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What Is Personality?

From eccentric and introverted to boisterous and bold, the human personality is a complex and colorful thing. Personality refers to a person's distinctive patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It derives from a mix of innate dispositions and inclinations along with environmental factors and experiences. Although personality can change over a lifetime, one's core personality traits tend to remain relatively consistent during adulthood.

While there are countless characteristics that combine in an almost infinite number of ways, people have been trying to find a way to classify personalities ever since Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks proposed four basic temperaments. Today, psychologists often describe personality in terms of five basic traits. The so-called Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. A newer model, called HEXACO, incorporates honesty-humility as a sixth key trait.

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, for example. Yet there’s little empirical support for the idea. The personality types supplied by the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator have also been challenged by scientists.

Psychologists who study personality believe such typologies generally are too simplistic to account for the ways people differ. Instead, there is broad scientific consensus around the Big Five model of trait dimensions, each of which contributes to one's personality and is largely independent of the others.

Why Personality Matters

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Personality psychology—with its different ways of organizing, measuring, and understanding individual differences—can help people better grasp and articulate what they are like and how they compare to others. But the details of personality are relevant to more than just a person's self-image.

The tendencies in thinking and behaving that concepts like the Big Five represent are related to a variety of other ways in which people compare to one another. These include differences in personal success, health and well-being, and how people get along with others. Personality also crosses into the realm of mental health: Professionals use a list of personality disorders involving long-term dysfunctional tendencies to diagnose and treat patients.

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