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Theories of Personality


What is this thing we call personality? Consider the following definitions, what do they have in common?

"Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristics behavior and though" (Allport, 1961, p. 28).

“The characteristics or blend of characteristics that make a person unique” (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).

Both definitions emphasize the uniqueness of the individual and consequently adopt an idiographic view.

The idiographic view assumes that each person has a unique psychological structure and that some traits are possessed by only one person; and that there are times when it is impossible to compare one person with others. It tends to use case studies for information gathering.

The nomothetic view, on the other hand, emphasizes comparability among individuals. This viewpoint sees traits as having the same psychological meaning in everyone. This approach tends to use self-report personality questions, factor analysis, etc. People differ in their positions along a continuum in the same set of traits.

We must also consider the influence and interaction of nature (biology, genetics etc.) and nurture (the environment, upbringing) with respect to personality development.

Trait theories of personality imply personality is biologically based, whereas state theories such as Bandura's (1977) Social Learning Theory emphasize the role of nurture and environmental influence.

Sigmund Freud's psychodynamic theory of personality assumes there is an interaction between nature (innate instincts) and nurture (parental influences).

Freud's Theory

Personality involves several factors:

Personality development depends on the interplay of instinct and environment during the first five years of life. Parental behavior is crucial to normal and abnormal development. Personality and mental health problems in adulthood can usually be traced back to the first five years.

Psychosexual Development

People – including children – are basically hedonistic – they are driven to seek pleasure by gratifying the Id’s desires (Freud, 1920). Sources of pleasure are determined by the location of the libido (life-force).

As a child moves through different developmental stages, the location of the libido, and hence sources of pleasure, change (Freud, 1905).

source of the libido

Environmental and parental experiences during childhood influence an individual's personality during adulthood.

For example, during the first two years of life the infant who is neglected (insufficiently fed) or who is over-protected (over-fed) might become an orally-fixated person (Freud, 1905).

psychosexual stages

Tripartite Theory of Personality

Freud (1923) saw the personality structured into three parts (i.e. tripartite), the id, ego and superego (also known as the psyche), all developing at different stages in our lives.

These are systems, not parts of the brain, or in any way physical.

id ego and superego

The id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality. It consists of all the inherited (i.e. biological) components of personality, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and aggressive (death) instinct - Thanatos.

It operates on the pleasure principle (Freud, 1920) which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences.

psychotic personality

The ego develops in order to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world (like a referee). It is the decision making component of personality

The ego operates according to the reality principle, working our realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands, often compromising or postponing satisfaction to avoid negative consequences of society. The ego considers social realities and norms, etiquette and rules in deciding how to behave.

healthy psyche

The superego incorporates the values and morals of society which are learned from one's parents and others. It is similar to a conscience, which can punish the ego through causing feelings of guilt.

neurotic personality

Trait Approach to Personality

This approach assumes behavior is determined by relatively stable traits which are the fundamental units of one’s personality.

Traits predispose one to act in a certain way, regardless of the situation. This means that traits should remain consistent across situations and over time, but may vary between individuals.

It is presumed that individuals differ in their traits due to genetic differences.

These theories are sometimes referred to a psychometric theories, because of their emphasis on measuring personality by using psychometric tests.

Eysenck’s Personality Theory

Eysenck (1952, 1967, 1982) developed a very influential model of personality. Based on the results of factor analyses of responses on personality questionnaires he identified three dimensions of personality: extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism.

During 1940s Eysenck was working at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London. His job was to make an initial assessment of each patient before their mental disorder was diagnosed by a psychiatrist.

Through this position he compiled a battery of questions about behavior, which he later applied to 700 soldiers who were being treated for neurotic disorders at the hospital (Eysenck (1947). He found that the soldiers's answers seemed to link naturally with one another, suggesting that there were a number of different personality traits which were being revealed by the soldier's answers. He called these first order personality traits

He used a technique called factor analysis. This technique reduces behavior to a number of factors which can be grouped together under separate headings, called dimensions.

Eysenck (1947) found that their behavior could be represented by two dimensions: Introversion / Extroversion (E); Neuroticism / Stability (N). Eysenck called these second-order personality traits.

Eysenck traits theory of personality

According to Eysenck, the two dimensions of neuroticism (stable vs. unstable) and introversion-extroversion combine to form a variety of personality characteristics.

Extraverts are sociable and crave excitement and change, and thus can become bored easily. They tend to be carefree, optimistic and impulsive.

Introverts are reserved, plan their actions and control their emotions. They tend to be serious, reliable and pessimistic.

Neurotics / unstables tend to be anxious, worrying and moody. They are overly emotional and find it difficult to calm down once upset.

Stables are emotionally calm, unreactive and unworried.

Eysenck (1966) later added a third trait / dimension - Psychoticism – e.g. lacking in empathy, cruel, a loner, aggressive and troublesome.

