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What Is Personality?

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What Is Personality

Personality is made up of the characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make a person unique.

Igor Balasanov / iStockPhoto

Almost everyday we describe and assess the personalities of the people around us. Whether we realize it or not, these daily musings on how and why people behave as they do are similar to what personality psychologists do.

While our informal assessments of personality tend to focus more on individuals, personality psychologists instead use conceptions of personality that can apply to everyone. Personality research has led to the development of a number of theories that help explain how and why certain personality traits develop.

Definitions of Personality

While there are many different theories of personality, the first step is to understand exactly what is meant by the term personality. The word personality itself stems from the Latin word persona, which referred to a theatrical mask work by performers in order to either project different roles or disguise their identities.

A brief definition would be that personality is made up of the characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make a person unique. In addition to this, personality arises from within the individual and remains fairly consistent throughout life.

Some other definitions of personality:

  • "Personality refers to individuals' characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms -- hidden or not -- behind those patterns. This definition means that among their colleagues in other subfields of psychology, those psychologists who study personality have a unique mandate: to explain whole persons."
    (Funder, D. C., 1997)

  • "Although no single definition is acceptable to all personality theorists, we can say that personality is a pattern of relatively permanent traits and unique characteristics that give both consistency and individuality to a person's behavior."
    (Feist and Feist, 2009)

Components of Personality

So what exactly makes up a personality? As described in the definitions above, you would expect that traits and patterns of thought and emotion make up an important part. Some of the other fundamental characteristics of personality include:

  • Consistency - There is generally a recognizable order and regularity to behaviors. Essentially, people act in the same ways or similar ways in a variety of situations.

  • Psychological and physiological - Personality is a psychological construct, but research suggests that it is also influenced by biological processes and needs.

  • It impacts behaviors and actions - Personality does not just influence how we move and respond in our environment; it also causes us to act in certain ways.

  • Multiple expressions - Personality is displayed in more than just behavior. It can also be seen in our thoughts, feelings, close relationships and other social interactions.

Theories of Personality

There are a number of different theories about how personality develops. Different schools of thought in psychology influence many of these theories. Some of these major perspectives on personality include:

  • Type theories are the early perspectives on personality. These theories suggested that there are a limited number of "personality types" which are related to biological influences.

  • Trait theories viewed personality as the result of internal characteristics that are genetically based.

  • Psychodynamic theories of personality are heavily influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, and emphasize the influence of the unconscious on personality. Psychodynamic theories include Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual stage theory and Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.

  • 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. Behavioral theorists include B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson.

  • Humanist theories emphasize the importance of free will and individual experience in the development of personality. Humanist theorists include Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

Personality Vs. Traits and Character

  • "Having closed in on a sense of what personality is, it may be helpful to compare the concept to others with related meanings. Two concepts that quickly come to mind are 'temperament' and 'character.' In everyday language these terms are sometimes used more or less interchangeably with 'personality,' and historically they have often been used in contexts where, in more recent times, 'personality' would be employed. Within psychology, however, they have somewhat distinct meanings. Temperament usually refers to those aspects of psychological individuality that are present at birth or at least very early on in child development, are related to emotional expression, and are presumed to have a biological basis... Character, on the other hand, usually refers to those personal attributes that are relevant to moral conduct, self-mastery, will-power, and integrity."
    (Haslam, N., 2007)

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