People have been judging one another for a long time, but only in the past 100 years have the professions of psychology and psychiatry emerged. Members of these professions keep confidential what their patients tell them and they apply psychiatric diagnoses to those whom they treat.

These professionals, as well as other thoughtful people, judge others' personalities in ways that differ from judgments made by less-insightful individuals.  In this post, I will explore how making thoughtful judgments of others emerged as a professional activity (more background here).

The development of more insightful and, ultimately, professional judgments of others is reflected in the writings of those who established the field of personality psychology at the beginning of the 20th century.

I recognize A. A. Roback's 1927 "Psychology of Character," as the first American textbook of personality (open library). Although his title makes no mention of personality per se, Roback comments on page 3 that his, "...interlocked subjects of character and temperament..." recently have been, "...examined...under the more comprehensive head of personality." Introducing the book's second edition, Roback attributes his volume's success to new courses in personality psychology that employed the book.  In fact, the second edition of "Psychology of Character" followed the original printing by a mere eight months.

In the book's Chapter 9, "Defining Terms," Roback refers to personality as:

"...the sum total of all our cognitive, affective, conative and even physical tendencies."

Roback distinguishes this strikingly-contemporary definition from the popular use of "personality." He wrote:

"Most people are inclined to pay too much attention to the external manifestations of personality, such as charm, bearing, carriage, and presence. In the long run, however, it is the invisible which counts."

In fact, Roback refers to personality as possessing a "dual phase" -- one inside psychological phase that is hidden, and another external, expressed quality. (Today, psychologists would tend to say, more simply, that a person's inner psychology is "personality," and the external signs of that personality count as "personality's expression").

But what is this "invisible" property of personality that the public tends to ignore and psychologists should attend to? To explain himself, Roback turns to the experience of someone who learns about a friend over time. Imagine, he says, you knew someone whom other people found alluring:

"What is usually referred to as personal magnetism is nothing more than an exceptionally pleasing externality, including a certain genial expression both of the countenance and the voice and perhaps even of gesture...It is evident that in due course the charm of these physical qualities wears off for the friend of long standing and the deeper or inner personality begins to stand out...".

Although Roback does not explicitly say what the inner personality consists of, it seems fair to return to his definition of personality as made up of the "cognitive, affective, and conative" aspects of mental life.  With that phrase, Roback refers to the inner mental processes of thoughts, feelings, and motivated decision-making.    

Over a "due course" of time, Roback claims, these inner qualities of a person become more evident to someone who knows the individual well. Inner qualities are revealed, Roback seems to imply, by observing a person's unfolding life over time.  The life course, Roback suggests, is determined, first, by the motives and feelings that make up a person's temperament, and, second, by the intelligence and self-control that make up his or her character.

The outside phase of personality's dual phase is a life that reflects such mental operations over the long-term. In fact, as we discern the shape of a person's choices and activities over time, we may become less concerned with his or her charm, talkativeness, or other superficial qualities, and begin to know the inner qualities that the individual possesses.  It is one's inner values and key choices that are expressed over time. As Roback puts it:

"In biography, personality is represented, it seems to me, mainly by character and temperament. The principle governing our estimates of personality appears to be that the farther we are removed from an individual, the more do we concern ourselves with his internal personality and the less with his external qualities."

Roback argues that sophisticated people analyze personality by seeking to understand the inner person.  This can involve long-term observations of an individual's life expressions, and then drawing scientific inferences from those observations so as to describe the person's inner functioning.  The personality psychologist, or insightful person more generally, can reveal a person's hidden, interior psychological functioning by getting to know a person or by analyzing someone's life expressions.

If true, that surely would be a power to employ carefully. In 1927, Roback's perspective was little more than a promissory note as to what future professionals might accomplish: psychology was still emerging from philosophy, literary arts, and intuition.

Roback was, however, forecasting what later psychological technologies would indeed bring about: They would create windows (figuratively speaking) through which to see the private and inner thoughts of the person. To a public accustomed to being taken at face value, and accustomed to their private feelings remaining hidden behind rules of politeness and codes of conduct, these new psychologists' ambition must have seemed off-putting to say the least. It is one thing for you to be known by your friend after all, quite another to be known by a stranger using a mysterious new science.


Roback, A. A. (1927). The psychology of character. Harcourt, Brace & Company.

The definition of personality as, "...the sum total..." of various attributes is on p. 159. "Most people are inclined to pay too much attention...," "What is usually referred to...," the "dual phase" idea and "In biography...", all are from p. 159, Roback, A. A. (1928). The psychology of character (2nd ed.). Harcourt, Brace & Company. The quote, "...the interlocked subjects of character and temperament..." including "personality" is from p. 3 of the same book, and the claim that the book has begun courses in personality psychology is from p. xii.

Light copy edits + 12 hrs.

Copyright © 2010 John D. Mayer

You are reading

The Personality Analyst

How the Experts Spot Liars (and How You Can, Too)

Our mind and body literally betray us when we lie. Here's how.

Six Lessons Preschoolers Learn about Personality

What children learn can teach scientists about personal intelligence

Can You Tell the Cat Lovers From the Dog Lovers?

Looking for clues to personality in a person's choice of pets