Personality Theories

What are the personality theories?

Personality theories are a set of academic constructs raised in psychology to explain the variations in behavior between some individuals and others.

In Psychology, personality is understood as the set of subjective characteristics that make an individual unique and that determine their behavior in the face of their vital circumstances.

The pioneer of personality theories was Gordon Allport, an American psychologist who in 1936 published the first book on this subject, and in which he suggested two ways of studying personality:

  • Nomothetic psychology: studies universal behaviors.
  • Ideographic psychology: studies the psychological traits that differentiate people.

Since then, the study of personality has been raised from different fields: genetic, social, environmental, etc.

In this sense, there are theories of personality that, in turn, can have multiple variants, according to the changes or updates suggested by new authors or studies.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory

Psychoanalytic theory was created by the Viennese psychologist Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the 20th century and essentially posits the interaction of three parts of the personality:

  • It: It is the part of the personality that seeks immediate satisfaction.
  • Me: it is the part that tries to satisfy the demands of the self in a realistic way.
  • superego: includes moral and social aspects, influenced in turn by parental patterns.

Similarly, Freud claimed that the stage of early childhood was essential for the development of adult personality, and that the latter included 5 phases of psychosexual development:

  1. oral stage: It is expressed in the first 18 months of life and the baby tries to explore the world through the mouth.
  2. anal stage: lasts up to 3 years and is the phase in which the child controls his sphincters.
  3. phallic stage: lasts up to 6 years and sexual differences begin to be explored.
  4. latency stage: lasts until adolescence and is characterized by the development of the sense of modesty.
  5. genital stage: refers to the physical and psychological changes of adolescence that end with adulthood.

The German psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm also added his own insights to create the theory of humanistic psychoanalysis. In this sense, Fromm distanced himself from the Freudian postulates on the libido and dedicated himself to delving into the transcendental motivations of the human being, such as freedom and love.

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For Fromm, the goal of the psychoanalyst should be to help the individual to know himself and guide him to find his personal freedom.

Jung’s psychoanalytic theory

One of the most outstanding disciples of Freud and his psychoanalytic theory was Carl Jung. However, Jung made his own contribution to psychoanalysis by raising the concept of the collective unconscious. According to the researcher, all individuals share a series of common mental structures and these structures are stored in our dreams.

In addition, Jung proposed personality profiles based on the combination of two main categories (introversion and extroversion) and four functions (sensing, thinking, intuition, feeling). The result is eight personality types.


They create their own constructs from their experiences with the outside world and from the explanations they get from their interactions with others.


They have natural leadership skills as they have a deep belief in themselves and what they can bring to the world.


They are people with high skills for socialization. His approach to reality is more emotional than rational.


They are adventurous people, their connection with the world is through new experiences. They are explorers of places and ideas by nature.


They are characterized by the development of a deep self-awareness. They tend to self-reflection and as a consequence they have an easy time identifying their strengths and weaknesses.


They are people who tend to become self-absorbed and are dreamers and fantasists by nature. Because of that, they find it hard to fit into the real world.


Although they are emotional people, their introversion prevents them from expressing what they feel, which can lead to certain difficulties in expressing affection.


They are people who experience the world from the stimuli they perceive from it. However, their appreciations and discoveries are part of their inner world, since they do not usually share their findings with others.

Behavioral theories of Pavlov and Skinner

Behaviorism is a theory of personality created by Ivan Pavlov and Frederick Skinner, based on the idea that external stimuli influence the formation and reinforcement of personality.

Pavlov and Skinner used the scientific method to explain how an organism’s interaction with its environment generated a “reward” for its behavior. This positive reinforcement caused the repetition of the response to the stimulus.

This process had three essential elements:

  • Stimulus: the signal from the environment that generates a response (the baby cries because he has been left alone).
  • Response: is the action caused by the stimulus (the mother returns and carries him in her arms).
  • Consequence: it is the association between the stimulus and the response (the baby learns that if the mother leaves him alone, he must cry for him to return).
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Later, behaviorism would develop two aspects: classical conditioning (defended by Pavlov) which states, among other things, that the response to a stimulus is always involuntary.

