On “Trait” Personality Theories

Blog post by Jeffrey Thayne on January 14, 2013

A friend of mine recently asked me, “How do you feel about Personality Type theories? What role do you think personality types play in disagreements/conflicts? How do you think they intersect with the Gospel?”

I spent a lot of time on my answer to that question, so I thought I would post it here as well.

“How do you feel about Personality Type theories?”

I taught a semester course at BYU on Personality Theory/Theories. We covered Carl Jung and just about every major theory out there. When it comes down to the heart of it, personality theory asks the question, “Why do individuals differ?”  You might ask, “Differ in what ways?” This leads to the more precise question of personality theory: Why does person A think and behave differently from person B?” 

If you think about it, you cannot answer this question without implicit assumptions about why people behave the way they do. All personality theories carry assumptions about the causes of human behavior. These assumptions vary dramatically from theorist to theorist.

Various Personality Theories and Their Problems

Freud, for example, posited that human behavior is the product of subconscious drives and forces interacting with the defense mechanisms of the ego, and that differences amongst individuals are due to employing different defense mechanisms (learned observationally from the Father). [Challenges: Determinism, which makes agency impossible; Hedonism and Egoism, which makes genuine altruism impossible]

Adler posited that human behavior is the product of a deep-seated need to feel superior, and that differences amongst individuals are due to different definitions of “superiority” (e.g., some define superiority in height, others in wealth, others in control, etc.). [Challenges: Egoistic explanations, which makes genuine altruism impossible]

Maslow posited that human behavior is driven by internal needs (arranged in a hierarchy of prepotency), and that differences amongst individuals are due to different needs being met in different arrangements. [Challenges: Determinism, which makes agency impossible; Hedonism and Egoism, which makes genuine altruism impossible]

Allport posited that human behavior is channeled by “traits,” or in-born “attributes” that people have, and differences amongst individuals are due to different “traits” possessed by the individuals. [Challenges: Determinism, which makes agency impossible]

These are just a few, and are many, many more. And they are all as different as apples and bananas, and in some cases as different as apples and rhubarb pie. Sadly, we over focus on Allport’s trait theories and overlook many more promising and exciting models.

On the Problems of Trait Theories

Almost all modern-day personality theories are variations and descendants of Allport’s assumptions. And, unfortunately, Allport’s theory is the least developed and the most problematic of the aforementioned personality theories. Determinism is just one of many problems that Allport’s theory has. He (and subsequent trait theorists) fail to describe precisely what these “traits” are, where they come from, and why they make us do things. They are simply observations of patterns masquerading as explanations.

That’s the central challenge with trait theories: they explain nothing, but purport to explain everything. All it is (when done accurately) is an observation of patterns and recurring themes in one’s behavior, and a labeling of those patterns. For example, person A gets angry frequently—he has a “frequently angered” personality trait. Person B guts annoyed when not in control—he has a “desire for control” personality trait. It’s a label for a pattern of behavior.

But then person A, when told this, often goes on his way thinking, “Ah, it’s part of my personality. A psychologists told me so. It’s one of my ‘traits.’ That’s why I lose my temper.” Person B often goes on his way thinking, “Ah, it’s part of who I am. It’s a ‘trait’ of mine.” Etc. They go on thinking that attaching a label to their patterns of behavior has somehow explained their behavior or even absolved them of responsibility, when all they’ve really done is identified and labelled a recurring behavioral patten.

And in the end, it’s sloppy science, sloppy psychology, and sloppy thinking. There’s even a name for it: the nominal fallacy. And while it’s certainly possible to usefully entertain trait theories without committing the nominal fallacy, it’s very difficult for psychologists (who frequently fail to escape it), and especially so for non-psychologist laymen who aren’t familiar with the nuances of the theory.

What’s especially difficult about trait theories is the unreliability of most trait-theory assessments. Most are self-report assessments, and study after study have shown that, even in the quiet, anonymous environment of home, subjects rarely, if ever, accurately self-report on personality tests. It’s a matter of national concern in psychological circles.

A Sadly-overlooked Alternative that Works

Kelly posited that human beings construe the world, and make agentive choices based on their personal constructions of their world (e.g., different lenses for making sense of reality). Differences amongst individuals is due to the fact that individuals construe their world differently.

While Kelly’s theory does have some problems (I wrote my master’s thesis on those problems), his theory has some huge advantages: he actually allows the possibility for both agency and genuine altruism to be an explanation for human behavior. No other personality theorist does this. In addition, personality differences are attributed to the way a person actively makes sense of the world, rather than to static “traits” inside of them.

