Major Personality Theories

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Problems of definition arise with the terms personality and personality theories. Personality is understood by some people to mean self-concept; by others, the consensus of other people's opinions about one's character, and by others, one's true character. Some personality theories have elaborate coordinated concepts discussing how personality originates and develops from conception to senescence, taking up cognitive, conative, and affective aspects of the mind as well as free will, holism, philosophy, and other issues. On the other hand, there are relatively simple, one-dimensional theories of personality that pay little attention to what seems important to other theorists.

This topic is complicated not only by its complexity and variations but also by intellectual belligerence among those who favor one theory over another and those who differ about the same theory. The analogy to religions is inescapable.

In view of this situation, personality theories will be handled in an unusual way. Sentences in italics are reprinted from Personality Theories, Research, and Assessment (Corsini and Marsella 1983).

Table 1
Some Personality Theories and Their Originators
note: some personality theories and their originators
abelson, r.p.least effortlowen, alexanderbio-energetics
allport, gordon w.personalismmaltz, albertpsychocybernetics
angyll, andreasorganismic theorymaslow, abrahamself-actualizations
assiogoli, robertopsychosynthesismay, rolloexistentialism
berne, erictransactional analysismead, interaction
binwangers, ludwigdaseinanalysismiller, neallearning theory
branden, nathanielbiocentrismmeyer, adolfpsychobiological theory
burrow, trigantphyloanalysismoreno, j.l.sociometry
bühler, charlottehumanistic psychologymowrer, o.h.two-factor theory
bühler, karlfunktionlustmurphy, gardnerbiosocial theory
boss, medarddaseinanalysismurray, h.a.need-press theory
cattell, raymondmultivariate theoryosgood, charlescongruity theory
combs, arthurphenomenologyperls, frederickgestalt theory
ellis, albertrational-emotive theorypiaget, jeandevelopmental theory
erikson, erikdevelopmental theoryrank, ottowill theory
eysenck, hansdevelopmental theoryreich, wihelmcharacter analysis
frankl, victorlogotherapyrolf, idastructural integration
fromm, erichhumanistic psychoanalysisrotter, juliansocial learning
heider, fritzbalance theorysarbin, theodorerole theory
horney, karensociopsychological theorysheldon, williammorphological theory
jackson, donsystems theorysulivan, h.s.interpersonal theory
kelly, charlesneo-reichian theoryvan kaam, adriantranspersonal psychology
korsybski, alfredgeneral semanticswerner, heinzdevelopmental theory
lecky, philipself-consistencywolpe, josephbehavior theory
lewin, kurttopological psychology  

They contain quotes of selected assertions about the various theories written by authorities of nine major systems. Additional sources presenting comparative information on personality theories include: Burger 1993; Cloninger 1993; Corsini and Wedding 1995; Drapela 1995; Engler 1999; Ewen 1997; Schultz and Schultz 1994.

Table 1 is a list of a number of other important personality theories.


Psychoanalysis is both a theory of personality and a form of psychotherapy (see Freud 1952–1974). Highly controversial throughout Freud's lifetime, it continues to be so.

Freud saw personality as a dynamic conflict within the mind between opposing instinctual and social forces. The topographical hypothesis views the mind in terms of three systems. They are: the unconscious, the preconscious, and the conscious. The mind is composed of the id, ego, and superego. The id consists of primitive instinctual demands, the superego represents society's influence restricting the id's demands, and the ego is dynamically in between the two. Fundamental motives are instinctual. Instincts are the basic forces (drives) of the psyche. The aim of drives is their satisfaction. All instincts are basically sexual. Freud's concept of sexuality was equivalent to physical pleasures. There is a series of built-in stages of sexual development. Freud postulated that people went through three sexual stages: An oral stage following the primary infantile narcissistic stage, then an anal phase, and finally a phallic phase. Children develop libidinal attitudes towards parents. This notion of the Oedipus and Electra complex of children having sexual attractions to parents of the opposite sex has especially generated controversy.

The psyche develops a number of defenses. To survive, the human being's ego develops a number of processes intended to repress awareness of conflicts. Repression is the main mental mechanism, but others defenses are related to it, including rationalization, displacement, identification and conversion. Dreams have meaning and purpose. According to Freud, dreams are disguised desires permitting people to sleep by permitting expressions of illicit desires disguised by various symbolisms.


Alfred Adler's personality theory is distinguished by its common sense and simple language (see Adler 1956). In contrast to Freud and Jung, Adler's views demonstrate social concern.

