Lucy Maguire is currently a Psychology student at Sussex Downs College in Lewes


What is personality? - by Lucy Maguire

"Describe yourself in three words" - the dreaded question. Almost everyone will encounter it at some point in their lives - maybe at a job interview, or at the first meeting of a class or group. Sussex Downs Psychology students may have even been asked it as a lesson starter. It's a monumentally difficult task, to put our entire selves into no more than twenty syllables. I don't think I've ever known a person be able to answer straight away. Sometimes we can get away with spurting some clichés with only a little hesitation, but more often it stumps us, reducing us to desperately repeating "um’s” and "er’s" as all hopes of making a good impression slowly fade away.

If defining our own personality is hard, defining personality itself is nearly impossible. It's something we're all familiar with, and familiar to applying to other people - judging a person's character is something we instinctively do to everyone we meet. We try to figure out who they are, to see if their personality would be compatible with ours. But despite this, actually summarizing it is yet to really be done.

When faced with this question, I did as every other student does when they have no answer: I googled it. I found about half a page of online dictionary definitions, and, although their attempts were admirable, none of them could really give a finite summary of what personality was. Perhaps this is why the idea of the personality quiz is becoming increasingly popular: you can answer a few questions and a computer can tell you everything about yourself, no definition of personality required.
More of the time, people come across these quizzes in glossy magazines. With titles like "What's your party persona?" and "Which shoes should YOU buy this spring?" they are designed for entertainment as novelties or the solution to a clothing conundrum. But quizzes like these originated from very different roots. Personality tests were originally designed to sort people into various personality groups, based on the theories and thoughts of psychologists.

The MBTI, or Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, is perhaps the best example of this, as it is considered the most widely used personality test. It was developed during World War II by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers to help women entering the workplace for the first time. It was thought that if they could be sorted into personality groups; they could then be assigned a job where they would be "comfortable and effective". The test was designed to sort people into one of 16 personality types, defined by Carl Jung in his book Psychological types.

Jung believed that personality could be split into four main areas, with each having two possible personality "preferences" within it (for example introversion and extroversion). This preference is the way a person thinks and acts and, according to Jung, is similar to left or right handedness - person is either born with or develops an inclination towards one or the other. Easy. But surely that can't be it? There can't only be sixteen types of people in the world?

If you thought Jung's theory was oversimplifying, Freud's perhaps does even more so. He thought that there were three parts of our mind that together defined our personality - the Id, the Ego and the Superego, with each almost having a personality of their own. The Id only cares about satisfaction, and hosts our most primal feelings and desires. In contrast there is the Superego. Often compared to the idea of a conscience, the Superego is home to our morals and sense of right and wrong. In the middle is the Ego, the realistic part of the mind. It makes sure the Id is satisfied whilst bearing in mind the restrictions set by the Superego. It is the balance of these three areas, Freud says, that determines our personality. Again though, this theory is not conclusive, and some say it is too simple, that personality can't be reduced to such a basic level.

If we cannot define personality, can we define identity? Oliver Sacks, a neuropsychologist, described identity in his bestselling book 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat' as a person's inner narrative, that we all simultaneously create and experience -

"If we wish to know about a man, we ask, 'what is his story - his real, inmost story?' - for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us - through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions..."

If identity is our narrative, then perhaps personality is our writing style, the genre we choose to place our life in. Maybe some of us would document our lives in a newspaper like The Sun - an outrageously titled easy read, perhaps not the most thought-provoking but fun nonetheless. Others would write a medical journal-style essay; well-documented, precise, factually correct, but lacking humour and feeling. And then there would be those who would pen a Mills & Boon-esque romantic epic: every decision an ultimatum, every downfall tragic, every success euphoric. In this way each one of us would have a distinctive narrative voice that was completely unique.

Writing style has actually proved to be important in the world of personality psychology, particularly in the case of multiple personality disorder, or MPD. People suffering from MPD are often also asked to keep diaries, as a means of allowing their multiple personalities to converse with each other. In fact in one of the most famous cases of MPD, Christine Sizemore's, a letter to her therapist was the first sign of her multiple personalities. She had started a letter as one persona, known as Eve White, but finished it as another, Eve Black. Both personalities had very different writing styles and handwriting, and arguably, had her therapist not received this letter, she may not have been diagnosed with MPD.

It seems that the written word is perhaps one of the easiest ways to gage personality, although ironically words can't capture what it actually is. Each personality is unique, and so each of us probably has a unique definition of what it is. And our perception of personality in turn shapes our personality - confusing isn't it? So, although we all struggle to define ourselves in three words, as the dreaded question asks us to, perhaps the way we tackle it is the thing that really says something about us.