Theories of Personality

Theories of PersonalityPersonality is a combination of behavior, emotion, motivation, and thought patterns that define an individual. Personality psychology attempts to study similarities and differences in these patterns among different people and groups.

Modem personality psychology is heavily influenced by these early philosophical roots and attempts to identify which components — such as free will, heredity, or universality — are most influential in shaping human personality.

It is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristics behavior and thought. It means the characteristics or blends of characteristics, which make a person unique.

Almost every day we describe and assess the personalities of the people around us.

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

Theories of personality are;

  1. Type Theory.
  2. Trait Theory.
  3. Social Learning Theory.
  4. Humanistic Theory.
  5. Psychoanalytic Theory.

1. Type Theory

Type theory places personalities into clearly identifiable categories.

Classification into type is the beginning of most sciences- types of rocks, types of clouds, kinds of plants and so on.

Kretschmer and Sheldon are credited with this classification. In type, theories relationship was sought to be established between features of face or body and personality.

Thus, a short plumb person was said to be sociable, relaxed, and even-tempered; a tall, thin person was characterized as reserved, self-conscious, and fond of isolation, a heavy Set muscular individual was described as noisy, callous, and fond of physical activity. The second basis to type personalities is psychological factors.

One of Freud’s pupils, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, divided all personalities into introverts and extroverts. Introverts are described as people who have characteristics such as shyness, social withdrawal, and tendency to talk less. Because of these characteristics, these people appear to be self-centered, unable to adjust easily in social situations.

Extraverts share a tendency to be outgoing, friendly, talkative, and social in nature. They prefer social contacts, generous, supportive, and courageous.

2. Trait Theory

A trait differentiates one from another in a relatively permanent or consistent way. A trait of an individual is abstracted from his behavior and serves a useful “unit of analysis” to understand personality. In many ways, the trait theory is multiple models of type theory

are concerned with determining the basic traits and provide a meaningful description of personality and finding some way to measure them. There are two ways of assessing personality traits:

  1. The person describes himself by answering questions about his attitudes, feelings, and behaviors.
  2. Someone else evaluates the person’s traits either from what he knows about the individual or from direct observation of behavior.

A personality inventory is essentially a questionnaire in which the person reports reactions or feelings in certain situations.

A personality inventory asks the same questions of each person, and the answers are usually given in the form that can be easily scored. A personality inventory may be designed to measure a single dimension of personality or it may measure several personality traits simultaneously.

There are different contributors to trait theory. They are-

Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport was one of the first modem trait theorists. In 1936, Allport and Henry Odbert worked through two of the most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language available and extracted around 18,000 personality-describing words which were reduced to around 4000 words. Allport organized these traits into a hierarchy of three levels:

  • Cardinal Traits: These are traits that dominate an individual’s whole life, often to the point that the person becomes known specifically for these traits. People with such personalities often become so known for these traits that their names are often synonymous with these qualities. Allport suggested that cardinal traits are rare and tend to develop later in life.
  • Central traits: These traits come next in the hierarchy. These are general characteristics found in varying degrees in every person such as loyalty, kindness, agreeableness, friendliness, intelligence, honesty, shyness, anxious etc. are considered as central traits. They are the basic building blocks that shape most of our behavior.
  • Secondary Traits: These are the traits that are sometimes related to attitudes or preferences and often appear only in certain situations or under specific circumstances. For example, a friendly person gets angry when people try to tickle him; another is not an anxious person but always feels nervous speaking publicly.

Allport hypothesized that internal and external forces influence an individual’s behavior and personality, and he referred to these forces as genotypes and phenotypes.

Genotypes are internal forces that relate to how a person retains information and uses it to interact with the world. Phenotypes are external forces that relate to the way an individual accepts his or her surroundings and how others influence his or her behavior.

Raymond Cattell

In 1965, trait theorist Raymond Cattell reduced the number of main personality traits from Allport’s initial list of over 4,000 down to 171, mostly by eliminating uncommon traits and combining common characteristics.

Then, using a statistical technique known as factor analysis, he identified closely related terms and eventually reduced his list to just 16 key personality traits.

Cattell argued that it is necessary to look at a much larger number of traits in order to get a complete picture of someone’s personality. Cattell collected data from a range of people through three different sources of data.

  • L-data – this is life record data such as school grades, absence from work etc.
  • Q-data – this was a questionnaire designed to rate an individuals personality.
  • T-data – this is data from objective tests designed to ‘tap’ into a personality construct.

Cattell analyzed the T-data and Q-data using a mathematical technique and identified 16 personality traits/factors common to all people.

FactorLow ScoreHigh Score
WarmthCold, SelfishSupportive, Comforting
IntellectInstinctive, UnstableCerebral, Analytical
Emotional StabilityIrritable, MoodyLevel Headed, Calm
AggressivenessModest, DocileControlling, Tough
LivelinessSomber, RestrainedWild, Fun loving
DutifulnessUntraditional, RebelliousConformity, Traditional
Social AssertivenessShy, WithdrawnUninhibited
SensitivityCoarse, ToughTouchy, Soft
ParanoiaTrusting, Easy goingWary, Suspicious
AbstractnessPractical, RegularStrange, Imaginative
IntroversionOpen, FriendlyPrivate, Quite
AnxietyConfident, Self-assuredFearful, Self-doubting
Open-mindednessClose-minded, Set-in-waysCurious, Self-exploratory
IndependenceOutgoing, SocialLoner, Crave Solitude
PerfectionismDisorganized, MessyOrderly, Thorough
TensionRelaxed, CoolStressed, Unsatisfied


Based on these 16 factors, he developed a personality assessment called the 16PF. Instead of a trait being present or absent, each dimension is scored over a continuum, from high to low.

For example, the level of warmth describes how warm, caring, and nice to others a person is. If that person scores low on this index, he/she tends to be more selfish and cold. A high score on this index signifies he/she is supportive and comforting.

Despite cutting down significantly on Allport’s list of traits, Cattell’s 16PF theory has still been criticized for being too broad.

Hans Eysenck

Hans Eysenck was a personality theorist who focused on temperament—innate, genetically based personality differences.

He believed personality is largely governed by biology, and he viewed people as having two specific personality dimensions: extroversion vs. introversion and neuroticism vs. stability.

After collaborating with his wife and fellow personality theorist Sybil Eysenck, he added a third dimension to this model: psychoticism vs. socialization.

  • Introversion/Extraversion
    Introversion involves directing attention on inner experiences, while extraversion relates to focusing attention outward on other people and the environment. So, a person high in introversion might be quiet and reserved, while an individual high in extraversion might be sociable and outgoing.
  • Neuroticism/Emotional Stability
    In this case, people high on neuroticism tend to be anxious; they tend to have an overactive sympathetic nervous system and even with low stress, their bodies and emotional state tend to go into a flight-or-fight reaction. In contrast, people high on stability tend to need more stimulation to activate their flight-or-fight reaction and are therefore considered more emotionally stable.
  • Psychoticism/Socialization
    In this dimension, it is said that individuals who are high on this trait tend to have difficulty dealing with reality and may be antisocial, hostile, non-empathetic and manipulative. People who are high on socialization tend to have high impulse control—they are more altruistic, empathetic, cooperative, and conventional.

The major strength of Eysenck’s model is that he was one of the first to make his approach more quantifiable; it was therefore perceived to be more justifiable. Unlike Allport’s and Cattell’s models, however, Eysenck’s has been criticized for being too narrow.

3. Social Learning Theory

Through learning one can acquire knowledge, language, attitudes, values, manual skills, fears, personality traits, and self-insight.

Therefore, a study of the process of learning throws more light on understanding human’s activity. There are two ways of learning, one is reinforcement that is direct experience, and another is observing others. The social learning theory focuses on behavior patterns and cognitive activities in relation to the specific conditions that evoke, maintain, or modify them.

The emphasis is on what an individual does in a given situation. Some of the personal variables that determine what an individual will do in a particular situation include the following:


Intellectual abilities, social skills, and other abilities.

Cognitive strategies

Habitual ways of selectively attending to information and organizing it into meaningful units.

Outcome expectations

Expectations about the consequences of different behaviors and the meaning of certain stimuli.

Subjective value outcome

Even if individuals have similar expectancies, they may choose to behave differently because of differences in the subjective values of the outcomes they expect.

Self-regulatory systems and plans

Individual differences in self-imposed goals, rules guiding behavior, self-imposed rewards for success or punishment for failure, and the ability to plan and execute steps leading to a goal will lead to differences in behavior.

4. Humanistic Theory

Though there were so many psychologists developed so many theories of personality, some psychologists felt that these theories ignored the qualities that make humans unique among animals, such as striving for self-determination and self-realization.

In the 1950s, some of these psychologists began a school of psychology called humanism. They tend to have an optimistic perspective on human nature.

They focus on the ability of human beings to think consciously and rationally, to control their biological urges, and to achieve their full potential. In the humanistic view, people are responsible for their lives and actions.

Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and George Kelly became well known for their humanistic theories.

Abraham Maslow

One of the most common models used in psychology, the Hierarchy of Needs was the result of Abraham Maslow’s research. Abraham Maslow is regarded as the spiritual father of humanism in American psychology.

Maslow explained the human needs in a pyramid-like figure.

At the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological needs like air, food, water, etc.

