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 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 in terms of individual differences — that is, the range of different styles of thinking, feeling and acting.
Just as human beings can differ a great deal in terms of their physical traits (height, weight, hair, and so on), they also differ in terms of mental and behavioural traits. For example, some people are noticeably talkative and outgoing while others are noticeably quiet and reserved. Such differences and variations are seen everywhere throughout the human population.
If we focus on the personality of an individual, we can define it as a set of enduring dispositions or long-term tendencies to think, feel and act in particular ways.
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. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are compelled to be quiet and reserved at all times, in every possible situation. Rather, they are disposed to be be quiet and reserved more often than not.
We can also sometimes see changes in an individual’s personality over time. There may be subtle developmental changes during adolescence, for example, or there can be quite dramatic alterations following a massive brain injury.
Before we move on, here is a little puzzle to think about:
Is personality simply an umbrella term for all our dispositions (how we think and feel and act), or is it a ‘thing’ in its own right, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts? Some psychologists see it one way and some see it the other way. For example:
“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 four basic 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 simple 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 being ‘the sanguine type’ 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 has been called the lexical approach.
A Thousand Words?
When we try to describe someone in words — whether it’s their physical appearance or their personality — we focus on describing their most distinctive features. This is because we tend to notice and remember outstanding characteristics. For instance, we might describe some people as “tall” and some as “short”, but there is no word in the dictionary to describe people of average height. Likewise, the words we use to describe personality focus on how individuals stand out as above or below average in their mental and behavioural characteristics.
So, just as we might describe someone as ‘quite tall and completely bald’ based on their most obvious physical attributes, we also tend to describe someone’s personality using phrases like ‘very nice but rather quiet’ or ‘domineering and pretty inconsiderate’. The words most often used to describe human personality refer to the extremes rather than the averages. Also, these extremes can be organised into pairs of opposites — shy v. outgoing, impulsive v. cautious, dominant v. submissive, and so on.
Now, if we take all the personality-describing words in a dictionary (thousands of them!) and then analyse how how much they differ or overlap in terms of meaning, we find that they can be organised 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 distinctly different from the words in other clusters.
So how many clusters are there? There is actually no single answer as it depends on how where you draw the line, statistically. You can have more clusters of words with highly similar meanings, or you can have fewer clusters of words with more vaguely similar meanings.
The main question psychologists have asked is: How FEW clusters can we reduce all these words to? Scientists are always looking for ways to reduce complex things to the most simple account possible. And doing exactly this kind of analysis, what psychologists have found again and again is that personality words can be reduced to just five clusters. In other words, there are five sets of words (including their opposites) which contain pretty much all of the words we might use to describe personality. This is one of the most robust findings to come out of decades of research into human personality. 
The Big Five
These five sets are commonly 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 every word we may use to describe one another’s personality falls under one of these five headings.
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.  Adding this H factor to the other five gives us a six-factor model that is more popularly known as the HEXACO model.
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 the fewest number of meaningful 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:
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.
Just remember: these factor/trait models are all about the words we use to talk about personality… which begs the question: How much do they tell us about personality itself?
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. And so, with regard to what causes differences in human personality…
- According to psychodynamic psychology it’s all to do with our unconscious conflicts and repressed memories from childhood.
- According to behaviouristic psychology it’s all to do with how our behaviour is shaped (“conditioned”) by our different histories of reward and punishment.
- According to 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.
- According 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. Our understanding becomes more fragmented rather than integrated.
Free Will v. Determinism
One thing that many psychologists do agree on is that our personality and personal development are determined by forces beyond our control — the forces of nature and/or nurture. In other words, we are entirely the products of our genetics, our upbringing, our environment, or whatever. It’s all out of our control. We are nothing but biological machines, genetic puppets.
But since the middle of the 20th Century, some psychologists have questioned this assumption:
- Is everything we think, feel and do really determined by forces beyond our control, or do we have at least some free will to make our own decisions?
- Can we change and improve our future selves by choice, or are we doomed to remain hapless products of our past?
(And by the way, if we really are incapable of improving ourselves psychologically, how is that we can be improved 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. Why? Because it does not sit easily with the scientific assumption that all events are automatically determined by prior events.
This difference of opinion 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 experience of life, 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 + 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.
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 .
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 embrace 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 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 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 differences in behaviour that are caused by unconscious genetic, biological, and environmental factors.
If you believe that people can consciously change and improve themselves to some extent, then personality is the basis of developing 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.
Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being, by C. Robert Cloninger.