Personality Defined

Establishing a definition for something as complex as human personality is di ficult The authors of the first textbooks on personality—Gordon Allport (1937) and Henry Murray (1938)—struggled with the definition. The problem is how to establish a definition that is suf ficiently comprehensive to include all of the aspects mentioned i the introduction to this chapter, including inner features, social effects, qualities of the mind, qualities of the body, relations to others, and inner goals. Because of these complexities, some texts on personality omit a formal definition entirel . Nonetheless, the following definition captures the essential elements of personality: Personality is the set of psychological traits and mechanisms within the individual that ar e organized and relatively enduring and that influence his or her interactions with, and adapta tions to, the intrapsychic, physical, and social envir onments. Let's examine the elements of this definition more closel .

People are different from each other in many ways. The science of Personality Psychology provides an understanding of the psychological ways that people differ from each other.

Personality Is the Set of Psychological Traits . . .

Psychological traits are characteristics that describe ways in which people are different from each other . Saying that someone is shy is to mention one way in which he or she dif fers from others who are more outgoing. Traits also define ways peopl are similar. For example, people who are shy are similar to each other in that they are anxious in social situations, particularly situations in which there is an audience focusing attention on them.

Consider another example—the trait of talkativeness. This characteristic can be meaningfully applied to persons and describes a dimension of dif ference between them. Typically, a talkative person is that way from day to day , from week to week, and from year to year . Certainly, even the most talkative person can have quiet moments, quiet days, or even quiet weeks. Over time, however , those with the trait of talkativeness tend to emit verbal behavior with greater frequency than those who are low on talkativeness. In this sense, traits describe the average tendencies of a person. On average, a high-talkative person starts more conversations than a low-talkative person.

Research on personality traits asks four kinds of questions:

• How many traits are there?

• How are the traits or ganized?

• What are the origins of traits?

• What are the correlations and consequences of traits?

One primary question is how many fundamental traits there are. Are there dozens or hundreds of traits, or merely a few? The second research question pertains to the organization, or structure, of traits. For example, how is talkativeness related to other traits, such as impulsivity and extraversion? A third research question concerns the origins of traits—where they come from and how they develop. Does heredity influ ence talkativeness? What sorts of child-rearing practices af fect the development of traits such as talkativeness? A fourth key question pertains to the correlations and consequences of traits in terms of experience, behavior , and life outcomes. Do talkative persons, for example, have many friends? Do they have a more extended social network to draw upon in times of trouble? Do they annoy people who are trying to study?

The four research questions constitute the core of the research program of many personality psychologists. Psychological traits are useful for at least three reasons. First, they help us describe people and help us understand the dimensions of difference between people. Second, traits are useful because they may help us explain behavior. The reasons people do what they do may be partly a function of their personality traits. Third, traits are useful because they can help us predict future behavior—for example, the sorts of careers individuals will fin satisfying, who will tolerate stress better , and who is likely to get along well with others. Thus, personality is useful in describing, explaining, and predicting differences between individuals. All good scientific theories enable researchers to describe, explain, and predict in their domains. Just as an economic theory might be useful in describing, explaining, and predicting fluctuations in the stoc market, personality traits describe, explain, and predict dif ferences between persons.

Psychological mechanisms: three key ingredients

Psychological mechanisms: three key ingredients

Figure 1.1

Psychological Mechanisms: Three Key Ingredients

Figure 1.1

Psychological Mechanisms: Three Key Ingredients

Psychological mechanisms are like traits, except that the term mechanisms refers more to the processes of personality . For example, most psychological mechanisms involve an information-processing activity. Someone who is extraverted, for example, may look for and notice opportunities to interact with other people. That is, an extraverted person is prepared to notice and act on certain kinds of social information.

Most psychological mechanisms have three essential ingredients: inputs, decision rules, and outputs. A psychological mechanism may make people more sensitive to certain kinds of information from the environment (input), may make them more likely to think about specific options (decision rules), and may guide their behavior toward cer tain categories of action (outputs). For example, an extraverted person may look for opportunities to be with other people, may consider in each situation the possibilities for human contact and interaction, and may encourage others to interact with him or her. Our personalities contain many psychological mechanisms of this sort—information-processing procedures that have the key elements of inputs, decision rules, and outputs (see Figure 1.1).

This does not mean that all of our traits and psychological mechanisms are activated at all times. In fact, at any point in time, only a few are activated. Consider the trait of courageousness. This trait is activated only under particular conditions, such as when people face serious dangers and threats to their lives. Some people are more courageous than others, but we will never know which people are courageous unless and until the right situation presents itself. Look around next time you are in class; who do you think has the trait of courageousness? You won't know until you are in a situation that activates courageous behavior .

