The Four Theories of Personality

by Alan Valdez; Updated September 26, 2017
Beautiful Student Using Digital Tablet At Desk

Every person has a unique personality consisting of a distinctive pattern of thinking, perceiving and relating with the world. In the personal sphere, understanding the forces that shape personality can be useful for achieving growth and satisfaction. In the business arena, it can be crucial for recruiting the right candidates and for understanding why employees respond to different motivations. The four primary of theories of personality are psychoanalytic, social-learning, self-growth and traits-based.

Psychodynamic Theories

Psychodynamic theories focus on the inner workings of personality, especially internal conflicts and struggles. Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, was a key figure in this field. For him, personality was a dynamic system directed by the conflicting desires of the instinct-based id, the rational ego, and the idealistic and judgmental super-ego. In a business context, psychodynamic theories are of limited application because they place too much emphasis on sexual and aggressive instincts and are highly subjective. They remain influential despite infrequent use.

Traits-based Theories

Traits-based theories of personality focus on stable qualities that a person shows in most situations. There are hundreds of possible traits, such as sociability, orderliness, intelligence, shyness, sensitivity, rebelliousness, creativity and obstinacy. However, most traits can be traced back to 35 basic traits, 16 source traits, or the five core OCEAN traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Because theories based on traits models are objective and grounded in research, they have multiple practical applications and are often used as the basis for psychological tests in business settings.

Social Learning Theories

Social learning theories focus on learning and nurturing in contrast to traits-based theories, which stress heredity and nature. Human experience -- not human nature -- is considered the primary cause of personality growth and development. As we learn, we alter the way we perceive our environment and the way we interpret incoming stimuli, which influences the way we interact or behave. Social learning takes the concept a step further, introducing the idea that we learn through our interactions with society. Society plays a much larger role in the way we think about ourselves and the world and how we interact or behave in the larger context of society. Social learning theories are of interest in business because they deal with the learning process and the effect of incentives and disincentives on behavior modification.

Personal Growth and Humanism

Theories inspired by self-growth and humanism stress the private and subjective experience. Personality is considered an expression of the need for personal growth. Different personalities are manifestations of differing stages and paths in the individual's quest to fulfill his innate capabilities. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a particularly influential model in this area and one of the multiple humanist tools that can be used in the development of paths for personal, as well as professional, development. Maslow's theory suggests that people have basic needs for survival -- food, shelter, safety -- that must be met before higher order needs, such as self-esteen and self-actualization, can be fulfilled.

About the Author

Alan Valdez started his career reviewing video games for an obscure California retailer in 2003 and has been writing weekly articles on science and technology for Grupo Reforma since 2006. He got his Bachelor of Science in engineering from Monterrey Tech in 2003 and moved to the U.K., where he is currently doing research on competitive intelligence applied to the diffusion of innovations.

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