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Find Out What Makes You Tick

A primer in personality to help you understand yourself.

If you’ve ever been asked the question “What makes you tick?” you may have found it harder to answer than you realized. After all, if you don’t know yourself, who does? The reason this question is so hard to answer is that we don’t often think about our basic thoughts, feelings, and behavior. By learning about psychology’s major personality theories, you’ll gain self-insights into why you do what you do and how, if you want, you can change.

You might think that psychology decided long ago how to define personality. After all, this is one of the basic concepts that psychologists study. It turns out that there are almost as many definitions of personality as there are psychologists. From Freudians to Skinnerians, and everything in between, psychologists offer definitions that reflect their basic philosophy about the fundamentals of human nature.

If you’re not given to philosophical debates and would just like to know how to understand yourself, there’s hope. Most psychologists agree on a working definition of personality to guide them in their professional work, research, and even personal lives, that personality is an individual’s characteristic ways of feeling or behaving. Different psychologists emphasize feelings, behavior, and the underlying reasons that people feel and behave in certain ways. However, all psychologists view personality as a characteristic of the individual, meaning that it is the basis for differences from person to person.

Moving ahead with this basic definition, let’s go on to see what you can learn from the great thinkers in personality psychology.

The psychodynamics of personality

Any decent guide to personality must begin with Freud, who is credited with discovering the unconscious mind. According to Freud, your personality reflects the complex interrelationships between conscious and unconscious forces as you face your life’s challenges. We are all governed by primal needs of which we are not aware, Freud believed. We spend our lives attempting to meet those needs while, at the same time, we carry on with our relationships and our occupational pursuits (“love and work,” as Freud would say).

Though contemporary psychologists don’t necessarily buy Freud’s entire theory, they agree (more or less) that something like defense mechanisms guide our behavior. To protect ourselves from anxiety, we build protective walls that keep our conscious minds from acknowledging our unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Freud’s theory also paved the way for later psychologists to gain an understanding of personality “types” such as the introvert, the narcissist, and the neurotic. Surprisingly, though we think of psychodynamic theory as emphasizing inborn tendencies (such as the sex drive), Freudians and neo-Freudians gave more weight to nurture than nature as influencing development. For example, narcissists engage in excessive self-love due to either too much or too little attention from their parents.

Several of his closest colleagues eventually formed a sort of Freudian Brat Pack and broke away from his emphasis on sex and other primal instincts. One of the most significant was Carl Jung, who took some of Freud’s concepts and used them to develop his own model of basic personality types. It is really Jung who gave us the terms “introvert” and “extravert” as we understand them today. Jung also emphasized a deeper layer of the mind that is common to all humans. He believed that we all possess “archetypes” which are propensities to respond to certain universal themes. One such theme is the “hero” archetype which, according to Jung, is activated when we respond to such iconic characters as Batman, Superman, or even Jesus Christ. We are drawn to these characters because these images are imprinted in our unconscious minds.

The bottom line is that psychodynamic theory emphasizes the parts of your mind that affect you on a daily basis, going on within you outside of your conscious awareness.

Personality as a set of behaviors

Behaviorist theories propose that we have no “personality.” According to the behaviorist theory as expressed by one of its originators, B.F. Skinner, we respond to events in our daily lives on the basis of acquired habits. Our personalities, according to behaviorists, are no more than a collection of typical ways of responding that we’ve learned through reinforcement and conditioning.

Your unique personal qualities, according to behaviorists, reflect the many experiences you’ve had from birth through the present. The good news is that if you don’t like your personality, behaviorists believe that you can change it by rearranging the environmental cues that influence you. Behaviorists are the most optimistic, in many ways, about the possibility of personality change.

Let’s look at the concept of anxiety from a behaviorist perspective. If you’re anxious because you’ve learned to be anxious, behaviorists believe you can also unlearn that anxiety. Analyze the conditions that led you to have an anxious reaction, and then by reversing those conditions, the anxiety will gradually dissipate. For example, you may have learned to fear eating in front of people (a common type of phobia) because you were embarrassed by something you did or humiliated by someone who made you feel awkward at mealtimes. To overcome this phobia, behaviorists would say you need to restructure social situations so that you relearn to associate eating cues with pleasant feelings. To the extent that personality is made up of habits, those habits can be changed by focusing on the cues that control them.

Behaviorists have their own Brat Pack, too, who believe that we have to go beneath the surface of behavior to achieve self-understanding. According to social learning theory, our personalities are shaped by the behavior of others. When you see someone receive rewards for performing certain actions, you develop an expectation that if you perform those actions, you’ll also get rewarded. In this way, you can build your sense of self-efficacy, or belief that you can successfully accomplish a task.

