The term personality refers to the set of psychic characteristics and behavioral modes (inclinations, interests, passions) that define the core of individual differences, in the multiplicity of contexts in which human behavior develops. Each theoretical nucleus, in psychology, conceptualizes personality within different models, using methods, objectives and modes of analysis also very dissonant between them.

Personality development

Personality is a typically dynamic concept in the life span of a person and human beings face, throughout their lives, some crucial nodes of passage necessary to evolve a psychophysical maturation appropriate to the social context. The various stages can be distinguished as follows:

  • Early childhood, from 0 to 3 years, in which the child must receive the necessary maternal care, to avoid the onset of insecurities and anxieties.
  • Weaning, which involves the first deprivations, and overcoming dependence.
  • Independence, which allows the child to expand his or her world and acquire the basic skills needed to do things on his or her own.
  • The “no” phase, in which the child experiences the pleasure of opposing parents.
  • Conflicts with same-sex parents.
  • The first socialization, which occurs through entry into school. Here the child receives the judgment of subjects outside the family and thus strengthens the self-image.
  • Puberty, with the growing interest in the genitals.
  • Adolescence, which involves a strong opposition to the adult world, as well as the emergence of various internal contradictions and dissatisfaction with traditional values.
  • The formation of identity maturing independence of thought with the acquisition, in a first phase, of conformist values towards the group of belonging, but transgressive towards social values and, in a subsequent phase, of acceptance of the symbolic figures of society (teacher, parent, etc.).
  • Adult life, in which the subject tries to realize his life project (work, family, etc..), defining as much as possible his identity, detaching himself from the original family unit and making himself as socially independent as possible.
  • Old age, which involves important changes in attitudes, lifestyle and psychophysical evolution.

Personality psychology

An element that transversally characterizes all models of personality study (and that represents a pivotal element in its most recent aspects) is the tension towards the interaction between innate constitutional factors, educational and environmental factors. The tradition of psychological studies related to personality is one of the most relevant in contemporary psychology, a field in which empirical, theoretical and historical studies follow one another, aimed at understanding the nature of personal identity in the biological and social context of development.

It is possible to define personality traits as configurations of existence, but in fact there is no single trait theory. Different proponents of the trait approach adopt different conceptual strategies in defining the relationship between person and environment. The basic assumptions of the theoretical orientations, which focus the study of personality on personal traits, are described very clearly by Lewis Goldberg, one of the leading scholars of trait theories:

  • People exhibit consistent and stable configurations of experience and action that distinguish them from one another. The existence of psychological constructs corresponding to habitual behavioral tendencies is hypothesized in this sense. Such constructs can be defined as trait variables, or dispositional variables.
  • Trait variables are decontextualized, i.e., they are defined as global tendencies likely to exhibit one type of behavior rather than another. Traits, therefore, refer directly to behavioral elements displayed by people in different situations. In this trait they differ significantly from motivation, by definition linked to a goal. It is clear that different traits have different relevance in different contexts. However, the trait-based approach chooses to study personality through domain-general units of analysis.
  • Several theoretical cores highlight operational approaches that can be traced to two guidelines: idiographic and nomothetic approaches. Idiographic approaches postulate that each person may possess a unique set of traits, organized in a singular and specific way. In contrast, nomothetic approaches seek a universal taxonomy of traits.

Within nomothetic models (e.g., Raymond Cattell’s 16PF Questionnaire, or McCrae and Costa’s Big Five theory), personality structure turns out to consist of behavioral tendencies organized hierarchically with broad, superordinate traits. These superordinate constructs organize tendencies that are at a lower level, which, in turn, control behavioral habits that are at an even lower level. In this cascading structure, the constructs that are at high and intermediate levels are habitual and stable tendencies oriented to the implementation of a specific category of responses. The highest level, stable across the various domains of behavior, is interpreted as the core of the personality, and is identified with the dispositional variables.

The term personality has been established in the thirties, particularly in the United States by some scholars including G. W. Allport and Murray. Previously, to indicate similar concepts, it was preferred to refer to character (which implied, however, a greater emphasis on moral and social characteristics) or temperament (which in turn implied a greater emphasis on the relationship between psychological and biological characteristics). The term character is still preferred to personality, with an almost identical meaning, in some European countries, such as Germany.

