What is Personality? Definitions, Elements, Stages, Determinants, Theories, Big Five Personality Traits

What is Personality?

Personality refers to the set of traits possessed by an individual that makes him/her distinct from others. Personality determines the behaviour of an individual.

Personality can also be defined as a combination of physical, mental and moral qualities of individuals that are reflected in their unique behaviour.

Personality is a very important factor considered by organizations while recruiting employees. This is because personality traits determine the level of adaptability, performance, and team-bonding ability of an individual.

According to a recent survey, over 30% of employers use a personality test to hire employees. Employers are no more concerned about only attractive resumes and years of experience. For them, the personality and attitude of the employees in carrying out the jobs and their adaptability to the organization’s work culture are more important.

Generally, the traits that employers desire include conscientiousness, stress-handling ability, ability to work with others, leadership skills, ability to solve problems, and service orientation.

Personality Definition

Now, let us discuss some of the definitions of personality.

McClelland views personality as “the most adequate conceptualization of an individual’s behavior in all its details, which the scientist can provide at a moment in time”.

Webster’s New American Dictionary defines personality as “the assemblage of qualities, physical, mental and moral that set apart one individual from another”.

S.R. Maddi sees personality as “a set of characteristics and tendencies that determine those commonalities and differences in the behavior (thoughts, feelings, and actions) of people that have continuity in time and that may not be easily understood as the sole result of the social and biological pressures of the moment”.

The most comprehensive effort to explain personality came from Carl Jung, who was a psychotherapist and proponent of analytical psychology.

In his words, “Personality is the supreme realization of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being. It is an act of high courage flung in the face of life, the absolute affirmation of all that constitutes the individual, the most successful adaptation to the universal condition of existence coupled with the greatest possible freedom for self-determination.”

From these definitions, we can conclude that personality can be defined as a combination of physical, mental, and moral qualities of individuals that are reflected in their unique behavior.

For a better understanding of the concept of personality, we first need to explore its essential elements.

Elements of Personality

These elements of personality are briefly explained as follows:


It is the state of being free and able to act according to one’s own wishes. A free individual does not experience any constraints or restrictions in expressing emotions, feelings, ideas, and desires.


It refers to the way an individual reacts in response to external or internal stimuli in the environment.


It refers to the uniqueness of each individual. Each individual possesses varied characteristics and wishes. For example, the manner in which individual talks, reacts, or behaves may be entirely different from any other individual’s manner.

Physical, Mental and Moral Qualities

These imply that every individual has unique physical, mental and moral orientations. Some people may be fair, tall, and intelligent, whereas others may be different. Mental qualities deal with intelligence and logic, while moral qualities refer to trustworthiness, honesty, and other abstract qualities.

Adaptability to Environment

This refers to the varied capabilities of individuals to adjust to different environments. It has been observed that different individuals behave differently in different situations. They also have varied capabilities for adjusting to different social groups.

Psychological Systems

These refer to the set of components or parts of the body that help in thinking, analyzing, and reacting. The psychological system determines the kind of personality an individual may have.


They are the unconscious and recurring behavioral patterns that an individual acquires through continuous and repetitive processes, for example, the habit of smoking.

Stages of Personality Development

Personality development refers to the process of development of an organized pattern of behaviors and attitudes that makes a person unique. The personality of a person is developed as a continuous interaction of temperament, character, and environment.

Through experimentation and observation, psychologists have established patterns in the development of personalities that help us determine or predict the behavior of most individuals. Such patterns are often categorized into logical developmental stages.

Let us study the various stages of personality development in the next section.

Freudian Stages

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis. Freud believed that personality development happens through a number of stages. In addition, he proposed that childhood experiences have a deep impact on the personality of an individual.

Following are the Freudian stages of personality development:

Oral Stage

This stage pertains to infancy. In this stage, the prime source of interaction for an infant is through the mouth. Thus, sucking reflexes are especially important at this stage. In addition, because an infant is entirely dependent on a caretaker at this stage, he/she develops a sense of trust and comfort through oral stimulation.

Anal Stage

The age range in this stage is 1 to 3 years. In this stage, the primary focus of the libido is the control of bladder and bowel movements. Toilet training is a major conflict at this stage. The child has to learn and control his/her bodily needs. Development of this control leads to a sense of accomplishment and independence.

