Personality—it’s who we are. Our personalities determine how we act and react, as well as how we interact with and respond to the world. Despite much research, the origins of personality are still a mystery, though there are many theories that attempt to explain them. Some researchers propose that children learn personality from their parents; others believe personality is fixed from birth. Some theories address how environment, genetics, and culture influence the development of personality.
What does it mean to have “personality”? Someone with personality could be funny, passionate, daring, extroverted, aggressive, egotistical, hot-tempered, or insecure. He or she might be altruistic, humble, mellow, shy, or wary. He or she might even be all or any of these things at different times and in different places, depending on the situation. Researchers have developed many ways of assessing personality, but even if we do gain an understanding of how we are, the question of why we’re that way remains.
Personality is the collection of characteristic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are associated with a person. Personality traits are characteristic behaviors and feelings that are consistent and long lasting.
Traits vs. States
Unlike traits, which are stable characteristics, states are temporary behaviors or feelings that depend on a person’s situation and motives at a particular time. The difference between traits and states is analogous to the difference between climate and weather. Los Angeles has a warm climate, but on some days it may have cool weather. In the same way, a person who has the trait of calmness may experience a state of anxiety on a day when he or she faces a difficult challenge.
Ancient Greek Ideas
The ancient Greeks believed that people’s personalities depended on the kind of humor, or fluid, most prevalent in their bodies. The ancient Greeks identified four humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—and categorized people’s personalities to correspond as follows:
·         Sanguine: Blood. Cheerful and passionate.
·         Phlegmatic: Phlegm. Dull and unemotional.
·         Melancholic: Black bile. Unhappy and depressed.
·         Choleric: Yellow bile. Angry and hot-tempered.
The Greek theory of personality remained influential well into the eighteenth century.
Cattell’s Sixteen Traits
Like the ancient Greeks, modern researchers believe in the existence of a few basic personality traits. Combinations of these basic traits, they believe, form other traits. Psychologist Raymond Cattell used a statistical procedure called factor analysis to identify basic personality traits from a very long list of English words that identified traits. Factor analysis allowed Cattell to cluster these traits into groups according to their similarities. He found that personality is made up of sixteen basic dimensions.
The Big Five Traits
Other researchers have since clustered personality traits into even fewer categories. Today, many psychologists believe that all personality traits derive from five basic personality traits, which are commonly referred to as the Big Five:
1. Neuroticism
2. Extraversion
3. Openness to experience
4. Agreeableness
5. Conscientiousness
The Big Five traits remain quite stable over the life span, particularly after the age of thirty. Although researchers identified the Big Five traits by using a list of English words, these traits seem to be applicable in many countries.
Criticisms of the Big Five Model
Critics of the Big Five have various arguments against the model:
·         Some critics think that more than five traits are needed to account for the wide personality differences among people.
·         Other critics argue that five traits are too many. For example, they point out that openness correlates positively with extraversion. These critics argue that just three traits— neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness—should be enough to fully describe personality.
·         Still other critics argue that the Big Five are somewhat arbitrary because they depend on the words used in the statistical analysis that produced them. A different list of words may have yielded different basic traits.
·         Some psychologists have questioned the research supporting the stability of the Big Five traits across cultures. They argue that the research could be biased because the use of Western tests is more likely to uncover cultural similarities than differences.

Many psychologists have proposed theories that try to explain the origins of personality. One highly influential set of theories stems from the work of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, who first proposed the theory of psychoanalysis. Collectively, these theories are known as psychodynamic theories. Although many different psychodynamic theories exist, they all emphasize unconscious motives and desires, as well as the importance of childhood experiences in shaping personality.
Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Psychoanalysis
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Freud developed a technique that he called psychoanalysis and used it to treat mental disorders. He formed his theory of psychoanalysis by observing his patients. According to psychoanalytic theory, personalities arise because of attempts to resolve conflicts between unconscious sexual and aggressive impulses and societal demands to restrain these impulses.
The Conscious, the Preconscious, and the Unconscious
Freud believed that most mental processes are unconscious. He proposed that people have three levels of awareness:
·         The conscious contains all the information that a person is paying attention to at any given time.
Example: The words Dan is reading, the objects in his field of vision, the sounds he can hear, and any thirst, hunger, or pain he is experiencing at the moment are all in his conscious.
·         The preconscious contains all the information outside of a person’s attention but readily available if needed.
Example: Linda’s telephone number, the make of her car, and many of her past experiences are in her preconscious.
·         The unconscious contains thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories of which people have no awareness but that influence every aspect of their day-to-day lives.
Example: Stan’s unconscious might contain angry feelings toward his mother or a traumatic incident he experienced at age four.
people make between ideas.
The Freudian Slip
Cathy calls up her mother on Mother’s Day and says, “You’re the beast, Mom,” when she consciously intended to say, “You’re the best, Mom.” According to psychoanalytic theory, this slip of the tongue, known as a Freudian slip, reveals her unconscious anger toward her mother.
The Id, the Ego, and the Superego
Freud proposed that personalities have three components: the id, the ego, and the superego.
·         Id: a reservoir of instinctual energy that contains biological urges such as impulses toward survival, sex, and aggression. The id is unconscious and operates according to the pleasure principle, the drive to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The id is characterized by primary process thinking, which is illogical, irrational, and motivated by a desire for the immediate gratification of impulses.
·         Ego: the component that manages the conflict between the id and the constraints of the real world. Some parts of the ego are unconscious, while others are preconscious or conscious. The ego operates according to the reality principle, the awareness that gratification of impulses has to be delayed in order to accommodate the demands of the real world. The ego is characterized by secondary process thinking, which is logical and rational. The ego’s role is to prevent the id from gratifying its impulses in socially inappropriate ways.
·         Superego: the moral component of personality. It contains all the moral standards learned from parents and society. The superego forces the ego to conform not only to reality but also to its ideals of morality. Hence, the superego causes people to feel guilty when they go against society’s rules. Like the ego, the superego operates at all three levels of awareness.
Freud believed that the id, the ego, and the superego are in constant conflict. He focused mainly on conflicts concerning sexual and aggressive urges because these urges are most likely to violate societal rules.
Internal conflicts can make a person feel anxious. In Freud’s view, anxiety arises when the ego cannot adequately balance the demands of the id and the superego. The id demands gratification of its impulses, and the superego demands maintenance of its moral standards.
Defense Mechanisms
To manage these internal conflicts, people use defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are behaviors that protect people from anxiety. There are many different kinds of defense mechanisms, many of which are automatic and unconscious:
·         Repression: keeping unpleasant thoughts, memories, and feelings shut up in the unconscious.
Example: Nate witnessed his mother being beaten by a mugger when he was seven years old. As an adult, he does not remember this incident.
·         Reaction formation: behaving in a way that is opposite to behavior, feelings, or thoughts that are considered unacceptable.
Example: Lisa feels sexually attracted to her roommate’s boyfriend but does not admit this to herself. Instead, she constantly makes very disparaging comments about the boyfriend and feels disgusted by the way he acts.
·         Projection: attributing one’s own unacceptable thoughts or feelings to someone else.
Example: Mario feels angry toward his father but is not aware of it. Instead, he complains that he cannot be around his father because his father is such an angry man.
·         Rationalization: using incorrect but self-serving explanations to justify unacceptable behavior, thoughts, or feelings.
Example: Sylvia runs a red light while driving. She justifies this by telling herself she was already in the intersection when the light changed to red.
·         Displacement: transferring feelings about a person or event onto someone or something else.
Example: Seth is angry at his professor for giving him a bad grade. He leaves class and shouts angrily at a passerby who accidentally bumps into him.
·         Denial: refusing to acknowledge something that is obvious to others.
