Personality: An In-Depth Overview

Personality is the total organization of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and motivations that defines an individual. According to Cattell, personality is that which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation. Personality is defined not only by a person’s reaction to situations but also by others’ reactions towards them. It stays consistent throughout a person’s life unless altered by life-changing events. However, even after years of research, psychologists could not come up with a unified theory that defines personality.

Nature Vs. Nurture

There are various psychological approaches to personality which can be broadly classified under two major umbrella – nature and nurture. This innate or acquired nature of personality has baffled philosophers, psychologists and biologists for ages. So does one win over the other or do they work together to shape one’s personality?

Influence of Nature on Personality

Sir Francis Galton, first studied twins to examine individual differences in cognitive abilities and personality. A mega-analysis of a dataset of 14 million twins over 50 years between 1958 & 2012 revealed that a 50% difference in human traits is a result of genetics. Prevalence of genetic disorders like schizophrenia, autism, Huntington’s disease is the reason why layman overemphasizes the importance of heredity over the environment. If indeed this were true, you could for instance expect a pattern of trait distribution more prevalent in one population than in the other. This of course is not at par with the twin research observation.

Influence of Nurture on Personality

The influence of the environment on personality development is enormous. From the environment we live in, people in our lives, society, culture and personal experiences all play a role in molding your personality. Each and every changing aspect of the environment that influences your actions and decisions influences your future behavior. Thus, it creates a pattern, the consistency of which is what we call personality.

Nature or Nurture?

The nature vs. nurture debate, after years of research, has enough data to suggest that both components regulate your personality. The brain is like a house, the brain cells its raw materials, and the environment is the wiring that builds its structure. At birth, an infant typically has 100 billion neurons in its brain and 2500 synapses per neuron which grows to about 15000 per neuron by the age of two or three. Brain cells become active only when it responds to external stimuli and dies when there is no interaction. Frequently stimulated neurons form strong networks and is the reason why children can learn languages so easily.

The circuit in children’s brains is wired to the intricacies of one’s language. Research also shows gender differences in perceptual styles, i.e., men are good at spatial reasoning while women are better at locating and remembering the location of stationary objects. The biological basis behind this is traced back to the evolutionary needs of our species where men hunted and women foraged. Thus from this perspective, biology can be viewed as the records of the environment our ancestors lived in, where genes are nothing but the codes of our biology.

Advances in the field of molecular genetics illustrated that an individual can have inherited sensitivity for a gene. For instance, having the “s-allele” for the depression gene means that the person is at high risk for depression under adverse environmental conditions. This determination of gene expression upon regulation by the environment is responsible for the formation of a certain psychological phenotype. In layman’s terms, our psychological dispositions that form our perception of emotions are also to an extent results of gene expression.

Thus, the nature vs nurture debate in this era has taken up a new form. The question is no longer if nature wins over nurture but rather how much and in what ways these components interact to define your personality. The various theories of personality that have developed over the years will help us in answering this question.

Theories of Personality

There are various theories of personality, some based on observation while others on clinical results that strive to explain its various dimensions. These are type, trait, psychodynamic, behavioral, and humanist theories of personality.

1. Type Theories of Personality

The type approach is based on observation which categorizes people based on common characteristics. It suggests no scope of discrepancy in the full expression of the classified traits. The different type theorists are: Hippocrate, Kretschmer, Sheldon, Jung, Spranger, Holland and Holland.

a. Hippocrate’s Typology

Hippocrate in 400 BC, based his personality types on the prevalence of four types of bodily fluids or humors – yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. Choleric individuals are irritable and hot-headed with high yellow bile. The prevalence of black bile classified one as melancholic – sad and depressed. Sanguinary type people had high blood content making one cheerful and optimistic. High phlegm made one calm and composed, classifying one as phlegmatic.

b. Kretschmer Typology

Kretschmer also classified people into four types based on morphology – pyknik, asthenic, athletic and dysplastic type. Pyknik type people were short, heavy, cheerful with a happy-go-lucky temperament. Asthenic types were tall and thin, having a schizoid temperament. Athletic types were muscular and well-built having an average height with a balanced and composed temperament. Dysplastic type people did not belong to any of the above types.

c. Sheldon’s Typology

Sheldon analyzed the nude photographs of 4000 students and classified personality as somatotypes based on morphology. The three types of personality were endomorphic, ectomorphic, and mesomorphic. Endomorphic people were short and fat, having a casual attitude towards life and temperament wise “viscerotonia”. Ectomorphic people were tall, thin, and introverted classifying them as “cerebrotonia”. Mesomorphic types were tall, well-built, assertive, and dominating and Sheldon called them “somatotonia”.

