Theories of Personality: These Are the Main Perspectives

Key Takeaways

  • Personality tests date back to the 18th century, when phrenology, measuring bumps on the skull, and physiognomy, analyzing a person’s outer appearance, was used to assess personality (Goldstein & Hershen, 2000).
  • Beginning in the late 19th century, Sir Francis Galton, a British polymath (an expert in many fields) estimated the number of adjectives in the English dictionary that described personality. The list was eventually refined by Louis Leon Thurstone to 60 words, and through analyzing roughly 1,300 participants, the list was reduced again to seven common factors (Goldberg, 1993).
  • Similarly, British-American psychologist Raymond Cattell developed a Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire, a 185 multiple-choice self-report questionnaire used to measure personality in both the clinical and non-clinical settings.
  • In the 1980s, after an almost four decade long hiatus, Lewis Goldberg and colleagues (1980) revived Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal’s (1961) exploration of five major personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (commonly abbreviated as the acronym OCEAN).
  • This new model significantly contributed to the wide acceptance and increased popularity the five-factor model received.

What is this thing we call personality? Consider the following definitions, what do they have in common?

“Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristics behavior and thought” (Allport, 1961, p. 28).

“The characteristics or blend of characteristics that make a person unique” (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).

Both definitions emphasize the uniqueness of the individual and consequently adopt an idiographic view.

The idiographic view assumes that each person has a unique psychological structure and that some traits are possessed by only one person; and that there are times when it is impossible to compare one person with others. It tends to use case studies for information gathering.

The nomothetic view, on the other hand, emphasizes comparability among individuals. This viewpoint sees traits as having the same psychological meaning in everyone.

This approach tends to use self-report personality questions, factor analysis, etc. People differ in their positions along a continuum in the same set of traits.

We must also consider the influence and interaction of nature (biology, genetics, etc.) and nurture (the environment, upbringing) with respect to personality development.

Trait theories of personality imply personality is biologically based, whereas state theories such as Bandura’s (1977) Social Learning Theory emphasize the role of nurture and environmental influence.

Sigmund Freud”s psychodynamic theory of personality assumes there is an interaction between nature (innate instincts) and nurture (parental influences).

Freud’s Theory

Personality involves several factors:

– Instinctual drives – food, sex, aggression

Unconscious processes

– Early childhood influences (re: psychosexual stages ) – especially the parents

Personality development depends on the interplay of instinct and environment during the first five years of life.

Parental behavior is crucial to normal and abnormal development. Personality and mental health problems in adulthood can usually be traced back to the first five years.

Psychosexual Development

People – including children – are basically hedonistic – they are driven to seek pleasure by gratifying the Id’s desires (Freud, 1920). Sources of pleasure are determined by the location of the libido (life-force).

As a child moves through different developmental stages, the location of the libido, and hence sources of pleasure, change (Freud, 1905).

source of the libido

Environmental and parental experiences during childhood influence an individual’s personality during adulthood.

For example, during the first two years of life, the infant who is neglected (insufficiently fed) or who is over-protected (over-fed) might become an orally-fixated person (Freud, 1905).

psychosexual stages

Tripartite Theory of Personality

Freud (1923) saw the personality structured into three parts (i.e., tripartite), the id, ego, and superego (also known as the psyche), all developing at different stages in our lives.

These are systems, not parts of the brain, or in any way physical.

The id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality. It consists of all the inherited (i.e., biological) components of personality, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and aggressive (death) instinct – Thanatos.

It operates on the pleasure principle (Freud, 1920) which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences.

psychotic personality

The ego develops in order to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world (like a referee). It is the decision-making component of personality

The ego operates according to the reality principle, working our realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands, often compromising or postponing satisfaction to avoid negative consequences of society. The ego considers social realities and norms, etiquette and rules in deciding how to behave.

healthy psyche

The superego incorporates the values and morals of society which are learned from one’s parents and others. It is similar to a conscience, which can punish the ego through causing feelings of guilt.

neurotic personality

Trait Approach to Personality

This approach assumes behavior is determined by relatively stable traits which are the fundamental units of one’s personality.

