Do we really have a personality?

Diverse teenager friends in colorful clothes by Anna Shvets

Most of us are convinced that each person has a personality. It is supposed to be constructed from our genetic heritage and the events we have experienced as children. It would give a guideline to all our behaviours. It would mean that a person would always tend to behave in the same way, whatever the situations he or she is faced with.

This fixed vision of human mental functioning is commonly accepted. It can be found in a multitude of fields (recruitment, management, marketing, etc.), where people (candidates, employees, customers, etc.) are often given definitive attributes. Their behaviour is explained by almost exclusively internal factors: this person has this personality colour, this soft-skill, this nature trait, etc.

Apart from the fact that these explanations of our behaviour are often based on stereotypes and pseudo-scientific models, they give a simplistic view of human beings. In particular, they do not take into account the impact of the context, nor the dynamism of mental functioning. Yet these two elements give much more meaning to who we are and why we behave as we do than would a hypothetical personality.

Let’s drop explanations in terms of internal factors and put the human being in its social context. Let’s see who we really are and how this impacts on our behaviour.

An identity, identities

Who we are (identity) certainly impacts what we do (behaviour). But this is not only due to internal factors (personality traits, etc.), as our identity is embedded in a social context [1].

When we define ourselves, we do so in reference to social groups, which scientists associate with social categories. For example, saying “I am French” also means “I feel I belong to the social category of the French”.

Each categorical belonging impacts our behaviour and our vision of the world. Indeed, each social category carries norms and representations that we tend to incorporate. This is done through various and complex social influences, such as conformism [2;3], minority influence [4] or the elaboration of conflicts [5], for example. In other words, the categories to which we belong define who we are, but also provide a guideline for our behaviour.

Of course, these socio-categorical affiliations are multiple and give us a multitude of identities. Who we are and how we behave are at the crossroads of the influences of all these social categories [6].

Indeed, understanding and predicting a person’s behaviour can only be done by taking into account their social environment [7]. Considering only internal factors (personality, motivation, soft-skills, etc.) leads to a simplistic and rigid understanding. This is all the more so because our identities are dynamic and our mental functioning (and the behaviours it predicts) change according to situations.

The dynamism of identities

If we belong to a multitude of social categories and if we possess a multitude of identities, they are’nt all active at the same time all the time. They are activated according to the context.

In order to understand these dynamics, it is important to note that these categories are spread over an infinite number of levels, more or less inclusive. For example, the category ‘European’ includes the category ‘German’ which includes the category ‘Bavarian’, etc. Each category also implies categories of comparison: if I am a human, I am not a dog [8].

When interacting with someone, the category that appears most relevant to our mind will depend on several factors. These include whether it makes sense in terms of our representation of the world and whether it allows for high meta-contrast (i.e. maximising inter-category differences and intra-category similarities) [9].

Let’s take the example of a meal with my wife (we are French) and a (heterosexual) couple of German friends. It is our national identities that will be activated when we talk about Franco-German political relations ; our sexual identities will be activated if we talk about dress code (a very sexually stereotyped topic) ; our common identity of Europeans may be activated if we talk about events in a non-EU country; and so on. Not only do these changes take place in the course of an evening, but each time an identity is activated, we tend to act as one of the members of the associated social category.

Thus, the pressures on our behaviour vary over time and context. Indeed, we cannot expect a person to behave in the same way in all situations because they have a particular personality trait (or some other internal explanation). In other words, we behave differently at work, in the family context, in our leisure time, etc. Moreover, this phenomeon is changing, following the lifelong evolution of our identities.

Of course, there is a certain regularity in our behaviour. Some identities are long-lasting and are activated frequently because they are important to define ourselves or are relevant in many situations. The impression might be created of a constancy in our behaviour, but hides the incredible dynamism of our psychological and social functioning. Internal explanations then sound (but not always) like statistical artefacts more than real basis for our behaviour.

Why do internal explanations seem so relevant?

One may wonder why we feel that internal factors are so relevant in explaining our behaviour. This is mainly because of what psychologists call the « fundamental attribution error » [10;11].

It reflects a natural tendency to give an excessive role to internal characteristics (personality, intentions, opinions, soft-skills, etc.) over external factors (situation, context, etc.). This bias has been known since the 1960s and is sometimes called internality bias.

Several explanations have been put forward. For example, the Just World Hypothesis [12] argues that we tend to think that everyone gets what they deserve, because it assumes that everyone has control over their own existence. The (biased) explanation of behaviour is then reduced to motivation, intentions, personality, etc. Another example suggests that internal explanations are easier to access and process, as they are based on stereotypes and other simplified worldviews [13;14].


None of us lives alone, disconnected from a social context. Who we are and how we define ourselves is largely done by reference to others. Our behaviours are largely resulting from these identity processes, which are highly dependent on the situations we are facing.

Thus, our behaviour cannot be reduced to a few internal factors, such as personality. Relying only to this approach gives a simplistic and rigid understanding of who we are and why we behave as we do. It hides both the importance of the context and the dynamism of its mental functioning.


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