Another spinoff of behaviorism focuses specifically on the thoughts that guide our actions. According to the cognitive-behavioral approach, you have so-called “automatic thoughts” that lead you to make judgments about your own self-worth. There are good automatic thoughts that bring you up and bad ones that bring you down. The good automatic thoughts are ones that emphasize your positive qualities and the bad ones focus on your flaws. If you’re constantly judging yourself too negatively with these bad automatic thoughts, you’ll eventually have such low self-worth that you become clinically depressed.

The great thing about cognitive-behavioral theory is that it gives you a handle on how to fix your self-esteem by fixing your thoughts. When you feel one of those bad self-judging moments coming on, you can learn to head them off at the pass. The key to understanding your personality, then, is understanding the thoughts that influence your feelings and ultimately your behaviors. Thoughts of loss and failure lead to depression, but thoughts of gain and success lead to positive moods.

A positive person-centered approach

The legendary psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow decided that personality theory needed to focus more on the uniquely human qualities that we all possess. They wrote about self-actualization and self-awareness in ways that redefined the field and eventually led to the growth of positive psychology. Getting back to the point of this blog, though, what did their theories say about your personality?

The person-centered or humanistic approach says that to be fulfilled, we have to accept ourselves for who we are. Many people find this difficult to do because, as children, we were given “conditions of worth” by our parents. These conditions occur when parents make their children feel that they will be loved only if they do what their parents want them to do. As adults, we continue to hold their ideals in front of us instead of our own. To achieve greater fulfillment, we have to switch the goals that other people have for us with our own.

Maslow believed that self-actualization, or the realization of your true inner potential, could only occur when you had satisfied your lower-order needs such as feeling safe and being loved by others. Rogers gave greater emphasis in his view of self-actualization to achieving congruence, or fit, between your true self and your ideal self of who you want to be. The closer you can bring these two together, the more self-accepting you’ll be. When you achieve complete self-acceptance, according to Rogers, your anxiety will go away and you’ll be able to enjoy your life- and yourself.

From the person-centered approach, you can gain insight into how to be more fulfilled by learning to scrap the conditions of worth you place on yourself. This doesn’t mean that you never try to improve yourself. From the standpoint of positive psychology, you can continue to strive for greater fulfillment even while you change the inner obstacles that stand in your way.

The Personality Trait Approach

When you are asked to describe someone’s personality, the chances are that you come up with a set of adjectives such as “quiet,” or “funny,” or “outgoing.” Many people equate personality with these ways of describing their main characteristics. These ideas are reflected in trait theory, an approach that is gaining increasing popularity both in the professional literature and pop culture. Although introversion and neuroticism are ideas that may have originated with psychodynamic theory, they are now part and parcel of trait theory.

The most comprehensive approach to trait theory is called the Five Factor Model which proposes, as you might guess, that there are five sets of traits that characterize all of us. The five traits conveniently spell out the word “OCEAN,” or perhaps “CANOE.” They are: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Each of the five traits has six subcategories, producing a grand total of 30 possible combinations to characterize your personality.

One of the key assumptions of trait theory is that these 30 traits are ingrained in us from birth. In fact, true trait theorists believe that the traits are part of our genetic makeup and that you can identify the conscientious or neurotic person as an infant. However, researchers studying the lifespan are now finding that people’s traits can modify over time. If you were a neurotic adolescent, you can become a calm and content middle-aged adult. You may evolve this way over time on your own through your life experiences, but you can also change through psychotherapy.

Trait theory also teaches us that, not only does the environment modify us, but that our characteristics modify our experiences. If you are a highly neurotic individual, you may have more difficulty holding onto jobs or relationships. Highly conscientious people can improve their chances of living a long and healthy life by adhering to a nutritious diet and regular involvement in exercise.

The upshot is that you may have certain propensities in your personality that lead you to make certain decisions, some of which will improve your life and others of which hamper your ability to achieve fulfillment. By identifying your own unique combination of personality traits, you can figure out which personality traits are fine as is, and which need a bit of work.


Now that you’ve learned about the major personality approaches in psychology, it’s time to take stock and figure out which parts of each theory are most useful to you. Psychologists themselves don’t just operate from one theoretical perspective. As therapists, researchers, and “people,” psychologists pick and choose the parts of each orientation that fit with their own philosophies and personalities. None of us should be locked into one narrow definition of personality.

By finding your own unique blend of theories, you can then move on to greater self-understanding and ultimately, to knowledge of how you, as an individual, can achieve the greatest fulfillment.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012.

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