State of the art: Personality

Sarah Hampson disentangles the Gordian knot of modern personality research.

PERSONALITY is impossible to define succinctly because it means different things to different personality psychologists. Whereas most would accept that the field of personality is the study of how individuals differ from one another, they would disagree on the best way to conceptualise these individual differences. Back in the 1960s, normal personality was largely studied with some version of trait theory. Personality traits (e.g. extraversion) are relatively stable dispositions that give rise to characteristic patterns of behaviour (e.g. a preference for activities involving other people to being alone), and logically depend on evidence of behavioural consistency. Mischel (1968) compiled a seemingly devastating critique of traits in which he demolished the idea that people behave consistently regardless of situation. However, despite its poor prognosis after Mischel’s assault, 30 years later personality is alive and well. Indeed, these days, personality research is popular and personality testing is profitable. This article will revisit some of the concerns that nearly led to the demise of personality a generation ago, and will examine how the field has overcome them.

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