The 4 Major Personality Perspectives

The study of personality is one of the significant topics of interest in psychology. Numerous personality theories exist, and most major ones fall into one of four major perspectives. Each of these perspectives on personality attempts to describe different patterns in personality, including how these patterns form and how people differ on an individual level.

This article discusses four of the major perspectives on personality, the theorists associated with each theory, and the core ideas that are central to each perspective. Learning more about these theories can give you greater insight into the many different aspects of human personality.

The four major personality perspectives
 Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

Psychoanalytic Perspective

The psychoanalytic perspective of personality emphasizes the importance of early childhood experiences and the unconscious mind. This perspective on personality was created by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud who believed that things hidden in the unconscious could be revealed in a number of different ways, including through dreams, free association, and slips of the tongue.

Neo-Freudian theorists, including Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Karen Horney, believed in the importance of the unconscious but disagreed with other aspects of Freud's theories.

Major Theorists

Below are the most prominent psychoanalytic perspective theorists:

  • Sigmund Freud: Stressed the importance of early childhood events, the influence of the unconscious, and sexual instincts in the development and formation of personality.
  • Erik Erikson: Emphasized the social elements of personality development, the identity crisis, and how personality is shaped over the course of the entire lifespan.
  • Carl Jung: Focused on concepts such as the collective unconscious, archetypes, and psychological types.
  • Alfred Adler: Believed the core motive behind personality involves striving for superiority, or the desire to overcome challenges and move closer toward self-realization. This desire to achieve superiority stems from underlying feelings of inferiority that Adler believed were universal.
  • Karen Horney: Focused on the need to overcome basic anxiety, the sense of being isolated and alone in the world. She emphasized the societal and cultural factors that also play a role in personality, including the importance of the parent-child relationship.

Modern Relevance

Classical Freudian psychoanalysis is viewed with skepticism and there has been an overall decline in the approach in recent years. While many of Freud's theories have fallen out of favor, the psychodynamic tradition is still an essential part of psychology.

Research has shown that psychodynamic approaches can be an effective tool for self-examination. This approach to treatment can also help foster long-term emotional growth.

Humanistic Perspective

The humanistic perspective of personality focuses on psychological growth, free will, and personal awareness. It takes a more positive outlook on human nature and is centered on how each person can achieve their individual potential.

Major Theorists

The following are the most influential humanistic perspective theorists:

  • Carl Rogers: Believed in the inherent goodness of people and emphasized the importance of free will and psychological growth. He suggested that the actualizing tendency is the driving force behind human behavior.
  • Abraham Maslow: Suggested that people are motivated by a hierarchy of needs. The most basic needs are centered on things necessary for life such as food and water, but as people move up the hierarchy these needs become centered on things such as esteem and self-actualization.

Modern Relevance

Humanistic psychology continues to have a tremendous influence today, particularly in psychotherapy. The field of positive psychology, which is focused on helping people live better lives, has also grown out of the humanist tradition.

Humanistic therapy can effectively treat various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, substance use, interpersonal issues, and personality disorders.

Trait Perspective

The trait perspective of personality is centered on identifying, describing, and measuring the specific traits that make up human personality. By understanding these traits, researchers believe they can better comprehend the differences between individuals.

Major Theorists

Below are the most important trait perspective theorists:

  • Hans Eysenck: Suggested that there are three dimensions of personality: 1) extraversion-introversion, 2) emotional stability-neuroticism, and 3) psychoticism.
  • Raymond Cattell: Identified 16 personality traits that he believed could be utilized to understand and measure individual differences in personality.
  • Robert McCrae and Paul Costa: Introduced the big five theory, which identifies five key dimensions of personality: 1) extraversion, 2) neuroticism, 3) openness to experience, 4) conscientiousness, and 5) agreeableness.

Modern Relevance

Trait theory is still a standard approach for understanding human personality. Today, many experts agree that personality is composed of a number of broad dimensions, although they don't completely agree on the labels for each dimension.

However, modern researchers are now also interested in understanding more about how these traits develop and how understanding them can help improve mental well-being.

For example, research has found that while people may have certain traits, these qualities don't necessarily serve as accurate predictors of behavior. Contemporary research may focus more on understanding how these traits shape people's behavior rather than just labeling the existing traits.

Social Cognitive Perspective

The social cognitive perspective of personality emphasizes the importance of observational learning, self-efficacy, situational influences, and cognitive processes.

According to this approach, personality is shaped by observation, imitation, and modeling. Cognitive factors such as attention, attitudes, motivation, and emotion also play a pivotal role. The interaction between the individual, their environment, and their thoughts contributes to their personality and behavior.

Major Theorists

The main proponent of the social cognitive perspective is:

  • Albert Bandura: Emphasized the importance of social learning, or learning through observation. His theory emphasized the role of conscious thoughts including self-efficacy, or our own beliefs in our abilities.

Modern Relevance

The social cognitive perspective remains relevant today in understanding how learning occurs in social contexts. It also allows researchers and educators to consider the dynamic between the individual, their environment, and their behavior. 

Social cognitive theory is also utilized in the field of public health to develop programs aimed at health promotion. Understanding how observational learning and self-efficacy influence health behaviors allows researchers to create programs that foster healthier behaviors and choices.

A Word From Verywell

Many theories have been proposed to describe and explain human personality. Four of the most prominent are the psychoanalytic, humanistic, trait, and social-cognitive perspectives.

One important thing to remember is that no single theory alone explains every aspect of personality. Instead, each of these theories has played a part in adding to our understanding of different aspects of personality, their causes, and how they shape behavior and individual experiences.

17 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 the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.