What is personality

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Kevin Mangelschots

“What is personality” is a complex question to answer, since it’s influenced by multiple different factors.

There are billions of people living on earth. Yet, each one of them possesses a unique personality.

And while people are more alike than they are different, those small, seemingly insignificant differences in personality traits make up for strikingly different personalities.

Multiple possible questions being written on a wooden board.
 
Personality can be defined as a combination of qualities and traits that make up an individual’s unique personality.
 
Each individual personality has a pattern of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that makes each person unique.
 
Personality traits remain remarkably consistent throughout our lives. Although a person’s psychology, environment and life events influence our personality as well.

 

Aspects of personality

Picture of the word 'personality' written in the middle with multiple personality traits written around it.

  • Personality traits

    One of the aspects of personality are our personality traits.

    Trait theory is becoming increasingly popular by psychologists studying human behavior.

    Personality traits like extroversion-introversion, neuroticism and agreeableness are a relatively steady pattern of behavior that makes up a large part of one’s individual personality.

    Personality traits remain remarkable stable, even more so in adulthood, while more susceptible to change in childhood. Although, other things like life events and culture plays an important role in someone’s developing personality traits.

  • Physiology

    Illustration of a brain.

    Physiology or, in other words, “the way your brain is wired” is also an essential factor for determining someone’s personality.

    Your personality traits are most certainly influenced by outside influences such as life events and our immediate environment. Yet, our characteristics are largely determined by the way our brains are wired and thus, as a result, our hormones are regulated.

  • Psychology

    Your psychology, aka the way you look at life and the life events that happen in your life, is a critical influence in one’s developing personality.

    For example, negatively attributing failures to oneself like “I’m a failure”, “I can’t do anything right” can negatively impact personality traits, making people less extroverted, more neurotic as a result.

    Simultaneously, attributing failures more positively like, for example, “next time will be better” or “I made a mistake, but mistakes happen, and I will learn from them” tend to make people less neurotic.

  • Environment

     

    A group of friends hugging on the beach.

    What kind of personality a person has is also dependent on its environment.

    Values like respect and a caring, encouraging environment are important for creating stable personalities while those are still being developed.

    For example, a person who grows up in a caring, supportive environment is more likely to be extroverted and less neurotic than a person who grows up in a hostile, non-supportive environment.

  • Life events

    Life events can make or break people’s lives.

    Both positive and negative life events are indispensable influences in our developing personalities. Negative experiences especially tend to influence us harshly. But the way we attribute those life events is equally influential.

    Take the death of a loved one for example. Person A can turn inwards and become more introverted and neurotic due to being unable to cope with this tragic life event. However, person B manages to give it a place and, thus, carry on with their life without turning inwards or necessarily becoming more neurotic.

  • Culture

     

    A warrior sculpture standing in a garden.

    The expectations of our culture and traditions influence our very personality.

    We are social animals and as such, we are heavily influenced and guided by other people and what they think of us.

    Culture tends to have an important influence on people early on in their lives and as such, young people who are still biologically and mentally developing are strongly influenced by an individual’s culture.

  • Gender

    Gender has a significant influence on our personality aspects due to our biologically different personality traits and expectations of society.

    For starters, there are critical trait differences at the averages between men and women. For example, women tend to be more interested in people and men more interested in things. Women tend to be more agreeable, while men tend to be less agreeable. Women tend to be less assertive than men.

    Gender equality in corporate world. Figures of man and woman on pencil seesaw, blue background, copy space.

    Of course, that’s not to say that there are no women out there who are less agreeable, less assertive and less interested in things than men. Just that at the averages, there tend to be biological personality trait differences between men and women.

    Furthermore, society places or expects certain roles of people depending on t heir gender.

    Just like elder people are often seen as ‘wise sages’ who are at the head of the family in certain cultures, certain roles are expected and attributed to men and women specifically.

    Men tend to be regarded as the protector and provider in the family who tends to fix things in and around the house, while women in general tend to be regarded as caring, interested in other people’s needs and motherly.

    As such, women tend to get attributed caring, motherly roles such as being a nurse, daycare worker or teacher while men get attributed roles like being a construction worker, plumber, or electrician.

When does personality start developing?

Illustration of a man scratching their head while holding a yellow question mark.

Our personality starts developing from the moment we’re born until the day we die.

Although babies are not yet capable of intelligible speech and might seemingly display the same behavior, as other babies, we can already notice individual differences between each of them individually.

Some babies for example are more easily agitated than others. Others are more fearful and tend to cry more. While some tend to be more extroverted, trusting, and willing to discover than their peers.

As we can see, even little ones have a surprising amount of diversity in their still rapidly evolving personalities.

