What are personality traits and why does it matter?

What’s your personality? 

The answer to this question may be complicated, but it can be found by figuring out your main personality traits. 

Here’s a look at what personality traits are and why they matter. 

Understanding personality traits

We all behave in different ways at different times. 

But personality traits are more than just temporary behaviors. They are ways that we consistently act in a variety of different situations. 

For example, an introverted person will consistently display introverted behavior. 

A gregarious and funny individual will display and use this trait in many situations as well, even perhaps in depressing or difficult situations. 

Personality traits may become accentuated or fade throughout life, but they form part of who we are and they don’t change easily. 

The four elements

One of the predominant theories of personality stretches back to the Middle Ages, when people were believed to have “humors” or types of physical bodies that made them a certain way. 

The four primary humors were:

  • Sanguine (low-key, agreeable, and friendly but also sometimes losing focus and motivation, like the air)…
  • Melancholic (often inside the head, introverted, a deep thinker but prone to depression and heaviness like the earth)…
  • Choleric (full of drive and ambition but also susceptible to intense anger, annoyance and impatience, like fire)…
  • And phlegmatic (relaxed, able to fit in anywhere, desiring peace and quiet but sometimes falling prey to laziness and stagnancy, like water).

True or not, these theories of personality provide an interesting broad overview of different ways people approach life and relationships

The Big Five

Another of the predominant theories of personality comes from 1949 and the pioneering work of psychologist Dr. Donald Winslow Fiske. 

He stated that people’s personality traits can be divided into five primary categories, or “the Big Five.”

These are openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism. Subcategories under these labels would then fall under one of these broad categories defining the degree or type of openness, neuroticism and so on. 

Followup research has tended to find this categorization broadly helpful, although numerous other theories exist and researcher Gordon Allport even went so far as identifying 4,000 main personality traits. 

Researchers at MIT have identified 638 primary personality traits, many of which also fall into the Big Five categories. 

Broadly speaking, the Big Five are as follows: 

  • Openness. (How much you want to learn about yourself, others and new knowledge. Your degree of hobbies and interests as well as your willingness and desire to take risks. Your skill and interest in solving problems and confronting challenges in new and unorthodox ways to see if it works and to being open to dating new people, trying new things and being willing to take risks in business, in life and in love.)
  • Agreeableness. (How much you want to help other people and trust other people. Individuals with very low agreeableness may argue often, experience paranoia or have difficulty establishing stable relationships. Individuals with high agreeableness traits may be able to easily make friends, gain the trust of others, empathize and understand the behavior and problems of other people).
  • Extraversion. (The degree to which you draw energy and inspiration from being in the company of others and socializing, doing business and being in relationships with others. A low degree of extraversion would be an introvert, in other words. A high degree of extraversion might be found in a celebrity or politician who frequently interacts with the public and obtains power and enjoyment from that).
  • Conscientiousness. (How self-disciplined somebody is and how well they can put off a reward in order to achieve a goal. Personality traits surrounding impulse control and attention to detail as well as willingness to be held accountable for mistakes, be honest in all situations and stick to a steady and even demanding schedule and duty roster.)
  • Neuroticism. (This is the state of being focused on a problem in some way or form more so than its solution. The neurotic traits are not necessarily mentally ill, however they tend to respond poorly to stress and get downtrodden from it. Major mood swings may take place, as well as rapid cycling through different personality traits in a neurotic sense. 

Where do personality traits come from?

The ongoing debate about personality traits is, of course, about nature versus nurture. 

In sum this means finding out whether our personality traits come more from our ancestors and genetics or more from how we were raised and the influences that shaped us growing up. 

As educator and researcher Saul McLeod notes:

“Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception.”

Most reputed research of our day and age has abandoned a strict nature versus nurture approach. 

Instead, psychologists and researchers now tend to be more focused on how nature and nurture interweave and relate to each other to help form traits. 

This is especially true in phenomena such as epigenetic expression, where genes only manifest due to certain environmental influences. 

It’s possible that this could be something like attentiveness or irritability, which only ends up becoming somebody’s personality trait due to the type of family structure they grew up in or the culture that formed them. 

Perhaps somebody becomes abrasive due to a verbally abusive father growing up, whereas they would have become agreeable in a different environment. 

Perhaps somebody becomes egocentric due to being raised as a golden child, while in another situation their genetics would have expressed themselves more as personal confidence. 

What’s clear is that both genetics and our environment have a big influence on our personality traits

While we may be predisposed and born with various personality traits already partly or fully formed, our lives bring these to expression and strengthen and refine these characteristics, making us “who we are.”

Why do personality traits matter, anyway?

Personality traits make a huge difference in your life. Take the following hypothetical example of two individuals who are married to each other.  

