The Psychology of Personality Formation

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When we meet new people, it is often their personality that grabs our attention. Understanding how personality develops can provide insight into who someone is and their background while also increasing our understanding of what's behind our own personality traits and characteristics.

What Is Personality Development?

Personality development refers to the process by which the organized thought and behavior patterns that make up a person's unique personality emerge over time. Many factors influence personality, including genetics and environment, how we were parented, and societal variables.

Perhaps most importantly, it is the ongoing interaction of all these influences that continue to shape personality. Personality involves not only inborn traits but also the development of cognitive and behavioral patterns that influence how we think and act.

Temperament is a key part of personality that is determined by inherited traits. Character is an aspect of personality influenced by experience that continues to grow and change throughout life.

Personality development has been a major topic of interest for some of the most prominent thinkers in psychology. Since the inception of psychology as a separate science, researchers have proposed a variety of ideas to explain how and why personality develops.

Key Theories of Personality Formation

Our personalities make us unique, but how does personality develop? What factors play the most important role in the formation of personality? Can personality change?

To answer these questions, many prominent thinkers have developed theories to describe the various steps and stages that occur during the development of personality. The following theories focus on several aspects of personality formation—including those that involve cognitive, social, and moral development.

Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development

In his well-known stage theory of psychosexual development, Sigmund Freud suggested that personality develops in stages that are related to specific erogenous zones. These stages are:

  • Stage 1: Oral stage (birth to 1 year)
  • Stage 2: Anal stage (1 to 3 years)
  • Stage 3: Phallic stage (3 to 6 years)
  • Stage 4: Latent period (age 6 to puberty)
  • Stage 5: Genital stage (puberty to death)

Freud also believed that failure to complete these stages would lead to personality problems in adulthood.

In addition to being one of the best-known thinkers in the area of personality development, Sigmund Freud also remains one of the most controversial.

Freud's Structural Model of Personality

Freud not only theorized about how personality developed over the course of childhood, but he also developed a framework for how overall personality is structured.

According to Freud, the basic driving force of personality and behavior is known as the libido. This libidinal energy fuels the three components that make up personality: the id, the ego, and the superego.

  • The id is the aspect of personality present at birth. It is the most primal part of the personality and drives people to fulfill their most basic needs and urges.
  • Theego is the aspect of personality charged with controlling the urges of the id and forcing it to behave in realistic ways.
  • Thesuperego is the final aspect of personality to develop and contains all of the ideals, morals, and values imbued by our parents and culture.

According to Freud, these three elements of personality work together to create complex human behaviors. The superego attempts to make the ego behave according to these ideals. The ego must then moderate between the primal needs of the id, the idealistic standards of the superego, and reality.

Freud's concept of the id, ego, and superego has gained prominence in popular culture, despite a lack of support and considerable skepticism from many researchers.

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson’s eight-stage theory of human development is another well-known theory in psychology. While it builds on Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, Erikson chose to focus on how social relationships impact personality development. The theory also extends beyond childhood to look at development across the entire lifespan.

Erikson's eight stages are:

At each of these stages, people face a crisis in which a task must be mastered. Those who successfully complete that stage emerge with a sense of mastery and well-being. Those who do not resolve the crisis at a particular stage may struggle with those skills for the remainder of their lives.

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development remains one of the most frequently cited in psychology, despite being subject to considerable criticism. While many aspects of his theory have not stood the test of time, the central idea remains important today: Children think differently than adults.

According to Piaget, children progress through a series of four stages that are marked by distinctive changes in how they think. And how children think about themselves, others, and the world around them plays an important role in the formation of personality. 

Piaget's four stages are:

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of personality development that focused on the growth of moral thought. Building on a two-stage process proposed by Piaget, Kohlberg expanded the theory to include six different stages:

  • Stage 1: Obedience and punishment
  • Stage 2: Individualism and exchange
  • Stage 3: Developing good interpersonal relationships
  • Stage 4: Maintaining social order
  • Stage 5: Social contract and individual rights
  • Stage 6: Universal principles

These stages are separated by levels. Level one is the pre-conventional level, it includes stages one and two, and takes place from birth to 9 years. Level two is the conventional level, it includes stages three and four, and takes place from age 10 to adolescence. Level three is the post-conventional level, it includes stages five and six, and takes place in adulthood.

Although this theory includes six stages, Kohlberg felt that it was rare for people to progress beyond stage four, also stressing that these stages of moral development are not correlated with the maturation process.

Kohlberg's theory of moral development has been criticized for a number of different reasons. One primary criticism is that it does not accommodate different genders and cultures equally. Yet, the theory remains important in our understanding of how personality develops.

The Bottom Line

While these theories suggest different numbers and types of stages, and different ages for progressing from one stage to the next, they have all influenced what we know today about personality development.

Types of Personalities

The goal of personality development theories is to explain how we each develop our own unique characteristics and traits. While the list of options could be almost endless, most of these personality traits fall into five basic categories:

  • Openness: Level of creativeness and responsiveness to change
  • Conscientiousness: Level of organization and attention to detail
  • Extraversion: Level of socialness and emotional expressiveness
  • Agreeableness: Level of interest in others and cooperativeness
  • Neuroticism: Level of emotional stability and moodiness

The "Big 5" is one of the most recognized models of personality and also the most widely used, though some suggest that it isn't comprehensive enough to cover the huge variety of personality traits that one can grow and develop.

Personality Development Tips

On a global level, people spend a lot of money on personal development, with this market bringing in more than $38 billion annually (and expected to grow). If you're interested in making positive changes to your personality, these tips can help:

  • Identify your current traits. You won't know where to place your efforts if you don't first identify the personality traits you feel the need to work on. A personality test can provide an assessment of your current traits. Pick one or two traits to work on that you feel would help you grow as a person and focus on them.
  • Set a daily personal development goal. Commit to doing at least one thing every day to help develop your personality. This doesn't have to be a big action either. Even baby steps will move you in the right direction.
  • Keep a positive mindset. Changing yourself can be difficult, especially if you're working on a part of your personality you've had for a long time. Staying positive along the way helps you pay more attention to the pros versus the cons. It also makes the journey more enjoyable, for you and everyone around you.
  • Be confident. When you have something about yourself that you'd like to change, it can be easy to let your perceived imperfection reduce your confidence. Yet, you can be confident and continue to develop your personality in meaningful ways at the same time, giving you the best of both worlds while pursuing personality development.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding how personality develops can provide insight into others, as well as into ourselves. There are many different theories as to how personality forms, each of which has contributed to what we know about personality today.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.