Emotional Health · Health

“Why Am I Like This?” Personality Theories, Old and New

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. Here’s the story of humanity’s attempt, over several millennia, to solve the mystery of personality.


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The science of personality theory, which Woody Allen once mocked in a satirical course catalogue as our attempt to understand why some people are perfectly nice and “others you just want to pinch,” has had a long history. Ever since our first glimmers of self-awareness, humans have struggled to understand themselves and their individual differences. For example, the ancient Greeks, pioneers always, developed a “theory of personality” based on a conception of bodily “humors” or fluids, including these four:

sanguine (pleasure-seeking and sociable)

choleric (ambitious and leader-like)

melancholic (analytical and quiet)

phlegmatic (relaxed and peaceful).

Most formulations include the possibility of mixtures of the types. Hippocrates incorporated these types into his theory of medicine.

Biological theories of personality persisted well into the 20th century: certain body types were considered to be highly correlated with personality factors. The “somatotype” theory identified three major subtypes:

  • Ectomorphic: characterized by long and thin muscles/limbs and low fat storage; usually referred to as slim. Ectomorphs are predisposed to neither store fat nor build muscle.
  • Mesomorphic: characterized by large bones, solid torso, moderate fat levels, and an average waist. Mesomorphs are predisposed to build muscle.
  • Endomorphic: characterized by increased fat storage, wide hips, medium width shoulders and a medium bone structure. Endomorphs are predisposed to store fat due to having well developed visceral structures.

According to this theory, each subtype is associated with personality traits

ectomorphs are brainy and reserved

mesomorphs, assertive and active

endomorphs, the classic jolly fat man.

The Harvard Grant study of longitudinal development, which I reported on earlier this year, put great trust in this theory when the study first began in the 40s, and predicted that the “mesomorphic” personality would be highly correlated with future success (it wasn’t).

These biological theories of personality have been now recognized as oversimplified, and yet the quest to come up with a consistent, valid, and unified theory of personality continues.

Among the most enduring is the “trait theory.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association describes personality traits as “enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself that are exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts.”

We make certain general assumptions about traits, including that they are relatively stable over time, they differ among individuals, and that they influence behavior. If you think about it, we are constantly ascribing traits in our views of one another: we say “she has a great sense of humor,” or he is “kind-hearted.”

Among trait theories, one of the most prominent names five major areas, or “poles,” where individual differences are identifiable in most people. The “Big Five,” as they are known, are:

The “Big Five” Personality Poles

1. Openness to experience: (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious).

Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent, and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine.

2. Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless).

A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior.

3. Extraversion: (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved).

Energy, positive emotions, surgency, assertiveness, sociability, and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness.

4. Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached).

A tendency be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally even tempered or not.

5. Neuroticism: (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident). The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as angeranxiety, depression, and vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to the degree of emotional stability and impulse control and is sometimes referred to by its low pole, “emotional stability.”

Amendments to this theory were made in 2008 by Michael Ashton and Kibeom Lee. The six-dimensional “HEXACO” theory they proposed include these factors:

Honesty-Humility (H), Emotionality (E), Extraversion (X), Agreeableness (A), Conscientiousness (C), and Openness to Experience (O). As you can see, this is quite similar to the “Big Five” but the addition of the “H” factor is crucial. This trait’s opposing poles can be described as sincere, honest, faithful/loyal, modest/unassuming, fair-mindedVERSUS sly, deceitful, greedy, pretentious, hypocritical, boastful and pompous. The H factor has been linked to criminal, materialistic, power-seeking, and unethical tendencies. In “psychopaths,” a “low H” factor is now considered to be “hard-wired”—i.e. inborn and hard to change.

This leads to one of the most complex and enduring questions about personality traits as a whole: to what extent are they genetic, innate, or are they formed by our experience?—the old “nature/nuture” controversy.

The answer—usually both. Some traits are more inheritable than others, such as extroversion/introversion, whereas others, such as neuroticism, are more readily modified or exacerbated by life experience. Some, such as openness to new experience, have been measured just hours after birth: babies differ on the dimension of whether or not they prefer a new stimulus or one they have been exposed to previously.

In fact, we make assumptions based on our own theories of personality all the time, and even the kind of assumptions we make are likely influenced by our individual personalities. You can observe this even before a baby is born: kicking a lot in the womb, for example, leads the parents to say the child is lively or active. Gender assumptions are even made: if he’s a boy, they’ll say “he’s a fighter.” As soon as babies are born, inherited characteristics are ascribed: “she’s just like her Aunt Molly was—so easygoing (or fussy and demanding).” We can fill in the blanks—and we do. You have to wonder: how much can we really say is inherited or innate, versus the influence of these very early assignations or perhaps even projections of personality traits?

Twin studies, the gold standard of scientific research, have shed some light on this issue. Twins separated at birth and reared apart do show significant correlation among many personality factors—but not all, and not always.  In fact, one of the most interesting dilemmas in personality psychology concerns the consistency of traits. Social psychologists lean toward believing that our behavior is highly influenced by the circumstances we find ourselves in, and our “enduring” personality traits can be, well, flexible. For example, studies have shown that even the most “charitable” of people, such as divinity students, can be influenced to behave more callously. Put in an experimental situation in which they were late for an important meeting, these students showed remarkable indifference to the plight of someone in need (compared with a control situation).

Most of us would like to believe we are “good guys” and that this is a stable, enduring, and reliable trait. But many of us are never “tested” the way subjects at Yale were by Stanley Milgram in his infamous experiment. He wanted to test the concept of “obedience to authority,” which was much questioned after the events of the Holocaust. Would “ordinary” citizens behave cruelly toward others if asked? The answer was a disturbing one: most subjects were willing to give (what they thought were) painful shocks to others when asked to by a “doctor” during (what they were told was) a learning experiment.

The fact is, people’s behavior is complicated, influenced by many factors, and hard to predict. Most experienced clinicians, for example, put less and less stock in diagnostic categories and such: their interactions with patients teach them this. For example, if a person has a history of dishonest behavior, is it the result of “bad” character (low “H” factor), or have circumstances such as poverty, addiction, or poor impulse control influenced him, and how much? We all tend to look for “extenuating circumstances” when trying to understand (or sometimes rationalize) our mistakes. That is not necessarily a bad thing. If we felt we were always “prisoners” of our personality traits, we would experience a loss of control and helplessness that would discourage us from attempts to be better. To paraphrase, we are all more individual than otherwise, and have the power to carve out a unique path.


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