What Are Some Common Personality Theories?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Personality can be viewed as the unique set of character traits, actions, and beliefs that encapsulate an individual human being. Over time, many psychologists have developed theories about how personalities are formed. For example, Freud mainly focused on the id, ego, and superego, while trait theorists may emphasize a series of common traits, such as the Big Five traits. 

Below, we’ll discuss some of the most common personality theories and the implications of these theories on the field of psychology.

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Psychoanalytic theory and Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud is usually credited with creating the psychoanalytic theory. Many of Freud's theories may have shaped modern psychology as we know it, despite many of his ideas often being viewed as questionable. According to Freud, personality is made up of instincts, such as the desire for food or sex. He also believed in the importance of the unconscious and childhood influences.

Freud generally believed that the development of personality depended on the first five years of life. He believed that your parents and environment could shape you to be the person you are, and as an adult, your personality and mental health could potentially be a product of your early childhood.

Freud's theory also tended to rely on psychosexual development. This idea is that children may want to receive pleasure through the desires of the id, or the part of the brain that's generally instinctual and cares only about itself. 

Freud also believed the personality could be divided into three parts: the id, ego, and superego. The id can be viewed as the primitive part of your brain, which has instincts for sex, aggression, and other life needs. The id generally wants to satisfy its pleasure by any means necessary, even if the methods used are unhealthy or harmful to others.

The superego is typically the part of the personality that wants to do good. It can be thought of as a conscience that wants to follow the rules of society. It often has an unrealistic expectation of being good.

The ego is considered the part that controls these two parts of the personality. Sometimes, it may balance them well, and other times, the superego or the id may take over.

Trait theory

Trait theory posits that a person is made up of different traits that may determine how we act. They may be consistent regardless of the situation, but they can change from person to person. Some traits are thought to be influenced by genetics, while others may develop over time. 

One trait-based theory of personality posits that there are five major traits that exist on a spectrum. These are known as the Big Five and might be remembered with the acronym OCEAN:
  • O: Openness to experience
  • C: Conscientiousness
  • E: Extroversion
  • A: Agreeableness
  • N: Neuroticism/emotional stability

Eysenck's theory

Hans Eysenck’s theory tends to be more based on biology. This theory posits that we have a unique nervous system that can determine how we adapt and learn from the environment. This theory is thought to have been developed when Eysenck was working in a psychiatric hospital and had to make assessments about patients’ conditions. Eysenck conducted a study of 700 soldiers and discovered some similarities among them. These were dubbed first-order personality traits

Eysenck then broke down the different ways behavior can be exhibited. There were two dimensions or second-order personality traits. They were introversion versus extroversion and neuroticism versus stability. Eysenck believed these were biological traits.

Extraversion versus introversion

Many people are familiar with the terms “introvert” and “extrovert.” An extrovert is generally someone who has a high need for social interaction. They may be optimistic, get bored easily, and rely on impulses and thrills to have fun. Their nervous system may require quite a bit of stimulus to be aroused, so they may have a tendency to seek thrills.

An introvert tends to be quieter and typically doesn't need as much to feel stimulated. They often like to plan activities, tend to keep their emotions under control, and may be more pessimistic in general.

Introversion and extraversion are generally thought to exist on a spectrum with many variations.

Neuroticism versus stability

A stable person may not be very reactive when faced with a dilemma, while a person who is more neurotic may have large emotional responses to situations and find it difficult to calm down when they are upset. Neuroticism may contribute to various mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. Like introversion and extraversion, neuroticism and stability tend to exist on a spectrum.

Cattell's theory

Raymond Cattell’s theory might be viewed as broader than Eysenck's theory, which states that two main dimensions could shape a person’s personality. Cattell believed that you needed to study many traits to get a full picture of personality. 

Similar to Eysenck, Cattell also studied soldiers and examined their pasts, looking at life records like their grades. He also gave them questionnaires and created other tests. In the end, Cattell used a statistical technique called factor analysis and determined that 16 traits make up a person’s personality: warmth, reasoning, dominance, emotional stability, liveliness, social boldness, rule-consciousness, sensitivity, vigilance, abstractedness, apprehension, self-reliance, openness to change, perfectionism, and tension.

Cattell divided these traits into source versus surface traits. Surface traits were considered easy to recognize by others, while source traits were considered more unconscious and tended to have more influence over personality.

Allport's theory

Gordon Allport’s posited that personality was a combination of nature and nurture, or biology and environment. His theory of personality generally focused on a person’s uniqueness and how their motivations influenced them. According to Allport, someone's temperament, intelligence, skills, and traits could determine their personality. 

According to Harvard’s Department of Psychology (where Allport was a professor), Allport developed a three-tiered hierarchy of traits that consisted of:

  • Cardinal traits: These traits were considered rare but very deterministic in behavior.
  • Central traits: Central traits were considered universal but existing to varying degrees in different people. Allport considered these traits to be influential but not deterministic.
  • Secondary traits: These traits were also thought to be universal and influential on behavior. However, Allport considered secondary traits to be dependent on context and not always noticeable in all situations.

Online therapy may help you understand your personality

Having a deep understanding of your own personality may help you make choices that make the most of your strengths. However, it can sometimes be challenging to find that insight on your own. If you’re interested in learning more about your personality, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed therapist. If traditional therapy isn’t an option for you, you might consider trying online therapy, which numerous studies have found to be effective for a variety of mental health concerns.

With online therapy, you can speak with a therapist from home or anywhere with an internet connection. You can communicate with a therapist via audio, video, or live chat at a time that works for you. Also, with BetterHelp, you can contact your therapist in between sessions via in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can.

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Takeaway

Many important contributors to the field of psychology have offered theories as to what personality consists of and how it is formed. If you’d like to gain insight on your own traits and characteristics, you may benefit from speaking to a licensed therapist. With online therapy, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has training in various personality theories. You can also choose a therapist who has experience treating any mental health concerns you may be facing. Take the first step toward getting support and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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