d. Jung’s Typology

Jung suggested three personality dimensions with two polarities each. He believed that humans have either one of the two functions as dominant traits in their personality. The three dimensions are extroverts and introverts; sensing and intuition; thinking and feeling.  Extroverts are fun, outgoing and optimistic people showing leadership qualities. On the contrary, introverts are observant and quiet people who mingle less and are better followers than leaders. Secondly, the two ways based on how people perceive things are sensing and intuiting. People using senses focus on details and observations and those using intuition listen to their inner voice and guidance. In addition, humans judge in two ways either by thinking and making decisions logically or by feelings based on subjective grounds.

e. Spranger’s Typology

Spranger classified men into six personality types based on his value orientation towards life. They are the theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political and religious types. Theoretical individuals have a cognitive attitude, critical and rational in thinking – a scientist or a philosopher. Economic types are practical-minded who focus on the utility and usefulness of things and is the stereotype of a businessman. Aesthetic individuals value harmony, form, beauty, view life as a series of events and cherish each event for its own sake. Social type individuals value love more than anything and exhibit traits such as kindness, compassion, and are selfless in nature. Political type values power above all and though power is a universal fundamental motive, this type exhibits it dominantly desiring personal influence and eminence. The religious type embraces unity also known as the imminent mystics who seeks the deeper meaning of life through self-discovery.

f. Holland’s Typology

John L Holland perceived vocation as an extension of one’s personality and suggested a set of six personality types that determines one’s career choice. They are realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional, commonly known as the RIASEC model. Realistic people are practical and good at working with tools, machines, plants, and animals. Investigative types are scientific and precise – the problem solvers. Artistic people are creative, showing interest in activities like arts, dance, drama, writing etc. Social people are friendly and helpful who like interacting and doing things for others. Enterprising types are social in nature, good at leading people, showing interest in business and politics. Conventional types are structured and orderly who follow plans and do not appreciate ambiguity.

2. Trait Theories of Personality

Traits are like factors or qualities distributed on a scale where one’s personality is the combination of one’s position on the factor scale. This difference in position results in a variety of personalities we see today. Trait theories are based on lexical hypothesis. It states that all salient and important qualities relevant within one’s culture gets encoded in their language. Over the years, researchers have debated the actual number of traits that make up one’s personality. Three major psychologists worked in this area: Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell and Hans Eysenck.

a. Gordon Allport

Allport identified 4000 different traits and categorized them into three levels: cardinal, central, and secondary traits. Cardinal traits develop later in life and tend to be dominating in nature. On the other hand, central traits are not dominant but they describe the basics of one’s personality. Similarly, secondary traits as the name suggests are not dominant and in fact, exhibit themselves only during specific circumstances.

b. Raymond Cattell

Cattell reduced Allport’s 4000 traits to 171 by eliminating the uncommon traits and combining the common ones. He then used factor analysis to identify the closely related traits by rating a sample of individuals on these traits. Thus, he came up with 16 final traits that he believed formed the basis of all personality, called the “16 Personality Factor Questionnaire”.

c. Hans Eysenck

Eysenck’s model of personality consists of only three traits: introversion/extraversion, neuroticism/emotional stability, and psychoticism. His definition of introversion and extraversion is the same as that of Jung. Neurotic people tend to be more prone to anxiety as they are not very emotionally grounded. Consequently, their mental states are easily influenced by situations that do not cater to their expectations so to say. On the other hand, individuals high on psychoticism are more prone to psychosis related to schizophrenia. They usually have a hard time dealing with reality and are often antisocial in nature.

d. Big Five-Factor Model

It represented five core traits namely:

Individuals who are highly agreeable tend to be kind, empathetic, and helpful who take into consideration people’s feelings.
Highly conscientious individuals pay a great deal of attention to details, are thoughtful and aware, and structured in their minds.
Openness describes the trait of being open to change. Open individuals tend to be very creative, always looking forward to trying out new things and indulge in thoughts about abstract concepts.
As described by Eysenck, neuroticism is a trait linked to emotional instability. Highly neurotic individuals tend to be irritable, moody, anxious, and are not emotionally resilient.
The characteristics of this dimension are the same as those expressed by Jung and Eysenck.

3. Psychodynamic Theories of Personality

These theories focus on how the unconscious mind influences the formation of personality. Two psychologists majorly contributed to this field of theory namely Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson. Freud approached this from a psychosexual perspective whereas Erikson viewed it from a psychosocial perspective.

a. Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud founded the field of psychoanalysis and studied the influence of sexual drives, unconscious mental processes, and early childhood experiences on personality development.

