Defining Personality

In defining personality, it is important to note that personality is not personhood; that is, there is more to the person than their personality.  Knowing a person fully requires knowledge of the ideals and identity, character and morality, hopes and history.  Nevertheless, the personality is an important part of the person, without which understanding cannot be achieved.  The foundation of the personality is temperament…the basic temperamental features that the person is born with.  For example, sociability and shyness are temperamental features.  Early in life, reaction to stimulation hinges principally on temperament.  Even infants differ in their response to noise, some perceiving it as stimulation to discover, others perceiving it as a threat to avoid.  Through time and development, these basic temperamental features are modified by experience; layers are added; nuance is gained.  Nature and nurture combine to form the adult personality. Read more about personality theories old and new.

Personality Disorders

In the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the American Psychiatric Association defines three overarching groups, containing a total of ten personality disorders.  First, the Odd and Eccentric Cluster includes the Paranoid, Schizoid and Schizotypal Personality Disorders, which all share an atypical thought style, along with difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships.  The Paranoid personality imparts malicious intent into the most benign circumstances; the schizoid personality is insularly detached from interaction, finding quiet introspection preferable to boisterous communion; the schizotypal displays odd behavior and thought that amounts to a diminished version of schizophrenic disorientation.  Second, the Dramatic Emotional and Erratic Cluster include the Borderline, Antisocial, Narcissistic, and Histrionic Personality Disorders, which all alike are impulsive, explosive and volatile.  The Borderline personality has severe identity diffusion and cannot maintain healthy relationships with others; the antisocial personality exploits others, using them as means to an end; the Narcissistic personality is grandiose and self-absorbed; the Histrionic personality is effusively emotional and affectively labile.  Third, the Anxious and Fearful Cluster are all alike cautious and fretful.  The Avoidant personality wants to establish social relationships, but does not have the boldness to do so; the Dependent personality does form social relationships but is pathologically dependent on them; the Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is driven to work excessively while neglecting other life domains. 

Personality Disorders and Culture

These ten personality disorders have an intimate relationship with culture and society. In some instances, psychiatric diagnosis is as concrete as medical diagnosis.  Disorders such as autism and schizophrenia are cross-culturally recognizable patterns of signs and symptoms.  Moreover, such concrete psychiatric diagnoses correlate with structural and functional brain abnormalities, such as the enlarged ventricles seen in schizophrenic brain imaging and autopsy.  Other disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are less concrete.  While they are certainly represented in the brain, they are more discreet and functional than overt and structural.  Furthermore, controversy exists as to when such disorders segue from normal experience to clinically significant diagnosable pathology.  First, culture will determine the point at which grief and sadness transition from normal suffering to diagnosable disorder. Second, culture will determine whether the depressed person receives psychiatric treatment and medication or folk treatment and moral support.   The relationship between schizophrenia and depression is representative of a generality; that is, as disorders become less demonstrably physical and structural, they become more relative.  Culturally informed judgment waxes as concretely expressed pathology wanes.   Personality disorders, more than depression or anxiety, and much more than schizophrenia or autism, are culturally relativistic.  They have to be diagnosed cautiously while keeping these points in mind. 

The controversy about the origins of personality diversity described above does not extend to the existence of the several personality types themselves.  In other words, while there is some question how these differences in personality developed and which personality types are pathological, there is relatively little question about their existence.  Many of these patterns have been observed across time and culture and are robust enough to be recognizable across fields and theorists.  These personality patterns are real and their assessment and description within an individual is useful in terms of generating insight, altering behavior and choosing congruent environments. 

Dr. Steven C. Hertler
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