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Personality in Psychology

It isn't just a cliche: Personality is important.

It plays a role in how others treat us, and how we treat them as well. Our intelligence and relative privilege can take us far in life, but a great personality will drive home our overall success. People give a fair amount of thought to personality, even speaking in terms of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test (MBTI) when describing themselves.

How do we develop our personality? And what happens when our personality seems slightly off?

  • What is personality?
  • What are key theories of personality in psychology?
  • What are characteristics of personality?

Personality graphic of a multitude of people, with one smiling person standing out StudySmarterA multitude of people, with one smiling person standing out, pixabay.com

A Definition of Personality in Psychology

What exactly is personality, and how does it develop?

Personality is a pattern of repeated characteristics that create individuality and consistency in someone. Unique and individualized behaviors and our enduring reactions in different situations make up our personality.

When the subway stopped for 20 minutes due to a power cut you may have laughed, texted your boss, and turned to your phone for some news or entertainment. However, another passenger may have huffed and fumed and carried their irritations with them throughout the rest of the day. The way in which we react to specific situations or stimuli is part of our personality.

Personality Theories in Psychology

The understanding of personality development in psychology has produced several influential theories.

Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality

Freud believed that our personality was influenced by our childhood sexual development and our unconscious desires, conflicts, and motivations. Our mind's effort to express our pleasure-seeking or aggressive urges in an acceptable and guilt-free way is the basis of our personality.

Freud believed that much of our mind was hidden from us. We can liken his notion of the mind to an iceberg. The part of an iceberg that is above water is the conscious mind. It is what we are fully aware of. Just below the water is the preconscious, a hazy area where we can retrieve thoughts or emotions that are outside of our consciousness. The remaining bulk of the iceberg, stretching deep into the water, is our unconscious mind where our desires, memories, and urges are stored.

Neo-Freudian Theories of Personality

Although Freud's ideas have left a lasting mark on the field of psychology, they were intensely criticized at the time and remain so today. Nonetheless, Freud went on to inspire many important thinkers. His work provided the foundation for the Psychodynamic, or Neo-Freudian, theories of personality, and the work of psychologists like Carl Jung, Karen Horney, and Alfred Adler.

The Neo-Freudians agreed with the importance of early childhood experiences and the unconscious, and they supported fundamental concepts like the id, ego, and superego. However, they did not place such great importance on sexual motivations, citing one's social relationships and environment as strong motivating elements. They also had a much richer concept of the unconscious, believing that it contained more than repressions and frustrations.

Humanistic Theory of Personality

Instead of focusing on managing our dark desires like Freud did, the humanistic theory of personality focused on self-fulfillment and our inner desire to cultivate ourselves and grow. According to this theory, we are motivated by a hierarchy of needs.

The hierarchy of needs is essentially a pyramid. At the bottom are our basic, physiological needs. Once these are met we are able to move up the ladder to needs like safety, companionship, career, and personal potential.

Self-actualization and self-transcendence are the goals of the humanist theory. We meet the needs of self-actualization by realizing our potential. We achieve self-transcendence when we actualize our purpose beyond the self.

Self-concept is an important feature in humanistic theory. If we define ourselves negatively, we often have a negative view of the world. If we have a positive self-concept, we often see the world positively as well.

Trait Theory of Personality

Trait theory is concerned with patterns of behavior and motivation called traits. It holds that people are made up of an individualized cocktail of traits, and our personality is influenced by where we fall on a scale of each trait. Two important traits of personality in early research of trait theory were introversion-extraversion, and stability-instability. However, today's researchers have established a broader basic set called "the big five factors": conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion. These factors hold up cross-culturally and are found in people of varying backgrounds.

The big five characteristics of personality according to trait theory:

  • Conscientiousness - where we fall on a scale of discipline, organization, and impulsivity.
  • Agreeability - our level of helpfulness, cooperation, and trust.
  • Neuroticism - where we fall on a scale of anxiousness, satisfaction, and security.
  • Openness - how imaginative, practical, or independent we are.
  • Extraversion - our level of sociability or reserve.

Trait theory is good at predicting someone's average conscientiousness or agreeableness across situations, but can't predict exactly how someone will behave in a specific situation. For this reason, tests designed to measure personality traits draw some criticism.