Phallic Stage

The age range of this stage is 3 to 6 years. In this stage, the primary focus of the libido is on the genitals, and the child begins to discover the difference between males and females.

Latent Stage

This stage begins at the age of 6 and lasts till puberty. In this period, the libido interest is suppressed. This stage begins when the child enters the school and becomes concerned with peer relationships, hobbies, and interests.

Genital Stage

This stage begins in puberty and lasts till death. At this age, the individual develops a strong sexual interest in the opposite sex.

Erikosn Stages (Neo-freudian Stages)

Erik Erikson was a German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, famous for his theory on the psychosocial development of human beings.

His theory of personal development is one of the most well-known theories on personality. Similar to Freud, Erikson believed that the development of personality happens in a number of stages.

Following are Erikson`s stages of personality development:

Stage 1: Trust Vs. Mistrust

This stage occurs between birth and one year of age. According to Erikson, this is the most fundamental stage in life. In this stage, a child is completely dependent on a caretaker; thus, the development of trust is based on the dependability and quality of the child`s caretaker(s).

Stage 2: Autonomy Vs. Shame and Doubt

This stage occurs in early childhood. In this stage, the focus is on developing a sense of personal control.

Stage 3: Initiative Vs. Guilt

In the preschool years, the child starts asserting his/her power and control over the world through social interactions. He/she takes various initiatives while playing and seeks the approval of caretakers. If the caretaker stifles such an initiative, the child develops a sense of guilt.

Stage 4: Industry Vs. Inferiority

This stage covers children from the age group of 5 to 11 years. In this stage, children develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their abilities through social interactions.

Stage 5: Identity Vs. Confusion

This stage occurs during adolescence when children explore their independence and develop a sense of self. Children receiving proper encouragement and enforcement through personal exploration emerge with a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control, after this stage.

Stage 6: Intimacy Vs. Isolation

This stage covers early adulthood when people start exploring personal relationships. According to Erikson, it is vital for people to develop close and committed relationships with other individuals. A person who has a strong sense of self forms committed and secure relationships at this stage.

Stage 7: Generativity Vs. Stagnation

This stage takes place during adulthood when people focus on careers and families. Those who are successful at this stage have a sense of contribution to the community as a whole. People who fail to attain this feel unproductive and uninvolved in the world.

Stage 8: Integrity Vs. Despair

This stage occurs towards the last stage of life when people reflect back on life. People who are unsuccessful at this stage feel that their life has been wasted and experience regrets.

Adult Life Stages

Psychologist Daniel Levinson was the proponent of these stages. He made a remarkable contribution in the field of psychology. His works mainly involved personality development in adults, which gained considerable attention in academic literature.

He identified the following four stable stages of adult personality development:

  • Entering into adulthood (ages 22 to 28)
  • Settling down (ages 33 to 40)
  • Entering into middle adulthood (ages 50 to 55)
  • End of middle adulthood (ages 55 to 60)

In addition to these stable periods, he also identified the following four transactional periods:

  • Age thirty transition (ages 28 to 30)
  • Mid-life transition (ages 40 to 45)
  • Age fifty transition (ages 50 to 55)
  • Late adult transition (ages 60 to 65)

According to Levinson, personality develops in an orderly sequence throughout adult life.

Determinants of Personality

Personality is formed through a continuous personal quality development process. Factors such as heredity, situations, and environment help to influence, mold, develop and determine the personality of an individual. Generally, such factors are known as determinants of personality.

The determinants of personality are briefly explained as follows:


This factor is inherited by individuals from their biological parents. The heredity factors, also known as biological factors, determine the nature and characteristics of a person. Some examples of heredity factors include the stature, height, temperament, and muscle composition of a person.


This factor consists of various factors, which are mentioned as follows:

  • Cultural Factor: This refers to the social, religious, and intellectual beliefs of an individual. Cultural factors affect the behavior of an individual to a great extent.

    For example, an individual interested in any form of art behaves in a more elegant way as compared to those who do not have any interest in art.

  • Family Factor: It contributes to one’s ethics and moral values. The principles and ideologies of family members are influenced by the family to a great extent.

  • Social Factor: This includes the religious and social associations of an individual. Naturally, society influences the personality of an individual. For example, an individual`s personality gets affected by the peer group he/she belongs to.