Example: Kate’s use of alcohol starts to affect her academic performance, her job, and her relationships. However, she insists that she drinks only to relieve stress and that she does not have an alcohol problem.
·         Regression: reverting to a more immature state of psychological development.
Example: When six-year-old Jameel gets less attention from his parents because of a new baby brother, he suddenly starts to wet his bed at night.
·         Sublimation: channeling unacceptable thoughts and feelings into socially acceptable behavior.
Example: Priya deals with her angry feelings toward her family by writing science-fiction stories about battles between civilizations.
Psychosexual Stages of Development
Freud believed that personality solidifies during childhood, largely before age five. He proposed five stages of psychosexual development: the oral stage, the anal stage, the phallic stage, the latency stage, and the genital stage. He believed that at each stage of development, children gain sexual gratification, or sensual pleasure, from a particular part of their bodies. Each stage has special conflicts, and children’s ways of managing these conflicts influence their personalities.
If a child’s needs in a particular stage are gratified too much or frustrated too much, the child can become fixated at that stage of development. Fixation is an inability to progress normally from one stage into another. When the child becomes an adult, the fixation shows up as a tendency to focus on the needs that were over-gratified or over-frustrated.

Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development
Sources of pleasure
Result of fixation
Oral stage
Birth to roughly twelve months
Activities involving the mouth, such as sucking, biting, and chewing
Excessive smoking, overeating, or dependence on others
Anal stage
Age two, when the child is being toilet trained
Bowel movements
An overly controlling (anal-retentive) personality or an easily angered (anal-expulsive) personality
Phallic stage
Age three to five
The genitals 
Guilt or anxiety about sex
Age five to puberty
Sexuality is latent, or dormant, during this period
No fixations at this stage
Genital stage
Begins at puberty
The genitals; sexual urges return
No fixations at this stage
Oedipus Complex
Freud believed that the crucially important Oedipus complex also developed during the phallic stage. The Oedipus complex refers to a male child’s sexual desire for his mother and hostility toward his father, whom he considers to be a rival for his mother’s love. Freud thought that a male child who sees a naked girl for the first time believes that her penis has been cut off. The child fears that his own father will do the same to him for desiring his mother—a fear called castration anxiety. Because of this fear, the child represses his longing for his mother and begins to identify with his father. The child’s acceptance of his father’s authority results in the emergence of the superego.
During his lifetime, Freud had many followers who praised his theory, but his ideas, particularly his emphasis on children’s sexuality, also drew criticism. Some of Freud’s followers broke away from him because of theoretical disagreements and proposed their own theories. These theorists are called neo-Freudians. Some important neo-Freudians were Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and object-relations theorists.
Penis Envy and Womb Envy
Freud believed that the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex played a crucial role in the formation of the superego and the personality. However, he did not have a plausible account of how this developmental phase applied to girls. Freud believed that because girls do not have a penis, they don’t have the same motivation to develop a strong superego. Instead, they develop penis envy, or a sense of discontent and resentment resulting from their wish for a penis. This gender-biased idea has raised strong criticism from many psychologists, including the psychoanalyst Karen Horney. Horney proposed that it was more likely that men have womb envy because of their inability to bear children.
Carl Jung’s Analytical Psychology
Until the 1910s, Carl Jung was a follower and close friend of Freud’s. Like Freud, Jung believed that unconscious conflicts are important in shaping personality. However, he believed the unconscious has two layers: the personal unconscious, which resembled Freud’s idea, and the collective unconscious, which contains universal memories of the common human past.
Jung called these common memories archetypes. Archetypes are images or thoughts that have the same meaning for all human beings. Jung said that archetypes exist in dreams as well as in art, literature, and religion across cultures.
Example: The archetype of the “powerful father” can be seen in the Christian conception of God, the Zeus of Greek mythology, and popular movies such as The Godfather.
Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology
Alfred Adler, another follower of Freud and a member of his inner circle, eventually broke away from Freud and developed his own school of thought, which he called individual psychology. Adler believed that the main motivations for human behavior are not sexual or aggressive urges but strivings for superiority. He pointed out that children naturally feel weak and inadequate in comparison to adults. This normal feeling of inferiority drives them to adapt, develop skills, and master challenges. Adler used the termcompensation to refer to the attempt to shed normal feelings of inferiority.
However, some people suffer from an exaggerated sense of inferiority, or an inferiority complex, which can be due either to being spoiled or neglected by parents. Such people overcompensate, which means that rather than try to master challenges, they try to cover up their sense of inferiority by focusing on outward signs of superiority such as status, wealth, and power.
Object-Relations Theories
The object-relations school of psychoanalysis emerged in the 1950s, led by a group of psychoanalysts that included D. W. Winnicott and Melanie Klein. The term object relations refers to the relationships that people have with others, who are represented mentally as objects with certain attributes. Object-relations theorists believe that people are motivated most by attachments to others rather than by sexual and aggressive impulses. According to these theorists, the conflict between autonomy and the need for other people plays a key role in shaping personality.
Criticisms of Psychodynamic Theories
Freud’s original ideas have little popularity today, but many psychologists do adhere to neo-Freudian ideas. However, other psychologists criticize psychodynamic theories for various reasons:
·         Some critics argue that psychodynamic theories are not falsifiable (see pages 8-–9) and therefore unscientific. In response to this criticism, proponents of psychodynamic theories point out that empirical evidence does support some psychodynamic concepts. For example, empirical research shows that there are unconscious mental processes, that people have mental representations of other people, and that people use unconscious defense mechanisms to protect themselves from unpleasant emotions such as anxiety.
·         Other critics argue that psychodynamic theories are made by generalizing from a small number of patients to the whole human population. Relying only on case studies can lead to faulty conclusions.
·         Still others argue that most psychodynamic theories are not based on studies that fol low people from childhood to adulthood. Instead, psychodynamic theorists listen to descriptions o f an adult patient’s past and draw conclusions about the relevance of childhood experiences. However, as described on pages 172–174, memories are not always reliable.

The school of behaviorism emerged in the 1910s, led by John B. Watson. Unlike psychodynamic theorists, behaviorists study only observable behavior. Their explanations of personality focus on learning. Skinner, Bandura, and Walter Mischel all proposed important behaviorist theories.
B. F. Skinner’s Ideas
As described in Chapter 7, “Learning and Conditioning,” B. F. Skinner is well known for describing the principles of operant conditioning. Skinner believed that the environment determines behavior. According to his view, people have consistent behavior patterns because they have particular kinds of response tendencies. This means that over time, people learn to behave in particular ways. Behaviors that have positive consequences tend to increase, while behaviors that have negative consequences tend to decrease.
Skinner didn’t think that childhood played an especially important role in shaping personality. Instead, he thought that personality develops over the whole life span. People’s responses change as they encounter new situations.
Example: When Jeff was young, he lived in the suburbs. He developed a liking for fast driving because his friends enjoyed riding with him and he never got speeding tickets. After he left college, though, he moved to the city. Whenever he drove fast, he got a speeding ticket. Also, his new friends were much more cautious about driving in fast cars. Now Jeff doesn’t like to drive fast and considers himself to be a cautious person.
Albert Bandura’s Ideas
Albert Bandura pointed out that people learn to respond in particular ways by watching other people, who are called models. See Chapter 7, “Learning and Conditioning,” for more information on Bandura’s research on observational learning.
Although Bandura agrees that personality arises through learning, he believes that conditioning is not an automatic, mechanical process. He and other theorists believe that cognitive processes like thinking and reasoning are important in learning. The kind of behaviorism they advocate is called social-cognitive learning.
Whom Do We Imitate?
Research has shown that people are more likely to imitate some models than others. People tend to imitate models they like or admire and models they consider attractive and powerful. People are also more likely to imitate models who seem similar to themselves. Furthermore, if people see models being rewarded for their behavior, they will be more likely to imitate those models. Advertisers often use these research results when they design ads. For example, ads that try to persuade young adults to purchase a certain brand of soft drink often show young, attractive models who are being rewarded with good times for their soda-drinking behavior.