Social-Cognitive Theory of Personality

This theory is focused on behavior and thoughts within a social context. It sees personality as partly a product of conditioning, and partly of our innate reaction to and interpretation of a given event or situation. Our past experiences, memories, and predictions work together to produce our behavior. Our cognition, or the way we interpret past experiences, is how we can predict behavior in similar situations in the future.

Someone's past experiences with an aggressive coworker (experience) leaves them feeling fearful (memory). This causes them to be apprehensive in interactions with future colleagues (prediction).

Personality Development in Psychology

Let's take a look at how each theory interprets the various factors that influence personality development in psychology.

Freud's Stages of Psychosexual Development

Freud believed that personality was developed throughout the five stages of psychosexual development; the oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages. Each stage has an associated erogenous zone from which our motivation stems. Erogenous zones are areas of heightened arousal or stimulation in the body. If our needs go unmet, or excessively indulged, we may end up fixated in a particular stage of development.

  1. The oral stage is centered on the mouth, which derives pleasure, sustenance, and information by sucking or biting.

  2. The anal stage is centered on the bowels and is tasked with finding an acceptable means of addressing our biological needs.

  3. The phallic stage is centered on the genitals, particularly the penis. In this stage, the male child must manage their desire for the mother and resentment for the father, resulting in the "Oedipus complex", and "castration anxiety", i.e., fear of punishment for these conflicting desires. Female children are said to experience penis envy in this stage.

  4. The latency stage is centered on an inactivity of sexual feelings. Here children focus on developing knowledge, relationships, values, and skills outside of the family unit.

  5. The genital stage is centered on the genitalia and a growing sexual interest. One develops a mature sexual interest and a growing concern for the welfare of others and for the community.

Humanistic Theory of Personality

Humanistic theory emphasized the importance of one's environment in the development of personality. In a hostile or antagonizing environment, there is little or no provision for our greater or even basic needs. Those who grow up in areas of conflict will remain concerned with meeting their basic needs of food, sleep, and sufficient shelter before they can move on to considering education, relationships, or a career. If we grow up in an abusive home, we might grow up to be fearful or pessimistic in our personal relationships. However, humanistic theorists have asserted that people are fundamentally good, and would naturally seek to self-actualize if their environment supported their needs.

Trait Theory of Personality

Trait theory proposes a potential biological element in personality development. While looking at the trait of extraversion versus introversion, researchers found that there is less activity in the frontal lobes of those with a more extroverted personality type. There was also evidence of greater levels of dopamine activity in the brains of extroverts. Research has found that those with a higher nervous system reactivity tended to be more anxious, shyer, and introverted, and those with larger frontal lobes tended to be more conscientious.

Trait theorists also believe that our personality continues to develop and stabilize into adulthood.

Social-Cognitive Theory of Personality

This theory emphasizes the importance of one's environment and previous experiences in the development of personality. Much of our behavior reflects the ways we have processed previous experiences, and the things we have learned through conditioning. This includes things we have learned by way of our family unit, community, and culture.

Social-cognitive theorists also suggest a gene-environment interaction, asserting that our genetically or biologically influenced traits can be reduced or amplified by the nature of our environment.

Personality in Psychology - Key takeaways

  • Personality is a pattern of repeated characteristics that create individuality and consistency in someone.

  • Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality believed that personality was based on our mind's effort to express our pleasure-seeking or aggressive urges in an acceptable way.

  • Neo-Freudian Theories of Personality agreed with Freud on many points, but had a richer concept of the unconscious and placed less importance on sexual urges.

  • Humanistic Theory of Personality believes that we are motivated by a hierarchy of needs and focused on our inner desire to cultivate ourselves.

    • The hierarchy of needs is essentially a pyramid, starting with basic physiological needs at the bottom and progressing through more cultivated needs.

  • The "big five factors" in Trait Theory of Personality are conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion.

Frequently Asked Questions about Personality in Psychology

Personality is a pattern of repeated characteristics that create individuality and consistency in someone.

The different personality theories in psychology are Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, neo-Freudian theories of personality, humanistic theory of personality, trait theory of personality, and social-cognitive theory of personality. 

Trait theory of personality lays out five major traits of personality: conscientiousness, agreeability, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion. 

Those with dependent personality disorder suffer a distinct lack of confidence, dislike being alone, feel helpless, need constant reassurance, and have a strong fear of abandonment.  

