Personality Theories 1

Personality theories and intriguing and exhaustive. I am planning to discuss few relevant psychological personality theories and assessments here. As such there are many important personality theories, but I will only discuss few that I think are important and relevant in the contemporary world. Some of these theories lack empirical evidence and statistical data supporting their claims; nevertheless they have been instrumental in shaping up the knowledge about personality.

As APA defines, Personality refers to individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. The study of personality focuses on two broad areas: One is understanding individual differences in particular personality characteristics, such as sociability or irritability. The other is understanding how the various parts of a person come together as a whole.

It is important to understand few things about personality and its role in predicting the behaviour of a person.

  • Though personality is a stronger predictor of behaviour across all situations, it is not a strong predictor of individual’s behaviour at a specific time in a specific situation. In other words, personality traits are good at predicting aggregates of behaviours.
  • Along with personality, another important factor that affects behaviour is: situation. American psychologist Walter Mischel argued that situations, rather than personality traits are better predictor of behaviour. Though this is not entirely valid, but it emphasizes the role of situation/circumstances in the behaviour.
  • For more scientifically, statistically inclined readers, the research has shown that situation-behaviour correlation ranges from 0.36 to 0.42. Whereas the correlation between personality-behaviour was found to be slightly higher than 0.40. Thus, personality and situation have almost same coefficient of correlation for predicting behaviour. In simpler words, both personality and situation are almost equally responsible for predicting the behaviour.
  • As Dr. Brian Little mentions in his talk The Puzzle Of Personality, we all behave out-of-character every now and then, and it must be kept in mind that such behaviour may not be consistent with our personality traits.

Keeping all this in mind, I am trying to discuss and simplify few personality theories and assessments here. Though I’ll try to keep them short and simple, at times it may not be possible. Please feel free to refer to a reputed reference book on personality theories and assessments. I have listed few such books under reference at the end of these articles.

Please also keep in mind that I have excluded pathological assessments such as MMPI-II or MCMI-II. I am only covering few personality assessments that are used for healthy individuals. Moreover, it is important to notice that no single theory explains personality comprehensively but each of these theories have tried to explain certain aspects of personality based on their own approach and available knowledge and research in the contemporary society. Thus, it is wiser to have a rather eclectic view of personality that considers the knowledge of the proven personality theories.

History & Older Personality Theories –

In the olden days, various attempts were made to understand the personality. Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (circa 460 – 370 BC) suggested four temperaments based on body fluids: Sanguine (optimistic and active), Choleric (irritable and excitable), Melancholic (sad and brooding), and Phlegmatic (apathetic and sluggish). William Sheldon (1898-1977) proposed three types of people based on their body type: Ectomorphic (thin, tall – artistic, brainy, introvert), Endomorphic (fat, soft & round – relaxed, love to eat & sociable) and Mesomorphic (muscular & strong – affective, dominant with energy & courage).

However, both these theories have not been substantiated and should not be considered valid except for their historical attempts to understand personality.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (Max Halberstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Sigmund Freud (Max Halberstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
It is inappropriate to talk about the history of personality theories without mentioning Sigmund Freud. Though his theories have not been empirically validated by him, his deep insights based on his own case studies of the patients continue to hold their ground in certain cases even today. Among his other theories, Psychosexual Stages that explain age related psycho-sexual development of an individual, and his structural model of Id, ego and super-ego are important from personality psychology perspective. In the later theory, Freud proposed that human psyche has three parts: Id (Instincts), Ego (Reality) and Superego (Morality).  According to Freud, Id is governed by pleasure principle (immediate gratification). It demands the satisfaction of desires without regard for what is possible and what the consequences might be. Id is essentially impulsive and wants to respond immediately to instincts. On the other hand, ego develops out of Id and works on reality principle. Ego is rational and involves perception, reasoning, learning and all other activities necessary to interact effectively with the world around us. The third part, superego develops based on the moral values of the society that are learnt from the parents and others. The superego operates on morality principle and deals with the ideals. It also develops conscience of an individual. The personality of the newborn child is all Id and only later does it develop an Ego and Superego as he/she learns to deal with the environment and society.

Freud also explained concept of conscious, subconscious/pre-conscious and unconscious. According to him, conscious state or current state of awareness spans only 10% whereas subconscious (memories, desires etc. that are not conscious but can be recalled with some efforts) spans about 10-15%. However, the unconscious forms that largest part around 75-80% and it is not accessible to awareness voluntarily. The unconscious includes hostile feelings, sexual desires, deep fears of which we are unaware. According to Freud, it is the root of our problems. Id remains unconscious since birth, ego is developed as part of subconscious and superego spans all three levels of consciousness.

Neo-Freudian psychologists agreed with many of the fundamental tenets of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory but changed and adapted the approach to incorporate their own beliefs, ideas, and opinions later with their own research. Some important names include Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Alfred Adler and Erik Erikson. Among these, Karen Horney was the first to criticize Freud’s depictions of women as inferior to men. She suggested that men experience “womb envy” because they are unable to bear children.  Horney’s theory focuses on how behaviour was influenced by a number of different neurotic needs.

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson (Via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])
Erik Erikson (Via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])
While Freud believed that personality was mostly set in stone during early childhood, Erik Erikson felt that development continued throughout life.

Erikson de-emphasized the role of sex as a motivator for behaviour and instead placed a much stronger focus on the role of social relationships. His eight-stage theory of psychosocial development concentrates on a series of developmental conflicts that occur throughout the lifespan, from birth until death. At each stage, people face a crisis that must be resolved to develop certain psychological strengths.

