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Definition: personality from Philip's Encyclopedia

Emotional, attitudinal and behavioural characteristics that distinguish an individual. Psychologists use the term to refer to enduring, long-term characteristics of a person. Personality traits are assessed by a variety of methods, including personality tests and projective techniques. Influential theories of personality in psychology include Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis, Carl Jung's theories of personality types, and social theories, which examine the influence of the environment on personality.


Summary Article: Personality
from The Social Science Jargon-Buster
Longer explanation

So what makes me, me and nobody else? There's no shortage of theories here. For example, some argue the centrality of traits - that is characteristics such as openness, agreeability, conscientiousness, introversion, extroversion, or neuroticism; Type A vs. Type B; or thinking vs. feeling - are what determines thoughts, feelings and behaviours. But others argue the importance of the subconscious and see personality as the product of tensions between primal urges and social norms, or in Freudian psycho-analytic terms, interactions of the id, ego, and superego. Then there are behaviourists, who argue that personality is contingent on the environment and developed through conditioning and external stimuli. Social learning theorists also argue for the importance of the environment, but suggest that the environment needs to be considered alongside memories and feelings. Humanists agree that feelings are central and argue for the importance of subjective experiences and free will in determining behaviour and personality. And finally, on a different track altogether, are those who argue along neurological lines and focus on the relationship between brain function and personality.

Debates and controversies

I think the main debate here is whether people do have consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours, that make up a core personality. At times we've all had thoughts like, ‘I would have never ever expected that of him/her’ or ‘Ever since they started hanging around with ____, they’re like a different person’. The argument here is that inconsistency in behaviour undermines just about all personality theories. If environmental, psychological, biological and neurological factors can change an individual's personality throughout the life course, what, if anything, is at our core?

Practical application

We know personality is central in psychology, but how important is it in the broader social sciences? Well, social scientists sometimes sideline issues of personality in lieu of more socio-cultural constructs. But the real world is not nearly as discrete as the one created by academic disciplines. In fact, I'd argue that understanding the connection between personality and the workings of the social world is crucial to holistic knowing.

Key figures

Trait theorists include psychologists such as Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, Isabel Briggs Myers, and Katharine C. Briggs. Sigmund Freud would be the father of psycho-analytic theories of personality, while behaviourism owes much to the work of B. F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov. Albert Bandura would be the most prominent social learning theorist exploring personality development, while Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers advocated a humanistic approach.

We continue to shape our personality all our life. If we knew ourselves perfectly, we should die.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) French-Algerian philosopher, author - in Notebooks 1935-1942 (1962)
Recommended readings

Two solid introductory works, both entitled An Introduction to Theories of Personality, are offered by Hergenhahn and Olson (2006) and Ewen (2003). Other good choices include Developmental Psychology: A Reader (Messer and Dockrell 1998) and Current Directions in Personality Psychology Reader (American Psychological Society 2004).

© Zina O’Leary 2007

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