Personality 101: Understanding The Science Of Personality Can Strengthen Your Relationships

Updated February 10, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you’re first getting to know someone – perhaps a new friend, or potential romantic partner – one of the first things you’ll observe is their personality.

We frequently use the term “personality” to describe ourselves and other people: but how do psychologists define the term? The American Psychological Association (APA) describes personality as the enduring characteristics and behaviors that shape a person’s relationship to the world and their inner self. They include our major traits, interests, values, self-perception, drives, abilities, and emotional patterns.

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While these dimensions are mostly stable, features of our personalities tend to change for the better with age. Specifically, research indicates that we tend to become more agreeable – so more helpful, warm, and generous – as we grow older. 

Given the flexibility and variety of human personalities, the process of getting to know someone else can feel both exciting and overwhelming. It’s impossible to unpack the full extent of a person’s personality within a day, and perhaps even a lifetime – but by consistently showing interest in others, you can unravel their layers and build rewarding, lasting relationships.

Today, we’ll review the latest research on personality and consider how emotional intelligence, diverse relationships, and deep questions can enhance your mental health.

Why Do People Have Unique Personalities?

Personality is a broad and fascinating field of psychological study. While we’ve made impressive strides in this field, researchers are continually working to understand why our personalities vary so greatly.

In the psychological literature, researchers often reference the “Big Five” dimensions of personality: a model used to describe individual differences in personality. As defined by the APA, the five dimensions are:

  1. Extraversion: The orientation of interests and energies toward the outer world, which encompasses people and things, compared to the inner world of personal, subjective experience. 

  2. Agreeableness: The tendency to act cooperatively and unselfishly. Agreeableness is also associated with warmth and generosity.

  3. Conscientiousness: The tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking.

  4. Neuroticism: A trait that describes a person’s level of emotional stability and susceptibility to psychological distress.

  5. Openness to experience: The willingness to engage in new aesthetic, cultural, or intellectual experiences.

The Big Five model is widely used by psychologists, individuals, and even workplaces to explore variations in personality, but it’s not the only framework available; nor can it fully encompass the “true you.” 

Psychological models are valuable tools, but personality is a complicated subject, shaped by numerous factors. Next up, we’ll explore these common factors in greater detail and their impact on some of the Big Five personality traits. 

Factors That Shape Personality

1. Genetics

Genetics can account for a significant degree of variation in personality, based on studies of twins and families. One 2015 study found that heritability for the Big Five traits ranges from 31% to 41%. In general, estimates for the heritability of personality range from 30% to 60%. This means that your unique gene makeup influences your traits, temperament, and the way you approach the world.

2. Environment

The environment encompasses both your physical surroundings and social environment. You might have grown up in bustling household with lots of people, or a small apartment nestled into a big city. Some people are raised in environments that may feel unsafe or unstable due to fighting among families, substance use, or other concerns.

These early environments play a long-term role in personality. They can shape a person’s hostility levels, social skills, their ability to trust, and perception of risk: all of which influence their well-being and relationships in adulthood.

In addition to the places you’ve been, your present environment can also shape who you become, based on research by Stanford University. This 2020 study found that personalities and places tend to influence one another: specifically, the researchers found that extraverted people typically spend more time in public spaces, like cafes and bars, but that introverted people may temporarily feel more sociable when immersed in these social spaces.

3. Culture

Within a society or community, culture includes the distinctive customs, values, beliefs, language, knowledge, and beliefs: all of which play a role in personality. Even within the United States, researchers have identified personality differences between people in the Upper Midwest, the South, the Northeast, and the West. 

Using the Big Five personality model, Central and South American cultures tend to be more open to new experiences, whereas in Asian cultures tend to be less extraverted and more collectivistic. When you reflect on your own personality, you might find that some of your traits align with expectations and values of your culture.

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4. Personal Experiences

Early in life, adverse experiences such as the absence of parents, family conflict, or neglect, tend to affect a person’s emotional functioning and interpersonal competency. In some cases, these experiences can even increase the risk of developing a personality disorder. Predictably, positive life experiences tend to result in positive changes in personality, based on a 2016 study of personality change from life experiences. 