Next to it is the safety and security needs for example-shelter, protection, etc. Love and belongingness need come next i.e. acceptance, affection, friendship, etc.

The fourth portion includes the self-esteem needs like-sense of mastery, power, appreciation, etc.

And at the top of Abraham Maslow’s ladder of human motives is the need for self-actualization, he said that human beings strive for self-actualization, or realization of their full potential. It involves realizing one’s potentialities for continued self-development and for being creative.

In this stage, a person wants to do something, which is challenging and since this challenge gives him enough satisfaction and motivates to work. This type of work is beneficial for that person in particular and to the society in general.

Maslow believed that our ultimate life goal is self-actualization. Some characteristics of a self-actualized person are:

  • Autonomous and independent.
  • Have accurate perceptions of reality.
  • Is able to accept himself, others and society.
  • Often feels as one with nature.
  • Democratic and Appreciative.

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers, another humanistic psychologist, proposed a theory called the person-centered theory.

In Rogers’s view, the self-concept is the most important feature of personality, and it includes all the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs people have about themselves. Rogers believed that people are aware of their self-concepts.

According to Rogers, we want to feel, experience and behave in ways which are consistent with our self-image and which reflect what we would like to be. This theory states that the self is composed of concepts unique to us. The self-concept includes three components:

  • Self-worth: It means what we think about ourselves. Rogers believed feelings of self-worth developed in early childhood and were formed from the interaction of the child with the mother and father.
  • Self-Image: It means how we see ourselves, which is important to good psychological health. Self-image includes the influence of our body image on inner personality. At a simple level, we might perceive ourselves as a good or bad person, beautiful or ugly. Self-image has an effect on how a person thinks, feels, and behaves in the world.
  • Ideal self: This is the person who we would like to be. It consists of our goals and ambitions in life and is dynamic. The ideal self in childhood is not the ideal self in our teens or late twenties etc.

Rogers said that people’s self-concepts often do not exactly match reality. Rogers used the term incongruence to refer to the discrepancy between the self-concept and reality.

Congruence, on the other hand, is a fairly accurate match between self-concept and reality. The closer our self-image and ideal-self are to each other, the more consistent or congruent we are and the higher our sense of self-worth.

A person is said to be in a state, of incongruence if some of the totality of their experience is unacceptable to them and is denied or distorted in the self-image.

George Kelly

Kelly’s humanistic theory is based on the Fundamental Postulate, which says that the manner by which a person anticipates events psychological channelizes his process. This means that our actions are determined by our expectancies of the outside world, based on our interpretation of past experiences.

For instance, if an individual views others as open-minded and friendly, he would have a greater tendency to become more sociable and open to people. However, if he sees others as rude and egocentric, he would tend to trust only himself and become indifferent.

Kelly believed that we can start by developing a set of personal constructs, which are essentially mental representations that we use to interpret events.

These constructs are based upon our experiences and observations. Kelly also believed that all events that happen are open to multiple interpretations, which he referred to as constructive alternativism.

When we are trying to make sense of an event or situation, he suggested that we are also able to pick and choose which construct we want to use. This sometimes happens as an event unfolds, but we can also reflect back on our experiences and then choose to view in different ways.

It is essential to remember the emphasis on individuality in personal construct theory. Constructs -are inherently personal because they are based upon each person’s life experiences. It is the individual nature of these experiences that form the differences between. people. Kelly believed that people have a fundamental need to predict the events that they experience.

They do so by developing a system of personal constructs, which they use to interpret new events. Constructs are derived from recurring elements in one’s experience, but because they’re developed separately by each person, each person’s system of constructs is unique.

5. Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud is credited with the psychoanalytic theory. In his 40 years of writing and clinical practice.

Freud acknowledged one of the intellectual giants in the history of modem thought, developed the first comprehensive personality theory. It is an extensive body of clinical observations based on his therapeutic experience and self-analysis. Freud proposed a three-part personality structure consisting of the id, the ego, and the superego.

It operates on the pleasure principle which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences.

The id, the largest part of the mind, is related to desires and impulses and is the main source of basic biological needs. The ego is related to reasoning and is the conscious, rational part of the personality; it monitors behavior in order to satisfy basic desires without suffering negative consequences.

The superego, or conscience, develops through interactions with others to conform to the norms of society. Freud suggested that the three structures, i.e. id, ego, and superego can be depicted diagrammatically to show how they are related to the conscious and unconscious.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory has been criticized by someone.

One criticism against the theory is that the approach is not based on empirically verifiable facts. The psychoanalytic elements are largely hypothetical constructs and are not measurable, observable items susceptible to scientific analysis and verification.

Another criticism is that it is based almost entirely upon his observations of emotionally disturbed individuals. It may not represent an appropriate description of the normal, healthy personality.

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