What is Personality Psychology?

Personality Psychology as a Scientific Discipline


  • Preamble
  • How is personality defined?
  • The big questions of personality of personality psychology (also: a narrated slideshow),
  • What is the field of personality psychology
  • Who are personality psychologists?
  • A bit of history for those who are interested


One of the missions of our laboratory has been to develop, expand and promote a new unified vision of personality psychology, loosely described under the label, "The Personality Systems Framework," and reported on further on this site.

During much of the later 20th century, personality psychology was often viewed as a field of competing "grand theories," proposed by such individuals as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, and Hans Eysenck, often with poor empirical validation and few ways of resolving conflicts among them. Indeed, it is still taught in that way today in many institutions although there are better alternatives.

By promoting a unified framework for the discipline's teaching and research we hope to improve and to promote the field by clarifying its central concerns and strengths.

A key part of the philosophy behind our theoretical work is that it is important to begin with both an understanding of the history of the discipline of personality psychology and an understanding of its empirical strengths and diversity today. In part, this helps identify natural areas of agreement that can provide a basis for a unified look at the discipline.

How Is Personality Defined?

Asserting the Definition of Personality

There are many areas of agreement within the discipline -- for example, there is widespread agreement as to the definition of personality.

Personality concerns the most important, most noticeable, parts of an individual's psychological life. Personality concerns whether a person is happy or sad, energetic or apathetic, smart or dull. Over the years, many different definitions have been proposed for personality. Most of the definitions refer to a mental system—a collection of psychological parts including motives, emotions, and thoughts. The definitions vary a bit as to what those parts might be, but they come down to the idea that personality involves a pattern or global operation of mental systems. Here are some definitions:

  • "Personality is the entire mental organization of a human being at any stage of his development. It embraces every phase of human character: intellect, temperament, skill, morality, and every attitude that has been built up in the course of one's life." (Warren & Carmichael, 1930, p. 333)
  • (In an acknowledged overstatement...) "Personality is the essence of a human being." (Hall & Lindzey, 1957, p. 9, characterizing statements by Gordon Allport)
  • "An individual's pattern of psychological processes arising from motives, feelings, thoughts, and other major areas of psychological function. Personality is expressed through its influences on the body, in conscious mental life, and through the individual's social behavior." (Mayer, 2005)

In the 2007 meeting of the Association for Research in Personalitya Presidential Panel was concerned with, "The Future of Personality Psychology". One participant on that panel raised a concern over whether definitions of personality were vague and contradictory. That was surprising as there really does appear to be a fairly wide consensus that personality is the study of a person's overall psychological system. Perhaps one reason for the sense that definitions of personality diverge is because other psychologists -- those who are not personality psychologists -- often misunderstand our field and define the field in mistaken ways. The article entitled Asserting the Definition of Personality (PDF), describes this state of affairs.

The Big Questions of Personality Psychology

Personality psychology had its origins in people who sought answers to big quesitons. A 2007 article from the laboratory surveyed the intellectual history of the big questions that inspired the discipline, and 20 questions were identified that were most important to the field. Of these, four in particular seemed especially pertinent.

To hear a bit about the study, try this audio-narrated slide show in powerpoint.

Narrated slide show: The Big Questions of Personality

A diagram of some very important central questions placed them into four groups like this:

Figure adapted from Mayer, J. D.

What Is the Field of Personality Psychology?

Personality Psychology as a Scientific Discipline

Personality psychology is the scientific discipline that studies the personality system. The discipline seeks to understand a person's major psychological patterns and how those patterns are expressed in an individual's life. Personality psychologists conduct scientific research on personality, teach about personality (usually at the college and university level) and participate in the broader discipline of psychology.

Thinking About the Problem

Different answers are possible to the question "Why Study Personality?" Here is one answer that can help you understand something of what personality and its study is about.

Each of us, as human beings, influences much that is within us and around us. Each of us has many psychological attributes—feelings, thoughts, motivations, and the like. It is our personality that orchestrates our psychological qualities.

