Many people are fascinated by the characteristics that make each of us unique. Read on to discover the different theories of how personality develops.

What Is Personality?

When someone says, ‘He has a nice personality,’ or ‘She has no personality,’ what do they mean? How would you describe your personality? Psychologists and philosophers have studied personality since ancient times, hoping to describe personality and explain how it develops.

Psychologists typically define personality as characteristic patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. When compared with mood, personality is similar to weather climate, while mood is more like the daily weather. Personality is how you expect someone to behave across the long-term. A personality trait is a broad behavioral element that describes your personality, such as kind, outgoing, or impatient.

Where did your personality traits come from? Has your personality changed since you were young? Psychologists who study personality answer questions about the stability of personality characteristics over the long-term. There are several broad theories that attempt to explain how our personalities develop.

Psychoanalytic Theories

Psychoanalytic psychologists like Sigmund Freud believed that personality was largely determined by powerful but hidden unconscious forces and drives. Freud believed our personality is formed when we are quite young, before the age of five or six, and he believed our personalities are shaped by our environments up to that age.

Freud developed a stage theory of personality called the psychosexual stages of development. Each stage poses a task or challenge, and how an individual completes that task determines some of his or her personality characteristics later in life. Freud also proposed a three-pronged theory of mind, describing unconscious elements of our personalities as the id, the superego, and the ego.

According to Freud, the id is our most primal part of ourselves, purely driven by our desires. The id is like the devil sitting on our shoulder, telling us to take what we want when we want it. The superego is like the over-active angel on our other shoulder and makes us feel guilty and anxious when our id makes demands. The job of the ego is to balance the two; it moderates between the needs of the id in relation to the rules of society.

Based on this theory of mind, someone with a strong id will demonstrate personality characteristics that are selfish, unruly, and impulsive. An overly strong superego will lead to personality traits like nervousness and anxiety. An overactive ego will demonstrate traits that seem unemotional and too rational. While Freud’s theories are interesting to study, they lack any way to be proven scientifically.

Neo-Freudian Theories

Other psychologists also believe in the importance of the unconscious mind, but they argue that Freud left out a critical element in his theory of personality. These theorists, including Karen Horney, Alfred Adler, and Erik Erikson, created theories on personality development that included the importance of social forces in shaping our identities. Their theories came to be known as social psychoanalytic theories and were much less animalistic than Freud’s theories. Like Freud, they think the unconscious influences personality greatly, and for that reason, they are often called neo-Freudians.

The neo-Freudian theories center around our personas feeling loved and worthwhile. They argue that personalities develop in response to our need to feel valued. Adler’s ideas related to the inferiority complex and the way most of us strive for superiority in many situations. Horney’s theories were more feminist than many of Freud’s and examined how many of us feel threatened and helpless as children. To counteract those feelings, we learn how to show hostility or love to others. Erikson created a stage theory that moves each of us through various social situations throughout our lifespan. Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development are referred to often by both personality and developmental psychologists.

Behaviorism & Humanistic Theories

Behaviorists, including B.F. Skinner and John Watson, had other ideas on personality development that centered around the laws of behaviorism. Behaviorism examines how we learn through associations, rewards and punishments, and modeled behavior.

According to the behaviorists, the environment shapes our personality. If a child is rewarded for whining for some candy by getting the candy, the child will learn that whining is effective, and he or she will develop a whiny and demanding personality. Skinner argued that the environment is so important that just changing someone’s environment can change their personality. Critics of behaviorism believe that Skinner’s ideas liken people to automatons and don’t take thinking processes into consideration.

In contrast, humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow stressed human’s capacity for self-fulfillment. According to humanistic theories, people are born good and can reach their individual unique potential if given all the right tools in childhood. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates how individuals can achieve self-actualization and achieve their highest potential if first satisfying needs like food, safety, self-esteem, and belonging.

Carl Rogers focused on the importance of the self and the development of a self-concept. According to Rogers, when our real self and our ideal self match, we become fully functioning individuals. When our real self and ideal self do not match, we feel a tension called incongruence. We can solve incongruence by learning to accept and love ourselves.

Trait Theories

Unlike the previous theories on personality development, trait theories do not explain how personality may have developed. Instead, trait theories seek to describe personality traits that exist in individuals and look at the relationship between specific traits. The most popular trait theory today is known as the Big Five theory, and it separates personality traits into five broad categories, including:

  1. Openness to experience
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Extraversion
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Neuroticism, or emotional stability

These categories of traits are fairly stable over the lifetime, meaning if you score high in conscientiousness as a child, you will likely score high in conscientiousness as an adult. The Big Five traits are approximately 50% heritable, genetically passed down from your parents.

As you can see after reading about the many theories on personality development, it is a topic of great interest to many psychologists. College psychology courses spend entire semesters on the subject of personality traits and development. Clearly, we are fascinated by what makes each human a unique individual. Personality psychology is one way to understand the interesting individuals we meet and know.

Lesson Summary

Personality is defined as characteristic patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior and is how you expect someone to behave across the long-term. When compared with mood, personality is similar to weather climate, while mood is more like the daily weather. There are several theories involved in the study of personality psychology. Psychoanalytic theory includes Freud’s study of the id, superego, and ego. Additionally, Freud believed our personality is formed when we are quite young, before the age of five or six, and that our personalities are shaped by our environments up to that age.

Social psychoanalytic theory, also known as neo-Freudian theory, argues that personalities develop in response to our need to feel valued. In contrast, behaviorism theory states that individuals learn through associations, rewards and punishments, and modeled behavior. In humanistic theory, it is believed that people are born good and can reach their individual unique potential if given all the right tools in childhood. Finally, trait theories seek to describe personality traits that exist in individuals and look at the relationship between specific traits.

Learning Outcomes

As you come to the end of the video, you should be able to:

  • Define and distinguish between personality and personality traits
  • Describe psychoanalytic theories behind personality
  • Discuss the impact of Freud on the study of personality
  • Understand some of the neo-Freudian theories
  • Explain the behaviorism and humanistic theories
  • Summarize the focus of trait theories