- what is personality? -

Same But Different

In some ways we are all the same. We all have the same human nature. We share a common humanity. We all have human bodies and human minds, we all have human thoughts and human feelings.

Yet in other ways we are all completely different and unique. No two people are truly alike. No two people can ever have the same experience of life, the same perspective, the same mind.

Even identical twins are unique in this respect: twin number 1 will always be twin number 1 and will never know what it is actually like to be twin number 2, to experience life and see the world through number 2’s eyes. [1]


Somewhere between these two — our common humanity and our unique individuality — lies personality.

Personality is about our different ways of being human. How we are all variations on the same themes. How the human nature we all share manifests in different styles of thinking, feeling and acting.

Personality Defined

Personality can be defined in different ways, depending on whether we focus on the individual or on people in general.

If we focus on people in general, then we can define personality as noticable psychological differences between individuals. Just as people differ physically in terms of appearance and build, people also differ psychologically in terms of mental and behavioural characteristics.

If we focus on an individual, we can define their personality as Long-term consistency in that person’s way of being — that is, consistency in their particular ways of perceiving, thinking, acting and reacting as a person.

To some extent, individuals generally do tend to operate in a similar way day after day, year after year. We’re not talking about specific actions being repeated again and again, like compulsive hand-washing, but about overall patterns, tendencies, inclinations. Someone who has tended to be quiet and reserved up to now will probably still tend to be quiet and reserved tomorrow.

It is this general predictability in individuals’ thought patterns, behaviour patterns and emotional patterns which defines personality. Or to put it another way:

“Your personality style is your organizing principle. It propels you on your life path. It represents the orderly arrangement of all your attributes, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, behaviors, and coping mechanisms. It is the distinctive pattern of your psychological functioning—the way you think, feel, and behave—that makes you definitely you.” [2]

Talking About Personality

Four Types?

In ancient times it was thought that all people could be divided into just four personality typessanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. This was supposedly something to do with the dominant fluids in their bodies (blood, yellow bile, black bile or phlegm). This idea was briefly revived in Renaissance Europe and there are some modern versions of it around today [3].


Despite the universal appeal of this approach, trying to fit all the world’s people with their amazing range of differences into so few boxes is not easy. For example, ‘sanguine’ people are supposedly extroverted, creative, sensitive, compassionate, thoughtful, tardy, forgetful and sarcastic. But in fact there is no evidence that these characteristics go together at all. You can certainly be creative without being extroverted. You can certainly be compassionate without being sarcastic. So what does ‘sanguine’ really mean, if anything?

Dividing people up into a few types may be a nice and simple way of looking at the world, but in reality it doesn’t get us very far.

An alternative approach used by modern psychologists is to simply focus on the words we use to describe each other’s personalities. This is called the lexical approach.

Five Factors?

When we describe someone’s personality, we use words which characterise whatever makes that person distinctive to us. This is partly because we tend to notice people’s most outstanding characteristics (as opposed to ways in which they are just average). For instance, just as we might describe someone as ‘very tall’ or ‘totally bald’ based on their physical attributes, we might also describe them as ‘very shy’ or ‘totally domineering’ based on their personality.

We also want to remember what it is that distinguishes one person from another — being very tall and totally bald is an unusual and distinctive combination, as is being very shy and totally domineering. We remember, and talk about, the things that stand out the most.

So when we look at the words most often used to describe human personality, we find that they describe the extremes rather than the averages. (Similarly, there is no word in the dictionary to describe people of average height, only people who are distinctly above or below average in height: tall v. short.) Also, these extremes can be organised into pairs of opposites — shy v. outgoing, impulsive v. cautious, dominant v. submissive, and so on.

Moreover, when you take all the personality-describing words in a dictionary and analyse how people use them, you find they can be separated into a certain number of sets or ‘clusters’. The words in one cluster all have a b-r-o-a-d-l-y similar meaning, but mean something different from the words in other clusters. And what psychologists have found again and again is that there are just five clusters. In other words, there are just five sets of words (including their opposites) which contain pretty much all of the words we might use to describe personality.

