Personality Theories

Personality theories attempt to identify personal characteristics people share and to determine the factors that produce their unique expression by any given person. Sigmund Freud developed the first theory of personality, psychoanalysis, from his profound insight that emerged in the early 1890s as he treated patients with neurotic disorders: forces that exist in the unconscious determine human behavior. Over the next 40 years he formulated the most influential personality theory in the 20th century. Freud argued that people’s behavior reflects the outcome of a lifelong struggle in which repressed unacceptable sexual and aggressive instincts in the id are redirected toward acceptable expression by the forces of reason in the ego and of conscience in the superego. These instincts sustain the self throughout life, at the cost, however, of directing aggression toward others.

Theories of Personality

Freud’s ideas attracted numerous young European intellectuals in the early 20th century, the most prominent being Carl Jung and Alfred Adler. Both departed from his orthodoxy to develop their own theories, analytical psychology and individual psychology, respectively. Jung partitioned the psyche, as he called the mind, into the conscious ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. He posited that inherent in each person is a lifelong process of individuation during which differentiation from others and a balancing of the opposing forces of the psyche (e.g., rationality/irrationality, masculinity/femininity) are sought. If attained, an integrated self emerges.

Adler reasoned that each individual struggles throughout life to overcome feelings of inferiority that arise during the first few years of life as the child, helpless and completely dependent, compares itself to its more capable caretakers. The child responds to these feelings unconsciously by striving for superiority (personal competence), formulating rudimentary life goals that give this striving a focus, and structuring a style of life to attain these goals.

The ego, according to Freud, has no independent functions. It acts only as a mediator to satisfy the instinctual demands of the id. Freud’s daughter, Anna, and Margaret Mahler expanded the concept of the ego in the mid-20th century to include functions that guide the person’s competence in mastering life’s demands, particularly those related to social interactions. Their work focused on the study and treatment of children and gave rise to psychoanalytic ego psychology.

Erik Erikson elaborated this concept further in the second half of the 20th century. He postulated that ego development is bound closely to changing social institutions and values. Central to his theory is the development of ego identity, a process that begins in adolescence and continues throughout life. Erikson reasoned that ego development occurs via a series of genetically predetermined stages (critical periods). During each stage specific developmental crises of increasing social complexity are faced. Society ensures that the process unfolds in the proper order and at the proper pace.

Object relations theorists elaborated the concept of the ego and transformed core psychoanalytic concepts. Prominent among these theorists were Melanie Klein, David W. Winnicott, and Heinz Kohut. They emphasized the enduring influence of interpersonal relations on a person’s unconscious processes and the impact of these relations on the development of a person’s inner world, especially on the infant’s interpersonal strivings for safety, love, empathy, admiration, and trust. Harry Stack Sullivan, an interpersonal theorist, viewed the mother’s relationship with the infant as crucial to the child’s developing self system. Karen Horney, a social psychoanalytic theorist, emphasized the critical influence of the parents on the developing child’s self-images and tendencies to move away from, toward, or against others.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, John Dollard and Neal E. Miller transformed Freud’s psychoanalytic concepts into the language of stimulus-response psychology. Their work, psychodynamic social learning theory, produced the frustration-aggression hypothesis, a testable behavioral hypothesis of Freud’s aggression instinct, as well as behavioral formulations of Freud’s main theoretical concepts. Following in this tradition, Albert Bandura, founder of social cognitive theory, argued that cognitive processes, especially observational learning, not direct reinforcement, play a vital role in a person’s development. His perspective on the developing individual’s behavior was multicausal—a person both acts on and reacts to the environment. The person’s awareness of the nature of these interactions yields a sense of personal control or perceived self-efficacy. These theoretical perspectives contrast with those of the radical behaviorists, John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, whose focus was on observable behaviors, reinforcement contingencies, and the reinforcement history that shaped the constellation of behaviors characteristic of any given individual.

A dramatically different perspective offered by the humanistic self-actualization theorists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers emphasized the process of personal self-growth. Central to Maslow’s theory is a hierarchy of needs that ascends from basic needs (physiological, safety, belongingness and love, and esteem) to the highest need (self-actualization). The need for self-actualization guides the person toward truth, beauty, knowledge, justice, and unity. Rogers emphasized the person’s subjective experience, the importance of personal freedom and choice, and the self-actualizing nature of human motivation. The actualizing tendency is undermined when parents’ love is conditional upon the child behaving in approved ways. Conditional love produces an incongruity between the real self (the person’s actual core experience) and the perceived self (the self-image), fostering unhealthy personality development.

