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What is Personality?

Updated on November 22, 2009

Personality is all of a person's attributes and qualities and the way they are combined to make that person different from every other person. This meaning is different from that given to the term in ordinary speech. In general conversation the word "personality" usually includes only those personal attributes that make for social success. In everyday usage an individual is said to have "a lot of personality" if he has personal qualities that generate a friendly and positive reaction from the people he meets. In a psychologist's terms, however, everyone has personality; that is, every person has a unique style of interacting with others and of reacting to his environment. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that some people have a more attractive personality and are more pleasant to be with than others.

Photo by Anissa Thompson
Photo by Anissa Thompson

Psychoanalytic Theory

According to this theory, which was developed by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian physician and the founder of psychoanalysis, a personality is developed out of three separate components: the id, the ego, and the superego. In Freud's view instinctive inherited factors play an important role in the development of personality. Other important factors in personality development are the experiences a child has in his first five years of life, particularly as they relate to his parents.

A number of related personality theories have arisen out of Freud's psychoanalytic theory. Examples are Carl Jung's analytic theory, which argues that there is a collective unconscious, and Alfred Adler's school of individual psychology, which stresses that man is primarily motivated by social urges.

Psychoanalytic theories of personality have been highly influential in psychotherapy. Many of the terms used to explain the theories are used in general conversation and in literary and historical criticism.

Constitutional Theory

Although the term "personality" does not generally include a person's physical makeup, according to the constitutional theory, personality depends on glandular secretions, physiology, and especially the morphology, or shape and structure, of the human body. The foremost constitutional personality theorist is the American psychologist William H. Sheldon. According to him, biological and hereditary factors are of supreme importance to human behavior. He labeled three somatotypes, or types of body builds: endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs. Endomorphs are individuals who are spherical in appearance, with underdeveloped bone and muscle; mesomorphs are hard and rectangular, with well-developed bone and muscle; and ectomorphs are thin, lightly muscled, and delicate looking. From Sheldon's research it appeared that endomorphs are fond of food, love company, and are even-tempered. Mesomorphs are aggressive, love to take risks, and enjoy physical activity. Ectomorphs are restrained, self-conscious, and easily upset. Generally, Sheldon's theory has been resisted by most psychologists because there are too many exceptions to his classifications of somatotypes.

Social Theories of Personality

These theories regard personality as being developed as a result of the social conditions that the individual experiences. These conditions include the kind of family he grows up in, the kinds of schools he attends, and the kinds of friends and acquaintances he has. According to such theories the adult's personality is always open to change by these social forces. Therefore social theorists reject the idea that an adult's personality is the result of inherited traits. They also reject the idea that the personality is determined early in life and is unchangeable. According to social theorists a person who is shy and retiring has those personality traits because of the social experiences he has encountered. For example, he may have had overprotective parents who did not let him play with other children. If such a person is introduced into a social setting where he can associate with warm and friendly people, considerable changes in his personality can occur. Important social personality theorists are Erich Fromm, Karen Homey, and Harry Stack Sullivan.

Field Theory of Personality

According to this theory, developed to a large extent by the German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin, each person is an entity different from anything else in the universe. He remains a part of the universe, although he interacts with only a small section of it. The part that he interacts with is called his psychological environment. The accompanying illustration shows that the person (a) plus the psychological environment (b) make up the life space of the individual. For a given person each object or event in the psychological environment has valence, or value. A particular object is said to have positive valence if the person is attracted toward it and negative valence if the person is repelled by it. Lewin's theory is highly technical and makes use of complicated mathematical formulations. Therefore the above description is intended only as an introduction to its complexities.

Learning Theories of Personality

These theories are primarily interested in discovering how personality develops, with emphasis on the importance of learning. Behavior is regarded as being largely a matter of habit. Habits can be learned or unlearned; for example, a person who is shy has learned to be that way for any of various reasons. He may have learned early in life that if he was quiet and retiring, he stayed out of trouble and avoided punishment. Or perhaps his early attempts at being friendly and outgoing were rebuffed, thereby causing him to withdraw into himself. According to the learning theories a knowledge of why these personality habits were learned is an important tool in correcting personality disorders.

Self Theories of Personality

A large number of personality theorists place the self in the center of their theory. By "self" they usually mean a person's feelings and attitudes about himself. These feelings and attitudes influence the way a person behaves. For example, if a boy sees himself as a clown in the classroom, he will make jokes during lessons. If a girl's self-concept is that she is a good organizer, she will probably be active in a number of clubs and other extracurricular activities. Similarly, persons who think they are not very bright will lose interest in staying in school. Interestingly enough, if such persons can be convinced that they actually are different from their original self-concept, their personality will tend to change and to reflect the new concept of self. The classroom clown may become a more serious student, and the person who thought he was not very intelligent may change his mind and decide to remain in school.

A person's self-concept is generally developed through his contacts with other persons. For example, a child learns that he is good at drawing principally because others tell him he is. A girl who dresses sloppily and considers herself unattractive will begin to change her self-concept if she discovers that boys of her own age find her attractive. The best-known self-theorist is the American psychologist Carl Rogers.