The Big Five

These are known as the ‘Big Five’. We could simply call them Factor 1, Factor 2 and so on, but they have been labelled as follows:

  • EXTROVERSION — the tendency to be outgoing, energetic and sociable
  • OPENNESS — the tendency to enjoy variety, novelty, challenge and intellectual stimulation
  • NEUROTICISM — the tendency to experience unpleasant emotions
  • AGREEABLENESS — the tendency to be friendly, compassionate and cooperative
  • CONSCIENTIOUSNESS — the tendency to show self-discipline and self-control

Each of these five factors is actually a sort of mega pair of opposites: extroversion v. introversion, openness v. closedness, neuroticism v. emotional stability, agreeableness v. hostility, conscientiousness v. spontaneity. For example, we find that there is one whole set of words which describe either aspects of extroversion (‘outgoing’, ‘energetic’) or its opposite, introversion (‘shy’, ‘withdrawn’).

It’s as if everything we have to say about personality falls under one of these headings. This is one of the most robust findings to come out of decades of research into human personality. [4]

So in contrast to the ‘types’ approach, many psychologists now understand personality as how we all vary on these five dimensions or five factors. It’s not that the world is divided into (say) sanguines and cholerics and so on. Rather, we are all variations on the same five themes, and these variations define our personality traits. We each have our own scores on the same five scales. An introvert, for example, is simply someone who scores low on the extroversion scale.

The H Factor

The five factors are not etched in stone, however. Many studies suggest that we can include a sixth factor, called Honesty/Humility (or the H factor). This is essentially a dimension of character maturity, ranging from high selfishness to high integrity. [5] Adding this H factor to the other five gives us a six-factor model that is more popularly known as the HEXACO model. 

Multiple Facets

A problem with the five or six factors is that they don’t really account for personality. They just organise the words that people use to talk about personality into a few big clusters.

In addition, the number of clusters or factors we “find” depends entirely on how strict or how loose we are with our statistics. To get down to five factors we have to accept fairly loose connections between words. This means that, for example, we get lots of surprisingly different traits lumped together under ‘extroversion’ (such as dominant, outgoing and passionate), which is kind of reminiscent of having lots of different things attributed to the ‘sanguine’ type.

We could, however, be more strict with the factor analysis and look for tight clusters between words which are strongly connected. When researchers do this, they can identify around 20-30 factors, or “facets”.

Some researchers see each of the Big Five as a sort of general “super-trait”, each one covering a number of specific sub-traits or facets that are narrower in scope:

  • Neuroticism:
    • Irritability
    • Insecurity
    • Emotionality
  • Extraversion:
    • Sociability
    • Unrestraint
    • Assertiveness
    • Activity-Adventurousness
  • Openness:
    • Intellect
    • Imagination-Creativity
    • Perceptiveness
  • Agreeableness:
    • Warmth-Affection
    • Gentleness
    • Generosity
    • Modesty-Humility
  • Conscientiousness:
    • Orderliness
    • Decisiveness-Consistency
    • Reliability
    • Industriousness

Different researchers have identified different facets, but generally they describe 3 to 5 facets associated with big factor.  This seems to give a much richer description.

So … how many personality traits are there?

The answer is … how many do you want?

It’s all about whatever is convenient for any given discussion.

If you want to divide people into two types (say, extravert versus introvert), then you can.

If you want to describe how people vary in broad brush-strokes, then you can use the Big 5 (or 6) factors.

If you want a more “high resolution” picture of individual differences, then you can use 20-30 facets or more.

Personality Disorder!

Funnily enough, despite widespread confirmation of the Big Five (or six), there is still no agreed psychological understanding of personality. This is because psychologists have yet to agree on their understanding of human nature. Different psychologists hold fundamental beliefs that are diametrically opposed.

