrenia that resulted from interpersonal factors.

•Mental illness results from over-dependence on minimizing anxiety through dissociation of experiences from the self-system.



•Participant observer

•Treating psychotic patients as fellow humans

•Goal: to alleviate problems in relating with others by risking anxiety and developing authentic interpersonal relationship with the therapist.

•Focus: understanding the patient.



•Did Sullivan use science in his theory development? Was his theory able to generate research, be falsified, organize data, guide action, be internally consistent, and be parsimonious?

•Where does Interpersonal Theory fall on the basic issues concerning the nature of humanity?

–Determinism vs. free choice

–Pessimism vs. optimism

–Causality vs. teleology

–Conscious vs. unconscious

–Social vs. biological influences

–Uniqueness vs. similarities