Freud’s five psychosexual stages are the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages. As a child progresses through these stages during childhood, the id becomes constricted at certain erogenous areas. The id demands instant gratification and the erogenous area is the body part associated with each stage of development. Libido was the psychosexual energy that according to Freud drove behavior.

More often than not, a child faces conflict during his/her development that results in fixation at one or more of these psychosexual stages. Thus, upon fixation, it stifles the holistic development of the individual. For instance, an individual stuck in the latent stage, between 6 years to puberty, becomes immature and has problems forming lasting relationships in the future.

b. Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson, a psychologist and psychoanalyst took Freud’s psychosexual theory and modified it to inculcate the effects of social dynamics on personality development. He propounded eight psychosocial stages that began at childhood and continued to late adulthood. The development starts at infancy at the age of 18 months and continues until maturity at the age of 65.

The eight stages of psychosocial development as described by Erikson are: trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role confusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation, ego integrity vs. despair. He suggested that no individual will be 100% inclined to one of the two opposing polarities. However, alignment with the positive tendency will result in the formation of virtue/strength and inclination towards the other will lead to maldevelopment.

He also posited a very important concept of the formation of ego identity which is the conscious sense of self that one develops at stage five. Ego is not constant and changes upon the influence of the environment. How one pictures oneself dictates one’s actions, beliefs, and behaviors thus creating a sort of mirror-like reflection. Being aware of one’s ego and its root causes is in fact one of the major discussions of modern-day spirituality.

4. Behavioral Theories of Personality

The school of behaviorism studies only observable behavior and suggests that personality is a result of one’s interaction with the environment. Psychologists like John B Watson, B.F Skinner, Albert Bandura and Walter Mischel have contributed significantly to this field of cognitive psychology.

a. John B Watson

John B Watson – the father of behavioral psychology, in 1913 launched this school of psychology in his article “Psychology as the behaviorist views it.” His work was greatly influenced by the famous conditioning experiments conducted by Pavlov. However, they both rejected the influence of the unconscious mind on behavior, deeming the works of Freud like dream analysis subjective and unscientific. Behaviorism only studied the observable, measurable aspect of behavior, deciphering the causes behind the wills of an individual.

He believed that environment/nurture overpowered the influence of genes on a child’s development. Thus, via conditioning, any healthy infant could be trained to specialize in any field. However, such radical thinking was not acceptable in those times and many condemned these theories. Also, the very infamous Little Albert experiment raised concerns over the ethics of his work. Watson and his assistant/wife Rosalie Rayner conditioned an 11 months old Albert to fear a white rabbit but this response became generalized to other white and furry animals. They achieved this by pairing a repeated loud clanging noise with the contact of the animals. But what makes his work very questionable is the fact that they may have left Albert unconditioned.

b. B.F Skinner

He formulated the concept of operant conditioning based on the works of Throndike who articulated these principles from the law of effect. Skinner suggested that the frequency of any given behavior increases when it is followed by a “satisfying state of affairs”. He proposed that reinforcement could consequently increase the likeliness of any behavior. The nature of this reinforcement can be any consequence both positive or negative that will assist in increasing the frequency of the behavior. Throughout the development of an individual, one is exposed to various consequences of behavior enforced by one’s parents, teachers, or other factors of the environment. This as a result gives rise to varied types of human behavior, according to him.

c. Albert Bandura

In 1977, he proposed his Social Learning Theory which posits that learning results from observation and evaluation of the mental/cognitive processes and is not simply an unidirectional relationship between stimulus and response. He called these mental processes mediating factors. Therefore, it refers to the thought processes involved in evaluating a stimulus that results in a response.

This theory suggests that individuals learn by imitating models in their vicinity like parents, teachers, peers, or fictional characters, etc, whose behavior is advantageous and socially desirable to the child. At first, the child will most likely choose a model based on his/her similarity to self followed by imitating someone of the same gender. Secondly, the consequence of his/her actions will determine the frequency of the behavior’s occurrence. Thirdly, the child will learn from others’ experiences; for instance, younger ones will consider those behaviors as positive for which older siblings are rewarded. Therefore, this process of learning Bandura calls vicarious learning. He believes that humans are active information processors that have the capacity to think and make decisions based on judgment i.e., one has free will. This is the focal concept of his theory also known as reciprocal determinism.

d. Walter Mischel

He proposed his theory of personality in 1968 that primarily focused on two main factors in the determination of an individual’s behavior. The various attributes of a given situation and the way you perceive it, weighing what’s at stake. He took into consideration individual differences in decision making and proposed five personality variables that interact with your environment resulting in behavior. These five variables are:

  1. competencies – your intellectual and social capabilities
  2. cognitive strategies – the way you perceives a situation
  3. expectancies – what you expect as consequences of the different results of your behavior
  4. subjective values – what the outcomes of various behaviors mean to you
  5. self-regulatory system –  the groups of rules and standards that you accept to regulate and function in society.