  • Situational Factor: The behavioral pattern of an individual depends on the situation he/she is in at a particular point in time. In addition, the behavior of a person in a particular situation also influences his/her behavior in similar situations in the future. For example, if a person successfully handles a stressful situation, he/she is in a better position to handle similar situations in the future.

Other Factors

These refer to factors such as law, the condition of the economy, the influence of information, and published literature that can influence the personality of an individual.

For example, the deteriorating economic condition of the country causes the situation of unemployment. Sometimes, such a situation persuades educated but unemployed individuals to indulge in certain criminal or unethical activities that change their personalities altogether.

Locus of Control and Personality

Locus of control is one of the significant aspects of personality. The concept was developed by Julian Rotter in the 1950s. It refers to the extent to which people believe that they can control the outcomes of the events in their lives. In other words, locus of control represents the degree to which people perceive that reinforcements are controlled by their own behavior or by outside forces, such as luck or fate.

Rotter conducted various experiments to understand whether or not people learn new things and perform differently when they consider reinforcements as related or unrelated to their behavior. During his experiments, Rotter developed an assessment tool, called the I-E scale that he used to measure an individual’s perception of control.

Internally controlled individuals (I) perceive that their behavior/action is responsible for the outcomes of the events in their lives. For example, after receiving exam results, an internally controlled student would praise/blame him/her for success/failure.

On the other hand, externally controlled people (E) believe that control is out of their hands and is purely based on fate or luck. For example, an externally controlled student may praise/blame his/her luck for success/failure in the exams.

People with an internal locus of control trust their own abilities and believe that their actions/behavior may lead them to gain positive results. They perceive that the outcomes of events are under their own control.

Moreover, these people accept that every action has its outcome and it depends on them whether they could control it or not. According to Rotter, internally controlled people exhibit two major characteristics: high achievement motivation and low outer-directedness.

Due to their locating control of themselves, internally controlled people tend to have more control over their lives. People with an external locus of control relate the outcome of events to external factors and believe that things that happen in their lives are out of their own control. Moreover, they perceive that their own action/behavior is the result of external factors, which they cannot control.

These people perceive that the world is so complex and full of elements that make the events of their lives uncontrollable. Externally controlled people are vulnerable to a variety of stress symptoms, such as emotional distress, burnout, job dissatisfaction, and low self-esteem. These people suffer from such symptoms due to frequent or excessive negative life events. They tend to blame others rather than themselves for the happenings of their lives.

Theories of Personality

The thought pattern, feelings, and behavior of an individual are imbibed in his/her personality. Various aspects of the personality of individuals are explained by various personality theories.

These theories organize all the available information about personality in a logical manner. In addition, the theories laid the foundation for further research in the field of personality.

They also mention the specific common characteristics of people with similar personalities in a clear fashion. This section will discuss the major theories of personality, including the psychoanalytic theory, neo-Freudian theories, trait theory, social learning theory, and self-theory.

Psychoanalytic Theory

This theory originated with the work of Sigmund Freud. From his clinical work with patients suffering from mental illness, Freud came to the conclusion that childhood experiences and unconscious desires influenced the behavior of individuals.

On the basis of this observation, he developed a personality theory, describing personality development in terms of a series of psychosexual stages. We have already discussed these stages earlier in the chapter.

According to Freud, conflicts occurring during each of these stages can influence the personality and behavior of an individual throughout life.

Neo-freudian Theories

These theories are the brain work of psychologists who agreed with the basis of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory but changed and adapted the theory to incorporate their own ideas, beliefs, and theories.

Some of the major neo-Freudian psychologists include Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Karen Homey, and Erich Fromm.

Sigmund Freud proposed a number of highly controversial ideas. However, these ideas attracted a number of followers as well. Many of these followers agreed with Freud’s concept of the unconscious mind and the role of early childhood in the personality of an individual. However, there are a number of points that other thinkers directly rejected. These thinkers went on to propose their own theories of personality. These theories are known as neo-Freudian theories.

There are a number of points of disagreement between these neo-Freudian thinkers and Freud. For instance, according to Erik Erikson, Freud was incorrect to suggest that personality is entirely shaped by childhood events.

Some of the other major points of disagreement are as follows:

  • Freud’s emphasis on sexual urges as a primary motivator

  • Freud’s view of human nature

  • Freud’s proposal that personality is entirely influenced by early childhood experiences

  • Freud’s lack of emphasis on the impact of social and cultural factors on behavior and personality

Trait Theory

A personality trait refers to a long-lasting attribute of a person that emerges in different situations. We can differentiate the personality of an individual from the personality of another person through traits. According to trait theory, every person has a specific and unique set of features.

