What is Personality?

- 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. (See No Two Alike [1].) Twins

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.

Defining Personality

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 a specific individual, we can define it as that person’s particular 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.

“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.” — The New Personality Self-Portrait by Oldham and Morris. [2]

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, something that causes us to think and feel and act they way we do? For example, someone who is obviously outgoing, talkative, energetic and assertive is described as having an extrovert personality. Does that mean that they are outgoing, talkative, and so on because they are an extrovert? Or is “extrovert personality” simply a shorthand way of describing someone with those patterns?

Talking About Personality

Four Types?

In ancient times it was thought that all people could be divided into four basic 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. (See Passions and Tempers [3].)

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.

A Thousand Words?

An alternative approach used by modern psychologists is to simply focus on the words we use to describe each other’s personalities. The idea that such words can tell us about personality, or at least how we conceive personality, is known as the lexical hypothesis. 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, though 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 will also describe personality using phrases like very nice but rather quiet. The words most often used refer to the extremes rather than the averages.

And these extremes can be organised into pairs of opposites — reserved as opposed to outgoing, impulsive as opposed to cautious, dominant as opposed to submissive, and so on.

Now, if we take all the personality-describing words in a dictionary — thousands of them! — and then analyse how much people think they differ or overlap in terms of meaning, we find that they can be organised into a certain number of sets or ‘clusters’. For example:

  • Words like domineering, autocratic, and pushy all have a similar (though not identical) meaning.
  • Words like domineering and submissive or friendly and hostile have opposite meanings, just like tall and short.
  • Words like domineering, patient, and playful have no particular relationship, just like tall and bald.

So if we cluster together all words that have a similar meaning, how many clusters do we get?

There is actually no single answer as it depends on where we draw the line, statistically, to define “similar”. We get more clusters of words with highly similar meanings, and we get fewer clusters of words with only b-r-o-a-d-l-y similar meanings.

The main question psychologists have been interested in 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 by 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 big 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 — words describing a tendency to be outgoing, energetic and sociable
  • OPENNESS — words describing a tendency to enjoy variety, novelty, challenge and intellectual stimulation
  • NEUROTICISM — words describing a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions
  • AGREEABLENESS — words describing a tendency to be friendly, compassionate and cooperative
  • CONSCIENTIOUSNESS — words describing a tendency to show self-discipline and self-control

It’s as if every word we may use to describe one another’s personality falls under one of these five headings.

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 (quiet, withdrawn).

So in contrast to the ‘types’ approach, many psychologists now understand personality as how we all vary within 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 themes, and these variations define our personality traits. We each have our own scores on the same five scales, scoring somewhere between the two extremes of each one. An introvert, for example, is simply someone who scores relatively low on the extroversion scale.

The H Factor

The five factors are not etched in stone. Many studies suggest that we can (and should) 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 view of personality that is more popularly known as the HEXACO model. (See The H Factor of Personality [5].)

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 the fewest number of sets, and treat those sets as ‘dimensions of personality’.

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 much stricter with our factor analysis and look for smaller clusters of words which are strongly connected. When researchers do this, they can identify around 20-30 factors.

In fact, many now see each of the Big Five factors 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
    • Activeness/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 each of the five big factors. These 20 or 30 facets seems to give a much richer description.

So if the question is …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 people in broad brush-strokes, then you can use the Big 5 (or 6) factors. If you want a 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? For example, what if there are some aspects of personality that do not manifest as dimensions with polar opposites (as in dominant-v.-submissive) but instead, like eye colour or hair type, do actually manifest in discrete categories? (Could the psychopathic type be one of them?)

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.

(As an aside, many students who study psychology are disappointed to find that this is the case. They begin hoping to learn “what makes people tick” based on good science. Instead, they just learn about competing theories and schools of thought.)