Personality trait theory

Many psychologists believe that trait theory is a key factor in classifying human behavior.

Most believe that there are 5 basic dimensions of personality. These 5 basic dimensions are called the “Big Five” personality traits or five factor model.

The acronym “OCEAN” can be helpful in remembering the big 5 personality traits list, since every letter in the acronym refers to the first letter of the personality traits.

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

Image of the acronym “OCEAN”, which represents the following big 5 personality traits: conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Openness to experience (inventive/curious VS consistent/cautious)

Openness to experiences compasses how open a person is to new experiences and new or different ideas.

  • People high in personality trait openness

    If you are an open person then you like to learn new things, hear and tolerate different point of views, different ideas and values.

    All in all, people high in trait openness like variety, are independent and imaginative. They often have rich, well-developed inner worlds and enjoy fantasy.

  • People low in personality trait openness

    A person that’s lower in trait openness to experience is more likely to conform, be practical and prefer routine.

    People low in trait openness don’t like change and generally behave according to the quote: “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

    They like things to stay the way they are. They value stability and the predictability this stability provides.

    Likewise, they are more rigid and less flexible in their thinking, which has both its advantages and disadvantages. Furthermore, they prefer dealing with facts rather than fantasy.

Conscientiousness (efficient/organized VS extravagant/careless)

 

A library of books put neatly in order.

  • People high in personality trait conscientiousness
    Conscientious people are organized people who work hard and consistently to reach their goals. They value competence and are self-disciplined. They carry a strong sense of duty wherever they go.

    Conscientious people who are under performing or not working hard enough to reach their goal(s) will start feeling anxious and useless. This pushes them to work harder and more consistently.

    They are careful, disciplined people and punctual in regard to their work.

  • People low in personality trait conscientiousness

    People low in trait conscientiousness are disorganized and don’t like working hard to reach their goals. They don’t necessarily value competence as much as their more conscientiousness peers, and often lack self-discipline and sense of duty.

    Their rooms tend to be more disorganized, and they don’t, or at least not with the same intensity, experience the negative emotions that conscientious people feel when not working hard and frequently.

    People low in trait conscientiousness value their free time and are perfectly fine not engaging in productive behavior. They are more likely to be careless and to behave impulsive.

Extroversion (outgoing/energetic VS solitary/reserved)

Illustration showing the key differences between introverts and extroverts.

  • People high in personality trait extroversion

    Extroverted personality types are sociable, fun-loving, empathic, enthusiastic and affectionate.

    Being extroverted, also called high in trait extroversion, means someone who is more externally focused, on the physical world rather than being internally focused.

    What typically characterizes an extrovert is their large threshold and thus need for external stimulus compared to their introverted companions. Thus, they frequently seek excitement in activities and other individuals.

    Extroverted people get and recharge their energy from being around and socializing with other people. Being alone drains them of their energy. This is why it’s very common for extroverted people to actively search out other people and things to do. Especially activities where lots of people are involved.

  • People low in personality trait extroversion

    A man using a phone in front of a window.

     

    Introverted personality types are retiring, sober, low in enthusiasm and reserved.

    People low in trait extroversion, also called introverts, are preoccupied and focused on their own rich internal world rather than being outwardly focused towards the physical world.

    What typically characterizes an introvert, also called a person who’s low in trait extroversion, is their lower threshold and thus, as a result, lower need for stimulus compared to their more extroverted companions. They are remarkably excitable and thus prefer quiet places with a low amount of stimuli.

    People low in trait extroversion get and recharge their energy from downtime. Which is often in the form of being alone and occupied within their own rich internal world, reading, playing video games or just plainly in the act of thinking.

    Being around other people drains people low in trait extroversion of their energy. This is why it’s not uncommon for introverted people to avoid large groups of people and go through seemingly long periods of solitude.

    Being introverted does not mean the same as being shy, by the way. Even though shyness is typically associated with being introverted. Probably because introverted people are generally quieter and enjoy thinking more rather than speaking.

Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate VS challenging/callous)

  • People high in personality trait agreeableness

    Agreeable people, also called people high in trait agreeableness, are easy to get along with. They are kind, caring, empathic, and non-competitive.

    They mainly put other people’s needs first and are often times unwilling, sometimes even unable, to stand up for themselves. Agreeable individuals care deeply about other people’s opinions, and are thus more influenced by the opinions of others than disagreeable people are.

  • People low in personality trait agreeableness

    Picture of a man looking menacing in front of him with a laptop beside him.

    Disagreeable people, also called people low in trait agreeableness on the contrary are tough, harsh, competitive, ruthless, suspicious, uncooperative, not all that empathic and put themselves and their own needs on the forefront.

