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16 April 2014
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You are here: BBC Science > Human Body & Mind > The Mind > Personality and individuality

Personality over a lifetime

Seeing a middle-aged man in a conservative business suit sitting next to a chap with blue hair and a silver ring through his nose highlights the fact that people live life differently.

Punks with mohican hairstyles
Personality may affect dress sense

It's often said that no two people are exactly alike, but according to one psychological theory, they can share one of 16 distinct personality types, which are formed by different combinations of personality traits.

If you haven't already learned your personality type, try our online survey.

Early days

Psychologists stress that personality type doesn't explain everything about us and that people with the same personality type often behave differently. But they also say that we can't simply trade one personality type for another.

 
Many people discover their personality type with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a questionnaire based on the famous psychologist Carl G. Jung's theory of psychological type.

Personality type is a bit like left- or right-handedness. Most people are born preferring one hand, and all of us are born with a personality type, which has some aspects that we feel more comfortable with than others. For example, a person who is introverted would relax by focussing on their memories, thoughts or feelings, while an extrovert would naturally concentrate on the outer world.

Finding yourself

Experts say that we typically develop our personality type - our preferred way of doing things - through the course of our lives in response to our surroundings and experiences - school or work, for example.

A common pattern is to develop the dominant aspects of our personality type - those that feel most comfortable - until middle age. Some might call this process 'finding yourself'.

However, life rarely allows us to rely solely on the personality traits that come to us naturally. The extroverted, boisterous schoolboy may have to conform to more introverted behaviours in the classroom. An introverted personnel manager may have to focus more of his attention on people around the office.

Midlife crisis

As middle age approaches, the behaviours that stem from the dominant parts of our personality type may begin to seem boring, and less obvious or underused aspects of our personality may emerge. This experience is common and in some cases may be traumatic - the midlife crisis.

So the quiet businessman who always took the bus to work and had a short haircut may decide that blue hair and a red sports car aren't such bad ideas after all. On the other hand, others may miss out on this personality change completely. Everyone has a different experience.

Conscious change

Psychologists say that it's possible to intentionally develop under-used parts of our personality type.

Take as an example two friends preparing to go away on holiday. One of them may insist on planning every minute of the trip, while the other may just throw some clothes in a bag at the last minute and go with the flow.

It's likely that the meticulous holiday planner would have a different personality type to their carefree companion, but each of them could probably learn to develop parts of their personality that would make them more like the other. They would have to do this through much thought and effort, and it would probably take years, not days or weeks, to see a real difference.

Just a theory

It's important to remember that though personality type is popular, it is not supported by all psychologists. Experts also caution that personality type should never be used as an excuse to avoid doing something and that no personality type is better than another.

To learn more about psychology visit The British Psychological Society.

Personality Types

Find out about the 16 personality types from the What Am I like? personality test:

Big Thinker, Counsellor, Go-getter, Idealist, Innovator, Leader, Mastermind, Mentor, Nurturer, Peacemaker, Performer, Provider, Realist, Resolver, Strategist and Supervisor.

Take the What am I like? personality test.

Other Psychological Tests


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