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Is There Such a Thing as Personality?

MEL's picture


Is There Such a Thing as Personality?

After recently taking a personality test, I began to wonder about the term “personality”. While taking this personality test, I found it hard to answer some questions because my personality and my behavior vary and, therefore, I don’t always respond to things the same way. This got me wondering, is there such a thing as personality? When we say that someone is, for example, warm and friendly, we are doing more than describing how he or she acted on a particular occasion. Instead, we are describing the person and, with that, providing some expectations about he or she will act on other occasions, in other settings, But is this right? Is someone’s behavior stable this way? This personality discussion becomes a contentious argument between trait theorists and situationist theorists. 


According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, personality traits are "enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself that are exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts." Trait theorists generally assume that traits are relatively stable over time, traits differ among individuals, and traits influence behavior (3). In terms of brain anatomy, is thought that the anterior portion of the frontal lobe, called the prefrontal cortex, is very important for higher cognitive functions and the determination of the personality (1). As we discussed in class, it is believed that each person’s unique connections between neurons makes a person’s personality.


Trait theorists use personality tests, such as the one I took, to measure personality. One example of such a test is the NEOAC. This test measures the Big Five personality dimensions. These include neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Trait theorists narrowed the dimensions to only five because they found that these five dimensions are compact and do not overlap. These dimensions have been found useful for describing personalities in many different cultural settings and can even describe the personalities of other species, such as chimpanzees and dogs (2).


But are these traits consistent across many situations? This turns out to be false. Situationist theorists endorse the claim that personality is inconsistent and depends heavily upon the situation a person is in. Walter Mischel, a psychologist who specializes in personality, performed many experiments to show that an individual’s behavior, when closely examined, was highly dependent upon situational cues, rather than expressed consistently across diverse situations that differed in meaning. Mischel showed that study after study failed to support the fundamental traditional assumption of personality theory, that an individual’s behavior with regard to a trait is highly consistent across diverse situations (6).


One experiment that supports Mischel’s theory is Hartshorne and May’s 1928 experiment in which they tested the honesty of children. They tested 8150 grade school children and made 170,000 observations (2). Some of the twenty-eight tests that they had to complete included taking a test and completing a maze, both in which they had the opportunity to cheat (5). The degrees of consistency in the children’s behavior was very low, with a correlation of just 0.30 between honesty measured in one setting and honesty in another situation (2). This means that from situation to situation the student’s personality (honest or dishonest) was inconsistent. This experiment shows us that behavior and personality are not as consistent as we usually think they are.


So what are we to make of these results? Is there no such a thing as personality? There is a logical theory that resolves the argument between trait theorists and situationist theorists. Clearly, the situations we find ourselves in shape how we act, but this does not mean that our personalities are irrelevant for our behavior. Upon further inspection, it can be said that our behavior seems to reflect the interaction of the situation with our personality. This is why each of us is likely to react to a situation in a slightly different way. According to this theory, whether we will detect this interaction, however, depends on many factors, including the type of situation someone is in. Some situations, called strong situations, produce near-uniformity in behavior. Some examples of strong situations include traffic lights and fancy restaurants. Weak situations, by contrast, allow for a wider variety of behaviors. Examples of weak or weaker situations include informal parties and being home alone. It is in these weaker and more ambiguous situations we are most likely to show our “true colors” (2).


It is evident then that there is such a thing as personality. In weak situations, we can exhibit our true personalities and we are fairly consistent in our behavior. On the other hand, in strong situations our personality and behavior greatly varies from situation. It is important that we acknowledge the importance and influence of strong situations on personality and behavior. Personally, this research has changed my thinking about personality by showing me that behavior and personality are not as consistent as we usually think they are.



1.      "A Guide to Brain Anatomy." Coma and Traumatic Brain Injury Information for

Families and Survivors. Web. 11 May. 2010.


2.      Gleitman, Henry, Dan Reisberg, and James Gross. Psychology, Seventh Edition. New

York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Print.

3.      "Personality psychology -." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 11 May. 2010.


4.      "The Behavioral Consistency Controversy |" Bukisa - Share Your

Knowledge. Web. 11 May 2010. <>.

5.      "Walter Mischel." Psychology Wiki. Web. 11 May 2010.








Tori Toups's picture

Is There Such a Thing as Personality?

In my opinion, there is a such thing as a personality. Personality is what makes a person them. Someone's personality can determine if they are a happy, joyous person or a closed off reserved person. Behavior and personality may be different, but it definitely goes hand in hand with one another. It is very evident that without a personality or life changing insights we would all be the same and boring.