Personality Strengths Guide
What is Personality?
What personal psychological attributes combine to form a personality? Well, for starters, no two of us have the exact same personality. We each have a unique constellation of traits, some of which seem to come naturally; others we may have to work a little harder to improve and maintain consistently. Understanding our own personality traits gives us a sense of who we are at the core. Understanding the personality traits of others helps us understand and predict their behavior, which guides how we interact with them and helps us optimize our relationships.
We’re all personality theorists, when it comes down to it. We choose relationships, for instance, based on our personal theories about which traits are most compatible with our own, which personalities will make ideal companions for us for the longer term. After all, one doesn’t have to be a psychologist to know that certain personality characteristics lead to certain behaviors. We all seek to predict how someone will behave in the future, based upon the knowledge we already have about him/her.
Personality is the sum of all the unique psychological qualities that influence an individual’s behavior across situations and time. So when we study personality, we’re attempting to determine how individuals differ from each other, yet are the same within themselves. That requires us to focus on two qualities: uniqueness and consistency.
State or Trait?
As with all dimensions of mental health, it’s essential to distinguish traits from states, but this is especially true when studying personality traits: Are we behaving a certain way because of who we are at the core, or are we simply behaving a certain way in response to a particular situation? A trait is a stable, pervasive characteristic that influences our thoughts, feelings, and behavior across a lifetime. A state is a temporary emotional condition. Often, our emotional responses to situations are temporary states. When circumstances change, our feelings do, too.
So a personality trait, then, is a relatively stable tendency to act in a certain way. For example, generosity, shyness, and aggressiveness are personality traits. Traits follow us throughout life. They’re ongoing aspects of a person, rather than the result of a particular environmental situation. States and traits also interact, of course; for example, an aggressive personality trait will lead to more frequent angry states and expressions of anger. Plus, life’s daily situations and circumstances interact with traits and can influence the expression of traits — for better or worse. For example, you might not be an aggressive person by nature, but suppose you’ve just had a really bad day… you got fired from your job, got a speeding ticket leaving the office, and a careless person just slammed into your car and tries to blame you for it. While you wouldn’t normally get into a screaming match with anyone in most day-to-day situations, on this particular day, in this particular situation, environment could be the spark that sets temperament afire.
On the other hand, situations can positively influence traits, too. A miserly Scrooge who seems to have little empathy for others might be touched by a particular story about people whose lives had been ravaged by misfortune and feel compelled to donate money to help them rebuild.
Within the field of personality psychology, there has always been a “person-situation” debate… is the personality trait or the situation more influential in determining a person’s behavior? Personality trait theorists believe that we have consistent personalities that guide our behaviors across situations. Situationists, on the other hand, argue that humans are not consistent enough from situation to situation to be characterized by broad personality traits. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two approaches.
Psychologist Walter Mischel (famous for the marshmallow experiments discussed in Why We Need Emotional Intelligence) proposed a happy medium known as situation-specific dispositions, which suggests that people are likely to be highly consistent over time in response to the same situation, but that their behavior may not generalize across settings. For example, someone who cheated on tests in high school is likely to cheat on tests in college. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that person would cheat on his or her spouse. Another example: Someone may have a historically hostile relationship with a parent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she will be unable to forge healthy, non-hostile relationships with anyone.
Mischel ultimately concluded that we all have unique “behavioral signatures” and that personality traits must be viewed within their contexts. His later work (Mischel & Yoda, 1995) has focused on analyzing and predicting situation-specific contingencies (e.g., she does X when A, but Y when B…). Even as early as 1968, Mischel was cautioning that oversimplifying personality as merely a group of traits overlooked both our true uniqueness as individuals, as well as our ability to adapt, grow and change…
“Global traits and states are excessively crude, gross units to encompass adequately the extraordinary complexity and subtlety of the discriminations that people constantly make…. The traditional trait-state conceptualizations of personality, while often paying lip service to peoples’ complexity and to the uniqueness of each person, in fact lead to a grossly oversimplified view that misses both the richness and the uniqueness of individual lives . . . [and their] extraordinary adaptiveness and capacities for discrimination, awareness, and self-regulation” (Mischel, 1968, p. 301).
Each of our personality traits falls somewhere along a continuum between positive and negative, healthy and unhealthy. But by the same token, it is also true that normal personality and personality disorders lie on the same continuum. A particular trait may tend toward the high end, the low end or somewhere in the middle. Personality traits should not be conceived of as dichotomies (such as extraversion vs. introversion) but as continua. Each individual has the capacity to progress along each dimension as circumstances change. We are not simply “stuck” on one end of each trait dichotomy; rather, we are a blend of both, exhibiting some characteristics more often than others.
So while personality tends to remain relatively stable over time, its dynamics can be influenced — for better or worse — by many situational forces. But the good news is that most personality traits can also be improved over time both through deliberate effort, as well as through Sahaja meditation.
The Personality Traits Guide is designed to help you know your personality strengths and put them to work in everyday life. Understanding the true makeup of your personality will increase your life satisfaction, well-being and your relationships with Self and others.
Mischel, Walter. Personality and Assessment, London, Wiley, 1968.
Mischel, W., and Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualizing situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure. Psychological Review. 102, 246-268.