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 Home » Tutorials » Psychology » Personality





The term ‘personality’ often appears in our day-to-day discussion. The literal meaning of personality is derived from the Latin word persona, the mask used by actors in the Roman theatre for changing their facial make-up. After putting on the mask, audience expected the person to perform a role in a particular manner. It did not, however, mean that the person enacting the given role necessarily possessed those qualities.

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For a layperson, personality generally refers to the physical or external appearance of an individual. For example, when we find someone ‘good-looking’, we often assume that the person also has a charming personality. This notion of personality is based on superficial impressions, which may not be correct. In psychological terms, personality refers to our characteristic ways of responding to individuals and situations. People can easily describe the way in which they respond to various situations. Certain catchwords (e.g., shy, sensitive, quiet, concerned, warm, etc.) are often used to describe personalities. These words refer to different components of personality. In this sense, personality refers to unique and relatively stable qualities that characterise an individual’s behaviour across different situations over a period of time.

If you watch closely, you will find that people do show variations in their behaviour. One is not always cautious or impulsive, shy or friendly. Personality characterises individuals as they appear in most circumstances. Consistency in behaviour, thought and emotion of an individual across situations and across time periods characterises her/his personality. For example, an honest person is more likely to remain honest irrespective of time or situation. However, situational variations in behaviour do occur as they help individuals in adapting to their environmental circumstances.
In brief, personality is characterised by the following features:
  • It has both physical and psychological components.
  • Its expression in terms of behaviour is fairly unique in a given individual.
  • Its main features do not easily change with time.
  • It is dynamic in the sense that some of its features may change due to internal or external situational demands. Thus, personality is adaptive to situations.

Once we are able to characterise someone’s personality, we can predict how that person will probably behave in a variety of circumstances. An understanding of personality allows us to deal with people in realistic and acceptable ways. For example, if you find a child who does not like orders, the most effective way to deal with that child will be not to give orders, but to present a set of acceptable alternatives from which the child may choose. Similarly, a child who has feelings of inferiority needs to be treated differently from a child who is self-confident. Several other terms are used to refer to behavioural characteristics of individuals. Quite often they are used as synonyms of personality.


Psychologists interested in the study of personality, try to answer certain questions about the nature and origin of individual differences in personality. You may have observed that two children in the same family develop dramatically different personalities. Not only they look physically different, but they also behave differently in different situations. These observations often generate curiosity and force us to ask: “Why is it that some people react differently in a given situation than others do? Why is it that some people enjoy adventurous activities, while others like reading, watching television or playing cards? Are these differences stable all through one’s life, or are they just shortlived and situation-specific?”

A number of approaches and theories have been developed to understand and explain behavioural differences among individuals, and behavioural consistencies within an individual. These theories are based on different models of human behaviour. Each throws light on some, but not all, aspects of personality. Psychologists distinguish between type and trait approaches to personality. The type approaches attempts to comprehend human personality by examining certain broad patterns in the observed behavioural characteristics of individuals. Each behavioural pattern refers to one type in which individuals are placed in terms of the similarity of their behavioural characteristics with that pattern. In contrast, the trait approach focuses on the specific psychological attributes along which individuals tend to differ in consistent and stable ways. For example, one person may be less shy, whereas another may be more; or one person may be less friendly, whereas another may be more. Here “shyness” and “friendliness” represent traits along which individuals can be rated in terms of the degree of presence or absence of the concerned behavioural quality or a trait. The interactional approach holds that situational characteristics play an important role in determining our behaviour. People may behave as dependent or independent not because of their internal personality trait, but because of external rewards or threats available in a particular situation. The crosssituational consistency of traits is found to be quite low. The compelling influence of situations can be noted by observing people’s behaviour in places like a market, a courtroom, or a place of worship.

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