The Psychology of Personality Formation

The Science of Personality Development

The Psychology of Personality Formation

Our personalities are evaluated by employers. Quizzed by the internet. Divined by horoscopes and studied by scientists. Personality formation serves as a cornerstone of understanding who and what we are. As a result, it is a key subject of psychological research.


John Kim, assistant professor of psychology and applied therapies at Lesley University, defines personality as “the characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that account for the ways in which people are relatively consistent across situations.” Studying personality, Kim explains, means asking the question “why are specific people generally the way they are?” The broad nature of this question has led to an array of approaches for understanding personality development.

Theoretical Explanations

How personalities form isn’t entirely known. However, many theories exist. Here are just a few.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, developed psychoanalytic theory, which assumes that personality reflects the workings of the unconscious mind, according to Psychology: A Concise Introduction. Freud believed personality was divided into three sections, each with its own distinct function:

Abraham Maslow conceived humanistic theory in the 1950s. He believed that psychoanalytic theory, with its emphasis on abnormal personality, was flawed.

Instead, Maslow stressed the importance of understanding the conscious mind and personality in their normal states. Humanistic theory assumes that humans have free will and that people make choices an ultimate desire for self-excellence.

Personalities are subjective experiences and individuals’ interaction with their environment.

The humanistic theory of personality eventually led to Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs model, which suggests that as people’s basic needs are met, they are replaced with ones that are increasingly complex. Simply Psychology outlines the five levels of need. Highest to lowest, they are:

  • Needs of self-actualization
  • Needs of esteem
  • Needs of love/belonging
  • Safety needs
  • Physiological needs

Largely defined by Gordon Willard Allport, trait theory claims that personality is composed of a collection of characteristics within an individual, called traits. These characteristics help express the uniqueness of each person and can be divided into three main types: 

  • Cardinal Traits
  • Central Traits
  • Secondary Traits

Trait theory is the personality development model most directly research data, according to Personality Theories: Critical Perspectives.

Social Cognitive Theory

Developed by Albert Bandura, social cognitive theory stresses that personalities are formed social contexts. It assumes two key principles, according to Williams and Cervone:

  1. The inner psychology of individuals, their environment, and their behavior all influence each other.
  2. People are best understood in terms of three types of cognitive abilities: those that help them represent events symbolically in their minds, self-reflect, and self-develop. 

According to social cognitive theory, personality formation occurs when people observe the behaviors of others. This leads to adaptation and assimilation, particularly if those behaviors are rewarded. Social cognitive theory is often considered a bridge between personality theories that emphasize behavior and those that emphasize cognition.

Kim provides insight into the real-world applications of the four theories within the field of psychology:

  • Psychoanalytic theory encourages clinicians to take a “past-focused” and “under-the-surface” approach to treatment. Counselors may often look at early life events of their clients in order to provide better care.
  • Humanistic theory encourages counselors to approach client problems from a present-focused view.
  • Trait theory is useful in the scientific study of personality (as opposed to therapeutic services). It allows researchers to see the connection between characteristics, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Social cognitive theory helps researchers inform their knowledge of social psychology. This allows them to study ways in which situations can cause people to display personality inconsistencies.

Assessing Personality

When assessing personality, clinicians often turn to two main types of evaluations: objective and projective tests.

Objective tests measure aspects of an individual’s personality in relation to academically recognized norms. The most common example is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI-2. (The test was originally published in 1940 and then revised in 1989.) On the MMPI-2, individuals must answer 567 true/false questions in a 60- to 90-minute session.

Questions on the MMPI-2 identify potential personality features such as anger or addiction. The test is comprehensive and designed to ward against false positives and lying. MMPI-2 evaluations are often used in settings such as mental health and medical fields.

They are also common when evaluating candidates for “high-risk” occupations such as airline pilots and nuclear power plant workers, according to Occupational Medicine.

