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Psy 405 Theories of Personality. How do Psychologists Define Personality? Definition of Personality Theory in Psychology

Updated on January 25, 2013

What is Personality?

How do we Define Personality?
How do we Define Personality? | Source

What is Personality?

One of the central goals of psychology is understanding what makes one person unique from any other. To this end many psychologist have explored in depth the subject of personality. In the exploration of personality it is important to understand what personality is, what different kinds of theories address the issue of personality and how an individual's personality might be developed.

Defining Personality

It is difficult to find a single definition for the concept of personality. There is no agreed upon definition for personality among psychologist (Feist & Feist, 2009). It seems as if there are as many definitions for personality as there are individual theorist who seek to explore how personality is developed. Some theorist's definition of what personality is, might simply be derived from their own chosen method of exploration. Feist and Feist (2009) assert that “although no single definition is acceptable to all personality theorists, we can say that personality is a pattern of relatively permanent traits and unique characteristics that give both consistency and individuality to a person’s behavior” (What is Personality?, para. 3). With this rough idea of what personality is we can examine the different approaches which have been taken to exploring how personality is developed.

Personality Theories

According to the article Personality Theories (2001) “personality theories can be categorized into five main classes, as psychoanalytical, humanistic, behavioristic, social-cognitive, and as trait theories” (para. 1). The psychoanalytic approach to understanding personality was first developed by Sigmund Freud. Freud's view of personality was as a “dynamic interplay between opposing instinctual and social influences” (Personality Theories, 2001, para. 2). Other theorist such as Alfred Alder and Carl Jung expanded the psychoanalytic approach, disagreeing with Freud on many positions and adding their own unique ideas to the concept of personality (Personality Theories, 2001). Though there was some disharmony between Freud and these later theorist within the psychoanalytic school, they still held to Freud's basic conception that “personality is a dynamic relationship between complex systems that act on each other, fueled by basic instinctual drives over which the individual has little or no control” (Personality Theories, 2001, para. 3). The psychoanalytic approach to understanding personality is based on the assumption that personality develops through a series of stages that an individual progresses through as they mature from childhood into adulthood (Personality Theories, 2001).

Psychoanalitic and Humanistic

The psychoanalytic approach is limited because it is focused primarily on understanding the abnormal human psyche (Personality Theories, 2001). Humanistic theories focus on the normal human psyche and the belief that every individual is seeking self-realization (Personality Theories, 2001). Unlike the stages of development that refine an individual's personality in the psychoanalytic approach, the refinement of an individual's unique potential in the humanistic view “is a deliberate act by the individual who gains a clear concept of self through a constant process of interaction with oneself and others” (Personality Theories, 2001, para. 4).


Behaviorist such as B. F. Skinner believed that mental functions which could not be observed could not be studied scientifically (Personality Theories, 2001). To a behaviorist like Skinner “behavior shapes the entire individual, including, though not exclusively, the personality” (Personality Theories, 2001, para. 5). In the eyes of behaviorism, everything about a person that is knowable can be learned only through the observation of that individual's behavior. The attraction to studying personality through the lens of behaviorism is that observable behavior is more adaptable to the scientific method than either psychoanalytic or humanistic theories had been (Personality Theories, 2001). In behaviorism all of an individual's personality can be thought of as a combination of learned behaviors. The downside to the behaviorist approach is that there is more to an individual person that just what can be overtly observed.


Social-cognitive theories suggest that everyone's experience of reality is personal and independent of all other people's view of reality (Personality Theories, 2001). This means that no two people view and understand the world in the same way. Everyone experiences and interprets reality differently and their behaviors and personality both are determined by the individual's interpretations and anticipations of events (Personality Theories, 2001).

Trait Theories

Trait theories suggest that personality characteristics can be categorized and measured (Personality Theories, 2001). Trait theories are a compromise between behaviorist and psychoanalytic theories of personality based on the assumption that “traits are observed in behavior but are not reducible to it; they are the underlying triggers that generate specific behavior” (Personality Theories, 2001, para. 7).


Genetics, environment, learned behavior and internal conflicts are some of the possible ways in which an individual's personality might be shaped. Though each of these factors probably contributes to the development of personality, the degree of importance that any individual psychologist ascribes to each of these influences is biased by the theoretical perspective in which the psychologist most believes. The theoretical perspective of the psychologist defines his approach to understanding personality and also his description of what personality is.


Feist, J and Feist, G (2009). Theories of Personality (7th ed.). Retrieved from the University ofPhoenix eBook Collection database.

Kolwalski, R and Westen, D (2005). Psychology (4th ed.). Retrieved from the University ofPhoenix eBook Collection database.

Personality Theories. (2001). In World of Sociology, Gale. Retrieved from

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© Copyright 2012. Wesley Meacham- This article is copyright protected and is the property of Wesley Meacham. All images in this article, unless otherwise stated, are the property of Wesley Meacham. Please do not copy this article in whole or in part without giving credit to the original author.


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