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Personality Theories


Everybody has heard of the term personality and has different kinds of it. However, only few people can be able to describe their own or friends’ personality traits. What most people do not know is that personality psychology is one of the many theorized and most interesting aspects to learn in psychology. The current paper describes various definitions and aspects of personality psychology in order to understand it. The paper describes various types of personality psychology. A background towards personality psychology is stated. However, the paper focuses more on psychoanalytic personality trait, mainly on the psychodynamic theory of personality. Structural elements of the theory and the structural models help in understanding the psychodynamic theory better. Motivation elements of personality and abnormal elements boost the knowledge in understanding personality. The relationship between the ID, ego, and superego is important for awareness of the psychodynamic perspective of psychology.


Personality psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on the study of personality and its variation between individuals. Major areas of study are investigation of individual’s psychological differences, similarities, and processes. There are a number of thinkers who have described personality psychology best, i.e. Erik Erikson, Sigmoid Freud, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow. Personality is an organized set of characteristics that uniquely influences their behavior, emotions, cognition, and motivation. It can also be defined as a feeling, behaviors, social adjustments, and thoughts that influence a person’s value, attitude, expectations, and perceptions. It helps to understand human reactions to other people, the problems they encounter, and stress (Nicolay, 2006). A trait is a characteristic way in which an individual perceives, feels, believes, or acts. Extraversion is the tendency of people to look outside for one’s pleasure. Introversion is the tendency to prefer the world inside oneself. Intuition means the tendency to out of touch with a more solid aspect of reality. Feeling is a kind of intuition stating person own desires. Personality is the study of psychological differences between individuals.


Personality originates from a Latin word ‘persona’ meaning a mask. The mask was not used as a plot device to disguise the identity of a character but was used as a connection to represent that character. Costa, Terracciano, and McCrae (2001) described two major ways to study personality – the homothetic and the idiographic ways. Nomothetic psychology seeks to describe general laws applied to many people such as the principle of self-actualization and the trait of extraversion while idiographic psychology studies unique aspects of individuals. However, the study of personality has a broad and varied history. A large number of theoretical perspectives describe personality. Major theories include the trait (dispositional) theory, humanistic theory, psychodynamic, behaviorist, and social learning theory perspectives. There has been no substantial emphasis on the application of personality testing in the field. Psychological education has emphasized the training in the nature of personality and development to be prerequisite to the course in clinical and abnormal psychology (Weiner & Hoffman, 2009).

Theories of Personality

A number of different theories explain different aspects of personality. Some of the theories focus on outlining how personality develops while others explain individual differences between their personality traits. Biological theories argue that genetics is the major responsibility for personality. Nicolay (2006) has suggested that there is a link between personality traits and genetics. Hans Eysenck is one of the best-known psychologists describing the biological theories. He linked personality traits to biological differences. He argued that the introverts have a high cortical arousal that leads to their overstimulation while the extroverts have a low cortical arousal that causes them to seek for stimulating experiences (Matthews, Dery, & Whiteman, 2009).

Behavioral Theories

Behavioral theories argue that personality is a result of interaction between an individual and their environment. Theorists who have studied observable and measurable behavior of individuals reject theories that take internal thoughts and feelings into consideration. Classical conditioning is an important aspect of behavioral learning theories. It involves the pairing of a neutral stimulus with a natural occurring response, and once an association is formed, the neutral stimulus evokes the response. Operant conditioning is another fundamental concept in behavioral psychology. Operant conditioning involves weakening or strengthening a behavior using either a punishment or reinforcement (Epstein, 2003).

Humanistic Theories

They emphasize the importance of will and individual experience as essential factors in the development of personality. Humanistic theories focus on the concept of self-actualization, which results in personal growth that motivates behavior. The self translates into the person’s perceptions and experiences. The view argues that an individual is free to choose their own behavior rather than reacting to their environment stimuli. Issues that deal with self-esteem, self-fulfillment, and self-needs are paramount in this theory. The major focus of humanist theory is facilitating personal development. Theorists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow explained humanist theories best. Carl Rodgers explained the relationship that exists between the real, ideal, and perceived self. Each individual under ideal conditions will develop full capacity that is hereditary available. Abraham Maslow described the hierarchy of human needs that include self-actualization, self-esteem, love, and belonging, safety and physiological needs (Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001).

