What Is Personality Psychology?

Updated April 9, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team
Personality psychologists can help you better understand yourself

Fun fact about personality – did you know that, while someone’s personality can change, most personality traits remain relatively stable over time. Discoveries like these may prompt someone to think about the aspects of their personality they like or do not like, where they came from (inherited or learned from the environment?), and how they can change potentially negative traits into positive alternatives.

Someone's personality says a lot about them, or at least that is what you have been told. The more you learn about personality, the more you may come to understand yourself and others. Ahead, we’ll describe what constitutes a personality, how personality is created (and adapted), and how mental health professionals can employ evidence-based strategies to support people who wish to evolve certain personality traits.

What is a personality?

You've heard the word said many times throughout your life. "This person has a good personality." "This person's personality turns me off." "This person has no personality." But what is a personality, exactly? 

You may imagine that a personality is how someone presents themselves—their quirks, their way of speaking, their unique traits, and so on. Even psychology professionals cannot come to an agreement as to its official definition. Still, the summary is that personality involves a person's unique characteristics which can determine their behaviors, emotions, beliefs, and motivations. The traits that come with personality can be inherited (anywhere from 30-60%), learned, and/or developed thanks to one’s genetics and environment. Personality psychology tries to figure out why people become the way they are and what we can do to have the best personality possible.

Philosophical questions of personality psychology

Personality psychology stems forth from various philosophical questions or ideas that are not necessarily at total odds with one another. Much research has focused on to what extend certain variables impact aspects of one’s personality (such as introversion or extroversion). Let’s explore some of the critical dichotomies in personality psychology.

Nature vs. nurture

Also known as biological versus environmental or inherited versus learned, this question wonders if your genetics or environment have a greater influence on your personality development. Your genetics are derived from your parents’ DNA, while your environmental influences entail how you were raised, where you grew up, and the various impactful events in your life. The answer to personality development seems to lie somewhere in the middle. People are born with a bias towards certain traits, but how one has been raised plays an important part in how certain traits are cultivated.

Freedom vs. determinism

Do you believe in fate or free will? Or both, but in different circumstances? Freedom versus determinism asks if we have complete control over our actions or if our behavior is determined by instincts and other factors over which we have little control (such as our unconscious desires or the environment around us). The answer may depend on one’s self-awareness.


Universality vs. uniqueness

Everyone likes to think we are unique, with our personality and character being completely original and apart from everyone else. It is a question that is worth investigating, along with others like, “To what extent are certain personality traits preferred over others?” “Are specific personality traits more prominent in certain geographic regions?” “Which trait in a personality dichotomy (i.e., introversion or extroversion) is more likely to survive over time?”

Optimism vs. pessimism

Instead of referring to one’s outlook on life, this dichotomy questions if people can change their personalities once they fully develop. Everyone would like to believe that people can change as they learn. Someone who is destructive and gets in trouble with the law can change for the good. If a theory has importance in learning, it's optimistic. 

Active vs. reactive

Are our behaviors a result of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Do we get up every morning because of an important goal that drives us to show up or because of other external incentives like money or pleasure? How much control do we have over our actions when presented with stimuli of varying intensity and meaning? 

Major theories of personality

In psychology, many theories take a stance on the dichotomies presented above and strive to explain a framework of how our personality works. Whether these theories evolve with time or remain relics of the past is an interesting question to read about and could take years! For efficiency’s sake, we’ll present four of the most enduring personality theories still endorsed and researched today. 

Psychoanalytic theory

Most modern psychology theories began in the Freud era, and his central method was known as psychoanalysis. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory emphasizes the unconscious mind and critical experiences we have in childhood.

The unconscious mind encompasses our hidden thoughts, feelings, emotions, and motivations that drive us but are not noticeable (at least, not without therapy or techniques designed to develop self-awareness). Freud believed your unconscious desires could be discovered through your dreams. Later on, other psychologists would adapt Freud's idea of the unconscious while dismissing some of Freud's other theories. Different psychologists who have built upon psychoanalytic theory include:

  • Erik Erikson: believed our personality develops in many ways as we age and discussed the concept of an identity crisis.

  • Carl Jung: originated the idea of a collective unconscious, or structures of the unconscious mind shared among people across the world. 

  • Alfred Adler: proponent of birth order theory; posed that personality was influenced by our wish to be challenged and be superior.

  • Karen Horney: introduced the concept of neurotic needs, which come about when someone’s basic needs are unmet and results in anxiety accompanied by an attempt to fulfill the need.

Humanistic psychology

In the humanistic form of personality psychology, the emphasis lies on our free will, self-awareness, and psychological development. The humanistic psychology theory advocates for a positive view of humanity and the belief that we can all reach our maximum potential and always continue to strive toward self-actualization.

