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Personality Theories

How is that we have the particular personality that we do? What are the factors that shape it? Does our personality change over time, and if so, how and why? Are there patterns which describe different types of personalities?

These are some of the questions that people have been asking themselves for thousands of years. While there have been many theories over time, modern personality theory was developed only within the last 100 years. Not only do modern theories look for patterns of traits and behavior, but many of them look at our unconscious patterns and dynamics as the sources for why we are the way we are.

One way in which personality theories vary is in how much they ascribe personality to characteristics inherent to us (nature) versus those formed as a result of our family and environment (nurture). Today most personality psychologists believe that we are products of both influences, and the question is which factors in nature and nurture influence us and how.

Nature versus Nurture

In terms of nature, some research indicates that inherited genetic traits may account for up to 40 to 50 percent of our personality. Additionally, our brain structure and chemistry appears to encourage certain traits while suppressing others. On the nurture side of the equation, we appear to adapt to our early life circumstances in particular ways and thus create patterns of thoughts and reactions, many of which stay with us our whole lives. Researchers are also discovering more about how people learn new behaviors, and change their patterns of thoughts as circumstances change and they mature. Some of these shifts in our personality occur naturally and unconsciously, while we may sometimes deliberately choose to purposely shift our thinking and behavior and develop our personality in desired ways.

The common personality theories found today are based on surprisingly few sources. Carl Jung's work on personality types led to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) and the Keirsy Temperament Sorter. The Big Five traits are derived from statistical testing which also underpins many other systems such as the DISC®, Eysenck PEN, Cattell 16PF, and NEO PI-R™. There are also developmental psychologists like Piaget, Erikson, Gebser, and Kegan who describe how we become who we are. The contemporary Enneagram was developed as a combination of much older systems and modern psychology.

Below you will find an introduction to some of the most common personality theories.


The Enneagram identifies nine different personality types. These result from the possible combinations of three motivations (autonomy, image, security) and three strategies (earning, demanding, withdrawing). Each combination reflects a particular way of perceiving the world and coping with difficulties and challenges. Most Enneagram theorists assume that a person's type is fixed over their life time, and that people express different degrees of health and self realization within one pattern.

The Enneagram is primarily a self-typing system, in which an individual is able to recognize the type that best describes them. Enneagram tests help to point someone in the right direction and hopefully narrow down the possibilities.

The Enneagram has a lot of depth, allowing one to see blind spots and the entire progression from unhealthy to health expressions of personality. Beyond the nine basic types, there are additional nuances such as wings and subtypes. The Enneagram can be used to increase self awareness, improve communication, and become more compassionate and understanding of others. We have found the Enneagram to be beneficial no matter how deeply you choose to look into it and for these reasons recommend it as a means of self-exploration.

You can read descriptions of all 9 Enneagram Types here.

Jungian Types / Myers-Briggs

Carl Jung developed a theory of psychological types that was further developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers into a personality test called the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI.

According to Jung's theory we all have a central "attitude" that we direct either toward the outer world or our inner world. We express this attitude in either an extraverted or introverted way. In addition, Jung identified two "perceiving functions", intuition and sensing, which describe a person's innate preference for gathering information. A person who intuits looks to patterns, relationships, and insights for understanding. A person who senses relies on her five senses as well as immediate concrete data.

Jung also identified two "judging functions", thinking and feeling, which describe a person's preference for processing information. People who prefer thinking use logic and analysis, and people who prefer feeling base decisions on their values and the people involved. Jung believed that while everyone uses all four of these "functions", we each have a dominant function and consistently rely on some functions more than others. This order of preferences is the primary building block of our personality.

Myers and Briggs further developed these ideas by identifying a person's preference for perceiving versus judging when dealing with the outside world. Perceiving correlates with an inclination towards spontaneity and having options, while judging correlates with a preference for structure and being goal oriented.

Each of the 16 types is written as four letters, e.g. INTP, ESFJ, etc. Each letter is one of a pair that indicates a person's preference along the four continuums:

Jungian continuum of extraversion to introversion

  Extraversion - Introversion

  Sensing - INtuiting

  Thinking - Feeling

  Judging - Perceiving

The various combinations result in different personality types. A person's Jungian type may shift over her lifetime, either through circumstance or personal development including consciously making an effort to change. An individual is able to recognize the type that best fits them, and tests are used to help identify preferences and narrow the possibilities to the point where an individual recognizes their type by the description. In general these types offer insights into a person's tendencies and preferences, especially for how we process information.

The Jungian Preferences page has descriptions of the eight qualities described above. The Jungian Types page has descriptions of all 16 types.

The Big Five

The Big Five are the basic personality traits that have been statistically identified as forming the foundation of personality. Each trait is further divided in to sub-traits that offer more specificity. Because these five traits are overarching and aren't associated with personality profiles, they are not as useful at offering an understanding of how these characteristics are related to one another or the specific behaviors associated with each of them. While some people find the statistical basis of the Big Five meaningful and worthy of further study, the absence of underlying personality theory makes it more difficult to apply or use for personal growth.

Statistically validated tests measure the degree to which a person exhibits each of these five traits:

  • Openness (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. cold/unkind)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)


DISC is a system based on a matrix using two sets of factors. One factor is how a person perceives the environment as either favorable or unfavorable. People who perceive it as favorable are more people-oriented, whereas those whose view is unfavorable are more task-oriented. The other factor is whether a person perceives himself as having control or lacking control over the environment. People who sense control are more outgoing, while those who do not are more internally focused or reserved.

DISC quadrants

The four possible combinations of these factors create four quadrants. Variations of the system each use a different set of words for these quadrants that spell out "DISC".

  • Dominance
    (task-oriented + outgoing)
  • Influence
    (people-oriented + outgoing)
  • Steadiness
    (people-oriented + internal)
  • Compliance
    (task-oriented + internal)

Tests measure how strongly you tend to exhibit each of these factors, resulting in descriptions for the 15 most common combinations of scores (see the Personality Types page for a listing of the names of these 15 types). The DISC system helps to illustrate our relationship and communication patterns and how we navigate our world.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI) was originally called Emotional Quotient (EQ), and was developed in response to the idea that Intelligence Quotient (IQ) described only one of the many intelligences people have. In addition to the verbal and logical intelligences of the classic IQ test, we have visual, musical, and body intelligences, as well as the interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities described as emotional intelligence. The varying lists of skills associated with EI were developed through observation.

The different definitions of Emotional Intelligence tend to include awareness and management of one's own emotions and the emotions of others. These characteristics indicate what we focus on, how we process emotions, and how we interact with other people. EI looks at aspects of personality such as the following:

  • Self-awareness — being aware of one's own emotions, drives, values, strengths, and weaknesses, and understand one's impact on others.
  • Self-regulation — managing one's emotions and impulses as appropriate to the circumstances.
  • Social skill — understanding and navigating relationships to create more desired responses in others.
  • Empathy — being aware of the feelings of others, and taking them into account.
  • Motivation — being able to delay gratification and stay engaged with a goal.

Some theorists see these as skills more than traits, and so find it less predictive of behavior. If this is indeed the case, it means that each of us has the opportunity to become more skilled in these areas. While not exactly a personality theory, EI does shed light on the differences in people's perceptive abilities and how this influences their behavior. It also points to useful skills and abilities for personal growth.

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