The many ‘classical’ branches of psychology include psychodynamics (or Freudian psychology), behaviourism, neuropsychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology. Each takes a different approach to explaining human nature, human behaviour and human personality. For example:

  • According to evolutionary psychology our behaviour is driven by biological instincts which have been programmed into our genes through natural selection over several million years. In this case, differences in personality represent natural variations in genetic programming which are present at birth.
  • According to behaviouristic psychology, our behaviour is externally programmed (conditioned) in early life as the result of the rewards and punishments we experience. Personality is therefore genetic variations plus learned behaviour patterns.
  • According to social psychology, our behaviour is driven by social factors such as parental expectations and peer pressure. In this case, personality stems from the social influences affecting our learned behaviour patterns.
  • According to psychodynamic psychology, our behaviour is driven by the competing demands of biological instincts and social pressures. Differences in personality stem from how we balance, or fail to balance, these conflicts as we grow into adults.
  • According to cogitive psychology, human behaviour is heavily influenced by our intelligence: the ability to utilize both internal memory and external information to mentally assess situations and resolve problems. In this case, differences in personality stem from differences in knowledge, learning and cognitive style.

Each of these schools of thought emphasises the importance of one source of influence––and they all appear to be valid! But not one of them can provide a complete answer. The more we focus on just one approach, the more we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture, the whole person.

Free Will v. Determinism

One thing that all of the classical branches of psychology do tend to agree upon is that our every thought, feeling and action is determined by pre-existing forces beyond our control. That is, we are merely the products of our genetic programming and social programming, our upbringing, our environment, the blind forces of nature and/or nurture, or whatever. We are nothing but biological machines, genetic puppets, trained monkeys.

This has been the core assumption of most theorists.

But since the middle of the 20th Century, some psychologists have questioned this assumption:

  • Is everything we think, feel and do really predetermined by forces beyond our control, or do we have at least some free will to make our own decisions?
  • Are we really doomed to remain hapless products of our past, or can we in fact change and improve ourselves if we so choose?

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 classical scientific assumption that all events are pre-determined by prior events. Free will, many believe, is an unscientific folk-myth.

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.

The New Psychologies

Unfortunately, the ‘classical’ view of the person as no more than a biological machine with no free will fits all too neatly with ideologies such as fascism and communism in which people are treated like mindless drones. As soon as we buy into the idea that people are nothing but machines, it’s a simple step to imagine that civilisation would run much more smoothly if only people could be forced to stop acting as if they had free will — no more selfish capitalists, no more free-thinking intellectuals, no need for elections, no challenges to authority, etc. This idea really took off across the world in the 20th century.

So in reaction to the view of the person as a biological machine, there has been a new wave of psychologists who deliberately emphasise the role of consciousness and free will:

  • Humanistic psychologists focus on our use of free will in shaping our own personal development.
  • Positive psychologists focus on enhancing the experience of life, rather than just just repairing psychological damage.
  • Transpersonal psychologists 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. If people want to change their own personalities, their intention to do so is important. (It is this perspective that has given birth to the hugely popular self-help and personal growth movements.)

Temperament & Character

Suggesting that we have free will doesn’t mean denying that we are constrained by the forces of nature and nurture. Both can be true. For this reason, some psychologists have come to see personality as both pre-determined and self-made. Or to put it another way:

Personality = Temperament + Character


  • Temperament refers to those traits that are predetermined.
  • Character refers to how we develop as conscious individuals, how we choose to deal with life as we grow through experience.

It has been said that temperament is something we share with other animals, while character is, perhaps, uniquely human. Character is like 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. According to the Temperament and Character model, character consists of three elements —

    • Self-directedness: the tendency to determine one’s own experiences across different situations
    • Cooperativeness: the tendency to co-exist harmoniously with others across different situations
    • Self-transcendence: the tendency to meaningfully relate one’s personal experience to life or the universe as a whole

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, even though it appears to be central to our well-being. (See Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being [6].)

So … What is Personality?

Bottom line: It depends upon your perspective on human nature. If you believe that people are biological machines driven by their genes, their brains, and their environments, then personality is simply due to variations in temperament or programming, i.e.  differences in behaviour caused by nature and nurture (genetic and social factors). If you believe that people can consciously change and improve themselves to some extent, then personality includes character: a set of strengths and virtues (as well as weaknesses and vices) which we can consciously develop throughout life.

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

To cite this article:

McGuinness, B. (2009) ‘What is personality?’ Personality & Spirituality website (personalityspirituality.net). URL: http://wp.me/P3IPja-oD


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