What is personality? Definition, development and theories

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Your personality includes your patterns of thoughts, actions and emotions. It is also influenced by your temperament and experiences.

Everyone has their own personality, which can develop and change with age.

In psychology, the study of personality explores the processes behind the development of your unique personality characteristics and traits, and how they manifest and change over time. In other words, how your individual characteristics combine to make up your unique personality type.

The term personality refers to the set of traits and patterns of thought, behavior and feeling that make you you.

After a certain age, the personality is generally consistent. In different situations, you will act or think the same way because of your personality. However, some personality traits and behaviors may change over time.

Your personality involves:

  • traits, such as loyalty, perfectionism, and extroversion
  • character, which includes your core beliefs and code of ethics
  • temperament, which you are born with and involves your predisposition to act and feel in certain ways

Your personality is not immutable and unchanging. Research suggests that you are not just born with certain patterns and traits, but develop over time.

Your personality can be influenced by:

  • Genoa
  • biology
  • life experiences
  • adverse events you have experienced
  • community and culture
  • first bonds
  • elevation styles

There are a number of theories about personality development, and most theories point to early childhood experiences as key in this process.

Personality disorders are mental health issues that involve a few personality traits that tend to cause great distress and pose challenges in different aspects of your life.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) groups personality disorders into three distinct categories: cluster A, cluster B, and cluster C.

Cluster A personality disorders involve odd and eccentric traits and include:

Cluster B personality disorders involve dramatic, emotional, and erratic traits, and include:

Cluster C personality disorders involve traits of fear and anxiety and include:

Why do personality disorders develop? A number of factors could be at play, including genes, physiological processes, traumatic events, cultural impact, and childhood experiences.

Although living with a personality disorder can be difficult, these conditions can be managed with the support of a mental health professional.

There are a number of personality theories that explore the development and expression of human personality.

No theory of personality is “correct”. These are different ways of looking and researching what personality is.

Common theories include:

1. Psychodynamic theories

Psychodynamic personality theories are based on some of the Sigmund Freud’s workin particular the idea that your self involves three aspects: the id, the ego and the superego.

Freud also hypothesized that early childhood experiences have a profound impact on the development of your personality and the possibility of living with mental health problems.

Later research by Carl Jung and Erik Erikson took aspects of Freud’s theories and challenged them. The works of Jung and Erikson have greatly contributed to psychodynamic theories of personality.

2. Trait Theories

Trait theories focus on the idea that we all share personality traits, but fall on different points on a spectrum.

A well-known trait theory is the Five Factor Theory, also known as the Big 5, proposed by Donald W. Fiske.

Fiske proposed that human personality involves five traits:

  • friendliness
  • awareness
  • extroversion
  • neuroticism
  • openness to experience

Every person experiences these traits on some level. For example, you may be very outgoing but weakly neurotic, while your brother or sister may be the opposite.

3. Biological theories

Biological theories of personality focus on the physiological factors that affect your personality. These theories propose that physical characteristics, such as brain structure, may determine personality development.

4. Behavioral theories

Behavioral theories study how your personality is shaped by the rewards and punishments of your environment.

Being rewarded for certain behaviors and punished for others can condition you to behave and think in a certain way.

6. Humanistic theories

Humanistic theories of personality propose that your own self-perception – in other words, who you think you are – can determine your personality.

A humanistic theory was proposed by Abraham Maslow (who created Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Maslow suggested that your personality is the result of whether or not your most basic needs are met.

Another humanistic theory was offered by Carl Rogers, who suggested that you are driven by your need for personal achievement. Your personality is then determined by your quest for personal growth and improvement.

Personality quizzes and tests aim to identify and categorize your personality traits or characteristics.

Common personality tests include the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), and Enneagram Theory.

While many people find personality tests to be insightful, some of these tests, like the MBTI and the Enneagram, are not backed by research.

Personality testing is difficult. Most personality tests rely on self-report.

Your test results depend on factors such as your own self-awareness, self-perception, and honesty.

In some cases, your mood – which is not part of your personality – can affect the answers you provide.

However, some personality tests, including online quizzes, can still give you a chance to reflect on yourself. That could be valuable and empowering in itself.

Your personality encompasses the way you think, feel and behave. It also involves your unique traits, temperament, and character. It can change with age, but usually stops developing in adulthood.

In some cases, when significant factors such as trauma, biology, and environment present specific challenges, you may develop personality traits that cause you distress and interpersonal conflict. These personality disorders can, however, be managed with the support of a mental health professional.

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