What is personality?
Your personality describes how you think, feel, and behave as you interact with the world. Your unique approach to life forms a fairly consistent pattern that's recognizable to others. You may have heard someone refer to you as “reserved” or “talkative”, perhaps, or say that you’re “passionate” or “calm.” They’re describing how they perceive your personality—your typical demeanor and actions.
Personality affects both thinking and behavior. Some people are dutiful, so they take their responsibilities in life seriously, and always show up prepared and on time. Others are more spontaneous and willing to “go with the flow.” They have a carefree approach to life, but sometimes that involves taking unnecessary risks or neglecting obligations.
Personality can also have a significant impact on your social life. You probably know a few people who are stubborn or argumentative, the type you may avoid because they always make you feel like you're walking on eggshells. Then there are people who are just the opposite. They’re patient, understanding, and eager to help—the type of people you turn to for support.
Think about how your own personality plays into your social relationships. Are you the type of person to strike up a conversation with a stranger? Or do you take a more passive approach to interactions? The answer could have broad implications for your overall well-being.
To understand the many different ways personality affects your life, mental health, and relationships, it’s helpful to know the difference between personality types and personality traits.
Personality type models categorize people into different groups based on common behavioral patterns. One popular model lays out four personality types:
- Type A: highly motivated and organized, but competitive and perfectionistic.
- Type B: relaxed and flexible, but not as ambitious.
- Type C: very conscientious, but has difficulty with emotional expression.
- Type D: pessimistic, anxious, and prone to isolation and distress.
Myers-Briggs Personality Types
Another popular personality type model is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI). It measures how you fall into several different categories:
- Introversion (I) or extraversion (E)
- Sensing (S) or intuition (N)
- Thinking (T) or feeling (F)
- Judging (J) or perceiving (P)
These results combine in multiple ways to form 16 personality types.
For example, if you’re an ENFJ personality type, you:
- Tend to be friendly and collaborative.
- Are creative and like to think about the “big picture”.
- Prioritize feelings and values in your decision-making.
- Prefer to follow a plan and be organized.
If you’re an ISTP personality type, you:
- Tend to be reserved and calm.
- Focus on concrete facts and actions.
- Prioritize objective information and logic in decision-making.
- Are flexible and enjoy spontaneity.
Some personality theories focus on individual traits rather than broad personality types. Each characteristic—such as extroversion or agreeableness—exists on a spectrum, and they come together to form a more complete picture of your personality.
The Five Factor Model (or Big Five) focuses on five personality traits:
- Openness to experience. People with high openness are more curious and look for novel experiences. People who are low on openness are more routine-oriented and conventional.
- Conscientiousness. Highly conscientious people are more organized, self-controlled, and focused on goals. People with low conscientiousness tend to be disorganized, laidback, and unpredictable.
- Extraversion. Highly extraverted people are outgoing, assertive, and expressive. Introverts are more reserved and private. However, people who are introverts are not necessarily shy.
- Agreeableness. People who are highly agreeable are altruistic, trusting, and cooperative. People on the other end of this spectrum are more critical and less trusting of others.
- Neuroticism. Highly neurotic people are more likely to experience negative emotions and are easily upset. People who have low neuroticism are more emotionally stable and secure.
Each of these five factors can be further broken down into more specific facets. For example, aspects of neuroticism include anxiety and self-consciousness, while aspects of agreeableness include modesty and compliance.
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How your personality develops
There are many different theories on how personality develops. Some of them focus on the importance of early social interactions, environment, and experiences.
For example, according to attachment theory, your bonding experience with your primary caregiver during infancy affects your attachment style later in life. This concept can also relate to personality development. For example, if your caregiver made you feel safe and loved, you might be more self-confident and trusting of others. If your caregiver was neglectful, you might be anxious and clingy or withdrawn and untrusting.
[Read: How Attachment Affects Adult Relationships ]
People other than your primary caregiver can also influence your personality. Peers, friends, family members, and even strangers can shape your outlook and behavior.
Social learning theory
Social learning theory suggests that you’re influenced by your observations of other people’s behavior and how you perceive the consequences of their attitudes and actions. If you see someone successfully use bullying to get their way, for example, you might feel encouraged to imitate their aggressive behavior. However, if you notice the bully being ostracized by his peers, you might decide that aggressive personality traits are punished, not rewarded. Similarly, you may model your behavior after a sibling who uses humor to gain attention and popularity.