Trait Theories

A trait is a characteristic that encourages a person to behave in a certain way. Weiner & Hoffman (2009) described it as a relatively enduring cross-situation consistent personality characteristic that identifies an individual behavior. Eysenck three-factor theory and the five-factor theory of personality are the best-known theories. They describe three kinds of traits: cardinal, central, and secondary traits. Eysenck three-factor theory identifies neuroticism, psychoticism, and extraversion as the personality traits. Neuroticism measures an individual’s level of stability and instability, psychoticism evaluates the individual level of tough-mindedness, and extraversion defines whether an individual is an extrovert or introvert (Nicolay, 2006).

Psychoanalytic Theories. The works of Sigmund Freund and Erik Erikson mainly influence psychoanalytic theories. Freud described the theory of psychosexual development while Erikson discussed the theory of psychosocial development. Freud stated that personality depends on the influence of the unconscious mind and childhood experiences. He believed that the id, ego, and superego are the major components of personality. On the other hand, Erikson stated that that personality progresses through a series of stages with conflicts arising at each stage. The success achieved from any of these stages is only possible if conflicts that arise are overcome. In the current paper, the psychoanalytic theories will be described in details (Hofstede & McCrae, 2004).

Psychodynamic Theory. According to Freud, personality is built by the age of 5 years. Early experiences in life play a large role in personality development. They continue to influence behavior in later ages of person’s life. It develops through a series of childhood experiences during which the pleasure seeking energies of the id focus on various erogenous areas. Freud emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind, symbolism, and childhood experiences. These concepts are the basic ones because they seek to analyze barely everything about human behavior. The psychosexual energy is the driving force behind learning behavior (libido). If a child completes the psychosexual stages successfully, this results in a healthy personality. Failure to complete the stages successfully leads to fixation. It is a persistent focus on an earlier psychosexual stage that was not fully developed (Matthews, Dery, & Whiteman, 2009). In its turn, fixation leads to conflicts and until the conflict is resolved, the individual sticks in this stage. For example, if a child remains fixed on the oral stage, the child becomes dependent on the others and will later seek for overall stimulation through smoking, drinking or eating.

Structural Elements of the Theory

Freud went further to describe the structure of the mind. He analyzed that the mind has two divisions, the conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious mind is the mental processing that one can think and talk about rationally. It includes everything that people are aware of in life. A part of it is the preconscious memory that is not always a part of our consciousness. On the other hand, the unconscious mind is the reservoir for thoughts, memories, urges, and feelings. These are always outside our conscious awareness. The content of the unconscious mind is always unacceptable and unpleasant. The content includes a feeling of anxiety, conflict, or pain. The unconscious influences an individual’s behavior and experiences, though they may be unaware of the underlying influences (Llewellyn & Wilson, 2003). The structural model of personality consists of ID, Ego, and Super ego. The three models of personality composes structural element and they work together creating human behavior.


It is present at birth. It includes the primitive and instinctive behaviors and forms the only structural component present at birth. ID forms the major source of psychic energy, hence becoming the primary component of personality throughout infancy and early life development (Zimmerman, 2008). ID strives to meet immediate gratification through pleasure principles. A state of tension and anxiety develops when these needs are not satisfied. Since infants do not talk, it is important that ID exists in early stages of life because it will ensure that the infant is comfortable and the needs are satisfied appropriately. As a way of satisfying the need through the primary process, ID tries to resolve the tension created by the pleasure principles by making a mental image that matches the desired object (Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001).


The ego develops from the ID and tends to deal with reality aspect. It ensures that the expressed impulses of the ID are in an acceptable and realistic manner in the real world. As opposed to ID, ego functions in the conscious, preconscious, and the unconscious life. The ego strives to satisfy the ID desires through reality principles and during the process; it tries to express it in a realistic and acceptable manner. Before acting, ego compares the benefit and effects of an impulse or action before deciding on whether to act or abandon it. The tensions created by the animated impulses are discharged by the ego through a secondary process. In this process, the ID creates a mental image through a primary process, and then the ego tries to find an object in the real world that can match the mental image (Matthews, Dery, & Whiteman, 2009).

Super Ego

It is the last structural personality to develop. Super ego functions to hold up people’s internalized morals and ideals that have been acquired through the society and parents’ teachings. It begins to emerge from the age of five years and provides the basic guiding principles of judgment making (Jahng, Jain, & Ramamurthy, 2002). Super ego consists of two major parts – Ego ideal and Conscience.

Ego ideal consists of standards that form the basis for good behavior and rules. Most often, behaviors consist of those manners that the parents and the societal big figures have approved and recommended. When one obeys these rules, the/she develops a sense of pride and a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Conscience is a societal and parents’ view on information either good or bad which forms a part of the conscience aspect. Most often, forbidden behaviors lead to punishment, guilt, regret, and consequences if standards and good behaviors are not adhered. The super ego works to suppress all the behaviors that are not acceptable by the ID. It strives to make the ego act upon idealistic behaviors rather than realistic behaviors, thus perfecting and civilizing our behaviors (Epstein, 2003).

Interaction of the Id, Ego, and Super Ego

It is easy for a conflict between ID, Ego, and Super ego usually arises due to the many competing forces in personality make up. According to Freud, a state of balance in an individual comes through creating a healthy person and this will help in solving the conflict that resulted from the competing forces. The ego strength is an aspect of the ego that can still function despite the dwelling forces. A person with an effective ego strength is able to manage these pressures, whereas those with too little or too much ego strength can become too disruptive, hence becoming unyielding (Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006).

Motivational Elements of Psychodynamic Theory

Freud described the psychic energy as the major motivation element of personality. Psychic energy is a result of drives and instincts. Instincts normally exist in every person. He further classified them into areas and donates. Errors include instincts such as sex – a hunger that is derived from energy ‘libido’ that is sexual. Erogenous areas include the mouth, genitals, and the anus, which provide pleasure sensation to the person. Thanatos are instincts connected with death and destruction with no pleasure sensation. Freud described aggressive and sexual drives as determinants of an individual’s behavior that lead to personality and are motivated by the interplay of the ID, ego, and superego (Zimmerman, 2008).

Abnormal Elements of Personality

Freud described a healthy personality to be characteristic of the ability of an individual to work effectively with enjoyment. The individual can formulate and achieve long- and short-term goals and objectives. The individual is able to appreciate and respond to the demands of reality (Nicolay, 2006). Normal personality enables the person to cope with anxiety that can impair the normal behavior. The individual has the ability to communicate effectively with the peers and authority. Individuals with normal personality can develop and maintain good, satisfying interpersonal relations with abilities to enjoy the emotions without feelings of threat or fear. Normal personality also enables individuals to satisfy instinctual drives adaptively and creatively (Roberts & Mroczek, 2008).

Anxiety is an abnormal element of personality. It acts as a signal to the ego stating the things are not right. Freud stated three types of anxiety such as objective, neurotic, and moral anxiety. Moral anxiety is the fear that violates person’s own moral principles. Objective anxiety is the fear of the real world events while neurotic anxiety is the unconscious worry that a person might lose their ID control resulting in punishment. Fixation is a retardation of psychological development at a stage before maturation is complete. It is the failure to adopt to a more mature way of coping with the ID instincts. Regression is a result of abnormal personality. It is a retreat from the normal pattern of coping with a psychosexual stage of a less rational coping. Elements of personality theories include structural elements that are hypothetical construct involved in the mental and psychological functions. Abnormal elements suggest how an abnormal behavior develops in a person and show the factors that influence personality. Motivational elements account for the causes of personality and behavior. Developmental elements explain specific changes in behavior or personality that occur over time. Therapeutic elements explain how abnormal or disturbed behavior is changed or modified. Therapeutic elements of personality vary but mainly fall under supportive, reductive, or reconstructive therapy (Heine & Buchtel, 2009).


There are many personality theories all explaining the personality. A person’s personality normally consists of the behaviors they show. However, it is through reinforcement or punishment of particular tendencies of behavior in different situations that new behaviors are learned. This view allows the personality to change. It is important to understand the various theories of personality to realize the personality of an individual. In the current paper, a special emphasis was placed on understanding the psychodynamic theory. According to Sigmund Freud, the unconscious mind and childhood experiences directly influence person’s personality. He believed that the id, ego, and superego are the major components of personality. In turn, Erikson’s contribution to the psychosocial development theory helps in understanding the psychodynamic theory.


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