Humans are not the only animals to have personality, but we may be the only ones capable of contemplating our own personalities, linking it to others, and obsessing over it. Oh, humans! We’ve been pondering what makes us, us for almost as long as we’ve had free time to think about these things. Imagine if ‘know thyself’ had not been such a catchphrase back in Ancient Greece.

There is, of course, a benefit to understanding ourselves and each other. It helps us predict what we’ll do,  what others will do, and what will make us happy in the future. We’ve come a long way since the days of philosophizing to explain personality. In fact, the concept of personality is so important, we’ve made a science of it.

The History Of Personality

Much of how we think about ourselves goes way back to ancient philosophy, but psychology, in general, is relatively new. And, personality psychology, as we think of it today, is actually only about a hundred years old. Here’s a very brief overview of the highlights.


The drive to bring a scientific approach hit a big bump in the road with the introduction of phrenology in the 18th and early 19th century. This pseudoscience was reliable, but not at all valid. Scientists would measure subjects’ skulls to determine their personality traits. The idea was that different parts of the brain control traits like self-confidence and wit, and that they could be empirically measured. That little bulge at the back of your head? Phrenologists would have said it means you love being around friends. It’s hard to believe we bought into this, but they were very convincing with their measuring tapes and head maps. Eventually, the theory was discredited.


Sigmund Freud ushered in a new era with psychoanalysis. His theories, while debunked for the most part today, were enormously influential. Freud popularized the idea that mental life takes place outside of our awareness, and gave us the subconscious to talk about. His work also blazed the way for research through case studies.


Around the same time, Wilhelm Wundt was developing his own experimental practice using introspection (the examination of one’s own emotional state and reporting it to an observer). While Wundt and Freud may have been on opposite ends of the spectrum in some ways, they set the groundwork for modern personality theory. Wundt, unlike Freud, concerned himself with things that could be measured. He believed, “the only certain reality is immediate experience,” according to Arthur Blumenthal, University of Massachusetts, Boston. This approach brought scientific inquiry to the field, and it’s what got him the title, ‘father of psychology.’

Trait Theory of Personality

Fast forward to today. The most prevalent and accepted way to talk about personality around the world is through the framework of trait theory of personality, specifically The Big Five. It’s what most personality tests are based off. Several psychologists’ theories are incorporated into The Big Five, from Carl Jung to Abraham Maslow to Lewis Goldberg and many more.The idea around The Big Five is that we can describe ourselves, or anyone else for that matter, based on where they are on the spectrum of five traits: openness, consciousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. And, where we are on that spectrum has implications for our well-being and our feelings of satisfaction. You can even make predictions from these traits. Did you know people who are high in extroversion typically stand closer when they talk?

The Big Five doesn’t help us explain why we are the way we are though. For that, researches look at biology and genes, environment, and situations. In the nature versus nurture debate on personality, it’s pretty much a tie. Scientists cannot conclude that a specific person’s extroversion level is 50% genetic, but the differences among many individuals is 50%. The upshot: your personality probably isn’t completely inherited from your parents. (Did I just hear a collective sigh of relief?)

Development and situations also play a role. It’s not like we are exactly the same on every trait for our entire lives. Where we are and what’s going on around us also impacts how we behave. The well-known psychologist Kurt Lewin created a formula for this: Behavior is a function of the person x the situation. Intuitively, this feels right too.

Identity Versus Reputation

As though the idea of personality didn’t feel squishy enough, here’s another wrench the psychology community has thrown in. Many experts believe our personalities break down into two categories: the ‘us we show the world’ and the us that’s, well, ‘just for us.’ Personality psychologists describe this idea of the internal self and the external self with the terms identity and reputation.

Possibly drawing on The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by sociologists Erving Goffman, psychologists often explain how the word personality comes from the Greek word ‘persona,’ which means mask, and that social interactions are like a performance. The persona we put on, may not be our true selves. This notion that we act differently in different situations or that we crank up some of our characteristics or tamp down others, echoes Lewin’s theory that situations affect behavior.

The bottom line: while trait theory has limitations, such as requiring personal observations and subjective self-reports, not considering situations and changes over time, and only describing how we are, not why; it’s still the best, most comprehensive way to examine personality today.

The Big Five Traits

If you wanted to evaluate your own personality based on the Big Five, you’d rate yourself on a scale from one to five (five, for example may mean the statement is very accurate; where one may mean it’s very inaccurate). The statements you’d be ranking would be similar to the following:

Openness. This trait looks at your ideas and interests. It’s related to curiosity, imagination, interests, aesthetics, and how excitable you are.

  • I am quick to understand things.
  • I am full of ideas.
  • I am interested in abstractions.
  • I have an active imagination.
  • I daydream often

Conscientiousness: The opposite of this trait is lack of direction. It’s all about order, self-discipline, deliberation, achievement striving and efficiency.

  • I am always prepared.
  • I pay attention to details.
  • I get chores done right away.
  • I like order.
  • I follow a schedule.

Extroversion: Careful with this one. People often think it means the same as outgoing or that the opposite is to be shy. As a construct, shyness is distinct from extroversion, introversion, and neuroticism. The introversion-extroversion scale is more about how much stimulation you need. It measures warmth, assertiveness, adventure-seeking.

  • I am the life of the party.
  • I don’t mind being the center of attention.
  • I feel comfortable around people.
  • I start conversations.
  • I don’t usually think a lot before I speak or act.

Agreeableness: Adjectives that roll up under this trait include, forgiving, not demanding, warm, and modest to name a few. 

  • I am interested in people.
  • I sympathize with others’ feelings.
  • I take time out for others.
  • I make people feel at ease.
  • I am interested in other people’s problems.

Neuroticism: This trait is often cited as being associated with conditions like major depression, generalized anxiety and other disorders. This isn’t to say being high on this scale is, by any means, a test for mental illness. The facets that make up neuroticism are anxiety,
hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, and vulnerability.

  • I get irritated easily.
  • I get stressed out easily.
  • I have frequent mood swings.
  • I worry about things.
  • I am much more anxious than most people.

Personality Tests and Types

The Big Five traits are assessed most often using the NEO Personality Inventory, which was developed in the 1980’s with just three of the five traits: neuroticism, extroversion, and openness. When Lew Goldberg coined the phrase The Big Five, the reaming two traits were added to the test.

Chances are, you haven’t heard of the NEO Personality Inventory, but you probably have heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test. This too, relies on trait theory, but, it is more in the Carl Jung camp and is based on eight traits and two attitudes per trait. The problem with the Myers-Briggs test (despite it’s popularity among non-professionals) is that it’s not reliable or valid. That’s an official way of saying every time you take the test, you could wind up with a different answer; and  it doesn’t actually measure what it sets out to measure. Minor detail, right? Well, it hasn’t stopped the 1.5 million people from taking the test every year, or the companies that use it to assess their employees or employment candidates.

Another dimension of personality that gets a lot of attention in pop culture is the concept of type A and type B. These terms were invented by cardiologists to identify those who may have a greater risk of coronary disease. There is a lot of debate in the scientific community on whether or not these labels are a valuable measure of personality.

In general, whether it’s your traits and characteristics or your propensity to behave a certain way, knowing about yourself has a lot of benefits. In study after study, personality traits have shown to be correlated to how we live our lives. But, even more importantly, knowing who you are helps you make better decisions, and is useful in understanding other people and how you relate to them.

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Last Updated: Aug 17, 2020