Traits predispose one to act in a certain way, regardless of the situation. This means that traits should remain consistent across situations and over time, but may vary between individuals.

It is presumed that individuals differ in their traits due to genetic differences.

These theories are sometimes referred to as psychometric theories, because of their emphasis on measuring personality by using psychometric tests. Trait scores are continuous (quantitative) variables. A person is given a numeric score to indicate how much of a trait they possess.

Eysenck’s Personality Theory

Eysenck (1952, 1967, 1982) proposed a theory of personality based on biological factors, arguing that individuals inherit a type of nervous system that affects their ability to learn and adapt to the environment.

During the 1940s, Eysenck was working at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London. His job was to make an initial assessment of each patient before their mental disorder was diagnosed by a psychiatrist.

Through this position, he compiled a battery of questions about behavior, which he later applied to 700 soldiers who were being treated for neurotic disorders at the hospital (Eysenck (1947).

He found that the soldiers” answers seemed to link naturally with one another, suggesting that there were a number of different personality traits which were being revealed by the soldier’s answers. He called these first-order personality traits

He used a technique called factor analysis. This technique reduces behavior to a number of factors which can be grouped together under separate headings, called dimensions.

Eysenck (1947) found that their behavior could be represented by two dimensions: Introversion / Extroversion (E); Neuroticism / Stability (N). Eysenck called these second-order personality traits.

Each aspect of personality (extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism) can be traced back to a different biological cause. Personality is dependent on the balance between the excitation and inhibition process of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).


  • Extraverts are sociable and crave excitement and change, and thus can become bored easily. They tend to be carefree, optimistic, and impulsive.
  • They are more likely to take risks and be thrill seekers. Eysenck argues that this is because they inherit an under aroused nervous system and so seek stimulation to restore the level of optimum stimulation.
  • Introverts lie at the other end of this scale, being quiet and reserved. They are already over-aroused and shun sensation and stimulation.
  • Introverts are reserved, plan their actions and control their emotions. They tend to be serious, reliable, and pessimistic.


A person’s level of neuroticism is determined by the reactivity of their sympathetic nervous system. A stable person’s nervous system will generally be less reactive to stressful situations, remaining calm and level headed.

Someone high in neuroticism on the other hand will be much more unstable, and prone to overreacting to stimuli and may be quick to worry, anger or fear.

They are overly emotional and find it difficult to calm down once upset. Neurotic individuals have an ANS that responds quickly to stress.


Eysenck (1966) later added a third trait (dimension) called psychoticism, characterized by lacking of empathy, being cruel, being a loner, aggressive and troublesome.

This has been related to high levels of testosterone. The higher the testosterone, the higher the level of psychoticism, with low levels related to more normal balanced behavior.

He was especially interested in the characteristics of people whom he considered to have achieved their potential as individuals.

According to Eysenck, the two dimensions of neuroticism (stable vs. unstable) and introversion-extroversion combine to form a variety of personality characteristics.

Eysenck traits theory of personality

Critical Evaluation

Twin studies can be used to see if personality is genetic. However, the findings are conflicting and non-conclusive.

Shields (1976) found that monozygotic (identical) twins were significantly more alike on the Introvert – Extrovert (E) and Psychoticism (P) dimensions than dizygotic (non-identical) twins.

Loehlin, Willerman, and Horn (1988) found that only 50% of the variations of scores on personality dimensions are due to inherited traits. This suggests that social factors are also important.

One good element of Eysenck’s theory is that it takes into account both nature and nurture. Eysenck’s theory argues strongly that biological predispositions towards certain personality traits combined with conditioning and socialization during childhood in order to create our personality.

This interactionist approach may, therefore, be much more valid than either a biological or environmental theory alone.

It also links nicely with the diathesis-stress model of behavior which argues for a biological predisposition combined with an environmental trigger for a particular behavior.

Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI)

Cattell’s 16PF Trait Theory

Cattell (1965) disagreed with Eysenck’s view that personality can be understood by looking at only two or three dimensions of behavior.

