Psychology of Personality

Psychology of personality is a sub-field of psychology that seeks to understand the development, differences, and make up individual’s personality.

People use the term personality frequently, but never really think much about what it really means. Even making comments like, “Well, he’s got a lot of personality!” But what does that actually mean?  Is personality something that you have more or less of? Is is biologically derived or socially and environmentally? Psychology of personality attempts to answer many of these questions and more.

Defining Personality

First, defining the term personality is crucial. Several definitions exist, and debate about what is and what is not included in personality will constantly be up for dispute. Here are a few definitions for personality:

  • “Individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving” The American Psychological Association
  • “Personality is made up of the characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make a person unique. In addition to this, personality arises from within the individual and remains fairly consistent throughout life.” Kendra Cherry

Generally, a definition of personality will include the non-physical traits that make a person unique. The specific traits that this includes will vary based on the theory.

Elements of Personality

  • Relative Stability Most definitions of personality state that personality remains relatively consistent over the course of a life. This does not mean that people do not experience fluctuations in behavior, these are generally more temporary moods and emotions that have much more variability. While most people do evolve and change over time, personality will often stay relatively stable over the course of a life time.
  • Psychological, Emotional, and Spiritual components of a person are all included in many definitions of personality, however physical traits (like height, hair color, etc.) are not included.
  • Biology and DNA  Body chemistry is a huge factor in many of the traits that manifest as personality. Dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, testosterone, estrogen, and more are all linked to a variety of personality traits including happiness, aggression, creativity, impulsivity, and more. The emphasis on the chemical components will vary from significant (the biological approach) to minimal (behavioral and social approaches).
    • The Brain From a physical standpoint, the brain absolutely plays a roll in our personality. As first evidenced by Phineas Gage, a man who had a major personality shift after having an iron rod go through his head in the 1800s. Today, scientists are able to identify different parts of the brain that are associated with specific personality traits.
  • The Inside and Outside While many traits of personality may be seen outwardly like introversion/extroversion, sense of humor, and aggression, much of personality is internal and never really seen by others. However, these internal characteristics will have an influence on the outward expression of personality.
  • Free Will vs. Determinism There is debate in the field if people have free will in their own personality development and decision making or if genetics and environment dictate our entire acquisition and manifestation of personality. Are we in control or do the environment and DNA  factors essentially guide who we become?

Nature and Nurture

Theories are generally broken down into two different categories nature (biological) and nurture(social and environmental)These two fundamentally different factors play a major role in the explanation of personality development. Today, most people accept that both nature and nurture components influence personality development. The amount of influence will vary between individuals, traits, and other developmental factors.


Nature is a term that is used for biological influences on personality development. This includes things like DNA, body chemistry, and brain structure. These factors are very difficult to manipulate and alter. Medications, genetic alteration, and brain injury can all have an impact on body chemistry and the subsequent behaviors, emotions, and characteristics. In nature-rooted personality theories, the influence of body chemistry would be a large explanation.


While nature theories provide an explanation for the biological influences on personality, nurture theories emphasize the importance of social, environmental, and other factors have on development.

The Psychology of personality
Drew Mikita and Rupert Pollack, AKA Drewpert

Nurture Influences on Personality

  • Parental Styles
  • Religion
  • Geography
  • Culture
  • Values
  • Birth Order
  • Motivations
  • Society
  • Trauma
  • Home Life
  • Punishment and Reinforcement
  • Relationships
  • Education
  • Media & Social Media
  • Education
  • Other Situational Factors

Often, people discuss nature vs. nurture. Most people today believe that both nature and nurture have an influence on development, the debate is in how much of each factor.  Think of theories of personality on a spectrum as Simply Psychology outlines:

