What is Personality?
In psychological parlance, "personality" refers to a person's unique and enduring pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving. When viewed in this manner it becomes evident that "personality" encompasses nearly every aspect of human experience. Subsequently, our personalities have the potential to greatly impact our well-being. In particular, the quality of our relationships is significantly affected by our personalities. Moreover, because human beings are social creatures, this means our personalities greatly influence our overall success and satisfaction with life. These are pretty bold assertions, so let's examine why this is so:
Let's begin by examining the relationship between our personalities and our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In each and every moment, we receive enormous amounts of information from everything going on around us in the world. Psychologists use the term "environment" to refer to these external events going on around us. As we receive this information from our environment, it undergoes a subjective, internal process of evaluation and interpretation. We begin with a subjective evaluation of the information detected by our senses (what we see, hear, etc.) Then, an interpretive thought forms about what we think is going on. In addition, the information is assigned some kind of meaning and importance. As this occurs, we will experience an array of feelings, in a varying degrees of intensity, about what we think is going on around us. The intensity of the feelings that arise in us is usually determined by the importance we assign to a particular thought. We tend to have very strong feelings about things that are highly important to us, and less intense feelings about things that are less important. This process of interpretation (our thoughts) and assigning meaning and importance (our feelings about those thoughts) will then determine our behavioral response to these external events in our environment. In other words, what I think and feel determines how I will behave.
Not only does the environment impact our behavior but our behavior will subsequently impact the environment. Therefore, there is a dynamic, interactive exchange between the environment and our personalities (what we think and feel, and how we behave). This interactive exchange creates a circular feedback loop that leads to the development and maintenance of habitual patterns of exchange between a person and their environment. These habitual patterns form the foundation of "personality." Therefore, the environment influences the development of our personalities, and our personalities' influence how we respond to the environment.
Before we continue, let's use an example to illustrate how this circular pattern forms between our personalities (how we think, feel, and behave) and the environment:
Suppose a woman has smiled at me with sincere and genuine kindness, and I have observed this event (the smiling woman being an event occurring in my external environment). However, as I subjectively evaluate what I observed, I incorrectly interpret her smile as a menacing smirk. My interpretation of her smile as a menacing smirk then causes me to become somewhat suspicious about her motivations and I begin to feel worried. I don't like people smirking at me like that. Maybe she plans to hurt me! Because I suspect malicious intent from this smirking woman, I'm likely to behave in a negative manner. Maybe I'll make some unkind comment to this "smirking" woman- I'll show her! Now, because I've said something unkind to her, this formerly happy, smiling woman becomes upset with me. She returns the favor and shouts at me, "You're a jerk!" You see? I was right! I knew she meant to cause me harm.
The above example demonstrates how a circular pattern is formed between the environment and our personalities. It also illustrates that once formed, these patterns are reinforced and maintained over time to create an enduring pattern. Notice that my unique, subjective, internal interpretation of the environment and subsequent thoughts about the environment (the woman is smirking, not smiling), led to my suspicious, wary feelings. These suspicious feelings then led to by my unkind behavior, causing the environment (the smiling woman) to change accordingly (the formerly smiling woman is now upset, and calls me a "jerk"). Since she called me a "jerk" her comment verified my initial (incorrect) interpretation this event (that she was smirking, not smiling), and the feedback loop is thus completed.
Over time, this circular pattern of interactions between people and their environments will cause enduring patterns of internal experience and behavior to develop. In other words, people eventually develop habits of interpreting and responding to the environment that influence the way they experience and interpret their world. These enduring patterns of internal experience and behavior are called "personality traits" and the specific combinations of those traits comprise our personalities. Because of the circular nature of the feedback loop, once these patterns have formed, they are maintained and become fairly stable. So generally, personality traits will not radically change across time or situations. For instance, if someone is typically generous, we don't expect them to suddenly become miserly.