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While personality is something that we talk about all the time ("He has such a great

personality!" or "Her personality is perfect for this job!"), you might be surprised to
learn that psychologists do not necessarily agree on a single definition of what exactly
constitutes personality.
Personality is generally described as being made up the characteristic patterns of
thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make a person unique. In others words, it is
what makes you you!
Researchers have found while some external factors can influence how certain traits
are expressed, personality originates within the individual. While a few aspects of
personality may change as we grow older, personality also tends to remain fairly
consistent throughout life.
Because personality plays such an important role in human behavior, an entire branch
of psychology is devoted to the study of this fascinating topic.
Personality psychologists are interested in the unique characteristics of individuals, as
well as similarities among groups of people.
In order to understand the psychology of personality, it is important to learn some of
the key characteristics of how personality works.
Personality is organized and consistent. We tend to express certain aspects of our
personality in different situations and our responses are generally stable.
Although personality is generally stable, it can be influenced by the environment. For
example, while your personality might lead you to be shy in social situations, an
emergency might lead you to take on a more outspoken and take-charge approach.
Personality causes behaviors to happen. You react to the people and objects in your
environment based on your personality. From your personal preferences to your
choice of a career, every aspect of your life is affected by your personality.
How Theories Are Studied
Now that you know a bit more about the basics of personality, it's time to take a closer
look at how scientists actually study human personality. There are different
techniques that are used in the study of personality. Each technique has its own
strengths and weaknesses.
Experimental methods are those in which the researcher controls and manipulates the
variables of interests and takes measures of the results. This is the most scientific
form of research, but experimental research can be difficult when studying aspects of
personality such as motivations, emotions, and drives. These ideas are internal,
abstract, and can be difficult to measure. The experimental method allows researchers
to look at cause-and-effect relationships between different variables of interest.
Case studies and self-report methods involve the in-depth analysis of an individual as
well as information provided by the individual. Case studiesrely heavily on the
interpretations of the observer, while self-report methods depend on the memory of
the individual of interest. Because of this, these methods tend to be highly subjective
and it is difficult to generalize the findings to a larger population.
Clinical research relies upon information gathered from clinical patients over the
course of treatment. Many personality theories are based on this type of research, but
because the research subjects are unique and exhibit abnormal behavior, this research
tends to be highly subjective and difficult to generalize.
Major Theories
Personality psychology is the focus of some of the best-known psychology theories
by a number of famous thinkers including Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson. Some of
these theories attempt to tackle a specific area of personality while others attempt to
explain personality much more broadly.
Biological Theories
Biological approaches suggest that genetics are responsible for personality. In the
classic nature versus nurture debate, the biological theories of personality side with
Research on heritability suggests that there is a link between genetics and personality
traits. Twin studies are often used to investigate which traits might be linked to
genetics versus those that might be linked to environmental variables. For example,
researchers might look at differences and similarities in the personalities of twins
reared together versus those who are raised apart.
One of the best known biological theorists was Hans Eysenck, who linked aspects of
personality to biological processes. For example, Eysenck argued that introverts had
high cortical arousal, leading them to avoid stimulation. On the other hand, Eysenck
believed extroverts had low cortical arousal, causing them to seek out stimulating
Behavioral Theories
Behavioral theorists include B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson. Behavioral theories
suggest that personality is a result of interaction between the individual and the
environment. Behavioral theorists study observable and measurable behaviors,
rejecting theories that take internal thoughts and feelings into account.
Psychodynamic Theories
Psychodynamic theories of personality are heavily influenced by the work
of Sigmund Freud and emphasize the influence of the unconscious mind and
childhood experiences on personality. Psychodynamic theories include Sigmund
Freud's psychosexual stage theory and Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial
Freud believed the three components of personality were the id, the ego, and the
superego. The id is responsible for all needs and urges, while the superego for ideals
and morals. The ego moderates between the demands of the id, the superego, and
reality. Freud suggested that children progress through a series of stages in which the
id's energy is focused on different erogenous zones.
Erikson also believed that personality progressed through a series of stages, with
certain conflicts arising at each stage. Success in any stage depends on successfully
overcoming these conflicts.
Humanist Theories
Humanist theories emphasize the importance of free will and individual experience in
the development of personality.
Humanist theorists also focused on the concept of self-actualization, which is an
innate need for personal growth that motivates behavior. Humanist theorists
include Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.
Trait Theories
The trait theory approach is one of the most prominent areas within personality
psychology. According to these theories, personality is made up of a number of broad
A trait is basically a relatively stable characteristic that causes an individual to behave
in certain ways. Some of the best-known trait theories include Eysenck's three-
dimension theory and the five-factor theory of personality.
