Personality Theories: Nature versus Nurture

I have been doing some work on individual differences and personality, which raises the historic debate of nature versus nurture are we born or made?  There are some interesting theories out there:

Social Cognitive Theory

According to this theory, personality develops via the observation and modelling of people in the environment.  This provides individuals with an opportunity to learn the value of different behaviours and how they might assist with various outcomes or goal achievements.  Through reinforcement and punishment, individuals learn to repeat or cease different behaviours, which in turn influence their cognitions and personality.

Trait Theories

There are a number of trait theories, which are based on the belief that personality is composed of dispositions that are stable over time.

Allport (1936) proposed that personality traits could be categorised at three levels:

  • Cardinal Traits (i.e. traits that dominate an individual’s life; the individual is often known for these traits, e.g. Machiavellian, narcissist, etc.)

  • Central Traits (i.e. general characteristics that form the basic foundations of personality, e.g. intelligent, honest, anxious, etc.)

  • Secondary Traits (i.e. traits related to attitudes or preferences that only appear in certain situations or circumstances, e.g. impatience when in a queue, etc.).

Possibly the most famous trait theory is that of Eysenck’s (1992) three dimensions of personality:

  • Introversion/Extroversion (i.e. directing attention to inner experiences versus focusing attention outwards on people and the environment)

  • Neuroticism/Emotional Stability (i.e. a tendency to become upset or emotional versus a tendency to remain emotionally constant)

  • Psychoticism (i.e. difficulty dealing with reality; may be antisocial, hostile, non-empathetic and manipulative).

The newest trait theory is the Big Five Model, which represents five core traits that interact to form personality:

  • Openness – to new experiences.

  • Conscientiousness – being careful and self-disciplined.

  • Extraversion – being assertive and seeking out excitement.

  • Agreeableness – a tendency towards being pleasant and accommodating.

  • Neuroticism – a tendency towards negative emotional states.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud proposed 3 components to personality (Carver & Scheier, 2004):

  • Id (i.e. unconscious impulses that are driven to be gratified without regard to potential punishment)

  • Ego (i.e. primarily conscious and driven to satisfy the Id impulses while minimising punishment and guilt)

  • Super-ego (i.e. the moral centre of personality which helps an individual determine right from wrong).

Freud believed that personality development is the result of conflicts resolved in childhood and how an individual learns to satisfy Id impulses while dealing with societal pressures.

These are just a sample of the many theories out there on personality.  They are all very different, but all agree on one thing – personality is complex!


Allport, G.W. & Odbert, H.S. (1936). Trait-names: A psycho-lexical study. Psychological Monographs, 47(211).

Carver, C., & Scheier, M. (2004). Perspectives on Personality (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Eysenck, H.J. (1992). Four ways five factors are not basic. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 667-673.

Categories: Psychology

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3 replies

  1. I agree it’s complex. Can’t all be environment, I don’t think as siblings often seem to have very different personalities.

  2. Ooh, I find the nature/nurture debate very interesting, I looked at that when I was studying criminology. I lean towards thinking that nature is the stronger force. I look at it like a climbing plant – the plant is obviously the nature and the cane is the nurture; the cane will do a very good job of guiding the plant, but if you take the cane away the plant will revert to doing its own thing. I find control theory interesting here.

  3. Thanks Patsy and Vanessa. I like your example of the cane, Vanessa. I think that really encapsulates the nature versus nurture debate. My own thoughts are that both are involved in shaping our personality. We are born with a genetic foundation, so to speak, and then our experiences and interaction with the environment take over.

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