What Is Personality Psychology?

Woman examining personality psychology
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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.

What is it that makes you who you are? Certainly a wide variety of 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 your own 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 in 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.

Theories of Personality

A number of different theories have emerged to explain different aspects of personality.

Some theories focus on explaining how personality develops while others are concerned with individual differences in personality. The following are just a few of the major theories of personality proposed by different psychologists:

Trait Theories

The trait theories of personality are centered on the idea that personality is made up of a number of different broad traits or dispositions.

A number of different theories have been proposed over the years to attempt to identify exactly which traits serve as key components in personality and to identify the total number of personality traits.

Let's take a closer look at a few of these trait theories.

Gordon Allport's dispositional perspective 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 become primarily known for those traits.

Raymond Cattell proposed that there were 16 primary traits. He also believed that these traits exist on a continuum, and that all people possess each trait in varying degrees.

Hans Eysenck's three-trait model suggested that there are just three traits: extroversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism.

Myers-Briggs Types suggest that there are 16 different personality types, each of which is composed of four key dimensional traits.

The "Big Five" Personality Dimensions is perhaps the most popular and widely accepted theory of personality today. This theory proposes that personality is made up of five broad personality dimensions: extroversion, agreeableness, contentiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

Psychoanalytic Theories

Freud's Theory of Psychosexual Development
Freud's theory of psychosexual development is on of the best known personality theories, but also one of the most controversial. According to Freud, children progress through a series of stages during which the libidinal energy of the id 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 result in fixations that can impact adult personality. 

Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development
According to Erik Erikson, each stage plays a major 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 influence the development of personality and was primarily concerned with the development of ego identity. Successfully completing the stages leads to the development of a healthy personality. While Freud's theory suggested that personality is largely formed at set in stone at a very early age, Erikson believed that personality continues to develop and grow throughout life.

Horney's Theory of Neurotic Needs
Theorist Karen Horney developed a list of neurotic needs that arise from overusing coping strategies to deal with basic anxiety. Learn more about these neurotic needs described by Horney.

Behavioral Theories

Classical Conditioning is one of the best-known concepts of behavioral learning theory. In this type of conditioning, a neutral stimulus is paired with a naturally occurring response. Once an association has been formed, the previously neutral stimulus will come to evoke the response.

Operant Conditioning is one of the fundamental concepts in behavioral psychology. This process involves strengthening or weakening a behavior using reinforcement and punishment.

Humanist Theories

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs emphasizes the importance of self-actualization and is often pictured as a pyramid. The base of the pyramid consist of basic survival needs, while the top of the pyramid is focused on self-actualizing needs.

Personality Disorders

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

An estimated 10 to 15% of adults in the United States experience symptoms of at least one personality disorder. What are personality disorders? A personality disorder is a chronic and pervasive mental disorder that affects thoughts, behaviors, and interpersonal functioning. The DSM-5 currently lists 10 different personality disorders.

Personality Tests

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.

You can also find a number of personality tests here on the About Psychology site. These tests and quizzes are designed to give readers an idea of how formal assessments are used. However, these personality tests are not intended for use in assessment or diagnosis.

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