Eysenck utilized personality questionnaires to collect data from participants and then
employed a statistical technique known as factor analysis to analyze the results.
Eysenck concluded that there were three major dimensions of personality:
extroversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism.
During his initial examination, he described two major dimensions of personality
which he referred to as Introversion/ Extroversion and Neuroticism/Stability.
Extroversion and introversion related to how people tend to interact with the world
while neuroticism and stability related to emotionality.
Eysenck believed that these dimensions then combine in different ways to form an
individual's unique personality. Later, Eysenck added the third dimension known as
psychoticism, which related to things such as aggression, empathy, and sociability.
Later researchers suggested that there are five broad dimensions that make up people's
personalities. Often referred to as the Big 5 theory of personality, this theory suggests
that the five major personality dimensions are Openness, Conscientiousness,
Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, sometimes identified with the useful
acronym OCEAN.
Famous Figures
Some of the most famous figures in the history of psychology left a lasting mark on
the field of personality. In order to better understand the different theories of
personality, it can be helpful to learn more about the lives, theories, and contributions
to the psychology of these eminent psychologists.
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the founder of psychoanalytic theory. His theories
emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind, childhood experiences, dreams,
and symbolism. His theory of psychosexual development suggested that children
progress through a series of stages during which libidinal energy is focused on
different regions of the body.
His ideas are what as known as grand theories because they seek to explain virtually
every aspect of human behavior. Some of Freud's ideas are considered outdated by
modern psychologists, but he had a major influence on the course of psychology and
some concepts, such as the usefulness of talk therapy and the importance of the
unconscious, are enduring.
Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson (1902-1994) was an ego psychologist trained by Anna Freud. His theory
of psychosocial stages describes how personality develops throughout the lifespan.
Like Freud, some aspects of Erikson's theory are considered outdated by
contemporary researchers, but his eight-stage theory of development remains popular
and influential.
B. F. Skinner
B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) was a behaviorist best known for his research on operant
conditioning and the discovery of schedules of reinforcement.
Schedules of reinforcement influence how quickly a behavior is acquired and the
strength of a response. The schedules described by Skinner are fixed-ratio schedules,
fixed-variable schedules, variable-ratio schedules, and variable-interval schedules.
Sandra Bem
Sandra Bem (1944-2014) had an important influence in psychology and on our
understanding of sex roles, gender, and sexuality. She developed her gender schema
theory to explain how society and culture transmit ideas about sex and gender.
Gender schemas, Bem suggested, were formed by things such as parenting, school,
mass media, and other cultural influences.
Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was a humanist psychologist who developed the well-
known hierarchy of needs.
This hierarchy includes physiological needs, safety and security needs, love and
affection needs, self-esteem needs, and self-actualizing needs.
Carl Rogers
Carl Rogers (1902-1987) was a humanist psychologist who believed that all people
have an actualizing tendency - a drive to fulfill the individual potential that motivates
Rogers called healthy individuals fully-functioning, describing these individuals as
those who are open to experience, live in the moment, trust their own judgment, feel
free and are creative.
Important Terminology
Classical Conditioning
A behavioral training technique which begins with a naturally occurring stimulus
eliciting an automatic response. Then, a previously neutral stimulus is paired with the
naturally occurring stimulus.
Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response without the
presence of the naturally occurring stimulus. The two elements are then known as
the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response.
Operant Conditioning
A behavior training technique in which reinforcements or punishments are used to
influence behavior. An association is made between a behavior and a consequence for
that behavior.
In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the unconscious mind is a reservoir
of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are outside of our conscious
awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant,
such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict.
According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and
experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences.
According to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the id is the personality
component made up of unconscious psychic energy that works to satisfy basic urges,
needs, and desires.
The id operates based on the pleasure principle, which demands immediate
gratification of needs.
According to Freud, the ego is the largely unconscious part of the personality that
mediates the demands of the id, the superego, and reality. The ego prevents us from
acting on our basic urges (created by the id) but also works to achieve a balance with
our moral and idealistic standards (created by the superego).
The superego is the component of personality composed of our internalized ideals that
we have acquired from our parents and from society.
The superego works to suppress the urges of the id and tries to make the ego behave
morally, rather than realistically.
An innate human need to achieve personal growth that motivates behavior.
A Word From Verywell
Personality makes us who we are, so it is no wonder why it has been the source of
such fascination in both science and in daily life. The various theories of personality
that have been proposed by different psychologists have helped us gain a deeper and
richer understanding of what makes each person unique.
By learning more about these theories, you can better understand how researchers
have come to know the psychology of personality as well as consider questions that
future research might explore.