    Disagreeable people don’t care all that much about other people’s opinions, and thus remain largely uninfluenced by other people.

Agreeable people are easier to get along with than disagreeable people.

However, disagreeable people generally have the advantage of reaching their goals faster and easier because they are less affected by other people’s opinions and because they know exactly what they want.

Disagreeable people are also more adept at negotiating on their own behalf, leading to people low in trait agreeableness often getting what they want and often get paid a higher salary than agreeable people who perform the exact same job.

Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous VS resilient/confident)

 

Image of a woman showing signs of insecurity.

Trait neuroticism means how intense you experience negative emotions and how many negative emotions you experience.

Being declined by a girl you asked on a date will be experienced a lot more negatively and linger longer for the man high in trait neuroticism than for the man who’s low in trait neuroticism.

The person low in trait neuroticism will in this particular case probably casually blow it off as “well, it can’t always be the right one” and/or “the next date will go better” while the person high in trait neuroticism will probably be affected and attribute the rejection personally by telling himself “I’m simply not good enough” or “I will never find a girlfriend.”

  • People high in personality trait neuroticism

    Image of a note lying on a wooden table saying, “positive mind, positive vibes, positive life”.

     

    People high in trait neuroticism will experience less positive emotions than people low in neuroticism do. They are regularly anxious, sensitive, insecure, and self-pitying.

    They tend to be self-conscious and analytical rather than impulsive.

  • People low in personality trait neuroticism

    Personality types low in trait neuroticism tend to be more calm, secure, confident and self-satisfied.

    They are more resilient against negative life events and life in general. They tend to be impulsive and not self-conscious at all.

Personality type theory

A black and white image of Hippocrates.

One of the earliest known personality theories is the type theory of the Greek Hippocrates.

He divided human behavior in four main temperaments. Each behavior was associated with a different kind of humor or bodily fluid.

  • Melancholic type. (Melancholic, depressed, sad.) Associated with black bile.
  • Phlegmatic type. (Sluggish, slow.) Associated with phlegm.
  • Choleric type. (Irritated, angry.) Associated with yellow bile.
  • Optimistic/sanguine type. (Positivity and optimism.) Associated with blood.

Psychodynamic theories

Illustration of an iceberg depicting the ego, superego, and ID according to Freud.

The psychodynamic approach has been invented and heavily popularized by the popular neurologist Sigmund Freud.

He assumed that the conscious and unconscious minds interact. A lot of importance is placed on defense mechanisms and childhood experiences.

Psychodynamic theory aims to reduce anxiety by self-insight.

Freud divided personality into a 3 part personality structure.

  • Ego

    The ego is the executive part of our personality and is largely conscious.

    According to Freud, the ego mediates among the demands of the superego, ID, and reality.

    Our ego operates on the reality principle, aiming to satisfy the id’s desires so that it will realistically bring pleasure rather than pain.

  • Superego

     

    Image of the words “core values” written on a small blackboard.

    The superego is, according to Freud, the part of our personality that represents internalized ideals and thus, provides standards for judgments. (Our conscience) and for future goals.

    Our superego operates on the preconscious level.

  • ID

    The id is a reservoir of unconscious psychic energy that aims to satisfy basic sexual and aggressive traits.

    The ID operates on the pleasure principle and demands immediate gratification.

Behavioral theories

Behavioral theory operates on the principle that personality is a pattern of learned behavior that can be shaped by reinforcement. Reinforcement takes the form of either rewards or punishment.

This learned behavior is acquired through either:

  • Classical conditioning (Pavlov)

    Image of how Pavlov conditioned a dog due to classical conditioning.

  • Or operant conditioning (Skinner)

A more recent, closely related form is cognitive-behavioral theory.

This hypothesis operates on the principle that cognition and the ability to understand plays an important role in the learning process of shaping behavior.

Cognitive theorists theorize that people demonstrate their own goals, expectations, and thoughts about themselves, other people and their own behavior. That’s why they don’t only focus on the outward behavior that people demonstrate.

Humanistic theories

Humanistic theories originated from humanistic psychology.

They were developed in response to the behavioral and psychodynamic theories that focus more on human behavior and that personality is determined by our unconscious or through reinforcement from our social environment.

Humanistic theories ultimately view people as being good and acknowledge their potential, purpose, health, and hope. They believe that people have the ability to reach self-actualization, and also believe in their ability to reach their full potential.

Conclusion

What kind of personality a person develops is dependent on many aspects. Each of them influences who we are and how we act to a varying degree.

Regardless, there’s a strong biological component to personality. This is proven since our personality traits remain remarkably stable throughout our lives, especially in adulthood.

In order to develop who you are to the best of your ability, try to keep an open mind and learn as much from other people and life events as possible.