What is Personality?

"Personality is far too complex a thing to be trussed up in a conceptual straightjacket." (Gordon Allport, Becoming, 1955, p.vii)

Attempts to Define Personality

How did Allport go about answering the question "What is Personality?"

In 1937, about twenty years before he wrote the above words, psychologist Gordon Allport set out to answer the question, "What is personality?" Rather than start with his own assumptions, he decided to look at how other people used the word. He searched through magazines, newspapers, and books, until he had documented every way people used the term personality or the word person. He claimed to find 50 different definitions. To reach this impressive number Allport listed any usage of the word, such as the exclamation, "Oh that person!"

What is an omnibus definition, and why did Allport dislike this type?


               Gordon Allport

Allport said that when he sorted the serious definitions of personality into categories, he found three different types. The first type of definition might be called sweeping, all-purpose definitions. Allport called them omnibus definitions. A sweeping, all-purpose definition is one that attempts to cover all influences or factors that might affect personality. For example, we might say:

"Personality is everything that makes you an individual. It is the integration and interaction of your genetic inheritance, your experience, and your ways of relating the two."

Allport said this type of definition was useless. It covered all the possibilities, but it did not provide any useful guidance. It did not tell how to distinguish different personalities, for example.

A second approach to define personality is the trait approach. This can be used, among other ways, to draw up profiles of individual people. Profiling requires that people be rated or described using a series of traits or dimensions. Allport called this the integrative/configurational approach because overall personality would be seen as an integration or configuration of these different traits or dimensions.

What does a trait theory describe?

A trait is a consistent psychological, behavioral, or physical characteristic such as shyness, level of physical activity, or shape of the ear. If you rate a person on a variety of traits, the result is a profile of the person. Allport became a leading trait theorist in the 1940s and 1950s. Trait approaches enjoyed a revival of interest in the late 20th Century, and we will describe them in the next few pages.

A third approach to defining personality is the systems approach (what Allport called the hierarchical approach) in which one attempts to describe different components and levels of control in the personality system.

What are three widely agreed-upon components?

Most psychologists implicitly (that is, without saying so) seem to endorse a simple set of assumptions about the way personality is put together in humans. Most distinguish between three different components or layers in personality: the persona, the self, and the unconscious processes.

First, people use a mask or external layer—perhaps several of them, for different occasions. This is the personality an individual shows the world. The word persona is used to describe this layer. Persona is also the name used in ancient Greece for theatrical masks worn by actors to indicate emotion. People are usually aware that the appearance they put on is distinct from the underlying true self. Different masks or roles can be assumed, depending upon the context—a person does not necessarily act the same way in class, at a party, or at home. So it is normal to have a variety of masks or personas for different social settings.

The second level of personality, behind the mask, is the private self or ego. This can also be called the personal identity. To most people, this is the personality. It is the part that switches around in dissociative identity disorder (DID) or "multiple personality." Whatever you call it (me, myself, I, ego, identity) this part of personality dominates conscious experience. It is closely tied to our memory for personal episodes in our lives. It seems to have something to do with controlling other mental processes and is often called an executive process, because it sets up plans to be executed.

The third component, distinct from both the persona and the conscious self, is the realm of unconscious processes in the mind. Unconscious processes include everything not normally accessible to conscious awareness. As we will see, several of the early personality theories (those of Freud and Jung) emphasized unconscious processes. Modern cognitive psychologists are aware of many different unconscious processes, and they now regard the executive process as a small part of the total cognitive system.

Reviewing the three main approaches to defining personality, we find that one approach (the omnibus approach) is almost useless. One approach (the hierarchical or systems approach) is so universally agreed-upon that it is almost taken for granted. That leaves only one—the approach that Allport called integrative/configurational but which might be more simply called the trait approach—as a basis for research.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey