What is personality psychology – a simple definition.

8 Mins read
personality psychology

We describe and assess the personalities of the people around us every day. We say, “He has such a great personality,” or “She gets her personality from her mom,” or “I don’t like his personality.” Even though we say this often, we barely know what personality psychology means, or rather the basic concept of personalities.

Our personalities encompass nearly every aspect of human lives.  Personalities have the potential to greatly impact our general well-being. Especially the quality of our relationships which is significantly affected by our personalities.1

Furthermore, since human beings are social creatures, this means our personalities greatly influence our overall success and satisfaction with life.

Therefore, let’s dive in and look at exactly what psychologists mean when they talk about personalities, how they study human personalities and some of the key theories of personality psychology.

What is personality psychology – a simple definition.

What is personality in psychology

Personality comes from the Latin word persona which means – the aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others or in literal terms ;’mask’.

Personality, in psychology, refers to what makes us unique individuals, it’s the long-standing traits and patterns that drive individuals to consistently think, feel, and behave in specific ways.2

Definition of personalities by different psychologists

  • “The dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristic behavior and thought.” -Gordon W. Allport, 1961.
  • “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, 2009.
  • “The distinctive patterns of behavior (including thoughts and well as ‘affects,’ that is, feelings, and emotions and actions) that characterize each individual enduringly.” -Walter Mischel, 1999.
  • “Personality refers to individuals’ characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms — hidden or not — behind those patterns.” -Funder, 2001.
  • “That which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation.” -Raymond B. Cattell, 1950.

Facts/characteristics of personalities

  1. Personalities are consistent and stable: Personalities don’t change just from one day to another, they hardly change at all. If there are any changes these are very limited and slow. And if changes occur it may be due to trauma or life changing experiences.
  2. Personalities are ever present: You can’t do “code switching” when it comes to your personality. Its something that you always take with you, it affects your thinking, feelings and behavior, where and with whom you are, in any situation at any time.
  3. Personalities contain numerous mechanisms and properties: They are divided into different components and characteristics. Over time, many different classifications have been made in personality characteristics.

What is personality psychology

Personality psychology is a branch of psychology that seeks to understand personality and how it varies among individuals as well as how people are similar in terms of personality

Personality psychology is one of the major branches of psychology. Psychologists strive to understand how personality develops as well as how it influences the way we think and behave.

Many factors contribute to your personality today, this includes your genetics, your upbringing, and your life experiences. Many argue that what truly makes you unique is the distinct patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make up your personality.3

Being knowledgeable about your personality allows psychologists and yourself, to predict how you will respond to certain situations and the sorts of things you prefer and value.

History of personality psychology

Philosophical roots of personality psychology

Personality psychology as a field of study began with Hippocrates (460 BC- 370 BC), a physician in ancient Greece titled as “The Father of Western Medicine”, who theorized that personality traits and human behaviors are based on four separate temperaments associated with four fluids of the body known as “humors”.

In psychology, ‘temperament’ refers to the personality tendencies that we show at birth,and that are therefore biologically determined. “Babies could be categorized into one of three temperaments: easy, difficult, or slow to warm up,” (Thomas and Chess,1977).

Also, “After birth, environmental factors (such as family interactions) and maturation interact with a child’s temperament to shape their personality,” (Carter et al., 2008).  

These ‘humors” brought about the theory known as ‘Humorism’.

This theory proposed that an individual’s personality was the result of the balance of these humors:

  1. Yellow bile.
  2. Black bile.
  3. Phlegm.
  4. Blood

These corresponded to four dispositions:

  1. Grumpy.
  2. Melancholic.
  3. Calm.
  4. Cheer, respectively.
CharacterHumorFluidProduced byElement
IrritableCholeric/grumpyYellow bileSpleenFire
DepressedMelancholicBlack bileGall bladderEarth

This theory is obviously no longer held to be true, but it paved the way for further discoveries and insight into human personality and behaviors which led to the modern approach to personality psychology..

Source |

Modern personality psychology

All the approaches, techniques and tests used to gauge a person’s personality using modern personality psychology, are influenced by, and attempts to answer, the following five philosophical questions about what really determines personality – they are the determinants of personality.

Determinants of personality

  1. Freedom versus determinism: This aims at answering how much of a person’s behavior and actions is under his/her own conscious control.
  2. Uniqueness versus universality: This aims at seeing how different or alike different individuals are to each other. What they have in common and what differs between them.
  3. Active versus reactive: Is aimed at figuring out how much our environment affects us, or how much we actively play in shaping our own characters and behaviors.
  4. Heredity versus environment: This aims at finding how biological or environmental factors determine our personalities.
  5. Optimistic versus pessimistic: Are humans integral in the changing of their own personalities. That is; can we learn and change through human interaction and intervention or not.

These philosophical questions are what led to the development of the major theories.

This include the psycho-dynamic, neo-Freudian, behavioral, humanistic, biological,cultural and trait theories.

Major Personality psychology theories

Psycho-dynamic theory

Psycho-dynamic theory, originated with Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist, who affirmed that human behavior is the result of the interaction among various components of the mind ( i.e the id, ego, and superego) and that personality develops according to a series of psycho-sexual developmental stages.

Id– is the personality component made up of unconscious psychic energy that works to satisfy basic urges, needs, and desires. Ego – the largely unconscious part of the personality that mediates the demands of the id, the superego, and reality. It prevents us from acting from our basic urges. Superego – is the internalized ideals that we have acquired from our parents and from society

Neo-Freudian theory

Neo-Freudian theorists, such as Adler, Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, and Horney, expanded on Freud’s theories but focused more on the social environment and on the effects of culture on personality.