Following are some of the other assumptions of the theory:

  • It allows variations in the traits of different individuals.
  • It presumes traits to be relatively stable.
  • It measures traits by using behavior indicators.

In addition, according to the trait theory, learning is perpetual in nature, and it brings changes in the personality of an individual from one time to another. Moreover, it attempts to establish a relationship between a set of personality characteristics and the behavior of an individual.

This theory is descriptive in nature, and it elaborates on the traits and characteristics of an individual. However, the theory lacks an analytical framework, because it does not elaborate on the reason why and how particular traits affect an individual’s personality.

Social Learning Theory

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action.” -Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977

This theory was proposed by Albert Bandura. This is one of the most influential theories of personality. The basis of this theory is that people can learn new information and behavior by watching other people. This theory is used to explain a wide variety of behaviors.

There are three core concepts of the social learning theory. These are as follows:

  • People can learn by observing others.

  • The internal mental condition of an individual is an essential part of the learning process.

  • An individual’s learning does not necessarily result in a change in his/her behavior.

Self Theory

Carl Rogers (1902-1987), an influential American psychologist, is the proponent of this theory. There are nineteen propositions in Rogers’ theory of personality development. However, the central focus of the theory is the concept of ‘self’.

According to Rogers, the ‘self’ is central to human personality. He believed that when a child is born, the concept of self is present in him like a tiny dot that grows bigger as the child grows.

The concept of self can be defined as an organized and complex system of learned beliefs that each person holds to be true about his/her personal existence. According to Rogers, the self is a social product that develops from social and interpersonal relationships.

Big Five Personality Traits

There are numerous traits that can be used to describe the behavior of a person. However, all the traits are not equally important in an organizational setup. Only a few traits correspond to positive behavior in a workplace. There is a consensus among researchers on five major traits that correspond to meaningful behavioral tendencies in the workplace. Collectively, these traits are called the Big Five.

These big five personality traits are elaborated as follows:


Some of the major psychologists involved in the research of this trait include Carl Jung, Hans Eysenck, and Raymond Cattel. Extroversion refers to the degree to which a person is outgoing and derives energy from being around other people.

In other words, it refers to the degree to which an individual:

  • Enjoys being with others
  • Is warm to others
  • Opens up in a group setting
  • Stays cheerful and likes excitement
  • Maintains a vigorous pace

Researches show that extroversion is positively correlated to job satisfaction at the workplace. Extroversion is very important in jobs related to customer services and client servicing.


It refers to the goal orientation of an individual. In other words, it refers to the degree to which a person:

  • Feels capable of achieving goals
  • Is organized
  • Is reliable and possesses a drive for success
  • Are an effective thinker and focus on completing tasks

Research shows that individuals with high levels of conscientiousness perform better in most jobs and are effective team players. This personality trait is important for top-level managers and employees working in leadership positions.


It refers to the extent to which a person is outgoing and tolerant. In other words, it refers to the degree to which an individual:

  • Is honest and straightforward
  • Believes in the honesty of others
  • Is helpful
  • Tends to yield under pressure
  • Exhibits humility and sensitivity to others

Agreeableness is especially important in jobs where teamwork is involved.

Emotional Stability

It relates to how a person reacts in a stressful or demanding situation. Some of the specific features of this trait include the degree to which a person:

  • Is relaxed and capable of handling stressful situations
  • Maintains calm and does not exhibit anger
  • Becomes embarrassed and discouraged
  • Handles difficult situations

Openness to Experience

It refers to the degree to which a person seeks new experiences and thinks creatively about the future. To be more specific, openness refers to the degree to which a person:

  • Is imaginative
  • Appreciates art and beauty
  • Values and respects others` emotions
  • Is curious
  • Is open to change

Individuals who are more open to new experiences perform well at creating jobs, for example, fashion designing, advertising, and media. In addition, this trait can help managers and leaders understand people better.

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  • Luthans, F. (1977). Organizational behavior. 1st ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

  • Cherry, K. (2014). What Is Personality and Why Does It Matter?. [online] About.com Psychology. Available at: http://psychology.about.com/od/overviewofpersonality/a/persondef.htm

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