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A Primer on Personality

A Primer on Personality

The term personality refers to a person’s unique psychological characteristics: behavioral, emotional and cognitive. Your personality is made up of an interaction between your traits and temperament. Traits are features of your personality that are stable over time and across situations. For example, if people find you impatient at work, it is likely that impatience is something that you also show at home and at school. Impatience would be a trait that makes up a part of your personality. Temperament refers to your level of reactivity to events and your ability to regulate your emotions.

Reactivity refers to how fast and to what level of intensity you react emotionally to situations whereas emotional regulation refers to your capacity to keep your emotions under control.

Knowledge of people’s temperaments is not new. Hippocrates who lived from 460 to 370 B.C. thought that the proper functioning of the brain depended on the balance of four fluids called humors.

These humors, Hippocrates thought, were blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. He also though that these humors came from different parts of the body: blood, spleen, liver and brain respectively.

He thought that an imbalance in these humors was at the root of mental illness.

Galen, a roman physician who lived from 129 to 198 A.D. used Hippocrates’s ideas of humors to explain people’s behavioral differences. He though that people differed in their behaviors according to which of the fluids exerted the most influence on them and came up with four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. The fluids associated with these temperaments were: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm respectively.

Briefly, the sanguine individual is optimistic, cheerful and confident. This individual is sociable, easily makes new friends and is charismatic. The choleric person likes to take charge. Often acts as a leader pushing onto others energy and passion. These people like to be in charge. The melancholic are introverted and thoughtful. They spend a lot of time reflecting upon negative events in the world. Many poets and artists are melancholic. The phlegmatic are introverted and happy to be by themselves. They tend to be relaxed, accepting, affectionate and kind.

Of course, we now know that these temperaments are not caused by humors flowing through the body in the sense that Hippocrates and Galen talked about. However, we do know that other chemicals such as neurotransmitters, the chemicals that our brain cells use to communicate with each other, and hormones are largely responsible for our normal and abnormal behaviors. Galen’s contribution was not that he discovered temperaments but that he gave us a way to organize them in categories. He also made us think about how temperaments are influenced by our biology.

Modern theories of development view temperament as the part of personality that is largely inherited. Temperamental differences are already evident in infancy. In 1977 Thomas and Chess suggested that infants could be categorized into three temperamental categories: easy, difficult and slow to warm up. These could partly be differentiated by how they adapt to new experiences. Easy-going children are found to be well adapting to new experiences, have generally positive moods and emotions have normal eating and sleeping patterns. In contrast, the difficult babies do not adapt well to new experiences and tend to be more emotional and fussy with erratic eating and sleeping patterns. The slow-to warm-up babies tend to withdraw from new situations and people but tend to be more acceptant new experiences with repeated presentations.

In the sample of children they used to construct these categories they found that 40% of the children were easy, 10% were difficult and 15% were slow to warm up. They found that another 35% did not neatly fit in any of the categories.

The major lesson to be drawn from these findings is that we all inherit a propensity to react emotionally to events in our lives with different levels of quickness and intensity. Also, that we differ in our ability to keep our emotions under control. It is important to consider how knowledge of our own emotional reactivity and self-control can be useful in almost every kind of social interaction.

The Make up of Personality

How do we get our personalities to begin with? As mentioned above temperament is the largely inherited part of our personality. However, our personality as a whole is also greatly influenced by our interactions with our early environment, including the people in it.

The most widely known figure associated with the development of personality is Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that our personality developed as a result of what he called fixations during so-called psychosexual stages. To Freud, each of the stages was characterized by the amount of energy that was focused on a particular erogenous or pleasure-producing zone of the body. These were the oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages. To Freud these stages had to be resolved with just enough energy dedicated to indulging in the pleasures associated with each of the zones. If the child is frustrated in its efforts to do so, or permitted to overindulge, later problems in personality become evident.

It is important to realize that, like many of Freud’s idea, the development of personality based on psychosexual stages is no longer widely accepted, nor is it supported by any kind of evidence.

However, even if the idea was wrong, it got people thinking about personality. It should also get us to think about our personality and how it is difficult to conceive of personality without considering our early childhood experiences.

One of Freud’s followers, Alfred Adler, disagreed with this picture of an over sexualized child. Adler believed that what determined personality was the feeling of inferiority that a child is born with. He thought that these feelings of inferiority took many different forms. One of the major contributors is the helplessness of the child in a world of adults as well as its constant dependence upon others for its wellbeing. The child may also have physical defects contributing to further feelings of inferiority. Other factors include child abuse, neglect and spoiling of the child. This leads the child to seek ways to overcome inferiority. This may occur through compensation of the weakness or even overcompensation where a weakness is converted into strength. In this sense feelings of inferiority can lead to a powerful source of motivation stimulating positive growth. Inferiorities did not only need to be physical but could also be psychological, whether these were real or imagined. These factors could also lead to an inferiority complex in which the individual seeks power and strength as well as uninhibited aggression. In some, it may create an exaggerated need to succeed at all cost. In other cases the person may be crushed by their feelings of inferiority leading them to fail to accomplish anything.