Rollo May’s existential phenomenological psychoanalysis shares a kinship with both the humanistic and psychoanalytic perspectives. He stressed the ongoing, continuously becoming aspects of human personality, human freedom, creativity and self-affirmation, the human capacity to interpret reality in ways to impart meaning to life, and the ultimate responsibility humans have for creating their own lives. Like Rogers and May, the personal construct theory of George A. Kelly considered subjective interpretations of reality as critical in determining a person’s behavior, making sense of life, and developing ways in which to anticipate future events.

Historians of psychology trace the beginning of scientific inquiry in personality to the publication of Gordon Allport’s Personality: A Psychological Interpretation in 1937. Allport, the father of trait theory, unlike the other pioneering theorists, was a scientist, not a clinician. His research indicated that all people possess broad predispositions that cause them to behave in consistent ways across diverse situations and time. These traits give rise to behaviors that express them, and influence people’s subjective experience. Allport viewed traits as real entities that exist inside a person to form an overlapping, interrelated network. They are distributed among all people, but are expressed uniquely by any given person. Development of a person’s unique configuration of traits follows a path characterized by seeking a sense of purpose in life and coming to know the self.

Hans Eysenck, a biosocial theorist, used factor analysis to identify clusters of traits that formed three personality dimensions (neuroticism, extraversion, and psychoticism). His research revealed performance differences between individuals on laboratory tests (conditioning, motor skills, vigilance) of these dimensions that reflect variations in central nervous system (CNS) arousal. He theorized that the CNS is the primary source of human personality and that the three personality dimensions are phenotypic expressions of genotypic variations in the ascending reticular activating system or the subcortical brain structures of the limbic system and hypothalamus.

The pioneers in personality theory were grand theorists whose theoretical formulations, with Allport and Eysenck the exceptions, derived from clinical observations not from experimental studies. As such, these theories were built largely on principles that could not be tested or refuted. In the last half of the 20th century a widely accepted, scientifically based theory of personality emerged from factor analytic studies. The five-factor (or Big Five) model originated from research by several investigators, including a single publication in 1934 by Louis L. Thurstone, a series of investigations by Raymond B. Cattell in the 1940s, and another single publication in 1949 by Donald Fiske. Thurstone, a pioneer in the development of factor analysis, reported that five independent factors were identified in the ratings of 1300 raters who selected personal adjectives from among a list of 60 that described a person they knew well. Fiske also found five factors in an analysis of a set of 22 variables developed by Cattell. Indeed, work in the last half of the 20th century by Ernest C. Tupes, Raymond E. Christal, John M. Digman, Lewis R. Goldberg, Paul T. Costa, Jr., and Robert R. McCrae has consistently identified five broad categories of human traits: Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Openness to Experience (also called Intellect).

The study of personality across the last 120 years has produced an array of conceptual models that has enriched our understanding of human behavior. These models construe personality in radically different and seemingly inconsistent ways. In the first decade of the 21st century, however, Dan P. McAdams and Jennifer L. Pals proposed a model for integrating these divergent concepts into a coherent view of personality. Their conceptual framework of the general and unique aspects of human behavior is based on five principles. First, human nature is best explained by evolutionary theory, which provides the first principles for a scientific understanding of psychological individuality. Second, variations in a small set of broad dispositional traits, like those enumerated by the Big Five model, provide the most stable and recognizable aspects of psychological individuality. They represent the most common states individuals experience across situations and time. Third, characteristic adaptations in response to everyday social demands that may change dramatically over time account for the situation-specific behaviors of individuals not explained by traits. Fourth, integrative life narratives that individuals construct to give culturally linked meaning and identity to their lives further influence individual behavior. These narratives, essential for psychological growth and well-being, differentiate one person from all other persons. Finally, culture has its most profound impact on individual life narratives. An individual’s cultural context determines the characteristic adaptations that will express any given trait, and account for individual uniqueness.

This new conceptual framework holds forth the promise of distilling the complexities of human nature into their fundamental essence, thereby allowing the scientific description of personality to avoid the hopeless complexity of past efforts.


  1. Costa, P. T., & Widiger, T. A. (Eds.). (2001). Personality disorders and the five-factor model of personality (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Goldberg, L. R. (1993). The structure of phenotypic personality traits. American Psychologist, 48(1), 26-34.
  3. McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2006). A new big five: fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American Psychologist, 61(3), 204-217.
  4. Monte, C. F., & Sollod, R. N. (2003). Beneath the mask (7th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt.
  5. Pervin, L. A., & John, O. P. (Eds.). (1999). Handbook of personality: Theory and research. New York: Guilford Press.

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