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What is Personality?



Philosophers, authors and scientists have been challenged since ancient times by the question as to what constitutes human personality. The physician Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) developed one of the oldest personality models we know. He divided humans into four different temperament types: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic and attributed not only certain character traits but also the propensity for certain diseases to each of them.

Obviously Hippocrates’ personality model has long been superseded, but even as of today researchers have been unable to agree on a common definition for what constitutes personality. Our personality can probably best be defined as a complex construction of our daily perceptions, thoughts and activities. Conversely our personality also influences our perception of the world, our way of thinking and acting.

Most of today’s theories on the subject of personality are based on the presence of permanent and relatively stabile attributes (dispositions). These attributes equally affect a variety of specific traits. For instance, they decide whether someone tends to deal with life rather timidly or more confidently or whether someone is a gregarious or rather reserved person. A question that has been hotly debated for a long time: Are these attributes innate or does our environment shape them?

Predisposition or Environment?

Over time positions primarily shaped by the respective dominance of biology vs. psychology repeatedly and radically changed. While the predisposition theoreticians were convinced that they could identify absolute limits along with potential in human genes, the environment theoreticians argued that social influences generated by the environment and society solely or predominantly determine a person’s development.

It is relatively easy to deal with the question regarding innate personality predispositions by studying the newly born during that brief life span when the babies have not yet been exposed for a long time to the shaping influences of parenting and society. Once behavior- and reaction differences have been determined, one can relatively easily use them to project innate characteristics. As a matter of fact, during the 60’s of the last century researchers discovered that there are babies who eat and sleep relatively regularly from birth while others have major problems developing a time rhythm for these activities. Some babies from the beginning react to new stimuli with curiosity and interest while others are intimidated and fearful. While some children are active and adaptable reacting positively to strangers, others act a lot more reserved, hesitant and timid. For example, according to the latest state of research those differences in temperament actually represent very substantial personality attributes that won’t change in the course of a lifetime and if, only with a major effort. Scientists call them “traits”.

Having said this, the latest research indicates that a person’s personality is not just a question of the genes but that life’s events also tend to cause changes. Data show the impact of drastic events on the personality. For instance, young adults become more conscientious when they start their first job and in later years the conscientiousness declines with the transition to retirement. Conversely a person’s personality influences the probability of specific events occurring in his/her life. As an example, extroverted people are more likely to move in with their partner than introverts. This demonstrates the existence of an interaction between attributes and environment: The way we are influences our view of the world and our behavior in it – and in turn, that which we perceive and experience effects who we are.

During the past decades of psychological research a multitude and to some extent very different personality theories and models have been developed and discussed.

Sigmund Freud’s Trichotomy

For instance, Sigmund Freud the Father of Psychoanalysis developed a tripartite model based on dividing the personality into three separate concepts namely the entities “Id”, “Ego” and „Super-Ego“. In this model the “Id” represents the sub-consciousness; seat of the instincts and impulses demanding immediate satisfaction and thus influencing our behavior. The “Super-Ego“ on the other hand, internalizes the parents’ and society’s values and norms, it is the seat of morality and conscience judging our actions according to stern benchmarks. Finally, the “Ego” stands for the concept of consciously living and acting; here Id and Super-Ego negotiate, decisions are made and behavior is regulated. According to Freud’s theory the interaction among the three concepts - depending on which one is the most pronounced and in control, represents the basis of the personality. For instance, an excessive domination by the Id can result in overly impulsive, uncontrolled and selfish behaviors; on the other hand, a dominating Super-Ego may constitute the basis for rather compulsive, rigid and intolerant personalities.

Freud based his model on the theory that personalities are primarily deeply and almost permanently shaped by specific experiences and conflicts in early childhood and youth.

Cattell’s Factor Model

Raymond Bernard Cattell’s work deploying factor analysis, a new statistical approach on behalf of personality psychology was groundbreaking. With its help he isolated 16, in his opinion basic attributes – the manifestation of each individual attribute and the combination of these various manifestations resulted in his image of personality. The basic human attributes identified by him are: warmth, reasoning, emotional stability, dominance, liveliness, rule-consciousness, social boldness, sensitivity, vigilance, abstractedness, privateness, apprehension, openness to change, self-reliance, perfectionism, tension. Cattell went by the theory that these attributes are a permanent part of each person and not at all or barely change during a lifetime.