Many students who choose to study psychology are disappointed to find that this is the case. They begin their degree course hoping to come out of it with a systematic understanding of “what makes people tick” based on good science. Instead, they just learn how to weigh up many competing theories and conflicting schools of thought.

Nature versus nurture

One conflict thrown at every topic in psychology is the “nature versus nurture” debate. Whether we’re trying to explain intelligence, sexuality, emotionality, or personality, we soon run into a fundamental argument between those who believe it all boils down to our “nature” and those who maintain it’s really more to do with how we are “nurtured” — 

  • Nature refers to our biological characteristics, how we are wired at birth due to genetics; our anatomy, physiology, brain structure, neurochemistry, hormones, instincts, and so on. 
  • Nurture refers to our acquired characteristics, how we are shaped by external factors; our early upbringing, childhood experiences, parental expectations, peer pressure, social status, and so on.

Generally, the research suggests that the answer isn’t “either/or” but “a bit of both”. Nevertheless, psychology itself is still divided evolved into a bunch of competing sub-disciplines, each giving priority to their pet theory of nature or nurture.

And so, with regard to human personality…

  • Psychodynamic psychology — it’s all to do with our unconscious conflicts and repressed memories from childhood.
  • Behaviouristic psychology — it’s all to do with how our behaviour is shaped (“conditioned”) by our different histories of reward and punishment.
  • Social psychology — it’s all to do with how our values and expectations are shaped by our surrounding society, culture, and the groups we belong to.
  • Evolutionary psychology — it’s all to do with our genes and instincts, which were shaped by 1 or 2 million years of natural selection long before the earliest civilisation arose.

Each of these schools of thought emphasises the importance of one source of influence. But as they narrow their focus onto a single source, they lose sight of the relevance of others. And psychology becomes more fragmented rather than integrated.

Free Will versus Determinism

One thing that many psychologists do agree on is that our personality and personal development are determined by forces beyond our control. In other words we are, for better or worse, nothing but the products of our genetics, our upbringing, or unconscious forces, or environmental conditioning. It’s all out of our control.

But here we have another basic conflict within psychology:

  • Is everything we think, feel and do determined by forces beyond our control, or do we have at least some free will to choose our own way in life?
  • Can we improve ourselves of our own volition, or are we doomed to remain hapless products of our nature and nurture?

(And if we really are incapable of changing or fixing ourselves psychologically, how is that we can be fixed by other human beings known as psychiatrists?)

Free will is a profound issue. Some psychologists believe in it but many — perhaps the majority — do not. This has a dramatic effect on how different psychologists study human behaviour and personality, how they interpret research findings, and what they believe it is possible for human beings to achieve.

Those who emphasis the role of free will include:

  • Humanistic psychologists, who focus on the individual’s use of free will in shaping their own personal development.
  • Positive psychologists, who focus on enhancing the entire human experience, rather than just just repairing psychological damage.
  • Transpersonal psychologists, who focus on exceptional human experiences which suggest the role of spiritual factors in human life.

Humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow have emphasised that personality development is at least partly the result of our conscious choices in life. And if people want to change their own personalities, their conscious intention to do so is important. (It is this perspective that has given birth to the hugely popular self-help and personal growth movements.)

Saying that we have free will doesn’t mean saying that we are not constrained by the forces of nature and nurture. Of course we are. But there is no need to pit free will against determinism when both can be true.

Temperament and Character

It’s not all fragmentation and conflict. Recently, some psychologists have come to see personality as both externally determined and internally driven. Or to put it another way:

Personality = Temperament + Character


  • Temperament refers to those traits that are determined by our nature and nurture — harm avoidance, reward dependence, novelty seeking, and perseverance. Even at birth, we can see these individual variations on the human theme. Some infants, for example, are naturally timid (avoiding all harm) while others are naturally bold.
  • Character refers to how we develop as individuals, how we  learn to deal with life since we were born — self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence.
It has been said that temperament is something we share with other animals, while character is, perhaps, uniquely human. Character is also the sum of our choices, for better or worse — our virtues and vices. A person of good character, for example, has high integrity; a person of bad character does not. It helps to be a good judge of character.

