A History of Personality Theory and Typing

Personality is a word most often identified with personal appeal or lack of appeal – their image. A “great personality” implies a likeable person, interesting, entertaining, someone you would enjoy being around. But personality in the scientific sense is a complex concept, describing a person’s thought patterns, identity, their motivations for behavior and actions, emotional equalities, and a myriad of other facets. The McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience defines personality theory as “A branch of psychology concerned with developing a scientifically defensible model or view of human nature…a general theory of behavior.”

Below we look at some of the basic forms of personality theory, talk about the pioneers and influential researchers in personality psychology, and examine the history of personality typing.


Arenas of Personality Theory

Barbara Engler, author of Personality Theories, describes the study of personality as coming from two approaches, academic psychology and clinical practice. Engler explains that studying personality through academia involves uncovering correlations and general principles of personality through research and experiments. On the other hand, clinical practice involves studying personality through research of individuals and their case histories, often in an office setting.

According to author and psychology expert Kendra Cherry in an article for psychologyabout.com, there are four primary schools of personality theory:

  • The humanistic perspective: “Focuses on psychological growth, free will and personal awareness.”
  • The social cognitive perspective: “Emphasizes the importance of observational learning, self-efficacy, situational influences and cognitive processes.”
  • The trait perspective: Focuses on “identifying, describing and measuring the specific traits that make up human personality.”
  • The psychoanalytic perspective: Emphasizes the importance of early childhood experiences and the unconscious mind.

The origins of personality theory can be traced to ancient times, but as we became more focused on individualism, especially in the western world, the field of personality theory thrived. Psychology professors Nicole B. Barenbaum (University of the South) and David G. Winter (University of Michigan), co-authors of History of Modern Personality Theory and Research in the Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, write that modern psychology’s study of personality began to flourish in the early 20th century (particularly from 1921-1938) but “has roots in three 19th-century intellectual themes: a deep belief in individualism, a pervasive concern with irrationality and the unconscious, and a strong emphasis on measurement.”

The cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt (1860-1954) found that in the Middle Ages, people were not conscious of themselves as individuals but identified more as part of a race, people, family or corporation, according to Barenbaum and Winter. Only after the Renaissance did people begin to identify as individuals, thus opening fertile ground for the future of personality theory.

Barenbaum and Winter write that from its beginnings, “American personality psychology involved two related but contrasting endeavors: (1) the study of individual difference or the dimensions along which people differ from each other, and (2) the study of individual persons as unique, integrated wholes.”


The Four Temperaments

Individualism did provide fuel for the fire of studying personality, but long before the individualism of the Renaissance or the more modern work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961) – two of the doctors widely credited as the chief pioneers in personality research – there was Hippocrates. Hippocrates, who lived from about 460 BC to 370 BC, created possibly the first recognized personality model, his four humors theory. Hippocrates’ theory was expanded by Galen, a Greek physician and philosopher, along with many others, and gained popularity in the middles ages. The four humors theory stated that a lack or excess of bodily fluids – yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood – impacted a person’s health and behavior. Those body fluids (aka humors) and treatments for related conditions, were intertwined and matched with each of the four seasons – autumn, winter, spring, and summer – and four elements – earth, fire, air and water.

The body fluids, seasons, and elements, also had relationships to the four personality types, or temperaments. Here’s a short description of the four temperaments, according to John T. Cocoris, author of the Temperament Model of Behavior:

  • Choleric: irritable with a strong temper, confident and extroverted.
  • Sanguine: optimistic, fun-loving, extroverted and impulsive
  • Melancholy: introverted, practical, analytical, often negative attitude
  • Phlegmatic: stable, introverted, unemotional, loyal

There was validity in Hippocrates’ and Galen’s theories of body fluids and personality, evidenced by later researchers who considered and examined the links between the mind and biology. For example, according to Barenbaum and Winter, Freud anchored his theory in biology, and famous psychologist and Harvard professor Henry A. Murray (1893-1988) “defined needs as ‘physico-chemical’ forces in the brain.”


The Pioneers of Personality Theory

Hippocrates laid a foundation for personality theory, but it was Freud and many of his contemporaries who shed the four temperaments model of personality and began to make new strides into the inner workings of personas. Here are some of the people considered as pioneers in personality theory:

In 1879 physiologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) further developed the four humors theory, according to Color Code’s The History of Personality Theory and Assessment, and was possibly “the first person to make a clear distinction between the human body and personality.” Wundt learned that the personality is more complex than the sanguine, cholera, phlegm, and melancholy temperaments.

Freud, who was born in modern day Czechoslovakia, defined personality structure as the unconscious, the pre-conscious and the conscious. According to Robert Ewen, author of an Introduction to Personality Theories, Freud’s structure of the human mind included the id, ego, and superego, which interacted and struggled with one another for dominance, with the result being human behavior.

