The Science of Personality

From eccentric and introverted to boisterous and bold, the human personality is a curious, multifaceted thing. Each person has a unique mix of characteristics, and individuals value different traits in themselves and others.

Questions of personality have challenged humans from the dawn of personhood: Can people ever change? Can an angry person ease his or her rage, or a meek person finally speak up? What is the difference between normal and pathological behavior? Do people perceive others the same way that those individuals perceive themselves? Psychological research has made some progress on these questions—a branch of the field, known as personality psychology, is dedicated to them—but experts still don’t understand many facets of personality.

Because personality is so pervasive and all-important, it presents a clinical paradox of sorts: It is hard to accurately assess one's own personality, yet impossible to overlook that of others. But since personality can make or break one's relationships at home and at work—and because each person aspires to be grounded in who they truly are—researchers will continue to dig deeper into why people are the way they are and how personality influences each individual's behavior.

The "Big Five" Personality Traits

Psychologists—including theorists like Carl Jung, who first proposed the concepts of introversion and extroversion, and others, like Myers and Briggs, who created a well-known, though widely criticized, personality test—have long sought ways to quantify and categorize human personality.

One prominent theory, which gained traction in the latter half of the 20th century, is the five-factor model, which hypothesizes that personalities can be broken down into the “Big Five” traits: openness (the desire to seek out new, unfamiliar experiences), conscientiousness (the tendency toward self-discipline and planning over impulsivity), extroversion (whether one draws energy from time spent with others or time spent alone), agreeableness (how cooperative, polite, and kind one tends to be), and neuroticism (emotional stability and one’s tendency toward anxiety and self-doubt.) The field has yet to settle, however, on a single test or model that is able to capture the full range of human personality.

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