Narcissistic personality disorder is typified by a distinct lack of empathy for other people, coupled with an overly inflated sense of self-importance, and a deep and constant need for admiration and attention.

Final Personality in Psychology Quiz

Question

The theory of Behaviorism states that human and animal behavior is mainly influenced by:

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External stimuli

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Who formally introduced the Behaviorism theory in 1924?

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John B. Watson

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True or False: Behaviorism seeks to establish psychology as part of the liberal arts.

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False

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What are the three main types of Behaviorism theory?

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Methodological, Psychological, Analytical

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What is an example of a positive reinforcement?

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Giving happy faces and stickers to a child for a job well done

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What is an example of a negative reinforcement?

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A teenager getting grounded for coming home past the curfew

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What is an evident application of Analytical Behaviorism?


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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

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In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, what is the formal term for unhelpful thinking patterns?

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Cognitive Distortions

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What is an example of external stimuli that affects behavior, according to behavioral psychology?

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Reinforcements

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True or False: In Behaviorism, human and animal behavior are essentially similar.

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True

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What is another term for empirical behaviors?


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Observable behaviors

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True or False: Behaviorism studies are difficult to replicate because of non-empirical observations.

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False

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Who introduced Radical Behaviorism?


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B.F. Skinner

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It is the sub-branch of Behaviorism that explains how external stimuli gradually shapes behavior:

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Psychological Behaviorism

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What is a criticism of Behaviorism theory?


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Some behaviors are learned without reinforcements.

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Personality tests are designed to be _____ and _______.

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Reliable, valid

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Companies should make hiring decisions based only on personality testing. True or false?

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False

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 _______ ________ is a form of personality measurement that involves the observation of people by a psychologist looking for patterns in behavior.


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Direct observation

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________ ______ focus on using ambiguous stimuli to help uncover and understand people's unconscious thoughts and feelings.


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Projective tests 

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____________ personality tests involve someone taking a personal inventory and answering a series of questions about their own experience and behavior.


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Self-reported 

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The Big Five are known as the top traits that can provide a lot of information about our personalities. True or false?

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True 

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The big five traits are: 


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Conscientiousness

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The Person-situation controversy is: 


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How various behaviors might genuinely change based on our setting.

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When people change their behavior because they know they are being observed that is called ______ ______ _______ .


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the Hawthorn effect 

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Someone's culture can impact the way their personality is measured. True or false?

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True

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Unique set of traits that are a result of our feelings, thoughts, and actions.

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Personality

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Personality is

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A combination of both

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The study of traits in individuals and groups of people.

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Personality Psychology

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Psychologists that study personality often study individuals and

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groups of people

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How many personality tests are available for people to take?

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Hundreds

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The most widely recognized personality test is


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Myer Briggs 

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A humanistic theory related to personality is

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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

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Which tier of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs does someone try to achieve through personality?

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Self-actualization

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Freud's theory of personality consists of 3 parts. What are they?


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The Id, Ego, and Superego

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Theory that is only studied through observation

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Behaviorist theory

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True/False: Personality is not related to intelligence


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False

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Comfortability is a big consideration when looking at personality and

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intelligence

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The five types of personality are

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Agreeableness, Openness, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, and Extraversion

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If someone is considered quiet and shy they are probably


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introverted

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If someone is perceived as "free-spirited" what do they generally have a high level of?

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Openness

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High levels of neuroticism are often associated with

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anxiety, depression, stress

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If someone is perceived as lazy, unorganized, and has a poor work ethic, they most likely have?


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A low level of conscientiousness

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If you have ever seen the example of the inkblot test where the client is asked to describe what he or she was seeing, that was a projective test called the _____ ______.

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Rorschach test

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True or False: The MMPI-2 is a 338 question true-false questionnaire? 

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True!

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Extraversion is 


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a spectrum from outgoing and sociable to reserved and preferring solitude.

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Neuroticism is 


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a spectrum from calm and stable to moody and emotionally unstable.

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Personality is defined as __________.

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A pattern of repeated characteristics that create individuality and consistency in someone.

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Patterns of behavior and emotions are called __________.

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Traits

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According to Freud's Psychoanalytical Theory of Personality, our personality is built upon the relationship between these three factors. 

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Id, ego, and superego.

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Which of the following is not one of Freud's Stages of Psychosexual Development? 

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Hierarchy of Needs

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