Freud is credited as the originator of psychoanalysis, but it is his protégé, Carl Jung, who is perhaps the most widely known pioneer of personality theory. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the best known personality assessment, was developed by Katharine Briggs (1875-1968) and Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980), on the basis of Jung’s eight personality types. According to Color Code, another personality assessment program, Jung believed there are four fundamental ways people deal with the world: sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling, and each person has a preferred method.

Jung, a man who was not afraid to expand into non-traditional realms in his research, like the occult, extra-terrestrials, and alchemy, is credited as the founder of analytical psychology. Analytical psychology delves into how the unconscious affects personality. In his work Jung developed numerous concepts of the psyche, including the archetype, a hidden and collective unconscious found deep within. For example, according to Jungian theory, the shadow archetype is a dark side of personality that is normally repressed. Another example is the anima archetype, which is a more sentimental, or female part of the male psyche that allows men to relate to women. The animus is the opposite archetype found in women.

A contemporary of Jung and Freud’s, Alfred Adler (1870-1937), a Viennese scientist who founded the school of individual psychology, is largely credited with developing an understanding of individual people within their social context. According to Adler Graduate School’s website, “Adler developed the first holistic theory of personality, psychopathology, and psychotherapy that was intimately connected to a humanistic philosophy of living.” His work encouraged people to make others feel like they belong and were supported.


Other Influential Researchers

Here are some of the other researchers among many who furthered personality theory:

  • Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) studied the impact of interpersonal relationships and cultural influences on mental illness.
  • Karen Horney (1885-1952) developed a theory of neurosis that includes 10 patterns of neurotic needs. Her theories are still in use today.
  • Gordon Allport (1897-1967) is credited as a founder of personality psychology. He published his influential book Personality: A Psychological Interpretation in 1937. He also developed a three-trait theory with the “cardinal” trait being the dominant influence on behavior, a “central” trait that most people have, and a “secondary” trait which is only evident in certain situations and is often only known to close friends or family.
  • Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) is best known for his hierarchy of human needs, which begin with the essential, or “physiological,” needs like water, sex, food and breath. The highest level on the hierarchy is “self-actualization,” where we find needs like creativity, spontaneity and morality.
  • Erik Erikson (1902-1994) developed a theory on psychsocial development. According to the Erikson Institute, the psychoanalyst’s “developmental progression — from trust to autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, and integrity — was conceived as the sequential reorganization of ego and character structures.”
  • Raymond B. Cattell (1905-1998) developed a significant theory of personality and new methods for statistical analysis, according to the website Human Intelligence. Cattell defined personality as “that which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation,” according to Engler.


History of Measuring Personality

After WWII, the main concepts of psychology of personality were established, according to Barenbaum and Winter, and personality assessments, or personality tests, had become the chief form of measuring personality. According to the two professors, personality psychology started trying to mirror the prestigious “exact sciences” from the late 19th century by focusing on measurements, specifically measuring personality. Barenbaum and Winter write that Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), a British scientist and statistician stated that “The character which shapes our conduct is a definite and durable ‘something,’ and therefore…it is reasonable to attempt to measure it.”

Sir Galton’s research formed some of the foundations of personality testing, but Barenbaum and Winter’s research shows that French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) and others developed early intelligence tests that increased personality psychologists’ focus on measuring personality. Binet and his research assistant, a medical student named Theodore Simon, created the Binet-Simon intelligence scale, which they unveiled in 1905. The third version of the Binet-Simon scale was published in 1911, just before Binet’s death.

According to Barenbaum and Winter: “A rapidly developing assessment technology led to a number of paper and pencil ‘tests’ of personality, modeled after the early intelligence tests and consisting of questionnaire ‘items’ intended to measure the ‘traits’ of personality.” Those measurements evolved to include ratings and behavior observations.

Barenbaum and Winter’s research spells out an interesting added motivation for personality psychologists to measure personality. The emphasis on personality testing came from a need that personality psychologists felt to be useful to society, which involved helping the corporate culture and government “manage and control” a U.S. population that was growing and becoming more diverse and potentially troublesome.

The professors point to Robert Woodworth’s Personal Data Sheet, “which was probably the first personality test based on the IQ test model of adding ‘scores’ on discrete individual ‘items’ to get a total,” as an example of the personality psychologist’s desire to be useful in the social order. According to Barenbaum and Winter: When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the experience of other armies in previous combat situations, suggested that many soldiers experienced post traumatic stress disorder, which was labeled then as “shell shock” or “war neurosis.” To deal with this potential for shell shock among soldiers, the American Psychological Association established a committee that developed a diagnostic test of “susceptibility to shock.” For this test, Woodworth (1869-1962), an academic psychologist, collected a list of symptoms from the case histories of “neurotic subjects,” which he used to create a series of 116 “yes” or “ no” questions. The scores helped distinguish “normal soldiers” from the diagnosed neurotics.