Personality Tests

It is often important for people to obtain information about an individual's personality. A social worker dealing with juvenile delinquents must understand the personality of youths in his care. An employer
may want to know if a prospective employee has a stable personality and if he is temperamentally suited to the job in question.

One way of establishing facts about an individual's personality is to observe him for a long period of time. In many cases, however, it is not possible or practical to do so. Also, an observer may become biased in some way, therefore losing his ability to remain totally objective in his judgment of the observed person's personality.

To aid in evaluating an individual's personality as quickly and efficiently as possible, psychologists have devised various tests. If properly taken, administered, and interpreted, these tests can be quite accurate. In such a test it is important that the person taking it react as typically and normally as he is able. This requirement is quite different from that of an ability test, in which the person is expected to do his very best. Trying to do one's best in a personality test tends to make the results inaccurate, thereby giving a false picture of the test taker's personality. In such cases the results are useless and may even be harmful to the test taker. There are two types of personality tests, the personality inventory and the projective test.

Personality Inventories

These tests are often called paper-and-pencil tests. In one such test the person taking it is given a number of statements to respond to. He answers "true" if it describes him or "false" if it does not. The statements are of the nature "I am usually gay and happy" or "I often dream I am on a tall mountain." Other inventory tests ask questions and list multiple-choice answers. The person taking the test checks the answer that seems most appropriate to him.

Two of the best-known personality inventories are the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the Strong Vocational Interest Blank (SVIB). The MMPI asks the test taker to answer "true" or "false" to a large number of statements. His answer sheet is then marked and compared with scores that have been obtained from tests taken by persons suffering from various kinds of personality disorders. Different patterns of responding to the statements indicate to the persons analyzing the results any possible areas of psychological difficulty. The test is so constructed that the psychologist can detect if the person taking it deliberately lies or does not try to answer as best he can.

SVIB asks the test taker about his likes and dislikes. From his answers it can be determined if the person is interested in the same things as persons who have been successful in a given occupation. The scores predict the likelihood of a person's remaining in that occupation if he decides to enter it and the likelihood of his obtaining satisfaction in it.

The MMPI and the SVIB illustrate the range of usefulness of personality inventories. They also illustrate a criticism that has been made of inventories. The criticism is that the tests substitute reported behavior for actual behavior without sufficiently taking into account the fact that a person may be unable to report his behavior and his beliefs honestly, even if he wants to. For example, he may have unconscious thoughts that will distort his answers. This factor is particularly true of persons suffering from severe personality disorders.

Projective Personality Tests

An attempt to overcome the weaknesses of the inventory tests has resulted in the projective personality test. The projective test presents to the test taker an ambiguous situation and asks him to respond to it. The ambiguous situation may be an incomplete sentence, a shadowy picture, or an inkblot. In responding, the test taker projects his own thoughts and feelings into the sentence he completes, the story he tells about the picture, or what he sees in the inkblot. The psychologist interprets these projections and is often able to see the unconscious thoughts and feelings that influenced the test taker's responses.

The most famous projective test is the Rorschach test, which developed from the proposals made in 1921 by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach. The test consists of inkblots of different shapes, and the test taker is asked to say what each blot reminds him of. Another widely used projective test is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). It involves showing pictures of people in various situations. The test taker is then asked to describe what is happening and what thoughts and feelings the people in the picture are experiencing.


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Good Jot!!! Nice one I love everything about personality and temperaments. Please Get more of this

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      gooood job ~!

    • AKH profile image


      8 years ago from Rhode Island

      Excellent overview of personality types. Very thought provoking. Inciteful. What would you think about a theory of 3 personality types? A theory that is premised on the idea that our personalities are a result of our perception, of our habitual responses to the world. The Wakefield Doctrine maintains that this characteristic perception of reality can be grouped into three distinct types: clarks, scotts and rogers. A vehicle that allows us to "Understand Human Behavior and Personality Types". I'd love to get your take on this.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Very impormative,,, great job. keep up the good work.

    • Joy56 profile image


      9 years ago

      interesting subject, you wrote well about this i enjoyed reading it.

    • McHamlet profile image

      Paul Buckle 

      9 years ago

      Very informative, well written and interesting. Thanks a lot for this.

    • Longtail profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Thank you for your suggestion Tom, I shall look into it.

    • Tusitala Tom profile image

      Tom Ware 

      9 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Excellent and very detailed. Methinks, however, that you will broaden your knowledge considerably with a study of Psycho-synthesis, the writings of Roberto Assagioli, especially his work: The Act of Will. Assagioli was a comtempary of Jung and Adler and I once heard him described - maybe wrongly - as the "greatest psychologist who ever lived." Worth a read, I think...

    • TroyM profile image


      9 years ago

      awesome, well done :)

    • DeanMcDonnell profile image


      9 years ago from Ireland

      Fantastic post, well done!


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