The Reiss-Profile

Another personality model stems from Steven Reiss. He believes that all human behavior is based on 16 different motives: power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honour, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical activity and tranquility. (Comparing the motives with the attributes developed by Cattell one discovers interesting congruities but also deviations). In his opinion these so-called life-motives rule our life – and of those he believes 14 are genetic because they are evolutionarily significant. Idealism and acceptance are the exceptions. Each person features a characteristic motivation profile depending on how strongly or weakly the individual motives are pronounced and how they are combined. Purely statistically the Reiss-Profile can portray two billion different profiles.

This personality model assumes that a person’s motive profile is also largely stable. For instance, in all probability curious children will also go through life openly and interested as adults. Reiss has determined that the motive structures apparently also include gender specific emphases: Thus male behavior is more strongly driven by the motives power, vengeance and romance than the female behavior, women attribute more significance to the motive tranquility (that also includes emotional security, by the way) than do men.

The Big Five

A model, the so-called “Big Five” has primarily asserted itself in psychology during the last decades. It attempts to define a person’s character in five basis dimensions: extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. These five basic dimensions are again divided into a variety of sub-facets; and each dimension and facet is then assessed on a bipolar scale. Based on this predetermined characteristic every person is then categorized: for instance, some are very extroverted, others very introverted and most somewhere in between the two poles. The aggregate of the attributes reflect that which we call personality or character.

Research indicates that the five mentioned traits in their basics already become apparent very early clearly, about beginning with a child’s third year. Within the framework of this model children can then conclusively be classified at age twelve, at the latest. That is not to suggest that the personality has fully developed at this time, but tendencies are very clearly discernible. Although personalities continue to develop up to about age 30, they don’t fundamentally change: A very timid child is not going to turn into a party animal, a conscientious child won’t become an irresponsible rogue.

Just two Personality Meta Traits?

Recent research is convinced that personality can only be sufficiently described with the manifestation of two character traits, the so-called “Meta Traits”. These two Meta Traits are stability and plasticity.

In this context researchers see stability as the extent to which a person tends to be rather more comfortable with the familiar, act carefully and evade potential dangers. Therefore stability in effect combines the Big-Five-Model’s three poles, „security, confidence“ (the counter pole to neuroticism), “agreeableness” and “conscientiousness”. Plasticity, on the other hand stands for a person’s willingness to walk on unfamiliar paths, to try something new and occasionally take a risk (and combines Big-Five’s two poles “extraversion” and “openness to experience“).

The researchers endorsing this relatively new model suspect a correlation between the stability trait and the brain’s serotonin system’s activity on one hand and between the trait plasticity and the dopamine system, on the other. The serotonin system regulates self- and impulse controls, supports equilibrium and gentleness and curbs negative emotions. The dopamine system is almost akin to its adversary because it makes us search for the “kick”, that we are curious about the unknown, that after a while the familiar becomes boring, that we thirst for adventures. According to this model, the individual manifestations of both traits in a person are responsible for his/her personality that in turn determines a person’s behavior in every day life: Persons with a high stability value tend to avoid risks, are controlling and deliberate and won’t get involved in excesses, regardless of their nature. On the other hand, persons with a high plasticity value tend to be social, adventurous and sometimes even somewhat unrestrained epicures.

The iPersonic-System

Our iPersonic-System is based on the typology originally developed by the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and later further differentiated by the psychologists Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs. This typology also assumes different temperaments and basic attitudes respectively that are widely considered to be innate and that in the main have a determining influence on how we react to our environment, how we perceive, think, feel and behave. The basis of this system is similar to the Big Five-Model – four bipolar scales for the grading of the individual user. The dimensions of the scales are: extroversion – introversion, sensing – intuition, thinking – feeling, perceiving – judging. Based on the combination of the respective manifestation we end up with 16 different personality types that can be matched with specific attributes, behaviors, preferences and dislikes.

Working with our iPersonic-System we proceed based on two premises: The iPersonic-Typology offers an excellent, easy to deal with and hands-on basis for self-reflection: Who am I? How do others see me? What are my strengths and weaknesses in different areas of life? The better one knows oneself, the better one can develop and use one’s own potential – and live happily.

The iPersonic-System is not meant to be an inflexible “ready-made system” for personality types. On the contrary, we are deeply committed to the power of development and the potential for change – also and especially where human personality is concerned. In the ideal scenario our type test provides the user with an inventory of the Is-State and thus serves as a basis for a first life analysis: Am I happy with that which constitutes my personality? Which of my attributes would I like to strengthen, which ones to soften? To what extent is my present situation appropriate and advantageous for my personality and to which extent does it inhibit my self-development and even makes me unhappy. And how can I change that?

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