4.1 Introducing Personality Psychology

Imagine the following workplace conflict

Tracey and Sam are nurses in the emergency department of a large hospital. Their colleagues describe Tracey as bubbly, friendly, outgoing, and having lots of energy. She loves to spend her breaks with her colleagues in the staff room and socialises with many of them outside of work. She loves to have a banter with her colleagues and is known for standing her ground when work-related matters arise. Tracey prefers the day shifts when the ward is busy and buzzing. Sam, on the other hand, is described as quiet, calm, and reserved. In her breaks, she prefers to go outside and sit in the park reading a book. She is good friends with one of the nurses from the maternity ward but doesn’t usually socialise with other colleagues. Sam prefers the night shift when it’s quieter on the ward. Tracey and Sam do not get on particularly well when they are on duty together. They recently had a disagreement over the treatment of a patient. Tracey called Sam into the staff room to discuss the matter right away. Sam, however, grabbed her things and left work for the rest of the day. Tracey is upset because she believes that Sam does not want to deal with the matter. Sam, on the other hand, feels overwhelmed by the situation. She wants to resolve the matter but needs time to think about what happened first.

The scenario may sound familiar to you, perhaps not in the setting of an emergency department, but in any other work context. Reading the descriptions of Sam and Tracey, you may have noticed that both of them deal with work and conflict in very different ways. Personality psychology can help understand why people may behave differently, including in their daily lives and when it comes to handling conflict. Let’s have a brief look at what personality psychology is about.

Personality psychology is the scientific study of the whole person (McAdams, 2009, p. 3). It “addresses the most general and the most fundamental questions in the field: What is human nature? What is a person? How do we understand persons?” (McAdams, 2009, p. 24). Distinguishing personality psychology from social psychology helps to further clarify the essence of personality psychology. While social psychology focuses on human sociality and may address a question like “Why are people more likely to engage in violent behaviour when in a group than when they are on their own?”, personality psychology focuses on human individuality and would rather address the question why group member A might act more violently than group member B in the same situation. Personality psychology would also address the question of why the two nurses Tracey and Sam differ in so many ways.

Or, another example, personality psychology explores a question like why Fernanda is more likely than Javier to eat a marshmallow. If you find this last question a little bit peculiar and trivial, please note that extensive research has been done on this question about marshmallow eating, producing far-reaching findings on personality. Please watch the following entertaining video [7:15] to learn more about this research:

There are many approaches or theories that explain individual differences among people. Some of these theories will tell us that people are different from each other because of influences that we are unconscious of while other theories will tell us that people are different from each other because of their environment. We will touch on some of these theories/approaches in this eBook and will consider how they relate to conflict. For example, we will explore the “trait approach” and how it relates to conflict behaviours. The trait approach views personality as a unique combination of traits that shape a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (McAdams, 2009). People are rated along continuums that describe the degree to which an individual displays a specific trait (Burger, 2019). Have a look at the case scenario with Sam and Tracey above and try to place them on the continuum of extraversion-introversion (we will learn more about this trait later in this chapter).

Please watch the following video [15:16], and start thinking about how personality psychology may help understand conflict and how it may help you as a conflict practitioner to support parties in conflict.

Then please read the following short reading on personality and conflict:


Nichols, A. (2020) Personality and conflict in Making conflict suck less: The basics. Boise State University eCampus

As you have just learned, personality psychology is distinct from other branches of psychology by focusing more on the person than on the situation. This is not to say though, that personality psychology neglects the situation. But rather than exploring how most people would act under certain circumstances, personality psychology tries to explain or predict how a specific type of person would most react in each situation.
Let’s have a closer look at how people’s personalities may be described and distinguished. Please watch the following video [11:08] to get some initial ideas:

In the above video, Hank Green introduced some of the major approaches that have been used to study personality. In this eBook, we will consider some more approaches (personality is complex and complicated and the more angles of personality we consider, the richer our understanding of personality can get). As an introduction to the approaches that we consider in this chapter, please watch the following summary provided by Dr Klaire Somoray, who teaches Personality Psychology and who has contributed to the development of this chapter. The video [19:10] was recorded during a workshop on Neuroscience, Psychology and Conflict Management and is shown here with Dr Somoray’s permission.

We will now look in more detail at the various approaches that Dr Somoray noted in the video, and that personality psychology uses to explain and predict personality. Six of them are introduced in the following reading:


Burger, J. M. (2019). Personality (10th ed.). Cengage Learning.

As an introduction, you may wish to read pages 2-12 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Reflection Activity

To capture some key learnings after engaging with the above topic, you might now wish to engage in a 15-minute personal reflection on personality psychology and how it may relate to conflict management. You might want to consider the following prompt questions for your reflection:

  • What has sparked your interest most after watching Brian Little’s talk “Who are you really – The puzzle of personality”?
  • After reading Making conflict suck less: The basics, what are your thoughts as to where Sam and Tracey from the above case scenario might rate in the various personality types noted in the reading?
  • Can you personally relate more to how Sam or how Tracey behaves at work?
  • Do you have colleagues who remind you of Sam or of Tracey and have you ever witnessed seemingly different personalities clash at work?
  • What are some preliminary thoughts as to how knowledge from personality psychology may help the process of conflict management?



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Neuroscience, Psychology and Conflict Management Copyright © 2024 by Judith Rafferty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.