Personality Definition

Personality is an individual’s typical way of feeling, thinking, and acting. Given that personality is typical, it is fairly stable over time. Social behavior refers to a person’s feelings, thoughts, or actions as he or she relates to other people. These two definitions have a very close relationship. Knowing something about an individual’s personality should allow psychologists to predict his or her social behavior. Similarly, knowing about a person’s social behavior should give clues to aspects of his or her personality. In other words, an individual’s personality and social behavior influence each other, and knowledge of one allows the inference of information about the other.

History and Background of Personality Research

PersonalityPeople tend to describe others in terms of personality characteristics. Almost 20,000 English words can be used to describe a person. For example, people can be described as outgoing or shy, dominant or submissive, conscientious or careless, and so forth. People possess different personality characteristics; therefore, it is possible to group people based on these characteristics. The history of psychologists’ study of personality has involved several attempts at developing systems that would be helpful in classifying people by their personalities. The ancient Greeks first attempted to broadly describe personality with types. There were four types of personalities (based on which of their body fluids was predominant): cheerful, irritable, depressed, and unemotional. In the past century, personality has also been classified based on three different body types: The endomorph was plump, jolly, and relaxed; the ectomorph was thin, anxious, and unsocial; and the mesomorph was muscular, confident, and active.

More recently, Raymond Cattell’s 16 Personality Factors (16 PF) offered a way to classify people based on 16 personality dimensions. The 16 PF includes measures of warmth, reasoning (intelligence), emotional stability, dominance, liveliness, rule-consciousness, social boldness, sensitivity, vigilance (suspiciousness), abstractedness (imaginativeness), privateness, apprehension, openness to change, self-reliance, perfectionism, and tension. To fully describe an individual’s personality, the person would be given a rating on how much of each personality factor he or she possesses. However, the most common way of thinking about personality is in terms of the Big Five personality traits. These personality traits are similar to the 16 PF, but they are combined into fewer categories. These traits include Extraversion, Neuroticism (emotional instability), Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Openness to Experience (open-mindedness). Describing a person on each of these five dimensions is thought to be enough to give another person a good understanding about what type of person he or she is. Personality traits influence people’s behavior. Therefore, if people are described as extraverted, they would be expected to be sociable in groups. If people are conscientious, they would be expected to be hard workers. If people are neurotic, they have the tendency to be anxious.

Identifying Personality Variables

Contemporary personality classification systems (e.g., Big Five, 16 PF) were created by first identifying all the words that people use to describe each other. Next, the researchers created categories by sorting the individual words based on common characteristics. The categories that resulted from this process were called personality traits or factors. For example, the category of Extraversion would have related words like outgoing, sociable, loud, confident, talkative, friendly, and so forth. The category of Neuroticism would contain words like anxious, tense, insecure, paranoid, unstable, and so on. The Extraversion category would also contain words such as quiet, shy, unconfident, and so on because someone can be low on Extraversion. Similarly, the Neuroticism category would also contain descriptive words like stable, calm, and secure because people can also rate low on Neuroticism.

The categories can further be grouped with the use of a statistical technique called factor analysis. Basically, this analysis looks for similarities among categories, and combines multiple categories into a single category if they appear to be describing the same personality dimension. This technique has been used on the 16 PF. For example, the 16 PF categories of liveliness, social boldness, and privateness may be combined to form the Big Five category of Extraversion, and the 16 PF categories of tension, apprehension, and (low) emotional stability may be combined to form the Big Five category of Neuroticism. This process of grouping the personality descriptors is useful because it gives a more simplistic way of describing people. Instead of describing people in terms of 20,000 words, people can be described on the basis of 16, or just 5.

Measuring Personality

To assess personality, people are asked to answer questions about themselves relating to the personality traits of interest. Personality questionnaires or inventories include questions about the person’s feelings, preferences, and behaviors. Usually, individuals are asked to respond to questions about themselves and their personality characteristics. However, sometimes people who know the individual, such as work supervisors, friends, or family members, are asked to respond to questions about that individual’s personality.

These questionnaires are created by first identifying two groups that are known to differ on the personality trait of interest, administering questions to them regarding their feelings, preferences, and behaviors, and observing which questions the two groups respond differently to. Whichever questions are found to discriminate between those two groups are included in the personality inventory. For example, if the personality inventory is supposed to measure a person’s enjoyment of thinking, the researchers may give the questionnaire to university professors and high-school dropouts. It is expected that these two groups would differ on the personality characteristic of interest (enjoyment of thinking), so researchers would identify which questions the two groups respond to differently and include these questions on the personality inventory. Personality inventories can measure any number of personality traits, and they contain a separate scale for each personality trait they are meant to measure. Accurate personality measurement is important, in part, because it is necessary for accurate behavioral prediction. Without quality measures of personality, the influence of personality on social behavior will tend to be underestimated.

Influence of Personality on Important Social Behaviors

Assessing an individual’s personality traits is thought to be helpful in predicting his or her future behavior. To assess whether personality influences social behavior, the person’s responses on the personality inventory are compared with that person’s observed social behavior. If the personality responses on the questionnaire and the social behavior are related, the person’s score on the personality inventory should be able to predict the individual’s future behavior. Personality variables have been found to influence various social behaviors like helping, conformity, obedience, aggression, and prejudice. In fact, there are personality scales that measure people’s tendencies toward aggressiveness, conformity, altruism (an indication of helping behavior), and authoritarianism (an indication of a prejudiced personality), to name a few.