nature nurture psychology

Theories of Personality

  • Biological Theory of Personality: Focus mostly on the brain and body chemistry as it influences the development of personality. The emphasis is on genes neurotransmitters, and how they impact personality. The theory tends to be more deterministic and has less free will. Almost purely a nature theory
    • Major Concepts and Terms
      • Temperament The normal manner of thinking, reacting, and behaving in a person
      • Heritability and Genetic Predisposition The likelihood of developing a trait or characteristic
      • Twin Studies The analysis of twins, often identical twins, to better understand the role of genetics in development.
    • Key Contributors
      • Hans Eyesnick
      • Jeffrey Alan Greg
      • Robert Cloninger
  • Evolutionary Theory of Personality: Believes that traits are naturally selected that are more desirable in personality. Much like physical evolution, this theory of personality is rooted in the passing of traits through DNA. The more useful to survival and sexual reproduction the more likely it will be passed on. The evolutionary theory is also grounded in biology, DNA, and genetics. The evolution of the brain is also essential to the development of personality and traits. Highly nature oriented.
    •  Major Concepts and Terms
      • Natural Selection Based of Darwian theory that “survival of the fittest,” and those who breed were more likely to pass on certain genes to their off spring.
      • Genetic Variants The alteration in genes trough genetic mutation, reproduction, and other less common ways.
    • Key Contributors
      • Charles Darwin’s theories are often applied
  • Psychoanaltyic Approach to Personality contends that biological urges, instincts, and conflicts during stages of development create our personality. There are three components to the personality, the id, the superego, and the ego. Stages of development are psycho-sexually based meaning there are components of psychological development as well as well sexually. Personality is considered to be developed during childhood and stay fairly similar throughout life. Components of both nature and nurture. 
    • Major Concepts and Terms
      • The unconscious  The thoughts and experiences that are deep with in our mind that are not easily accessible.
      • The Id, Ego, and Superego The three components of the personality. The id, very raw and selfish, based on the pleasure principle. The superego, the developed morals and selfless side of personality. The ego, which negotiates between the often conflicting id and superego.
      • Defense Mechanisms A way of protecting one’s mind from stress, anxiety, and other negative feelings, defense mechanisms life denial, repression, and reaction formation all help to minimize discomfort in the mind.
    • Key Contributors
      • Sigmund Freud
      • Carl Jung (Neo Analytic Approach)
  • Cognitive, Social Cognitive, and Cognitive- Behavioral approaches to personality The structures of the mind, including cognitive schemas, perception are all impacted and shaped by the environment. Thoughts and beliefs play a major role in the shaping and determining of personality. Behavioral, personal, and environmental factors all influence who a person is. Learning is an important part of this theory and how we obtain knowledge, traits, and skills. Also includes Cognitive-Behavioral
    • Major Concepts and Terms
      • Cognitive Behavioral- Thoughts lead to actions. Changing thoughts can lead to a change in beahviors.
      • Vicarious Learning A form of learning that takes place by watching others actions and consequences to those actions.
    • Key Contributors
      • Albert Bandura
      • Walter Mischel
  • Humanistic/Existential approach to personality Viewing a person’s personality as the person views him or herself is essential. Generally a positive outlook on human beings is taken. People are able to control biological impulses, have control over their destiny, and are able to change and improve. People have free will to change and be the best version of themselves. Very much nurture based. 
    • Major Concepts and Terms
      • Self-Actualization The highest level of self development and potential, according to Maslow, and can only be only be obtained if all lower level needs are met (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)
      • Incongruence when the person that we think we are, does not align with reality. This can cause emotional distress and negative behaviors
    • Key Contributors
      • Abraham Maslow
      • Carl Rogers
  • Behaviorist perspective on personality postulates that all behaviors are learned. All behaviors are observable behaviors that can be learned. Biology has virtually no part in this theory. Conditioning, vicarious learning, and punishment and reinforcement are all central to this theory.
    • Major Concepts and Terms
      • Punishment is something that will decrease the probability that a behavior is likely to occur again
      • Reinforcement is something will increase the probability that a behavior occurs again.
    • Key Contributors
      • B.F. Skinner
      • John Watson

Many people believe that all of these theories, which contain many sub-theories, all play a role in the development of personality. Each individual is unique, as are the particular influences on personality development.


American Psychological Association. (2016). Personality. Retrieved January, 2017, from

Cherry, K. (2016, September 12). What Is Personality and Why Does It Matter? Retrieved January, 2017, from

McLeod, S. (2007). Nature vs. Nurture in Psychology. Retrieved January, 2017, from