The factors that shape our personality

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Personality studies came about as a result of the fundamental idea that people are different. There are differences in the way people walk, talk, eat, drink, dress and so on, which provide great insights into the individual. A person who studies personality is called a personologist. Personologists look into these aspects of individuals and attempt to explain the reasons for these differences.

There are three sources which provide information for studying personality, namely;

Biological (genetic and environmental origins)

Social realm (social forces which shape motives, traits, behaviours and attitudes

Clinical examination

Defining Personality

"Personality is far too complex a thing to be trussed up in a conceptual straightjacket." (Gordon Allport, Becoming, 1955, p.vii)

There is no universally accepted definition of personality among psychologists. However, definitions of personality have a duality. They either seek to explain the differences between individuals, or they try to explain qualities that common to all of mankind.

The word personality comes from the Latin word 'persona', which means mask. It can be understood as the study of masks that people wear. Personality also includes the inner parts of psychological experience which we collectively call our 'self'.

A noted definition is one given by Carl Gustav Jung. According to Jung, "Personality is the supreme realization of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being. It is an act of high courage flung in the face of life, the absolute affirmation of all that constitutes the individual, the most successful adaptation to the universal condition of existence coupled with the greatest possible freedom for self-determination."

A simpler definition by neurologist Paul Roe is the more widely accepted one. According to Roe, personality is "an individual's predisposition to think certain patterns of thought, and therefore engage in certain patterns of behaviour".

Factors which shape personality

Personality is the sum total of mental characteristics that makes an individual unique when compared to others. There is also thoughts, as well as emotions which an individual experiences, which causes him to behave the way he does. At a very superficial level, personality comes out through one's disposition or emotional tone.  However, personality is also reflected in the values, beliefs, and expectations of a person.

Most of the factors which shape someone's personality are a result of his/her heredity and the environment in which he/she was exposed to. Research findings suggest that heredity is largely responsible for basic traits such as the emotional tone, whereas, values, beliefs, and expectations are a result of experiences and socialization that a person had in his/her childhood.

It is interesting to note that the exchanges that a person has with the social environment as a child can cause some hereditary factors to contribute to his/her personality. For example, a person may not be a good singer, because he has not inherited a good voice. As a child, if he is repeatedly told that he is a bad singer, he is likely to shy away from any form of cultural activity. Even after becoming an adult, he will have this feeling inside, which would inhibit him from doing a lot of things that he loves doing, simply because of fear of rejection. All these shape the way he perceives himself too. Likewise, nasty remarks about a person's skin colour can also have similar effect.

One major environmental factor which influences personality is the way children are brought up different societies. In the US, children are brought up to be strong and independent. Parents treat children almost as equals. They have a right to voice their opinions. They are encouraged to do part time jobs and make money. All this is done to make them responsible individuals. However, in India, children are brought up in a more protected environment. Parents take care of all their children's needs till they attain adulthood. They are made to feel responsible only after they become adults.

In spite of these differences, there are some similarities too. In all societies, boys and girls are socialized in different ways. Boys are given more freedom than girls. Boys have the freedom to experiment and do physically demanding tasks, whereas girls are taught to do domestic work and prepared for child rearing.

Unique situations or events can also contribute to shaping the personality. Having an abusive parent, encountering a major accident, or witnessing a murder, etc can leave scars that won't wear off easily. It can make people fearful and less trusting.

Personality Theories

Theories are very important in studying personality for several reasons.

They help us organize what is already known or suspected about a set of data.

They serve a heuristic function, i.e. they suggest, by organizing important facts, what kind of research needs to be done to fill in missing information.

They provide a formal statement of the central principles of its subject matter.

Theories identify the important aspects of a phenomenon.

The following are some important theories of personality

Trait Theories

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, personality traits are "enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself that are exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts." Traits are enduring, stable attributes or characteristics of a person.

Gordon Allport was a pioneer in the field of trait theory. According to him, there are different kinds of traits, which he also called dispositions. Central traits are the building blocks of personality. They are the very basic traits. Secondary traits are the ones which are not very obvious, and are more peripheral. Cardinal traits are the ones which define a person's life. These are the ones by which a person is recognized.