The eight stages of psychosocial development described by Erikson are:

  1. Trust Vs. Mistrust (Hope) : Infancy (0 to 18 months) – During this stage the infant is uncertain about its environment and looks towards its primary caregivers for care and love. When they receive care, love consistently and predictably, they tend to develop trust in the world. On the other hand, lack or inconsistency in care will develop a sense of mistrust and will not have confidence in the world around them. Success at this stage will lead to the virtue of hope.
  2. Autonomy Vs. Shame and Doubt (Will) : Early childhood (1.5 – 3 years) –  At this stage, the child is discovering that he/she has many skills and abilities, such as putting on clothes and shoes, playing with toys, etc. Such skills illustrate the child’s growing sense of independence and autonomy. If children are encouraged and supported at this stage, they become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world. Otherwise they may feel inadequate in their ability to survive, lack self-esteem and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their own abilities. A balance between autonomy and shame and doubt would lead to the virtue of will, which is the belief that children can act with intention, within reason and limits.
  3. Initiative Vs. Guilt (Purpose) : Preschool (3 – 6 years) – A this stage, children begin to assert their power and control over the world through directing play and other social interactions. Children who are successful at this stage feel capable and able to lead others. Those who fail to acquire these skills are left with a sense of guilt, self-doubt, and lack of initiative. A healthy balance of initiative and a willingness to work with others leads to the ego quality known as purpose.
  4. Industry Vs. Inferiority (Competence) : School Years (6 – 12 years) –  Children compare self-worth to others (such as in a classroom environment). Children can recognize major disparities in personal abilities relative to other children. Children who are encouraged and commended by parents and teachers develop a feeling of competence and belief in their abilities. Those who receive little or no encouragement from parents, teachers, or peers will doubt their abilities to be successful. Success at this stage will lead to the virtue of competence.
  5. Identity Vs. Role Confusion (Fidelity) : Adolescence (12 – 18 years) – At this age, children become more independent and begin to look at the future in terms of career, relationships etc. They tend to develop a sense of self/identity. Erikson suggests that two identities are involved: the sexual and the occupational. They begin to form their own identity based upon the outcome of their explorations. Failure to establish a sense of identity within society can lead to role confusion. Success at this stage leads to fidelity, an ability to commit oneself to a certain cause or to others.
  6.  Intimacy Vs. Isolation (Love) : Young Adults (18-40 years) – During this stage, dating, marriage, family and friendships are important. Young adults develop intimate, committed relationships with other people. By successfully forming loving relationships with other people, individuals are able to experience love and intimacy. Those who fail to form lasting relationships may feel isolated and alone. Success at this stage will lead to the virtue of love, ability to form lasting, meaningful relationships with other people.
  7. Generativity Vs. Stagnation (Care) : Middle Adulthood (40 – 65) – During middle adulthood, people are established in their careers and making progress in their work. Also during this time, people enjoy raising their children and participating in activities, that gives them a sense of purpose. If people are not comfortable with the way their life is progressing, they’re usually regretful about the decisions that they have made in the past and feel a sense of stagnation. The existential question faced at this stage is: “Can I make my life count?” Success at this stage will lead to the virtue of care.
  8. Ego Integrity Vs. Despair (Wisdom) : Maturity (65+) – At this stage one wonders if his/her existence has been worthwhile and meaningful, a sense of integrity and contentment develops if he/she has lived a productive & useful life. On the other hand, one may experience despair if he/she feels that life goals were not accomplished and life hasn’t been useful. This is where one seriously contemplates his/her own existential identity. Success at this stage leads to wisdom, that Erikson defines as – “informed and detached concern for life itself in the face of death itself”.
  9. Psychosocial Crises : Old Age (80+ & 90+) – This ninth stage was added later by Erik Erikson’s wife Joan Erikson. She mentions that this ninth stage is essentially all first eight stages in reverse quotient order. She writes – “Old age in one’s eighties and nineties brings with it new demands, reevaluations, and daily difficulties.”  In the ninth stage, the psychosocial crises of the eight stages are faced again, but with the quotient order reversed. For example, in the ninth stage elders are forced to mistrust their own capabilities because one’s body inevitably weakens. Likewise, in the ninth stage elders face the shame of lost control and doubt their autonomy over their own bodies. So it is that shame and doubt challenge cherished autonomy. This continues or all eight stages. Interestingly, Erikson was 93 years old when Joan wrote this ninth stage.

One of the important insights from Erikson’s theory is that one can relate to it from personal experiences. When I meet people discussing feeling void or mid-life crisis often wondering “Can I make my life count?”, I can relate their feelings to his psychosocial stages.

I’ll continue with few more personality theories in the next part of this series on personality theories. These theories are not only interesting for their historical, scientific attempts to understand personality, but they remain intriguing for unique insights on personality that each one of them brings.

As Karen Horney says –

“The searching for our selves is the most agonizing, isn’t it? – and yet the most stimulating – and one simply cannot escape it.”

~ Karen Horney


  1. Theories Of Personality by Schultz and Schultz
  2. Personality Theories by Dr. C. George Boeree – Useful e-book for important personality theories
  3. Sigmund Freud from Wikipedia
  4. Erik Erikson from Wikipedia
  5. Simply Psychology – Probably the best website that explains psychology in simple language.

About the featured image:

My botanist friend tells me that these beautiful, colourful flowers are known as Asclepias curassavica - Scarlet Milkweed, I simply love the fact that each flower has its own beautiful colour! 🙂

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