In everyday language, the terms “personality”, “temperament” and “character” are often used interchangeably; however, since Psychology, clear limits have been established between these three concepts, which account for differentiated aspects of human experience.

In this article we will define what personality, temperament and character are . In order to do so, we will briefly review the etymology of the terms and the use that has been made of them throughout history, as well as the point of view of scientific psychology with respect to their differences and similarities.

What is temperament?

When talking about temperament we are referring to the biological and instinctive dimension of personality , which manifests itself before the rest of the factors. During the life of any person, the environmental influences he receives interact with his temperamental base, giving rise to the traits that will characterize and differentiate him from the rest.

Temperament is determined by genetic inheritance, which significantly influences the functioning of the nervous and endocrine systems , i.e. the relative influence of different neurotransmitters and hormones. Other innate aspects, such as the level of cerebral alertness, are also important for personality development.

These individual differences generate variations in different traits and predispositions; for example, the hyperreactivity of the sympathetic nervous system favours the appearance of sensations of anxiety, while extroverted people are characterised by chronically low levels of cortical activation, according to the PEN model described by Hans Eysenck.

Historical evolution of the concept

In Ancient Greece, the famous physician Hippocrates stated that human personality and illness depended on the balance or imbalance between four body humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood .

In the second century A.D., some 500 years later, Galen of Pergamon created a temperamental typology that classified people according to their predominant mood. The choleric type was dominated by yellow bile, the melancholic type by black bile, the phlegmatic type by phlegm and the blood type by blood.

Much later, already in the 20th century, authors like Eysenck and Pavlov developed theories of personality based on biology. Like the models of Hippocrates and Galen, both used the stability (Neuroticism-Emotional stability) and activity (Extraversion-Introversion) of the central nervous system as basic differentiating criteria.

Defining the character

Character is the learned component of personality . It appears as a consequence of the experiences we live, which influence our way of being by modulating biological predispositions and tendencies, that is, temperamental.

Although there is not as high a degree of agreement on the definition of the characteristic as in the case of temperament, most proposals highlight the fact that is derived from social interaction . This means that it depends on the context in which we develop, and therefore has a cultural origin.

At the beginning of the 20th century the study of character, or characterology, was a predominant trend that would end up being replaced by the Psychology of Personality; basically, these perspectives were not very different from the current models. Among the authors who worked with the concept of character, Ernst Kretschmer and William Stern stand out.

Nowadays in many cases no distinction is made between these elements , character and personality. Strictly speaking, the first term specifically designates the part of our nature that is determined by our environment, but the difficulty in separating it from temperament means that the definitions of character and personality often overlap.

Personality: the sum of biology and environment

In psychology, the term “personality” is defined as an organization of emotions, cognitions and behaviors that determine a person’s behavior patterns. Both the biological basis (temperament) and the environmental influences (character) are involved in personality formation.

Therefore, the most remarkable aspect of personality compared to the concepts of temperament and character is that it encompasses both. Given the difficulties to delimit which part of the way of being is given by the inheritance and which by the environment, this term is more useful than the previous ones at a theoretical and practical level .

From psychology, a great number of conceptions of personality have been offered. One of the most influential is that of Gordon Allport, who also highlights mental and behavioural manifestations and the organisational component, although he adds a factor of dynamism (continuous interaction with the environment) and individual specificity.

Each psychological theory of personality highlights different aspects of human experience. In addition to Allport’s individualistic theory, among the most important are Eysenck’s, which focuses on biological dimensions, and the humanists Rogers and Maslow.

It is also important to mention the situationist models , which bring the concept of personality closer to that of behaviour. From these perspectives it is proposed that human behavior does not depend so much on mental constructs as on the environmental influences in a concrete situation, or that personality is a behavioral repertoire.

History of the word “personality”

In Ancient Greece the word “person” was used to refer to the masks worn by theatre actors. Later, in Rome, it would be used as a synonym of “citizen”, designating mainly the social roles of privileged and influential individuals.

Over time, the term “person” began to refer to the individual as a being differentiated from his or her environment. “Personality”, which was derived from this word, has been used since the Middle Ages to describe a series of characteristics that determine a person’s behavioural tendencies .

Biblliographic references:

  • Church, A.T. (2000). Culture and personality: Toward an integrated cultural trait psychology. Journal of Personality, 68(4), 651-703.
  • Corr, Philip J.; Matthews, Gerald. (2009). The Cambridge handbook of personality psychology (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harris, Judith Rich (1995). Where is the child’s environment? A group socialization theory of development. Psychological Review. 102 (3).