Instead, he argued that that is was necessary to look at a much larger number of traits in order to get a complete picture of someone’s personality.

Whereas Eysenck based his theory based on the responses of hospitalized servicemen, Cattell collected data from a range of people through three different sources of data.

  • L-data – this is life record data such as school grades, absence from work, etc.
  • Q-data – this was a questionnaire designed to rate an individual’s personality (known as the 16PF).
  • T-data – this is data from objective tests designed to “tap” into a personality construct.

Cattell analyzed the T-data and Q-data using a mathematical technique called factor analysis to look at which types of behavior tended to be grouped together in the same people. He identified 16 personality traits (factors) common to all people.

Cattell made a distinction between source and surface traits. Surface traits are very obvious and can be easily identified by other people, whereas source traits are less visible to other people and appear to underlie several different aspects of behavior.

Cattell regarded source traits are more important in describing personality than surface traits.


Cattell produced a personality test similar to the EPI that measured each of the
sixteen traits. The 16PF (16 Personality Factors Test) has 160 questions in total, ten questions relating to each personality factor.

Allport’s Trait Theory

Allport’s theory of personality emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual and the internal cognitive and motivational processes that influence behavior. For example, intelligence, temperament, habits, skills, attitudes, and traits.

Allport (1937) believes that personality is biologically determined at birth, and shaped by a person’s environmental experience.

Authoritarian Personality

Adorno et al. (1950) proposed that prejudice is the result of an individual’s personality type. They piloted and developed a questionnaire, which they called the F-scale (F for fascism).

Adorno argued that deep-seated personality traits predisposed some individuals to be highly sensitive to totalitarian and antidemocratic ideas and therefore were prone to be highly prejudicial.

The evidence they gave to support this conclusion included:

Case studies, e.g., Nazis

Psychometric testing (use of the F-scale )

Clinical interviews revealed situational aspects of their childhood, such as the fact that they had been brought up by very strict parents or guardians, which were found of participants who scored highly on the F-scale not always found in the backgrounds of low scorers.

Those with an authoritarian personality tended to be:

• Hostile to those who are of inferior status, but obedient to people with high status

• Fairly rigid in their opinions and beliefs

• Conventional, upholding traditional values

Adorno concluded that people with authoritarian personalities were more likely to categorize people into “us” and “them” groups, seeing their own group as superior.

Therefore, the study indicated that individuals with a very strict upbringing by critical and harsh parents were most likely to develop an authoritarian personality.

Adorno believed that this was because the individual in question was not able to express hostility towards their parents (for being strict and critical).  Consequently, the person would then displace this aggression / hostility onto safer targets, namely those who are weaker, such as ethnic minorities.

Adorno et al. felt that authoritarian traits, as identified by the F-Scale, predispose some individuals towards “fascistic” characteristics such as:

Ethnocentrism, i.e., the tendency to favor one’s own ethnic group:

• Obsession with rank and status

• Respect for and submissiveness to authority figures

• Preoccupation with power and toughness.

In other words, according to Adorno, the Eichmanns of this world are there because they have authoritarian personalities and therefore are predisposed cruelty, as a result of their upbringing.

There is evidence that the authoritarian personality exists. This might help to explain why some people are more resistant to changing their prejudiced views.

Critical Evaluation

There are many weaknesses in Adorno’s explanation of prejudice:

• Harsh parenting style does not always produce prejudice children / individuals

• Some prejudiced people do not conform to the authoritarian personality type.

• It doesn’t explain why people are prejudiced against certain groups and not others.

Furthermore, the authoritarian explanation of prejudice does not explain how whole social groups (e.g., the Nazis) can be prejudiced. This would mean that all members of a group (e.g., Nazis) would have an authoritarian personality, which is quite unlikely.

Cultural or social norms would seem to offer a better explanation of prejudice and conflict than personality variables. Adorno has also been criticized for his limited sample.

Also, Hyman and Sheatsley (1954) found that lower educational level was probably a better explanation of high F-scale scores than an authoritarian.


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Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.