Walter Mischel’s Ideas
Walter Mischel, like Bandura, is a social-cognitive theorist. Mischel’s research showed that situations have a strong effect on people’s behavior and that people’s responses to situations depend on their thoughts about the likely consequences of their behavior. Mischel’s research caused considerable debate because it cast doubt on the idea of stable personality traits. Mischel himself did not want to abandon the idea of stable personality traits. He believed that researchers should pay attention to both situational and personal characteristics that influence behavior.
Today, most psychologists acknowledge that both a person’s characteristics and the specific situation at hand influence how a person behaves. Personal characteristics include innate temperaments, learned habits, and beliefs. The environment includes opportunities, rewards, punishments, and chance occurrences. Personality results from a two-way interaction between a person’s characteristics and the environment. This process of interaction is called reciprocal determinism. People’s characteristics influence the kind of environment in which they find themselves. Those environments, in turn, influence and modify people’s personal characteristics.
Criticisms of Behavioral Approaches
Critics of the behavioral approach to personality maintain three arguments:
·         Behaviorist researchers often do animal studies of behavior and then generalize their results to human beings. Generalizing results in this way can be misleading, since humans have complex thought processes that affect behavior.
·         Behaviorists often underestimate the importance of biological factors.
·         By emphasizing the situational influences on personality, some social-cognitive theorists underestimate the importance of personality traits.


Some psychologists at the time disliked psychodynamic and behaviorist explanations of personality. They felt that these theories ignored the qualities that make humans unique among animals, such as striving for self-determination and self-realization. In the 1950s, some of these psychologists began a school of psychology called humanism.
Humanistic psychologists try to see people’s lives as those people would see them. They tend to have an optimistic perspective on human nature. They focus on the ability of human beings to think consciously and rationally, to control their biological urges, and to achieve their full potential. In the humanistic view, people are responsible for their lives and actions and have the freedom and will to change their attitudes and behavior.
Two psychologists, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, became well known for their humanistic theories.
Abraham Maslow’s Theory
The highest rung on Abraham Maslow’s ladder of human motives is the need for self-actualization. Maslow said that human beings strive for self-actualization, or realization of their full potential, once they have satisfied their more basic needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory is described on page 247.
Maslow also provided his own account of the healthy human personality. Psychodynamic theories tend to be based on clinical case studies and therefore lack accounts of healthy personalities. To come up with his account, Maslow studied exceptional historical figures, such as Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as some of his own contemporaries whom he thought had exceptionally good mental health.
Maslow described several characteristics that self-actualizing people share:
·         Awareness and acceptance of themselves
·         Openness and spontaneity
·         The ability to enjoy work and see work as a mission to fulfill
·         The ability to develop close friendships without being overly dependent on other people
·         A good sense of humor
·         The tendency to have peak experiences that are spiritually or emotionally satisfying
Carl Rogers’s Person-Centered Theory
Carl Rogers, another humanistic psychologist, proposed a theory called the person-centered theory. Like Freud, Rogers drew on clinical case studies to come up with his theory. He also drew from the ideas of Maslow and others. In Rogers’s view, the self-concept is the most important feature of personality, and it includes all the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs people have about themselves. Rogers believed that people are aware of their self-concepts.
Congruence and Incongruence
Rogers said that people’s self-concepts often do not exactly match reality. For example, a person may consider himself to be very honest but often lies to his boss about why he is late to work. Rogers used the term incongruence to refer to the discrepancy between the self-concept and reality. Congruence, on the other hand, is a fairly accurate match between the self-concept and reality.
According to Rogers, parents promote incongruence if they give their children conditional love. If a parent accepts a child only when the child behaves a particular way, the child is likely to block out experiences that are considered unacceptable. On the other hand, if the parent shows unconditional love, the child can develop congruence. Adults whose parents provided conditional love would continue in adulthood to distort their experiences in order to feel accepted.