Courage is an example of a trait that is activated only under particular circumstances.

Within the Individual. . .

Within the individual means that personality is something a person carries with him-or herself over time and from one situation to the next. Typically, we feel that we are today the same people we were last week, last month, and last year . We also feel that we will continue to have these personalities into the coming months and years. And, although our personalities are certainly influenced by our environments, and especiall by the significant others in our lives, we feel that we carry with us the same person alities from situation to situation in our lives. The definition of personality stresse that the important sources of personality reside within the individual and, hence, are at least somewhat stable over time and somewhat consistent over situations.

That Are Organized and Relatively Enduring . . .

Organized means that the psychological traits and mechanisms, for a given person, are not simply a random collection of elements. Rather , personality is or gan-ized because the mechanisms and traits are linked to one another in a coherent fashion. Imagine the simple case of two desires—a desire for food and a desire for intimacy. If you have not eaten for a while and are experiencing hunger pangs, then your desire for food might override your desire for intimacy . On the other hand, if you have already eaten, then your desire for food may temporarily subside, allowing you to pursue intimacy . Our personalities are or ganized in the sense that they contain decision rules that govern which needs are activated, depending on the circumstances.

Psychological traits are also relatively enduring over time, particularly in adulthood, and are generally consistent over situations. To say that someone is angry at this moment is not saying anything about a trait. A person may be angry now but not tomorrow or may be angry in this situation but not in others. Anger is more of a state than a trait. To say that someone is anger -prone or generally hot-tempered, however , is to describe a psychological trait. Someone who is anger -prone is frequently angry, relative to others, and shows this proneness time and time again in many dif ferent situations (e.g., the person is argumentative at work, is hostile and aggressive while playing team sports for recreation, and ar gues a lot with family members).

There may be some occasions when this generalization about the consistency of personality from situation to situation does not hold. Some situations may be overpowering and suppress the expression of psychological traits. Persons who are generally talkative, for example, may remain quiet during a lecture, at the movies, or in an elevator—although you undoubtedly have experienced someone who could not or would not keep quiet in any of these circumstances!

The debate about whether people are consistent across situations in their lives has a long history in personality psychology. Some psychologists have argued that the evidence for consistency is weak (Mischel, 1968). For example, honesty measured in one situation (say , cheating on a test) may not correlate with honesty measured in another situation (say , cheating on income taxes). We will explore this debate more fully later in the book. For now we will simply say that most personality psychologists maintain that, although people are not perfectly consistent, there is enough consistency to warrant including this characteristic in a definition of personalit .

The fact that personality includes relatively enduring psychological traits and mechanisms does not preclude change over time. Indeed, describing precisely the ways in which we change over time is one goal of personality psychologists.

In the definition of personalit , an emphasis on the influential fo ces of personality means that personality traits and mechanisms can have an ef fect on people's lives. Personality influences how we act, how we view ourselves, how we think about th world, how we interact with others, how we feel, how we select our environments (particularly our social environment), what goals and desires we pursue in life, and how we react to our circumstances. Persons are not passive beings merely responding to external forces. Rather , personality plays a key role in af fecting how people shape their lives. It is in this sense that personality traits are thought of as forces that influenc how we think, act, and feel.

His or Her Interactions with . . .

This feature of personality is perhaps the most dif ficult to describe, because the natur of person-environment interaction is complex. In Chapter 15, we will examine interactionism in greater detail. For now , however, it is suf ficient to note that inter actions with situations include perceptions, selections, evocations, and manipulations. Perceptions refers to how we "see," or interpret, an environment. Two people may be exposed to the same objective event, yet what they pay attention to and how they interpret the event may be very dif ferent. And this dif ference is a function of their personalities. For example, two people can look at an inkblot, yet one person sees two cannibals cooking a human over a fire, whereas the other perceives a smilin clown waving hello. As another example, a stranger may smile at someone on the street; one person might perceive the smile as a smirk, whereas another person might perceive the smile as a friendly gesture. It is the same smile, just as it is the same inkblot, yet how people interpret such objective situations can be determined by their personalities.

Selection describes the manner in which we choose situations to enter—how we choose our friends, our hobbies, our college classes, and our careers. And how we go about making these selections is, at least in part, a reflection of our personalities. Ho we use our free time is especially a reflection of our traits. One person may take up th hobby of parachute jumping, whereas another may prefer to spend time quietly gardening. We select from what life of fers us, and such choices are a function of personality .

Evocations are the reactions we produce in others, often quite unintentionally . To some extent, we create the social environment that we inhabit. A child with a high activity level, for example, may evoke in parents attempts to constrain the child, even though these attempts are not intended or desired by the child. A person who is physically large may evoke feelings of intimidation in others, even if intimidation is not the goal. Our evocative interactions are also essential features of our personalities.

Manipulations are the ways in which we intentionally attempt to influence oth ers. Someone who is anxious or frightened easily may try to influence the group h or she is a part of to avoid scary movies or risky activities. Someone who is highly conscientious may insist that everyone follow the rules. Or a man who is very neat and orderly may insist that his wife pick up her things and help with daily cleaning. The ways in which we attempt to manipulate the behavior , thoughts, and feelings of others are essential features of our personalities. All of these forms of interaction— perceptions, selections, evocations, and manipulations—are central to understanding the connections between the personalities of people and the nature of the environments they inhabit.

An emphasis on adaptation conveys the notion that a central feature of personality concerns adaptive functioning—accomplishing goals, coping, adjusting, and dealing with the challenges and problems we face as we go through life. Few things are more obvious about human behavior than the fact that it is goal-directed, functional, and purposeful. Even behavior that does not appear functional—such neurotic behavior as excessive worrying—may , in fact, be functional. For example, people who worry a lot often receive lots of support and encouragement from others. Consequently, what appears on the surface to be maladaptive (worrying) may, in fact, have some rewarding characteristics for the person (eliciting social support). In addition, some aspects of personality processes represent deficits i normal adaptations, such as breakdowns in the ability to cope with stress, to regulate one's social behavior , or to manage one' s own emotions. By knowing the adaptive consequences of such disordered behavior patterns, we begin to understand some of the functional properties of normal personality . Although psychologists' knowledge of the adaptive functions of personality traits and mechanisms is currently limited, it remains a challenging and indispensable key to understanding the nature of human personality .

The Environment

The physical environment often poses challenges for people. Some of these are direct threats to survival. For example, food shortages create the problem of securing adequate nutrients for survival. Extremes of temperature pose the problem of maintaining thermal homeostasis. Heights, snakes, spiders, and strangers can all pose threats to survival. Human beings, like other animals, have evolved solutions to these adaptive problems. Hunger pangs motivate us to seek food, and taste preferences guide our choices of which foods to consume. Shivering mechanisms help combat the cold, and sweat glands help fight the heat. At a psychological level, our fears of heights, snakes, spiders, and strangers—the most common human fears—help us avoid or safely interact with these environmental threats to our survival.

Our social environment also poses adaptive challenges. We may desire the prestige of a good job, but there are many other persons competing for the same positions. We may desire interesting friends and mates, but there are many others competing for them. We may desire greater emotional closeness with our significan others, but it may not be immediately clear to us how to achieve this closeness. The ways in which we cope with our social environment—the challenges we encounter in our struggle for belongingness, love, and esteem from others—is central to an understanding of personality.

The particular aspect of the environment that is important at any moment in time is frequently determined by personality . A person who is talkative, for example, will notice more opportunities in the social environment to strike up conversations than will someone who is low on talkativeness. A person who is disagreeable will occupy a social environment where people frequently ar gue with him or her . A person for whom status is very important will pay attention to the relative hierarchical positions of others—who is up, who is down, who is ascending, who is sliding. In short, from among the potentially infinite dimensions of the environments we inhabit our "effective environment" represents only the small subset of features that our psychological mechanisms direct us to attend and respond to.

In addition to our physical and social environments, we have an intrapsychic environment. Intrapsychic means "within the mind." We all have memories, dreams, desires, fantasies, and a collection of private experiences that we live with each day This intrapsychic environment, although not as objectively verifiable as our social o physical environment, is nevertheless real to each of us and makes up an important part of our psychological reality. For example, our self-esteem—how good or bad we feel about ourselves at any given moment—may depend on our assessment of the degree to which we are succeeding in attaining our goals. Success at work and success at friendship may provide two dif ferent forms of success experience and, hence, form dif ferent intrapsychic memories. We are influenced by our memories of suc experiences whenever we think about our own self-worth. Our intrapsychic environment, no less than our physical and social environments, provides a critical context for understanding human personality .


Write a one-page essay about a good friend, someone you know well, in which you describe what is characteristic, enduring, and functional about that person. Include in this description those elements of the ways in which he or she interacts with, or adapts to, the physical, social, and intrapsychic environments.

Getting to Know Anxiety

Getting to Know Anxiety

Stop Letting Anxiety Rule Your Life And Take Back The Control You Desire Right Now! You don't have to keep letting your anxiety disorder run your life. You can take back your inner power and change your life for the better starting today! In order to have control of a thing, you first must understand it. And that is what this handy little guide will help you do. Understand this illness for what it is. And, what it isn't.

Get My Free Ebook


  • Marisa
    What are the characteristic,enduring and functional of a person?
    1 year ago

Post a comment