Eysenck related the personality of an individual to the functioning of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Personality is dependent on the balance between excitation and inhibition process of the nervous system. Neurotic individuals have an ANS that responds quickly to stress.

Click here to measure your personality using the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI).

Cattell's 16PF Trait Theory

Cattell (1965) disagreed with Eysenck’s view that personality can be understood by looking at only two or three dimensions of behavior.

Instead, he argued that that is was necessary to look at a much larger number of traits in order to get a complete picture of someone’s personality.

Whereas Eysenck based his theory based on the responses of hospitalized servicemen, Cattell collected data from a range of people through three different sources of data.

  • L-data - this is life record data such as school grades, absence from work etc.
  • Q-data - this was a questionnaire designed to rate an individual's personality.
  • T-data - this is data from objective tests designed to 'tap' into a personality construct.

Cattell analyzed the T-data and Q-data using a mathematical technique called factor analysis to look at which types of behavior tended to be grouped together in the same people. He identified 16 personality traits / factors common to all people.

Cattell made a distinction between source and surface traits. Surface traits are very obvious and can be easily identified by other people, whereas source traits are less visible to other people and appear to underlie several different aspects of behavior.

Cattell regarded source traits are more important in describing personality than surface traits.

Cattell's 16 personality traits

Cattell produced a personality test similar to the EPI that measured each of the sixteen traits. The 16PF (16 Personality Factors Test) has 160 questions in total, 10 questions relating to each personality factor.

Allport's Trait Theory

Allport's theory of personality emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual and the internal cognitive and motivational processes that influence behavior. For example, intelligence, temperament, habits, skills, attitudes, and traits.

Allport (1937) believes that personality is biologically determined at birth, and shaped by a person's environmental experience.

Critical Evaluation of Trait Theories

Twin studies can be used to see if personality is genetic. However, the findings are conflicting and non-conclusive.

Shields (1976) found that monozygotic (identical) twins were significantly more alike on the Introvert – Extrovert (E) and Psychoticism (P) dimensions than dizygotic (non-identical) twins.

Loehlin, Willerman and Horn (1988) found that only 50% of the variations of scores on personality dimensions are due to inherited traits. This suggests that social factors are also important.

Authoritarian Personality

Adorno et al. (1950) proposed that prejudice is the results of an individual’s personality type. They piloted and developed a questionnaire, which they called the F-scale (F for fascism).

Adorno argued that deep-seated personality traits predisposed some individuals to be highly sensitive to totalitarian and antidemocratic ideas and therefore were prone to be highly prejudicial. 

The evidence they gave to support this conclusion included:

    Case studies, e.g. Nazis

    Psychometric testing (use of the F-scale)

    Clinical interviews revealed situational aspects of their childhood, such as the fact that they had been brought up by very strict parents or guardians, which were found of participants who scored highly on the F-scale not always found in the backgrounds of low scorers.

Those with an authoritarian personality tended to be:

• Hostile to those who are of inferior status, but obedient of people with high status

• Fairly rigid in their opinions and beliefs

• Conventional, upholding traditional values

Adorno concluded that people with authoritarian personalities were more likely to categorize people into “us” and “them” groups, seeing their own group as superior.

Therefore, the study indicated that individuals with a very strict upbringing by critical and harsh parents were most likely to develop an authoritarian personality. 

Adorno believed that this was because the individual in question was not able to express hostility towards their parents (for being strict and critical).  Consequently, the person would then displace this aggression / hostility onto safer targets, namely those who are weaker, such as ethnic minorities.

Adorno et al. felt that authoritarian traits, as identified by the F-Scale, predispose some individuals towards 'fascistic' characteristics such as:

    • Ethnocentrism, i.e. the tendency to favor one's own ethnic group:

    • Obsession with rank and status

    • Respect for and submissiveness to authority figures

    • Preoccupation with power and toughness.

In other words, according to Adorno, the Eichmanns of this world are there because they have authoritarian personalities and therefore are predisposed cruelty, as a result of their upbringing.

There is evidence that the authoritarian personality exists. This might help to explain why some people are more resistant to changing their prejudiced views.

Critical Evaluation

There are many weaknesses in Adorno’s explanation of prejudice:

• Harsh parenting style does not always produce prejudice children / individuals

• Some prejudice people do not conform to the authoritarian personality type.

• Doesn’t explain why people are prejudiced against certain groups and not others.

Furthermore, the authoritarian explanation of prejudice does not explain how whole social groups (e.g. the Nazis) can be prejudiced. This would mean that all members of a group (e.g. Nazis) would have an authoritarian personality, which is quite unlikely.

Cultural or social norms would seem to offer a better explanation of prejudice and conflict than personality variables. Adorno has also been criticized for his limited sample.

Also, Hyman and Sheatsley (1954) found that lower educational level was probably a better explanation of high F-scale scores than an authoritarian.


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How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2014). Theories of Personality. Retrieved from

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