Another important which forms part of trait theories is the Five Factor Model, also known as "Big Five". According to this literature, personality has five important dimensions.

Openness to Experience - the tendency to be imaginative, independent, and interested in variety vs. practical, conforming, and interested in routine.

Conscientiousness - the tendency to be organized, careful, and disciplined vs. disorganized, careless, and impulsive.

Extraversion - the tendency to be sociable, fun-loving, and affectionate vs. retiring, somber, and reserved.

Agreeableness - the tendency to be softhearted, trusting, and helpful vs. ruthless, suspicious, and uncooperative.

Neuroticism - the tendency to be calm, secure, and self-satisfied vs. anxious, insecure, and self-pitying.

Some of the major criticisms against trait theories are that they are purely descriptive and hardly or provide any explanations for the causes behind personality and that the analysis is often very superficial. They often do not take into account the effect of specific situations on an individual's behaviour.

Type Theories

Type theories classify people into distinct categories. The major difference between trait and type is that traits come in varying degrees or levels, whereas types are absolute. For example, take extraversion. Trait theory suggests that introversion and extraversion are part of a continuous dimension, and people are in the middle. Type theory classifies people as introverts and extraverts, and nothing in between.

An important literature in the field of type theories is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. It is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences of people and how they perceive the world and make decisions. It is based on the theory of psychology type developed by Carl Jung. MBTI uses a four-scale structure for identifying and categorizing an individual's behavioral preferences. Each of these scales represents two opposing structures. They are:

"Extraversion or Introversion" - It shows the orientation of an individual's behaviour, whether it is outward or inward.

"Sensing or Intuition" - It shows how the individual gathers information.

"Thinking or Feeling" - It shows how the individual decides.

"Judging or Perceiving" - It shows whether the individual prefers making decision or keeping options open.

Another important literature in type theories is the "Type A and Type B personality theory". It was developed by Meyer Friedman and his associates. He defined Type A and Type B behaviour patterns. 'Type A' are highly impatient, ambitious, highly competitive, controlling, aggressive people. They find it difficult to relax. They are often described as "stress junkies". Type A behaviour is a major coronary risk factor. 'Type B' are relaxed, laid-back and easy going people. They have no sense of urgency. They are often looked at with contempt by Type A persons. Those who cannot be clearly categorized fall under Type AB category.

Psychoanalytic Theories

Psychoanalytic theory is the brainchild of Sigmund Freud. He coined the term 'psychodynamics' based on the term 'thermodynamics' used in physics. He proposed psychic energy could be converted into behavior, in the same manner that heat is converted into mechanical energy. Freud's theory places central importance on dynamic, unconscious psychological conflicts. The term psychoanalysis is used to refer to many aspects of his work and research, including Freudian therapy and the research methodology he used to develop his theories. Freud relied heavily upon his observations and case studies of his patients when he formed his theory of personality development.

According to Freud's personality theory, the mind has two main parts: the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind includes everything that the person is aware of. When a person thinks and talks rationally, it is his conscious mind which is at work. The person's memory is also part of it, which is not exactly consciousness, but can be immediately retrieved and brought into awareness. The unconscious mind is a pool of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences.

Freud's theory also says that the human personality has three significant components. They are id, ego and super-ego. These three elements interact to create complex human behaviours.

The id is the only component that is present in an individual right from the time of birth. It refers to all the primitive and instinctive behaviours. It is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of needs, wants and desires. The ego operates based on the reality principle, a tries to satisfy the id's desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The super-ego instills moral standards and ideals on the ego. It forces the demands of the id to be met not just realistically, but morally also.

Since these forces compete with each other, there might be conflicts between the id, ego and super-ego. The ego's ability to function properly in spite of the conflicts is called ego strength. A person with good ego strength is able handle these conflicts well, whereas a person with too much or too little ego strength can become tough or troubling. Striking the right balance between these elements is the key to a healthy personality.


Personality theories are applied in organizations all over the world. While selecting a candidate for a job, companies look for persons with the right personality that meets their requirements. In fact, knowledge of personality theories will also help us understand people better. Such a person would be able to realize why a certain individual behaves the way he/she does. It prevents un-necessary friction between people. More importantly, it helps a person understand himself. It will help him sort out, or come to terms with the conflicts that troubling his mind.