Personality 101: Understanding The Science Of Personality To Strengthen Relationships

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you first get to know someone, like a new friend or romantic partner, you may first notice their personality. You might notice that you get along better with certain personalities and dislike people of another type. Understanding personality in psychology can allow you to understand your preferences in relationships and the type of person you might be.

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What is personality? 

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 significant traits, interests, values, self-perception, drives, abilities, and emotional patterns. Understanding personality may help you understand the relationships you form, as well.

While these dimensions are often stable, specific personality features may change positively as you age. Specifically, the APA indicates that individuals become more agreeable, helpful, warm, and generous as they grow older.  

Given the flexibility and variety of human personalities, getting to know someone else can feel exciting and overwhelming. It may be challenging to unpack the full extent of a person's personality within a day and perhaps months. However, consistently showing interest in others can unravel their layers and build rewarding, lasting relationships.

Why do people have unique personalities?

Personality is a broad and fascinating field of psychological study. While researchers have made strides in this field, they are continually working to understand why personalities vary significantly and how they change throughout life. 

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: Extraversion is an orientation of interests and energies toward the outer world, encompassing people and situations, compared to the inner world of personal, subjective experience.
  2. Agreeableness: Agreeableness is the tendency to act cooperatively and unselfishly. Agreeableness is also associated with warmth and generosity.
  3. Conscientiousness: This trait involves being organized, responsible, and hardworking.
  4. Neuroticism: This trait describes a person's level of emotional stability and susceptibility to psychological distress.
  5. Openness to experience: This trait describes the willingness to engage in new aesthetic, cultural, or intellectual experiences.

The Big Five model is widely used by psychologists, individuals, and workplaces to explore variations in personality. Still, 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. It can be helpful to note that all personality models are theories, meaning they are widely accepted in psychology but are not necessarily fact. 

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Factors that shape personality

Below are a few factors that researchers have determined may shape personality. 

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%. For this reason, your unique gene makeup influences your traits, temperament, and how you approach the world.

Environment

Your environment is made up of your physical surroundings and social interactons. You might have grown up in a bustling household with many people or a small apartment in a big city. Some people are raised in environments that may feel unsafe or unstable due to fighting among family members, substance use, or other concerns.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

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

In addition to the places you've been, your present environment may shape who you become, based on research by Stanford University. One 2020 study found that personalities and places influence one another. Specifically, the researchers found that extroverted people spend more time in public spaces, like cafes and bars. They also noted that introverted people may temporarily feel more sociable when immersed in these social spaces.

Culture

Within a society or community, culture includes the distinctive customs, values, beliefs, languages, and knowledge of those in the community. 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 Asian cultures tend to be less extroverted and collectivistic. When you reflect on your personality, you might find that some of your traits align with the expectations and values of your culture.

Personal experiences

Early in life, adverse experiences like 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 increase the risk of developing a personality disorder. Predictably, positive life experiences often result in positive personality changes, based on a 2016 study of personality changes from life experiences. 

Personality disorders

People 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 (DSM-5) recognizes ten personality disorders, including the following: 

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Dependent personality disorder
  • Histrionic personality disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
  • Schizoid personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder 
  • Paranoid personality disorder 

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. Spreading stigmas about personality disorders can be harmful. 

Four tips for getting to know someone: The science of personality 

By understanding the science of personality, you may get to know other people on a more profound level. Based on the latest research on personality, consider the following four tips to connect with other people, enhance your social life, and boost your mental health.

Exercise your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence describes your ability to process emotional information for reasoning and other cognitive activities. Often, people with greater emotional intelligence can better 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? Below are a few expert tips:

  • Keep a journal to document and reflect on your emotional responses. 
  • Practice active listening by taking time to understand other people's needs, wants, and non-verbal cues. 
  • Use mindfulness techniques, which help you focus your attention on the present moment and develop greater self-awareness.

By controlling your emotional state, you may feel better equipped to ask thoughtful questions, listen attentively, and show up for others. Over time, you'll develop a deeper understanding of your personality, allowing you to interact more authentically with others. 

Recognize and embrace diversity

Diversity comes in many forms. If you casually observe a small group of people at the train station or your favorite coffee shop, you might 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, recognizing the role of diversity in personality can help you ask more thoughtful, inquisitive questions about their background.

Ask better questions

A spirit of curiosity helps you ask better, more insightful questions, which may 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.
  • Aim for open-ended questions, which tend to prompt deeper thinking and reflection than questions with yes-or-no responses.
  • Authenticity and compassion can outweigh awkwardness. Asking sensitive or emotional questions can feel awkward if you don't discuss these subjects regularly. Honor both of your comfort levels, but open up the conversation to more profound subjects at times. 
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Seek out professional support

Therapists are professionally trained in the field of personality. They can help you develop tools to better understand yourself, others, and the world around you. If you're unfamiliar with therapy, you can also try online counseling. 

Today, many people seek online therapy to improve their mental health while balancing a heavy workload, busy family life, and other life stressors. Online platforms like BetterHelp can match clients 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 at a time that works best for your schedule.

A growing body of research shows that online therapy is often 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. 

Takeaway

By improving your understanding of personality, you may develop the tools and self-knowledge 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. Their expertise and listening skills can help you make sense of the world and your character to build a life that reflects your values and goals.

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