Man, like all forms of life, is a unified organism. This basic holistic notion contradicts Freud's classifications and opposing theses and antitheses. Adler viewed the individual as an indivisible totality that could not be analyzed or considered in sections. Life is movement, directed towards growth and expansion. Adler took a dynamic and teleological attitude toward life, that people were always striving toward goals of personal self-improvement and enhancement. Man is endowed with creativity and within limits is self-determined. Instead of taking the usual position that only biology and society were to be considered in the formation of personality, Adler posited a third element: personal creativity or individual responsibility, akin to the concept of free will. Adler accepted that we all have certain biological and social givens and what is made of them is the responsibility of individuals.

Man lives inextricably in a social world. Adler had a social personality theory. Individuale in German does not have the same denotation as individual in English but rather denotes indivisibility or unity. Adler did not see humans apart from society. The important life problems—human relations, sex, occupation—are social problems. Adler believed that to be successful in life all humans had to complete the life tasks of socialization, family, and work.

Social interest is an aptitude that must be consciously developed. Social interest is the criterion of mental health. Social interest is operationally defined as social usefulness. This trio of related statements is an explicit philosophy unique for personality theories. Adler believed that psychological normality depended on Gemeinschaftsgefühl—social interest. He saw all human failures, such as criminals, the insane, and neurotics, as lacking this element.


Jung's analytical psychology stresses unconscious mental processes and features elements in personality that derive from mankind's past (Jung 1953–1972).

Personality is influenced by potential activation of a collective transpersonal unconscious. Jung believed that individuals upon conception came with something from the past that directed their personalities, a concept somewhat like Lamarckism relative to physical heredity. Complexes are structured and energized around an archetypical image. This is an extension of the first assertion. Complexes refer to important bipolar aspects of personality, such as introversion–extraversion. Complexes, directed by archetypes, are seen as innate and universal capacities of the mind to organize human experiences. Archetypes are considered innate potentials of the mind derived from the experiences of ancestors, a kind of directing blueprint of one's character.

The ego mediates between the unconscious and the outside world. According to Jung, a strong, well-integrated ego is the ideal state for a person. Unconscious psychic reality is as important as the outside world. Jung stressed the importance of phenomenology in contrast to overt behavior. He explored people's inner realms with great diligence. He even exceeded Freud in concentrating on the importance of the unconscious. Personality growth occurs throughout the life cycle. Jung saw individuals in constant growth and development with imperceptible stages that sometimes, as in the case of adolescence and midlife crises, became evident. The psyche spontaneously strives towards wholeness, integration, and self-realization. This last statement is echoed in many different ways by a number of other theorists, including the two just considered, and is made a central point by some theorists such as Carl Rogers and Kurt Goldstein.


Carl Rogers developed his theory as part of his system of client-centered or nondirective therapy (see Rogers 1951). He had a lifelong abiding faith in the potentials of people to correct the errors of their past if a therapeutic environment could be created in which the client felt understood and accepted by a neutral nonevaluative therapist. His system emerges from one central theme, the first assertion below.

Each person has an inherent tendency to actualize unique potential. Rogers viewed each person as having a built-in tendency to develop all his or her capacities in ways that serve to maintain or enhance the organism. Each person has an inherent bodily wisdom which enables differentiation between experiences that actualize and those that do not actualize potential. Rogers's trust in people is indicated here: There is a wisdom of the body in that everyone knows what is best for one's self in terms of the ultimate goal of self-realization.

It is crucially important to be fully open to all experiences. Experiencing becomes more than bodily sensing as one grows older. Through complex interactions with our body and with other persons we develop a concept of self. These three assertions belong together, and in them Rogers is taking up the nature-nurture, heredity-environment controversy. Essentially, his position is that personality is a function of bodily wisdom and the effect of others (primarily parents).

One can sacrifice the wisdom of one's own experiences to gain another's love. Rogers as a therapist came to the conclusion that a great deal of human suffering is due to the tendency of people to sacrifice their own body wisdom to gain positive regard from others. Children, in order to gain acceptance by their parents, will too often agree with them, accept their premises, and maintain them throughout life, generating problems thereby if the premises are incorrect. His therapeutic system was intended to get people to understand their historical processes and to be able to revise the history of their life. A rift can develop between what is actually experienced and the concept of self. The same theme is here elaborated. A person may deny reality to gain approval from others, and this bifurcation can generate a host of problems. When the rift between experiencing and self is too great, anxiety or disorganized behavior can result. Once again, the same theme is emphasized. We all want to be loved and accepted, but the continued pursuit of acceptance may separate us from reality. Validating experiencing in terms of others can never be completed. All maladjustments come about through denial of experiences discrepant with the self-concept. And so, one must depend on one's self for reality and not on others. Adler believed that maladjusted people lacked social interest, while Rogers stated that maladjustment essentially came from people listening to others rather than to their own bodily wisdom.