  • Our feelings—strong or slight—determine some of how we act and react. Our thoughts guide us and influence others, who may be entertained by our wit or attracted to our wisdom.
  • Our sense of self helps inform us of how to make choices among alternatives—choices that may help us grow, or, that may harm us.
  • This personality of ours slowly and persistently influences how we feel, what we do, who we are, and how we influence the world around us.
  • Most of us can't help but wonder how our personality works, how our personality came to be—and what it might mean for our future.
  • We also wonder about the personalities of others—how they are the same or different from us.
  • Personality psychology concerns what our personalities are, how they work, and what they can mean to our own and others' futures.

The discipline of personality psychology helps answer some of these questions. If such questions interest you, you may want to learn more.

Who Are Personality Psychologists?

Contemporary Personality Psychologists

Personality psychologists are psychologists who are interested in the study of how an individual's major psychological subsystems—motives, emotions, the self, and others— function together to create a person's life patterns.

Today, most personality psychologists have Ph.D.'s in psychology—usually with a specialization in personality, social, or clinical psychology. That was not always the case, however, and some earlier personality psychologists have been trained in medicine and other fields.

Today, many personality psychologists work in colleges and universities, where they teach courses in personality psychology and related areas, and conduct research on personality and how it influences people's lives.

Another group of personality psychologists work in organizational settings, where they often may be found in departments of Human Resources. In such roles, they may attempt to understand, for example, the particular personality traits that will help individuals work successfully at a particular job.

Still other personality psychologists work as consultants to organizations, helping with the selection and retention of key personnel.

Finding Out More About Contemporary Psychologists

If you are interested in seeing brief descriptions of contemporary personality psychologists, and visiting their web pages, you can find these from the web site maintained by the Association for Research in Personality. Click here to go to the member profiles for many of these individuals.

Other psychologists with interest in personality psychology can be found on the Social Psychology Network. To find them (the list will partly overlap with the ARP list), go to the Membership List area of the SPN web site—and, using the search box at the top, enter the term "personality."

Of course, for either the ARP or SPN sites, if you have the name of a psychologist you are particularly interested in, you can search for that name.

Personality Psychologists in History:

The Grand Theorists of the Early-to-Mid 20th Century

When people think of personality psychologists, certain names often come to mind: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, and others. These individuals were highly prominent theorists and researchers of human nature in the early-to-mid 20th century. They sometimes are referred to as the Grand Theorists of the field.

Today, there certainly are eminent theorists of personality, but the field no longer depends on grand theorists for its mission(s). Rather, it is focussed today on research about how the personality system operates.

Finding Out More About Grand Theorists

If you are interested in finding out more about grand theorists from an online source, a great resource is Professor C. George Boeree's on-line and open-access textbook, "Personality Theories."

A Bit of History for Those Who Are Interested:

Some Rationales for the Field Described in Early Textbooks

Some ideas about why to study personality also can be found in the textbooks of the field. Among the earliest (if not the earliest) textbook in the United States was Roback's (1928) "Psychology of Character." He writes:

The announcement of courses on personality, which at one time would have been greeted not without a perceptibly amused expression, is now rather welcomed by educators... (Roback, 1928, p. ix)

Roback wrote before the institutionalization of the word "personality," often preferring the term "character" -- though he recognizes "personality" as a somewhat broader term. In a sequence of passages, Roback notes that personality, especially the portion of personality referred to as character, is a moral possession of an individual.

  • ...The most general use of the word "character" in everyday life is invariably colored with moral predicates...The popular mind has never distinguished more than two kinds of characters. They were either good or bad, strong or weak, noble or base, of a high or low type;...To say that a man has no character is a euphemistic equivalent for the expression that he has a low type of character...(Roback, 1928, p. 6)
  • . ...the more strongly moralists emphasized the cardinal importance of character for ethics...the more were experimental psychologists inclined to dispose of the whole matter with a word or two... (Roback, 1928, p. 7)
  • ...The ethical and pedagogical aspects that deal with character-building and for the most part contain horatory appeals in behalf of the moral life do not enter here...It is quite obvious that the theoretical examination of character must antedate both these inquiries, and especially the latter. (Roback, 1928, p. 7)

All told, it seems to me that Roback is interested in character development and character building. To do so, however, he argues, a scientific study -- that is, of personality -- must take precedence.