Mischel also widely studied the effects of self-control and delayed gratification on the overall decision making in the later years of an individual’s development. In his famous Marshmallow experiment, he presented a group of preschool children with two choices – either to press a bell and call the experimenter to eat one marshmallow or wait until he returns voluntarily and be rewarded with two. It was found that a child’s duration of the wait time is directly proportional to the success he/she is likely to achieve in all aspects of life. Mischel studied this phenomenon across cultures and found that the principles of his marshmallow experiment held true universally.

5. Humanistic Theories of Personality

Humanistic theories consider aspects such as self-determination and self-actualization. Psychodynamic and behavioristic approaches do not include these concepts. They focus on qualities that distinguish us from animals, deeming humans as rational, objective beings striving to reach their highest potential. That is to say, in the humanistic paradigm, you are responsible for your behavior and have the free will to choose that serves your best interest. Works of two psychologists are prominent in this field namely Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

a. Abraham Maslow

Maslow’s theory focused on the subjective experiences of an individual and free will. He believed that humans have a hierarchy of needs that when fulfilled in order, results in self-actualization – a state at which you are at your highest potential. The lowest in the hierarchy is physiological needs, followed by safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. In his research, he examined the lives of people with exceptional mental health who were creative and productive such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and some of his own contemporaries.

He found that self-actualizers shared some common characteristics that made them be at their highest self-expression. These characteristics are self-awareness and self-acceptance, openness and spontaneity, someone who takes work as a mission, has a healthy friend circle with a small group interacting frequently, has a good sense of humor and a tendency to have emotionally and spiritually fulfilling peak experiences. Thus, according to Maslow, these characteristics promote the optimal psychological health and he called it the coherent personality syndrome.

b. Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers in 1959 proposed his humanistic Person-Centered Theory. He, like Maslow believed that humans’ main motive is to self-actualize much like a seed that blooms into a beautiful flower under optimal environmental conditions. He proposed that the self-concept – “the organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself” is a crucial factor that determines whether an individual can self-actualize or not.

Oftentimes, the concept of self is not the same as reality. For instance, you may believe that you are self-confident but it could also be a mask you wear to hide your insecurities. He attributed the reasons for such discrepancies to conditional love shown by parents towards their children. When a child is treated with unconditional positive regard i.e., providing a non-judgmental environment for the child to grow, it will invariably increase the child’s chances to self-actualize. On the other hand, if the child receives conditional love, on growing up it is likely that it will behave in ways to conform to others’ expectations.

Critical Evaluation of Personality Theories

The theories of personality evolved over the years from an approach that associated personality with physical characteristics to one that classified people based on behaviors and one’s desire to reach his/her highest potential.

Type theories do not give any explanation for the reason behind their classification. It does not explain the cause for the development of the classified type. Thus, this classification is not widely accepted.

Trait theories do offer a plausible explanation of personality however, it has its limitations. Cattell focused on too many factors and Eysenck on too few. Thus, the Big Five model of personality was formed in the 1980s and 90s from the contribution of many psychologists. Today, it is considered one of the most prevalent theories of personality. Persay, Big Five is not a theory rather it was developed to organize personality traits. Few studies also questioned its cross-cultural validity.

The psychodynamic theories lack credibility since it is based on Freud’s case studies which mostly consisted of middle-aged women. Therefore, his theory does not include a wide variety of population. He also focused solely on childhood experiences for personality development. Freud’s approach was also considered sexist against women. However, unlike Freud, Erikson did not attribute the roots of personality to childhood alone. His take on personality formation was unique as he considered this development an ongoing process extending throughout an individual’s lifetime.

The behavioral theories does not include the effect of childhood experiences, internal thoughts and feelings in their model of personality. Most behavioral studies were conducted on animals, firstly posing an ethical concern and secondly viewing animals and humans alike, as passive responders. It also ignores the influence of free will. The positive aspect is, it is empirical and scientific in its approach, very effective for measuring behavioral outcomes in therapy.

The humanistic theories posit a more holistic approach towards personality. However, the fact that it considers free will as a determinant of behavior, its methods are deemed non-scientific, since it cannot be measured empirically. The different aspects of humanist theories offer more insights to achieve the clinical objectives of psychologists.

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