Even people you only see on television, film, or social media, can also serve as personality role models. You may have adopted the bold but serious traits of a superhero you saw on a TV show as a kid. It all comes down to whether you believe the person you’re observing is being rewarded or punished for their behavior.
Flexibility of personality
Certain personality traits can seem stable over time. You might have always had a mild temperament, even as a baby, for example, or maybe you have friends who have always been outgoing.
However, studies have shown that some aspects of personality can change throughout life. Many people become more trusting later in life, for example. And we also tend to grow more emotionally stable, agreeable, and conscientious with age.
Big life events, such as having a child, moving away from home, or forming a serious relationship, can also lead to changes in personality traits. Getting a high-paying job could lead you to be more emotionally stable, for example, while moving to a new city could push you to become more extraverted.
The role of nature in personality development
Personality isn't completely the result of the way you were raised or what you experienced throughout life. Somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of your temperament may be determined by genetic factors. Studies of identical twins raised in different environments show that both individuals end up with many similar personality traits.
Similarly, your genes may put you more at risk of developing certain personality disorders or conditions such as anxiety and depression.
How your personality can impact your mental health
Your personality type can have many cascading effects on both your mental and physical health. For example, while most people experience anxiety from time to time, some people experience it more often and more intensely than others. If you’re a worrier by nature, you’re more likely to fall into a cycle in which anxiety creates further problems, such as insomnia and mood swings.
If you have a type A personality, your ambitious traits may encourage you to regularly go to the gym. While this is healthy, if you’re too much of a perfectionist, you may overdo the workouts and cause injuries or burnout. With a relaxed, type B personality, on the other hand, you’re more likely to disregard your physical health altogether.
Specific personality traits can also work in tandem to affect your health. For instance, some researchers refer to the combination of high neuroticism, low extraversion, and low conscientiousness as the “vulnerable personality” or “Misery Triad.” People with these three traits tend to be easily stressed, and more likely to socially withdraw or turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol abuse.
On the other hand, a very resilient person might have low neuroticism with high extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. They tend to take things in their stride and can readily turn to loved ones for support. Additionally, a problem-solving approach to life helps them set and meet goals for self-improvement.
[Read: Surviving Tough Times by Building Resilience]
Certain traits can also balance out others. Neuroticism might increase your risk of burnout, but if you’re also a friendly, ongoing person, you can find the social support you need to weather life’s storms.
Concerned that your personality is affecting your well-being?
Although some characteristics are more fixed than others, you do have the power to change the way you think and behave. By understanding how specific personality traits can affect your well-being, you can explore ways to find greater balance in your life.
How different personality traits impact your mental health #1: Neuroticism
Research links high levels of neuroticism with an increased risk of certain mental health issues. If you're highly neurotic—meaning you tend to experience a lot of negative feelings like fear, depression, and anger—you're more likely to feel overwhelmed by stressful situations. While another person might take a parking ticket in their stride, for example, you may see it as a catastrophe that ruins your day. You’re also more likely to belittle yourself for minor mistakes that other people simply shrug off.
This emotional instability and the tendency to focus on the negative puts you at greater risk for mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, and even psychotic experiences such as delusions and hallucinations.
Neuroticism can also affect your relationships. You might feel upset and either withdraw or lash out at those around you for any perceived slights. This can create a downward spiral, as loved ones become frustrated with your negative attitude, leading to rifts in your relationships. As relationships deteriorate, you lose social support and become more vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Coping with neuroticism
There are a variety of ways to manage neurotic tendencies.
Explore stress management practices. Making time for meditation, exercising regularly, and connecting with loved ones are just a few easy ways to manage stress levels. Findings from a 2019 study of young adults suggest that mindfulness training may also be an effective way to reduce neuroticism.
Shift from ruminating to active problem-solving. If you're feeling pessimistic about an upcoming exam, for example, plan extra study sessions. If you're feeling insecure about your partner, instead of internalizing your feelings, start an open dialogue.
Practice gratitude. When your mind tends to drift towards negative thoughts, it can help to cultivate gratefulness. Keep a daily gratitude journal and write about positive experiences, no matter how small they seem. Consider writing notes of appreciation to loved ones, even if you never send them.
