Carl Jung's Persona: Behind the Mask

Dernière mise à jour : 25 févr. 2021

Carl Jung ; Henri Cartier-Bresson (1959)

"There is an unconscious propriety in the way in which, in all European languages, the word "person" is commonly used to denote a human being. The real meaning of persona is a "mask", such as actors were accustomed to wear on the ancient stage ; and it is quite true that no one shows himself as he is, but wears his mask and plays his part. Indeed, the whole of our social arrangements may be likened to a perpetual comedy."

Arthur Schopenhauer

Studies in Pessimism

"One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is." Carl Gustav Jung

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

Jung's Map of the Soul : An Introduction

by Murray Stein

The Persona


"Today the term persona has been somewhat accepted into the vocabulary of psychology and contemporary culture. It is used frequently in popular parlance, in newspapers, and in literary theory. It means the person-as-presented, not the person-as-real. The persona is a psychological and social construct adopted for a specific purpose.

Jung chose it for his psychological theory because it has to do with playing roles in society. He was interested in how people come to play particular roles, adopt a conventional collective attitude, and represent social and cultural stereotypes rather than assuming and living their own uniqueness. Certainly this is a well-known human trait. It is a kind of mimicry. Jung gave it a name and worked it into his theory of the psyche.

Jung begins his definition of the persona by making the point that many psychiatric and psychological studies have shown that the human personality is not simple but complex, that it can be shown to split and to fragment under certain conditions, and that there are many subpersonalities within the normal human psyche. However,

“It is at once evident that such a plurality of personalities can never appear in a normal individual.”

In other words, while we are not all “multiple personalities” in a clinical sense, everyone does manifest “traces of character splitting.” The normal individual is simply a less exaggerated version of what is found in pathology.

“One has only to observe a man rather closely, under varying conditions, to see that a change from one milieu to another brings about a striking alteration of personality ... ‘angel abroad, devil at home’.”

In public such an individual is all smiles, backslapping, gladhanding, extroverted, easygoing, happy-go-lucky, joking; at home, on the other hand, he is sour and grumpy, doesn’t talk to his kids, sulks and hides behind the newspaper, and can be verbally or otherwise abusive. Character is situational. The story of Jekyll and Hyde represents an extreme form of this.

Another novel with the same theme is The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the main character keeps a picture of himself in the attic. As he grows older, the portrait ages, revealing his true nature and character; yet he continues to go out in public without wrinkles — youthful, sophisticated, and cheerful.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, 1931

(Three Sirens Press/WikiCommons)

Jung goes on to discuss the fascinating subject of human sensitivity to milieus, to social environments. People are usually sensitive to other people’s expectations. Jung points out that particular milieus such as families, schools, and workplaces require one to assume specific attitudes. By “attitude” Jung means“an a priori orientation to a definite thing, no matter whether this be represented in consciousness or not.” An attitude can be latent and unconscious, but it is constantly operating to orient a person to a situation or a milieu.

Further, an attitude is “a combination of psychic factors or contents which will ... determine action in this or that definite direction.” An attitude is a feature of character, therefore. The longer an attitude persists and the more frequently it is called upon to meet the demands of a milieu, the more habitual it becomes.

As behaviorism would express it, the more frequently a behavior or attitude is reinforced by the environment, the stronger and the more entrenched it becomes. People can be trained to develop specific attitudes to certain milieus and thus to respond in particular ways, reacting to signals or cues as they have been trained to do. Once an attitude has been fully developed, all that is required to activate behavior is the appropriate cue or trigger.

Jung observed this in 1920, about the time that behaviorism was gaining ground in North America, led by John Broadus Watson, whose first major publication appeared in 1913. In contrast to people living and working in rural or natural areas, which are relatively unified environments, many educated urban dwellers move in two totally different milieus: the domestic circle and the public world.

This was more true of men than of women in the Europe of Jung’s day. Men of Jung’s time and culture worked in one environment and lived domestically in another, and they had to respond to two distinctly different milieus, each of which provided a different set of cues.

"These two totally different environments demand two totally different attitudes, which, depending on the degree of the ego’s identification with the attitude of the moment, produce a duplication of character.”

A friend of mine has a midlevel managerial job in a government agency, and so he must set the tone for employees in his group regarding values and behavioral patterns in the public sector. The agency is a milieu, and he finds out from other sources what the correct values are and then informs the workers under him that, for example, they must be sensitive to such issues as nondiscrimination, sexism, and affirmative action.