Personality: Definitions and Concepts

The study of personality is one of the two major areas of differential psychology which is concerned with individual differences. Whereas general psychology is concerned with common human characteristics, and the study of intelligence is concerned with abilities, personality psychology studies individual styles of thinking, feeling and behaving.

Definition of Personality


The word ‘’persona’’ (pl. ‘’personae’’) comes from Latin and designates the mask used by actors to portray different characters in a play. Persona was used by the psychoanalytic scholar Carl Gustav Jung to denote the aspects of personality that we show to others, and that we might hide behind.

Various other variations of the word personality have been used in the early history of psychology. Robert Woodworth developed his “Personal Data Sheet” in 1919 to evaluate personal style. William Stern (1861-1938) was concerned with descriptions of the whole person, and inspired by the Gestalt movement he developed what he called “personalism.” Gordon Allport (1897-1967), by most regarded as the founder of personality psychology, used the term “personality” to introduce a more objective and distinct concept, rather than to use the established term “character”.


‘’Character’’ was used in German psychology in particular before the area of personality psychology was established. Character has more of a moral connotation, implying a high moral and resistance to circumstantial influences. Character was also later used by William Reich to denote the protective shield against drives and conflicts. He derived the concepts of character neurosis and character defense.

Strong personality

The term ‘’strong personality’’ sometimes takes on the same meaning, but also implies more eccentric features, often artistic and creative in style. As a contrast, a “weak personality” may denote a more submissive and yielding type of person.

Personality types

Personality types are created by splitting personality scales into distinct categories, often at the mean value of a scale. One example is introvert and extrovert types, who are created by splitting the extroversion scale at the mean, saying that all below the mean are introverts and all above the mean are extroverts.


The self is the collection of conscious representations of oneself as a person. The concept of self thus partly overlaps with personality, but has more of an experiential quality to it. It can be more or less coherent; some images of the self may be in congruence, others may be in conflict.


A common definition of personality is: “The enduring and relatively stable differences in feeling, thinking and behaviour that characterizes and individual adaption to its environment.” The definition implies that personality characteristics are stable across time and across situations. It also encompasses emotions, cognition, and behaviour, which is rooted in motives. Next it describes the adaptive role of personality when an individual is facing challenges from both interior and exterior environments.

Experiential basis

Most people have a sense of stability of who we are. We carry around a feeling of being the same person from one situation to another, and over time. We mostly know our strengths and limitations, and we have a sense of how we are different from or similar to other people. This feeling of stability is part of our identity and our self-image, it defines us as persons.

Relational aspects

Personality also has a clear relational aspect. We tend to compare ourselves with others, and we often also define ourselves in relation to others. If we see a characteristic that we don’t like in others, we might try to be the opposite. If we see something we like, we might try to enhance that particular style of being. Some personality traits, such as agreeableness and extroversion, have clear relational aspects, and they are more readily visible to others. Other traits, such as openness, describe mote internal properties that are more difficult for others to evaluate.

Structure and process

Personality characterizes stable differences both in structure and process. Personality structure is the parts that we can define and describe, such as traits or ego functions. Process, or dynamics, denotes how the different parts play together and our typical ways of handling and adapting to situations. This level is also sometimes called characteristic adaptions. A structural focus is usually the basis of predictions of behaviour, whereas a focus on process is a basis for evaluations of change.


Motives are trait-like characteristics determining our most prevalent and pronounced needs and urges. The contents of motives are highly individual, but the types of motivation we are shaped by also have trait-like characteristics in the sense that they show systematic variability between individuals. Some people seem more characterized by relational needs, whereas other are more motived by power and influence. These driving forces determine which direction we tend to aim our energies, whereas the personality structure (traits, ego functions) determines how we go about satisfying our needs. The resulting interplay is the personality process or personality dynamics which also assumes an individual configuration.

Implicit versus explicit processes

Implicit processes are those that we are unable to gain conscious insight into. Many, or even most, mental processes are unconscious in the sense that we cannot observe them or describe them. Many motivational forces are implicit; they determine how we fare in long-term goals and choices in life. They differ from motivational forces of an explicit nature. Explicit processes are those that we are able to describe and which is more part of our conscious stream of thoughts. They also contain more short-term goals and aims that predict short-term outcomes.

Person versus situation

Some take the position that situations are far more powerful determinants of behaviour than personality. This position is called ‘’situationism.’’ Historically, many scholars in psychology have sceptical about personality traits, and cited studies that seem to show little stability in traits from one situation to another. This claim has been disputed, and with the advent of the statistical technique of aggregation, many studies have shown that we can indeed find stable personality traits.

Strong versus weak situations

Some situations are affecting behaviour more than others. Strong situations are those that have a strong influence on behaviour, and which might level personality differences almost entirely. One example could be combat situations in war where personality has a relatively small influence on how a group of soldiers solve their problems. A weak situation is one where personality traits are more readily visible and takes precedence over situational factors. An example could be an artist in her studio, where personality would probably determine much of the surroundings and the artistic expression.

Universal versus cultural

The concept of personality rests on an assumption that it is a universal property of all human beings. An alternative formulation could be that personality is largely a cultural construction, and that the basic traits vary from one culture to another. Research shows that personality traits are found in all cultures and societies, although the specific definition may vary somewhat for some traits.


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