A Short History of the Study of Personality
For as long as there have been people, there have been attempts to classify, codify, and understand what makes them the way they are and figure out how and why they differ. Those who study personality concern themselves not only with social interactions, learning, development, behavior, and culture, but also with physiology, genetics, and pathology — in short, anything that has to do with being human.
Personality in the Past
Thousands of years ago, the astrological system developed in China divided people into twelve distinct types, each displaying some of the characteristics inherent in a particular beast, such as the wily rat, self-reliant horse, or creative goat.
The Enneagram, a popular instrument used today, is thought to have roots in 4,000-year-old Pythagorean geometry. It separates people into numbered personality categories from Reformer (1) to Peacemaker (9). Margaret Fings Keyes, in her book Emotions and the Enneagram (Molysdatur Publications), places its origins in the secret Sufi oral traditions of Afghanistan.
Twenty-four centuries ago, Hippocrates theorized that personality was affected by four bodily fluids, or humors: black bile, blood, yellow bile, and phlegm. About 500 years later, Galen related those humors to four temperaments: melancholic, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic. They all sound pretty distasteful now, until you think of them in more modern terms such as serious, impulsive, sensitive, or detached. An equal balance among the four humors represented the ideal personality.
Among the accomplishments of Theophrastus, successor to Aristotle's Peripatetic school in Athens, is his book The Characters. In it he briefly describes a variety of moral types, including the flatterer, the dissembler, the mean, the tactless, the garrulous, and the avaricious. Some 2,300 years later, you can probably pinpoint all of these types in your own place of employment.
In the early sixteenth century, Swiss physician Paracelsus came up with a rather playful way to describe personality as influenced by salamanders, nymphs, sylphs, or gnomes.
Psychoanalytic and Behaviorist Theories
In the early part of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud divided the human personality into three components: id, ego, and superego. He studied how people adjusted to the world around them, and he stressed the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping the adult personality. One of his colleagues, Alfred Adler, looked at a person's inner world as a determinant of behavior and personality.
In 1926, Harvard psychologist William Marston outlined four areas of human behavior: dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance, a theory used for army recruitment before World War II and later applied to the business world. American behaviorist B. F. Skinner suggested that external stimuli shaped an individual's personality and that a change in one's environment would significantly change one's personality. Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura agreed that environment influences behavior but suggested that the reverse was also true. Later he added the influence of memory, feelings, and other psychological processes to that of environment in determining one's personality.
Humanistic and Biological Approaches
In marked contrast to Theophrastus's rather grumpy assessment of human personality, and to Freud's focus on childhood, psychologist Carl Rogers took the view that human behavior is rational and man's nature is essentially positive and trustworthy. According to his theory, a single force of life — the human “actualizing tendency” — is the built-in motivation to develop one's potential to the fullest extent possible. Every person is genetically programmed as a living being to do the very best he or she can.
Brandeis psychologist Abraham Maslow created the now well-known hierarchy of human needs: physiological (food, water), safety and security, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Ultimately, Maslow said that in order to be self-actualized, all of your other needs have to be met. One psychology professor calls Maslow a pioneer in the movement that “put the person back into personality” (
Most biologically based approaches to personality look for the particular structure, neural pathway, transmitter, or hormone associated with a particular affect, behavior, or mental process. German-born psychologist Hans Eysenck was a pioneer in this work, studying approach and reward, inhibition and punishment, and aggression and flight as facets of human genetic inheritance. In the 1950s, William Sheldon linked physical body types (ecto-morph, mesomorph, and endomorph) with personality types and theorized that one's personality emerged during development in the womb.