Kelly posited that we “construe” the world through lenses of “dichotomous constructs” such as tall vs. short, liberal vs. conservative, mean vs. nice. Everyone creates a framework of these “constructs” by which they sort and classify everything. Everyone has a unique set of constructs, almost like a fingerprint, and these constructs can evolve and change.

For example, if person A parses out his acquaintances into categories of “socially adept vs. socially awkward,” but person B parses out his acquaintances into categories of “spiritually faithful” vs. “dissident,” they are going to make very different decisions about who to be friends with, who to use as a babysitter, etc. And they might not have any clue how to account for those differences, because neither of them even realize the construct systems through which they’re sorting their peers.

There is no set of categories you can sort personalities into in this worldview. But, you can figure out the construct systems you use to sort people, and give labels to them. Doing so is a fruitful and revealing exercise.

You use a personality test called “Kelly’s Repertory Grid Test.” You basically list a whole bunch of people you know, and then ask questions such as, “Of persons A, B, and F, which two are more similar to each other? In what way are they similar to each other (and in the same way different from the third)?” In doing this a few dozen times, usually you see 3-5 recurring themes. Studies have shown that most people have 3-5 dichotomous constructs by which they sort all the people in their lives.

In summary, in Kelly’s theory, personality is not a product of forces, traits, needs, or what-not, but a product of worldview. But we’re not talking about broad worldviews (like Christianity or humanism), but micro-worldviews. There are as many different micro-worldviews as there are people.

The biggest weakness of Kelly’s view is that it doesn’t account much for affective (emotional) differences between individuals. It can account for their choices, but not the intensity of emotion behind those choices. I don’t have space or time to go into it here, but I wrote my master’s thesis on how Terry Warner’s self-betrayal theory can patch into Kelly’s personality and provide a complete account of individual differences (behavioral, cognitive, and emotional).

“What role do you think personality types play in disagreements / conflicts?”

In terms of trait theories? Hardly any at all. I think most conflicts are not the result of individuals with conflicting “traits.” This is a failed theory with problematic assessment measures which has been popularized in a particularly sloppy way.

Rather, many conflicts are the result of different construct systems, and the failure to realize and communicate those construct systems.

Here’s an example that’s relevant. Libertarians often butt heads with republicans, and often in very absurd ways. Outsiders often look in bewilderment, because it doesn’t make sense that people with such closely related worldviews (on the surface) would disagree so much.

But the conflict lies in the construct system each employs. Libertarians often sort people (and ideas) into statism vs. liberty, while Republicans often sort people (and ideas) into liberal vs. conservative. While these two constructs will lead to similar decisions and behaviors in some areas, they will lead to very different decisions and behaviors in others.

But it gets even worse. Even libertarians use different constructs for sorting ideas and people. Some libertarians use centralization vs. localization. Others use individualism vs. collectivism. Others use free market vs. regulatory. Others use Hayekianism vs. Keynesianism. And all of these constructs lead to very different reactions to different ideas, proposals, and propositions.

What’s even worse is when different construct systems are being employed, and the parties in conflict don’t even know it. They are just bewildered and baffled by each other, because they can’t account for the disagreements. The more invisible the differences in the construct systems, the more irritating the process. This is why two people with very similar conflict systems—but with small or subtle differences—can have much more heated debates than one would expect.

Using Kelly’s Repertory Grid Test can be a useful way for individuals to figure out their individual construct systems and compare them with others. For example, two arguing libertarians can take 100 government proposals, and apply the Rep Test. (“Which of these two proposals are more like each other, and in what way are they different from the third?”) They can discover the different constructs each individual uses, and discover the reasons behind their conflict. It’s not a perfect science, though, because many constructs don’t have sufficient linguistic labels—they are intuitive and sublingual. It takes time and flesh out one’s construct system and give words to it.

“How do you think they intersect with the Gospel?”

I think that trait personality theories can be a useful heuristic at times, but ultimately, the assumptions behind them are at odds with the doctrine of moral agency. There is an implied determinism behind Allport’s worldview, and it is difficult to parse out a purely descriptive trait theory from the explanatory mess of Allport’s ideas. And even if you do, the average person will just fall right back into the pit of the nominal fallacy. There is a sense of despair that comes with the perception of, “It’s just the way I am,” which is what many trait theories (unintentionally) imply. I think human beings are dynamic and changing, while trait theories imply that human beings are static and patterned.

Kelly’s construct theory, in contrast, has more potential. It also has problems, but it is at least compatible with moral agency, and can be repaired by adding some additional assumptions.


comments so far
  1. Has anyone included the family or friends in how people grow? I am sure since mine was a farm family I was raised differently and learned differnt things than a city child. I believethis must have affected us and we use those things when we are older to make decisions. I don’t know if that has anything to do with a trait but it seems so to me.

Leave a Reply