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Is There Really Such a Thing as a Personality Type?

Is There Really Such a Thing as a Personality Type?

The word “personality” often gets used pretty broadly today: we talk of someone “having personality”, or “being a personality” – meaning that there’s something particularly expressive or obvious or typical about the way they conduct or express themselves; we talk about showbiz or sporting “personalities” – meaning they have a “profile” and a way about them that attracts attention. And those understandings are fine, but for our purposes we want to be a bit more specific, and when it comes to what we mean by a personality in terms of a particular type or temperament perhaps, Salvatore Maddi’s definition is helpful.

“Personality is a stable set of characteristics and tendencies that determine those commonalities and differences in the psychological behavior (thoughts, feelings and actions) of people that have continuity in time and that may not be easily understood as the sole result of the social and biological pressure of the moment.” —Salvatore R. Maddi, Personality Theories: A comparative analysis

Note some of the key statements in Maddi’s definition here are:

  • Personality is a stable set of characteristics and tendencies”: that is, not one-off or aberrant behaviors, but “typical” or long-term prevailing responses and reactions (the person who is broadly concerned about time or generally pays attention to how they look, or who typically thinks carefully and deeply about things):
  • That determine those commonalities and differences”: acknowledging that the tendencies and typical behaviors we see do tend to recur among people (“quiet types” and “noisy types”; “detailed types” and “creative types” etc.), and that personality “types” can be grouped;
  • may not be understood as the sole result of the social and biological pressures of the moment”: that is, behaviors that are driven not out of a unique momentary need or situation, or even their physical needs and characteristics but rather out of a person’s nature – their “inner being”

In other words, Maddi suggests that there is such a thing as personality and, at least in theory, we can start to describe differences between people with a little careful effort. This is why a raft of personality assessments have been developed and applied for many decades now with many of these having unique models for describing the differences between groups of people. But the question is, when they say they are measuring this broad concept called “personality” are they measuring the same thing?

Personality is a multi-layered concept and it therefore pays us to look at it in these terms. To this end, the diagram below depicts which layers we need to consider:

Personality Layers Diagram

This diagram suggests that personality should always be considered in the context of a wider environment (the climate, situation etc.). However, it may also be as a result of inner factors and influences. This includes the following factors:

  • a person’s traits or competencies,
  • a person’s values,
  • a person’s attitudes or beliefs,
  • a person’s internal ego (the raw “stuff” of human personality).

Now that these factors are plotted on the chart above, we can now therefore look at how personality is “built up” one layer at a time, from the inside out.

A person’s internal Ego, Type, Temperament or Inner Traits – our natural self

For influential psychologists such as Freud and Jung in the early 1900’s, our inner “nature” is who we really are or is the “raw material” of our personality. This is not easy to measure or even describe accurately (as it is often invisible and even unknown to our conscious mind) but efforts to try to determine this go back a long way. The ancient Greeks for example talked about natural “humors” which continue to be used to this day. Modern psychologists have also tried to model man’s nature in more sophisticated ways with instruments such as the Jungian Psychological Type Assessment (by Myers-Briggs and others) the Temperament sorter and the Enneagram®.

A person’s attitudes and beliefs – our nurtured self

Once we have considered the inner nature or raw material of human personality, we can look at the next layer or what is also called Nurture or what we learn or imprint as fairly deep-seated mental attitudes or beliefs. Clearly, this layer is about what we experience, both early on in life (as children) and on an on-going basis. What we learn or imprint is influenced by our nature but we also have choices that can be made too. Hence, some of imprinting can be changed, especially where it may not be very helpful to us. There are many more personality instruments which measure this layer in our personality. Two popular ones are Human Element theory (developed by Dr. William Schutz) and Transactional analysis or TA developed by Dr. Eric Berne.

A person’s values

At the third or next layer in the diagram above are our personal values. This will naturally be highly connected to our attitudes and beliefs but will be more explicit in our behavior and manifest to some extent in what we say and do (which may not be the case when it comes to our attitudes, which can be very privately held). There are only a few assessments that seek to measure individual values but there are many more that seek to do so collectively – these are the many culture, climate or general opinion surveys that aim to measure how people are feeling about their job or work in general (a proxy for what they value and do not value in this case).

A person’s competencies

At the fourth and most outer personality layer in the model above is our knowledge and skills or what we have become proficient at doing. This is often called our competencies. There are many assessments which aim to measure competence (as individual competencies and on a multiple competence basis, such as the “Strength-finder” assessment for instance). Some of these are general assessments looking to identify a person’s strengths or development needs in many competency areas, while others can be more specific, looking at a specific competence area such as time management, conflict handling ability or teambuilding skills, for example.

A person’s behavior

The fifth and final layer in the diagram above is a person’s behavior, as it can be observed by anyone interacting or dealing with the person concerned. This layer of behavior is rarely measured formally as it is plain for all to see. However, where behavior is seen to be different or unusual in some way, it is often discussed as something that may need to be adjusted or changed – perhaps in a performance appraisal situation (and some of the underlying layers are often then reviewed to gain insights).


It is important to remember that all of the layers outlined above, which seek to partly describe this complex concept called “personality” are quite different and as such are best measured separately if we want to get a more accurate picture. It is also worth noting that apart from contextual factors that we mentioned at the outset in this article, it is clear that people do not operate in a vacuum and are influenced in terms of how they behave by other “personalities” (who they may like to emulate in some cases or avoid copying very strenuously).

It has by now hopefully become clear that personality is a reasonable concept to consider but it is a highly complex one. We therefore need to take great care when using the broad term to clarify exactly what aspects of it we mean and even greater care when we want to measure the similarities or differences between people. And don’t forget, the map is not the territory. No personality assessment (or even a series of them) is perfect and can only provide a few clues about how a person’s real personality operates.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. jihad GafourMay 7, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    Hi Dr, John,

    This is an excellent article, that got to the roots and branches of personality.

    If I may raise another question when you have time to touch base with:
    Can we change our or their personality ?

  2. Dana Rahbar-DanielsApril 15, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Undoubtedly Jon means well in putting forward yet one more commentary on the conceptual basis of what has been termed “personality” for so many years. This article is certainly more nuanced and cautionary in tone than many hundreds (probably thousands) of other commentaries on the topic. Yet the revelations from the last 20+ years of neuroscience research regarding our wide-raging cognitive and emotive plasticity, including our increasingly-realized ability to create and change the habits of thinking, feeling and behaviors that largely make up what are labeled as personality types, makes the tools and techniques that rely on such models quite antiquated and even undermining to people’s real growth potential. Of course, there is an enormous practitioner and tool-provider industry that is dependent on still promoting these antiquated models for commercial gain, so it will probably take another generation to break away from their influence and tap into the much more profound and expansive potential for personal and team development that neuroscience insights now offer.

  3. Charles MargerisonApril 19, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Jon, Thanks for the article. Helpful to see the various issues. When I linked the individual perspective to the team dynamics, at Team Management Systems, I focus on Work Preferences. Where do you think preferences fit in the personality debate? Best wishes.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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