For example, in looking at the 16 PF categories mentioned earlier, the category of apprehension could be used as an indication of a person’s tendency toward conformity. People are more likely to conform to others’ decisions if they are insecure in their own decision-making abilities. The 16 PF categories of openness to change and dominance may be used as an indication of a tendency toward prejudiced personality. People who want to dominate others and are not open to breaking with traditional ideas are more likely to exhibit prejudice. The 16 PF categories of warmth and sensitivity may be used to indicate tendency toward helping behavior. Helping others is most likely to come from people who are attentive to others and are sensitive. Many different measures of personality variables can be used to predict social behavior (to some extent).

Importance of the Situation versus Personality

Although personality is supposed to allow the prediction of a person’s behavior, it does not allow perfect prediction in every situation. Unfortunately, research shows that people’s behavior is frequently inconsistent. The situation the person is in can also influence behavior. A two-decade-long debate called the person-situation controversy involved discussion of when personality or the situation can better predict behavior. Basically, as will be discussed, personality is likely to influence behavior when the situation does not create strong pressures for the person to behave a certain way, when the person is exhibiting dominant personality characteristics, when that person does not care about fitting his or her behavior to situational requirements, and when the person’s behavior is observed across a variety of situations over time.

Types of Situations

Not surprisingly, when people are in unfamiliar situations or situations that require more formal behavior (at church or on a job interview), their personalities influence their behavior less than do the situational requirements. On the other hand, when people are in familiar, comfortable situations (with friends or family) their personalities are more likely to influence behavior. For example, if an individual reports having a shy personality, that information may be able to be used to accurately predict behavior in classroom settings or around new, unfamiliar people. However, the information that the person has a shy personality might not be able to be used to accurately predict that his or her behavior will be shy when with close friends. Perhaps the person is a friendly, outgoing person after becoming comfortable with people. Similarly, although some people tend to be helpful, obedient, aggressive, or conformist just because they have that type of personality tendency, the situation can also influence people’s behavior, making that personality tendency more or less pronounced. For example, even a very passive person may become aggressive if sufficiently provoked.

The importance of the situation in predicting behavior is determined by carefully controlled experimental research. The researcher creates two or more different situations, exposes each participant to one of the situations, and then measures each participant’s reaction or behavior. The difference in participants’ behaviors in the two situations is an indication of how much the situation influences behavior. In other words, if the researcher observes the participants (as a group) in one situation behave in a different way from that of participants exposed to a different situation, it is assumed that this difference in behavior is due to the situation rather to than the participants’ personalities. In addition, the researcher could both measure personality using an inventory and manipulate the situation to see whether the individual’s personality or the situation better predicts behavior.

Types of People and Personality Characteristics

Just as some (strong) situations influence people’s behavior more than do others, some people are more influenced by situations in general than are others. Some people consistently monitor and adjust their own behavior to ensure that it fits with the situation (high self-monitors). These people are more likely, for example, to behave differently around different groups of friends. On the other hand, people who do not care about monitoring their behavior to fit in with the social situation (low self-monitors) are more likely to behave consistently with their personalities across situations. They will act the same way, for example, around different groups of friends.

Some personality characteristics are also more dominant for a given person than are other characteristics, and these characteristics are more likely to influence the person’s behavior across situations. A person may be extremely neurotic and mildly outgoing. One might expect such a person to be anxious much of the time, regardless of the situation, but only friendly some of the time. Similarly, some personality traits tend to be strong across individuals. For example, expressive traits come out in a person’s speech, gestures, and mannerisms. Individuals who have very animated personalities, no matter where they are, will speak loudly with exaggerated hand gestures. Weak personality traits depend on the situation. For example, some people are more concerned about creating a positive impression than are others. These people might behave differently around people they want to impress (like on a first date) than around people they do not care about impressing.

Types of Behaviors

Furthermore, personality may be a better predictor of how people will usually act (across situations) than in a particular situation. So, instead of looking at a person’s behavior in one situation, one should measure the person’s behavior averaged across many situations to examine the relationship between personality and behavior. For example, a person who is dishonest may not cheat on a particular exam at school, but that person will tend to engage in more dishonest behaviors across situations (cheating at school, cheating on taxes, lying, etc.) than will someone who is honest. In general, it is important to have good measures of behavior. Such measures of behavior should be obtained through ratings by multiple raters who know the individual well, should be directly observable and related to the personality characteristic of interest, and should be obtained for several situations across time.


It turns out that the relationship between personality and behavior is very similar in strength to the relationship between the situation and behavior. The relationship between personality and behavior (or between the situation and behavior) allows researchers to predict a person’s behavior correctly about 70% of the time. Therefore, personality and situations are both important for predicting behavior.

It is more appropriate to use personality to predict how an individual will usually act in most situations, rather than how individuals will act in specific situations. This is because the situation itself often varies and will influence how the individual acts. Sometimes behavior can be predicted mostly from personality. Personality is likely to influence behavior more in situations when the person is exhibiting dominant personality characteristics, when that person does not care about fitting his or her behavior to the situational requirements, or when the situation is weak (no set social rules). On the other hand, the situation will play a bigger role in behavior if the situation is strong (clear social requirements) or if the person cares about keeping his or her behavior consistent with the situational requirements.

Finally, although situations often influence people’s behavior, people also choose and influence the situations in which they find themselves. People’s personalities influence the types of situations they enter. This increases the likelihood that they will exhibit certain behaviors. For example, people who are outgoing are likely to attend more parties than shy people. This party attendance gives them more opportunities to exhibit outgoing behavior and may actually increase this behavior over time. In turn, the person’s behavior may influence the atmosphere of the party itself (the situation).


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