Let’s say individual one’s name is Ian. 

He is impulsive, indulgent and impatient on the negative side and insightful, imaginative and individualistic on the positive side. In terms of neutral traits, he is impressionable.

Individual two is Martha. 

She is meddlesome, miserly and morbid on the negative side and mature, methodical and modest on the positive side. In terms of neutral traits, she is mellow. 

Ian works in real estate, where he’s built a successful career, thankfully, in part, to his imagination and his ability to do what’s right for him and be individualistic. 

He’s also very insightful about developments in the industry and how to capitalize on changing market trends.

The problem is that Ian keeps changing the agency he works for and often argues with his boss because of his impatience in waiting for deals to close and desire to constantly move on to bigger and better things. He also keeps demanding longer vacations and bigger bonuses, indulging in the idea that as a brilliant top agent he deserves to be pampered at all times. 

He is occasionally reined in by his boss due to being impressionable, but he has also taken up smoking due to his best friend being a heavy smoker and making him feel like it’s both “cool” and friendlier to become a smoker as well. 

Martha, Ian’s wife, is not too happy about what’s going on with her husband. She doesn’t like how up and down his work life is because she’s very methodical. She also resents his long vacations because she is a miserly woman who hogs money like Gollum. 

Her constant meddling and desire to know more about Ian’s work life as well as his personal emotions and reactions annoys him greatly. Although he finds her methodical approach, mellowness and modesty occasionally refreshing and lovable, Ian’s just about reached the end of his rope with his wife. 

This is a perfect example of two personality types who don’t mesh very well and often bring out the worst in each other. 

Thankfully, other couples, work colleagues, friends and family pair up in much more promising and agreeable ways. 

People are different

Everybody is different in so many ways, but there are also personality traits that tie us together. 

Entire interest groups, political parties and music fan audiences may come together partly over shared traits they may not even be aware of that bond them and help them get along.   

Are you talkative? Demure? Anxious? Ambivalent?

People such as Allport said that our personality traits themselves are the best way to understand who we are as people and what motivates us in life. 

Systems like the Big Five allow us to measure degrees of certain categories such as extraversion with many traits falling under this type of behavior. 

A personality trait becomes more than just a temporary or changing behavior when it comes across in very different situations. 

A braggart, for example, may find himself boasting when he gets one positive comment online just the same as he would for winning a large contract at work. Any chance to brag is his golden moment. 

A modest person may refuse to take credit for even the smallest thing and similarly shy away from big accomplishments. In extreme cases, the modest individual may even try to hide their good deeds so as not to have to answer to the effusive praise they might receive if discovered by the public. 

The point is that these traits are found consistent across various situations and times. 

Personality’s big impact

Personality has a massive impact on almost every area of your life. It’s not just your behaviors, words and actions themselves. 

It’s your filter and way of understanding and using what the world gives you on account of your personality traits.

This is what has such a massive effect in every area.  

We can also see how many of our personality traits are brought out or lessened by a life situation, especially neutral personality traits. 

These are traits which are not necessarily positive or negative and which may widely vary. 

For example, the trait of being determined, or being iconoclastic. 

Your determination may get you through a brutal war or may push away a partner who finds your refusal to give up on a doomed business idea to be stupid and stubborn. 

Your iconoclasm may win you fame in the art world and an adoring legion of suitors, but might sabotage a more staid job where you’re expected not to color outside the lines. 

This is all to say that personality traits are often more so “good” or “bad” only depending on the context they’re being expressed in.

Your personality, your life

Your personality is your life, in more ways than one. 

Not only is your personality and your traits partly shaped by life, it’s also very influential in determining what your life will be and how you relate to others and yourself. 

Two people with different personality traits will react completely differently to the exact same situation. 

The importance of personality traits can’t be over-emphasized, because they determine so much of the nuts and bolts of how we go through life all the way up to the more obscure and complex decisions and behaviors we engage in as individuals. 

All of us have the capacity to be patient, irritable, complacent or possessive. 

All of us can become jealous, pompous, disputatious and solemn. 

It depends on the context and on why we’re engaging in certain behaviors. 

But a personality trait is less about context than it is about our own unique individuality that carries through regardless of context. 

An impatient person is not going to enjoy waiting in line at the doctor for two hours and may become very angry about it, but they similarly won’t be very willing to tolerate a two-minute hold in getting through to their bank. 

A complacent individual, meanwhile, may find no problem with the bank hold due to its short length and may also find the long doctor wait disagreeable but ultimately not a very big deal, due to their complacency trait. 

While the context changes, the personality trait tends to remain fairly consistent. 

This makes all the difference in our lives, relationships and careers. 

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