Approaching the world with an openness to new experiences can be seen as a positive personality trait, unless that openness crosses over into excessive risk-taking. Acquiring knowledge, meeting new people, and trying out new hobbies are also great ways to keep your brain active and maintain healthy cognitive functioning as you age.
People who remain open to new experiences may also benefit from higher social well-being. If you’re closed-minded, you might shy away from making new friends, or overlook opportunities to bond with your loved ones in new ways, such as traveling together.
Cultivating healthy levels of openness
Challenge yourself to learn a new skill. Try out a new recipe, practice a new language, or learn a new musical instrument. Don’t worry about mastering the craft. Focus on experimenting, being creative, and enjoying yourself.
Mix it up. If you tend to stick to a rigid daily schedule, leave room for small changes. Take an unfamiliar route to work, or invite a friend to a new restaurant for lunch.
Weigh the risks. If you’re already a naturally curious person, remember the importance of looking before you leap. For example, some research connects high openness with illicit drug use. As you seek out and enjoy novel experiences, consider the physical, mental, and legal consequences of your actions.
Being a social butterfly can come with many benefits. If you’re an extravert, you likely have higher self-esteem, find it easier to adapt to life’s changes, and enjoy a greater overall sense of well-being. Part of this may be because extraverts often have more social support and are more likely to seek help from others.
There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, though. In fact, introverts are often considered more introspective, empathetic, and better listeners. Additionally, both extraverts and introverts can suffer from conditions like social anxiety and depression, although the latter may be harder to notice in outgoing individuals.
Still, it’s important to recognize that too much solitude can leave you more vulnerable to loneliness and mental health problems. Staying silent on your needs can also make it hard for loved ones to know how to help you.
If you’re an extravert: Be sure to surround yourself with people who reflect your values. You might feel pressure to engage in unhealthy behavior, such as heavy drinking, in order to stay social. Check-in with yourself internally. Spend a little time alone, journaling, meditating, or going for walks. Take time to be reflective and cultivate self-awareness. This is especially important when you’re feeling isolated and unable to confide in others.
If you’re an introvert: When you're feeling down, try behaving like an extravert, even just for a short period of time, to help boost your mood and self-esteem. Start a conversation with a stranger, be proactive in reaching out to friends. Don't burn yourself out though. Recognize when you're feeling socially fatigued and need alone time.
As with extraversion, people with high agreeableness tend to enjoy a greater sense of social well-being. If you're agreeable, friends may gravitate toward your generous and trusting personality. Those very friends form a social support network that helps you navigate life's challenges and better cope with stress.
Research from 2022 connects agreeableness with general life success. Cooperative people tend to be more tolerant of others' shortcomings and feel motivated to nurture positive relationships. It’s a useful trait to build on, whether you need to improve a romantic relationship or get on better with coworkers.
Of course, an affable nature can come with its downsides. To avoid conflict, you might not stand up for yourself during disagreements, or hold back on voicing an opinion that could ruffle feathers.
Finding healthy levels of agreeableness
Aim to balance your desire for harmony with a healthy level of assertiveness.
Practice empathy. Some people seem naturally more empathic than others. However, empathy is like a muscle that can be strengthened by developing listening skills, becoming more aware of body language, and allowing yourself to be more vulnerable.
[Read: Empathy: How to Feel and Respond to the Emotions of Others]
Practice setting boundaries and being assertive. If you’re too agreeable, some people may take advantage of you. Learning to assert boundaries is important, but remember that assertiveness isn’t about being rude to others. You can be direct about what you want while still being respectful.
The more conscientious you are, the more likely you are to take a responsible approach to life. This can have implications for mental and physical health, as well as overall success. You’re more likely to take your physical health seriously, by regularly exercising and seeing your doctor. And you’re likely a diligent employee or student, with an achievement-oriented mindset.
Research links higher levels of conscientiousness with better health, including a reduced risk of conditions like heart disease and Alzheimer's. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who are self-disciplined tend to live longer.
If you have high conscientiousness, you're also more likely to cope with stress by problem-solving and challenging negative thought patterns.
If you have lower conscientiousness, there’s more chance you’ll neglect your health, make impulsive decisions, or pick up risky habits, such as substance abuse, which can impact both your physical and mental health.
