Psychology Topics > Personality


Personality is defined as a person's unique behavioral and cognitive patterns; OR, a person's unique consistent pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting. In describing personality, theorists attempt to answer the following questions.

  • Freedom versus Determinism:
    Are our behaviors determined by forces we cannot control or are we free to control our own behaviors?
  • Heredity versus Environment:
    Is our personality shaped solely by genetics, the environment we grow up in, or both?
  • Uniqueness versus Universality:
    Are people unique or similar in comparison with one another?
  • Active versus Reactive:
    Do we choose behavior on our own volition or do people simply react to their environment?
  • Optimistic versus Pessimistic:
    Can people change their personalities or do they have to accept themselves the way they are and remain the same?
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Key Figures & Theories

Gordon Allport
Gordon Allport was an American psychologist who focused on individuals personalities. Allport is sometimes referred to as the founder of personality psychology. He believed that the study of personality could be characterized in 2 ways. The first, nomothetic, refers to traits and rules of personality that can be generalized to large amounts and types of people. The second, idiographic psychology, states that there are characteristics that are unique to the individual. Thus, Allport attempted to explain personality be answering the question of uniqueness versus universality.

Allport developed the trait theory of personality. He did this by looking through a dictionary and writing down any terms that described a person's personality. He then divided these terms into 3 types of traits; cardinal, central and secondary.

  • Cardinal trait - This refers to a trait that dominates the individual's life, personality and behaviors. This type of trait is uncommon because people usually have more than 1 trait that shapes their lives.
  • Central trait - These are traits that everyone has to one degree or another.
  • Secondary trait - These characteristics are unique to the individual.

Allport also coined the words genotype and phenotype. Genotype is a trait that a person has within themselves that determines their behaviors with others. Phenotypes are observable aspects of how the individual relates to the world. For example, genotypes can be values, likes or dislikes. A phenotype for someone with a personality disorder is a pattern of disturbed or inappropriate relationships with others.

Carl Jung
Carl Jung was a Swiss psychologist who was most notable for dream analysis, but he also illustrated a theory of personality. Like Allport, Jung also answers the question of uniqueness versus universality in his theory.

Jung believed that everyone had particular unlearned yearnings or archetypes. For example, the mother archetype has a yearning or need to nurture others. In other words, an archetype is a model, prototype, or stereotype that is used as a structural component to a developing personality. Some examples of Jung's archetypes were:

  • The Mother: feeding, soothing and nurturing.
  • The Self: spiritual connection to the universe
  • The Shadow: dark, unknown and mysterious part
  • The Persona: public mask
  • The Child: birth and beginnings
  • The Trickster: deceiving
  • The Scarecrow: outcast
  • The Sage: knowledge and guidance
  • The Hero: rescuer, champion

Sigmund Freud
Freud developed the model of the psyche or personality composed of the Id, Ego, and Superego. The Id works on the pleasure principle - it seeks to avoid pain and increase pleasure at any cost. It drives us to search for food when hungry, rest when tired, and other basic impulses that ensure our survival.

The Superego acts as the moral police, and demands that we act in a moral and socially appropriate manner, no matter the circumstance. It works in direct contradiction to the Id. The Ego works as the executive of the psyche, striving to find a balance between the Id's hedonism and the Superego's moralism.

Freud also believed that personalities were influenced by material held in the unconscious. His treatment consisted of helping individuals make the unconscious-conscious to understand their motives behind their emotions and behaviors. His expectation was that once people were truly aware of themselves, they could make changes to improve their functioning.

Alfred Adler
Alfred Adler was an Austrian psychologist who believed personality was not only developed due to internal processes but external processes. One of the external processes Adler believed had a significant impact on a developing personality was birth order. For example, the oldest child may have leadership capabilities, the youngest child is often overindulged and the middle child may feel squeezed-out or ignored.

Adler proposed a model of personality that defined particular patterns of behaviors. These patterns were named getting / leaning, avoiding, ruling / dominant, and socially useful. The getting / leaning type are selfish personalities who take but never or rarely give back. The avoiding type of personality does not take risks and does not enjoy much social interaction. The ruling / dominant personality will do anything to get their way and can be very manipulative. Finally, the socially useful personality is outgoing and wants to do things for the good of others.

Robert Cloninger
Robert Cloninger characterized personality by three dimensions of temperament and three types of traits. He also developed the tridimensional personality questionnaire (TPQ) to measure these dimensions in individuals.

