- 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 as consistency in a person’s way of being — that is, long-term consistency in their particular ways of perceiving, thinking, acting and reacting as a person. Organised patterns of thought and feeling and behaviour.

To some extent, people 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].

 

183px-Quinta_Essentia_(Thurneisse)_illustration_Alchemic_approach_to_four_humors_in_relation_to_the_four_elements_and_zodiacal_signs

 

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 look at the words we actually 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 and perhaps even unique. 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 show 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]

The number of factors we “find” also depends on how strict or how loose we are with our statistics.

To get down to five factors you 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.

Facets

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

We can think of of the Big Five as a big, fuzzy “cloud” of traits, each one covering four, five or six specific sub-traits. 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.

A d v e r t i s e m e n t


Multiple Personality Disorder!

Funnily enough, despite the discovery 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.

For instance, is there such a thing as free will, or is everything we do determined by factors beyond our control such as unconscious processes? Can people change of their own volition or are they doomed to remain the same throughout their lives?

Some psychologists believe in free will and others don’t. This has a dramatic effect on how they study human behaviour and personality, how they interpret research findings, and what they believe it is possible for human beings to achieve.

Some psychologists, such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, have emphasised the importance of free will and individual experience in the development of personality. From their ‘humanistic’ perspective, 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.

For those psychologists who are committed to a mechanical view of life and who refuse to believe in free will, personality is entirely the result of genetics, or unconscious forces, or environmental conditioning. It’s all out of our control.

  • Evolutionary psychologists tend to see everything in terms of genetics and natural selection.
  • Psychodynamic psychologists tend to see everything in terms of unconscious conflicts and repressed memories from childhood.
  • Behaviouristic psychologists tend to see everything in terms of conditioning.
  • Social psychologists tend to see everything in terms of people’s social environment.

Each of these “old” schools of thought emphasises the importance of one factor: their own pet theory. They want to reduce the whole of personality to one thing: either genetics, psychodynamics, conditioning, or social interactions…

It is clear that each in itself offers only a very limited perspective. Each provides a piece of the jigsaw but ignores the bigger picture. And none of them accepts the remotest possibility of fee will. Indeed, in each of these theories, free will is just a grand illusion.

However, I am always reminded of the great American psychologist William James (1842-1910).

William James (1842-1910) aged 40-ish [w150]

William James (1842-1910) aged 40-ish

As a young man studying medicine, he became immersed in the mechanistic, rational view of man as a mere machine, an automaton driven by blind impulses and brain chemicals. But the more he thought about it, the more depressed he became. After all, it meant that he himself was just another machine that could go faulty and end up in an asylum like one of his own patients. James became suicidally depressed.

The turning point came when he read an essay on human freedom. He suddenly understood that believing or not believing in our innate freedom is — paradoxically — a choice we can make. To believe in free will, he realised, is itself an act of free will, and he declared:

“My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

And so his life as a free agent began.

We can all do the same.

Nature + Nurture

Beyond all those one-sided psychological theories lies the general consensus: that our personality is built on a combination of conscious (voluntary) and unconscious (involuntary) factors.

To some extent our genes and environment play a role, and to some extent our free will plays a role. But probably the greatest role is played by the interaction of these two — how we (as free agents) learn to cope with life using the limited resources we’ve got.

Recently, psychologists have come to see personality as a product of nature interacting with nurture. Or to put it another way:

Personality = Temperament + Character

  • Temperament refers to our nature — our inborn characteristics, our ‘factory settings’, how we are wired. Even at birth, we can see individual variations on the human theme. Some infants, for example, are naturally timid while others are naturally bold.
  • Character refers to how we develop as individuals, how we  learn to deal with life since we were born. Character is our acquired characteristics, our ‘custom settings’. Our character is also the sum of 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.

It has been said that temperament is something we share with other animals, while character is, perhaps, uniquely human.

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 personality — a trans-personal view of the personal self. From this perspective, personality is the vehicle through which the self (the spiritual self, the soul) operates in the world, particularly in social interactions.
Overleaves
If the essence of you is likened to pure light, then your personality is like a set of filters overlaying the light source, creating colourful patterns. In other words, your essence is pure potential and your personality represents those aspects of potential which are actually focused into manifestion. (See Overleaves: the structure of personality.)

So in a sense, our current personality is one manifestation of who we truly are. Some portions of our inner light, our true being and true potential, are sharply focused into life while other portions are filtered out.

And we do this for good reason. Having a personality that focuses on, say, being powerfully dominant and filters out one’s capacity for being socially ‘nice’ enables one to really experience the pros and cons of power and dominance.

The same goes for all aspects of personality — emotional sensitivity, intellectual acuity, physical prowess, will-power, altruism, egotism, uniqueness, expressiveness, introspectiveness, wisdom… They are all, from the perspective of the soul, aspects of life to be explored.

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: it’s a set of hard-wired behavioural tendencies forged by all those genetic, biological, and environmental factors.

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 intelligent being, exploring and expressing itself through the myriad forms of humanity and other creatures, then personality is an individually-tailored vehicle for such exploration. From my perspective, fundamentally accepting the existence of the evolving soul and free will, the personality is the lower self while the soul is the higher self. Each soul is one self-aware strand of the creative impulse of the universe. Personality is the ‘costume’ or ‘vehicle’ used by a soul as it operates in the material world in human form.

Being Who You Are

The personality itself has several layers to it. There is a deep, inner part of the personality — the facets in focus, specially adopted by the soul for a specific human lifetime. This ‘deep’ or ‘true’ personality reflects our soul’s purposes in life.

Then there is a more superficial part of the personality which is simply all of the habits and traits instilled in us during our formative early years. This ‘false’ or ‘artificial’ personality is merely the baggage we pick up along the way. It is how our parents trained us to be, how our school friends wanted us to be, how we came to believe we ought to be.

A major turning point in life occurs (usually around 35-45) when we feel called to let go of these false ways of being in order to discover our real personality, our true character — to become the whole person we set out to be from the start.

Carl Jung referred to this breakout or emergence of the real self as individuation. Yet it still is something of which the majority psychologists have no inkling. Nevertheless, it is something I have experienced for myself very clearly, and it is, I believe, an important aspect of life. It is certainly something I wish to convey through this website.

barry

Notes / Further Reading

[1]

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

[2]

Self-Portrait

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

[4]

Personality

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

Amazon page

[5]

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

 

Citation Details - What is Personality

 

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67 Responses to “What is personality?”


  1. 1 Manda Hinton 30 Aug 2013 at 2:51 pm

    Hi Barry.
    I would love to use some of your take/ opinions on personality from this page for my uni research, would I be able to have your last name for referencing?

    • 2 barry 30 Aug 2013 at 6:32 pm

      Done. :-)

    • 3 Kim 25 Sep 2014 at 6:02 am

      Hi Barry. Enjoyed your article. Is it OK to use some of your information in my paper? Would it be possible for you to send the references and citation to my email, please and thank you.

      • 4 barry 29 Sep 2014 at 11:44 am

        Hi kim

        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!

        cheers

  2. 5 Dao Ngoc Lien 13 Oct 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Hi Barry,
    What you wrote is really interesting for me. I want to cite your idea in my own report. Could you please let me know your full name, the date of publishment and your references?
    Thank you so much!

    • 6 barry 16 Oct 2013 at 6:37 pm

      Done

  3. 7 Lafika 25 Oct 2013 at 8:59 pm

    I would like to study astrology or human personality.

  4. 8 Luz 02 Nov 2013 at 5:37 pm

    May Gods grace cover you everyday. This article has been of deep blessing to my life. Thank you

  5. 9 Meshu 13 Dec 2013 at 4:51 am

    Hey Barry, I would like to use your article for one of my papers and would like to cite it. Therefore can you please provide me with the info I need to cite it. Thanks

    • 10 barry 10 Feb 2014 at 1:42 pm

      Done (very late, sorry)

  6. 11 nancy 22 Dec 2013 at 2:37 pm

    this helps me in my studies thank you very much

  7. 12 MsLouis86 30 Dec 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Hello Barry!
    I’ve been reading everything on your site for the past two months! I am in awe and so intrigued by everything I’ve read here!!! Your site is delightful, informative, and easy to read and understand! Thank for creating something like this for a curious creature such as myself that seeks something more!
    Now that I have gathered my thoughts, analyzed and tried to wrap my head around what I’ve found here, I have more questions than I feel humanly possible! Lol
    I find that I have a hard time finding my soul type, I feel like I’m all of them in exception to that of a sage soul, I don’t identify with that soul type at all!! In all realness I think I dislike the sage soul type but I’m not sure why! And that confuses me… Do you have some insight to why I might feel that way?
    I think I identify a lot with, the scholar soul, the priest, the server, the king, and the warrior in that order… so does that mean that my soul type is that of a scholar that falls to the other soul types in a given situation?
    Now that I think about it, I might just be a scholar! I have an infinite passion for knowledge on just about anything! I’m curious to why things are, what makes them work, how they came about, and when did they come about, I love research!! I can read and become so fixated on a subject, dissecting and analyzing it for better understanding. I write research papers just because!
    I am very introverted, shy, and always in my head! But put me in a room of like-minded individuals and I’m the life of the party! I communicate very well, I will have a debate with any one any day! So long as I have undisputed facts on the subject! Lol which is contradictive to what I know as my natural nature! Why is that?
    sometimes I feel like a priest/king, I want to lead people and show them how to live a better life, for lack of better words I want to save them from themselves… sometimes I feel as though I have and know the formula to living a better life and that I have to show people and lead them to it but I don’t know where to begin or what to do but deep down I know I’m supposed to be doing something..
    but has much as I think I’m a scholar I’m also convinced that I am also a server/worrier with equal rights,(scratching my head a bit here… because up until now while I’m writing this.. I’ve nerve thought to group the different soul types the way I just did) hmmm something else to look into… sorry about that! That is just my ADHD/ADD manifesting right now… (And yes I am very ADHD!!)
    But now back to the subject at hand!
    from a very young age I’ve always had a sense of duty, to be of service, to care for, feed, clothes, shelter and protect those that can’t do it for themselves, even when it’s not asked of me… I feel hurt when I see someone suffering, I get depressed about it, I feel more depressed when I can’t help or don’t know how to help, I strongly do believe that “I AM MY BROTHER’S/SISTER’S KEEPER” not just my biological ones, but any and every one… so what does this all mean Barry?
    I’ve always been spiritual not religious… From a very young age I’ve figured that out, don’t know how but I did… I was born and raised in a catholic household went to a catholic school since pre-school age, but I never felt really comfortable there… I hated the idea of praying to a giant statue that didn’t speak back to me! I found that odd!! I hated going to confession I never understood why I had to tell my so called sins to someone hiding behind a screened window! by the time I was seven when it came time for my first communion I told my dad I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t believe in it! I just didn’t care for it… I even got spanked for it… Lol but no one was going to make me do it!
    but even before that I was still trying to connect to something more… so over the years I’ve dipped in and out of different religions, but never found the one that was for me… I do believe there is a higher being known by many different names, but deep down for whatever reason I know this person/soul/spirit to be one of the same!
    Barry please help me make sense of all this!
    sorry if i’m all over the place with what i think in all.

    • 13 barry 22 Oct 2014 at 1:33 pm

      Whoa, sorry for not responding until now. Nothing personal – I’m only just recovering from 6 years of CFS/ME, which is pretty much the direct opposite of ADHD. I’ve realised many times that if there’s one thing that really knocks my brain out it’s listening to and trying to follow someone with ADHD. Right now I’m feeling a lot better.

      Looking at your gravatar I’d say Mature Artisan – and I’m guessing with Passion mode and Spiritualism attitude? I imagine that with that combination the Artisan mind (which normally likes to be in many places at once) can get locked into making high-speed, high-energy connections, so that you’re in too many places at once.

  8. 14 worker 31 Dec 2013 at 5:41 pm

    hello
    i would like to reference your research
    could you please leave me an email as soon as possible so i can use it
    thanks

    • 15 barry 02 Feb 2014 at 11:41 pm

      Done … Finally!

  9. 16 silus 28 Jan 2014 at 9:45 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.

    • 17 barry 28 Jan 2014 at 9:41 pm

      Done

  10. 18 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!!

    • 19 barry 01 Mar 2014 at 9:56 pm

      Done ✔️

  11. 20 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.

    • 21 barry 04 Apr 2014 at 1:01 pm

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

  12. 22 Nicole Stam 17 Apr 2014 at 10:24 pm

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

    • 23 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!
      cheers,
      barry :)

  13. 24 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.

    • 25 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!

      cheers

  14. 26 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?

    • 27 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!

      Cheers

      Barry

  15. 28 tapi robin 25 Oct 2014 at 2:56 am

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

  16. 30 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.


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