Results of Incongruence
Rogers thought that people experience anxiety when their self-concepts are threatened. To protect themselves from anxiety, people distort their experiences so that they can hold on to their self-concept. People who have a high degree of incongruence are likely to feel very anxious because reality continually threatens their self-concepts.
Example: Erin believes she is a very generous person, although she is often stingy with her money and usually leaves small tips or no tips at restaurants. When a dining companion comments on her tipping behavior, she insists that the tips she leaves are proportional to the service she gets. By attributing her tipping behavior to bad service, she can avoid anxiety and maintain her self-concept of being generous.
Criticisms of Humanistic Theories
Humanistic theories have had a significant influence on psychology as well as pop culture. Many psychologists now accept the idea that when it comes to personality, people’s subjective experiences have more weight than objective reality. Humanistic psychologists’ focus on healthy people, rather than troubled people, has also been a particularly useful contribution.
Psychologists agree that environmental factors interact with genetic factors to form personality. Some psychologists have proposed theories that emphasize these genetic influences on personality.
Hans Eysenck’s Theory
Psychologist Hans Eysenck believes that genetics are the primary determinate of personality, although he thinks conditioning also plays a role. According to Eysenck, personality traits are hierarchical, with a few basic traits giving rise to a large array of more superficial traits. Genetically determined differences in physiological functioning make some people more vulnerable to behavioral conditioning. Eysenck suggests that introverted people have higher levels of physiological arousal, which allows them to be conditioned by environmental stimuli more easily. Because of this, such people develop more inhibitions, which make them more shy and uneasy in social situations.
Empirical evidence for genetic contributions to personality comes mainly from two kinds of studies: studies of children’s temperaments and heritability studies.
Studies of Temperament
Temperament refers to innate personality features or dispositions. Babies show particular temperaments soon after birth. Temperaments that researchers have studied include reactivity, which refers to a baby’s excitability or responsiveness, and soothability, which refers to the ease or difficulty of calming an upset baby.
Researchers have studied children from infancy to adolescence and found that temperaments remain fairly stable over time. However, temperaments can also be modified over time by environmental factors.
Heritability Studies
Heritability studies also provide evidence for genetic contributions to personality. Heritability is a mathematical estimate that indicates how much of a trait’s variation in a population can be attributed to genes. For more information about heritability, see page 35.
Twin studies help researchers to determine heritability, as described in Chapter 2, “Evolution and Genes.” Researchers have shown that identical twins raised together are more similar than fraternal twins raised together in traits such as positive emotionality, negative emotionality, and constraint. Identical twins separated early in life and raised apart are more similar in these traits than are fraternal twins raised together. Both of these research findings suggest the existence of a genetic component to personality.
Behavioral geneticists have shown, after doing studies in many different countries, that the heritability of personality traits is around .5, which means that 50 percent of the variation in personality traits in a group of people can be attributed to genetic differences among those people.
The Influence of Family Environment
Surprisingly, research shows that sharing a family environment doesn’t lead to many similarities in personality. There is no or little correlation between the personality traits of adopted children and their adoptive parents. Researchers think this is because parents don’t act the same way with all their children. Children’s temperaments influence how a parent behaves toward them, and a child’s gender and place in a birth order can also affect how that child is treated.
Environmental Influences
The environment also has important influences on personality. These include peer relationships and the kinds of situations a child encounters. As described on page 277, under “Walter Mischel’s Ideas,” the interactions between innate characteristics and environmental factors are two-way. Children’s temperaments are likely to influence their peer relationships and the situations they encounter. Similarly, peers and situations can modify children’s personality characteristics.
Evolutionary Approaches
Evolutionary theorists explain personality in terms of its adaptive value. Theorists such as David Buss have argued that the Big Five personality traits are universally important because these traits have given humans a reproductive advantage.

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