Gordon Allport read and benefitted from Roback's work (his assistance is acknowledged by Roback).

Nine years later, Allport's own book introduced a new reason for a study of personality. Allport addressed, not the public's need for the science, but rather his scientific colleagues' need.

  • ...As a rule, science regards the individual as a mere bothersome accident. Psychology, too, ordinarily treats him as something to be brushed aside so the main business of accounting for the uniformity of events can get under way. The result is that on all sides we see psychologists enthusiastically at work upon a somewhat shadowy portrait entitled, "the generalized human mind."...It seems unreal and esoteric, devoid of locus, self-consciousness, and organic unity -- all essential characteristics of the minds we know.
  • ...[A] new movement within psychological science has gradually grown up. It attempts...to depict and account for the manifest individuality of mind. This new movement has come to be known (in America) as the psychology of personality. (Allport, 1937, p. vii)

Why was such a new movement needed? Allport summarized some of the arguments others had made.

Without the co-ordinating concept of Person (or some equivalent such as Self or Ego), it is impossible to account for, or even to depict, the interaction of mental processes upon one another. Memory affects perception, desire influences meaning, meaning determines action, and action shapes memory; and so on...

The phenomenon of mental organization can have no significance unless it is viewed as taking place within a definite framework...the personal life. (Allport, 1937, p. 550).

Again, continuing in relation to the discipline of psychology more generally, Allport argues that the psychology of personality can make these contributions (Allport, 1937, pp. 550-566), which I have summarized as follows:

  • develop general laws as to how an individual's uniqueness comes about
  • predict a person's behavior on the basis of his/her individual characteristics
  • discover the individual person's own point of view of who she or he is
  • discover the parts of personality
  • discover the structure that holds those parts together
  • give preference to certain concepts -- e.g., ego-system, trait, life-history -- that recognize a person's individuality
    discover common traits
  • codify knowledge as to the nature of human nature
  • turn interpersonal impressions into more reliable knowledge
  • adequately represent the individual in science, and provide that individual with respect

Henry Murray and the Harvard Guidance Clinic (Murray, 1938) had this to say:

  • Man is to-day's great problem. What can we know about him and how can it be said in words that have clear meaning?...The point of view adopted in this book is that personalities constitute the subject mattter of psychology, the life history of a single man being the unit with which this discipline has to deal. (Murray, 1938, p. 3)
  • We judged the time had come when systematic, full length studies of individuals could be made to bring results. And more than this, indeed, it seemed a necessary thing to do. For if the constituent processes of personality are mutually dependent, then one must know a lot to comprehend a little. (Murray, 1938, p. 5)

Reasons could be readily advanced for such studies besides the essential ones that knowledge is per se a final good and that man is of all objects the most inviting. There are many who believe that an understanding of human nature is the great requirement of this age; that modern man is 'up against it,' confused, dissatisfied, despairing and ready to regress; that what he needs is the power to change and redirect himself and others; and that possession of this special power can only be won through knowledge. If it is true, as some reasonable men affirm, that culture -- the best of man's high heritage -- is in jeopardy, and that to save and further it man, its creator and conserver, must be changed -- regenerated or developed differently from birth -- then the immediate requisite is a science of human nature. (Murray, 1938, p. 35)


  • Allport, G. W. (1937). Personality: A psychological interpretation. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company.
  • Hall, C. S., & Lindzey, G. (1957). Theories of personality. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Mayer, J. D. (2005). A classification of DSM-IV-TR mental disorders according to their relation to the personality system. In J. C. Thomas & D. L. Segal (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook of personality and psychopathology (CHOPP) Vol. 1: Personality and everyday functioning. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Murray, H. A. et al. (1938). Explorations in personality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Roback, A. A. (1928). The psychology of character, with a survey of temperament. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, & Company, Inc.
  • Warren, H. C., & Carmichael, L., Elements of human psychology (Rev. Ed.; Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1930), p. 333/Cited in Allport, Pattern & growth in personality (1937/1961, p.36).

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