Personality is to a man what perfume is to a flower. Charles Schwab

I have to go. I’m conducting a seminar in multiple personality disorders, and it takes me forever to fill out the nametags. Niles Crane, from the TV series Frasier.

After puberty the personality develops impetuously and all extraneous intervention becomes odious. . . . Now it so happens that parents feel the responsibility towards their children precisely during this second period, when it is too late. Antonio Gramsci

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to but they do.

They fill up with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.   Philip Larkin

My Encarta World English Dictionary defines personality as “the totality of somebody’s attitudes, interests, behavioural patterns, emotional responses, social roles, and other individual traits that endure over long periods of time.” It comes from the Latin persona, which means mask. In the ancient theatre masks were not used to disguise the identity of a character but rather as a theatrical convention to representative of that character.

Theophrastus could be considered the world’s first personality psychologist. He wrote The Characters, which contains thirty outlines of moral types such as The Insincere Man (Eironeia), The Man of Petty Ambition (Mikrophilotimia), The Faultfinder (Mempsimoiria) and The Basely Covetous Man (Aischrokerdeia), which form a fascinating description of human nature in general.  Here is a section from one piece – the Garrulous Man (Adoleschia):

The Garrulous Man is one who will sit down beside a person whom he does not know, and first pronounce a panegyric on his own wife; then relate his dream of last night; then go through in detail what he has had for dinner. Then, warming to the work, he will remark that the men of the present day are greatly inferior to the ancients; and how cheap wheat has become in the market; and what a number of foreigners are in town; and that the sea is navigable after the Dionysia; and that, if Zeus would send more rain, the crops would be better; and that he will work his land next year; and how hard it is to live; and that Damippus set up a very large torch at the Mysteries; and ‘How many columns has the Odeum?’ and that yesterday he was unwell; and ‘What is the day of the month?’; and that the Mysteries are in Boëdromion, the Apaturia in Pyanepsion, the rural Dionysia in Poseideon. Nor, if he is tolerated, will he ever desist.

Four centuries later Galen claimed that an excess of one of four different fluids gave us our characters. These four humours were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Those with too much black bile were melancholic. Those with too much yellow bile were choleric. Those with too much phlegm were phlegmatic, and those with too much blood were sanguine. German physician Franz Joseph Gall’s phrenology seemed logical at the time – by reading the bumps and fissures in the skull it was possible to   determine the character of a given individual. In nineteenth century Italy Cesare Lombroso popularised the notion of the born criminal through biological determinism, claiming that criminals have particular physiologies. According to Lombroso large jaws, low sloping foreheads, high cheekbones, flattened or upturned noses, handle-shaped ears and large, prominent chins were evidence of criminality.

In more recent times we have seen the Rorschach inkblot test. Its inventor, Herman Rorschach, devoted his entire life to the inkblot test- he believed that by looking at these inkblots and then seeing what somebody says you get great insights into the nature of their personality, into who they are. Of course it’s no more useful than poring over tealeaves. Gordon Allport and his hapless assistant went through Webster’s Dictionary and took all of the traits that he believed to be related to personality, coming up with some 18,000.  He then reduced this a list of 4500 trait like words. He organized these into three levels of traits – cardinal, central and secondary. Probably the most respected test these days is the Big Five or OCEAN. It comes from:

Openness to Experience: the tendency to be imaginative, independent, and interested in variety vs. practical, conforming, and interested in routine.

Conscientiousness: the tendency to be organized, careful, and disciplined vs. disorganized, careless, and impulsive.

Extraversion: the tendency to be is being sociable, fun loving, and affectionate vs. retiring, sombre, and reserved.

Agreeableness: the tendency to be soft-hearted, trusting, and helpful vs. ruthless, suspicious, and uncooperative.

Neuroticism: the tendency to be calm, secure, and self-satisfied vs. anxious, insecure, and self-pitying

There are a lot of tests like this online. Time will tell if they have more reliable than those devised by Galen, Gall, Lombroso, and Rorschach.

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