5. Personality Disorders

People who are diagnosed with personality disorders tend to relate to the world and themselves in ways that interfere with their overall health and functioning. The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR) recognizes 10 personality disorders, including: 

  • Antisocial personality disorder

  • Schizophrenia

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • “Personality disorder not otherwise specified,” which is diagnosed when patients do not meet the diagnostic criteria for the other 10 disorders

As with any other mental health diagnosis, people with personality disorders deserve quality care and compassion. With proactive treatment, it’s possible to manage the symptoms of a personality disorder and lead a healthy, fulfilling life. 

4 Tips For Getting to Know Someone, Based On The Science Of Personality

By understanding the science of personality, you can get to know other people on a deeper level. Based on the latest research on personality, psychologists offer these four tips to connect with other people, enhance your social life, and boost your mental health.

1. Exercise Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence describes your ability to process emotional information for reasoning and other cognitive activities. In general, people with greater emotional intelligence are better able to comprehend others’ feelings and control their own emotions to promote growth and well-being, according to the APA.

On a daily basis, how can you improve and exercise your emotional intelligence? Here are a few expert tips:

  • Keep a journal, which can help you document and reflect on your emotional responses to everyday stressors.

  • Practice active listening by taking time to understand the needs, wants, and non-verbal cues of other people. Over time, active listening helps you build empathy, which is an essential part of meaningful relationships.

  • Use mindfulness techniques, which help you focus your attention on the present moment and develop greater self-awareness.

By focusing on controling your own emotional state, you’ll be better equipped to ask thoughtful questions, listen attentively, and show up for other people. Over time, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of your own personality, allowing you to interact more authentically with others. 

2. Recognize and Embrace Diversity

Diversity comes in many forms. If you casually observe a small group of people at the train station or favorite coffeeshop, you’ll likely witness a range of personalities, racial identities, religious beliefs, gender identities, and other characteristics that make for diverse, vibrant communities.

These factors intersect with genetics and environment, resulting in your one-of-a-kind personality. As you get to know anyone, simply recognizing the role of diversity in personality can help you ask more thoughtful, inquisitive questions about their background.

3. Ask Better Questions

A spirit of curiosity helps you ask better, more insightful questions, which can connect you to new people and strengthen your current relationships,

If you’re trying to ask better questions, experts at the Harvard Business Review recommend keeping the following pointers in mind.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask more questions. If someone says something that sparks your curiosity, follow up with more questions! When you follow these leads, you’re more likely to find unexpected dimensions of a person’s story or personality.

  • Aim for open-ended questions, which tend to prompt deeper thinking and reflection than questions with yes-or-no responses.

  • Remember that authenticity and compassion outweigh awkwardness. Asking sensitive or emotional questions can feel awkward, especially if you don’t talk about these subjects regularly. Honor both of your comfort levels, but don’t be afraid to dig into deeper topics – as long as you ask questions with respect and care.

4. Seek Out Professional Support

Therapists are professionally trained in the field of personality. They can help you develop tools to better understand yourself, other people, and the world around you. 

Today, many people seek online therapy to improve their mental health, especially while balancing a heavy workload, busy family life, and other life stressors. Online platforms like BetterHelp carefully match patients to licensed therapists, who work with a wide range of personalities and mental health conditions. You can complete sessions from the comfort of your home, and at a time that works best for your schedule.

A growing body of research shows that online therapy is often just as effective as traditional, face-to-face therapy. Recently, a study of caregivers for people with personality disorders found that online therapy was an effective and promising treatment. The caregivers reported significant improvements in their communication, quality of life, coping skills, and knowledge of personality disorders, and they also experienced reductions in cortisol (a stress hormone) after the 3-month treatment. 


By improving your understanding of personality, you’ll develop the tools and self-knowledge required for more meaningful, authentic relationships.

As you continue to learn, meet new people, and acquire new experiences, a therapist can act as a professional, supportive guide. With their expertise and listening skills, they can help you make sense of the world and your own character, and ultimately build a life that reflects your values and goals.

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