With the term personality we particularly wanted to emphasize the transition from a predominantly nomothetic conception of psychology, i.e. to study general laws valid for all men, to an idiographic psychology, aimed instead at the study of the individual and the causes that make each individual different from others. The difficulties related to a general definition of personality are reflected in any attempt to frame in a unified way the various theories of personality that have been proposed so far.

In brief, we can divide personality theories into: typologies; trait theories; genetic theories; dynamic theories; objective theories; holistic theories; field theories. This is an incomplete list, and some theories are difficult to fit into one of the listed categories. Typologies divide people into distinct classes and thus frame each individual in one of these classes. Well known is the ancient typology of Hippocrates, who distinguished choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic, typology taken on a different scientific basis by Pavlov and Teplov in Russia. Equally well known is the typology of C. G. Jung (which has however conspicuous dynamic aspects, being a psychoanalytic theory), which divides people into introverts and extroverts. Some typologies, called constitutionalists, distinguish different physical types, to which correspond psychological characteristics. Thus the German E. Kretschmer distinguishes picnic, athletic and leptosomic.

Quite similar is the constitutionalist theory of the American Sheldon. In trait theories, however, it is believed that it is not possible to create separate categories. Instead, there would exist traits, personality factors possessed differently by all men, and only from the constellation of traits could the personality of a single individual be traced. Thus, for the Anglo-German H. J. Eysenck, introversion and extroversion are the two poles of a single trait and all people are located differently along an ideal axis placed between these two poles. The Englishman R. B. Cattell distinguishes between superficial traits (“clusters” of behavioral variables correlated changeably over time) and deep traits, obtained through factor analysis, stable over time. G. W. Allport distinguishes collective traits and individual traits.

Genetic theories, on the other hand, consider personality to be the result of an individual’s evolution over time. Typical, under this aspect, the Freudian psychoanalysis, at least as regards the doctrine of childhood sexuality, with the division into oral, sadistic-anal, phallic, latency and genital phase. Psychoanalysis must be considered, however, in its economic aspects (in terms, that is, of psychic energy) and in the doctrine of psychic instances, a dynamic theory. In fact, under this label are grouped the theories of personality that place emotional-affective problems and drives in the foreground.

The objective theories derive substantially from American behaviorism and Russian reflexology and consider personality the result of learning and habit formation. Particularly representative of this approach are J. Dollard and N. E. Miller, who also attempted to “translate” psychoanalysis in terms of learning theory.

Holistic theories, whose greatest representative is K. Goldstein, put the emphasis on the individual as an organized whole, in which it is arbitrary to distinguish traits and functions, each process being in close interdependence with others, and indeed acquiring meaning precisely because of this interdependence.

Field theories, whose greatest representative is K. Lewin, consider man and his environment (called “vital space”) as participants in a process that can be represented as a field of forces, according to the concept of field borrowed from physics.


In sociology, the notion of basic personality constitutes a kind of bridge between society and the individual, between the universal and the particular. Identifying the basic personality that characterizes a social formation should, in short, allow us to interpret individual behavior as a product of certain cultural models that generate conformity, expectations, ways of communicating. At the same time, the existential uniqueness of each human being would be maintained.

The theoretical roots of the concept date back to the late twenties of the twentieth century, when some North American cultural anthropologists (R. Linton, A. Kardiner) began to use the contributions of psychoanalysis to investigate how, in different social formations, are produced – through childhood education and other forms of socialization – basic structures relatively persistent and strongly organized in the individual psyche.

A variant of this approach is represented by the status personality, which constitutes the dominant basic personality in different groups of age, sex, socio-economic condition and can therefore allow us to investigate aspects of so-called complex societies (in which, unlike primitive communities, it is very difficult to identify basic personalities that tend to belong to the whole community). An extremely important contribution to the definition of the notion comes from the studies dedicated by the Frankfurt School to the consent to dictatorial political regimes.

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