Focus on one thing at a time. Put your phone on silent and turn off the TV when you’re reading, studying, or talking to others. This allows you to be present and handle whatever you're doing with more care.
Use tools to organize your day and set goals. Use daily planners and calendars to stay on top of responsibilities like bill payments or work meetings. To avoid procrastination and stay focused, try setting a 40-minute timer before a study or work session. When the timer goes off, set a new timer to give yourself a 10-minute break.
Slow down to tame impulsiveness. See an expensive item you want to buy? Or feel unsure about ordering another drink in the bar? Rather than feel rushed to act, delay your decision. Weigh your other options and give yourself time to reflect on the consequences.
Distinguishing conscientiousness from perfectionism
Although being organized, ambitious, and self-controlled are generally positive traits, it's possible to go to an extreme. While conscientious people desire success, perfectionists are motivated by fear of failure. People who are perfectionists set unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. And because their goals are unattainable, they may struggle with depression and anxiety.
To curb perfectionism:
Allow room for imperfections and failure. Expose yourself to activities that you’re not good at. Play games with friends even if you know you’ll lose. Sketch or paint, even if you don’t have an eye for details. Learn to find lessons within failures.
Ask yourself if a goal is reasonable. Aiming to learn a new language within days? Hoping to see workout results within a week? Try to recognize unrealistic goals, be patient with yourself, and acknowledge your limitations.
Focus on the bigger picture. If you missed a deadline at work, for example, or didn't score the highest grade on an exam, ask yourself how much these perceived failures will matter in the long run. Sometimes, it’s more important to learn from a mistake.
Remember to celebrate your successes. There's always room for improvement, but don't forget to acknowledge progress and victories. Even if you didn’t come in first place during that 5K, you can still be proud of your effort.
Personality and personality disorders
Personality disorders involve unhealthy ways of acting, thinking, and feeling. People with personality disorders often struggle with extreme personality traits, such as intense mistrust, lack of empathy, poor self-control, or social avoidance. In each case, these personality traits can impact your well-being and relationships.
Emotional instability. High neuroticism is associated with personality disorders that involve impulsive behavior, intense negative emotions, and difficulty maintaining relationships with others. These include paranoid, antisocial, and borderline personality disorders.
Conscientiousness. Some researchers consider obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) an unhealthy variation of conscientiousness, where you obsess about order, tidiness, and perfection. Similarly, having low conscientiousness, unpredictability, and impulsiveness are associated with antisocial and borderline personality disorders.
Empathy and agreeableness. Low agreeableness involves a great mistrust of others, so it's linked with paranoid personality disorder. However, people with conditions like narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders also tend to be less cooperative and compassionate towards others. Conversely, high agreeableness can be a trait in people with dependent personality disorder.
Sociability. People with histrionic personality disorder have a constant desire for attention, so are often outgoing. Grandiose narcissists can appear highly assertive and socially confident, while avoidant and schizoid personality disorders are characterized by more reclusive habits.
Personality tests can be a fun way to get to know yourself or your loved ones. Sometimes they're used in workplace settings as screening tools or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of employees. As well as the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Big Five Personality Test, other popular assessments include:
The Eysenck Personality Inventory. This focuses on three core personality traits: extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism.
The HEXACO Personality Inventory assesses six personality dimensions: honesty/humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.
The DiSC personality test lets you discover which of the four behavioral styles you lean toward most: dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness.
The 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF) measures a wide range of traits from warmth, reasoning, and emotional stability to dominance, liveliness, and perfectionism.
Taking a personality test
When taking any of these tests, it’s important to remember that human personalities are complex and personality tests may not be able to capture the sheer diversity of characteristics. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Consider taking the same test multiple times. Are the results inconsistent? If not, the test may be unreliable. You can also ask someone you know if the results seem to match their perception of you.
Take different types of tests. If two tests claim to measure emotional stability, for example, but return wildly different results, one of them may not be measuring what it claims. Taking different tests may give you a greater insight.
Be honest and self-aware. Many tests require you to self-report. You can skew the results by answering in a way that doesn’t truly reflect your thoughts or behavior.
Personality tests are not perfect tools, and you shouldn’t take their results as the absolute truth. However, they can sometimes help you reflect on the complexities of personality and perhaps even gain a better understanding of yourself or others.
Last updated or reviewed on March 22, 2023