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What Is Personality?

From eccentric and introverted to boisterous and bold, the human personality is a unique, multifaceted thing. Personality refers to a distinctive assemblage of traits—characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It derives from a mix of inborn dispositions and inclinations along with environmental factors and experiences. Although personality can change over the course of time, one's core characteristics tend to remain steady over a lifetime.

While there are countless characteristics that combine in an almost infinite number of ways, people have been trying to find a way to classify personality into types ever since Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks defined four basic temperaments. Today, psychologists generally define personality in terms of five basic traits. The so-called Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (A new model gaining momentum incorporates honesty-humility as a sixth key trait.)

For the last hundred years, employers have often sought to apply systematic approaches to employee selection, and they have utilized various assessments of personality characteristics. Currently, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the DISC personality test are used widely. Critics contend that their ways of sorting people into discrete type categories are not valid psychologically and, further, that there is no evidence that the typologies predict anything meaningful about job or life performance.

What's My Personality Type?

The idea of a personality "type" is fairly widespread. Many people associate a "Type A" personality with a more organized, rigid, competitive, and anxious person, while a type B personality signals flexibility, creativity, and relaxation. Yet there’s little empirical support for the idea. In fact, it didn’t even emerge from psychology—two cardiologists created the concept as a way to understand the connection between stressed patients and the likelihood of developing heart disease and high blood pressure.

Psychologists who study personality believe such typologies generally are too simplistic to account for the many ways people differ in personality. Instead, there is broad scientific consensus around the Big Five. Each of these key traits contributes to one's personality and is independent of the others.

In addition to generally remaining stable across one's lifetime, they can also predict behavior in certain situations or correlate with life outcomes. High conscientiousness, for example, is associated with higher lifetime earnings.

What Are the Big Five Personality Traits?


The dominant paradigm in the study of personality today is the five-factor model.

Openness is the desire to seek out new and unfamiliar experiences. Conscientiousness represents the tendency toward self-discipline and planning over impulsivity. Extroversion refers to whether one draws energy from time spent with others or time spent alone. Agreeableness is how cooperative, polite, and kind one tends to be, while neuroticism encompasses emotional stability and one’s tendency toward anxiety and self-doubt.

The field has yet to settle, however, on a single test or model that is able to capture the full range of human personality.

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