What is Personality Psychology?

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Practical Psychology
Andrew English
Reviewed by:
Andrew English, Ph.D.

Have you ever taken a personality quiz? The results may tell you you’re the center of attention or an ENTJ. People describe personalities differently, and scientists still question how our personalities influence our actions and make us who we are. Get comfortable if you’ve ever been curious about what this word means. Let’s talk about personality.

What is Personality?

There are a lot of ways to define personality. Top personality psychologist Feist and Feist say this:

“Although no single definition is acceptable to all personality theorists, we can say that personality is a pattern of relatively permanent traits and unique characteristics that give consistency and individuality to a person's behavior.”

Let’s zoom in and focus on one word here: traits. Know this word in and out. It’s the center of personality psychology.

Traits are unique characteristics that influence our behavior. These characteristics typically set us apart from other people. For example, you may describe yourself as a “respectful” or “genuine” person. These are two personality traits.

Before discussing the “big five” personality traits, it’s important to remember that traits influence our behavior...they don’t dictate it. When you are respectful, you tend to be respectful to people around you. But you may act outside of these traits due to...well, really anything. A sick day, bad history with someone, or nervousness may cause you to act out of character.

This is one of the reasons why traits are usually measured on a scale.

How does personality "work"?

How do we display these traits? Through psychological mechanisms. Remember this term because it comes up almost as often as “traits” do. Psychological mechanisms are like traits, except they are the processes of personality. This process has three parts: input, decision rules, and output. Our traits determine the output (and sometimes, what kind of input we encounter in the first place.) Let’s say you are a courageous person.

The “input” is a dangerous situation. You have rules and make decisions on how to act. The “output” is to face the danger. If you are not courageous, your output will be fleeing the scene. Let’s review these two again: Traits are the characteristics and the individual words we use to describe people. Mechanisms are processes that people follow based on these traits.

Three Levels of Personality Analysis

How do psychologists measure personality? For the answer, we look to Kluckhohn and Murray. In 1953, they published Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture. In the book, they say, “Every man is in certain respects like all other men, like some other men, like no other man.” Think about it. Some universal traits and mechanisms make humans unique to other species. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

We all belong to one big group: the human race. But within our species, we separate ourselves into other groups. Introverts. Americans. “Messy people.” “Go-getters.” These smaller groups share personality traits. At the most specific level, we all have things that make us unique. Maybe you have a “special talent,” a strange behavior that confuses your friends. Habits, routines, and emotional connections to people or things may make us different from the person next to us.

You're like all other humans:

  • You need to belong
  • You want a feeling of purpose
  • You tear up if I smack your nose (nasociliary nerve reflex)

You're like some other humans:

  • You're introverted
  • You're good at doing your taxes
  • You wince when you watch someone give themselves a papercut

You're like no other humans:

  • You love doing your taxes
  • You plan your days and set goals that nobody else does
  • You cry if I show you an image of your deceased family member

These similarities and differences don’t just give us a group to belong to. They are the cornerstone of predicting behavior. As you can see, a lot of personality is understanding the similarities and differences of people and how they act. 

Where does personality come from?

You might hear family members tell you you have a similar personality to your mother or father. Does this mean our personality is inherited? How do we adopt the personality traits that make us like all other people, like some other people, and like no other people?

There are a lot of different explanations for this. Genetics is one, but environment, experiences, and trends may also explain where we get our personality traits. One interesting thought is that we co-create our personalities and those of the people we interact with. ​

Here are some common Personality Theories:

Not all personality traits are positive, but we generally prefer the positive. We tend to reward people who show positive traits like being respectful or genuine. If someone is kind, we "reward" them by being kind back. Already, you might find some arguments against this idea. Not everyone characterizes the same traits to be positive or negative.

Someone may think that respectfulness is a top-tier personality trait. Someone else who has a lot of distrust in authority or “the system” may view respectfulness as a negative personality trait. How do people form their personalities when rewarded and chastised for the same trait? These are some of the questions that psychologists are trying to answer!

Why is it important?

But many more questions can only be answered with research and studying personality psychology. Here are some of the big ones:

Freedom vs Determinism: Do we choose our behavior? Can we change it if we want to?

Hereditary vs Environment: Where do our personality traits come from? Nature or nurture?

Unique or Universal: Some psychologists say humans are super unique, while others agree that we are universally identical. So...what are we?

Proactive or Reactive: Do we act on our initiative… or react to stimuli? Why are personality psychologists so determined to answer these questions?

They can use it to predict future behavior.

If you had the ability to predict who was on track to becoming a criminal, wouldn’t you want to steer them on a different path and possibly save someone’s life? Let’s look at Ted Bundy’s personality. Psychologists generally agree that he had a “classic sociopathic personality.” But where did it come from? Some people say he started forming a sociopathic personality when the love of his life rejected him.