Modern Day Personality Typing

Of course, with continuing research and technology advancements in the next 100 years, personality tests (or personality typing) improved vastly and became more concise, accurate and available. Possibly the most well-known and widely used personality tests today is the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator. Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers created the MBTI to help people grow and understand themselves and appreciate individual differences in healthy personalities to improve harmony and productivity among diverse groups of people, according the Myers and Briggs Foundation. The mother-daughter duo first published the MBTI questionnaire in the early 1940s. Today’s version of the questionnaire can be taken on the Internet or a certified administrator can give the assessment in person or by telephone. The MBTI expands on Jung’s eight personality types to help categorize people as one of 16 personality types using a letter system based on four categories.

Here’s a brief explanation of the Myers-Briggs personality types, starting with the four categories:

  1. How do we receive our stimulation — primarily from within ourselves (Introverted, or I), or from external sources (Extroverted, or E)?
  2. How do we take in and absorb information — primarily trusting in our five senses (Sensing, or S), or relying on our instincts (Intuitive, or N)?
  3. How to we prefer to make decisions — primarily based on logic and objective consideration (Thinking, or T), or based on our personal, subjective values (Feeling, or F)?
  4. How do we deal with the world on a daily basis — primarily in an organized, purposeful, scheduled, and structured way (Judging, or J), or in a more flexible, diverse, and casual way (Perceiving, or P)?

So these possible combinations (I or E, S or N, T or F, J or P) are broken down into the following 16 Personality Types:


It’s important to realize that people are not strictly one personality type, but often gravitate to the way of being that is most comfortable for them and compatible with natural strengths. People do function outside of their personality type, especially as life experience adds wisdom and change. However, understanding personality can help a person to recognize strengths and weaknesses, and learn to live a life that fits their individuality. The Myers-Briggs test does cost money, but 16personalities.com offers a much less comprehensive, but similar personality test for free.

The Holland Codes, another personality typing systems, was developed by John Holland (1919-2008). Holland’s six personality types are designed to help people find the occupation that best fits their personality. Here’s a summary of Holland’s personality types from the career assistance program Career Key:

  • The Realistic personality type (also known as a “doer”) is practical and enjoys working with animals, tools, or machines and generally avoids social activities like teaching or nursing. The mechanically-inclined Realistic also values tangible things, like construction projects or things you can grow, like plants and animals.
  • Investigative people love solving math or science problems and they tend to avoid leaderships or sales roles. The investigative views themselves as scientific, intellectual and precise.
  • Artistic people are into creative activities like acting, painting, dancing and writing and they shy away from repetitive and/or structured activities. They like to see themselves as original and independent.
  • Social people create a social environment and do well in those environments. They tend to thrive in occupations like teaching, nursing, social work and counseling.
  • Enterprising people are the persuaders and leaders and can often be found in business or legal occupations. They are good at politics and selling things and ideas. Some good jobs for Enterprising people include auctioneer, hotel manager, lawyer, camp director and TV newscaster.
  • Conventional people like an orderly environment and are good at planning and organizing. They do well working with numbers and keeping records. You’ll often find Conventional personalities in jobs like mail carrier, secretary, court clerk, bank teller or bookkeeper.

Another personality assessment tool is the Keirsey Temparament Sorter. David M. Keiersy (1921-2013) a World War II veteran, claimed that a psychology book helped him cope with his time in the war and also started him on the path to becoming a psychologist. Keirsey later developed the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, which is also one of the most widely used personality assessments in the world.

According to Keirsey’s temperament theory, there are four temperaments and four character types, or subdivisions, under those temperaments:

  • Artisan: promoter, crafter, performer, composer. The theory calls the artisans fun-loving, optimist people who live in the moment.
  • Guardian: supervisor, inspector, provider, protector. The Guardians are dubbed the “cornerstones of society” with a natural talent for managing goods and services.
  • Rational: field marshal, mastermind, inventor, architect. The Rationals are even-tempered, independent, and pragmatic, and they strive to understand how the world works.
  • Idealist: Teacher, counselor, champion, healer. The idealists take pride in being a loving person, they yearn for romance, and make intense mates and nurturing parents.

You can take the Keirsey Temperament Sorter for free here. Of course, just like the Myers-Briggs and other personality assessments, remember that people can’t be completely defined into one personality type.

The road to today’s personality theories and assessments includes thousands of other researchers who laid foundations, discovered new realms of the psyche, and advanced our understandings of ourselves and those around us. Whether personality psychology helps us to find the right occupation, gain insight into behaviors, improve self-care, or foster healthier relationships with others, the personality tools and science that began to flourish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have yielded both known and unknown benefits. Those unknown benefits are the ones that lie deepest inside us and aren’t easily visible to others — and there is still so much to explore in that hidden world.


Sources: Personality Theories by Barbara Engler; psychologyabout.com; Introduction to Personality Theories by Robert Ewen; “History of Modern Personality Theory and Research” chapter by Barenbaum and Winter in the Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research by various authors; ColorCode.com’s “The History of Personality Theory and Assessment”; Adler Graduate School’s website; Temperament Model of Behavior by John T. Cocoris; Human Intelligence website, intelltheory.com; About Education website; Career Key website; Myers Briggs website; Keirsey Temperament website.