The dimensions of temperament are:

  • Harm Avoidance: anxious, pessimistic vs. outgoing, optimistic
  • Novelty Seeking: impulsive, quick-tempered vs. rigid, slow-tempered
  • Reward Dependence: warm, approval-seeking vs. cold, aloof
  • Persistence, which is persevering, ambitious vs. easily discouraged (NOTE: this 4th dimension was added later)

The three types of traits are:

  • Self-Directedness: reliable, purposeful vs. blaming, aimless
  • Cooperativeness: tolerant, helpful vs. prejudiced, revengeful
  • Self-Transcendence: self-forgetful, spiritual vs. self-conscious, materialistic

Hans Eysenck
Hans Eysenck was a British psychologist who studied intelligence and personality. His model of personality included two dimensions, extraversion (E) and neuroticism (N). He used these two dimensions on a graph to classify personality. With these two factors, the possibilities of personality can be classified into 4 types.

  • High N and High E = Choleric type
  • High N and Low E = Melancholic type
  • Low N and High E = Sanguine type
  • Low N and Low E = Phlegmatic type
Later, a third dimension of psychoticism was added.

Eysenck proposed that introverts were move internally stimulated than extroverts. Therefore extroverts seek out more external stimulation than introverts to balance their system whereas introverts try to stay away from additional stimulation so they will not become overloaded.

Raymond Cattell
Raymond Cattell was a British and American psychologist who proposed a 16 factor theory of personality. These 16 factors are outlined in the following table.

Descriptors of Low Range Primary Factor Descriptors of High Range
Impersonal, distant, cool, reserved, detached, formal, aloof (Schizothymia) Warmth
Warm, outgoing, attentive to others, kindly, easy-going, participating, likes people (Affectothymia)
Concrete thinking, lower general mental capacity, less intelligent, unable to handle abstract problems (Lower Scholastic Mental Capacity) Reasoning
Abstract-thinking, more intelligent, bright, higher general mental capacity, fast learner (Higher Scholastic Mental Capacity)
Reactive emotionally, changeable, affected by feelings, emotionally less stable, easily upset (Lower Ego Strength) Emotional Stability
Emotionally stable, adaptive, mature, faces reality calmly (Higher Ego Strength)
Deferential, cooperative, avoids conflict, submissive, humble, obedient, easily led, docile, accommodating (Submissiveness) Dominance
Dominant, forceful, assertive, aggressive, competitive, stubborn, bossy (Dominance)
Serious, restrained, prudent, taciturn, introspective, silent (Desurgency) Liveliness
Lively, animated, spontaneous, enthusiastic, happy go lucky, cheerful, expressive, impulsive (Surgency)
Expedient, nonconforming, disregards rules, self indulgent (Low Super Ego Strength) Rule-Consciousness
Rule-conscious, dutiful, conscientious, conforming, moralistic, staid, rule bound (High Super Ego Strength)
Shy, threat-sensitive, timid, hesitant, intimidated (Threctia) Social Boldness
Socially bold, venturesome, thick skinned, uninhibited (Parmia)
Utilitarian, objective, unsentimental, tough minded, self-reliant, no-nonsense, rough (Harria) Sensitivity
Sensitive, aesthetic, sentimental, tender minded, intuitive, refined (Premsia)
Trusting, unsuspecting, accepting, unconditional, easy (Alaxia) Vigilance
Vigilant, suspicious, skeptical, distrustful, oppositional (Protension)
Grounded, practical, prosaic, solution oriented, steady, conventional (Praxernia) Abstractedness
Abstract, imaginative, absent minded, impractical, absorbed in ideas (Autia)
Forthright, genuine, artless, open, guileless, naive, unpretentious, involved (Artlessness) Privateness
Private, discreet, nondisclosing, shrewd, polished, worldly, astute, diplomatic (Shrewdness)
Self-Assured, unworried, complacent, secure, free of guilt, confident, self satisfied (Untroubled) Apprehension
Apprehensive, self doubting, worried, guilt prone, insecure, worrying, self blaming (Guilt Proneness)
Traditional, attached to familiar, conservative, respecting traditional ideas (Conservatism) Openness to Change
Open to change, experimental, liberal, analytical, critical, free thinking, flexibility (Radicalism)
Group-oriented, affiliative, a joiner and follower dependent (Group Adherence) Self-Reliance
Self-reliant, solitary, resourceful, individualistic, self sufficient (Self-Sufficiency)
Tolerates disorder, unexacting, flexible, undisciplined, lax, self-conflict, impulsive, careless of social rules, uncontrolled (Low Integration) Perfectionism
Perfectionistic, organized, compulsive, self-disciplined, socially precise, exacting will power, control, self-sentimental (High Self-Concept Control)
Relaxed, placid, tranquil, torpid, patient, composed low drive (Low Ergic Tension) Tension
Tense, high energy, impatient, driven, frustrated, over wrought, time driven. (High Ergic Tension)
Primary Factors and Descriptors in Cattell's 16 Personality Factor Model (Adapted From Conn & Rieke, 1994).


Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist who developed the theory of classical conditioning to describe behavior. His theory endorses a behavioral approach to personality and states that people simply respond to their given environments and do not consciously choose any given behavior. His theory is concerned with the question of activity versus reactivity.

Pavlov was actually a physician who was studying gastric functioning in dogs by examining their saliva in various feeding conditions. During some of his experiments, Pavlov observed that the dogs began to salivate before they were even given any food. Upon further investigation, Pavlov discovered that the dogs salivated in response to hearing a sound from the mechanism that delivered the food. Pavlov realized something 'unusual' was occurring because he knew that dogs don't instinctively salivate in response to a sound.

After further investigation, Pavlov realized that the dogs "learned" that every time they heard that sound, they were about to be fed. This "pairing" of a stimulus that naturally caused a biological response with another stimulus that did not reflexively cause a response is the essence of classical conditioning. The vital part is the pairing of the two stimuli that precedes the conditioning of a reflexive response to the neutral stimulus.

Conditioned responses are not permanent however. Upon further investigation, Pavlov discovered that after several times of ringing the bell without giving dogs food that the dogs would re-learn that the bell was no longer associated with being fed. This process is called extinction. If the conditioned response is never paired again with the neutral stimulus then the conditioned response will fade and then disappear.

B.F. Skinner
B.F. Skinner was also a behaviorist, however, unlike Pavlov, who believed behaviors were involuntary reactions to the environment, Skinner believed behaviors were voluntary. Skinner illustrated this concept through his operant conditioning theory. This theory states that people perform behaviors because they are reinforced or punished to do so.

Reinforcement is something that increases the likelihood that a behavior will continue. Punishment is something that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will continue. Both Reinforcement and punishment have two types, positive and negative. Normally when we hear the word "negative," we think it is something bad. In this case however, negative simply means that something has been taken away. Positive means that something has been added. The following table illustrates this relationship.

Positive Something is added to increase the likelihood a behavior will occur Something is added to decrease the likelihood a behavior will occur
Negative Something is taken away to increase the likelihood a behavior will occur Something is taken away to decrease the likelihood a behavior will occur

An example of a powerful negative reinforcer is a screaming child. The sound is so annoying that many adults will give the child anything he or she wants in order to get the screaming to stop. The child will stop screaming (take away the piercing sound) when the adult gives him or her candy (increase likelihood that behavior occurs). Children use this technique with adults every day. It doesn't take a psychologist to understand how to change behavior!

Albert Bandura
Albert Bandura was a psychologist most noted for this theory of social learning. The main idea of the social learning theory is that people learn by watching what other people do and then copy that behavior. This is called modeling. Bandura can also be thought of as a "nurture" oriented theorist. In response to the question of whether our personalities are the result or genetics or our environment, he would say we act the ways we do because we are nurtured to act in those ways.

John Holland
John Holland developed a model of 6 personality types that is mostly used in career counseling. These 6 personality types are Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional.

  • Realistic: likes to work with animals, tools, machines, and is practical and realistic.
  • Investigative: likes math, science, is precise and intellectual.
  • Artistic: likes creative activities, is very artistic, expressive, and avoids repetition.
  • Social: likes to help and be around people. Is trustworthy, friendly, and likes to solve social problems.
  • Enterprising: likes to sell things, engage in politics and other leadership positions but does not enjoy analytic activities.
  • Conventional: enjoys working with numbers and structured activities.


Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow was a Humanistic Psychologist who believed personality was based on meeting survival and other needs. His theory answers the question of uniqueness versus universality because the needs he identified are universal to all people. The needs he identified were physiological, security, needs of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

  • Physical needs: food, water, sleep
  • Security/safety: shelter, safe environment
  • Belongingness and love: friends, family, and intimacy
  • Esteem: Respect, self-esteem, recognition
  • Self-actualization: achieving an individual's full potential

He organized these needs into a triangle he called the Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow believed all people had an innate desire or drive to become self-actualized; however, people met their needs according to a particular order or hierarchy. The most important needs for life are those that are physically sustaining such as food, water, and shelter.

Maslow stated that people had to fulfill these basic needs before other needs such as esteem and belonging could be met. Therefore, personality could be characterized partly by understanding where on the chart of needs an individual was located. For example, if a person is spending the majority of his or her time meeting physical needs, their personality will not reflect needs or values of intimate relationships because that need is located higher on the triangle.

Carl Rogers
Carl Rogers also focused on the question of uniqueness versus universality. Unlike Maslow who endorsed universality, Rogers endorsed the individual's uniqueness. His technique is called "client-centered" because of this focus on the individual. Rogers believed that clients were the experts of their own lives and had the answers they needed to solve their own problems but just needed support in realizing this fact.

Rogers believed that all a therapist needed to do was provide unconditional positive regard, i.e. accepted the client's feelings without reservation or judgment, and the client would be able to rely on his or her own inner strengths and personality to solve problems.

Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman
Friedman and Rosenman coined the terms Type A and Type B personality. A Type A personality is a set of behavioral features favoring achievement, competition, time urgency, impatience and hostility. Researchers have found that Type A characteristics are correlated with a higher risk of heart disease in these individuals. In contrast, individuals with Type B personality are relaxed, patient and easy-going.


There are several different assessments that psychologists use to assess personality. Here are a few of the more popular personality inventories.

Thematic Apperception Test (TAT): This test consists of a series of cards with different pictures. The object is for the person to tell a story about what he or she thinks is occurring in the picture. The assumption is that the person will "project" which is that he or she will use the picture to talk about what has happened or is significant to them.

Rorschach: This assessment consists of a series of ambiguous ink blots and the psychologist asks the patient what he or she sees in the ink blots. This is similar to looking at clouds in the sky and talking about what the clouds look like. Similar to the TAT, the assumption is that the individual will "project" their issues, struggles or delusions onto the picture.

MMPI II: The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is a long test consisting of over 500 statements such as "I hear things that other people cannot hear." Each question can be answered either true or false. Results are shown according to 10 scales. These scales are outlined in the following table:

Number Abbreviation Description What is Measured No. of Items
1 Hs Hypochondriasis Concern with bodily symptoms 32
2 D Depression Depressive Symptoms 57
3 Hy Hysteria Awareness of problems and vulnerabilities 60
4 Pd Psychopathic Deviate Conflict, struggle, anger, respect for society's rules 50
5 MF Masculinity/Femininity Stereotypical masculine or feminine interests/behaviors 56
6 Pa Paranoia Level of trust, suspiciousness, sensitivity 40
7 Pt Psychasthenia Worry, Anxiety, tension, doubts, obsessiveness 48
8 Sc Schizophrenia Odd thinking and social alienation 78
9 Ma Hypomania Level of excitability 46
0 Si Social Introversion People orientation 69


Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: this assessment is also used in career counseling and is another personality inventory that measures personality according to 4 dichotomies. These are introversion (I) vs extroversion (E), sensing (S) vs intuition (N), thinking (T) vs feeling (F), and judgment (J) vs perception (P). There are 16 possible combinations using these dichotomies. David Kiersey named these possible personality types in the following table:

Inspector Protector Counselor Mastermind
Crafter Composer Healer Architect
Promoter Performer Champion Inventor
Supervisor Provider Teacher Fieldmarshal


Personality Disorders

The following disorders are unhealthy patterns of behaviors that require treatment. Usually these disorders are not "cured" per se, however, individuals suffering from personality disorders can be taught coping skills to help them cope with their symptoms. Personality disorders are classified into 3 clusters of symptoms; A, B, and C.

Cluster A: these disorders consists of odd, eccentric thinking or behaviors

  • Paranoid personality disorder
  • Schizoid personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder

Cluster B: these disorders consist of dramatic, overly emotional thinking or behavior.

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Histrionic personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder

Cluster C: these disorders consist of anxious, fearful thinking or behavior.

  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Dependent personality disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder