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. 
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 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.” 
Talking About Personality
In ancient times it was thought that all people could be divided into just four personality types — sanguine, 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 .
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.
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. 
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. 
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.
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.
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).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 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.
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: 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 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, by Judith Rich Harris.
The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love and Act the Way You Do, by John M. Oldham and Lois B. Morris.
Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, by Noga Arikha
see also: http://www.passionsandtempers.com
Personality: What Makes You The Way You Are, by Daniel Nettle.
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.