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What Is Personality?

From eccentric and introverted to boisterous and bold, the human personality is a complex and colorful thing. Personality refers to a person's distinctive patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It derives from a mix of innate dispositions and inclinations along with environmental factors and experiences. Although personality can change over a lifetime, one's core personality traits tend to remain relatively consistent during adulthood.

While there are countless characteristics that combine in an almost infinite number of ways, people have been trying to find a way to classify personalities ever since Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks proposed four basic temperaments. Today, psychologists often describe personality in terms of five basic traits. The so-called Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. A newer model, called HEXACO, incorporates honesty-humility as a sixth key trait.

What's My Personality Type?

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The idea of a personality "type" is fairly widespread. Many people associate a "Type A" personality with a more organized, rigid, competitive, and anxious person, for example. Yet there’s little empirical support for the idea. The personality types supplied by the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) have also been challenged by scientists.

Psychologists who study personality believe such typologies are generally too simplistic to account for the ways people differ. Instead, they tend to rely on frameworks like the Big Five model of trait dimensions. In the Big Five model, each individual falls somewhere on a continuum for each trait—compared to the rest of the population, a person may rate relatively high or low on a trait such as extraversion or agreeableness, or on more specific facets of each (such as assertiveness or compassion). The combination of these varying trait levels describes one's personality.

To assess these individual differences, a variety of personality tests have been created. These tests commonly prompt people to indicate the extent to which various descriptions of thinking or behavior reflect their own tendencies. Based on a person’s responses, the test yields a “personality type” description (in the case of a test like the MBTI) or indicates how one compares to other respondents on a number of traits (in the case of the Big Five Inventory or similar measures).

To learn more, see Personality Traits and Personality Tests.

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Why Personality Matters

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Personality psychology—with its different ways of organizing, measuring, and understanding individual differences—can help people better grasp and articulate what they are like and how they compare to others. But the details of personality are relevant to more than just a person's self-image.

The tendencies in thinking and behaving that concepts like the Big Five represent are related to a variety of other characteristics and outcomes on which people compare to one another. These include differences in personal success, health and well-being, and how people get along with others. Even the risk of dying appears to be associated to some degree with differences in personality traits.

Personality also crosses into the realm of mental health: Professionals use a list of personality disorders involving long-term dysfunctional tendencies to diagnose and treat patients. Among the categories used by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are the commonly discussed narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder—but a major diagnostic guide, the DSM, includes 10 personality disorders in total.

To learn more, see Personality and Life Outcomes and Personality Disorders.

Where Does Personality Come From?

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Why individuals develop the personalities they do and how much someone’s personality typically changes over time are some of the biggest questions in personality psychology. Science provides some answers, but there is still plenty of room for debate and exploration.

Genetics partly helps to account for differences in personality traits, but other influences certainly play a role. A range of theories of personality have been proposed to explain what personality is and why individuals become who they are, with some focusing more heavily than others on potential non-genetic factors, such as a person’s taking on new social roles (like spouse or parent).

Despite its day-to-day stability, personality can change in the long term, potentially to a substantial degree over the course of a person’s life. Research suggests that people tend to show signs of increasing maturity (including, for instance, increased social sensitivity) in their personality test scores as they grow older. It may even be possible to deliberately change aspects of one’s own personality by making a repeated effort to behave differently.

To learn more, see Theories of Personality and Can Personality Change?

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