Projective tests are subjective evaluations that ask clients to respond to ambiguous stimuli, such as words or visual images. An individual’s reply is meant to help reveal his or her internal struggles and emotions. The Rorschach Inkblot Test is a classic example of a projective test.

After looking at 10 inkblots of varying shapes and colors, clients are asked to describe what they see. Answers are interpreted factors subject matter, the kind of shapes or colors emphasized, and the location of the seen image.

While the Rorschach test is useful, Kim views it as one of many tools and notes that it is not adequate for understanding the nuances of personality on its own.

When personality becomes problematic for daily living, it is considered a disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines a personality disorder as characterized by rigid or unhealthy patterns of thinking, functioning, or behavior.

“It is very important,” Kim explains, “that we do not conflate personality disorders with what is simply personality. A personality disorder … is profoundly disruptive to an individual’s daily life. ‘Profoundly disruptive’ is not the same thing as simply being irritating.”

Personality disorders fall into three main clusters:

  • Cluster A
  • Cluster B
  • Cluster C

Although experts still don’t fully understand how personality disorders come about, there appear to be certain contributing factors. The American Psychological Association suggests the following influences:

  • Genetics
  • Childhood trauma
  • Verbal abuse
  • High sensitivity

Oppositely, personality disorders may be prevented by consistent, positive interaction with peers.

Additional sources: Bandura’s Social Learning Theory & Social Cognitive Learning Theory, Britannica

Personality Assessment and Your Psychology Career

The human personality is a fascinating subject and just one of many exciting areas in the field of psychology.

At Lesley University, the online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology degree offers a relevant course of study designed to help you grasp the complexities of the human brain.

Our curriculum covers mental processes, cognition, abnormal behavior, and more, giving you the foundation you need to start careers in mental health or advance to graduate study. A required internship provides you with valuable real-world experience for your future career.

Read more about our students, faculty and alumni.


How Are Our Personalities Formed?

The Psychology of Personality Formation

Your personality is what makes you, well, you — even if experts can’t settle on an exact definition of the word. Most agree, however, that personality is the overall pattern of how a person feels, thinks and behaves throughout life.


Over the years, psychologists studying personality have had no shortage of theories about how it develops and how it affects an individual. Some haven’t gotten much traction. Others once had a strong following but have since fallen favor. Take Sigmund Freud, for instance.

In the early 1900s, he argued that our unconscious drives who we are. His take inspired others Alfred Adler and Carl Jung to develop their own views. Although their contributions are important to the field’s history, modern personality psychologists tend to focus on other major theories.

Here, we’ll take you through just some of those, as well as popular tests designed to reveal what makes you tick.

Personal Construct/Cognitive

George Kelly is responsible for this line of thinking, which he published in 1955. He believed the way people act and behave is tied to the subjective ideas they use to interpret the world: their constructs.

For example, you’d probably call something a chair if it had four legs, a seat and a back, because those characteristics fit the “chair” category in your mind. It was the first theory to emphasize the way a person thinks as the root of personality, which is why many modern psychologists call it the cognitive theory.

Although well known today, Kelly’s ideas didn’t receive much attention when he initially published them.

Big Five/OCEAN

Perhaps the most popular leaf on the personality psychology branch is the Big Five, which evolved late 20th century research.

Not really attributable to any particular founder, it centers on, as you’d guess, five traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. (This theory also goes by OCEAN.

) Many personality psychologists subscribe to the Big Five because it’s the Goldilocks of trait theories — a manageable blend of Cattell’s unwieldy 16 traits and Eysenck’s mere three.

Gordon Allport

Since publishing a first take in the 1920s, Allport continued to refine his theory, which emphasized the importance of the individual, rather than subscribing to the idea that everyone fits into a universal set of traits.

For instance, Allport favored using an in-depth case study of a person to develop a personality profile, rather than having someone take a standardized test.

Although his work has left a lasting impression, he lacked the data to support his theory and he, Rogers, didn’t develop measurements to test his concepts.