Behavioral theory

Behavioral throrists include B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson. Behaviorism, regard an individuals’ actions as ultimately being responses to external stimuli. Social learning theory believes that personality and behavior are determined by an individual’s cognition about the world around them.

The theory suggests that predictable behavioral responses occur through interactions with our environment which ultimately shape our personalities.

Humanistic Theory

It argues that an individual’s subjective free will is the most important determinant of behavior. Humanistic theorists include Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

Biological theory

Biological theorists suggest that genetics are responsible for personality.4 Research on heritage suggests that there is a link between genetics and personality traits.

Researchers often look at differences and similarities in the personalities of twins brought up together versus those who are raised apart. A famously known biological theorists was Hans Eysenck, who linked aspects of personality to biological processes.

Trait theory

Trait theorists believe personality can be conceptualized as a set of common traits, or characteristic ways of behaving, that every individual exhibits to some degree. In this view, such personality traits are different from person to person but within an individual are stable over time and place.

Later researchers suggested that there are five broad dimensions that make up a person’s personalities, often referred to as the Big 5 theory of personality.

  1. Openness.
  2. Conscientiousness.
  3. Extroversion.
  4. Agreeableness.
  5. Neurotic-ism.

This is commonly referred to by the acronym OCEAN.

It is important to keep in mind that the culture in which we live is one of the most important environmental factors that shapes our personalities. 

Several tests and quizzes have been formulated throughout the years to gauge a person’s personality. Some of them have been questioned on their accuracy and validity. So far, it has been proven that the Big Five personality test is by far the most accurate.

Personality psychology tests and quizzes – online and free

The Big Five Personality test

The Big Five model of personality is widely considered to be the most thorough way to describe personality differences. It is the basis of most modern personality research. 

The Myers Briggs 16 types test

Source | Wikimedia Commons/Jake Beech

This test ultimately divides people into 16 types, based on the combination of traits they fall into—as demonstrated in the diagram above. There is one problem when it comes to this test though, it is almost completely meaningless.

Its validity has been questioned by psychologists for years. Even though it is the most popular test, with over 20 million tests being taken every year.

The Enneagram test

The Enneagram defines nine personality types, each with its own set of strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for personal growth.

Source | Wikimedia

These types are identified in a simple circle chart with 9 sections each equidistant from its consecutive neighbor. These sections are the types that are described in the enneagram test.

A brief look at personality disorders

A personality disorder is basically a set of traits that combine to negatively affect your life. They have a wide range of causes and some are easier to treat than others. These include:

  1. Paranoid: a pattern of being suspicious of others and seeing them as mean or spiteful.
  2. Schizoid: being detached from social relationships and expressing little emotion.
  3. Schizotypal: a pattern of being very uncomfortable in close relationships, having distorted thinking and eccentric behavior.
  4. Antisocial:  a pattern of disregarding or violating the rights of others. A person with antisocial personality disorder may not conform to social norms, may repeatedly lie or deceive others, or may act impulsively.
  5. Borderline: a pattern of instability in personal relationships, intense emotions, poor self-image and impulsive.
  6. Histrionic: a pattern of excessive emotion and attention seeking.
  7. Narcissistic: a pattern of need for admiration and lack of empathy for others.
  8. Avoidant: a pattern of extreme shyness, feelings of inadequacy and extreme sensitivity to criticism.
  9. Dependent: a pattern of needing to be taken care of and submissive and clingy behavior.
  10. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: a pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfection and control.

Personality disorder tests

Certain types of psychotherapy are effective for treating personality disorders. During psychotherapy, an individual can gain insight and knowledge about the disorder and what is contributing to symptoms, and can talk about thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Its advisable to see a specialist to gauge if you have a personality disorder, but you can also take some free online tests that just give you an overview and look into your psyche to see if you have any psychological personality disorders.

This test consists of just 80 questions and takes about 10 minutes for most people to complete. Answer as many questions as you can to get the most accurate score possible.

Your answers are held in strictest confidence and are not shared with anyone. At the end of the test, you will receive a free, comprehensive report about your vulnerability to having symptoms associated with a personality disorder.

Bottom line on personality psychology

Personality psychology and aptitude psycho-metrics are helpful for managing people and for understanding yourself. You should also consider using personality and aptitude tests if you are recruiting or developing people.

Did you know, that the Myers Briggs Personality test is believed to predict the average amount of income you can make? Take a look below:

Even though the question types and personality categorization differ from test to test, they provide insight into the human psyche.

I’d love to hear from you. Would you say personality psychology is bogus or helpful? How do you see the role of personality psychology in your professional and personal life?

Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts.


  1. Srivastava K, Das RC. Personality and health: Road to well-beingInd Psychiatry J. 2015;24(1):1–4. doi:10.4103/0972-6748.160905.
  2. Carducci, BJ. The Psychology of Personality: Viewpoints, Research, and Applications. New York: Wiley Blackwell; 2009.
  3. Larsen, R.R., & Buss, D.M. (2018). Personality Psychology: Domains of Knowledge About Human Nature.
  4. Plomin R, Deary IJ. Genetics and intelligence differences: five special findings. Mol Psychiatry. 2015;20(1):98-108. doi:10.1038/mp.2014.105.
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About author
I'm a psychology enthusiast and a fried chicken lover. I write bite sized articles unpacking the complexities of the human mind. The mission is to advocate for what's more important in life - the pursuit of the truth and the highest good one can do with that truth - for themselves, the people around them and the society as a whole.
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