Psychodynamic, humanistic, and evolutionary are just a few of the many personality theories that have attempted to explore and explain human personality traits.
Personality theories in psychology aim to provide a framework to understand human personality, including the causes and motivation for thoughts, behaviors, and social interactions.
Like many concepts in psychology, theories of personality have evolved over time, often building and incorporating pieces of prior work.
What makes you who you are? Is it your facial features? Your accomplishments? Your job position? Your ancestors? Or is it something less tangible, like how your brain responds to life’s everyday situations?
The answer isn’t simple, and that’s why more than one personality theory exists.
Personality theories are the result of hypotheses, experiments, case studies, and clinical research led by scientists in the psychology and human behavior field.
Personality is your unique set of behaviors, experiences, feelings, and thought patterns that make you you.
While it may change subtly over time, your personality remains fairly consistent throughout your life after a certain age.
Personality theories look to answer why specific features and traits develop in one person over another — or develop at all. The goal is to identify what makes everyone so similar and so different at the same time.
What personality isn’t
Personality isn’t your set of skills. It’s not your biological or physical differences. It’s not transient states, like hunger or sadness.
You may be a championship football player, for example, but that’s not a part of your personality. Your reliability, extroversion, and ambition, instead, may be personality traits that may incline you to perform well at team sports.
The field of personality theories continues to grow and change as more research opportunities arise and studies are completed.
As research has evolved, so have the theories themselves. Certain theories may have lost some validity, due to inconclusive research or new findings by experts.
1. Psychodynamic theories
According to Freud, these concepts could explain individual behavior.
The id was about your irrational and emotional impulses, while the ego weighed all the rational pros and cons. The superego then sought to apply social norms, rules, and other personal values that ultimately encouraged you to act based on your core beliefs.
Later, in the psychosexual personality development part of Freud’s theory, he explained how a person came to those beliefs and ideals.
Freud thought early childhood experiences played the most important role in how personality developed. Early life, he said, was defined by five psychosexual stages based on the pleasure sensations in erogenous zones:
- oral: mouth and sucking reflexes
- anal: bladder and bowel control
- phallic: genitals and gender identification
- latency: sexuality is paused and latent, and gives room to social skills
- genital: mature sexuality and defined sexual interest and orientation
Freud suggested that each stage presented you with a developmental conflict. If you successfully overcame it, you would move into the next phase of development.
According to Freud’s personality theory, being unable to move past a phase resulted in certain psychological challenges, like the Oedipus complex, later in life.
Carl Jung and Erik Erikson are other names commonly associated with important work in the field of psychodynamic theory, although Erikson particularly marked a significant switch from Freud’s theories.
2. Trait theories
Trait theory is one of the most popular types of personality theories. It proposes that people’s personalities vary according to which basic personality traits are more dominant.
In this sense, each trait is seen as a continuum.
Take kindness, for example. Rather than viewing this as an optional personality trait — some people are kind while others are not — you can think of it as a sliding scale. Everyone falls somewhere on the kindness continuum. And you’re either more kind or less kind, compared with someone else.
- openness to experience
Each trait has a range that goes from one extreme to another, and each person falls somewhere along that range.
Other known trait theories include those developed by Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, and Hans Eysenck. Eysenck’s theory, for example, focused on just three trait continuums for everyone: extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism.
3. Humanistic theories
The humanistic approach to theories of personality involves understanding not only behavior and thought patterns, but also what someone believes gives their life meaning.
Humanistic theories propose that someone’s personality depends heavily on what they think of themselves — who they believe they are.
Abraham Maslow’s humanistic hierarchy of needs, for example, suggested that personality is the result of someone being able to meet — or not meet — basic needs like safety, self-esteem, and belongingness.
Carl Rogers explored the concept of self-actualization. This theory asserts that people are driven by their need for personal growth. The quest for learning and growing is what structures someone’s personality.
4. Social cognitive theories
Social cognitive theories of personality include several schools of thought like behaviorism, social learning theory, and expectancy-value theory.
Behaviorism theory proposes that human behavior is the direct result of facing rewards and punishments.
In other words, you’re conditioned to respond a certain way because of a reward-punishment pattern in your life.
If being generous in school gained you social admiration, later in life, you might continue to be generous because of that early positive reinforcement.
John B. Watson is often credited with pioneering the work in behavior theory, though William Carpenter, Alexander Bain, and Sigmund Freud also have ties to its early conceptualization, according to
Social learning theory
Closely related to behaviorism is Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, which takes behavioral models and adds the component of thought. In other words, the theory proposes that your thought process plays an essential part in deciding if you should imitate or not a certain behavior (learning).
According to the social learning theory, how you perceive behavioral reinforcement is more important than the reinforcement itself.
A child who loves candy might see it as a reward, whereas a child who doesn’t like candy would see it as a punishment.
Bandura also believed that environment influences a person’s personality and vice versa.
Being cooperative, for example, might gain you job opportunities. It might also increase the cooperativeness of those around you — creating an environment of cooperation.
Bandura changed the name of the model from social learning to social cognitive theory in 1986.
3. Expectancy-value theory
Another behaviorism-based model of human personality is Julian Rotter’s framework.
Rotter proposed human behavior is motivated by the expected rewards or punishment it can gain. This expectation comes from past experiences and whether or not you thought the consequences of your actions were under your control.
When someone believes they have control over an outcome, they’re more motivated to action. This is particularly so when they anticipate a positive outcome because similar actions have been rewarded in the past.
You’ve learned that studying at least 4 hours before a test leads to you passing said test.
The next time a test is scheduled, you’re more motivated to study for 4 hours to achieve a pass.
5. Biological theories
Biological personality theories assert that brain structures and neurophysiology are what determine your personality traits, according to 2016 research.
In other words, something as simple as higher neurotransmitter levels might provide you with a more positive outlook, for example, than someone else.
Hans J. Eysenck and Jeffrey A. Gray both included neuropsychology in their personality theories.
6. Evolutionary theories
Charles Darwin first introduced the concepts of evolution and natural selection in the mid-1800s. His work sparked an entire field of evolutionary biology.
Later, other scientists explored Darwin’s premises to explain human behavior. According to this framework of evolutionary theories, human personality is primarily the result of genes and most useful traits.
Ultimately, evolutionary theory states that personality characteristics that increased your ancestors’ chances for survival are the traits you may have at the core of your personality today.
Your fear of snakes may feel instinctual, but evolutionary theory states it may result from your ancestors learning that snakes could be dangerous.
Personality is immeasurable. It’s different for everyone. This makes personality challenging to study. How do you control an environment and prove that personality develops in a specific way?
You can’t — at least not yet.
For this reason, personality development exists in theory only and is subject to controversy, though some research does support (or debunk) current theory models.
One of the biggest controversies in personality theory revolves around Sigmund Freud’s theories on personality and development. Even as far back as 1987, researchers wrote about how they are male-dominant, with references to females that may be interpreted as demeaning.
Theories of personality aim to provide a framework to explain the differences and similarities in human behavior and personality. They often overlap or complement each other, and sometimes they may be contradictory when compared.
Each personality theory offers a structure to analyze human personality, and most of them have extensive research backing up some of their premises. This is one of the reasons why the study of personality in psychology is still a developing field with no conclusive findings.