It is often said that no two individuals are exact duplicates; they differ from each other in some way or the other. Hence the job of the psychologist is to identify and understand this uniqueness in individuals. Such a similarity or difference between persons reveals individual differences. It happens in our day-to-day life when we see people around us.
A question comes to mind; how and why people appear similar or different to each other? For example when we think about their physical appearance, we often ask ourselves why some people have dark or fair complexion, why some people are tall and some are short, why some are thin and why some are very fat.
When we think about their psychological characteristics we often come across people who are very talkative or less talkative, some laugh too much whereas others take much time even to smile, some are very friendly whereas some prefer to be alone.
In psychology, these are called individual differences referring to the extent and kind of variations or similarities among people on some of the important psychological aspects such as intelligence, personality, interest, and aptitude.
If we collect information about people’s characteristics from a large sample and examine the pattern of distribution, we find that a large majority of the people fall in the middle range while a small proportion lies in extreme categories. For example, most of the people fall in the category of average height and very few are very tall or very short. This holds true for many more characteristics including intelligence and other psychological attributes.
The fact that people are different from each other is a very common observation. The differences in psychological characteristics are often consistent and form a stable pattern. By ‘consistent’, we mean that people tend to show regularity in their behaviour and their patterns of behaviour do not change very frequently. This consistency and stability in behaviour is unique to every person.
People develop their unique traits or characteristics and patterns of behaviour due to their genetic make up and the environment in which they are brought up. Once we know these differences systematically we can utilize the capabilities of people efficiently for their healthy development. Knowing about the specific characteristics of a person is necessary in order to extend support and utilize his or her potential to optimal level.
Individual differences occur due to interaction of genetic and environmental factors. We inherit certain characteristics from our parents through genetic codes. The phenotype or the expressed forms of our characteristics depend on contributions of the socio-cultural environment. This is the reason why we are not exactly like our parents and our parents not exactly like our grandparents. We do share similarities with our parents in respect of many physical attributes like height, colour of eyes, shape of nose etc. We also inherit certain cognitive, emotional and other characteristics from our parents like intellectual competence, love for sport, creativity etc. However, our own characteristics develop largely by the support from the environment which we inhabit.
The environment is responsible as how we are reared, the kind of atmosphere at house, whether it is liberal or strict, the type of education that we get, what we learn from people, around us, books, cultural practices, peers, teachers and media. All these aspects refer to ‘environment’ which help in developing our potentials.
Environment, by providing models and other opportunities, helps us develop many traits and skills. Our inheritance alone cannot decide what we become but our environment also contributes. We know the example of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was born in a very poor family but, with the right education and environment, became a great lawyer and also designed the Constitution of India.
The latest and most well known example would be of former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. There are many such examples, who did not become great because of inheritance but because of the environment. Genetic codes vary. At the same time, surrounding environment also differs from person to person. It sets limits or defines a range by offering different opportunities. That is why the pattern of development of each of us is different from others. It makes us think why we are similar in certain ways and different in others.