People who were involved in the humanistic theory include:

  • Carl Rogers: believed that people are inherently good and developed the idea of unconditional positive regard

  • Abraham Maslow: created a hierarchy of needs, which moved from basic physiological and safety needs to esteem, love, and belonging needs, and eventually to self-actualization.

Trait psychology

Trait psychology evaluates the distinct traits that make up our personality. By examining the traits, psychologists believe that we can learn about how we are all different. The three criteria which characterize personality characteristics include consistency, stability, and individual differences, according to trait theory. Trait theorists include:

  • Hans Eysenck: believed that most of personality was genetically predetermined and created the concept of neuroticism, purporting that it was a biological form of emotional instability.

  • Raymond Cattell: found 16 traits that could make up all individuals and help us find the differences between them (i.e., abstractedness, openness to change, social boldness).

  • Robert McCrea and Paul Costa: created the Big Five personality traits, which include extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Personality psychologists can help you better understand yourself

Social cognitive theory

Developed by Albert Bandura – who believed that we learn through observing – social cognitive theory shines a light on the events that occur within our social context as key in influencing personality. If a behavior is rewarded through positive or negative reinforcement, Bandura argued, then a person is likely to repeat it; on the contrary, if the behavior is punished, then a person is less likely to repeat it.

You may have heard of Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment, which revealed an interesting pattern in human behavior. With the intent to investigate if social behaviors (like aggression) can be acquired by observation and imitation, Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1961) evaluated 72 toddlers regarding how they would respond to watching adults behave aggressively toward a “Bobo doll” toy, on the one hand, and then calm and quiet in another setting. 

Those toddlers who watched the aggressive model made much more aggressive responses to the Bobo doll when they got to interact with it, compared to those in the subdued observation group. What’s the point? The Bobo doll experiment affirmed that children are able to learn social behaviors like aggression through watching other people in their surroundings.

Can psychologists measure personality?

Psychologists use several types of tests to assess people’s personalities. You may have taken fun online personality tests or even official personality tests – like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)– as part of an employment interview. There are two main types of personality tests: objective and projective.

Objective tests prompt the respondent to make a chosen response to a structured set of instructions (i.e., multiple choice, true/false). A projective test, on the other hand, is administered in a more ambiguous context so as to allow the respondent to project their own interpretation without predetermined bounds. The MBTI is an example of an objective test, as it utilizes multiple choice methods. Inkblot or Rorschach tests are projective in that the evaluator asks the participant to describe what they see when they look at a particular inkblot.

As long as the clients answer honestly, objective tests seem to be more reliable, as inkblot tests may provide vague responses. Of course, you can never tell if a person is answering the questions honestly. Some people may be lying to make themselves look better. We also change over time, in many instances. Therefore, personality tests like the Myers-Briggs and Rorschach Inkblot Test are fallible, though they can provide unique insight.

Help – I’m worried about my personality

There are many reasons why someone might want to enlist the guidance of a therapist – you do not need to have a diagnosed mental health condition to benefit from their suggestions and strategies. Maybe you notice that, when people break up with you, they cite the same reason as to why it was not working out. When you recognize this pattern, you might reach out to a counselor for help in understanding why you act that way and how to develop a better personality trait as a replacement.

Perhaps you want to become more assertive. You want to evolve into a personality where you feel confident asking for a raise, sharing your needs with your significant other, or finally making the move to start your own business. A therapist can also help you practice behaviors to become more assertive.

If you need help when it comes to learning about your personality, including those who wonder if they have a personality disorder, there is no shame in talking to a counselor. They can help teach you the aspects of your personality, how you can change them, and the strengths and flaws that come with certain personality traits. Learning about yourself can be a major opportunity for growth and help you move closer to attaining your goals. 

For many people, online counseling may be a more appealing option than in-person therapy; this is because online therapy – offered through platforms like MyTherapist – is often viewed as more affordable than face-to-face counseling. If there are certain aspects of your personality that you’d like to work on, you can set appointments with your virtual therapist at convenient times and from a preferred location, such as your home or office.

Your online counselor can use strategies often employed to help people change their behaviors or beliefs about themselves and the world. Cognitive behavioral therapy – or CBT – is one such method that many research studies confirm is just as effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety online as it is when performed in-person.  


Whether you’re concerned about a personality trait, living with a personality disorder, or just curious about personality psychology and how it may apply to your life and goals, you can count on the dedicated network of licensed counselors at MyTherapist to help you learn new skills, improve upon yourself, and cultivate positive self-beliefs. Reach out today to start progressing toward your personality goals!

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