The Self-Transcendence aspect of character refers to the drive some people have to search for something beyond their individual existence — the spiritual dimension. (See also Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Motivation, where Self-Transcendence is viewed as the highest drive the top of the pyramid.) The temperament and character model is the only major model of personality to include this aspect, though it appears to be central to our well-being [6].

A Transpersonal Perspective

I have been interested in personality for as long as I can remember. What makes people tick? In what ways am I different from other people? Are we all the same under the skin? These questions have always intrigued me. This is one of the reasons why I became a psychologist.

But in addition to the psychological viewpoint, I also hold a more spiritual view of human nature — a trans-personal view of the personal self. From this perspective, personality is a vehicle through which our essential self, our innermost being, operates in the world, particularly in social interactions.

I’ve learned that to really understand ourselves we need a kind of bi-focal vision to view ourselves at two levels. I generally refer to these as essence and personality.

  • Personality is who we are, or at least who we seem to be, as unique individuals in everyday life. It’s how we express ourselves to others and how we perceive ourselves as a result. Some of us are more extravert than others. Some of us are more neurotic than others. It’s all relative.
  • Essence is what we are at the level of ultimate reality, beyond all the relative stuff of ordinary life.* Essence is our true nature, our innermost being, our deepest truth. Essence is synonymous with spirit or soul. It is the life force, the Tao, pure being, pure potential emerging and evolving through consciousness. All essence is one, but there is a specific instance of essence that is you and another instance that is me.

Psychologists generally view the self in terms of brain, mind and personality, but generally overlook spirituality and so neglect the essence of who we are.

Mystics view the self in terms of divine essence, the spirit or soul, but generally overlook the psychology of personality in ordinary life.

But combining these two levels — personality and spirituality, the personal and the transpersonal, the psychological and the mystical — gives a fuller and richer picture of who we are.

*We can directly experience our essential self. It happens in moments of self-realisation, also known as satori, gnosis, enlightenment. The best way I know of to have such an experience is the process known as an Enlightenment Intensive.

So … What is Personality?

Bottom line: It depends upon your perspective on human nature.

If you believe in a mechanical universe in which people are merely puppets driven by their genes, their brains, and their environments, then the personality is simply temperament, forged by various genetic, biological, and environmental forces of nature and nurture.

If you believe that people can forge themselves to some extent, then personality is more to do with character: a set of strengths and virtues, as well as weaknesses and vices, that each individual develops through life, and sometimes struggles to get to grips with.

If you believe that the universe is a self-creating consciousness, exploring and expressing itself through the myriad forms of humanity and other creatures, then personality is an individually-tailored vehicle for such exploration.


Notes / Further Reading


No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality (Judith Rich Harris)

No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, by Judith Rich Harris.

Amazon page



The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love and Act the Way You Do, by John M. Oldham and Lois B. Morris.

Amazon page

[3] Passions and Tempers

Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, by Noga Arikha

Amazon page

see also: http://www.passionsandtempers.com



Personality: What Makes You The Way You Are, by Daniel Nettle.

Amazon page


The H Factor

The H Factor of Personality: Why Some People Are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive – And Why It Matters for Everyone, by Kibeom Lee and Michael C. Ashton.

Amazon page


Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being, by C. Robert Cloninger.

Amazon page


102 Responses to “What is personality?”

  1. 1 Xiyu Wong 28 Feb 2014 at 3:45 am

    Barry, may i know your full name and the date for this article? It’s so useful for me!!

    • 2 barry 01 Mar 2014 at 9:56 pm

      Done ✔️

  2. 3 kidir ahmed 04 Apr 2014 at 8:11 am

    Where can i find the reference and citation of personality as i was hoping i could use this is my essay, could you get back to me asap many thanks.

    • 4 barry 04 Apr 2014 at 1:01 pm

      Done. I really ought to add the citation details to this page!

  3. 5 Nicole Stam 17 Apr 2014 at 10:24 pm

    How can i cite this article? Has been a massive help towards my assignment!

    • 6 barry 21 Apr 2014 at 9:12 pm

      Hi Nicole (and others)
      I’ve been tinkering with the page. Hopefully you can now see a drop-down “Citatation details” thingy at the end of the article (just before the book list). Let me know if it fails!
      barry :)

      • 7 barry 20 Feb 2015 at 11:36 am

        Temporarily removed – I needed some anonymity as I was being harassed by a troll with low H factor !

  4. 8 Roxroy McFarlane 22 Sep 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Good afternoon. You have compiled some good info here. Would it be possible for you to send the references and citation to my email, please and thank you, and may God richly bless you.

    • 9 barry 29 Sep 2014 at 11:47 am

      Hi Roxroy

      Right at the end of the article, before the Notes/Further Reading section, there is a drop-down thing called “Show citation details”. I can see that I ought to make it more clear and prominent!


  5. 10 Brittany Bingham 06 Oct 2014 at 5:25 am

    Can you please give me the info so I can site this in the use of my paper over personality?

    • 11 barry 06 Oct 2014 at 8:09 pm

      Hi Brittany

      Right at the end of the article, before the Notes/Further Reading section, there is a drop-down thing called “Show citation details”. I can see that I ought to make it more clear and prominent!



  6. 12 tapi robin 25 Oct 2014 at 2:56 am

    Hi ! Barry
    Thnk you so much ..bdw may i knw ur fb usser name.

  7. 14 Mary 14 Nov 2014 at 7:15 am

    This is fascinating information and possibly the simplest way I have ever seen it explained Barry. thank you. I see you have agreed to many people using your information and I’m trusting you will be equally happy fr me to do the same? I have just liked your Facebook page so I will be following you now too. Thank you again for the time and research you have put in to this. I hope you are feeling so much better too. Mary.

    • 15 barry 02 Dec 2014 at 9:19 am

      Thanks Mary. Yes, feel free to use.

  8. 16 iram 05 Dec 2014 at 3:31 pm

    i want to use your research in my university psychology research plz send me a mail for acceptance

    • 17 barry 06 Dec 2014 at 11:47 am


      • 18 ray 08 Apr 2015 at 12:41 pm

        Where can I find the reference and citation please, very useful for my disso

        • 19 barry 12 Apr 2015 at 2:34 pm

          oops, I’ve emailed the details you twice by mistake.

  9. 20 Ali 15 Jan 2015 at 8:01 pm

    Hey barry good work and I really need the referencing information as soon as you can via email! Thanks :)

    • 21 Akpumnonu Friday 04 Feb 2015 at 4:35 pm

      Great write useful for me in my prep write up…would appreciate the citations and references if possible, looking forward to them.

      • 22 Akpumnonu Friday 04 Feb 2015 at 4:38 pm

        The citations and references in my e-mail if possible please. Thanks!

        • 23 b a r r y 04 Feb 2015 at 4:45 pm


  10. 24 Teresa Lawrence 05 Feb 2015 at 9:23 pm

    I would like to use this for a paper as well and do not see the citation information that you mentioned. Could you please send it to me? Thanks so much!

  11. 25 Rebecca 16 Mar 2015 at 1:03 pm

    I would like to use this for a paper as well and do not see the citation information that you mentioned. Could you please send it to me? Thanks so much! – See more at: http://personalityspirituality.net/articles/what-is-personality/#sthash.Iq2TEIQK.dpuf

  12. 26 neeraj mittal 17 Mar 2015 at 9:26 am

    How to relate the personality to career choice?

