Psychology

Understanding Personality Psychology

Personality Psychology

What exactly is personality? How does understanding your own personality help you gain greater insight into your emotional well-being? Personality is something that people often describe, yet many do not fully understand exactly what the scientific study of personality is all about. It is your unique personality that makes you who you are and influences everything from your relationships to the way you live.

Personality psychology is one of the largest and most popular branches of psychology. Psychologists strive to understand how personality develops as well as how it influences the way we think and behave. This area of psychology seeks to understand personality and how it varies among individuals as well as how people are similar in terms of personality. Psychologists also assess, diagnose, and treat personality disorders that can interfere with an individual's day-to-day life.

What Is Personality?

What is it that makes you who you are? Certainly, many factors contribute to the person you are today, including your genetics, your upbringing, and your life experiences.

Many would argue that what truly makes you unique is the characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make up your personality.

While there is no single agreed upon definition of personality, it is often thought of as something that arises from within the individual and remains fairly consistent throughout life. It encompasses all of the thoughts, behavior patterns, and social attitudes that impact how we view ourselves and what we believe about others and the world around us.

Understanding personality allows psychologists to predict how people will respond to certain situations and the sorts of things they prefer and value.

In order to understand how researchers study personality psychology, it is important to start by learning more about some of the most influential personality theories.

How Do Psychologists Think About Personality?

A number of different theories have emerged to explain various aspects of personality. Some theories focus on explaining how personality develops, while others are concerned with individual differences in personality. 

Personality Is Often Described In Terms of Traits

The trait theories of personality are centered on the idea that personality is made up of a number of different broad traits or dispositions. Various theories have been proposed over the years to attempt to identify exactly which attributes serve as key components in personality and to determine the total number of personality traits.

Psychologist Gordon Allport was one of the first to describe personality in terms of individual traits.

In his dispositional perspective, he suggested that there are different kinds of traits. Common traits are those that are shared by many people within a particular culture. Central traits are those that make up an individual's personality. Cardinal traits are those that are so dominant that a person becomes primarily known for those characteristics. Mother Teresa, for example, was so well-known for her charitable work that her name became almost synonymous to service to those in need.

While Allport had suggested that there were as many as 4,000 individual traits, the psychologist Raymond Cattell proposed that there were 16. He also believed that these traits exist on a continuum and that all people possess each trait in varying degrees. Later, psychologist Hans Eysenck narrowed this list of traits even further and suggested that there were just three: extroversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism.

The "Big Five" theory is perhaps the most popular and widely accepted trait theory of personality today.

This theory proposes that personality is made up of five broad personality dimensions: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. Each trait exists as a broad continuum, and each individual's personality lies somewhere on that spectrum for each trait. For example, you might be high in extroversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness while being somewhere in the middle of the continuum for the traits of openness and neuroticism. 

Some Theories Look at How Personality Develops and Changes Through Life

Freud's theory of psychosexual development is one of the best-known personality theories, but also one of the most controversial. According to Freud, children progress through a series of stages of personality development. At each stage, libidinal energy, or the force that drives all human behaviors, becomes focused on specific erogenous zones. Successful completion of each stage results in moving on to the next phase of development, but failure at any particular stage can lead to fixations that can impact adult personality.

 

Another psychologist named Erik Erikson described a series of eight psychosocial stages that people go through during life. Each stage plays a significant role in the development of personality and psychological skills. During each stage, the individual faces a developmental crisis that serves as a turning point in development.

Erikson was more interested in how social interactions influenced the development of personality and was primarily concerned with the development of what he called ego identity. Successfully completing the stages leads to the development of a healthy personality. While Freud's theory suggested that personality is primarily formed and set in stone at a very early age, Erikson believed that personality continues to develop and grow throughout life.

How Is Personality Tested?

In order to study and measure personality, psychologists have developed a number of different personality tests, assessments, and inventories. Many of these tests are widely used in a variety of settings. For example, the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI is frequently used as a pre-employment screening assessment.

Other assessments may be used to help people learn more about different aspects of their personalities or as screening and evaluation tools when diagnosing different types of personality disorders. 

The chances are that you have encountered a wide variety of personality tests in different forms online. Many of these tests purport to reveal the "real you," while others are clearly just for entertainment. For example, you might come across online quizzes that identify whether you have an extroverted or introverted personality. Gaining a better understanding such things about yourself can sometimes help you become more aware of why you work so well with others or why you sometimes feel like you just need a little alone time. 

The key is to remember that any assessment that you take online should probably be taken with a grain of salt. These informal tools can be fun and can even sometimes offer insight into your preferences and characteristics, but only personality tests administered by trained and qualified professionals should be used for any sort of formal assessment or diagnosis.

If You Have Been Diagnosed With a Personality Disorder

Personality psychologists not only study how personality develops, but they are also interested in various problems that may arise. A number of different personality disorders have been identified that can have a serious impact on an individual's life and functioning.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that approximately 9.1 percent of the adult U.S. population experiences symptoms of at least one personality disorder each year. So, what exactly is a personality disorder? These disorders are characterized as chronic and pervasive mental disorders that impact thoughts, behaviors, and interpersonal functioning. The DSM-5 currently lists 10 different personality disorders. These include antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Being diagnosed with a personality disorder can often be quite distressing, but it is important to remember that help is available. By working with mental health professionals, you can find ways of recognizing the difficulties that these disorders can cause in your life and explore new coping strategies. 

It is OK to feel frightened and concerned about what the future may hold, but the important thing to remember is that you do not have to face it alone. There are people who are trained, skilled, and ready to help you take the next steps in your treatment. Depending on your specific diagnosis, your doctor may recommend some form of psychotherapy, skills training, medication, or a combination of all three. The key is to work closely with your healthcare team to develop a treatment plan that focuses on your needs and goals.

A Word From Verywell

Personality is a broad subject that touches on nearly every aspect of what makes people who they are. There are many different ways to think about personality, such as focusing on individual traits or looking at the different developmental stages that take place as personality emerges and sometimes changes over time.

Psychologists are not just interested in understanding normal human personality, but in recognizing potential personality disturbances that might lead to distress or difficulty with school, work, relationships, and other key life areas. By being able to identify such problems, psychologists are better able to help people develop skills to better cope and manage the symptoms of personality disorders. 

Sources:

McCrae RR, Costa PT. Validation of the five-factor model of personality across instruments and observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1987;52: 81-90.

National Institute of Mental Health. Prevalence: Any Personality Disorder.

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