Others believe his failure to become a lawyer sparked these personality traits. Other psychologists trace the root of his personality to the shame of never knowing his birth parents. His sociopathic behaviors did start early. He was a pyromaniac and had tortured animals as a child. Some psychologists point to his early bed-wetting as a sign that he was on the track to becoming a sociopath. These 3 form the sociopath personality:

  • Being amused and playing with fire
  • Bedwetting through childhood
  • Torturing animals

​Now, being adopted or wetting the bed doesn’t mean that you were born to become a sociopath. However, these theories and discoveries are the first steps to determining how we form our personalities and how they influence our behavior. Suppose psychologists get a good idea of the “map” that leads us to certain behaviors. In that case, they can redraw that map and develop a co-creation process that influences more positive and less sociopathic personality traits.

The psychology of personality isn’t just important for determining the future of humans. Scientists in artificial intelligence look at massive amounts of data relating to personality traits and behaviors. Artificial intelligence can help us in our efforts to predict future behavior and possibly prevent bad things from happening.

Analyzing personality data and conducting more personality research can improve our human experience. Data shows correlations between different levels of personality traits and future behaviors or classifications.

For example, there is a correlation between conscientiousness and school grades. A correlation exists between extroverts and car accidents; personality psychology says this could be due to extroverts’ need for constant stimulation.

Data links low agreeableness to competitive behaviors. High neuroticism may predict the presence of a mental illness. The list of examples goes on and on, but this data still isn’t perfect. Psychologists use a lot of different sources to collect this data: studies, surveys, crime data, etc. The results from data and study of personalities can help to improve humankind. But what have we collected so far? 

Is There One Unifying Theory of Personality?

So far, you’ve heard a lot of names and theories mentioned in this article. Who can we look to for the end-all, be-all theories on developing personality traits and using them to make decisions? It doesn’t work like that yet. We have grand unifying theories that explain a lot of questions: for example, the theory of evolution by natural selection is a grand unifying theory in the world of biology. We are still looking for that theory in personality psychology.

Think of a grand unifying theory of personality like blind men feeling an elephant. 

One man approaches the elephant from the front and feels its nose. He says the elephant is much like a snake. 

Another man walks up to the ​elephant from the side. He says the elephant is much like a very large cow. 

The last blind man walks up to the elephant and feels his ear. "Much like a land-dwelling stingray, this is," he says. 

Each man only touches one part of the elephant, so they don't fully understand the whole elephant. Similarly, the theories we use to describe personality are much like this.

An elephant combines a large, round body, a long snake-like nose, and big, flappy ears. Personality is likely made up of biological, behavioral, and cognitive aspects.  We do have a grasp on different elements of personality psychology. In this series, I’ll take you through the elements of trait theory, behavioral theory, humanistic theory, biological theory, and the infamous psychoanalytic theory. Right now, we believe these theories may play a part in the Grand Unifying Theory of psychology...but there is a lot of research to be done.  

Can we measure personality? Sure we can! I have actually created a free 3-in-1 personality quiz right here. It measures your Big 5 traits, as well as your dark triad scores, and gives you a prediction of what your MBTI type may be. 

The Big Five Personality Traits

Trait psychologists have been trying to create a concise list of personality traits that can be used to describe the basics of anyone’s personality. After coming up with lists of 16 and 3, top psychologists settled on a happy medium: five. Consider these “big five” traits as you evaluate your personality.

The Big 5 Personality Traits and the test used to measure them are considered the most accurate way to measure personality. Many people use an acronym to remember the Big Five: OCEAN. The Big Five are:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

Each trait has a polar opposite; introversion is the opposite of extraversion.Trait psychologists believe we all lie somewhere along a scale between each big five trait and its opposite.

The Dark Triad

The Dark Triad quiz is a set of questions that aims to determine where you lie on 3 main trait scales: 

Narcissism: A higher-than-average sense of self-worth

Psychopathy: A lack of empathy for other's feelings

Machiavellianism: The use of manipulation of others to get what you want

The interesting thing about these 3 personality traits is that they can determine the quality of your life very closely. In fact, it has been shown in a few studies that the lower the dark triad scores of your friends, the higher the quality of your life. 

Another important note about the dark triad traits is that they are all closely correlated. That is, if you're high in narcissism, then you're probably high in the other two as well. 

The Dark Triad has been used in many applications, from dating research to the quality of job applicants. 

Practical Takeaways

This research is exciting! Imagine what could happen if we fully understood self-esteem, trust, or leadership traits. Watch the rest of the videos in the series to learn how predictable you really are… and if you can change your personality or if your future is set in stone.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2019, January). What is Personality Psychology?. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/what-is-personality-psychology/.

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