For his part Skinner would be the creator of the theory of operant conditioning, which suggests that the response to the stimulus is voluntary, at least most of the time.

See also: Psychology.

Bandura’s cognitive theory

Albert Bandura developed a theory of personality based on the beliefs or expectations that an individual has about the world around him. These beliefs are called cognitions, so his theory was called cognitive theory.

In addition, Bandura posits that cognitive processes play a fundamental role in personality. Therefore, thoughts, memory, emotions, and value judgments also influence people’s behavior.

Carl Rogers’ humanistic theory

Carl Rogers proposes the development of personality as a product of the individual’s choices, based on his free will and his subjective view of the world. This construct is known as the humanistic theory of personality.

Unlike psychoanalytic theory, which is based on the pathologies of the individual, humanistic theory focuses on the study of a supposed human need to achieve meaningful goals.

In this sense, for humanistic psychologists there are four dimensions of personality, which are expressed to a greater or lesser degree in each individual:

  • unanimous sense of humor: It is a dimension of people who are very friendly, transparent and political.
  • Reality and problem centered: it is a dimension that is expressed in people focused on the conflicts in their environment.
  • Awareness: is the dimension that manifests itself in people who experience life events in an intense and transcendental way.
  • Acceptance: is the dimension expressed in people who flow naturally with the events of life.

Allport’s ideographic theory

American psychologist Gordon Allport proposed the existence of psychological structures called traits. These features can be central or secondary and their function is to decant the stimuli in such a way that they can be assimilated in a similar way in different situations.

This response system allows individuals to better adapt to the environment and has an essential influence on people’s self-perception and self-esteem processes.

On the other hand, for Allport all individuals are oriented towards the fulfillment of vital objectives, therefore, they are active beings with full participation in their personal development process. All his approaches were framed in his ideographic theory of personality.

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Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory

It is also known as personal construct theory, and although it has cognitive influences, it is considered more of a contribution more in line with the postulates of constructivist theory.

This theory of personality, developed by psychologist George Kelly, is based on the assumption that people understand the world based on dichotomous concepts, such as love-hate, joy-sadness, peace-war, etc.

In this sense, the personality of an individual can be defined from a series of qualifiers. However, what is interesting is the meaning that the person assigns to these adjectives, since this is determined by their beliefs and experiences, that is, by their personal constructs.

Eysenck’s PEN model

The American psychologist Hans Eysenck proposed the PEN model, which is based on the existence of three essential factors that define the personality of an individual: psychotism, extraversion and neuroticism.

Eysenck’s PEN model emerged after evaluating more than 700 soldiers who had participated in World War II. From this study he obtained a series of data that revealed the existence of three common factors that were related to biological aspects, as described below.


It is a characteristic factor in antisocial people, with little sense of empathy and with a tendency to criminal behavior or suffering from mental disorders. For Eysenck, psychotism was related to neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.


Extraversion is linked to vitality, sociability, and optimism, so people with the opposite traits (passivity, low sociability, and pessimism) would be considered introverts. For Eysenck, this duality is associated with levels of cortical arousal.


This factor is associated with anxiety, exaggerated emotional reactions and a propensity for irritability. This is related, according to Eysenck’s PEN model, to the arousal levels of the limbic system. The lower the activation threshold of this system, the greater the propensity for neuroticism.

On the contrary, people with a higher activation threshold of the limbic system have greater emotional control and their response to different situations is much more balanced.

Darwinian theory of personality

This theory explains the development of personality based on Darwin’s studies on the origin of species and their subsequent evolution.

According to this approach, personality is the result of natural selection processes. This entails the expression of traits that will help a subject to survive in a given environment, such as solidarity, sociability and leadership.

See also Evolutionary Psychology.