According to Adler complexes could be detected by the way an adult deals with inferiorities. Dealing with complexes in inappropriate ways leads to what he called a mistaken lifestyle. The mistaken lifestyle led to three different types of personalities: the ruling dominant type who tries to compensate for his inferiorities by attempts to rule and dominate others, the getting-leaning type who expects everything from others, and the avoiding type who succeeds in life by avoiding problems. These mistaken lifestyles lead to an illusion of superiority. This illusion of superiority gives the person a sense of self-esteem that has to be protected by defense mechanisms such as: excuses, aggression and distancing. To Adler, the only healthy personality was the socially useful type who confronts and attempts to solve problems in a socially useful way.

To Adler a person’s lifestyle was also determined by their worldview. Individuals with a negative worldview become the ruthless businessperson, criminal or the domineering type. A person with a positive worldview became a person whose goals are the good of society and the improvement of the human condition.

Another one of Freud’s followers, who later broke from him, was Carl Gustav Jung. In terms of personality, Jung believed that people could be differentiated by what he called psychological types and their functions of thought. He believed that people came in one of two varieties of psychological types he called attitudes: extroverts (E) whose energy is focused on the outside world and introverts (I) who focus their energy on what is going on inside of them. He also though that people came in two varieties of functions of thought, rational and irrational. To Jung rational thought comprised of: thinking (T) and feeling (F) and irrational thought comprised of: sensing (S) and intuiting (N). When combining one of the two attitudes of psychological types with one of the four functions of thought, Jung came up with eight different types of personalities.

This is the precursor to the famous Myers-Briggs type indicator or MBTI, a personality inventory (sometimes called a test) widely used in the exploration of personality. Myers and Briggs added what they called a lifestyle function that consists of judging (J) and perceiving (P), to identify people’s preference between their perceiving functions, consisting of (S) and (N) or their judging functions, consisting of (T) and (F).

Having completed the questions contained in the inventory, an individual receives one of sixteen possible four-letter personality profiles, for example, ENTP (E) extroverted, (N) intuitive, (T) thinking and (P) perceiving.

The first letter determines where the person draws their energy from, also called the individual’s preferred world, in this case we have an (E). So this person energy is mostly obtained from the outside world. The last letter, the lifestyle functions points to the individual’s dominant function. In this case, the lifestyle function is (P). Therefore, the dominant function in our hypothetical person is (N), the second letter. Because (N) is one of the perceiving functions. The dominant function is used in a confident and conscious way.

The third letter, in this case (T) is the auxiliary function, it supports the dominant function. If the lifestyle function would have been (J), the dominant function would have been (T) and the auxiliary function would have been (N). Are you following me?

The second letter represents how a person gathers information. In this case we have (N), which means that the individual gathers information by using intuition. The fourth letter represents how a person decides on the information that has been gathered. In this case, we have a (T), which makes this person is a thinker. So you don’t want to rely on this person to make an urgent decision. You would rather want someone that can decide on gut feeling. This would be its (F) counterpart.

There is also a tertiary function. This function is the opposite of the auxiliary function. In this case, it would be (F), the opposite of (T). It is largely unconscious. It becomes more useful later in development when an individual matures and discovers it. For example, an (F) person who always decided on things by gut feeling may become more of a thinker (T).

Finally, there is an inferior function. This one is the opposite of the dominant function. So in this case, the inferior function is (S) for sensing which is the opposite of (N) for intuiting. This function is completely unconscious. Like the tertiary function, it develops later in life but can be a source of conflict and stress.

Below is a brief review of the significance of each of the letters for an individual of a given type.

Preferred World

Extroverted: They get their energy from the outside world. They like to interact with the world, are outgoing. They are talkative and like to be around people.

Introverted: The opposite of extroverted. They get their energy from their inside world. They rather not deal with the outside world. They are not talkative and may pass as shy people. They rather stay home and read a book, for example, instead of going to a party.

If you sit beside an extrovert on a plane, you may know all about their final destination, the sites they are going to see and the place they are going to stay before the plane takes off. I you are an introvert you were trying to read your book and wish the introvert would stop talking. The extrovert often saps the introvert from his energy.

Information Gathering

Sensing: These people rely strictly on their senses to gather information. They like to have facts. They want to learn through experience. They build a big picture about things by gathering facts.

Intuiting: These people like to look at what things mean and what they stand for. They like to try to read between the lines. Contrary to the sensing people they start with the big picture then look at the facts that lead to it. They seek new experiences and like to learn from them.

Decision Making

Thinking: These individuals like to think things through before they decide. They base their decision on the rational. They value the rigour of logic and science.

Feeling: They rely more on gut feeling and emotions to decide. They consider the interest of others. They want their decision to come from the heart and want to feel compassionate.

Interactions with the Outer World

Judging: Judging people use mainly one of the judging functions to interact with the other world (their primary function). That is, prefers decision making, by using either the thinking or feeling function.

Perceiving: Judging people use mainly their perceiving function to interact with the outer world, that is they prefer information gathering through either the sensing or intuiting function.


The study of personality has a long history. In this article I have only scratch its surface. The goal of the article was to spark interest in the study of one’s own personality. Knowledge of the self is key to connecting your goals with who you are, making it more likely that they will be endowed with deep purpose and meaning. Knowing yourself also makes it easier to make better decisions, as your choices will be consistent with your personality. In short, knowledge of the self is one of the great contributors to happiness.