Cherednychenko Ihor/Shutterstock

Raymond Cattell and Hans Eysenck

Cattell, most other trait theorists, largely believed universal characteristics exist that apply to everyone. After some statistical work in the late 1940s, he defined 16 traits — such as reserved/outgoing, trusting/suspicious and relaxed/tense — he thought represented the core of personality.

Cattell thought these traits were stable overall, but he acknowledged people’s moods and social roles also influenced their behavior. Although his theory was more testable than others, 16 variables made for a complicated analysis. Eysenck’s trait theory, which he started publishing in 1947, overlaps with Cattell’s, but it has a couple of major differences.

Most importantly, he simplified things, coming up with just three major traits: introversion/extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism. Eysenck also believed biology influenced certain traits. For example, he argued that because of differences in the brain, introverts were more mentally stimulated than extraverts and thus avoided activities loud parties that would overload them.

Overall, while Eysenck’s theory was easier to test than Cattell’s, many psychologists felt there were traits that didn’t fit into Eysenck’s framework.


Albert Bandura and Walter Mischel are the heavy hitters of this theory. According to social-cognitive subscribers, we develop our personalities through both our thoughts and our interactions with our social environments. Un most other frameworks, the social-cognitive approach is more interested in how we adjust our behavior in different settings.


Carl Rogers championed this theory in the mid-20th century. Un Freud, he believed our subjective, conscious experience — our phenomenological experience — and our sense of self were key to personality.

Rogers thought our behaviors stem from a need to have our everyday experiences align with how we see ourselves. For example, if you think of yourself as polite, you’re ly to behave politely.

One major flaw with his theory: There aren’t many scientifically viable ways to measure and test these key concepts.


According to this school of thought, we think, feel and act consistently both over time and in different situations; these consistencies are called traits.

Today, tests for trait-based theories are relatively easy to use and thus are pretty common.

Instead of a single founder, a handful of 20th century scholars made significant contributions: Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell and Hans Eysenck.


Personality tests are more than just a fun way to kill some time online. (Sorry, your “Which Game of Thrones character are you?” quiz doesn’t count.) They can play an important role in anything from identifying candidates who are a good fit for a job to helping therapists figure out treatments for their patients.

For nearly a century, classic Rorschach inkblots have been a popular tool for revealing how individuals see the world through the lens of personality. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Rorschach Inkblot

The Rorschach is the most famous projective test, a group defined by their ambiguity: It’s up to the subjects to describe what’s presented, revealing their personality through their interpretations.

In 1921, Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach published 10 inkblot cards, developed through trial and error with hospitalized patients.

Answers that aligned with the structure of the blots indicated healthy psychological function; those that didn’t revealed abnormal behavior.

Big Five Questionnaire 

This is one of most popular, and straightforward, of the trait tests. You simply rate how you usually act, rather than how you think you might in the future, or how you wish you would. Here’s a sample from an abbreviated, unofficial version of the test. Take a version of the test here.

Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

Another projective test, TAT consists of a series of cards with a variety of scenes on them. The point, similar to the Rorschach test, is to interpret the scenes and describe what you think is happening. The test is the idea, according to co-creator Henry Murray, that when a person interprets an ambiguous social situation, that person's personality is exposed.

An image from the original TAT cards, developed in the 1930s, present ambiguous situations that individuals interpret, revealing aspects of their personalities. Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Role Construct Repertory

George Kelly, founder of the personal construct/cognitive theory, developed this tool, commonly referred to as the Rep test. There are two steps. In the first, you list 20 to 30 people who fulfill specific roles in your life, such as mother or friend. The second part is the crux of the test.

The proctor picks three people from the list and asks you to describe how two of them are similar to each other and different from the third person. Each trio is supposed to reveal a construct you’ve built and thus, according to Kelly’s theory, how you think about the world.

Thanks to its open-ended nature, the Rep test reveals twice as much information as the Big Five questionnaire.


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