What is "personality"?
There is hardly anything that is as central to anyone’s life as “personality”, which is unique and distinctive for every individual. But what is it that we call “personality”? And why are there so many different definitions? These questions were explored by Jana Uher. In a comprehensive trilogy of research papers, she has investigated the meta-theories – the “theories behind the theories” – that scientists have developed about individuals and “personality”. This metatheoretical perspective sheds new light on the many existing definitions of “personality” and unravels the commonalities and differences between them.
What is “personality”? Everyone has an opinion about this
because “personality” is primarily an important concept of
everyday psychology that we use to differentiate individuals from
one another and to make them distinguishable for us. Every adult
person possesses a comprehensive everyday knowledge about how the
members of his or her specific social, cultural and language
community explain and categorise the things of the world.
Acquiring this knowledge already begins with language acquisition
because language is used to communicate and to capture information
and knowledge. Therefore, every word contains various meanings,
which are sometimes more and sometimes less obvious because words
and meanings can also change over time.
For research on “personality”, this is both a blessing and a
curse. One the one hand, all researchers can resort to their
comprehensive everyday knowledge about individuals without having to
start from scratch. This knowledge has been developed in their
particular socio-cultural and language communities on the basis of
the experiences and ideas of previous generations and has proven to
be useful for handling the issues of everyday social life.
Our everyday language contains many words that we can use to
communicate complex information about individuals efficiently and
quickly. We use the small piece of information that somebody is
"grumpy" to draw conclusions about an individual whom we
have not yet met, and we align our actions accordingly. This is
possible because our everyday knowledge contains a differentiated
system of socio-cognitive categories that are expressed in our
everyday words, directly or indirectly (see the Science Blog “Human's
‘personality glasses’ - Why we form impressions of individuals.
New insights into a uniquely human ability”).
But on the other hand, this everyday knowledge and everyday
vocabulary entail a number of profound problems for
“personality” research, as Jana Uher has shown in her new
paradigm for research on individuals that is applicable across
various scientific disciplines (see the Science Blog “A new
scientific paradigm for research on individuals”). Such problems
occur because scientists cannot simply ignore the words and meanings
of everyday psychology. She emphasises that they are an important
part of every person’s language and thinking.
Moreover, all scientists have personal ideas and beliefs about
what is meant by the term “personality”, and these ideas and
beliefs are based on the scientists’ own social, cultural and
language background. Scientists exploring individuals are always
individuals themselves with their own personal viewpoints and ideas
about the world. Therefore, they are not independent from their
objects of research – in contrast to, for example, physicists and
chemists. No wonder that, by 1937, scientists had already set up
more than 50 different definitions of “personality”!
Quantum physicists have such an easy time compared with this!
They can work on their topics unburdened by everyday knowledge, and
they do not have to consider a range of existing meanings of words.
Instead, they are free to develop completely new terms and their own
scientific language. The words of our everyday languages, many of
which are often imprecise and sometimes also contradictory,
constitute a real dilemma for research on individuals and their
“personality”. But many researchers are often not very aware of
this, as Jana Uher has critically ascertained in her trilogy of
Most likely as a consequence of this, previous research on human
“personality” is largely based on the person-descriptive words
of our everyday language, in particular on adjectives such as
gregarious, anxious, curious, cool, brave or aggressive. Such words
are used in “personality” questionnaires to assess individuals.
However, questionnaires can explore at best what humans think about
themselves or other individuals. But questionnaires cannot measure
how the assessed individuals actually behave.
Therefore, Jana Uher differentiates language from the different
kinds of phenomena that are being denoted. Language is not the same
as behaviour. Language is also different from an individual’s body
build, physiology and psyche and the outer parts of appearance that
individuals can change themselves, such as through clothing,
jewellery, hairstyle or tattoos.
“Many researchers overlook a fallacy that derives from our
everyday thinking for we often believe that our words are directly
related to the things that they denote. But this is possible only
for concrete things that we can directly perceive, such as a table,
a tree or the face of a person. But this is not possible for words
that refer to abstract things or to things that we have only
conceived because these things do not tangibly exist in physical
reality in the ways in which we think of them”, says the
scientist. This also applies to “personality”.
So what then is “personality”? Jana Uher finds the common
scientific definitions of “personality” as “individual
characteristics” or “unique peculiarities” surprisingly vague.
In particular, she has criticised that it is not clear what is to be
considered “individually characteristic”, “unique” or
“peculiar” and why.
In her research, the scientist has shown that all definitions of
“personality” basically denote something that is specific to an
individual. She emphasises that ”Individual-specific can only be
what differs between individuals because anything that all
individuals show in similar ways cannot be specific to a single
individual. Moreover, these individual differences must not be
simply random but must occur repeatedly in similar ways”. Thus,
the concept of “personality” denotes patterns in the occurrences
of events – such as bodily features or behaviours – that vary
between individuals in ways that are relatively stable at least
across some period of time.
The phenomena that are externally observable in individuals and
that do not change or that change only slowly over time, such as eye
colour or body size, allow for direct comparisons between
individuals, at least when the individuals are next to each other.
Then it becomes quickly apparent, for example, who is taller than
others or who has the longer hair. But when the observable events
change quickly from one moment to the next – as is the case with
behaviour – then individuals cannot be directly compared. In
everyday life, it is rare that several individuals will show exactly
the same behaviour at the same moment in time – as is the case in
foot races in which we can directly compare individuals’
behaviours, such as to see who runs faster than others.
For this reason, only through repeated observation and
measurement is it possible to figure out who shows what kind of
behaviour on average more frequently than others; for example, who
is more physically active than others in everyday live. Usually,
this cannot be seen directly. One can find out by applying technical
means, such as step counters, which record individuals’ activities
over some amount of time. The same applies for many physiological
phenomena. Heart beat, blood sugar and cortisol – all this can
change rather quickly, and there are tremendous fluctuations within
each individual both over the course of a single day and across
These fluctuations are often much larger than the differences
that occur between individuals’ average scores. This often makes
it quite difficult to find individual differences that again occur
in similar ways at some later point in time. Thus, it is often quite
challenging to identify what is specific to an individual.
Therefore, more complex methods are required in research on
“personality” than in other fields of research. “In
particular, it becomes apparent that ‘personality’ cannot be
directly observed at any given moment, as we can directly perceive a
behavioural act or the hair colour of a given individual”, says
In research on psychical phenomena, such as on individuals’
thoughts and feelings, this is particularly challenging because we
can perceive experiences only in ourselves but not in anybody else.
Direct comparisons between individuals are therefore not possible.
In her trilogy, Jana Uher has shown that all psychological
definitions of “personality” refer to what is specific to an
individual. This also becomes apparent in the analytical methods
that psychologists use in their studies. “But there are very
different opinions about the particular kinds of phenomena in which
individual-specificity is regarded as ‘personality’”, she
Many psychologists focus on the psyche. Others understand
“personality” as individual-specificity in experience and
behaviour. Some also include psycho-physiology. Still others
consider also the physique as forming part of an individual’s
“personality”, whereas many psychologists strictly reject this
idea. A different group of psychologists understands
“personality” as a cultural phenomenon, as something that is
ascribed to individuals by their social community and that is
therefore socially created.
Behind these different concepts are very different assumptions.
“These basic assumptions must be explored in more detail”, says
Jana Uher, “otherwise, researchers are talking at
cross-purposes”. Rather than excluding particular domains from the
outset, she defines “personality” in her new paradigm as
individual-specificity in all kinds of phenomena that are explored
in individuals: thus, not only in language and in what people think
about individuals, but also in individuals’ physique, behaviour,
psyche, personal surroundings and in the aspects of outer appearance that individuals can
Only when all kinds of phenomena are studied in equal measure can
their interrelations be explored systematically.
The big models of human “personality” that are widely used
today, such as the Big Five and the Five Factor Model, were all
developed on the basis of everyday language and everyday knowledge.
But there is still no “personality” model that has been
developed, for example, on the basis of human behaviour. It is high
time that individuals are systematically explored with regard to all
the different kinds of phenomena and from the professional
perspectives of different disciplines – rather than only from the
particular viewpoint of everyday psychology.
Uher, J. (2015a).
Conceiving "personality": Psychologists’
challenges and basic fundamentals of the Transdisciplinary
Philosophy-of-Science Paradigm for Research on Individuals.
Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 49, 398-458. [Download]
Uher, J. (2015b). Developing "personality" taxonomies: Metatheoretical and methodological rationales underlying selection approaches, methods of data generation and reduction principles.
Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 49 (4). [Download]
Uher, J. (2015c). Interpreting "personality" taxonomies: Why previous models cannot capture individual-specific experiencing, behaviour,
functioning and development. Major taxonomic tasks still lay ahead.
Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 49 (4). [Download]
Uher, J. (2013).
Personality psychology: Lexical approaches, assessment methods, and trait concepts
reveal only half of the story. Why it is time for a paradigm shift.
Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 47, 1-55.
Last update: 20.09.2015
Keywords: personality, individual differences, personality differences, psyche, personality models, personality taxonomies, lexical approaches, lexical model, behavioural differences, questionnaires, assessments, personality questionnaires, ratings, judgments, transdisciplinary philosophy-of-science paradigm for research on individuals, TPS-Paradigm.