Defining Personality

by Jen L’Insalata

The concept of personality has evolved over the years as theoretical climates in psychology shifted concerning the nature of humanity. The origins of the word personality stems from the Latin persona meaning to wear a mask or project a role. While there is no one definition of personality, it is acceptable to understand personality as patterns of relatively consistent patterns of traits, characteristics and behaviors unique to an individual (Feist, Feist, & Roberts, 2013).

In general, personality involves unique and variable traits, motives, cognitions, contexts, and biological factors that occur within an individual. Such components are consistent over a long duration of time. Personality emphasizes the concept of unique differences amongst individuals as well as the way unique components integrate to form a person as a whole. Additionally, it considers individual adjustment and temperament within the confines of a social or cultural setting (John, Robins, & Pervin, 2010). 

Personality psychology has its origins in psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and anthropology and came into the forefront in the 1930’s due to the industrial urbanization and mass education. Many early theories emphasized individuality and uniqueness as a result of public interest in dramatic displays of psychopathology and fear of depersonalization became popular. Psychologists sought to identify the dimensions of people in general, construct typologies or sub groupings, and understand individual idiosyncrasies (John, Robins, & Pervin, 2010).  Theories stemming from psychometric or analytic origin sought to quantify personality as the sum of individual traits and inter-correlations of traits with the aim of controlling or modifying behavior. Qualitative studies of personality aimed to understand the coherence of consistent patterns of behavior throughout an individual’s life, known as traits (John, Robins, & Pervin, 2010). 

Post WWII, psychologists shifted away from organizing traits of a whole person and sought to investigate specific traits, motives, cognitions, and their social context. The five factor model identifies key factors into which individual traits fall. Typologies and folk concepts also emphasized the idea of traits adhering to distinct patters. The influence of sociology provided foundational concepts surrounding the social context or cultural themes relevant in describing individuals while psychoanalytic theory emphasized individual motives and goals forming the core of personality (John, Robins, & Pervin, 2010). 

The 1950’s and cold war era saw yet another shift in the origin of personality. Behaviorism and the cognitive revolution emphasized the bandura’s theory of self-concept and self-schema as an explanation of personality. Social learning theory also influenced the study of personality and the interest in ways sociocultural environments influence personality. Cross cultural studies identified cultural dimensions such as collectivism and gendering impacting personality.  Advancements in biological studies on behavior have linked psycho-chemical forces in various structures within the brain and nervous system to the arousal of traits illustrated in the five factor model (John, Robins, & Pervin, 2010).  Debates still continue today as to the origin and various components of personality. Theoretical orientation highly influences psychological views surrounding personality.


Feist, J., Feist, G. J., & Roberts, T. (2013). Theories of personality (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. ISBN: 9780073532196.

John, O. P., Robins, R. W., & Pervin, L. A. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of personality: Theory and research (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press. ISBN: 9781609180591.


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