Understanding personality

What is personality? Is it possible to change your personality? Even the though we all have a personality, the concept can still be a little hard to explain. In this blog we are going to look at ways to understand personality. Understanding this abstract concept can make it easier for us to see why some behavior comes more natural to us.

by Oliver Østergaard

You might have come across one of those quizzes that tells you which of the Spice Girls you are the most like, or what house you would belong to if you attended Hogwarts. Hufflepuff? While these tests certainly can be entertaining, they are not likely to capture all the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that distinguish you from others I.e your personality.

What is personality?

Describing personality is a tricky task that researchers are still working on today. Even though there are many theories about personality, influenced by different schools of thought, there seems to be a general consensus that personality is the unique combination of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that creates a person's distinctive character. Biology, environment, and experience all play a role in shaping our personality, but different theories may focus more on one of these influences.

The psychodynamic explanation focuses on the influence our unconscious thoughts and feelings can have on our personality. Meanwhile, behavioral theories suggest that our personality is formed through our interactions with our environment and tend to be less concerned with the influence of our internal experience. Finally, humanists stress the importance of free will and challenge the idea that personality can be fully explained by looking at nature and nurture.

As you can see there are many different ways to look at personality. Some theories believe that the topic is best understood through personality types. A good example of this is the ever-popular Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI). This questionnaire assigns people to one of 16 personality types based on how they rank on four continuums: introversion-extraversion, sensing-intuition, thinking-feeling, and judging-perceiving.

Another way to describe personality is through traits. Trait theories build on the idea that people have certain core traits and that the intensity of these traits is what decides our personality. The number of core traits we possess differs from theory to theory, but the most widely used model is the Five-Factor Model, also known as “The Big Five”.

The Big Five

Several personality psychologists support the idea that there are five basic dimensions of personality. However, there is still disagreement about how exactly these core traits should be labeled. So far, these are the most common names for each of the five traits:

  • Openness - Describes your curiosity and openness to new emotions and experiences. Those who score high in openness tend to be very creative and have lots of different interests.

  • Conscientiousness - Describes your self-discipline and the way you control your impulses. Those who score high in conscientiousness usually like to have things planned out and follow a schedule.

  • Agreeableness - Describes your compassion and cooperativeness. Those who score high in agreeableness are more willing to set aside their own interests to archive social harmony.

  • Extraversion - Describes your sociability and emotional expressiveness. Those who score high in extraversion are outgoing and gain energy from social situations.

  • Neuroticism - Describes your tendency to experience negative emotions. Those who score high in neuroticism are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening.

The big five is a good tool for understanding personality, but it also has its limits. It would be wrong to say that the Big Five completely explains all of your personality. Traits that are more privately held or context-dependent, like religiosity, seductiveness, and humor are excluded from the model.

Can our personality change?

Though it may seem like personality is fixed, we know that it can change throughout life. Studies have found that people tend to become more conscientious as they age. Life events, like getting married, have also been shown to influence personality by increasing emotional stability. So your personality can change and it is even possible to change it on purpose. We can work to become more social or more organized, even if these are not traits we score high in. Our personality is not written in stone. It’s malleable and something we can influence consciously.

So if want to work towards a specific goal, like becoming more extroverted, it is possible to change parts of your personality. The important thing is that you do it at a tempo you are comfortable with. Start small. E.g. Inviting a neighbor over for coffee. Take it slow and accept yourself for who you are in the meantime.

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