Kelly was a highly original thinker. He developed a unique cognitive system that called for the use of idiosyncratic language (see Kelly 1955). While his personal constructs theory covers all of psychology from the ideographic point of view, he bypassed usual terms and concepts such as learning and emotions and paid no attention to the environment or heredity.

All our interpretations of the universe are subject to revision. Kelly starts with a skepticism about beliefs and takes the position that there is no absolute reality. He took the position of constructive alternativism to indicate that people with differences of opinions could not necessarily be divided in terms of right and wrong. Two people can view the same situation in quite different ways and both can be right, both can be wrong, or one or the other may be right. No person needs to be a victim of his own biography. Here we have a statement of the freewill concept in a different form.

A person's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events. This is Kelly's fundamental postulate. Essentially, this viewpoint states that what is important is how events are interpreted rather than the events themselves. This assertion leads naturally to Kelly's major contribution to personality theory, a series of other personal constructs, relative to how people view reality. We need not attempt to cover all of his constructs, but a few of them will give the reader a sense of Kelly's thinking: A person anticipates events by construing their replication. (The construction corollary.) Persons differ from one another in their construction of events. (The individuality corollary.) A person may successively employ a variety of construction subsystems which are inferentially incompatible with each other. (The fragmentation corollary.) This last corollary relates directly to Carl Rogers's theme that maladjustment comes from divergent forces: from within and from without.

Many of the important processes of personality and behavior arise as a person attempts to change or is threatened with forced change in his construct system. Kelly's point here is echoed by many other theorists, that one establishes some sort of life pattern or life-style, but changes in thinking about one's self and others will disrupt the individual.

Kelly's system is the purest cognitive system of any discussed here, solely dependent on perceptions and interpretations.


Skinner has denied that his operant reinforcement is a personality theory, but rather that it covers all aspects of overt human behavior (Skinner 1938). In contrast to those theorists who view personality as essentially phenomenological, Skinner decries the term mind and concerns himself solely with overt behavior. As a radical behaviorist, Skinner does not deny internal processes but considers them not relevant to psychology as an objective science of behavior.

Personality is acquired and maintained through the use of positive and negative reinforcers. Skinner applies operant reinforcement to all aspects of human behavior. We tend to repeat what works and to give up what does not work, to continue behavior that leads to pleasant consequences and to discontinue behavior that leads to unpleasant consequences. Behavior may be altered or weakened by the withholding of reinforcers. If other people change their ways of operating towards an individual, this in turn will affect that person's behavior and consequently his personality.

Personality develops through a process of discrimination. In life, we experience all kinds of consequences, and we have to make decisions about our future behavior to these consequences. Personality becomes shaped or differentiated. Over time, our personalities are shaped by generalizations about ways that lead to the achievement of goals.


Bandura, like Skinner, came to his opinions about personality mostly through research (Bandura and Walters 1963). His system is of the cognitive-learning type stressing the capacity of individuals to generalize in terms of symbols.

The causes of human behavior are the reciprocal interaction of behavioral, cognitive, and environmental influences. Bandura believes personality is a function of how we think and act and our responses of the environment's reactions to our behavior. In terms of the three elements of biology, society, and creativity, Bandura stresses the latter two. Heredity is discounted as a major determiner in personality development: How a person thinks and acts and how the environment responds to a person's behavior determines one's personality. Behavior can be self-governed by means of self-produced consequences (self-reinforcement). This assertion also emphasizes the importance of reciprocity: life is interaction: the individual versus the world, with the individual changing the world and the world changing the individual.

Individuals may be influenced by symbols which act as models. Reality to people need not only be direct stimuli, such as a smile or a slap, but reality can also be via symbols, such as pictures or words. Bandura's major research studies called for children to watch the behavior of others. He found that if a person considered to be a model acted in an aggressive manner and got what he wanted, that observers were likely to imitate the model. Consequently, not only direct stimuli and responses (as per Skinner) but symbolic experiences also determine personality. Reinforcements (and punishment) can operate in a vicarious manner. This is more of the above. Various kinds of behavior can be changed by seeing what happens to others. We learn not only by doing and getting responses but also by observing.


Existential psychology is a loosely organized and ill-defined set of concepts mostly based on the work of philosophers and theologians (see Blackham 1959; Grimsley 1955). Essentially, existentialists see individuals as being in search of meaning. People are also seen as striving to achieve authenticity.

Personality is primarily constructed through attribution of meaning. Essentially, this point of view is similar to Kelly's concept of constructs. Persons are characterized by symbolization, imagination, and judgment. These are seen as attempts to find meaning. The human being is always trying to make sense out of existence, others, and self and uses mental processes in interaction with self and the world.

Life is best understood as a series of decisions. The human individual not only has to make evident decisions such as what to eat, but more subtle and important ones, such as who he or she really is. One has to decide what the world is like, what is real, what is important, and how to participate in the world. Personality is a synthesis of facticity and possibility. Facticity means the givens of heredity and environment and possibility becomes the creative aspect of personality. The facts of reality limit behavior variations.

A person is always faced with the choice of the future, which provokes anxiety, and the choice of the past, which provokes guilt. The human condition is such that people looking backwards in time can find reasons to be guilty and looking forward can find reasons to be afraid. Existentialists see anxiety and guilt as essential elements of the human being.

Ideal development is facilitated by encouraging individuality. Here we find traces of Carl Rogers's concept of the importance of listening to one's own body or Adler's and Kelly's requirement for personal courage. A human problem is to escape the effects of one's early environment, especially the effects of one's family.


The oldest theories of personality formation are the constitutional that state that personality is a function of the nature of one's corporeal body. Aristotle (1910) in his Physiognomica, for example, stated that the "ancients" had a variety of theories to explain differences in human character. The Greek physician Galen took Hippocrates's physiological explanation of bodily health as a function of the balance between certain bodily fluids and stated that various personality types were a function of excesses of these fluids. Gall and Spurzheim (1809) extolled phrenology (the shape of the human head) in establishing personality. Kretschmer (1922) declared that people with certain kinds of body types tended to have particular types of mental conditions. Lombroso (1911) declared that criminal types were distinguished by a number of physiological anomalies. The list goes on and on. At present there are a variety of constitutional personality theories, some of which will be discussed below.

Structural Approach. William Sheldon (see Sheldon and Stevens 1942) classified individuals in terms of body shapes claiming that there was a positive correlation between various structural variations and personality types. He spent many years in doing basic research to find evidence for his theory. He found strong evidence to support the validity of his views. Other investigators also found supporting evidence but not to any useful degree.

The somatotype provides a universal frame of reference for growth and development that is independent of culture. This statement by implication discounts society and creativity. Born with a particular body type and you will have a specific personality type. Three polar extremes called endomorphy, mesomorphy, and ectomorphy identify the essential components of the somatotype. Sheldon had a somewhat complex classificatory system with three main body types: mesomorphs had an excess of muscle, endomorphs an excess of fat, and ectomorphs were relatively thin. For example, mesomorphs were considered to be bold, endomorphs to be extraverted and ectomorphs to be introverted.

Experiential Approach. This particular constitutional position is championed by Schilder (1950) and Fisher (1970) among others. It is a combined learning/physiological approach, referring to the nature of the experiences that a person has via contact during life, between the inner viscera, the skin, and the environment's effect on the body.

Body sensations provide the primary basis for initial differentiation of self from environment. The basic notion is that an unborn infant is only aware of internal sensations, but following birth, now becomes aware of stimuli from the outside world. Thus, the body surface becomes the locus of separation of self from the environment and the child now becomes able to identify the self and the outer world. The development of the body image proceeds through stages, each of which has a lasting effect upon the body image as a whole. This assertion has elements of the Freudian sexual stages and of Skinner's behaviorism in that contact with the outside world not only establishes the world but also the individual's personality.

Holistic Approach. Kurt Goldstein, who worked primarily with brain-injured patients, is primarily identified with this viewpoint (see Goldstein 1939). In working with various cases of physical pathology, such as stroke victims, he came to the realization of the importance of a human's attempt to maximize and organize potentials to survive and to enhance one's situation.

The normal human organism is equipped to maximize self-actualization, provided environmental forces do not interfere. This statement is accepted in a variety of ways by a number of other personality theorists, but Goldstein made this his central point. Of those theorists already discussed, Adler, Jung, and Rogers would have agreed completely. Self-actualization is manifested by maximum differentiation and by the highest possible level of complexity of an integrated system. This statement follows from the prior one and gives emphasis to the concept of the wisdom of the body. The key to effective behavior is adequate functioning of part-whole relations. Goldstein used Gestalt concepts of figure and ground to give evidence of the importance of understanding behavior as a totality, and consequently he can be considered an holistic theorist.


At present there are a considerable number of personality theories, each working as it were completely independently of one another. There is lack of a common vocabulary that in turn leads to different people saying the same thing in different words. A complete eclectic theory would consider all elements mentioned, taking up the issue of personality in terms of the issues of heredity, environment and creativity, self and the environment.

(see also: Personality and Social Structure; Social Psychology).


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Raymond J. Corsini