  13. 27 Charles 19 Mar 2015 at 6:28 am

    I could not find the “Citation Details” for this article. Can you please send to my personal email? Thanks

  14. 28 ahmad koumaiha 31 Mar 2015 at 8:42 am

    Since everyone is asking for citation why dont you simply add it to your page?
    until then, send it by email plz

    • 29 barry 31 Mar 2015 at 9:03 am

      That’s spooky, I was just emailing you in reply to your question on the About page.

      The reasons are:

      (1) Until very recently I had a professional role in which the work relied upon my scientific credentials and reputation. Hence, I have been living a “double life”, keeping this psycho-spiritual side separate from my mainstream profession.

      (2) Recently I offended a reader by suggesting he needed psychiatric help. (I was being sincere. He was leaving comments that showed clear signs of psychotic delusion.) He started sending me private messages to tell me that, in revenge, he was going to have me killed. I noticed that he actually lives not far from my own home, so my family and I became rather nervous. As a precaution I removed as much information as I could from the Internet to prevent him from finding my real name and location.

      I’m waiting for this to blow over. He still occasionally sends me nonsense, but if he becomes more threatening then I guess the next step is for me to contact the local police. Or, I might simply start using a pseudonym.


      • 30 Lisa Colomy 06 Jun 2015 at 4:15 am

        I would like your citation information, and I am sorry for what you going through with obviously a sick person. Best regards and thank you for the citation, if you can send it.

        • 31 barry 06 Jun 2015 at 12:49 pm


  15. 32 Lee 12 Apr 2015 at 8:44 am

    Could you please send the citation information to me as well? Thank you!

    • 33 barry 12 Apr 2015 at 2:30 pm


      • 34 Lee 12 Apr 2015 at 3:59 pm

        Got it! Thank you so much, Barry! :)

  16. 35 Alyce Vayle 17 Apr 2015 at 6:13 am

    Hi there, I really enjoyed this blog post and I wrote about it (and cited you) in my own post “How can I change my personality? What is the personality?”

    here is the link: http://alycevayleauthor.com/2015/04/17/how-can-i-change-my-personality-what-is-the-personality/

    • 36 barry 17 Apr 2015 at 1:05 pm

      That’s great. Thanks Alyce – the link to your article is now active here.

  17. 37 Drew Magness 08 May 2015 at 1:28 am

    Could I please also have the citation information? Your article has been a huge help for my science research paper!

    • 38 Drew Magness 08 May 2015 at 1:30 am

      Also, if you could ASAP that would be fantastic, I have this paper due in mere hours, and would really appreciate this citation. Thank you so much!

      • 39 barry 08 May 2015 at 6:26 pm

        Done ✔️

  18. 40 PK 20 May 2015 at 2:25 am

    Hi Barry, sorry to bombard you with the same question as everyone else, but could you please send me the citation information and if possible your full name since i would like to use this article in a school project.
    Thank you.

    • 41 barry 20 May 2015 at 11:26 am

      • 42 PK 21 May 2015 at 11:06 am


  19. 43 Tulaa Jaafar 25 May 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Hello Barry, your article has also helped me tremendously. Can you please send me your citation information for my psychology research paper.

    Thank you in advance.

  20. 44 Kisses 17 Jun 2015 at 1:15 am

    Hi Barry your article help me for my assignment and i got a high grade :) thank you hope you can help me again next time :) love lots

    • 45 barry 17 Jun 2015 at 10:03 am


  21. 46 Moses Ayando 20 Jun 2015 at 8:50 am

    This is indeed superb. Am so blessed. I have been looking for this tip of knowledge for long now. I have desire to understand Personality. You have just open my understanding about it. Thanks and God bless. please do more you are affecting lives for good.

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  3. 3 How can I change my personality? What is the personality?Alyce Vayle Trackback on 16 Apr 2015 at 7:08 am

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